Sherman Alexie, an abrasive, funny American Indian writer (he prefers being an Indian to a Native American), doesn't need to go far from his own backyard in Seattle to illustrate sharp differences separating white from Indian opinion. For white America, the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River remains a splendid accomplishment of Franklin Roosevelt's era, still producing more electricity than any other American dam. It was praised even by Woody Guthrie, that legendary folk singer, who wrote Roll On Columbia in the dam's honour.
Alexie has a radically different view. As a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, he springs from Salmon People. For centuries salmon provided not only abundant protein, but also the themes of traditional religion and song.
Then came Roosevelt and the New Deal. By the time the dam was finished, in 1942, Alexie's people had lost vast spawning grounds in Washington, Idaho and Montana. They aren't Salmon People anymore, at least not in the old sense.
Alexie grounds much of his writing in questions of identity. At age 43, after 19 books of prose and poetry, he's known as an uncomfortable truth-teller who does his ironic best to sort out the conflicts between whites and Indians and the more complicated differences among Indians.
His concerns are usually less significant, in a public sense, than a community-wrecking hydro dam. We learn from an encounter in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) that Alexie believes small things hurt most. Tonto hurts, for instance. The Washington Redskins hurt. And "The white waitress who wouldn't take an order" hurts.
The heroine of "The Search Engine," a story in Ten Little Indians (2003), sounds much like a younger version of himself. In her poverty-stricken youth she refuses to accept the fate that everyone else considers inevitable -- "a minimum-wage life of waiting tables or changing oil. But she had wanted a maximum life, an original aboriginal life." She fights her way upward, from an underfunded public high school to an underfunded public college.
Her life, Alexie writes, confirms "everything nearly wonderful and partially meritorious about her country" -- a sentence that encapsulates his restrained patriotism.
She can't afford the local prep school, but phones its history and English teachers to ask what books they are assigning. When she finds those books in the library, she lives with them "like siblings." The teachers, impressed, fax her their study guides and copies of good student papers. Two teachers send her money. By the time we meet her, she appears to be headed for law school. "She had been a resourceful thief, a narcissistic Robin Hood who stole a rich education from the white people and kept it."
She decides college is an extreme sport for an Indian woman. Should she perhaps receive gold medals for taking American history and not shooting everybody during the hour and a half in which they cover 500 years of Indian history?
But her fellow Indians aren't much impressed. She believes colonized, exiled Indians form their own identities by questioning the identities of other Indians. Selfhating, self-doubting, Indians turn their tribes into sects. She hesitates to write poetry because: "No matter what I write, a bunch of other Indians will hate it because it isn't Indian enough, and a bunch of white people will like it because it's Indian."
A self-described heterosexual, Alexie is admired for his sympathetic portraits (in his films as well as books) of gays and lesbians. "The Indian world is incredibly homophobic," he said in one interview. "All these white liberals think that Indians are so loving and peaceful and sacred, but you know, Indians are a bunch of rednecks." Even so, Indian men tend to be androgynous. "In many of our most 'traditional warrior' moments, in our feathers and bright colours, with our high-pitched songs and long hair, Indian men are, well, pretty."
This attitude arouses a certain animosity back on the rez but, as he says, "I'm an artist; I'm not supposed to be accepted where I am from. My only purpose is to teach children to rebel against authority figures. You think tribal councils want that?"
Until recently, I've known little more about Sherman Alexie than his name. But one evening not long ago my iPod brought me into close contact with him. On a series called Selected Shorts, I found myself listening to John Lithgow's wonderful reading, some 50 minutes long, of Alexie's "Indian Country," from The Toughest Indian in the World (2000). I liked the story so much that I listened to it again and then went to the library for Alexie books.
"Indian Country" focuses on Low Man Smith, a writer of detective novels, the son of a Coeur d'Alene father and white mother. Like many Alexie characters, he regards his heritage with ambiguity at best. He arrives at the airport in Missoula, Mont., hoping to pursue a romance he has begun with a Navajo teacher of English, but discovers she's abruptly married her old high-school sweetheart and left town. He falls into something like a nervous breakdown, laughs hysterically for an hour or two, gets ejected from the airport and later picked up by the police. He reflects ruefully that he has always wanted to be the kind of Indian who did not get thrown out of public places.
His story turns into a convoluted tour of racial, sexual and Indian-white relationships. A white woman friend from Low Man's college days, now to his regret "still lesbian," is about to meet the parents of her Indian girlfriend for the first time. The five of them have a chaotic dinner together, exchanging insults and resentments.
We discover that Low Man considers himself weak when compared, for instance, to Crazy Horse, conqueror of George Armstrong Custer at Little Bighorn. He rebukes himself for his upset stomach ("Crazy Horse didn't need Tums"). We learn that Low Man has been sober for a decade after an early period of drunkenness, much like Alexie.
Alexie seems to me the kind of writer it's a joy to discover. He projects a persona that's funny, rueful, inventive, bitter, compassionate, totally alive -- and utterly without solemnity. No doubt there are people who ask how you can make jokes about subjects like homelessness, alcoholism and racism? To which Alexie obviously has the correct answer: How can you not?