Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Toughest Indian in the World

sad-funny-sad sandwich.
"Our vows were witnessed by three dozen of Susan's best friends, along with most of her coworkers at the architecture firm, but Susan's handsome brother and parents stayed away as a protest against my pigmentation.
'I can understand fucking him,' her brother had said upon hearing the news of our engagement. 'But why do you want to share a checking account?'
He was so practical." (39-40)
Alexie is introducing a horrible concept through marriage, racism. At the wedding of a red man and white woman, the white woman's family wouldn't show up because of his skin color. This is obvious by the brother's statement. What is ironic about the last half of the brother's questions is the fact that the red man is paying for the entire wedding, despite the fact his to-be-wife makes twice his salary. Luckily, Alexie finishes us off with a sarcastic statement, "He was so practical."

"Is this what it feels like?
To be loved, to be held, to be intimate without the fear of penetration?
I think so.
Yes, I think so, too. I think this is what women have wanted from men for all of our lives. I think they want to be held in our arms and fall asleep in the absence of body fluids.
I think you may be right.
They held each other tighter and tighter. They were not aroused. They were warm and safe." (70)

Two men are trying to fall in love because they both believe in love, but are not gay. Their situation might seem funny, but there is not much love existing in the world today. So, their sad situation is made comical through a comment about women, which i think is true. Then, the two men realize how right it feels to be "warm and safe."
funny-sad-funny sandwich.
A: Good for you. But don't you want to talk about powwow dancing?
Q: Well, sure, what would you like to say?
A: I was the worst powwow dancer in the world. I'd started dancing at some powwow, and Master of Ceremonies would shout out, 'Hey, stop the powwow, stop the powwow, Etta is dancing, she's ruining ten thousand years of tribal traditions. If we don't stop the powwow now, she might start singing, and then we're really going to be in trouble.'
Q: Well, I suppose that's not going to help my thesis." (207)
This situation turns sad because an Indian woman doesn't fit a stereotype. She cannot dance well. What the Master of Ceremonies says is way too harsh, especially the "ruining ten thousand years of tribal traditions." Then the white boy interviewing the Indian woman states that she is not a help to him, which is funny because Etta had pointed out that he didn't know anything about Indians.
"When I was six years old, a bear came out of hibernation too early, climbed up on the roof of the Catholic Church, and promptly fell back asleep. In itself not an amazing thing, but what had amazed me then, and amazes me now, is that nobody, not one Spokane Indian, bothered that bear. Nobody called the police or the Forest Service. None of the Indian hunters who'd always taken advantage of defenseless animals and humans. Hell, even the reservation dogs stopped barking whenever they strolled past the church. We all, dogs and Indians alike, just continued on with our lives, going to work or school, playing basketball and hide-and-seek, scratching at fleas, sleeping with other people's spouses, marking our territory, while that bear slept on." (221)
This story was the most amazing i have ever read by Alexie. The situation is of course funny, but it is very serious too because the bear was undisturbed. That courtesy is so uncommon among people. They are more likely to do what they do best, like "sleeping with other people's spouses," which I thought was funny.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Reservation Blues Cont.

The "Alexie Sandwich" continued.

The sad-funny-sad sandwich.
"'Are you a Christian, Thomas?'
'No. Not really.'
'Are these two Christian?'
'Junior and Victor? No way. All they know about religion they saw in Dances with Wolves.'
'Do you pray?' Chess asked but wasn't sure what she wanted to hear. Of course Thomas prayed. Everybody prayed; everybody lied about it. Even atheists prayed on airplanes and bingo nights.
'Yeah I pray,' Thomas said and made the sign of the cross." (145-146)
This sandwich has extra meat in it. Alexie introduces the bread through Chess asking Thomas to join her and Checkers on Sunday for church service. Thomas has bad memories in church, and is skeptical about going. Alexie then smooshes two pieces of freshly sliced jokes inbetween Thomas's skepticism. One joke pokes fun at Victor and Junior, while making a reference to culture. White people learn through the cinema, and red people are no different. The next joke is aimed at atheists. The funniest thing I found about this joke was its truthfulness. Everybody prays; especailly in dangerous or potentially prospective situations. These jokes lighten the mood of the irony of Indians being Christianized willingly, because it was once forced upon them.

