in any one place, but there we are
-Sherman Alexie, “Things (for an Indian) to Do in New York (City)”
from The Summer of Black Widows” (125)
To begin with, it is important to point out that urban Indians are often negatively seen by reservation Indians. Their authenticity is contested and they are criticized for leaving the reservation. In their article “Retribalization in Urban Indian Communities”, T. Straus and D. Valentino state that Indians living in urban areas have been “negatively stereotyped by reservation people as ‘fallen’ or diminished Indians, ‘sell-outs’ who abandoned tribal homeland, practice, politics and problems for the good life in the city” (quoted in Lucero, 327). All these disapproving designations indicate that a negative attitude towards Native Americans who leave the tribal lands prevails on reservations.
In his first novel Reservation Blues, Alexie explores the issue of leaving the reservation and its consequences. The narrative is focused on a band, The Coyote Springs. The group is composed of three Spokane Indians: Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor, and Junior Polatkin who are already well-known from Alexie’s earlier works. At the very beginning, the three men play on the Spokane Indian Reservation and they are quite popular. Later on, they are joined by two sisters, Chess and Checkers, who are from the Flathead Indian Reservation. Once they become more famous off the reservation and are followed by two white groupies, Veronica and Betty, their popularity fades. People dislike the band and are hostile towards them. Still, the band lives most of the time on the reservation. Yet, they leave the reservation on several occasions. They have a concert on the Flathead Indian Reservation where they meet Chess and Checkers, they go to Seattle in order to take part in an audition and finally fly to New York where they are supposed to record a disc but the project fails.
At one point in the novel, after their journey to Seattle, Thomas goes to church with Checkers. Before they leave, he speaks with an elder Indian woman. He asks her why the band is so detested. Her answer is very clear, “The Christians don’t like your devil’s music. The Tribal Council don’t like you’re more famous than they are. Nobody likes those white women with you. We spit in their shadows. We don’t want them here” (179). Thomas is puzzled and replies, “But everybody liked us before” (179). Her reaction reveals the major concern that bothers her and probably a large part of the community. “Before you left the reservation”, utters the woman, “before you left” (179). The conversation reflects the xenophobic and hostile atmosphere on the reservation. But most interestingly, it shows that leaving the reservation makes them traitors and outcasts. Furthermore, Thomas tries to defend the band and points out that they “still live there” (180). Yet, the woman is strict. “But you left”, she says. “Once is enough” (180).
As we can see, there are some “unwritten rules” that consist of either staying on the reservation or leaving and becoming persecuted by a major part of the community. This unofficial guideline could be seen as limiting to an individual’s personal choices. Coyote Springs worked to become famous and have a chance at a better future off the reservation, but because of that, the community rejected them. The personal aspirations are in conflict with the community’s rigidity. Obviously, it contrasts strongly with the high degree of mobility in the American population. Furthermore, once Coyote Springs left, there is no way back. Their status of traitors would be difficult to repair.
As the story goes on, hostility towards Coyote Springs is increasing substantially. The band feels uncomfortable on the reservation and prefers to stay indoors at Thomas’s house. When they go out to buy some food, they are “mostly greeted with hateful stares and silence” (186). The community is divided between “supporters and enemies” (186). Yet, the enemies seem to be more numerous as the narrator expresses a view that “[o]nly a few people showed any support” (186). The tension between the supporters and the enemies increases and escalates into violence. Consequently, Coyote Springs are not allowed in the Trading Post because many fights take place there. They are treated as outcasts. In response to the violence, an emergency meeting is held by the Tribal Council. The outcome of the meeting is shocking; the council is going to decide in a vote whether the band will be “excommunicate[d]” or not (186). Finally, the tribe narrowly votes not to excommunicate Victor, Thomas, and Junior but they decide to “kick Chess and Checkers off the reservation” (186). The reason is purely xenophobic: “‘They´re not even Spokanes,’ WalksAlong argued” (187).
The semantic connotation of the verb excommunicate is quite revealing. It is a religious term defined in Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictianary as follows: “to punish sb by officially stating that they can no longer be a member of a Christian Church, especially the Roman Catholic Church” (Hornby et al. 529). By using that particular word, Alexie compares the reservation community to Christian church and therefore stresses that reservation members are supposed to share the same values, believes, and ways of living. Moreover, the violence, the animosity, and the Tribal Council’s decision to reject Chess and Checkers are strikingly similar to the prevailing mood and practices of a totalitarian regime. The fundamentalist nature of the community is highlighted in Reservation Blues.
Success and Whiteness: “Becoming White”
There is nothing as white as the white girl an Indian boy loves.
