Sherman Alexie: What it means to be an Indian in America
“Dr. Mather, if the Ghost Dance worked, there would be no exceptions. All you white people would disappear. All of you. If those dead Indians came back to life, they wouldn’t crawl into a sweathouse with you. They wouldn‘t smoke the pipe with you. They’d kill you. They’d gut you and eat your heart.”
-Marie, Indian Killer, 314
The identity of the modern Native American is not found in simple language or description. Neither does a badge or collection of eagle feathers determine Native American identity. As Alexie demonstrates through the character of Dr. Mather and Wilson, pony-tails and store bought drums are mere materialistic symbols and stereotypes: they have no real value or respect for the history behind a person’s cultural heritage. Hanging out in Indian bars is insufficient. The identity of the Native American is formed in a context of opposition and resistance, of irreversible historical travesty, and of inescapable conflict. Given the complex and lengthy history of U.S. atrocities against the Indians, and the equally violent aggressions of Indians against whites, bloodshed and animosity were the basis original Indian- U.S. relations. The original brutality these relations cannot be underestimated; nor the intricate series of laws and Acts passed throughout the ninteeth and twentieth centuries for the destruction of Indian culture and heritage. Yet, as Alexie argues, the forces of hatred cannot be exclusively emphasized in determining the identity of the Native American.
Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie is a work of humor, an investigation of community identity and family love, as well as a discussion of race and hate. Marie’s speech to the hapless Dr. Mather above illustrates the viciousness of a historical reality: her statement serves as a powerful reminder of what war and conflict have wrought. Yet the hatred that Marie embraces is intrinsic to the reality she’s come to understand, which, Alexie reminds us, is formed in terms of opposition and argument. She is politically antagonistic because she feels she has to be, and is extremely disrespectful to any white person she might not like upon closer contact. Yet Marie is intensely passionate about education, about her culture, and about the Indian struggle. As Alexie strives to demonstrate throughout Indian Killer, this hatred, while not without cause or inevitability, is the root of racial wars and senseless violence.
In human terms of hate and love, of power and submission, modern day Seattle teems with deeply set racial problems and equally damaging ignorance. Alexie intends that Native American identity be understood in a legacy of relocation and family destruction: he begins his tale centered on the ironically named John Smith and John’s removal from his mother and his culture. John becomes embedded in this hate and violence, yet is never identified as a killer or a murder: in fact, none of the cast is...