Thursday, 27 May 2010

‘Indianness’ and Identity in the Novels and Short Stories of Sherman Alexie

This essay was presented at the 'Framing the Self: Anxieties of Identity in Literature' conference, sponsored by the Centre of Studies in Literature at the University of Portsmouth, 21st May.  Some of the material included has been adapted from earlier postings.

The Quest for Identity
The quest for identity is the overriding theme in the work of almost all Native writers. Four centuries of colonisation, during which children, mixed and full-blood, were taken from their homes and ‘civilised’ have scoured away nearly all remnants of traditional Indian identity. Sent to boarding schools such as that in Carlisle, Pennsylvania whose motto was ‘Kill the Indian, Save the man’, these children were no longer permitted to speak their own languages, wear their own clothes, or pray to their own gods. Imperfectly assimilated, they lost their voices and their histories, and found themselves balanced between two opposing worlds: the old world where they no longer fully belonged, and the new world in which they would be no more than immigrants, always foreign, always trying to fit in.

Questions of ‘Indianness’ dominate Alexie’s stories, and race is a concern shared by nearly all of his characters. In the early books, in particular, the reader is never allowed to ignore the issue of race nor to identify with his characters simply as people. When I first came to Alexie’s books, I found references to race and ethnicity to be so frequent that I carried out a brief survey, a practice I have continued. Selecting forty pages at random, I count all direct references, including tribal affiliation, blood quantum, and slang. Using this method, I found an average of 2.2 direct references to race per page in The Lone Ranger Fistfight in Heaven (1993), 3.5 in Reservation Blues (1995), 4.3 in The Toughest Indian in the World (2001), 3.9 in Ten Little Indians (2004), 2.6 in Flight (2007), and 1.6 in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007). Over the course of his career, Alexie’s representation of Indian identity has changed dramatically, moving from the fervent and angry tribalism of his reservation stories, to a sense of otherness in an urban environment, and on to a more pan-Indian and polycultural stance1. This paper will explore the trajectory of racial identity in Alexie’s work and show how his early focus on ethnicity has given way to more universal themes since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Blood Quantum
Blood Quantum is used by the U.S. government to measure a person’s Native ancestry for the purpose of defining their ethnic inheritance and establishing their entitlement to treaty benefits. Many tribes have adopted this system to determine eligibility for tribal membership, requiring a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CIBD), issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Tribes, however, are able to set their own minimum requirements so the necessary quanta differ from one nation to another: for some tribes including the Eastern Band of Cherokees, as little as 1/16th tribal ancestry is needed, while others require as much as ½. Among the Native population, there is a great deal of debate about this issue, particularly as it allows an outside body to decide one’s ethnic identity. According to US Census Bureau statistics, approximately 2.5 million people are full-blood American Indian or Alaska Native, with a further 1.6 million being of mixed Native and non-Native decent2.

Throughout Alexie’s work, he poses the question: What is Indian? Is one Indian by simple fact of ancestry? Can one truly be Indian if they don’t speak the language of their forefathers or practice traditional beliefs? Can one be a real Indian away from the reservation?

Reservation Blues
In Alexie’s first novel, Reservation Blues (1995), the legendary blues guitarist Robert Johnson arrives at the Spokane Indian reservation in search of healing from the seemingly immortal spiritual matriarch Big Mom, a musical genius who taught Elvis, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Johnson leaves his guitar, an instrument that has been possessed since he made his pact with the devil, with Thomas Builds-the-Fire. The guitar speaks to Thomas, telling him to form a band with his friends, Victor and Junior. Thus Johnson’s Faustian contract is transferred to the new band, ‘Coyote Springs’. With more than a little help from Johnson’s guitar, the band quickly gains a following, including two white groupies, Indian wannabes Betty and Veronica. As Coyote Springs’ reputation grows, they are invited to play at the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. There, they meet Chess and Checkers Warm Water who join the band to sing backing vocals. Later, when Chess catches Victor and Junior having sex with the white women, she accuses them of betraying their DNA (pp. 81-82). The debate about interracial relationships and mixed-blood inheritance is one which Alexie returns to time after time.