-Sherman Alexie, “Distances” from The Business of Fancydancing” (18)
Far from being a stimulating environment, the reservation community keeps its members from succeeding and achieving their dreams. The rare individuals who persevere are rejected and their endeavor makes them outcasts. In a curious paradox, trying hard and having talent are virtues that are regarded as flaws by the majority of the reservation members in Reservation Blues, as they arein other works by Alexie, e.g. Diary. Alexie appears to draw that negative view of the reservation from his own experience. In the essay entitled “The Joy of Reading and Writing; Superman and Me”, he recounts his great love of reading. He explains that he was an exceptional child (2). He learnt to read by himself when he was very young and could understand such a difficult novel as The Grapes of Wrath in kindergarten (2). However, instead of being called a “prodigy”, he was “simply an oddity” (2). He recounts his childhood experience as follows:
A smart Indian is a dangerous person, widely feared and ridiculed by Indians and non-Indians alike. I fought with my classmates on a daily basis. They wanted me to stay quiet when the non-Indian teacher asked for answers, for volunteers, for help. We were Indian children who were expected to be stupid. Most lived up to those expectations inside the classroom but subverted them on the outside. They struggled with basic fading in school but could remember how to sing a few dozen powwow songs. . . . As Indian children, we were expected to fail in the non-Indian world. Those who failed were ceremonially accepted by other Indians and appropriately pitied by non-Indians. (2)
Clearly, Alexie was teased by other students because he was a prodigy and was thirsty for knowledge and that was not what was expected from an Indian boy living on a reservation. On the contrary, failure was encouraged and required. Obviously, this behavior is destructive for the community and the individuals alike. Skillful people are either discouraged or, those who do not give up, may not come back to the reservation after college or work experience off the reservation as they were bullied and maltreated there.
As we can see, success in the white world, either at school with a white teacher or off the reservation in white-dominated society, is often despised by the reservation Indians. That issue is thoroughly explored in the novel Diary. Arnold, the main character, becomes a traitor after he decides to leave the reservation school and attends a white high school in the nearby town. In a course of a talk, Arnold explains to Rowdy, a white friend of his, why he is hated by Gordy, his best friend from the reservation:
“How come he hates you?” he asked.
“Because I left the rez,” I said.
“But you still live there, don’t you? You’re just going to school here.”
“I know, I know but some Indians think you have to act white to make your life better. Some Indians think you become white if you try to make your life better, if you become successful.” (131)
This passage appears to indicate that success is associated with whiteness and that is why successful individuals are seen as traitors. On the contrary, the ones who fail are accepted. The phrase to “become white” clearly denotes that, according to some Spokane Indians, the individual who lives among white people not only changes the way he behaves but also profoundly transforms his identity. In order to properly understand why Arnold “becomes white” in the eyes of many Spokane Indians, I will briefly discuss the concept of whiteness from a historical perspective. Secondly, I will highlight the shifting nature of whiteness that explains the apparent nonsense about regarding an indigenous adolescent as white.
In the essay “The Struggle to Define and Reinvent Whiteness: A Pedagogical Analysis”, Joe L. Kincheloe argues that whiteness is extremely difficult to define but it is generally associated with power. He states that “[e]ven though no one at this point really knows whatwhitenessis, most observers agree that it is intimately involved with issues of power and power differences betweenwhiteand non-whitepeople. Whitenesscannot be separated from hegemony” (162). Therefore, whiteness is part of the domination of non-white populations. Notably, Kincheloe provides a historical perspective of the concept of whiteness and observes that “whiteness took shape around the European Enlightenment’s notion of rationality” (164). He adds that “[r]eason in this historical configuration is whitened and human nature itself is grounded upon this reasoning capacity” (164). Consequently, colonization was justified by “inequality” between western “whitened reason” and civilization that were opposed to non-white “savagery” (164). From that historical perspective, whiteness is linked to colonization and the domination over indigenous people. Thus, being regarded as white is highly insulting to Arnold. He is criticized for wanting his life to be better and becoming successful. Obviously, achievement of success is related to power and that is probably why he is seen as white by the larger part of reservation Indians.
Moreover, Kincheloe stresses the unstable and moving character of whiteness. “Situationally specific,” explains Kincheloe, “whiteness is always shifting, always reinscribing itself around changing meanings of race in the larger society” (162). Whiteness is a “social construct” that has no fixed meaning and depends on various contexts (Kincheloe 167). In connection with Diary, Arnold is associated with whiteness as he chooses to transfer schools. Significantly, education is closely related to the acquisition of knowledge and reason. Schools were regarded as an instrument of colonization as I have discussed in the chapter entitled “Education”, and that is possibly why a greater part of the community is hostile towards Arnold. Still, Kincheloe argues that the whiteness of reason is far from being the only aspect that needs to be considered:
While Western reason is a crucial dynamic associated with whiteness over the last three centuries, there are many other social forces that sometimes work to construct its meaning. Whiteness, thus, is not an unchanging, fixed, biological category impervious to its cultural, economic, political, and psychological context. There are many ways to be white, as whiteness interacts with class, gender, and a range of other race-related and cultural dynamics. (Kincheloe 167)
As we can see, whiteness is not determined by the color of skin or origins but changes meanings in relation to diverse “social forces”. The contrast between Arnold’s visual appearance and the “social construct” of whiteness is clearly highlighted in the metaphorical and debasing nickname used by some Spokane Indians to name Arnold. He confesses to Gordy that he is called an apple:
“The people at home,” I said. “A lot of them call me an apple.”
“Do they think you’re a fruit or something?” he asked.
“No, no,” I said. “They call me an apple because they think I’m red on the outside and white on the inside.”
“Ah, so they think you’re a traitor.”
