Sherman Alexie: Turning Indians Into Humans
I remember reading an article/interview about Sherman Alexie where he was talking about the problem about being an Indian in contemporary North America. What he described was a sort of bizarre form of prejudice in that everyone expects all Indians to be mystical and prophetic. Ridiculing this idea he stood on stage at a college lecture, spread his arms wide and faced east with his eyes closed. Opening his mouth he slowly intoned the mighty words of his people "super size me" Although funny this exemplifies the situation facing the modern native north American: getting the rest of us to see them as human . Going from the object of government planned cultural genocide to metaphysical beings may seem like progress, but the results end up the same. Stereotyping and marginalisation no matter how they are disguised still confines a people to the fringes of society.
It's so much easier for us to think of an Indian living in conditions worse them most of the developing world, if we can console ourselves with the fact that they have their connection to the universe that keeps them strong. The problem with this is that it's really hard to eat a "connection", have it pay for education, or supply you with decent housing. Not to mention that the governments of the Americas did their best to eradicate them and their culture over the last hundred years. The suicide, substance abuse, and alcohol abuse rates are higher among native teens in Canada then any other group. Although some efforts been made to revive a culture that would stimulate self worth, pride, and hope for a future, it is still too faint a glimmer for most of them.
The world of Sherman Alexie's Spokane Indians is not one that would be recognized by Lynn Andrews and her ilk. Unpaved roads on which cars drive backwards; foetal alcohol babies; basketball as a warrior cult; surplus government food stuffs to bloat empty stomachs; alcohol to desensitize; and stories that wander across generations of lies, broken promises. The magic is not what you'd read about in First Nations section of your New Age bookstore. It's the people who are brought to life by Sherman Alexie's words and love that is magic.
He talks about the drunk on the street who we don't want to know, about the stealing of a man's pride, the subjugation of a people's culture, and the theft of dreams. At every turn they run into the walls we have set up to confine them to the place that makes us most comfortable. These are the stories of a people who see us as an oppressor: the Europeans have destroyed the land, stolen their way of life and now conspire to abscond with their religion. Alexie makes no bones about it we are the enemy, and to be honest what other perspective could an Indian have.
These books may not sit well with white liberals, in fact they may alienate a lot of people for how poorly white society comes off in general, but the opinions uttered by the white characters are things you hear everyday out of the mouths of politicians looking to score points with the red neck contingent: welfare bums, drain upon our society, leeches, they lost the war so what do they expect, going to take your house out from under you and so on. In my view, just in our occupying and living on this continent we are complicit in the oppression of natives everywhere, and that is the point that comes across in Sherman Alexie's books.
As a non native who openly embraces the philosophies and ideals of native beliefs I admit to feeling discomfort at times when reading these books for his characters have a low opinion of what they call wannabes. There was a time when I was directly involved with the native community in the city where I live, volunteering at a friendship centre and participating in events. During those times I was never made to feel unwelcome because of my background, in fact whenever I expressed my discomfort over walking a red path I was met with reassurance, understanding and humour (what your part Jewish, hell that's great you already got the suffering down, but we've got a better sense of humour). But in the end I decided that it was more appropriate for me not to be involved within the community for a variety of reasons, but primarily because it did not feel right. This has not changed my belief system, I still walk what's known as the red road, but that is a personal choice, not out of any desire to be an Indian.
What it comes down to is respect. So much has been stolen from Indians as a people that seeing white people parading themselves around as teachers, shaman, and faith healers has to be particularly galling. Every buxom blond, blue eyed, crystal gazing, "we're all natives under the skin" espousing, money grubbing, book-selling shaman, is another massacre at Wounded Knee. Killing, oppressing, and cultural genocide are one thing, turning around and taking the things from that same culture that appeal to you in order to make a quick buck is just rubbing salt into a wound that your knife made. Exploitation is Exploitation no matter what you call it.
Sherman Alexie's books make real what we have mythafied. He destroys the image of the noble savage and replaces him with basketball players, university students, drunks, storytellers, in other words people who get angry and sad, happy and outraged, do stupid things, are brave and are cowardly. But they are these things within the context of a conquered people who have had everything stolen down to their pride in self. Hope can not be bought at the store like commodity cheese and when you are told often enough that you are worthless it becomes easier to believe that then to crawl back out from under the hand pushing you down. Alexie's people show the strain of trying to push the fingers of that hand off their head so they can peak out and say "We are here and we are real"
Read these books if you have the courage to look at yourself in the mirror, because the only way things are going to get better is if we all start to take responsibility for our participation in cultural genocide. What can you do? You can write your elected officials and let them know that you will not accept the fact that there are people living here who have lived here longer then most of our so called civilization has existed and they need to be treated with dignity and respect.