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Sherman Alexie: Cultural Survival Strategies Of American Indians

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By way of analyzing the significance of mental acts such as dreaming, daydreaming and imagining in American Indian worldview, and exploring the importance of humor as a notable characteristic of American Indian cultural identity, I have tried to demonstrate how these culturally important acts and characteristics are used as means of survival by American Indians who are exposed to discrimination, racial intolerance and genocidal oppression by European settlers. Especially by focusing on dreams, imaginations and humor, I have examined how Sherman Alexie depicts the cultural survival strategies of American Indians in his novel Reservation Blues and short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Alexie portrays dreams, imaginations, personal recollections and humor as survival strategies mostly through the same main characters Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor Joseph and Junior Polatkin, who are the inhabitants of the landscape of Spokane Reservation. In addition to these main characters, minor characters also have significant roles in the manifestation of such survival strategies.

Being one of the most celebrated writers of Native American literature, Sherman Alexie deals with the current problems of American Indians and he displays the distances between both whites and American Indians and American Indians’ past and present. He depicts the struggles of American Indians to survive in a world that remains hostile to their very survival in an honest and humorous manner. As stated earlier, Sherman Alexie portrays American Indian characters who adopt Indian heritage and embrace Indian identity from different standpoints, and whose reactions and survival strategies against colonization, assimilation and acculturation methods differ. Accordingly, the survival strategies that American Indians employ give rise to different social and personal results. Even though the main characters Thomas, Victor and Junior struggle to survive under very similar conditions, they employ very different strategies to cope with the difficulties they encounter in their everyday lives.

The coming back of the rock band Coyote Springs becomes a turning point in their lives which also will determine their destinies. Due to their contract with Cavalry Records, Coyote Springs was seen as a traitor and hated in the Spokane Reservation. Their great disappointment as well as the hostile repercussion of Spokane Indians prevent them from continuing their usual lives. Thomas leaves the Spokane Reservation with the Flathead sisters Chess and Checkers, Junior commits suicide, and Victor decides to start up a completely new life and experiences failure one more time.

Thomas Builds-the-Fire is portrayed as a full-blood Spokane Indian who fully respects his Indian heritage. The tribal values compose his worldview. He is a “real” Indian both physically and spiritually; he practices the rules of conduct that are significant for Spokane Indians, he is a traditional storyteller, he believes in God in traditional ways rather than Christian ways, he respects the spiritual power of Big Mom, who is the traditional medicine woman of Spokane tribe, and he respects nature. Thomas who tries to lead a life in traditional terms has a love affair with Chess, who also can be described as a traditional character. Chess is a young Flathead woman. She believes in the necessity of Indian survival. She hates white women who chase after Indian men, and she thinks that her hatred is about “preservation” (Alexie, 1995: 81). Different from Thomas, Chess has a strong faith in Christianity. Thomas and Chess’s love for each other stem from their being traditional Indians sharing similar worldviews. Chess, who believes that Indian men need Indian women, likes both Thomas and his “DNA” (Alexie, 1995: 82). In other words, Chess likes Thomas not only for emotional reasons but also for racial and survival matters. Thomas who is a traditional full-blood American Indian is just the right person for Chess. Thomas and Chess who are portrayed as the traditional Indian characters succeed in their struggle to survive and continue their tribal heritage:

“Thomas,” Chess said and took his hand, “let’s get married. Let’s have kids.”

Thomas was surprised. He couldn’t respond. “Really,” Chess said. “Let’s have lots of babies to look up and see two brown faces. That’s the best thing we can give them, it? Two brown faces. Do you want to?”

Thomas smiled.

“Okay,” he said.

