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."  

          But not exclusively. Another reason Alexie writes so fluently about cultural identity is because he is frequently cited--and typecast--as the leading Indian writer of his generation. "There are Montana writers, Southern white trash writers, all kinds of writers. I'm a Native American writer, a school that isn't any more or less valid than any other. But literary critics assign a negative value to Native American literature and place it in some sort of literary reservation. It's not an insult to me, but other people use it as such," Alexie says. "The fortunate thing for me is that I am rising out of that ghettoization of my work. I am a Native American writer who is becoming part of American literature. It is valid to compare me to other Native American writers, but I consider myself equally influenced by John Steinbeck and by growing up on a reservation. I'm influenced by the Brady Bunch as much as Steinbeck, for that matter."

          And such influences are alienating: "Because I am first and foremost a Spokane/Coeur D'Alene Indian, that means I am a colonized person living in a colonial country--that's my relationship with the United States. The analogy I give to white people is, imagine being dropped into the middle of Compton, California at midnight on a Friday; that's exactly how I feel living in the United States when I'm not on my reservation. You deal with it every minute. We're bombarded with images like Crazy Horse Malt Liquor; F-Troop is still on television, black and white westerns, and now this New Age crap. But the image that is you isn't included anywhere; you're either totally misrepresented or not represented at all.

          "On the other hand, I'm a citizen of the US and I do take responsibility for the idiocy of our leaders. So being an Indian is a real strange thing. Generally speaking, Indians are highly patriotic. I am not, but Indians by and large are extremely proud of their country. I think it's the land: Somewhere along the line, we have confused the land with the government. And another part of it is that Indians still have this fascination and love affair with war. And the US is good at war. A lot of Indians are supporting the bombing of Iraq, putting up yellow ribbons or whatever the hell for the sons and daughters who might be going over there."

          In Indian Killer, there are characters who regard the murders as a jubilant sign of Native resurrection and rebellion. "Almost every Native tribe has a prophecy that said [whites] would come--and that they would leave," Alexie notes. "I don't necessarily think it means leaving as much as it means being totally consumed--Europeans being swallowed up by all the brown people, genetically."

          Meanwhile, Alexie's relentless work ethic continues. He says his new book of poems "plays around with some formal verse. And the poems are getting longer and longer." In November, he will return to the Twin Cities to read from Indian Killer. "In my other readings, I usually performed a character, and relied a lot on the humor. There's not a lot of humor in this book. I might end up doing John Smith," he says, referring to the character whose cultural dislocation literally drives him crazy, "if I can get inside his head." And he's already begun thinking about his next novel, which will likely be historical. "I liked working within a genre with the mystery, so I might try history. One idea is about a 1930s Spokane Indian reservation and 1930s Chicago. The other is about an 1880s Spokane Indian reservation and a 1980s Spokane Indian reservation. But I don't want to say too much."

          Earlier, he had said, "I try to think of my writing as a career, as a long series of artistic leaps--maybe not leaps, but tip-toes. Every book is part of a longer series of work. I'm just trying to get better, putting more tools in my box. Writer's block is just about the fear of writing badly. I'm not afraid of writing badly. I just put it in my 'shit no one would ever want' pile and start over." CP

          Arts intern Ryan Peck contributed to this story.
See the A-List, p.37, for more information on the Honor the Earth tour.

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