Saturday, August 3, 2013

Sherman Alexie On Colonization, ReColonization, DeColonization, and Being A Privileged Indian in These United States of God Damn

Sherman Alexie speaking on behalf of the MFA Creative Writing Program

We were up in Santa Fe last night -- well, up at the IAIA, which is not quite in Santa Fe but outside town up on a ridge with a spectacular view of the Jemez and the Sangres and the Ortiz Mountains and the pageantry of Mother Earth and Father Sky all around. There were storms gathering in the south. It would be quite an evening.

We were attending a fundraising event for the new MFA program in Creative Writing that the IAIA had launched last year with 32 students in attendance. The entertainment featured the stylings of Sherman Alexie, American Indian Writer of Stories and Books and Poems and Screenplays and Such, now officially a Professor of Higher Learning at one of the highest profile Indian Schools in the whole wide world, the school where every Indian Writer and nearly every Indian Artist he's ever met has gone to at one time or another. This is the top of the Indian Educational Pyramid. The very Pinnacle of Indian Achievement. His comment about being selected to serve as one of the faculty of the MFA Program at IAIA?

"It took you long enough."
And we were off to -- or maybe through -- the races in several senses of the word. This Privileged Indian, Sherman Alexie, was going to give a talk, not so much for the Anglos who'd paid the cost of admission (perhaps a hundred of us or so) but "for the Indians"  in the room, another fifty or so, mostly students in the MFA program for whom the paid attendees were providing the money for scholarships. (For the record, though one of the Chés is an Indian, we paid the price of admission, and will probably wind up paying a good deal more in the by and bye.)

Not every Indian is a rich Indian like Sherman Alexie. How rich is Sherman Alexie? He told us. He's so rich, his house in Seattle has got two garage doors, one for his wife and one for himself, and both open and close with these little electric gizmos they keep in their cars. Note, their cars.  They each have one. They're that rich! Ha! He uses and IPad when he speaks! He's that rich!

Of course, many non-Indians wouldn't see those things as emblems of wealth at all. These are things that are basic to a (White) middle-class lifestyle. No doubt you can live without them, but why would you if you didn't have to?


He talked about color, too. He's a "latte Indian," his wife is much darker, "mocha Indian," and some of the Indians in attendance were darker still, like "that Navajo over there, Sherwin Bitsui, who's so dark he can't be found at night when he closes his eyes." One of Alexie's sons, he said, is of a color between his wife and himself, while the other one is quite a bit lighter than either of them, and so they have a complete palette when it comes time to choose a color to repaint the bathroom. He didn't raise the obvious question, nor will I raise it here, because he indicated he is a tremendously happy man en famille. This is a good thing. And a worthy accomplishment.

Finding a darker Indian to marry, though, was a challenge, he said.  He went to the White high school in Spokane, WA, and there weren't any other Indians to date there, let alone darker ones to marry. He told several stories based on his high school experiences.  And he made many jokes about how hard it was to find a wife darker than himself. He said Sherwin Bitsui applied, but it wouldn't have worked out, despite Sherwin's extraordinary dark Navajo beauty and high cheekbones. I believe I saw Sherwin blush just a little bit. Indun humor, yanno.

On the rez, everyone's related to everyone else as it is. He needed to go outside the tribe, for more reasons than to find a wife. He was, after all, a rebel. And in the conservative culture of American Indians, rebelliousness can be a problem, a big one.

In some ways, American Indian culture has gone all to pieces, but what is left of it is very conservative, so much so, he said, it's hilarious that so many White Liberals love, love, love them some Indians. In many ways, what has survived of traditional American Indian culture resembles another tribe where the idea of the separation of church and state has no validity, where everyone has guns and shoots things all the time, where military service is considered the height of patriotism and where a lot of folks live in trailers and mobile homes. Some of those in this other very similar tribe are called "Bubba."

"We vote Democratic," he says, "but we live like the Republican base."

He talked about colonization/re-colonization/de-colonization, something that Indians have a really rough time with because they or their ancestors experience(d) them and their consequences in real time, whereas the colonizers often don't even know they're doing it nor that they are part of a colonizing enterprise. It doesn't occur to them. Why would it? And to de-colonize too often means to re-colonize.

Even the rez is being colonized and re-colonized now, and Anglos, bless their bleeding hearts, don't even know what "colonization" means. The reservations were set up like concentration camps were the Indians were expected to die off, and if they didn't die off quite quickly enough, the military was sent in to help the process along.  Bang, bang. Shoot, shoot. Yes, the genocide was real.

If that didn't work, there was always alcohol.

And when that didn't work, sending the inmates out into the world to become the storied Urban Indian of lore and legend was given a try by the colonizers.

Wait. The Urban Indian lore and legend is largely missing from the literary output of American Indians. Why is that, he wondered, when 70% or so of all Indians in America today are Urban Indians. Why do Indians writers, by and large, only write about traditional things and especially why do they focus so much on the rez when most Indians don't live there and never did?

Indians don't disappear or cease being Indians just because they live in the city now, cf: Sherman Alexie and his family residing in the city of Seattle, Washington, Indians all, with two cars, and two garage doors and two garage door openers. That's where the Indians are, let's hear their stories, m'kay?

