Notes on Teaching Sherman Alexie


Nora Livesey of the American Indian Policy Center says the following about the history of tribal enrollment:
It’s difficult to talk about tribal enrollment without talking about Indian identity. The two issues have become snarled in the twentieth century as the United States government has inserted itself more and more into the internal affairs of Indian nations. 

Ask who is Indian, and you will get divergent responses depending on who's answering. The U.S. Census Bureau, state governments, various federal government programs and agencies, and tribal governments all have different definitions. The criteria vary from a specific amount of blood quantum and descendency to residency and self-identification. 

But, the answers don’t really tell you who is Indian. They tell you who can receive health care from the Indian Health Service (IHS), who can get eagle parts from the National Eagle Repository, who qualifies for educational assistance or who can vote in tribal elections. These artificial definitions don’t come close to describing how it feels to sit with one’s own people sharing a joke or a ceremony. They don’t describe the cultural and historical bonds that guide one’s life. Identity reaches into the intangible parts of ourselves. The rest are definitions with an agenda. ( originally posted 2002, updated 11/1/2005 par. 1-3)

There are more than 550 federally recognized tribal governments in the United States today and several seeking federally recognized status. Recognized tribes possess the right to form their own government, to enforce civil and criminal law, to tax, to establish membership policies, to license and regulate activities and to zone and exclude people from tribal territories. Limitations on tribal governments are akin to those put on states. The U.S. government must respect the sovereignty of tribal governments; however, many Native Americans think the government’s respect of the sovereignty of Indian nations falls far short. 


According to Arnold Krupat who has analyzed uses of rage and anger in Native American literature, Alexie writes about “the anger and rage Indian people feel toward whites who have hurt and in the present continue to hurt them.” Alexie unsettles readers with the frightening truth that “decolonization is always a violent phenomenon” (Krupat quoting Patell quoting Fanon 113). Krupat notes that Alexie’s purposeful use of rage is strategic, a style of Sartre’s “anti-racist racism” (119) that anticipates the transcendance of racism and an end to violence (120). Understanding the uncomfortable truths of a violent colonial legacy gives readers reason to work for transformative revolution.

Kenneth Lincoln reports these quincentennial facts in his essay, “Futuristic Hip Indian: Alexie” from Sing With the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999: Native Americans as a composite are the only in-country ethnic group that the U.S. has declared war against, 1860-1890. Some existing 560 reservations, 315 in the lower forty-eight states, are natively seen from inside as occupied P.O.W. camps. Think of [Alexie’s anger] as the delayed stress of contemporary Indian America: the post-traumatic shock of surviving Columbus to Cotton Mather, Buffalo Bill Cody to Andy Jackson, Chivington to Custer” (excerpted at from a longer essay). “There is nothing we cannot survive,” the poet swears. “Surviving war is the premise” (reported in Lincoln).

Language, sense of place or community, sovereignty, and survival are the most frequently discussed motifs by Indian writers and their literary critics. “Some familiarity with traditional concepts of words, land, and survival is crucial to understanding much of the best Indian writing” (Roemer Dictionary xv).  

These concepts of identity, authorship, words, place, and survival defined by Indian writers grow out of a rich and tragic historical context, which many Indian writers, including Alexie, expect their readers to know. Kenneth Roemer chronicles the following: pre-Columbian tribal cultures and Native multiculturalism of pre-Columbian intertribal contacts; centuries of extermination by disease, war, and colonialism; ironic contrast of legal status as sovereign nations with broken treaties and forced removals; thousands of federal acts, regulations, and policies, such as the 1887 Dawes Act, which resulted in a tremendous reduction of tribal lands, the granting of citizenship to Indians in 1924, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the termination and relocation policies initiated in the 1950s, the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971, and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978; a complex web of popular culture in film and print; the political activism of Indian organizations such as the Society of American Indians, the Association on American Indian Affairs, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Youth Council, and the American Indian Movement. Of historical importance as well are the effects of education. Historically, writing in English meant attendance at boarding, mission, or small reservation schools sponsored by frequently less-than-friendly (some outright violent) institutions. In the twentieth century, the GI Bill educated thousands of Native vets. The Indian Education Act of 1972, the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act of 1975, and a growing number of tribal colleges have all contributed to the pool of potential Indian authors (Dictionary xvii-xviii). “Even if a work does not confront Native American history explicitly, the arguments of an essayist, the actions of the characters in a novel or short story, or the attitudes of a poem’s persona can usually be traced back to historical situations” (Roemer Dictionary xviii).


We think that it is obvious given all that Alexie has said, written and accomplished that he has a strong moral vision that includes a desire to rewrite the story of Indian oppression, serve as a role model, work for peace. He is a premiere public intellectual of our time who takes complex issues head on. Questions directed to us about his moral vision arise because some readers find offensive the circulation of common negative stereotypes of Indians in Alexie’s work. The astute reader will see that Alexie sends a message of hope and reconciliation to both Indian and non-Indian readers not by attempting to hide harsh realities, but by transforming them through powerful storytelling that sends messages of survival, hope and the power of imaginative resistance.