The funny-sad-funny sandwich.
"He even called a few companies in Seattle, like Sub Pop. Sub Pop discovered Nirvana and a lot of other bands, but they never returned Thomas's phone calls. They just mailed form rejections. Black letters on white paper, just like commodity cans. U.S.D.A. PORK. SORRY WE ARE UNABLE TO USE THIS. JUST ADD WATER. WE DON'T LISTEN TO UNSOLICITED DEMOS. POWDERED MILK. THANK YOU FOR YOUR INTEREST. HEAT AND SERVE.
The taverns refused to hire Coyote Springs." (187)
Thomas is desperately trying to get his band, Coyote Springs, a gig, but doesn't seem to have any luck. The fact that a pre-typed rejection note is mailed from a famous record company is comical, but the fact that the note reminds Thomas of commodity food is not. Even the mixed rejection note can be confused with the food labels. "SORRY WE ARE UNABLE TO USE THIS," could be a response to the people handing out the commodities at the beginning of the month; because the commodity food is usually disgusting and artificial. Finally, Alexie relieves us of this sad realization by saying that not even Indians wanted to hire the traditional Indian band.

"'Victor,' Thomas said, "I brought an eagle feather for protection. You can have it.'
'Get that Indian bullshit away from me!'
The crowd at the gate stared at Coyote Springs. They worried those loud dark-skinned people might be hijackers. Coyote Springs did their best not to look middle eastern.
'That ain't going to do nothing,' Victor continued, in a lower volume. 'It's just a feather. Hell, it fell off some damn eagle, so it obviously wasn't working, enit?'
Victor was being as logical as a white man." (218)
Victor is afraid of flying and hilariously rejects his own religion in the middle of the airport at full volume. Because of Victor's public display, racisim rapidly spoils inbetween the bread. At airports across America, before but mostly after 9-11, every dark-skinned person has had to be humiliated in the security line. Alexie is guddesting that white people are suceptable to stereotypes, and he is also suggesting the Indian band is among a large group of whites. Luckily the reader is finally returned to the jokes of Victor who rationalized his mistrust for the eagle feather. Unfortunately, Victor is compared to a white man due to his rationalization. This sandwich leaves a moldy aftertaste even though the bread was good.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Reservation Blues

With this story of a classic nature I will continue my research on the "Alexie Sandwich." The story of Reservation Blues is a continuation of Robert Johnson. Johnson is traveling the road by foot when he comes across a crossroad on the reservation. He is trying to earn his soul back, and loses his cursed guitar in the process. Thomas Builds-the-Fire picks it up and forms an all Indian band to change the world.

In Reservation Blues, I found mostly sad-funny-sad sandwiches, which should come as no surprise, considering the book is titled Reservation BLUES, but i did manage to find one funny-sad-funny story.

The two most powerful sad-funny-sad sandwiches I found made me think very deeply.
The first of which made me depressed because if the story is true, Native Americans are not receiving the medical care they need. When Johnson happens upon the reservation, his hands are badly hurt, and Thomas wants to help him.
"Thomas wanted to take Johnson to the Indian Health Service Clinic, for a checkup and the exact diagnosis of his illness, but he knew that wouldn't work. Indian Health only gave out dental floss and condoms, and Thomas spent his whole life trying to figure out the connection between the two. More than anything, he wanted a story to heal the wounds, but he knew that his stories never healed anything." (6)

