2008-09 Gathering of Voices

In Defense of Sherman Alexie:
Taking Ownership of Stereotypes

Michael Dalavaccio

Besides having a reputation of selling out, Native American author Sherman Alexie is considered difficult to get along with. Sherman Alexie is controversial both in his home culture and in the US at large. The films Smoke Signals and The Business of Fancy Dancing, both adapted from Alexie’s written works, display Alexie’s ability to tell a story and share his view of modern Indian culture while at the same time attracting an audience which would not normally listen. If he were offering the usual cinematic stereotypes, and speaking of the magical qualities of his life, and how his only problems have been holding onto tradition in a world of change, Alexie would neither be so amazing or so well beloved. Neither would he be so detested. In a world where people commonly take the path to greatest gain and abandon principles for greed, it is impossible for minority artists to escape the insinuation that they have abandoned their culture for personal gain. Yet one can not teach without gaining the trust and willing participation of an ignorant audience. Therefore, Alexie should not be discarded as an “Uncle Tomahawk” (110 Meyer), but rather as a necessary figure in the continuing struggle for minority rights.

Sherman Alexie is unusual for an American film maker. In both films made from his work, he has made an effort to hire Indian actors and technical crew, insisting later that there were "No Italians with long hair" involved (Rolling Stone). Smoke Signals was directed by Chris Eyre, an award-winning director and film maker. The film was received well by the general population, and received nine awards and six nominations from various film festivals (IMDB). The Business of Fancydancing, directed by Alexie himself, was the winner of six awards which had little if anything to do with Native American groups. By winning mainstream awards through making a distinctively modern story of Indian life, as well as hiring mostly native actors and crew, Alexie forged breakthroughs for many Native Americans which might otherwise never have existed. Yet controversy exists with his treatment of his heritage.

Critics have accused Alexie of ensuring that stereotypes of Native Americans as unemployed alcoholics will never die by creating a film centered around the effects of alcoholism. Smoke Signals is the story of Victor Joseph, a young Coeur D'Alene man who must take a journey to the last resting place of his father, as well as come to terms with his heritage and past. He and his companions Thomas-Builds-The-Fire must travel to Phoenix, Arizona in order to collect the older man's remains and an old truck. Though it is only implied as a possibility in the book, in the film Victor learns the reason that Arnold, his father had disappeared many years ago. Guilt over having caused the fire which resulted in the deaths of Thomas' parents and nearly killed Victor had overwhelmed him, eventually driving him to flee. Due to his father's drunkenness, and the general prevalence of alcohol abuse that Victor has seen, Victor professes with pride that he has never touched a drop of alcohol in his life.

Despite the well deserved complaints about common Indian portrayal in film, Alexie should not be cast off so easily as an unprincipled author and director seeking to exploit modern stereotypes. Alexie speaks of problems he experienced in his own childhood, or has taken from the experiences of others. According to an article by the Rolling Stone website, "Alexie risks pissing off the PC cavalry as he explores the humor and heartbreak of being young and Indian and living on a reservation ('the rez') at the end of the twentieth century" (Rolling stone). In this case, the 'PC cavalry' refers not only to relatively uninvolved outsiders wishing to ensure rights for others, but also tribes across the US, including his own. By speaking of problems which actually exist upon reservations, such as widespread unemployment and alcoholism, within the context of a compelling story, Alexie takes ownership of the issues. Though it is unfortunate that modern Indians have been led to such problems by fate and ill-treatment at the hands of a hostile foreign government, the current problems will not go away by being ignored. In order to prevent one's story from being co-opted by unwanted forces, one must tell it without pretense.

Though Alexie was not the first to tell stories of modern Indian life, he has told them from his own perspective without sanitizing them beyond all recognition. Smoke Signals, well received by critics and film-goers, tells a heart warming coming of age story, and rightly belongs within the road trip genre. Yet it gives in to western ideas of storytelling, and offers the happy ending which Americans are so noted for desiring. In the end, Victor Joseph has come to know that his father loved him, and returns home presumably to resume life within his culture as he should have done all along. Though stereotypes are removed, relatively few are explored in depth in favor of telling the story of a young man in search of himself. As a universal story, it speaks to those who have been estranged from loved ones, and rests upon its own merit. In particular, Thomas-Builds-The-Fire's speech at the end about how to forgive fathers offers what American audience has come to expect: Wisdom pulled from native histories that are whispered with dearest reverence, and suitably placed upon placards and postcards for consumption. Despite a scene where typical film interpretations of natives are explored, involving Victor and Thomas speaking of how best to deal with white people, immediately afterward putting their beliefs into play with two hostile older white men on the bus ride up to Phoenix, these myths are not utterly obliterated.