“Well life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.” (131-132)
The nickname “apple” is highly revealing and goes hand in hand with the title of the novel. Arnold is a so called part-time Indian. It suggests that he spends his time partly in Wellpinit on the reservation and partly at the white school in Reardan. But more significantly, it implies that his indigenous identity is questioned. He is an outcast both on the reservation and at Reardan as he is “the only other Indian in town”, except the “mascot” (italics in original, 56). Moreover, Arnold has two names, Arnold Junior. Interestingly, everybody calls him Junior on the reservation and he is addressed Arnold by his white schoolmates and teachers. It is worth noting that names have tremendous importance for indigenous peoples. N. Scott Momaday, the influential Kiowa writer, explains in his autobiographical novel entitled The Names: A Memoir that “[i]n our deepest intelligence we know this: that names and being are indivisible. That which has no name cannot truly be said to exist, to be. That which bears a name bears being as well. I have a name; therefore I am...” (quoted in Deschenie, 1). According to Momaday, names are “indivisible from being” and therefore from identity. Arnold’s diverse names and nicknames highlight the different worlds he occupies and the conflicting existences he leads. Moreover, in his novel, Momaday quoted Pohd-lok, the story-teller who gave him his Kiowa name, Tsoai-Talee, and said, “a man’s life proceeds from his name, in the way that a river proceeds from its source” (quoted in Krupat and Elliott, 132). Names, being considered as part of human existence and even its origin, have a crucial importance. Consequently, it appears that Arnold’s different names and nicknames reveal the shifting status he has in the community and his progressive rejection by the majority of the community.
Living on the reservation becomes extremely painful for Arnold. Considerable hostility against him reaches its climax during the basketball match between his former and present school teams. At his arrival to the school sports hall, the crowd of reservation Indians is shouting “Ar-nol sucks! Ar-nold sucks! Ar-nold sucks!” (143). Furthermore, the narrator points out that they are not calling him by his “rez name, Junior” but by his “Reardan name” (143). They act as if he was an enemy. When he is sent to play, somebody from the crowd throws a quarter at him (145). The fact that he is hit with a coin may be regarded as a significant detail. Money is linked to success and as I have discussed above, Native Americans associate success with white people. Arnold is being reminded that he is seen as a traitor as he left his indigenous community in order to become successful and therefore partly white. The game ends terribly for Arnold. When he is sent in again, he is knocked unconscious by Rowdy. He has a head concussion and is hospitalized.
The second part of the novel was for me profoundly moving. In a short period of time, Arnold loses his grandmother, his father’s best friend, and finally his sister. Arnold comprehends the losses as a punishment for him leaving the reservation. He confesses, “I blamed myself for all of the deaths. I had cursed my family. I had left the tribe, and had broken something inside all of us, and I was now being punished for that. No, my family was being punished. I was healthy and alive” (173). Likewise, his friend Gordy accuses him of being the one who caused his sister’s dying. After her funeral, he says to him, “‘Your sister is dead because you left us. You killed her’” (211). That accusation shows that Arnold’s departure is seen as a sort of crime and blasphemy by Arnold and by Rowdy as well. All the losses and the blame are traumatic. The novel is highly valuable as it shows us the suffering but also, significantly, the way how to heal.
Healing through Forgiveness
Johnson in his essay “Healing the Soul Wound in Flight and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”, argues that these two novels for adolescents explore the possibilities of healing and “empathy, compassion and forgiveness mark a possible way out of suffering and grief” (224). Johnson states that forgiveness is a key issue in Diary:
One of the strongest messages in Diary in relation to healing the soul wound comes from Arnold’s dying grandmother, who utters the words ‘forgive him’ after being hit and fatally injured by a drunk driver. I think for Arnold this means forgiving his alcoholic, but loving, father, his tribe for considering him a traitor for leaving the reservation, and himself for leaving the reservation. (235)
Clearly, the last chapter of the novel “Talking About Turtles”, is a narrative of forgiveness and healing. The first sentence, “The reservation is beautiful”, announces the positive attitude and serenity (219). The first person narrator undoubtedly gained greater maturity. He even comments on it by noting, “I’m talking old” (220).
As the title indicates, the narrator starts by recounting “myths and legends” about Turtle Lake, a mysterious place (222). The lake is said to be haunted and inexplicable things happened there. A horse, named Stupid Horse, drowned and disappeared in it but the dead animal’s body reappeared on shores of Benjamin Lake, another lake situated ten miles away from Turtle Lake (223). People thought it was a “practical joke” so they burnt it (223). But few weeks after, the lake caught fire and later on, the horse’s dead body reappeared on the shore, “untouched” (223). It eventually rotted but it took a long time, “too long” (224).
The possible meaning of the story is related to the difficult act of acceptance and forgiveness. Turtle Lake is an obscure place and the stories that happen there are incomprehensible. Not all the happenings around us may be fully comprehended and explained. Sometimes, there is no other possibility than to accept it. The act of forgiving may be long and painful and wounds take a long time to cure, but accelerating the healing process is not possible. It emerges again and again, in the same way as Stupid Horse’s body reappeared on the shore of the lake after being burnt.
Then, the narrator recounts another story that may also be interpreted metaphorically. Once, Arnold and Rowdy climbed up the highest tree on the reservation (225-226). First, it seemed impossible to Arnold. But once he overcame the fear of falling and reached the top, he experienced profound happiness. Climbing trees and reaching summits, may be understood as a metaphor to Arnold’s story. He was scared of leaving the reservation as he was conscious of all the consequences. He knew that he would be hated and persecuted by the tribe. He was also aware of the difficulties he would experience in the white high school. However, he overcame his anxiety and kept “climbing”.
