Friday, 25 June 2010

A Discussion of Sherman Alexie's novel, Indian Killer

          A year after the acclaimed Reservation Blues, Sherman Alexie’s second novel, Indian Killer received reticent praise when it was published in 1996. It is a book which he, himself, seems both drawn to and repelled by. In a 2002 interview with Duncan Campbell, Alexie states ‘It’s the only one [of my books] I re-read. I think a book that disturbs me that much is the one I probably care the most about’1. He has expressed dissatisfaction with it, artistically, describing it as a failed mystery novel and ‘pretentious’ for its literary ambitions2. Maya Jaggi writes that he has now distanced himself from the novel and feels ‘overwhelming disgust’ [Alexie’s words] towards the violence portrayed3. Apparent in Reservation Blues, his previous collection of short stories The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and his poetry, Alexie’s own rage rises to its peak in this novel, with an outpouring of fictional vengeance for historical crimes.  
          In previous discussions of Alexie’s work, I have traced the rise and fall of his fundamentalist leanings through his use of racially essentialist identifiers, and in this book that practice, too, rises to its peak. Using the same formula as I have with his other books, I counted the number of direct racial references in 40 randomly selected pages. The number of references was as high as 30 on a single page, and the average worked out to 8.2.
          Indian Killer is the story of John Smith, a twenty-seven year old Indian man, adopted at birth by white parents, who may or may not be the ‘Indian Killer’ terrifying the white residents of Seattle. Soon after the opening of the book, a white man is found murdered and scalped. When a white university student is kidnapped from outside of a reservation casino and murdered, his friends seek revenge and threaten to take the city into a race war.
          Though Smith is obviously suffering from a severe mental illness, Alexie gives his rage a sense of justice through his imagined violent kidnapping, moments after birth. The kidnapping is portrayed with military precision: a helicopter, a commando-esque figure, a childless white couple waiting expectantly in the wings. This is the ‘mythology’ with which John torments himself from an early age, explaining how he – a brown-skinned child – came to be with white parents.
          Although his parents, Daniel and Olivia Smith, are themselves benign, their efforts to nurture a positive Indian identity in John adds to his torment. Unaware of what tribe he has come from, they provide John with a non-specific mix of cultural influences, reading him storybooks about Indians, teaching him words in a variety of Indian languages gleaned ‘[f]rom books, Western movies, documentaries’ (12), and taking him to all-Indian basketball games. As a baby, he is baptised by a Spokane Indian Jesuit priest, a man who was to influence him profoundly. John consequently develops a confused idea of Indianness and realises from a young age that he belongs neither to the white world of his adoptive parents, nor to the Indian world of his unknown birth mother.
          At different points throughout the book, John imagines what his life would have been like on the reservation, complete with a loving Indian family. It is an idealised vision of a strong, culturally vibrant, supportive community where everyone is healthy, happy and valued.
          Not knowing his own tribal heritage, John tells people who ask what he believes they want to hear. To white people he is Sioux, because Sioux Indians represent the stereotype which white people immediately bring to mind when imagining Indian culture; to other Indians, he claims to be Navajo because they are viewed with a greater degree of respect by other tribes.
          Though he attempts to form relationships with other Indians, as seen by his visit to Big Hearts Juice Bar and his association with the student activist, Marie Polatkin, his fragile, fabricated identity prevents him from getting too close. He is also cut off from his adopted family and the men he works with on the construction site of Seattle’s ‘last skyscraper’. The only people with whom he has developed any kind of a long-term bond are Paul and Paul Too, two black men who work in an all-night donut shop. Though John seldom speaks when he is in their company, the men accept his strange behaviour with compassion and humour.
          John, however, is not the only character in this book who is filled with rage. Marie Polatkin, an undergraduate student at the University of Washington, incessantly challenges the liberal white professor of her Native American Literature class, Clarence Mather. She is critical of Mather’s choice of texts, memoirs co-authored by white writers, and novels by white men claiming to be Indian. One of these white men is the former Seattle policeman-turned-crime-writer, Jack Wilson.
          Orphaned as a child, Wilson took refuge in the study of Indian culture and longed for what he imagined to be a communal utopia. His fantasies are very similar to John’s, and in an attempt at gaining access to a tribal family of his own, he finds – or possibly invents – a distant Shilshomish ancestor.
           In Chapter 3, we are told that John has begun thinking about killing a white man ‘but he was not sure which white man was responsible for everything that had gone wrong’ (27). When he strays into a university powwow, he and Marie Polatkin meet for the first time. With trepidation, he agrees to join her in the owl dance, knowing that ‘many Indian tribes believed the owl was a messenger of death’ (37), though his dancing is stiff and self-conscious.
          Like John, Marie struggles with her own identity issues. Growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation, she was (like Alexie) ‘[a] bright child who read by the age of three’ (33) and became isolated from her peers. While she studied and achieved academically, other children learned their traditional tribal culture – the language, the customs, the easy banter. Now, at university, she sees herself as something less than wholly Indian, and as a student in Seattle has found many other such ‘outcasts from their tribes’ (38).
          After leaving the powwow, John walks through a busy street and accidentally bumps into a group of people. A young white man tells John to “watch your step”, then asks if he as “had a few too many” (41). The young man refers to John as ‘chief’, as John’s foreman does, and though in neither case is there obvious malice – or even sarcasm, as Grassian (112) suggests – it is this casual racism which we are led to believe that tips John over the edge. John knows that he is an intimidating figure and plays up to the warrior image, but the young man tries to placate him by flashing a peace sign. The chapter ends with John ‘[c]arefully and silently’ (42) following the young man as he makes his way home.
          Alexie leads us, most convincingly, to believe that John is ‘the killer’ though he takes pains to conceal the murderer’s identity. There are, however, other suspects. Both Marie Polatkin and her cousin Reggie, a ‘half-breed’ with blue eyes have their reasons to hate white men, and Marie argues that the killer – called the ‘Indian Killer’ by the media – may not be Indian at all. The suggestion is made a white killer, who scalps his victims and leaves two owl feathers by way of a signature could be carrying out the murders as incitement for a race war.
          When a young boy, Mark Jones, is kidnapped, the reader is reminded of John’s own fantasies of having been kidnapped4, making him the most likely suspect. Though the boy is undoubtedly terrorised during this ordeal, the killer shows a certain amount of compassion and eventually returns the child, unharmed, to his sleeping mother’s arms.
          Throughout the book, Indians are given the moral high ground with other such examples of compassion.  This, though, is seen as both a strength and a weakness in character. As a young boy, John had been befriended by Father Duncan, the Spokane Jesuit priest who baptised him. When he was six years old, the priest showed him a stained glass window depicting the martyring of Jesuits by Indians. The priest explains to John that the Indians were trying to force the white people from their lands, and when John asks why the Indians didn’t kill all of the white people the priest replies that “[t]hey didn’t have the heart for it” (14), even though the white men exhibited no such qualms and killed “most of the Indians” (ibid). At the end of the book, we are given a similar anecdote when Reggie, who is hitchhiking, is picked up by a white farmer. He tells the farmer that he is on the run, then tells him about Captain Jack, a Modoc Indian who attempted to lead his people back to their homeland in California and held off the cavalry for months before eventually surrendering in order to save the women and children.
          While the violence perpetrated by ‘the killer’ is brutal, the attacks on homeless Indians, committed by Aaron Rogers in retaliation for the Indian Killer’s supposed killing of his brother, is even more graphic in its intensity, partly due to the overtly racist nature of the attacks and to Aaron’s lustful enjoyment of them. Although he is portrayed as evil, Aaron’s initial desire for revenge is, to some extent, understandable. He lashes out in anger at not having protected his younger brother and is anxious to find someone to blame. Less understandable is the evil committed by the talk radio host, Truck Shultz, a Rush Limbaugh figure, who deliberately sets out to raise emotions and encourage white aggression towards the Indian community.
          At the climax of the book, John has taken Wilson prisoner and is holding him on the upper floor of the vacant skyscraper where he has been working. Wilson, is the one white man John believes he needs to kill. Wilson tries in vain to convince John, as he has convinced himself, that he is not a white man at all but that he, too, is Indian.
          Like Mather, Wilson is representative of the type of white American for whom cultural appropriation is seen to be a positive affirmation of respect, but which is in fact deeply harmful. Both men profit by writing about Indians and presenting false and damaging material for consumption by a gullible white audience. Wilson, a man who is totally sympathetic to the Indian cause is nonetheless seen as being instrumental in the destruction of true Indian identity. After disfiguring Wilson, John leaps to his death, and when questioned by police, Marie Polatkin is adamant that John was not the Indian Killer.
          The final chapter, entitled ‘A Creation Story’ shows that the killer is still alive. In the final scene, the killer performs the Ghost Dance and his strength increases as more and more Indians join the dance – a dance which, if successful, will destroy the white people forever.
Ultimately, the killer is not an individual person but is the ‘spirit’ of the injustice, terror and violence inflicted on Indians from the onset of colonisation. That spirit, the book posits, is immortal and will continue to immerge from time to time until the purpose of the Ghost Dance is realised.

