Walking the Cultural Tightrope

          There is a murderer loose in Seattle, stalking, kidnapping, and scalping white people, leaving blood-soaked owl feathers for a calling card. It could be John Smith, the six-and-a-half foot Native American whose adoption at birth by a wealthy white family cut him adrift from his senses. It could be Jack Wilson, a racially fraudulent "Indian" novelist intent on blurring genetic fact and fiction. It could be Reggie Polatkin, whose white father beat him out of fear that he would become a "dirty" Indian instead of a "good" one. These suspects move among a cadre of other characters that includes a despicable shock jock, a fatuous college professor, a feisty Native American student, and more than a few Indians who can't help but feel a flush of vengeance as the carnage intensifies.

          The book, Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer (Atlantic Monthly Press), is a searing, complex indictment of Native American colonialization deftly wrapped inside the genre conventions of a murder mystery. Released earlier this month, the book represents yet another feather in the cap of the 29-year-old Alexie, a member of the Spokane/Coeur d'Alene tribe who was recently selected as one of Granta's 25 Best Young American Novelists.

          Less than five years ago, Alexie published his first book, The Business of Fancydancing, a collection of poems and very short stories that shadow-boxed Indian stereotypes with a playful potency. He followed it up a year later with two more books of poetry and a bold, quirky short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. In 1995, Alexie's first novel, Reservation Blues, further upped in the ante by framing each chapter around a song and beginning his tale with the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson handing his guitar over to protagonist Thomas-Builds-the-Fire. Along the way, Alexie proved he could sustain his unique blend of picaresque hijinks and unexpected poignancy over the course of an entire novel.

          Alexie's craftsmanship takes another quantum leap forward with the 420-page Indian Killer. But it's merely one of a variety of items on his agenda. This month also marks the publication of his fourth book of poetry, The Summer Of Black Widows, and the beginning of the Honor The Earth musical tour (which stops at Northrop Auditorium in Minneapolis on Friday). The tour promotes a just-released CD of the same name, one that benefits more than 200 groups of indigenous people in North America trying to preserve the environmental quality of their homelands. Alongside acts ranging from Bonnie Raitt, Soul Asylum, and the Indigo Girls to Native musicians such as John Trudell and Ulali, Alexie appears on the disc talk-singing a story with the accompaniment of guitarist Jim Boyd, who also helped him with some of the musical aspects of Reservation Blues.

          "Jim is sort of a reservation hero," Alexie says via phone from his office in Seattle. "He was in this real famous Native band called Xit; growing up I had his cassettes. Then we met at a folk festival where they had me read and him sing. "We've played together a lot out here but certainly never as big a venue [as the Northrop] or with such stellar company--I'm nervous, he's excited. I'll read and he'll play. If I played it would be insulting thousands of years of tribal tradition."

          Alexie speaks with an easygoing mix of modesty and self-confidence. On the phone and in his writing, he's comfortable with his credentials in both Native and mass market cultures. It's this familiarity that enables him to invoke scathing satire and resonant silliness, to laugh at and with the foibles of his characters, and provide a depth of understanding lacking in the Native-Caucasian dynamics of most other writers.

          It's a knowledge he comes by naturally. The first 18 years of Alexie's life were spent on the Spokane reservation in eastern Washington. Entering the eighth grade, however, he says that "I left a 90 percent Indian school to go to a 99 percent white school because I knew I could never get into college with the education I would get on the reservation. I was smart and I could play basketball, so I fit in.

          "But I had to be really subdued in the way I conducted myself," he continues. "I was a radical-progressive-socialist kind of guy and that just doesn't cut it in a small farm town of mostly German descent. It was a border town, so of course they had a lot of stereotypes about Indians. Being from the reservation was still stigmatizing." One time, when a dishevelled Indian stumbled into a restaurant where Alexie and his friends were hanging out, his girlfriend leaned over and whispered to him, "I hate Indians," a scene that is replayed via John Smith, the Native adoptee in Indian Killer.

          On the other hand, attending school outside the rez didn't endear Alexie to his childhood buddies. "I was sort of this geeky weird kid growing up, but I was always connected," Alexie stresses. "I dedicated Indian Killer to my mother and father, for staying--I always had an intact family unit. And no matter how contentious my relationship with my fellow tribal members, I was always a Spokane/Coeur D'Alene, growing up on the reservation, where everyone looked like me. And that is always who I'm going to be. I'm not a writer who happens to be Native American; I'm a Native American writer. It informs my art and always will."

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