The ending of the novel is particularly noteworthy. The two former best friends, Arnold and Rowdy, reconcile. During the summer holidays, Rowdy comes to Arnold’s home and asks him if he wants to play basketball with him. It is the first time after Arnold left for Reardan that Rowdy acts friendly. He found forgiveness and came to an understanding of Arnold’s reasons for leaving. Arnold also expresses a view that forgiveness would help him to heal. Still, he knows that it would take time. He utters, “I would always love and miss my reservation and my tribe. I hoped and prayed that they would someday forgive me for leaving them. I hoped and prayed that I would someday forgive myself for leaving them” (230). The last sentences of the novel highlight that Arnold and Rowdy forgave each other. Rowdy forgave Arnold for leaving the tribe and Arnold forgave Rowdy for his hateful behavior. The narrator concludes, “We played until the moon was huge and golden and perfect in the dark sky. We didn’t keep score” (230).
Leaving the reservation is a complex issue thoroughly explored in Alexie’s works. It is related to the negative attitude towards white-dominated society. The individuals who decide to leave are persecuted by the greater part of the community. In the novel Reservation Blues, Alexie mostly explores the hostility of the reservation members and the consequent suffering of the main characters. However, even though forgiveness is not a central and fully developed theme in Reservation Blues as it appears to be in Diary and Flight, it is articulated by Big Mom, the spiritual authority of the reservation. Krupat and Elliott point out that “[t]he powerful figure, Big Mom, in Reservation Blues recommends ‘forgiveness’ rather than confrontation” (167). Moreover, Johnson points out a shift in Alexie’s works. “Flight, and Alexie’s subsequent novel for young adults, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007),” notices Johnson, “implicitly explore the possibilities for healing the tragic legacy of genocide and colonialism in ways that no earlier works have. . . . Flight and Diary convey hopefulness not apparent earlier in Alexie’s career” (224-225).
A Distorted Representation of Native Americans?
There must be one murder, one suicide, one attempted rape.
Alcohol should be consumed. Cars must be driven at high speeds.
Indians must see visions.
- Sherman Alexie, “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel”
from The Summer of Black Widows (95)
Alexie is appreciated both by readers and scholars. He is approved of in literary criticism and he has garnered high praise for his poetry, short-stories and novels, winning several literary prices, including the PEN/Hemingway Award for The Lone Ranger, Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award for his first novel Reservation Blues, National Book Awards for Diary and Ten Little Indians, and other honors. However, he has also been criticized by some Native American scholars and writers, e.g. Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, Louis Owens, Gloria Bird, Robert Warrior and Kenneth Lincoln. They question Alexie’s usage of satire, stereotypes and his references to white popular culture (Evans 47). Some argue that he provides a distorted and stereotypical representation of Native Americans in his works (Evans 47). In my thesis, I have discussed several important push factors that lead some of Alexie’s characters to leave reservations, among them widespread despondency and alcoholism, unfavorable schooling, and lack of freedom compared to prison like conditions. I founded my analysis with articles by literary scholars that concentrate on the fictional reservation life as described in Alexie’s works but also historical, demographical, and other sources that deal with the “real” life on reservations. Of course, Alexie writes fiction and his stories are therefore not necessarily supposed to be an accurate representation of reality as I am going to discuss later in this chapter. (page s 69-71) Nevertheless, being a Native American writer puts him in a special position. Native Americans are a minority group that may not be well known to Alexie’s readers. They may consequently form an idea about indigenous culture from his fiction. Obviously, the image he presents is very important. In a way, Alexie’s works may serve as an introduction to Native American studies. That is why it seems to me crucial to discuss to what extent his works may be perceived as representative of “real” life on reservations, what is the main criticism levelled at Alexie’s works and what may be the dangers of a distorted representation.
VICTOR: First of all, quit grinning like an idiot. Indians ain’t supposed to smile like that. Get stoic. . . . You got to look mean or people won’t respect you. White people will run all over you if you don’t look mean. You got to look like a warrior. You got to look like you just came back from killing a buffalo.
THOMAS: But our tribe never hunted buffalo. We were fishermen.
VICTOR: What? You want to look like you just came back from catching a fish? It ain’t Dances With Salmon, you know?
-Sherman Alexie, Smoke Signals (capitalization in original, 61-62).
The major criticism directed at Alexie is his usage of stereotypes. To begin with, stereotypical images of Native Americans were created and maintained by white writers, e.g. James Fenimore Cooper. Cooper was followed by other novelists and their representations were later on adopted in Western movies. Writers and film makers created romanticized American Indian characters or vilified them, which was (is?) attractive for white audiences. American Indians were often represented as either brutal savages or depicted as stoic warriors. Neither of these portrayals were of course representative of “genuine” indigenous cultures and failed to provide a realistic insight into the complicated coexistence of white settlers and native peoples. In Europe, writers were also fascinated by the conquest of the West and very interested in indigenous peoples who were little known to them. Karl May, the German adventure writer, created the popular character named Winnetou. May did not have the opportunity to confront his idea of indigenous peoples and their way of life with the reality in America while writing the novels. Consequently, his characters are highly romanticized and perpetuate a distorted representation of American Indians. Furthermore, it may be difficult for a reader who has no other sources of information to make a clear distinction between the image and the reality and identify what parts are stereotypes.