The Indian Health Service Clinic is uninvolved in reservation life, which is horrible because that is the only care some Indians have access to. But, Alexie makes a joke about the connection between condoms and dental floss, which adds to his point; why is medical service on the reservation so poor? Then Alexie brings us back down with a sad excerpt about stories not healing wounds, no matter how much you wanted them too. Plus, stories is all Thomas has most days. This was seriously upsetting.
The other sandwich is a jab at religion, and how even though Christianity was forced upon Indians, they still believe in God.
"The sisters walked to the church, which was one of those simple buildings, four walls, a door, a crucifix, and twenty folding chairs. Those folding chairs were multidimensional. Set them up facing the front, and they serve as pews. Circle them around a teacher in the middle, and you have Sunday School. Push them up to card tables, and you feasted on donated food. Fold those chairs, stack them in a corner, and you cleared a dance space. Folding chairs proved the existence of God." (105-106)
Poverty is the bread to this sandwich, and the proof is the church building. The only difference between this building and any other building on the res is the crucifix. Alexie makes jokes about this with the folding chairs. The folding chairs prove the building's many uses and poor funding because the building has to have so many uses. Even through all this, Alexie brings us back to God on a slightly sarcastic note, but I read it as the existence of God must be real, because look how we live; we have survived.

Finally, I came across a funny-sad-funny sandwich. It is about the day's events for Checkers, the youngest flat-head sister. Victor has pissed her off and they got into a fistfight. Shortly after, the band left without her so she could cool off, and she describes what she will do for the day.
"Checkers waved goodbye as the blue van pulled onto the reservation highway. She waved at Chess with most of her hand, saved a little for Thomas, and maybe a bit for Junior. She excluded Victor from her wave.
'What are you going to do this weekend?' Chess had asked her sister before she climbed into the van.
'I think I'll go to church. It's been a while.'
Father Arnold was the priest down there. She had read his name on the greeting board when she walked by the church. Father Arnold. She wondered about Father Arnold's favorite song." (127)
What a way to start off an impossible joke. How ridiculous! You can't exclude someone from a wave! Still, the concept is hilarious because it is so ridiculous. To understand the next serious part, you have to know Checker's character. She is into older Indian men who she feels like can save her, therefore she has fallen in love with many priests throughout her childhood. So, it is good she is going to church because she is a good singer, and singing is like therapy to Checkers, but the ending is mysterious. Checkers is walking into church with the intention of seducing the priest, or at least flirting with him. Thus, the last two sentences are comical. "Father Arnold. She wondered about Father Arnold's favorite song." Checkers uses Father Arnold as his own sentence, pondering him. Then she devises a plan to immediately get on his good side.

Monday, March 12, 2012

One Stick Song

The beginning of the "Alexie Sandwich." The "Alexie Sandwich" is a term i have coined to Sherman Alexie's stories and poetry when he makes a point. It is almost like telling a joke. First, he explains a funny situation, then he hits you with a punch of serious emotion, then he finishes with a light punch-line. Or the situation is reversible; either way, you get punched.

Two perfect examples of these "Sandwiches" are from the long narrative story, The Unauthorized Autobiography of Me.

First is a sad-funny-sad story.
"When I step into the house, my mother is sewing yet another quilt. She is singing a song under her breath. You might assume she is singing a highly traditional Spokane Indian song. In fact, she is singing Donna Fargo's 'The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA.' Improbably, this is a highly traditional Spokane Indian song. The living room is dark in the late afternoon. The house is cold. My mother is wearing her coat and shoes."
The song his mother sings is about a girl who is so lucky to be married to a wonderful husband. This song is both funny and ironic because Alexie sets us up with "highly traditional Spokane Indian song." We are introduced to a scene where his mother quietly and sadly sings another song, then we learn what that song actually was, then Alexie brings us back to reality in the cold house of his mother where she must sew quilts to pay the electric bill and feed her children. The song is also ironic because Alexie's father constantly left the family to drink himself away. Sherman has always been upset about this and often writes poetry about drunk fathers, but his stories are sometimes taken too far.

