Sunday, 25 October 2009

The Toughest Indian in the World, by Sherman Alexie, pt 2

Continuing on with my earlier discussion on The Toughest Indian in the World...

As in the title story, the darkly comic ‘South by Southwest’ explores the idea of homosexuality between two outwardly heterosexual men. In a subversion of the outlaw narrative, the protagonist, Seymour, steals a gun and holds up the International House of Pancakes in Spokane, Washington. The narrator tells us that Seymour is a white man – adding in an aside that he is ‘therefore...allowed to be romantic’ (p. 57). He wants to be known as a ‘Gentleman Bandit’ and because these are ‘depressed times’ takes just one dollar from each of the customers in the restaurant (p. 58). Seymour is play-acting at being a tough criminal, going through the motions of intimidating his victims, while at the same time encouraging the cooks to continue cooking because ‘everybody is still going to be hungry’ when he’s finished with the robbery (p. 57).

As is evident from the opening scene, Seymour is not motivated by money. Rather, he is looking for fame and romance. He asks for a volunteer to go with him on a ‘nonviolent killing spree’, saying ‘I need somebody who will fall in love with me along the way’ (p. 58). An Indian man, whom Seymour dubs ‘Salmon Boy’ raises his hand. Salmon Boy assures Seymour that he is not homosexual, but adds ‘I do believe in love’ (p. 59), a statement which is later repeated. For Seymour, this is enough.

During the course of their journey to Arizona, Seymour steals love stories, first from a lonely widow who still weeps over the loss of her only child, and then from a family whom he holds up at the Grand Canyon. Pointing a gun at the family, he demands to know how the mother and father met and fell in love, then refuses to believe their story saying, ‘people don’t love each other anymore. Not anymore like that’ (p. 68).

Seymour is unable to recognise love, apart from in its sexual form, but he desperately wants to believe, as Salmon Boy does, that a purer form of love exists. Only when the two men embrace does Seymour begin to realise that there may be another kind of love, a way of being ‘intimate without the fear of penetration’, reflecting ‘I think this is what women have wanted from men for all of our lives’ (p.70).

Another theme, which runs throughout Toughest Indian in the World, is that of interracial sex. In both his fiction and in interviews, Alexie has repeatedly voiced concerns that these relationships result in a dilution of Indian cultural identity. In conversation with Ross Frank, of the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego, Alexie has said that ‘The most dangerous thing for Indians, then, now and forever, is always going to be the fact that we love our colonisers. And we do. And we are disappearing. And we will disappear. And what “Indian” is in a hundred years from now will be unrecognisable to the Indians of today’ (available on You Tube).

Racial purity is central to the plot in the allegorical story ‘The Sin Eaters’. Narrated by a young Spokane boy called Jonah, the story describes a dystopian world in which the white population is afflicted by a devastating illness brought about by the sins of hate, envy, sloth, anger, murder, thievery, adultery, fornication, blasphemy, lies, greed and hatred (p. 107). In an allusion to the habits of non-Natives who turn to the spiritual traditions of indigenous peoples, the only cure which can save the White community comes from Indians with the greatest concentration of Native blood. The American government’s nineteenth century policies of assimilation, which strove to ‘breed out’ the Indian, are reversed, and those Indians which are least contaminated by White blood are the most prized. The value which these people possess, however, is not for the benefit of the Indian community, but instead for the ruling Whites. In this story, Indians are forced to sacrifice themselves to save a White population which has already taken their land, their resources and their tribal traditions.

In an interview published in the Iowa Review (Fraser, 2000), Alexie criticises White writers including Larry McMurtry and Barbara Kingsolver who write about Indian characters. As ‘outsiders’ to the Indian community, he claims their work is both colonial and a product of imagination, implying that it is therefore biased and culturally inaccurate.

Expanding on this in an interview with Hans Ibold he says, ‘All too often when non-Indians write about Indians they get authority’ and their work ‘becomes substitute for work by Indians’ (Idaho Mountain Express, 2000). All words have authority, especially once they are written down and bound into books. The danger then is that inaccuracies and misrepresentations of Native people and traditions will be given an authority they don’t deserve, or to paraphrase an adage, ‘inaccuracies, if repeated often enough, will be believed’. Justifying his own portrayals of White characters, however, Alexie says, ‘I know a lot more about being white – because I have to, I live in the white world. A white person doesn’t live in the Indian world. I have to be white every day' (Fraser, 2000).

This sentiment, that Indians know the White community much better than Whites know Indians, is reiterated by the character of Etta Jones in the story ‘Dear John Wayne’. In it, 118-year-old Etta, a retired Hollywood actress and Spokane Indian, is interviewed by a Harvard professor of cultural anthropology. Steering the discussion away from questions about powwow dancing, Etta scolds her interviewer for claiming to be ‘the leading authority’ of Native American culture, saying, ‘I know so much more about you than you will ever know about me.’ She goes on to explain that, ‘For the last one hundred and eighteen years, I have lived in your world, your white world. In order to survive, to thrive, I have to be white for fifty-seven minutes of every hour’ (p. 194). The anthropologist is eager to expand his own ‘knowledge’ and ‘authority’ and urges Etta to tell him about the other three minutes. Etta refuses, guarding her heritage closely, as she says: 'Those three minutes belong to us. They are very secret. You’ve colonized Indian land but I am not about to let you colonize my heart and mind' (p. 194).

One of the central themes in ‘Dear John Wayne’ involves the oral tradition of story telling. While the anthropologist looks upon his scholarly books on Indian culture and the oral tradition with an almost religious reverence, Etta scoffs at his naiveté. ‘[T]hose books’, she tells him ‘started with somebody’s lies’ ( p. 193) implying that the Native sources may not actually have been reliable, and linking up with my earlier statement about the authority given to the written word. In the end, Etta forces her interviewer to question the nature of truth and the nature of fiction, and to see that they are but different sides of the same coin.

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