It is surprising that Alexie is criticized on the grounds that he perpetuates stereotypes about Native Americans in his works. In contrast to Cooper or May, Alexie is a Native American, born on the Spokane Indian Reservation and he knows the reservation life from his own experience. However, Louis Owens claims in his article “Through an Amber Glass: Chief Doom and the Native American Novel Today” that Alexie
too often simply reinforces all of the stereotypes desired by white readers: his bleakly absurd and aimless Indians are imploding in a passion of self-destructiveness and self-loathing; there is no family or community center toward which his characters ... might turn for coherence; and in the process of self-destruction the Indians provide Euramerican readers with pleasurable moments of dark humor or the titillation of bloodthirsty savagery. Above all, the non-Indian reader of Alexie’s work is allowed to come away with a sense . . . that no one is really to blame but the Indians, no matter how loudly the author shouts his anger. (quoted in Evans, 47)
According to Owens, the image Alexie offers to his readers seems to be harmful to Native Americans as they are depicted negatively and stereotypically. Owens stresses the damaging effect of “dark humor” and Alexie’s evocations of “bloodthirsty savagery”. He argues that Euro-American readers are delighted as they are given the image they wished for. Owens explains that the reproduction of the stereotypical image originally created by white mainstream society, by native writers is “a form of inner-colonization” (quoted in Evans, 47).
Similarly, Gloria Bird, the Spokane writer and scholar, shares Owens’s point of view and criticizes Alexie’s usage of stereotypes appreciated by non-native readership. Bird focuses on the stereotype of “the drunken Indian” (51). On one hand, Bird acknowledges that alcoholism is a serious social problem “that has been rampant through the generations” and therefore “[t]he portrayal of alcoholism . . . cannot be denied” (51). On the other hand, Bird considers Alexie’s representation of alcoholism in the novel Reservation Blues that she analyses in her article, as “accurate”, but at the same time she claims that it “capitalizes upon the stereotypical image of the ‘drunken Indian’” (51). “This is the dilemma,” admits Bird, “for not only Alexie, but native writers in general: to accurately represent our communities without exploiting them” (51).When Bill Moyers in the interview “Sherman Alexie on Living Outside Borders” touches upon the issue of alcohol, Alexie answers:
It’s not a stereotype. It’s a damp, damp reality. I mean, Native Americans have an epidemic rate of alcoholism. I’m an alcoholic, recovering. My father was an alcoholic. My big brother’s an alcoholic. One of my little sisters’s an alcoholic. My mom’s a recovering alcoholic. Every single one of my cousins is a drinker. All of my aunts and uncles were drinkers, some of them have quit, some of them never did. You know, my classmates, you know, three have died in alcoholic-related accidents. My brother has had five best friends die in alcohol-related accidents. And we’re not atypical. (Moyers, 2013)
The issue of alcohol is quite problematic. Still, Bird does not really suggest how to deal with it without “exploiting” Native Americans. Avoiding the subject in indigenous literature might not be beneficial either. Instead, writing about it may be part of the healing process. As Joy Harjo expresses, the Muscogee poet, in “A Laughter of Absolute Sanity: Interview with Angels Carabi”, “[a]lcoholism is an epidemic in native people, and I write about it. I was criticized for bringing it up, because some people want to present a certain image of themselves. But again, it comes back to what I was saying: part of the process of healing is to address what is evil” (quoted in Evans, 53). Moreover, Alexie is conscious of the fact that showing solely drunken Indians is harming. In Reservation Blues, he comments on the negative effect of media and literature on Native Americans. “All Indians,” states Alexie’s narrator, “grow up with drunks. So many drunks on the reservation, so many. But most Indians never drink. Nobody notices the sober Indians. On television, the drunk Indians emote. In books, the drunk Indians philosophize” (151). This comment is quite ambiguous and we may wonder whether Alexie is being self-depreciating or satirical as satire is one of his weapons.
Stephen F. Evans in the article entitled “‘Open Containers’: Sherman Alexie’s Drunken Indians”, disagrees with Owens and Bird’s critical remarks and argues that Alexie makes use of humor, satire and irony in order to undermine stereotypes by turning “mirrors and lenses on society that are the satirist’s tools” (68). Moreover, he maintains that Alexie uses “potentially troubling character types and stereotypes” but not in order to reinforce them (68). They “are not meant to [disclose] comfortable images;” he claims, “doing so would defeat the satirist’s inherently moral function and social conscience” (68). Satire and irony are what Evans seems to consider as one of Alexie’s most powerful tools. Satire carries an important moral aim and moreover, from an artistic perspective, is part of Alexie’s strong points. “[B]est artistic moments in Alexie’s poems, stories and novels,” points out Evans, “lie in a construction of a satiric mirror that reflects the painful reality of lives that have become distorted, disrupted, destroyed and doomed by their counter-impulses to embrace or deny traditional Indian culture, to become assimilated to or resist absorption into white civilization-or both” (49).
Identity and Authenticity
But she don’t want a warrior and she don’t want no brave
And she don’t want a renegade heading for early grave
She don’t need no stolen horse, she don’t need no stolen heart
She don’t need no Indian man falling down and falling apart
-Sherman Alexie, Reservation Blues (171)
Indian identity is the heart of the matter. Native authors are so concerned about Alexie’s satirical style because stereotypes have profound influence on one’s identity. W. E. B. Du Bois analyses the harming nature of stereotypes in The Soul of Black Folk from the African American perspective. Both African American and American Indian minorities were reduced to stereotypes by American mainstream society. Du Bois explains that “the Negro” was “born with a veil” in a world “which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world” (12). “It’s a peculiar sensation,” continues Du Bois, “this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (12). Du Bois illustrates his point through the metaphor of sight and vision. The Negro, in the same way as the Indian, is not truly “seen” by the society as his real and unique nature is hidden by a “veil” of fixed characteristics formed by society. The individual becomes metaphorically invisible, as it is illustrated with virtuosity in Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man. Furthermore, the sight of the other affects one’s view of himself and is partly determined by “this double-consciousness”.