This brings us to the funny-sad-funny story.
"Years later, I am giving a reading at a bookstore in Spokane, Washington. There is a large crowd. I read a story about an Indian father who leaves his family for good. He moves to a city a thousand miles away. Then he dies. It is a sad story. When I finish, a woman in the front row breaks into tears.
'What's wrong?' I ask her.
'I'm so sorry about your father,' she says.
'Thank you,' I say, 'But that's my father sitting right next to you.'"
Alexie sets us up with a sad story about an Indian father, which is probably a common situation even though Sherman made it up. The woman cries and apologizes, and Alexie says "Thank you." To me, this means Alexie does indeed hold his father responsible for his childhood. Finally, the last line unchokes our throats that were previously tight from crying, and gives us a good laugh with an awkward situation.

As readers, we are both sympathetic and empathetic to the stories we read. Our reactions are predetermined by the author, maybe even controlled, but depending on our own personalities and situations, we perceive stories differently. For this reason, I seriously respect the presentation of Alexie's stories. When I feel something while reading his work, I have this strange acknowledgement that Sherman meant for that specific emotion. It is almost like he takes in important factors such as color, guilt, suppression, and haunted pasts into his mechanics of poetry.
I will explore these "Sandwiches" further in more of Alexie's works.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Summer of Black Widows

A recurring theme of survival appears throughout Alexie’s poetry. In historical order, first comes massacres and relocation, then come the abuses of land and the abuses of people, and finally comes alcoholism and diabetes. Survival is the interruption by the white man and the guilty conscious of the red man.
Alexie alludes to the disruption and destruction of the American Indian people. “In my dream, Fred Astaire stumbles (yes, stumbles)/ into the powwow and is shocked by the number of Indians/ who have survived/ the smallpox blankets, U.S. cavalry, relocation, etc.” (79-80) The words truly specify the “weapons” of the white man, and they only describe the premeditated tactics used by the government to wipe out the Indians. They do not describe the psychology behind getting the Indians to turn against one another. Alexie is stating that the survival rate of American Indians is so astounding that it forced a graceful dancer such as Fred Astaire to stumble.

There are also allusions to the treatment of Native American land and people. “This is a poem for my tribe, who continue to live in the shadow of/ the abandoned uranium mine on our reservation, where the/ night sky glows in a way that would have invoked songs and/ stories a few generations earlier, but now simply allows us to see/ better as we drive down the highway toward a different kind of moon.” (51) America has completely taken advantage of their land. Not only are they poisoning the Indians through uranium contact with air and water, they also “allow” the Indians to work there and die of uranium contact with the skin. Alexie also plays with the ignorance of older generations of Indians. Just as Columbus tricked the ancient Indians into submission through an eclipse proclaimed by his god, so the U.S. toys with the current Indians’ stupidity through the uranium mine. The only difference is now, the Indians can distinguish between the lies. Alexie also references the Holocaust to show the abuses of the Native American peoples. “We too could stack the shoes of our dead and fill a city/ to its thirteenth floor. What did you expect us to become?/ What do we indigenous people want from our country?/ We are waiting for the construction of our museum.” (119-120) What an image to picture. Through experience, Alexie states that those shoes, like other American Indian “junk,” will be taken by the whites (or bought based on luck) to be placed in a museum where they will charge Indians to walk inside and experience the culture they were forced to abandon by those same white folks. Alexie utilizes despair to express survival.

Finally, after adapting to relocation and white settlement, Indians fell prey to alcoholism and diabetes. Alexie begins with his father’s generation, then moves onto his own generation. “Drunk like that, I/ imagined myself as/ you, drunk like that/ and carried the same/ small ambition: I/ only wanted to live/ one day longer than you.” (39) Alexie places himself in his father’s shoes and still wishes for the same exact thing, “to live one day longer than you.” As a son, Alexie is hoping to differ from his father and not drink. As his father, Alexie hopes to live long enough to be able to watch himself grow up. Alcoholism is so strong among American Indians, it could be considered a disease, one that plagues the Indians as much as diabetes does, if not more. “Having learned sugar kills me/ piece by piece, I have to eat/ with more sense/ than taste.” (44) Unfortunately, sugar is put in everything, making survival that much more painful.