After two executives from Cavalry Records arrive at the reservation to hear Coyote Springs play, the band is invited to New York to audition for the record company boss. Indians are enjoying a wave of popularity in the music business and Cavalry Records is eager to cash in on the trend with an all-Indian act. Johnson’s guitar, however, the force behind the band’s rise, no longer performs and when they fail the audition, the band implodes. Betty and Veronica, however, have also been approached by the record label on the strength of being one-quarter Indian.

Knowing that their Indian connections are tenuous at best, Veronica protests, telling the record company executive, ‘We ain’t that much Indian.’ With a nod to blood-quantum laws, she is told ‘You’re Indian enough, right? I mean, all it takes is a little bit, right? Who’s to say you’re not Indian enough?’ (p. 272).

Towards the end of the book, Chess, who is concerned about the dilution of Indian blood from mixed-relationships, takes the opposite view. Seeing a white woman with a mixed-blood son, she tells her: ‘Your son will be beaten because he’s a half-breed....No matter what he does, he’ll never be Indian enough’ (p. 283). Chess wants to protect the child, but more than that she wants to protect the tribe from the growing number of ‘quarter-bloods and eighth-bloods [who] get all the Indian jobs, all the Indian chances, because they look white’ (ibid). Mixed-bloods are viewed both as victim, and villain, undesirable and damaging to the tribe. In his own life, Alexie (who is ¾ Indian) claims to have ‘made a conscious decision to marry a fellow [N]ative American’ and has stated that he would prefer that his children do the same (Campbell, 2003).

Toughest Indian in the World
The nine stories in The Toughest Indian in the World (2001) move off the reservation into the urban environments of Spokane and Seattle. The ‘urban Indians’ at the heart of these stories are educated, middle class and sober, and outwardly at least, they are fully integrated into the dominant white society. For most, however, race is ‘a constant presence’ (p. 14), and whether they are involved in mixed relationships or not, they find themselves caught between two worlds in which they can never fully belong.

· Class
In ‘Class’, Edgar Eagle Runner, a lawyer, meets and marries Susan McDermott. Her white family boycott the wedding, but his ‘dark-skinned mother’ is ‘overjoyed’ by his choice of bride:
She’d always wanted me to marry a white woman and beget half-breed children who would marry white people who would beget quarter-bloods, and so on and so on, until simple mathematics killed the Indian in us (p. 40).

Grassian suggests that this desire for pale-skinned descendants is evidence of Edgar’s mother’s self-loathing (p. 163), but I would argue that it is simply an acknowledgement that life would be easier if these children were seen (and saw themselves) as white. ‘[W]hen I think about Indians,’ Alexie has said, ‘all I think about is suffering. My first measure of any Indian is pain’ (Nygren, 2004).

When Edgar discovers that his wife has had an affair, he begins to patronise prostitutes whenever he is away on business. In San Francisco, he phones an escort agency and asks if they have an Indian woman. By this time he has slept with seventeen prostitutes, ‘all of them (like his wife) blond and blue-eyed’ but admits that he’d never had sex with an Indian woman (Alexie, p. 43). When a white woman wearing a long black wig shows up at his hotel room he declares that she is his last prostitute.

In another attempt to reconnect with his Indian roots and find a community where he truly belongs, Edgar visits a bar frequented by Indians. There, he argues with a man and accepts a challenge to fight. He is desperate to prove himself worthy and justifies entering into a brawl he knows he cannot win because ‘[d]eep in the heart of the heart of every Indian man’s heart, he believes he is Crazy Horse’ (p. 53).

When he wakes in the backroom of the bar, Sissy, the Indian bartender, is washing blood from his face. Still anxious to be accepted by another Indian, he makes a pass at her, but she quickly reproaches him. Sissy realises what Edgar does not: though they are both Indian, they are from different worlds.