The film version of The Business of Fancydancing performs much better as an introduction into modern Indian culture, as well as offering other minorities the spotlight. Jokes and references which will be utterly missed by the unfamiliar are offered without explanation or apology. In essence, it is a film for members of the minority communities themselves to enjoy, rather than seeking applause from the general viewing public. During the rituals which follow the death of the talented violinist character Mouse, Agnes Roth, the former girlfriend of Polatkin, performs various spiritual activities. When she reads foreign words from a book, many will assume that ancient native incantations are being offered. Jewish individuals will recognize the language of ancient Hebrew, however. As with the shawl dance, the knowledge that Roth is both Indian and Jewish offers a simple yet complex description of the duality of modern native lifestyles. The audio commentary reveals removed material involving a female Unitarian minister falling in love with Mouse, the childhood friend of Polatkin who has recently died. Unitarians have a reputation for appropriation of religious cultures, similar to the reputation the white, middle class members of Polatkin's audience would have. In particular, cases involving time honored rituals being used in an improper manner and performed by unqualified individuals has shown a lack of understanding and respect by some Unitarians for the cultures from which the rituals were taken. While such judgments can not necessarily be verified as more than opinion, the idea of a person so committed to tolerance that they would become involved with a person of another ethnic group, literally proving their love for their fellow man, is a gentle way of pointing out the limits of tolerance when true understanding are lacking.

In addition to race and religion based cultures, the film also explores the scrutinized culture of both celebrities and authors, many of whom live in both worlds. In a scene where Polatkin signs his books for adoring and most likely pretentious fans, he is the only person heard to speak. He offers platitudes and answers well-intentioned but utterly ignorant and assumptive questions. The viewer can infer the general cliche of a person Polatkin is speaking with based upon the answers he offers. Outright lies which conform to pre-ordained ideas are told with a charming smile. Additionally Polatkin speaks to a symbolic interviewer, who also asks questions of other characters, eventually replying with anger to increasingly callous and dismissive questions. In this way, Alexie has offered insight into the world of writers, minorities and the daily politics of conversation, as well as showing how these intertwine together.

The Business of Fancydancing is also well rounded in its subtle approach to gay themes. The credits open with the main character, Seymour Polatkin, performing a women's shawl dance. Those who are unfamiliar with native dances will most likely see nothing strange about this particular activity, yet those who are knowledgeable receive a strong symbol which deepens when Polatkin's sexuality is offered to the audience. Though Polatkin does write of his experiences as a gay Indian male, the gay culture is utterly lacking in the film. His interactions with others are limited to scenes with his boyfriend, the Indians on the reservation, and his mostly white, middle class audiences. Though a dance club is present in one scene, it is not necessarily a gay or straight club. Whereas many films portray characters as gay by association, Polatkin's sexuality is normalized as merely another facet of his character. It is not incidental to his life story, yet he is not defined by it. While also lacking in the typical angst-ridden coming out story, The Business of Fancidancing also offers insight into the role race plays in the gay community. While the absence of typical gay themes may seem to say nothing of gay culture, Polatkin's lack of involvement speaks volumes about the lack of racial diversity in representations of queer life.

Though all the cultures presented in The Business of Fancydancing may seem incongruous to one another, their presence all mixed together provides another often ignored idea. Though Native Americans have preserved their culture as much as they could manage, there are many who belong to other cultures as well. Alexie deftly and unapologetically announces that one may be native and gay, or Jewish, or an eminent poet, or any other combination of cultures. During the audio commentary track of The Business of Fancydancing, Alexie describes the precarious place which the film holds. A friend is cited as stating that the film will be "too white for Indians, too Indian for white people, and too gay for everybody" (The Business of Fancydancing). By offering a cross-section of cultures, Alexie endeavors to remove the small boxed-in area which Indians and other minorities have often been placed into, and introduces the freedom of choice. Furthermore, the choice to leave or to stay, or to take part in other cultures, is given respect.

Racism and intolerance are current buzzwords for the lack of understanding of large groups, which precludes the understanding of individuals. The controversy of Sherman Alexie and his works is not merely about the representation in the works themselves. Alexie himself represents the personal and self-enclosed struggle of breaking away from an unwanted set of ignorant obstructions only to find more waiting. Old misconceptions are slow to die, even as minority groups gain ground and find stronger voices of representation. Individuals capable of pointing out lingering fallacies and stereotypes are all the more necessary at this stage, as majority groups begin to take interest in the uncorrected opinions of minority figures, and minority individuals increasingly seek out lives of their own design. As Alexie hearkens back to the past with his portrayal of common thought and stereotype, interspersed with compelling story and filmmaking, he also presses forward to ease the passage of the disenfranchised into the future.

Works Cited

Business of Fancydancing, The. Dir. Sherman Alexie. Perf. Evan Adams, Michelle St.

John, Gene Tagaban, Swil Kanim. 8 July 2003. DVD. Fox Lorber.

Cornell, Stephen. "The New Indian Politics." American INdians and U.S. Politics: A Companion Reader. John M. Meyer. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2002. 93 – 106.

Internet Movie Database. 1990 - 2009. IMDB.com, INc. 23 March 2009.
<http://www.imdb.com>

Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Perf. Adam Beach, Evan ADams, Irene Bedard, Gary Farmer. 26 June 1998. DVD. Miramax Films.

"Smoke Signals." Rolling Stone. 8 Dec. 2008. 23 MArch 2009. <http://wwww.rollingstone.com/reviews/movie/598045/review/5948046/smoke_signals>

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