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.’”

Monday, February 6, 2012

Here's to the Big Dogs with Turtles for Feet!

First Indian on the Moon
Once again, Sherman Alexie addresses the stereotypes associated with Indians. Before reading another one of Alexie’s collection of poetry, I wondered if he made allusions to animals. I wanted to concentrate specifically on the horse, curious to see if he would reference them more often than Crazy Horse. He didn’t allude to horses more than Crazy Horse, but he did allude to them frequently.
Because one of the biggest stereotypes among Indians is that they all come from tribes of great horsemen, I didn’t find it surprising that the animal Alexie referred to the most was a horse. So, even though the horses in Alexie’s poems are figurative, he gives us a real visual of a horse that feeds the stereotype, yet proves a point at the same time. “If you put your ear really close to a buzzing beer sign hanging in the window of the Powwow Tavern, you can hear horses thundering, you can hear rifles, you can hear a cavalry sword leaving its scabbard.” (39) Sherman Alexie refers to real horses in the past during the Western expansion of the U.S. To me, his reference suggests that Indians drink because of the past, and no matter how much they drink, the past will never die. I  imagine a man so wasted he is puking outside of a tavern, not hearing a word his girlfriend is yelling at him, but hallucinating that the buzzing noise from the neon sign is screaming bloodshed and thundering hooves.

I found this video of horses to listen to the pounding of hooves.
                Horses are also alluded to through sight. More specifically and ironically, it is in the reflection of an Indian man. “The faces I see in my mirror look the same: U.S. Government glasses, fractured nose, braids like wild ponies, eyes like mine and his and his and yours.” (50) Another irony is the simile between combed braids and wild horse hair. Wild horse hair is matted and full of knots while braids are smooth, organized, and hang in place.
These pictures show hair side by side.

Maybe the Indian man had messy hair that he forced into a braid to deceive onlookers into thinking he has pulled himself together when he is actually falling apart. Horses reappear as a visual in Alexie’s next allusion. “I would close my eyes and dream of something strong, dream of horses exploding, rising into the air, their hearts beating survive, survive, survive.” (51) This quote is linked with the last because Alexie has established Indians are like horses. In my opinion, Alexie is comparing exploding horses to Indians to describe the feeling of survival. What happens to a creature that has been destroyed but can still feel the remains of a beating heart? To me, this spells depression that will continue to be bred into further generations of Native Americans.
                Horses are not only representations of Indians, but are a creation of Indians as well. “Believe me, the Indian men are rising from the alleys and doorways, rising from self-hatred and self-pity, rising up on horses of their own making.” (108) All of the struggles, hardships, and racism Indians have faced can be escaped on imaginary horses they are building. This connection to the past is evident through the fact that the Indians escaped and avoided the first cowboys on horseback, but this time Indians are running away from a different enemy, themselves; which can be the scariest experience one can go through. They create something beautiful from something horrifying.
I typed "something horrible into something beautiful" and found this ironically, with horses in it.

                Finally, and regrettably, the last allusion to horses I found confused me because its implied uselessness is overwhelming. “…give him a blind horse/ who isn’t afraid of trees/ give him a car without breaks or a steering wheel/ give him a ticket to the symphony and tell him all the flutes are snakes…Baby, come make me promises, tell me/ you’ll love me as long as/ the winds blow/ the grasses grow/ the rivers flow.” (87) Even though promises of love are lies, the man is asking for them anyway. A promise of love is like a blind horse unafraid of trees. Again I see a horse personified as an Indian. Alexie’s character is in love with a paradoxical girl, a horse who doesn’t shudder at foreign objects.
                Alexie addresses a stereotype to make a point: horses are beautiful, powerful, and timid creatures that can represent a beautiful, powerful, and timid nation of people, Native Americans. I am reminded of the story I was told about how Indians first discovered horses. A flood was fast approaching, and would have wiped out many tribes. The chiefs all gathered to pray for safe passage to a mountain. The heavens sent them horses, or as they called them, big dogs with turtles strapped to their feet. The horses were able to carry every man, woman, and child to safety while hauling their food, shelter, and tools. Ever since, the horse has been remembered as a blessing. This is how I view the American Indians. Their heritage has been a blessing to learn and appreciate during my academic career.