Thomas is persuaded by Chess to leave the Spokane Reservation for the city Spokane, “a mostly white city, sat on the banks of the Spokane River. Spokane the city was named after the Tribe that had been forcibly removed from the river. Spokane was only sixty miles from the reservation, but Thomas figured it was no closer than the moon” (Alexie, 1995: 258). Thomas, despite his very strong spiritual ties to his homeland, leaves the reservation with Chess and Checkers in order to continue his life (Alexie, 1995: 257). Thomas always prefers to keep his tribal values, and humor is his strategy to cope with the tragic situations. Self-destruction through alcoholism, which is very common among current Spokane Indians, never becomes an option for Thomas. As a result, he survives as a traditional character who keeps his tribal heritage. Whereas Thomas prefers to struggle to survive whatever the conditions are, Junior commits suicide because of the fact that he cannot endure the difficulties he has faced as an American Indian on and off the reservation. After Junior dies, his bestfriend Victor daydreams of Junior. In his realistic daydream, Victor wants to learn why Junior killed himself and Junior gives a clear answer: “Because life is hard” (Alexie, 1995: 290). Additionally, he explains: “Because when I closed my eyes like Thomas, I didn’t see a damn thing. Nothing. Zilch. No stories, no songs. Nothing” (Alexie, 1995: 290). As we can clearly see, what gives Thomas the strength to survive is his close attachment to his tribal values that empower him. Telling stories is selfsatisfactory for Thomas even though it is an act of imagination. While he is dealing with his stories, he forgets the harsh realities. Junior, on the other hand, does not employ imagination to feel better or to forget the brutal injustices he frequently confronts in real life. In his dreams and imaginations that reveal his unconscious, Junior is the last survivor of the Spokane Tribe who has the mission to save and resuscitate his tribe. He has dreams and imaginations that deepen his anxiety rather than bring him some relief from severe realities. In his real life, being aware of the gradual extinction and unfortunate lives of American Indians, he feels helpless and hopeless, and he consumes a lot of alcohol. Even though he does not appear to be as traditional as Thomas, he suffers a lot for his tribe’s cultural and spiritual losses. He thinks: “… when we look in the mirror, see the history of our tribe in our eyes, taste failure in the tap water, and shake with old tears, we understand completely” (Alexie, 2005: 178).

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Differently from Thomas and Victor, Junior is an educated Spokane Indian. After high school, he could attend college for one year where he has an Irish girlfriend who becomes the mother of Junior’s half-Indian, dark-skinned and blue-eyed son Sean Casey (Alexie, 2005: 240). Lynn’s family refuses to accept Sean Casey’s Indian blood and Junior can never fulfill his longing for fatherhood. Nevertheless, he keeps contact with his son through the mail, phone calls and visits. However, Lynn is very sensitive about her son’s Indian heritage and does her best to raise him with the Spokane culture and language:

“Lynn continually reminded Sean of his heritage, read him books about Indians in the womb and crib, gave him Indian books to read when he finally could do it himself. Lynn taught Sean the Spokane word for love, quen comanche, but Sean could never get his tongue around the syllables. But he always tried” (Alexie, 2005: 240).

Through Junior, Alexie portrays the situation of American Indians who go out of the reservation in order to get better education or to enter the mainstream and who are subsequently discriminated and not accepted by whites. Furthermore, Alexie stuns the reader with the relation between Junior and his half-blood Indian son. Junior’s decision to return to the reservation reveals the situation of American Indians who try to adapt themselves to the mainstream and fail to do their strong attachments to their tribal identities. Junior’s half-blood son Sean Casey is also a key figure. Although his grandparents ignore his Indian blood, he is reminded of his tribal heritage by his mother Lynn and he displays to what extent a half-blood child can practice the values of his Indian heritage in the white dominant world.

Junior is portrayed as a character who actually has great spiritual ties to his Indian heritage although he does not seem to be so. However, the circumstances that he lives under do not allow him to keep his tribal values which are vitally important for him. The fact that he can neither enter the mainstream nor maintain his Indian heritage devastates him and finally he commits suicide. Junior’s committing suicide also elucidates the high suicide rates among contemporary American Indians. After Junior’s death, Victor decides to give up drinking alcohol, become a teetotaler and have a steady job (Alexie, 1995: 289); however, when he is not hired he becomes more depressive (Alexie, 1995: 292). Victor, caught between community and his own individuality, becomes full of self-hatred and anger. The unfair treatment American Indians undergo, their impoverished life conditions and unfulfilled hunger for tribal and cultural values make Victor antagonistic. At first, readers think that Victor hates being Indian; however, later it is realized that what Victor hates is not his Indian heritage but the assimilation and colonization methods that American Indians are exposed to and the life conditions his tribe suffers from. He states: “It’s hard to be optimistic on the reservation. When a glass sits on a table here, people don’t wonder if it’s half filled or half empty. They just hope it’s good beer” (Alexie, 2005: 49).