Ten Little Indians
Ten Little Indians (2004) is the first collection to be written after September 11, 2001, and in numerous interviews, Alexie has discussed the way the events of that day changed the focus of his work. Where many of his earlier stories were tainted with an antagonistic ‘them and us’ tribalism which examined the minutiae of Native American adversity, the stories produced after that date incorporate a broader, more universal view of the human condition. While his protagonists are still almost exclusively Indian, their personal traumas are not defined by, nor the result of their ethnicity. They are human beings first, and Indian by accident of birth. It is this breaking down of old tribal affiliations – affiliations that encourage an unwavering sense of righteousness – that sets this collection apart from Alexie’s previous books.

· The Search Engine
In 'The Search Engine', nineteen-year-old Corliss sees herself as being different from the other members of her tribe. She is solitary and bookish in a communal society of blue-collar sensibilities. After straying across a book of poems by Harlan Atwater, a previously unheard-of Spokane Indian, she sets off on what Jennifer Ladino describes as a modern-day vision quest, in search of the author and her own identity (Ladino, 2009). What she finds, of course, is not what she expects, for Atwater who was adopted out of the tribe and raised by white parents, is Indian in DNA only. At the end, both are left struggling with the question ‘What is Indian?’

Two stories, 'Can I Get a Witness' and 'Flight Patterns', deal explicitly with the after-effects of 9/11. In the former, an unnamed middle-class Spokane Indian woman is having lunch in a Seattle restaurant when a suicide bomber walks in off the street and detonates the bomb strapped to his chest. At its centre, the story criticises America’s indulgence in what Alexie describes as ‘grief porn’ (p. 91) which flowed from the media after the 9/11 tragedy, and questions the way that those who died were treated as heroes. When the woman suggests that some of those killed may have deserved to die and that somewhere a wife or a daughter ‘thanks God or Allah or the devil for Osama’s rage’ her rescuer repeatedly says ‘I don’t want to hear it’ (p. 93).

Since September 11, 2001, Alexie has frequently spoken about the dangers of tribalism and how his position with regards to his own tribal identity has changed. It was tribalism which caused men to crash planes into the Twin Towers and it was tribalism which prevented Americans from asking why people would do such a thing. When George W. Bush said to the world, ‘You’re either with us or against us’ he not only stifled debate, but also set in place the rules for membership of his particular tribe of patriotic Americans. By refusing to consider the woman’s argument, that some who died in the Twin Towers were themselves guilty of heinous acts, the man in the story is protecting his place within the tribe.

Absolutely True Diary
Many of Alexie’s stories contain thinly veiled references to his own experiences. In the young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (2007), fourteen-year-old Junior, was – like Alexie – born with hydrocephalus, and – like Alexie – witnessed numerous family tragedies while growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Also like Alexie, Junior finds his mother’s name printed inside a school textbook. This experience spurs them both into seeking a better education at a school in the white farming community of Reardan, Washington, twenty-two miles away. Describing the transition from the reservation school to Reardan, Junior says:

     I woke up on the reservation as an Indian, and somewhere on the road to Reardan, I became something less than Indian.
    And once I arrived at Reardan, I became something less than less than less than Indian. (p. 83)

Junior realises that there is no hope for him on the reservation, and that if he is to have a chance at a better life, he must find a place for himself in the white world (p. 217). Placed chronologically in real time, this story marks Alexie’s own early search for identity.

Drawing heavily on his own childhood experiences, but written after 9/11, we see how Alexie’s idea of identity has expanded to include more than ethnicity. As Junior reflects on who and what he is, a new type of tribalism begins to emerge, tribes based on shared humanity rather than fundamentalism:

     I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants3. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms.
     And the tribe of cartoonists.
     And the tribe of chronic masturbators.
     And the tribe of teenage boys.
     And the tribe of small-town kids.
     And the tribe of Pacific Northwesterners.
     And the tribe of tortilla chips-and-salsa lovers.
     And the tribe of poverty.
     And the tribe of funeral-goers.
     And the tribe of beloved sons.
     And the tribe of boys who really missed their best friends. (p. 217)