1  Campbell, D. (2002) ‘Voice of the New Tribes’ in Conversations with Sherman Alexie, Nancy Peterson, ed. 2009.

2  Weich, D (2007) ‘Revising Sherman Alexie’ in Conversations with Sherman Alexie, Nancy Peterson, ed. 2009.
3  Jaggi, M. (2008) ‘All Rage and Heart’, The Guardian, 3 May 2008 [online]. Available at: Accessed: 25/06/10.
4  Prior to the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, reservation children were routinely removed from their birth families, without consent, and place with adoptive white parents


Adam said...

Sad that he distances himself from this novel, although I can imagine any conversation he may have tried to have about it would have been unable to surmount the book's anger. (I can hear the cries of "reverse racism" now...)

I just finished it and really did enjoy it, pretentious literary ambitions and all. The portrayal of John Smith's mental illness, though it takes a long time to be named as such in the book, is especially stirring.

Loree Westron said...

Hi Adam,

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I think you're probably right. I can imagine Alexie took a lot of flack from certain quarters. Particularly in his early books, Alexie's anger is sometimes hard to take. But as a 'bleeding-heart-white-liberal' I think it's important for mainstream America to face up to the past and to allow people to still be angry about the horrors that were inflicted on Native Americans. History is linked together, and what happened in the mid 19th century continues to impact upon the lives of Native Americans today and each new generation has the right to mourn what was lost. I think that's what mainstream American society wants to deny. We want to believe that the past is in the past and that people should 'move on' and 'get over it'. But how do the survivors get over genocide? How do people learn to forgive?

I think, though, that Alexie's rage is waning and that he's found a way of not necessarily forgetting what happened, but refocusing on other issues that affect 'people' rather than this or that race. His recent work is much less essentialist and more personal. For me, as a white person, this makes him easier to read (because I'm not having to take the brunt of his anger) and it seems to me that he's changing from being 'the Spokane Indian writer, Sherman Alexie,' to just 'the writer, Sherman Alexie'. I'm looking forward to reading his latest collection of new and selected short stories, due out in the UK in October: