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The excitement mounted as I thought about the chance to meet one of the genuine literary superstars of our time. At 33, Sherman Alexie has attained a rock star-like status at a startlingly young age and in the process, become the representative and unofficial spokesperson for a population not used to having its voice heard: Native Americans.
As Sherman walked through the door, I took note of his height-6'2"-but was caught off guard by his overall appearance. In all the pictures I had seen of him, he looked the part of an Indian: long flowing hair, stoic gaze, rugged clothes, the whole "warrior" look. But the one thing Sherman Alexie enjoys is tweaking and challenging mainstream America's conceptions about Indians. He often begins his stand-up performance routines by playing off the stereotypes. "White people only like Indians if we're warriors or guardians of the earth. Have any of you ever been to a reservation? A guesthouse is a rusted car up on blocks out behind a H.U.D trailer. And what's with all these sensitive New Age guys beating drums in the woods, trying to be Indians? Hey, Indians gave that up a hundred years ago. Now we're sitting on the couch with the remote."
"As an Indian, you're born politicized," declared Sherman. To start with, there's that term "Indian," coined by Christopher Columbus who thought he had reached India and named the native people he would later enslave because of that mistaken thought. Sherman has no problem proclaiming himself a "Spokane and Coeur d'Alene Indian" writer. Native American to him is a term used by guilt-ridden white people. The Spokane and Coeur d'Alene tribes are closely related through language and culture and are both grouped as Coastal Salish people. Sherman grew up on a reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, which houses about 1200 members of the Spokane tribe. He describes it as "isolated, mountainous, rural" and a place no one got to by accident.
The Spokane tribe was basically kicked off the land that is now the city that bears their name. In 1858, Col. George Wright invaded the northwest coast and forced the tribes to surrender their land, hanging the people and executing their horses in the process. Sherman can remember precisely his "first liberal political thought," when he was first hit with the harsh reality of what it means to be an Indian in present day America after centuries of white colonialism.
"I was four years old," he recalled, "waiting in line for USDA commodity food, and I'm standing in line thinking, 'This isn't fair. This isn't how it's supposed to be. This is the United States. This isn't Russia, where people wait in line for toilet paper.' I remember being really depressed for the rest of the day and my mother noticing how depressed I was and saying we needed the food." Commodity food is generic food cans that aren't particularly appetizing.
The school curriculum also caused Sherman to question the history he was being taught. "The curriculum was the same as any school, even on the reservation. I can remember singing in class, 'In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,'" he laughed. "Nobody tells our story. The only thing I knew about the history of Indians was we fought, we lost. That was the extent of it. The entire history of Indians in most textbooks is summed up in one paragraph. Small pox. Little Big Horn. Reservations. It does nothing to explain the incredible diversity between tribes and the complicated, incredible civilizations we had before Columbus showed up and the incredible things we've done since and all the amazing things we've done to survive."
As a child, Sherman became a voracious reader of everything he could get his hands on. Reading Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States," which delves into underrepresented groups in US history, was a watershed moment. "I remember reading it and saying, 'Wait a second!'" The other big influences on his life were television and movies. Television gave him a glimpse into the outside world, and made him aware of all the riches he didn't have. "I wanted to achieve greatness. However that manifested itself, I didn't care. All I wanted was to be the best at something. Part of it definitely was revenge, to prove myself, since the culture has been set up to make sure I fail," he explained.
So he decided to venture off the reservation to the local white high school where he was the only Indian and played on the basketball team named the Reardon Indians. When asked about all the sports teams with Indian mascots, Sherman sighed and said, "It's indicative of how little political power Indians have in this country. You would never have a team called the Washington Wetbacks, the Washington Kikes." At least during his time at Reardon, the team retired the Indian mascot, though kept the name. Sherman did not have much problem fitting in with his all-white surroundings, though it took a bit of getting used to. "Me looking at white people was like Americans looking at people from Ireland. They look kind of familiar, speak a familiar language but it's still foreign," he said.
In college, Sherman had planned on becoming a pediatrician, but he found anatomy class too terrifying and stumbled into a course on poetry writing. After having several girls come up to him to compliment him on a poem he wrote, he said, "I immediately saw that something I had created from my own imagination could have an effect on cute 20-year-old girls and I thought to myself, 'I could do this for the rest of my life.'" A book of Native American poetry given to him by his professor furthered his passion for writing. It was the first time he had ever read something that resonated so personally, and he realized suddenly that, "My life became more interesting than I ever thought it could be. My parents never thought that anyone would be interested in our lives."
But when you're entering territory not used to being inhabited by Indians, feathers will be ruffled. There are some on his reservation, where his family still lives, who are bothered by Sherman's writing. They see it as a negative portrayal of life "on the rez" because it confronts head-on the problems of poverty and alcoholism that plague so many Indian communities. Sherman is keenly aware of the fact that because there have been so few mainstream Indian authors, his work will be judged more harshly for its "authenticity." "I know there is a perceived exoticism about me and my poetry. I hope I'm more responsible about the power of my art, but I can't control what other people think," he says.
Then there's all the white people who are mad at him because he criticizes white authors who write about Native Americans as being na´ve and ignorant. He jokes that there should be a 10-year moratorium for white writers so that Indians can tell their own stories instead of having white people tell them. "The fact is, when white authors step away from their typewriters, they're still white. When I get up from the typewriter, I'm still an Indian." He wants those authors to question their privileged positions. When I ask half-seriously if he hates white people, given all they have done to destroy his people and culture, he half-seriously replies, "Only every 15 minutes."
But Sherman has achieved literary fame beyond his imagination because he is an Indian, and he knows it. "If I were a white guy from Berkeley trying to write a book, no matter how good it is, there's a lot of competition. There's not a whole lot of Indian writers, rez writers. For one of the few times in my life, being Indian is a great thing." And through his art, more and more people are realizing that being an Indian can be a cool thing.
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