Saturday, 27 August 2011

Pan-Indian Landscapes in Alexie’s Reservation Blues

This section carries on from 'Environmental Indians'...

Alexie’s representations of place have also attracted criticism.  While Reservation Blues (1996) and his earliest short stories are primarily located on the Spokane Indian Reservation and are littered with authentic place names (Wellpenit, Spokane Falls, Riverfront Park, Reardon), Alexie provides few visual references to landscape which would anchor these stories to a specific geographical location.  Owens describes the reservation portrayed by Alexie as being ‘a vaguely defined place where people live in cheap federal housing while drinking, playing basketball, feuding with one another, and dying self-destructive and often violent deaths’ (1998:71-2).  Bernardin takes up this point and suggests that Alexie deliberately uses what she refers to as ‘generic signifiers of “Indianness”’ (2004:167) to build a physical world recognisable by his target audience – young Native Americans[i].  The reservation Alexie describes could be anywhere in the country, and just as there are few visual clues to identify the location of his stories, there is little to distinguish Alexie’s Spokane Indians from members of any other Native American tribe. 

Friday, 5 August 2011

Environmental Indians: fact or fiction?

Since the increased public awareness of environmental issues in the 1960s, Native Americans have been closely associated with numerous ecological campaigns under the implied authority of having a uniquely harmonious and non-invasive relationship with the natural world.  In one now notorious television commercial, an ‘Indian’ in traditional dress is shown paddling a birch bark canoe through a polluted waterway of an industrial city.  Upon landing his canoe on the litter-strewn shore, the man walks to the edge of a highway where a bag of rubbish, tossed from a passing car, lands at his feet.  The voiceover delivers the campaign’s message: ‘Some people have a deep abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country.  And some people don’t.’  As the man turns to face the camera, a tear runs down his cheek and the narrator makes the emphatic statement: ‘People start pollution; people can stop it’ (Keep America Beautiful, 1971). 
       The commercial is today considered controversial on two counts: that it relies on a stereotype of Native culture; and, perhaps more damningly, that Iron Eyes Cody, the actor featured, was not Native American at all, but an Italian American who claimed to be Indian.  This second point will be discussed in Chapter Two, with regards to identity formation and transformation, and in Chapter Three in my exploration of authenticity and cultural appropriation.