In relation to Du Bois’s explanation about the damaging influence of the regard of the other on one’s soul, it is understandable that Alexie’s characters seem to be unsure about what Indian identity really is and they are constantly searching and readjusting its meaning. Åse Nygren suggests that “the long-term reduction of the Indian to stereotype in American culture” is the source of “a collective crisis of identity for many Indians today” (“A World of Story-Smoke: A Conversation with Sherman Alexie.”, 158). Alexie in his answer explains his understanding of the problem:
[Y]ou can never measure up to a stereotype. You can never be as strong as a stereotypical warrior, as godly as a stereotypical shaman, or as drunk as a drunken Indian. You can never measure up to extremes. So you’re always going to feel less than the image, whether it’s positive or negative. One of the real dangers is that other Indians have taken many stereotypes as a reality, as a way to measure each other and ourselves. (158)
Clearly, stereotypes become very damaging when they serve as a point of reference in evaluating one’s authenticity. That issue is recurrent in Alexie’s fiction and his characters are often questioning their “Indianness”. They are constantly measuring what it means to be a “real” or “true” Indian.
The character of Marie Polatkin is a great illustration of identity questioning. Marie Polatkin is one of the main characters of the novel Indian Killer. Her authenticity is constantly being challenged. Marie is Spokane and she grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. She moved to Seattle in order to study at college. Even though she was born on the reservation and her parents were Native Americans, she felt different from other kids and did not feel fully part of the community. “Marie,” the narrator recounts her childhood memories, “felt more and more isolated” (33). Her feeling of alienation and identity struggle seems to be linked to her parent’s choice of encouraging her to concentrate on mainstream education and their refusal to teach her the Spokane language (33). Indian identity and authenticity appear to be closely linked to the traditional way of life. “Because she did not dance or sing traditionally and because she could not speak Spokane,” expresses the narrator, “Marie was often thought of as being less than Indian” (33). Obviously, her identity seems to be judged in relation to how she is looked at by others. “Indians,” explains the narrator, “were always placing one another on an identity spectrum, with the more traditional to the left and the less traditional Indians to the right” (39). The phrase “identity spectrum” suggests the myriad nuances and meanings one’s identity can adopt depending on the sight of the person who is evaluating it, in the same way as diverse colors are produced when light passes through a glass prism.
Some of Alexie’s characters try to fit into the image of the Indian that they believe to be authentic. They become victims of the idea of a “true” Indian widely dispersed by media, especially television. Victor, one of the main characters of the collection of short stories The Lone Ranger, the novel Reservation Blues as well as other Alexie’s works is under the influence of the stereotypical idea of what an Indian is supposed to be like. In the short story entitled “A Drug Called Tradition” from The Lone Ranger, Junior and Victor go to Benjamin Lake to try Victor’s “brand new drug” (13). On the way to the lake, they see Thomas, the misfit storyteller. Victor invites him to come along with them: “Jump in with us. We’re going out to Benjamin Lake to do this new drug I got. It’ll be very fucking Indian. Spiritual shit, you know?” (14). In movies, American Indians are often having visions. Of course, drug abuse is not what will make Victor, Junior, and Thomas “true” Indians. “Even their so-called desire to reclaim their culture,” suggests Grassian, “is misguided, derived from Western stereotypes of Indians, which dictate that ‘authentic’ Indians have spiritual visions” (60). Another harming stereotype is the popular image of “[b]ellicose male Indian warriors as the epitome of masculinity” (Grassian 79). In Reservation Blues, Checkers, one of the main characters, points out that the American Indian man feels the “need to be superhuman in the poverty of a reservation” (114). The consequences are devastating as it is “a virtually unrealizable standard that often leads men to despondency and drug abuse” (Grassian 79). Media and television are partly responsible for American Indians engaging in the pursuit of an impossible goal of being as authentic as the stereotypical Indian. Media images have a tremendous influence on Indian identity (Grassian 80). Moreover, the pressure on Indian men is increased by the fact that “most Indian women . . . buy into the desired codes for male authenticity as warrior figures” (Grassian 80). In that sense, both Indian men and women become victims of popular culture and television since they are intoxicated by false representations of Indian authenticity and identity.
Alexie’s references to popular culture are another point disapproved by Gloria Bird and Elizabeth Cook-Lynn. Cook-Lynn expresses her objections to New Indian fiction in the article “American Indian Intellectualism and the New Indian Story” and describes it as “trash or fraudulent or pop” (quoted in Evans, 50). Bird in her review of Reservation Blues also criticizes Alexie’s use of popular culture. “A colleague has pointed out,” notes Bird, “that referring to pop culture is not the problem it becomes problematic, however, when this is the only exposure to native literature to which mainstream readers are exposed” (48). Bird argues that it contributes to “a portrait of an exaggerated version of reservation life” and she makes the point that “alluding to popular culture as a literary strategy does not serve as either a parody or as a serious interrogation of popular culture” (47).
