Not long ago, I was asked to do a presentation with a visual Native artist. They didn’t ask us to do a reading/visual presentation of our own work, they asked us to do a presentation on The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, though neither of us are known as children’s illustrators, children’s writers, or Alexie or YA scholars (through my novel was sort of sold as a literary/YA, which is cool by me). People love this book, and Alexie. Love him so much that when I used to attend his readings, I would inevitably sit next to a white woman who talked about how much she wanted to have his, and his book’s babies. Her hands would be clutching his latest, her expression crazed.
Greg Deal, the visual artist, suggested that we use this not only as an opportunity to educate folks about Indians, our art and Alexie’s novel, but to show how the ideas that people have about Indians have trickled into their art, and also into ours (Anishinaabe writer David Treuer also speaks to this dynamic in his collection of essays Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual).
We are living in a country that has done everything it can to destroy us – physically and culturally. One of the ways that it’s done that is to eat us up, and then put out a more sterilized, safe and stereotypical version of who we are. Americans swim through an ocean of pseudo-Indian-ness every day without really thinking about it: there are the folks who claim to be part Cherokee, the truck store Indian baby-dolls, the goofy pan-Indian idea of Indians as wonderfully and ambiguously spiritual and natural. But we don’t think about it, because it’s America.
I want to narrow this down to literature. There is a lot of American literature by non-native Americans about Indians – in fact, loads and loads – that’s constructed around these anesthetized ideas of Native Americans, and our art. As Greg pointed out, the most insidious part of all of this is the fact that Native artists are influenced by these things. After all, this America is powerful, and it has worked very hard to eat us up, one of those ways being boarding and Indian day schools. Boarding schools – and urban Indian day schools, as I talked about in a previous article, were schools where Indian children were taken from their families, stripped of all things Indian, beaten, molested, used for manual labor and all to assimilate them into mainstream white culture. So when we talk about America’s project to bury our art, I want to make sure that you understand how serious, complex and long-term this project is.
It was around the time of boarding schools that books like Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks began to appear. Much like Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans, it’s a book that does much in the way of presenting Indian culture in as palatable way as possible, though it’s a step up from Mohicans, as we lose the savage Indians, and instead, gain the noble savage. Though noble, the savage is still primitive and simple; sad, romantic, and most importantly – dying. Let’s look at the last two lines in this book. “And I, to whom so great a vision was given in my youth, – you see me now a pitiful old man who has done nothing, for the nation’s hoop is broken and scattered. There is no center any longer, and the sacred tree is dead.” This, in two lines, manages to get at every stereotype: Black Elk is natural, spiritual (in a kind of general way), and most importantly, romantic – but dying.
The Education of Little Tree, by Forrest Carter, was published in 1976 (but there have been books published like this, this year). This was handed to me by a kid I went to school with, one of the many Generokees that I would meet in my lifetime. He told me that since I was a real Indian, I should definitely read it. I did. It made me feel inadequate. I now know why. Full of the kind of romantic pan-Indian stereotypes we’ve all come to be familiar with, it gave me a version of being Indian that was so above-the-earth that there was no way I could ever live up to it. Initially sold as an authentic autobiography (and there’s a word, authentic – that’s so creepy when it comes to Native art) describing his Cherokee childhood experiences in the Appalachian mountains, the book was later discovered to be written by Earl Carter, a white political activist whose speech “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” is one you might be familiar with.
I want to now turn to Alexie’s young adult book. I became familiar with Sherman Alexie’s work in my 20’s. At the time, he was popular for a book that couldn’t, in terms of language, form and just overall sophistication – be different from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. What’s weird about reading Diary, is that for me, it’s like reading a faint echo of something I really loved, re-written for children but read often by adults. Set in urban areas, and on the reservation, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a brilliant, gritty collection of short stories that was originally based on a dream of Alexie’s, during a time in his early twenties when he was a heavy drinker. Although some of the stories are duds, like Alexie’s peers from the Native American Renaissance (my favorite being James Welch), the book smashes the Native America that writers like Cooper, Neihardt and Carter constructed.
One of my favorite stories from this collection is “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation.” Just the title alone is a poem. It’s about a baby who is really the narrator who is really the author who was born with a defect (he clues us in on this by telling us that the baby was born in 1966 – the year of Alexie’s birth). The narrator is trying to take care of the baby, but he’s failing. Here’s a selection from this story.
