So raise your hand if you know more than two honest-to-God Native Americans.
Keep your hand up if your understanding of Native American cultures is limited to Thanksgiving, Pocahontas, Indian Princesses at the YMCA, and playground games.
That’s what I thought.
I am not better than that. I grew up around few Native American people and haven’t had any close relationship with anyone who had a close relationship with their Native American heritage since about 1995 (hello to my childhood friend Billy Robinson if you’re for some reason reading this blog). I’ll admit that my knowledge of different native cultures is so cursory that I have almost no idea what distinguishes one from the other. I’m not proud of that, but it is the truth. Unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of great, contemporary literature about the Native American experience in the contemporary USA, so I was excited to come across Ten Little Indians.
Sherman Alexie set out to create a short story collection that dealt with the everyday lives of Native Americans without tokenizing them, without being overly sentimental, and without making them seem like some kind of wise, magical, otherworldly beings. The majority of the characters in these stories are Spokane urbanites living in and around Seattle, a demographic of Native people I hadn’t ever really considered prior to reading this. By his own admission, some of these 9 stories are really good, some are okay, and a few are pretty bad. He never comes out and says which ones he thinks are which, so I’m just going to tell you what I thought. Some of his work is a overwritten, some sentimental, but overall, he has a sharp wit and a great voice, not to mention a unique perspective.
The first story in this collection, “The Search Engine,” lets you know what this collection is going to be about. The basic premise is that a young college student finds an ignored volume of poetry by a Seattle-based Spokane writer and seeks him out, only to find that he is not what she’d hoped. It’s quite a lengthy story, and about halfway through, you realize what’s going on and just want to get it over with. This story, though, tells you what he’s about: conceptualizing a contemporary Native American moving around in the world, just like his non-Native American brethren, but with this additional burden of figuring out what his culture “means” as a part of his modern life.
Okay, I get it. White people need to think of Native Americans as normal people- some great, some terrible, all flawed, all human. Except you start to wonder if he thinks this. I’m struggling to articulate this well, but it’s all over the first five or so stories. The best example shows up in “Can I Get A Witness?” The story has this great premise– a woman who is miserable in her own life decides that she’s going to have herself counted among the dead when she is in the right place at the right time during a suicide bombing– but ultimately commits the cardinal sin the overall collection rails against. The protagonist is really upset that her [also Spokane] husband and kids have become xenophobic, NRA-joining, Republican-voting folks in the post-9/11 world. I’m not saying xenophobic is a great way to be, but if Alexie’s trying to show us that not all Native Americans are wonderful, that not all Native Americans are wise, shouldn’t his characters be free to vote against their own self interest?
So just when I was ready to give up on this collection as an overdone kind of thing, he hits me with the last three stories of the collection. It’s a 180– these characters are plausible, they’re tragic, they’re flawed, they have moments of decency and deceit, and they’re absolutely the multifaceted and transcendent characters he set out to create. You’ve got a faithless wife who works it out and stays, an alcoholic whose filial piety is just this side of actual religion, and a has-been who wants desperately to undo the mistakes of his younger days.
Overall, what’s the verdict? I think you should read it. I do. If for no other reason than Sherman Alexie is the only guy writing about a people most of us don’t think about. He shines a light on urban Native Americans and, even though he’s heavy-handed sometimes, he reminds us that there’s more to it than teepees and Tonto.
Have you read this? What did you think? Read any of his other work? Let me know in the comments.
Next week, I’ll be reading this. Please join me!