War Dances
The shift in Alexie’s perspective of identity becomes dramatically evident in War Dances (2009), his latest collection of stories and poems. In it, references to race plummet to just 0.6 per page – a startling change and evidence of Alexie’s transformation into something more than an Indian writer. For the first time, there are two stories in which the protagonist’s ethnic origins remain entirely unstated – an acknowledgement that there are universal themes which rise above culture and race. That is not to say, however, that being Indian is no longer important.
In the title story, the narrator experiences an inexplicable deafness in one ear, and worries that his childhood hydrocephalus may be returning, or that a tumour is growing inside his brain. As he contemplates his own mortality he remembers the death of his father from diabetes and alcoholism.

Recalling an incident during his father’s last stay in hospital, the narrator ponders the role which nostalgia plays in Indian society, dismissing it at first as a ‘false idol’ (p. 37) that provides only a ‘thin blanket’ of comfort (ibid)4. As he goes in search of a literal blanket, to keep his ailing father warm, he meets a Lummi man whose daughter is about to give birth. The soon-to-be grandfather has created a ‘new tradition’ (p. 35) and performs a naming ceremony for he unborn child. As he gives the narrator a Pendleton blanket, the Lummi man insists on blessing it with a healing song. The narrator thinks little of the old man’s spiritual power, but when his own father breaks into a healing song for himself, he feels compelled to join in. The song, he knows will give only temporary comfort, but he realises now that temporary is ‘sometimes good enough’ (p. 40).

With this collection, Alexie has left behind his fundamentalist expressions of identity and replaced them with universal experiences of grief and hope and love and fear. Regardless of race, religion, or any of the other tribes which human beings have devised to separate us from each other, there is still a common humanity which binds us together. At last, it seems that the answer to Alexie’s question – what is an Indian? – has been answered: an Indian is a human being.


1 The term polyculturalism was coined by Vijay Prashad in Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting (2001) as an alternative to multiculturalism which he believes is divisive and leads to racism.

2 United States Census Bureau [online] available at: accessed 16 May 2010.

3 Alexie describes the way that Native Americans, today, are being assimilated into contemporary American society – through popular culture and urbanisation – as similar to the experience of foreign immigrants.

4 The idea that nostalgia has a corrosive and deadly affect was previously voiced by Preacher in ‘What Ever Happened to Frank Snake Church’ in Ten Little Indians, p. 228.


Alexie, S. (1996) Reservation Blues. London: Minerva.

Alexie, S. (1997) The Lone-Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. London: Vintage.

Alexie, S. (2001) The Toughest Indian in the World. London: Vintage.

Alexie, S. (2004) Ten Little Indians. London: Secker & Warburg.

Alexie, S. (2007) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. London: Anderson Press.

Alexie, S. (2009) War Dances. New York: Grove Press.

Allam, L. (2006) Reservation to Riches: A Conversation with Sherman Alexie. In N.J. Peterson, ed. Conversations With Sherman Alexie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009, pp 157-168.

Campbell, D. (2003) Voice of the New Tribes. In N.J. Peterson, ed. Conversations with Sherman Alexie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009, pp 113-120.

Frank, R. (2001) ‘Sherman Alexie In Conversation with Ross Frank PhD’ [online] Available from: [Accessed 8 May 2009].

Grassian, D. (2005) Understanding Sherman Alexie. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press.

Jones, L. (2004) William Clark and the Shaping of the West. New York: Hill and Wang.

Ladino, J.K. (2009) ”A Limited Rage of Motion?”: Multiculturalism, “Human Questions,” and Urban Indian Identity in Sherman Alexie’s Ten Little Indians. Studies in American Indian Literatures Vol 21, No 3 pp 36-57.

Nygren, A. (2004) A World of Story-Smoke: A Conversation with Sherman Alexie. In N.J. Peterson, ed. Conversations With Sherman Alexie. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009, pp 141-156.

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