“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.