Conversely, Alexie perceives pop culture as an important and positive part of his writing. He conceives that thanks to it, his stories become more accessible to reservation children. Grassian comments on the interview “What It Means to Be Sherman Alexie” and notices:
Alexie explains that one of his primary goals is to reach Indian children on the reservation, whom he believes to be mainly influenced by white-dominated popular culture. Toward that end, Alexie often uses references to television shows, movies, and music as a means to capture their attention and to speak in their language. (6)
In the interview “Crossroads”, Alexie asserts that contemporary culture in his works gives his readers better insight into the “real” life on reservations. He relates his own experience of indigenous literature as young reader and later on as adult when he started to write himself. He reckons that “growing up all I was exposed to was Mother Earth, Father Sky stuff, or direction stuff. That’s how I thought Indians wrote. I didn’t know I could write actually about my life” (italics in original, 13). Clearly, books Alexie had the opportunity to read when he was a boy were not close to his own childhood. Only when he discovered contemporary Native American writers, he realized that other native literature deals with issues and themes familiar to his own experience. He expresses the feeling of freedom and delight at the revelation. “I could write about fried bread and fried bologna,” recounts Alexie. “And the great thing is,” continues Alexie, “I didn’t know you could combine, the traditional imagery and fried bread and fried bologna. The way I lived my life, and the way inside me, and the way I thought, which is a mix of traditionalism and contemporary culture. . . . Which is reality” (13). Obviously, Alexie expresses his pleasure to write about the “true” life which is to him, a blend of traditions and contemporary culture.
In the interview with Joshua B. Nelson “Humor is My Green Card”, Alexie reacts to Cook-Lynn’s criticism of his works. Nelson evokes her statements concerning Alexie’s “artistic project” that she described as “distracting or irrelevant” (40). Alexie’s reaction to that issue and his opinion about Cook-Lynn is interesting:
You know, Liz Cook-Lynn is utterly incapable of irony, of understanding irony, of even seeing the ironic nature of her own existence. So, the stances she has are a kind of fundamentalism that actually drove me off my reservation. I think it’s a kind of fundamentalism about Indian identity, and what “Indian” can be and mean, that damages Indians. (40)
Irony is an important tool of a satirist. While Alexie claims that Cook-Lynn does not recognize and comprehend irony, he implies that she cannot fully appreciate his writing from an artistic perspective, irony being an important element of his literary expression. “[O]ne may disagree with or critique the work of any author on political, moral, or cultural grounds,” stresses Evans, “but that is a separate issue from addressing the work as art” (italics in original, 68). Moreover, Evans argues that Alexie is a “moral satirist” rather than a “cultural traitor” (48). Obviously, Alexie’s short stories and novels are first and foremost works of art created by his imagination, not a document, social analysis, or case history. Illusion is an important part of fictional narrative. René Wellek and Austin Warren point out the “danger . . . of taking the novel seriously in the wrong way, that is, as a document or case history, . . . a confession, a true story, a history of life and its times” (212). It is true that some of Alexie’s stories and novels, e.g. Diary, The Lone Ranger, Reservation Blues, are partly autobiographical. Alexie himself admits it. When he speaks about his life in interviews, the listeners who have read his books may notice that Alexie undoubtedly drew inspiration from his own experience. In addition, many of his stories take place on the Spokane Indian Reservation where he grew up. Nevertheless, they are not Alexie’s autobiographies. Bird argues that Alexie presents an exaggerated representation of the reservation “that doesn’t offer enough substance to be anything more than a “spoof” of contemporary reservation life” (51). However, exaggeration may be perceived as a literary device. Wellek and Warren explain the relation between life and literature as follows:
[Literature] must, of course, stand in recognizable relation to life, but the relations are very various: the life can be heightened or burlesqued or antithesized; it is in any case a selection, of a specifically purposive sort, from life. We have to have a knowledge independent of literature in order to know what the relation of a specific work to “life” may be. (212)
In that sense, we could argue that the main problem is not the fact that Alexie offers an exaggerated representation of reservation life- if he does, but the fact that the readers who do not have any other knowledge about reservation life consider that it is an accurate representation of it. From that perspective, Bird’s intention of “question[ing] the assumption that because someone is Indian what they produce is automatically an accurate representation” (Bird 47), is legitimate.
From 1492 until the early part of the twentieth century, the American Indian population had suffered from a considerable demographic decline. In the nineteenth century, Native Americans populations were in collapse and reached their nadir. The colonizing period is therefore often referred to as genocide or holocaust. In contrast, the population of American Indians has been constantly increasing from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present. After World War II, another significant turning point took place; a large scale migration from reservations to urban areas. In the thesis, I have focused on this significant phenomenon and tried to provide a complex analysis of the push factors as well as the reaction of the reservation members to the migration.
Having provided statistical and historical background, I have shown that the relocation and termination program played an important role in the process. The major aim of this federal government policy was the assimilation of the Native American minority. Even though assimilation did not happen in the manner the Federal government expected and Native Americans preserved their cultures, urbanization and related intermarriages may be nevertheless perceived as threatening since it may cause a progressive assimilation into mainstream society.
