Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Westward Ho!: Sherman Alexie's Modern Indian

When I was in the fifth grade, my teacher made me read a book and write a report on it...that NO ONE ELSE HAD TO DO. The intent of it, I know, was to keep my mind challenged because there was no "Encore" program at my middle school, but the overall significance of this was lost on me as an eleven-year-old; I was just bitter I had to do more work than everyone else. Though I have no idea what the book was called nor what it's plot was, I know it was about the Trail of Tears. And I remember its existence because it sparked in me a curiosity of these cultures that are spoken of so predominantly in terms of the past and not the present.

I've been wanting to read some Sherman Alexie for a while now, since I've been motivated to read about American cultures and lifestyles that are unfamiliar to me. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven is the short story collection that pulled Alexie out of the blue and to the forefront of modern Native American literature. Earning a Hemingway/PEN Award nomination in 1993, The Lone Ranger and Tonto is partially a memoir of Alexie's life growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. The stories are somewhat connected, mostly by character overlaps, and often focusing on a character named Victor who has quite a cynical outlook on life.

That, in fact, is the predominant tone that just drips from Alexie's stories: cynicism. Some of the stories are told from Victor's perspective and some are told about him by others, but no matter the narrator, most are just filled with an overwhelming disenchantment with people and society. A common theme that shows up in many of the stories is alcoholism and how widespread and destructive it is in this tribe. The edition of this book that I read had a preface by Alexie in which he stated (and I'm summarizing by what I remember) that he did not have a motive in writing about the alcoholism; he was not trying to make a statement nor validate a stereotype; he was just writing about what is. I would hate to believe that this is, in fact, the life and mindset of today's Indians, but as I said before, it's a lifestyle unfamiliar to me and one I am trying to learn more about. And though Alexie is perhaps the most well-known modern Indian author, he is but one voice, and his voice alone should not define or generalize a vast group of people.

Alexie's stories are not deeply complex, nor action-filled. They are brief snippets of time or conversation between characters, revealing thoughts and emotions that Alexie has seen and felt. In the first story, "Every Little Hurricane," a nine-year-old Victor witnesses a fight between his uncles on New Year's Eve. We see pieces of a young Victor's history and will be able to understand, as the stories progress and Victor ages, where he is coming from and what he is relating to. "The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Don't Flash Red Anymore" merely contains a conversation between two characters on a young, talented basketball player who succumbed to alcoholism and their hopes that a young, talented artist doesn't follow suit. These stories, no matter how brief, create a history for the reader, so that we will understand how experiences have led to how these people see the world today.

I had a thought while reading this, one that doesn't have much literacy importance but is a discussion point nonetheless: the appropriate term for indigenous peoples of America is still a tricky one to define, depending on who you're talking to. Most of us probably developed the habit of using "Native American" while in grade school, as "Indian" was deemed to have negative stereotypes. But throughout Alexie's book, the only term he uses (when using as a blanket statement and not referring to specific tribes) is "Indian." Now, before reading this, I was still in the grade-school mindset in which "Indian" seemed slightly un-politically correct, but this made me think—think about the history of the term and the environments that have demanded specific language—and the "Native American" I had been so used to suddenly sounded, to me, so...forced. With an evolving language, it's difficult to get an entire population on the same page, and what sounds correct to some may still hold inappropriate connotations to others. So this, and so many more examples of "politically-correct" terms, are still drifting in uncertainty.

Overall, I felt Alexie presented a strong voice through his stories, but he's still only one voice of a population of people that is over-generalized despite carrying vastly different cultures and histories. And to further understand the whole, you need to explore its individual pieces.


softdrink said...

Have you heard of Rez Life? It's non-fiction, but not dry at all (at least, I didn't think so). I just finished it last week and thought it was a great combination of the history of reservations and treaties interspersed with author's family history.

Kari said...

That sounds like a great recommendation--just the kind of thing I'm interested to read. Thanks! (I assume you'll be posting about it if you haven't already, so I look forward to reading your thoughts on it as well!)