Moreover, what makes Victor feel helpless is the fact that he does not know how to survive under such severe conditions. He thinks: “…just like everybody else, Indians need heroes to help them how to survive. But what happens when our heroes don’t even know how to pay their bills?” (Alexie, 2005: 49). Like Junior, Victor is also distressed because of the gradual extinction of American Indians. He implies his anxiety by saying “We watched a group of Indian boys walk by. I’d like to think there were ten of them. But there were actually only four or five” (Alexie, 1995: 44). When Victor is asked what he is scared of, he says “Elevators, escalators, revolving doors. Any kind of forced movement” (Alexie, 2005: 40). As a member of a tribe which is forced to move from their land, to leave their tribal values, to live as dependants, Victor associates white man’s technology and civilization, the “elevators, escalators, revolving doors” with the forcible acts that his tribe has experienced so far and these “forced” movements scares Victor. The fact that his people has suffered throughout history and that they now live under even worse conditions affects Victor deeply and make him aggressive. His contradicting cultural values and present life engender a feeling of anger.

Assimilation and colonization methods oblige Victor to abandon his tribal life style; however, these methods cannot break the spiritual ties. He associates assimilation and colonization methods with “Crazy Mirrors”. Victor looks at himself at “Crazy Mirrors” and states:

Crazy Mirrors, I thought, the kind that distort your features, make you fatter, thinner, taller, shorter. The kind that make a white man remember he’s the master of ceremonies, barking about the Fat Lady, the Dog-Faced Boy, the Indian who offered up another Indian like some treaty. Crazy Mirrors, I thought, the kind that can never change the dark of your eyes and the folding shut of the good part of your past. (Alexie, 2005: 58).

Despite all the false stereotyping and cruel treatments that American Indians went through, they still tried to preserve Indian spirituality and maintain strong ties with their heritage, land and identity. Even the ones, like Victor and Junior, who do not seem to be strongly attached to their tribal values are actually ardent and faithful to the tribal culture and heritage. Whereas they live through white dominance, assimilation and colonization, they become psychologically devastated and they ruin themselves. The ones like Thomas can survive as long as they hold on to their traditional values. To be able to enter the mainstream is almost impossible for them for many reasons. Firstly, they have such strong spiritual ties that they cannot suppress or disregard them. Secondly, they are always disdained and they are not accepted by the mainstream people. Moreover, they are not given opportunities to make progress. In other words, they are neither allowed to continue their traditions nor live under equal circumstances. As a result, they have recourse to the strategies that make them survive. As long as they use their tribal and cultural values such as imaginative power and sense of humor properly, they succeed to survive like Thomas; otherwise, they fail like Victor and Junior. Seen from another perspective, however, Thomas’s survival is not an ideal one. He has to leave his homeland and move to city where he probably will not be able to maintain his tribal heritage. His is only a biological survival.

In conclusion, Sherman Alexie presents the survival of Spokane Indians in a diverse perspective. On one hand, the American Indians who cannot maintain their tribal identity despite their strong spiritual ties fail to survive are represented by Victor and Junior; on the other hand, Thomas represents the traditional American Indian who tries to maintain his tribal heritage by clinging to it in his imaginary world to feel better and eventually survives. However, even the ones who are able to survive do not have a life they can seek after. To be socially isolated and lead a traditional life like the one before the whites’ arrival is impossible. Therefore, what Alexie suggests at this point is that American Indians should both adapt themselves to the mainstream life and maintain their cultural values. To be able to survive by combining the tribal and mainstream values is presented as the best way.

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