Not that Indians shouldn't or can't write about the rez. But the rez is only part of the picture of Indian life, and for many, maybe most, it isn't even that important a part anymore. The rez wasn't actually the Indian's idea, after all.

Of course I thought about where Alexie was when he was saying these things, and thinking, "Eek. This is New Mexico, not Washington or California or even New York, and not so many Indians here are so alienated from the rez, are they? Or are they? Many of the same genocidal and colonial policies and practices that were instituted elsewhere in the country to destroy Indian society and culture were implemented here as well, quite as brutally and efficiently, too, if not more so, and while the Indian Pueblos of New Mexico have been preserved and romanticized and commodified as tourist attractions (especially Taos, but not exclusively so) since the influx of Anglo ex-pats in the 1920's, even here, most of the Pueblo peoples -- along with almost all the other Indians in New Mexico (well, except the Navajos) -- don't live on Pueblo and other reservation lands. They live in the towns and cities. Many of them don't even live in New Mexico at all.

Sherman Alexie is a Privileged Indian, and he makes no bones about it. He can go places and do things and live the kind of semi-glamorous life among the Anglo and non-Anglo rich and famous (well, some of them) that most Americans, let alone most Indians, can barely imagine. He can even, he says, "pass," as his appearance is ambiguous enough that outside of Indian Country, he isn't even recognized as an "Indian," at least not right off. He could be "half" of whatever ethnicity the people he's with happen to be, and that could easily be White. He's been lucky that way -- if you want to call it "luck" and not something else.

While 92% of the life he lives is "awesome" he says, the rest of it can be "awful." And what's bad about it can take over every bit of his attention. I didn't realize previously how precarious his health situation is, for example, but while some of his health issues were heavily featured in his talk, much to the apparent discomfort of some of those in attendance (who really wants to hear about how difficult it can be for him to control his bowels, eh? The term of art being "shitting my pants." Even if he makes his problem into some of the funniest jokes of the evening), his physical and psychological conditions and list of medications weren't really what he meant in describing the "awful" part of his life of privilege.

No, it was more about the expectations he was supposed to meet and the abuse he took, often from other Indians, for failing to do so. Or the abuse he took for doing things his own way, which isn't the way Stereotype Indians are supposed to do them and so he gets abused by Anglos who think he should be something other than he is, or the abuse he takes for saying things in ways that don't always make people laugh and may even offend them, or the abuse he takes for making jokes out of very serious matters. That sort of thing. He's supposed to walk this very fine line as a Privileged Indian, and it's his nature to step outside the lines. So.

The abuse he takes is part of the package of Privilege. And for him, it can sometimes be tough. He wanted to warn the other Indians there that if they achieve the kind of Fame and Privilege he has, it won't necessarily be a smooth ride at all. Just ask Sherwin Bitsui. The life of a Privileged Indian is not all frybread and honey.  Nor is it always about sharing cucumber sandwiches with Simon Ortiz at high tea.

There are complications and unanticipated hazards, such as having to poop and being a victim of OCD which makes it impossible to return to a place one has just left to relieve oneself. Oh dear. What is one to do? Did you ever think about it?

Some of what I've written here are things Alexie said in his interview with Bill Moyers last April (such as his ability to "pass," as it were, because of his ambiguous appearance), an interview we didn't see until after the festivities at IAIA last night.

One of the Anglo dowagers who'd come to the event last night asked him about it. She said she'd seen the program and was so taken with him, she had to come to the fundraiser and she'd brought three friends with her. How was Moyers as an interviewer, she wondered.

Alexie said he'd never felt more comfortable with a media figure in his life, and the whole interview took four hours. He said that he heard from some people that he "didn't seem like himself" in the interview -- because he wasn't funny the way he usually is in public appearances, but he said there was a lot more to it than what was in the segment that aired (which I got the impression he hasn't actually seen) and that he was telling jokes and being funny in some of those parts that weren't aired. By the time it was over, he wanted Moyers to adopt him. It  was, he said, a wonderful experience for him.

After seeing the interview last night, I can see why some people who thought they knew Sherman Alexie might have been off-put by the honesty he showed to Moyers and the Bill Moyers audience. Alexie told the audience last night that he's been lying to the media for decades, and "because he's an Indian" they believe whatever he says. It's easy to convince them of just about any shit he wants them to believe. But with Moyers, he didn't feel the need or desire to fantasize or fabricate. Well, not much.

After some more advice to Indian writers ("In order to be an Indian writer, you have to be a Liberal"), and one more story about love and loss and longing from his school days, he was done with his performance for the evening, but he stuck around for the many accolades and to sign some of his books for the large number of folks who bought them afterwards (one of the dowagers had an armload of seven volumes for him to sign.) He was unfailingly positive and encouraging to the Indians who sought out his company, even if they didn't buy books, and he was polite to a fault with the Anglos -- some of whom were being heavily recruited for substantial additional donations, donations which I have no doubt they were eager to give.

We knew some of the people there and socialized for a bit, but we had to leave before the the festivities continued with a reading of student works in another building. We had a long drive back, through heavy thunderstorms, over the ridged heights of Camino de los Abuelos, toward and beyond Galisteo.

And today, we're off to Chimayo and Dixon. It would be nice to see Father Roca at least one more time at Chimayo. In Dixon, there is to be a staged reading of Nasario Garcia's new play that we would very much like to see.

Time to get ready.

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