Although, Alexie suggests a reasonable (yet improbable) solution to all the problems Indians face.
“I want some Indian to finally learn/ to dance the Ghost Dance right/ so that all of the salmon and buffalo return/ and the white men are sent back home/ to wake up in their favorite European cities.” (138)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Old Shirts & New Skins

“Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?” –Disney’s film, Pocahontas

It is well known that Sherman Alexie wrote poetry pivoting around the characters from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, but the fact that Sherman Alexie makes references to other verses in older books of poetry is underappreciated. I have found some quotes from Old Shirts & New Skins that refer to poems from The Business of Fancydancing, both the book and the film, as well as First Indian on the Moon. Alexie also references the poet James Wright, which was surprising to me at first, but once I reread Wright’s poem, I understood the message. The quotes I have chosen are related to the importance of skin color, and how it feels to have that skin color.
Being two colors mixed together in one body is tough when they are opposing colors. Neither culture will accept you because of a stupid number, the fraction that represents the color they abhor. “Then, I cut my skin into sixteen equal pieces, keep thirteen buried in/ my backyard and feed the other three to the dogs…Now, in the dark of the house near Benjamin Lake, I hear digging, the/ slow moan of earth changing, the silence of something taken, cold wind/ rushing in to fill the empty spaces.” (6) The boy in the story is 13/16 Indian and 3/16 white. He feeds his white parts to the dogs because he wants to be accepted by Indians. Therefore, he rejects the white pieces like “white trash.” Unfortunately, someone steals his Indian pieces during the night. It is described in a melancholy way with, “the silence of something taken, cold wind/ rushing in to fill the empty spaces,” but I think the theft is a happy occasion. Now the boy belongs to no man, and can be himself. I understood the metaphor behind the sixteen pieces because of the quote from “13/16” in The Business of Fancydancing, page 16. “I cut myself into sixteen equal pieces/ keep thirteen and feed the other three/ to the dogs, who have also grown/ tired of U.S. Commodities…father (full blood) + mother (5/8) = son (13/16).” Alexie explains reservation mathematics in “13/16” and describes how hard it is to be poor.
Just as Alexie has led us into the rejection of a color, he also tries to question why colors can’t exist in harmony. “memories of the old/ days/ when an Indian basketball player could be Jesus.” (9) Jesus is being referred to in two different ways. Because Jesus’s ethnicity can be called into question, Alexie suggests that Jesus could be a red skin. Also, because Jesus is a savior, Alexie states that an Indian basketball player is the reservation savior, which is true. Alexie constantly writes about how Indians on porches drinking beer will see the res M.V.P. and hope that they’re good enough to make it outside of the res. Alexie also wants to blend Jesus into other things, such as the example from the film The Business of Fancydancing. Seymour says, “If only Jesus could be a red man and a white man intertwined.” Jesus represents harmony and peace, as well as perfection, so the underlying message must be coexist.
Alexie then explains where the Indian originated from. “I acknowledge you, black man/ who first loved the curve/ of the buffalo./ I acknowledge you, buffalo woman/ who stood still and loved/ the black man back./ And I give thanks. …/And I sing alone.” (46) I understood this quote to be appreciative of the Indian race because of the strong yet horrifying line from “Collect Calls” in First Indian on the Moon, page 72. “Indians are living proof that nigger fuck buffalo.” Alexie compares Indians to the offspring of black men and buffalo because Indians are segregated and discriminated like the black man, but are compared to savage animals such as the buffalo. The buffalo is a fitting animal to describe the Indians for many reasons. Buffalo were the Indians main food source, and they followed it across America. For this reason, the government permitted the massacre of great numbers of buffalo hoping it would kill the Indians, just as they massacred the Indians themselves. Also, when Alexie thanks the black man and buffalo woman, he “sings alone.” None of the Indians are proud of who they are and why they were the ones to survive.
Finally, Alexie makes one more reference that is stranger than the others. Alexie compares Indian basketball players to the football players of Martin’s Ferry Ohio. “‘suicidally beautiful.’ Jesus/ my father said. I played ball like that.” (67) The Indian basketball players are “suicidally beautiful” because of the aggressive way they play ball. In “Autumn Begins in Martin’s Ferry, Ohio,” a poem by James Wright, the football players are described the same way. “Therefore,/ Their sons grow suicidally beautiful/ At the beginning of October,/ And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.” (lines 9-12) The boys on both teams seem to share the same experience in high school; the boys peak at eighteen. The boys from Ohio are sons of industrial workers whose only time to be popular and attended to is in high school. Then, they will become just like their fathers with blue-collar jobs. The Indian boys are sons of diabetic and alcoholic red men who will only be admired at practice and games, before they drink their lives away.
Alexie sure depresses his readers with colors. The feelings associated with heritage are too strong to ignore, and can only be compared to hopelessness and desperation. If Alexie weren’t so funny, I wouldn’t be able to handle my own tears very well.
red and white...two dangerous colors to mix.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Indian Identity

