Taking a Critical Stance

Excerpted from Chapter  6 


In the inaugural volumes of the NCTE High School Literature Series, Carol Jago excerpts professional literary criticism to provide students with models of analytical writing that illustrate taking a critical stance. Her intent is to help high school writers see examples of writing they are expected to create and to provide them with interpretations that might help them refine and reconsider their own responses to literature under study. We approach our study of Sherman Alexie for reasons cited by Jago but also because we think professional criticism helps us as teachers to understand more deeply the literature we select to teach. We also like discussing critical controversies with our students to demonstrate that professional critics do not all reach comparable interpretations. In fact, some outright disagree, as is the case with these following excerpts about the literature and humor of Sherman Alexie. 

Studying and teaching Native American literatures poses particular questions that professional criticism helps us to address. McLaughlin summarizes the primary concerns: (1) verifying authenticity of Native American authorship is essential when teaching Native American literature; and (2) most of us know very little about Native American literature due to lack of exposure; teaching Native American works without understanding their cultural and historical contexts constitutes “interpretive violence.” It is essential to do our homework before we teach Native American literatures (see Introduction to Native American Literature).

These claims are fraught with difficult questions that abound in Native American studies, which among others include “What makes an Indian an Indian?” “Who has the right to tell the stories?” “How do I deal with tribal specificities?” “How much historical context is necessary to understand Native American literatures?” “If I do not understand Native American literatures well enough to teach them, should I not attempt it? If I do not try, will I help perpetuate ignorance of America’s first peoples?” In teaching Sherman Alexie, we also contemplate the following commonly asked questions: (1) Does Sherman Alexie have a moral vision? (2) How do you contend with Alexie’s persistent use of negative stereotypes of Indian people? (3) How do you comprehend Alexie’s uses of biting humor, satire, and irony? Professional criticism helps us address these important questions.


DAVID L. MOORE -- "Sherman Alexie: Irony, Intimacy, and Agency"


JOSEPH L. COULOMBE -- “The Approximate Size of His Favorite Humor: Sherman Alexie’s Comic Connections and Disconnections in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven"


Additional Critical Readings included in Sherman Alexie in the Classroom:

  • Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (Crow Creek Dakota), 1993. “Who Gets to Tell the Stories?”
  • Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (Crow Creek Dakota), 1996. “American Indian Intellectualism and the New Indian Story.”
  • Gloria Bird (Spokane), 1995. “The Exaggeration of Despair in Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues.”
  • Stephen F. Evans, 2001. “‘Open Containers’: Sherman Alexie’s Drunken Indians.”
  • Ron McFarland, 1997. “Another Kind of Violence: Sherman Alexie’s Poems.”


 *In this chapter, we provide cultural identification for Native writers to help contextualize commentary. We avoid similar cultural identification for non-Native writers, but not without questions about inconsistency, i.e., why identify Indians and not non-Indians? But with help from our colleague David L. Moore, we don’t think that that one aspect overrides other more important ones, especially because answers to that question get at the heart of Native studies. In personal correspondence Moore explains, “For all the historical ironies and tragedies that have led up to this moment, Indians are still identified by blood ancestry and cultural/community recognition. Further, and crucially, tribal sovereignty claims the right to identify their own membership in a Native nation, and each tribe has its own ways of calculating those criteria. Many tribes have re-appropriated the ‘blood quantum” oppressions of the colonial hegemony and used them for their own purposes, and keeping blood quantum criteria for membership thus is not simply internalized or neo-colonialism. It is, again, a fundamental exercise of sovereignty. Further, the reason for identifying Native tribal membership in published reference to Native writers is fundamentally a respectful recognition of that tribal sovereignty, and then recognition of that tribal member who is privileged to be listed as a member by that tribally sovereign nation. Thus, listing Native writers’ tribal membership (or ancestry) is not simply recognition of ethnicity; it is recognition of tribal sovereignty. Because of these considerations, for non-Natives to assume that they need similarly to identify their own ethnicity, is to miss the primary point of Indian identification, which is tribal and legally sovereign, not personal and not historically arbitrary. It is not about cultural background, it is about legal membership.” So we think is not really appropriate for non-Natives to follow this pattern of ethnic identification.