Tuesday, July 14, 2009


One of my favorite authors is award-winning Sherman Alexie. His writing is filled with humor, gut-wrenching tears, hope and hopelessness, and is some of the boldest writing I've encountered. I like him because when I read about the rez, I can picture my own rez. His writing is honest and relevant.

My last semester at Kent State, I asked my young adult literature professor why Alexie's book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian wasn't on the reading list. She said she was waiting for it to come out in paperback so it would be affordable for her students to purchase. I agree with her willingness to save students some money. I was thrilled to know she was familiar with the book. I will contact her to let her know it's out in paperback now.We discussed how Alexie had spoken at Kent State during the fall semester.

I met Alexie and wouldn't you know it, I was tongue tied. I could have shot the breeze with him for a while but...well...he's Sherman Alexie! He was the first person I voiced my lofty dream of attending grad school. He looked at me and said. "You'll be one in a thousand." That he so easily encouraged me was confirmation that I would one day be a Native American writer. We need to be examples of success to one another. We need to encourage one another to reach for a higher standard. One of the hallmarks of Native American Literature are issues of identity.

Who is Indian and who is not? According to the government, you must be a card carrying member of one of the over 500 federally recognized Indian tribes. Each tribe has criteria regarding proof of lineage, or require a blood quantum. The Yankton Sioux, at the time I was enrolled, required at least one quarter Yankton Sioux blood, to be voted by council enrolled in the tribe. Even after I received my card and enrollment certificate, I still wondered if I was really Indian or not.

In Alexie's book Flight, we examine identity through the main character, Zits, a fifteen-year-old mixed-blood Indian in and out of foster homes who travels through time in different important historical periods and in the lives of urban Indians. In this scene, Zits finds himself in the Indian camp before Custer's last stand:

"These old-time Indians have dark skin. There aren't any half-breed pale-beige green-eyed Indians here. Nope, unlike me, these Indians are the real deal...I don't hear any of them speaking English...even the dogs seem to be barking in Indian...So imagine a camp filled with tens of thousands of sweating Indians, dogs, and horses, along with what appears to be the rotting and drying corpses of hundreds of buffalo, deer, porcupines...and deodorant hasn't been invented yet...Imagine what that smells like...I never read anything about the smell of old time Indians. I never saw a television show that mentioned it" (61).

Before I reunited with my family, we spoke on the phone several times. I remember one of the first questions mom asked was, "Are you light skinned or dark skinned?" Darkness of skin is a matter of pride. We have all seen the movies that depict the "Hollywood Indian" or the fierce but handsome, well-muscled Savage on the covers of countless romance novels, and let's not forget the Indian princess/squaw. Those are the Indians people expect to encounter in 2009. Since there aren't large numbers of us walking around in full regalia, people tend to conclude we are extinct.

Alexie is not satisfied with allowing non-Indians to assume Indians no longer exist.

Neither am I.

Indian identity is rooted in skin color, language, connection with culture, connection with family, stereotypes, facts and fallacies, sports mascots, casinos and traditional Indian Spiritualty. Then thre is storytelling, reservation life, education, commodity food, prejudice, racial profiling, third world country poverty, undeniable human spirit, warriors, grandmothers and grandfathers, just to name a few.

We are not alone. Every person who walks this earth for whatever length of days they have ponder larger than life questions. "Who am I?" "What is my purpose in life?" "Is this all there is?" Wouldn't it make more sense to hold a mirror up to each other to help? Dismissing a race of people as extinct is not helpful, it's a lie. If we lie to ourselves so easily, how will we ever find these truths?

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