In the thesis I have discussed the main reasons for leaving the reservation as depicted in selected prose by Sherman Alexie. Clearly, the violent and horrid history caused profound wounds that are difficult to heal and haunts the reservation members. Reservations are compared to prisons and death camps and perceived as a substantial part of the American Indian holocaust. By drawing parallels with the Jewish Holocaust, Alexie draws attention to the fact that contrary to the Jewish genocide, the American Indian genocide has not been fully acknowledged and the deaths were not truly honored. Consequently, the past intrudes into the present and influences the life on the reservation. Historical trauma intensifies widespread despondency. Acknowledgement of the history and forgiveness are conceived as a significant part of the healing process.
Reservation members live in abject poverty. They are often humiliated by white teachers at school. Education as described in Alexie’s works is a means of assimilating Native Americans. In that regard, American Indians have shown considerable resistance. Reservation pupils and students have to face bullying and racism and their future often seems bleak.
A great part of Native Americans find escape in alcoholism, the worst of evils that destroys hope and deepens the feeling of despondency. Furthermore, reservations are depicted as places where pain and suffering are circulating and the feeling of hopelessness is therefore intensified. Moreover, a general apathy and passivity aggravate the situation. However, Alexie rejects victimization. Even though he treats difficult and painful themes, his works are full of humor. It is precisely humor, basketball and imagination that Alexie perceives as the weapons helping reservation members to survive.
Native Americans who choose to leave the reservation are generally ostracized and rejected by the majority of the members. Moreover, their identity is questioned and they are often perceived as “less” than Indian. The issue of Native American identity in Alexie’s works would be undoubtedly a relevant theme of further analysis.
In his works, Alexie changed the focus from reservations to urban areas. His early collections of poems and his prose were mostly set on the Spokane Indian Reservation. In contrast, his later works moved from the reservation to urban areas, mainly Seattle. However, he explained in several interviews that his characters left the reservation physically but its borders remain in their minds and limit their lives and relationships. Leaving the reservation is thus a complex, painful, and long process.
While reading indigenous literature, the reader should be aware of his or her own limits. Being a European white female reader, I had (and to some extent probably still have) a stereotypical image of Native Americans that is perpetuated in movies and literature. Native American writers and filmmakers are unfortunately little known to Czech audiences. In that sense, it is crucial to acquire historical, cultural and literary knowledge and open one’s mind to different views and perspectives. Even though films and literature have been disseminating distorted representations of American Indians for decades, I am deeply convinced that they also have the tremendous power of fighting them. By reading stories, poems and novels by Alexie and other American Indian authors or by watching movies produced, directed or staged by American Indians, readers and viewers confront the stereotypes embedded in their minds and are invited to question them. This challenging process may help us to better understand the Native American minority and hopefully, other minorities as well. Furthermore, Alexie constantly defies our Eurocentric interpretation of history and we are led to reconsider it.
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The aim of this Master’s Diploma Thesis is to examine the main reasons for leaving the reservation in selected prose by Sherman Alexie. Alexie is one of the most significant contemporary Native American authors and his works offer an interesting insight into the issue. The thesis provides wider historical and demographical context of the migration from reservations to urban areas after World War II. The main part of the thesis focuses on detailed analysis of selected prose by Alexie: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Reservation Blues and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
Widespread despondency is explored as one of the main push factors. Poverty, alcoholism, apathy, and passivity of the reservation members are argued to be its main causes. Furthermore, I argue that education as depicted in Alexie’s works aims at assimilating American Indians. Reservation schools provide an unfriendly environment where violence and racism are commonplace. Moreover, reservations are likened to prisons and concentration camps in Alexie’s works. A history of genocide haunts Alexie’s characters.
Another concern of the thesis is to explore the attitude of the reservation community towards the migration. I point out that those who leave reservations are rejected by greater part of the community and their identity is questioned. In the last chapter, I try to answer the question to what extent may Alexie’s works be considered as representing the “reality”.
Cílem této diplomové práce je posoudit hlavní důvody opouštění rezervace ve vybrané próze Shermana Alexieho. Alexie je jedním z nejvýznamnějších současných indiánských autorů a jeho dílo nabízí zajímavý pohled na dané téma. Práce nastiňuje širší historický a demografický kontext migrace z rezervací do měst po druhé světové válce. Hlavní část práce se zabývá detailní analýzou vybraných prozaických děl Alexieho: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (do češtiny přeloženo pod názvem Kouřové signály), Reservation Blues (do češtiny zatím nepřeloženo) a The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (do češtiny zatím nepřeloženo).
Jedním z hlavních důvodů k opuštění rezervace se ukazuje být všeobecný pocit beznaděje. Za jeho hlavní příčiny jsou pokládány chudoba, alkoholismus, apatie a pasivita. Dále se v díle Alexieho zaměřuji na vzdělávání v rezervacích a poukazuji na to, že má za cíl asimilovat Indiány. V rezervačních školách panuje nepřátelská atmosféra a násilí a rasismus jsou zde na běžném pořádku. Rezervace jsou v dílech Alexieho přirovnávány k vězení a ke koncentračním táborům. Jeho postavy sužuje vědomí nedávné genocidy.
Práce se dále podrobně věnuje postoji Indiánů k opouštění rezervací. Poukazuji na to, že Indiáni, kteří odešli z rezervace, jsou častokrát zavrhnuti její většinovou společností a jejich identita je zpochybňována. V poslední kapitole zkoumám, do jaké míry lze považovat díla Alexieho za odraz „reality“.
The Title will be shortened to The Lone Ranger in the thesis.
The Title will be shortened to Diary in the thesis.
Arnold Junior Spirit is shortened to Arnold in the thesis.