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Dances with Salmon

We need Sherman Alexie

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Sherman Alexie is one funny Indian. He is the author of 16 books of fiction and poetry, notably Indian Killer, Reservation Blues, Ten Little Indians, The First Indian on the Moon, and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, part of which became the script for the poignant 1999 movie Smoke Signals.

Mr. Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, recently gave a talk at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem as part of the college's lecture series "Shaping the Future." Striding onstage dressed nattily in a three-piece suit and a pink tie, Alexie proceeded to reduce the packed audience to howls of laughter as he exploded white people's misconceptions of American Indians, and mercilessly skewered other stereotypes, notably Christian fundamentalists, academics, "Birkenstock liberals," and vegans.

The writer interspersed his stand-up comedy act with moments of pathos as he recounted his childhood struggles "in the basement of the skyscraper called poverty" at the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, land of salmon. He described the hardship of "life on the rez," and his largely academic audience gasped when they learned that only 20 Spokane Indians have graduated from college.

Alexie reserved his greatest scorn for fundamentalists of all stripes, be they conservative Christians, goofy liberals, or doctrinaire vegetarians. His scorn for vegans as the ultimate narcissistic food fetishists in a rampant consumer society (my paraphrase) clearly took some of the largely liberal audience by surprise. But Alexie framed his lampooning remarks in the context of Indians who live in poverty, without enough food to feed themselves or their families. From this vantage point, the luxury of being able to parse one's food choices with great self-absorption is almost obscene. The author lightened the mood in typical fashion by suggesting that if TV executives and the general public wanted a real "Survivor" scenario, they should send a group of white folks to live on an Indian reservation.

His bitter jokes about the lack of Indian suicide bombers also deliberately confused his audience, who didn't know whether to be scandalized or let out side-splitting belly laughs. Alexie gave two reasons why there would never be any Indian suicide bombers in America. First, "suicide bombing depends on an accurate sense of time. If Indians launched suicide car bombing attacks on American government installations, what we'd have is a series of explosions on freeway exit ramps instead." Second, Alexie argued, "Indians have no apocalyptic theology" that supports such desire for carnage.

This latter reason quelled the gusts of laughter from the first, sardonic parody of "Indian time," so different from whites' urgent clock watching. Alexie asked his audience to consider the belief systems of the two religions that spend most time killing — Christianity and Islam. Both religions celebrate war as a holy mission, believe God or Allah is on their side and that the supreme deity condones the killing.

"How safe do you feel," Alexie asked the audience, dropping the question into a sudden pool of silence, "about a President who believes in the Apocalypse, who believes life on earth will end in an all-destructive firestorm?"

Lest the liberals in the audience started to feel comfortable with this line of attack on Republicans, Alexie next turned his ironic stare on them. "You white liberals scorn fundamentalist Christians," he said, miming New Age rituals on stage, "but you fall for the goofiest stuff out there." At one point he morphed a yoga pose into a crucifixion, bringing forth another gasp from the crowd, half laughter, half shock.

Alexie's consistent use of the term "Indian," to the exclusion of the politically correct "Native American," reminded me of a story told by another Indian of my acquaintance, George Horse Capture, a friend of my late father-in-law, Dee Brown, the author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. George Horse Capture, a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, derides the use of "Native American." He explained that he is first and foremost an A'aninin, a member of the "White Clay People." He identifies himself thus to other Indians within his tribe, the Gros Ventre. To this same audience, he might refer to his original home, Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana. He uses his tribal designation with members of other tribes in the Northern Great Plains, and sometimes calls himself a "Plains Indian" to Indians from elsewhere in the USA. "The only time I'm called a 'Native American,'" he told my father-in-law, "is when I go on the campus of an American university!"

Sherman Alexie made my day with biting satire and humor that is sorely absent from contemporary American discourse, so stifled by conformity and fear of dissent — recently equated with "treason" by several Charlotteans in local media. How I wish Alexie had come to Charlotte, to rattle our complacency with his Indian wit, insight and fearless parody.

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