Jesse WildShoe died last night and today was the funeral and usually there’s a wake…we buried Jesse right away and dug the hole deep because Jesse could fancydance like God had touched his feet…I don’t know anything about religion and I don’t confess my sins to anybody except the walls and the wood stove and James who forgives everything like a rock… One night I get so drunk I leave him at somebody’s house and forget all about him…The tribal police drag me into the cell for abandonment and I’m asking them who they’re going to arrest for abandoning me…I’ve got the DTs so bad…my shoes squeal and kick and pull me down into the dead pig pit of my imagination. Oh Jesus I wake up on the bottom of that mass grave with the bones of generations of slaughter…like the heroin addict said I just want to be pure.
Now a bit from Diary.
“I’m transferring to Reardon…You better quit saying that,’ he said, ‘You’re getting me mad.’ I didn’t want to get him mad. When Rowdy got mad it took him days to get un-mad. But he was my best friend and I wanted him to know the truth.”
Like in Tonto, Rowdy is the narrator is the author (Rowdy and the narrator share a birthday. He even says that he and Rowdy are inseparable). Much like, but very different from the narrator in Tonto, Rowdy is the part of the narrator that the narrator hates: violent, emotional, embarrassing, Indian. But unlike Tonto, Diary tells us, over and over: being white is better. Being white will save you. Kill Rowdy, even though you can’t. Leave him, even if it kills you. In many ways, comparing these two books is really unfair, as Diary is (supposedly) for young adults. But that’s the thing, not only do I worry about how this book will affect young natives, I feel, as a Native person, like this book isn’t for me. But the thing about Tonto is that the language is poetic, and truthful, strange and beautiful – and despite the fact that some of the stories do that ‘this is what Indians do!’ thing, a lot of them, like the one I quote, don’t. They just smash everything that America does to imprison us, everything that we see in the novels I talked about earlier without even trying.
So forgive me if I prefer it.
What’s great about Native literature, is that it is now growing into itself. We are still colonized, but, parts of our minds are growing de-colonized. There is now Native American Science Fiction, Native American Experimental literature, and though up until recently – very, Alexie was the last Native writer to garner a book deal with a major press, Native American literature has thrived beneath the radar, all while Alexie and some of his understandably talented peers, like Louise Erdrich, have put book after book after book out, mainly doing the same thing again and again to the delight of their non-Native audience. But the rest of us are here. Native literature has always been imaginative, surreal – even arguably modernist and postmodern, but we have been growing strong while the rest of the world has had its eyes trained on the writers whose greatest books were written over twenty years ago.
Daniel H. Wilson, robotics engineer, citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and author of the novels Robopocalypse and Robogenesis imagines a world where the fact that Native people are often geographically isolated is precisely the thing that puts us in a place of deep advantage when technology gets out of hand. His characters are so like Native people that I have known. More so, honestly, than the Native characters in Native literary fiction, whose characters often seem like a strange, fun-house mirror reflection of what the authors want white folks to see them as – perfectly, “authentically,” and frankly unrealistically Indian. Ironically, here are novels that imagine the future, imagine gigantic slave-robots, imagine a world so unlike ours: but it’s still able to show us gritty, realistic, down to earth human beings who are Native.
There is Debra Magpie Earling – technically a contemporary of Alexie, whose strange, dreamy and language-rich Perma Red in many ways launched the newest wave of literary fiction in Native literature: with writers like Stephen Graham Jones, Blackfeet horror-king, Toni Jensen, his ex-student, who writes lovely, semi-experimental, extended metaphor-stories in her collection From the Hilltop or Eddie Chuculate, whose collection, Cheyenne Madonna is rough and tumble. Chuculate is a dirty-realist who, simply put, doesn’t need any bells and whistles, because he can write. Chuculate is not postmodern in nearly any sense of the word or experimentalist, and I’m pretty sure I know what he thinks about genre fiction. But Chuculate is an absolute master of the form, and he is certainly free; in other words, he writes unequivocally what he wants, and there is no sense that he cares deeply about pandering to any audience whatsoever. For example, his story “Famous Indian Artist” is the most bald, self-effacing, gorgeously sad, mean story I’ve ever read by a Native writer.
So read everything by Alexie. You should. He’s a magical writer, and his book, with all its issues intact, is more than likely far more a force for good in the world than bad. But remember that the rest of us are here too, writing away, in our own ways.
Erika T. Wurth’s published works include a novel, Crazy Horse’s Girlfriend and two collections of poetry, Indian Trains and A Thousand Horses Out to Sea. Her collection of short stories, Buckskin Cocaine is forthcoming. She teaches creative writing at Western Illinois University and has been a guest writer at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals, such as Boulevard, Drunken Boat, South Dakota Review, and The Writer’s Chronicle. She is represented by Peter Steinberg. She is Apache/Chickasaw/Cherokee and was raised outside of Denver.