I found the main theme in the film The Business of Fancydancing was discovering and confronting what it means to be an American Indian as well as an individual. I also found an article online that perfectly described each character’s struggle with their identity. Rob Blackwelder writes about the juxtapositions in Seymour, Aristotle, and Agnes’s character.
Seymour Polatkin is one of the most complicated characters I have ever read about. As Blackwelder puts it, Seymour is “a minority within a minority” because he is a gay American Indian. Seymour tries to escape his heritage by leaving the reservation immediately after high school, getting a college education, and becoming famous through poetry. The only problem is, his poetry causes frustration among his childhood friends on the res. “The film identifies with the mixed feelings of those people Seymour abandoned in his resolute determination to shake off the shackles of his ancestry while capitalizing on it at the same time.” Seymour exploits what he tries to deny, his heritage.
Seymour also struggles with identifying himself as a gay man, not because of the concept of two men dating, but because of the men he dates. “I’ve slept with one Indian woman, 112 white boys, two black men, and zero Indian men.” Seymour’s current boyfriend is the opposite of everything his reservation friends would approve of. For this reason, Seymour believes he doesn’t belong at the funeral on the res, but his friends reject his presence at the funeral for a different reason.
Aristotle and the others are angry with Seymour because of the stories he stole from them. Seymour publishes events that he didn’t experience and writes about a place he won’t even visit but originates from. Aristotle calls Seymour a “little public relations warrior” who “puts on little beads and feathers for all these white people.” Agnes is the only friend that defends Seymour. “He’s out there telling everybody we’re still here.” She also chastises him for being cocky about his fame. “These Indians you write about are giving you help every damn day!” Aristotle and Agnes also fight with their identity. Aristotle has fallen prey to the Indian stereotypes of alcoholism and bitterness while Agnes battles with her Native American blood and her Jewish upbringing. They both feel the irony in their lives and are perfect examples to prove to Seymour that he is not the only suffering Indian. “[Seymour] masks his social unease with a conspicuous sense of superiority when it comes time to face the old friends whose lives he’s often usurped for his poetry.” Throughout all of the struggles Seymour, Aristotle, and Agnes confront, they realize one thing – they can’t change who they are.
The Business of Faqncydancing is a beautiful film that Blackwelder describes exceptionally well as “a highly personal meditation on the choices we make that define our identity…” The scenery was magnificent and the actors were superb in portraying the conflicts of the identity-confused characters. “None of these performances shies away from character flaws and all of them are heartfelt, honest, unaffected, and uniquely human.” I couldn’t agree more with Rob Blackwelder.
The article by Rob Blackwelder – “Gay American Indian poet’s identity, integrity at issue in extraordinary ‘The Business of Fancydancing.’”