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Pulling History Forward: Challenging and Reinscribing Historical Narratives in Sherman Alexie's Poetry A Thesis in English by Laurie LePain Kopack Submitted in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts August 2010 Marygrove College Department of English and Modern Languages
Dates of Approval ____________________ ____________________ ____________________
____________________________________ Darcy L. Brandel, Ph. D., Thesis Advisor Assistant Professor of English ____________________________________ Donald E. Levin, Ph. D., Second Reader Professor of English ____________________________________ Chae-Pyong Song, Ph. D., Graduate Director Associate Professor of English
1 Pulling History Forward: Challenging and Reinscribing Historical Narratives in Sherman Alexie's Poetry Tell all the Truth but tell it slant-- Success in Circuit lies ............. The Truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind-- --Emily Dickinson If I stand at this window long enough I will see the long thread of history float randomly through the breeze. This is all I know about peace. --Sherman Alexie, One Stick Song You will forget More than you remember That is why we all dream slowly. --Sherman Alexie, Old Shirts and New Skins Native Americans
have been responding to colonization in writing and literature as far back as the 1770's when Samson Occum (1723- 1792) published a Sermon at the Execution of Moses Paul and A Choice Collection of Hymns and Spiritual Songs as well as A Short Narrative of My Life. There are several other early writers worth noting: for example, Jane Johnson Schoolcraft (1800-1842) who wrote poetry and translated songs and stories from the Ojibwa to English; Sarah Winnemuca (1841-1891) who authored Life Among the Paiutes: Their Wrongs and Claims; and Zitkala-Sa (1876-1938) who wrote Why I am a Pagan and other autobiographical essays. Critic James Rupert sees Native American literature
s today as "challenging the status quo
in important ways, with authors seeking to renegotiate the dualisms of modernism, such as urban vs. rural, native
2 vs. nonnative, and, in addition, as a way to re-imagine modernistic oppositions in radical new ways that question all presuppositions" (187). In a continuation of this well established literary legacy, Sherman Alexie, the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene author and film maker, arrived on the literary scene in 1992 when his first collection of prose and poetry The Business of Fancydancing was published and received high praise from both readers and critics. Since then he has published twelve collections of poetry, seven collections of fiction and two screenplays. Alexie's writing is part of the most recent of three waves of Native American writing, generally referred to as a Renaissance in Native-authored literatures, that began as a result of the political activism of the late 1960s and 70s and the release of M. Scott Momaday's House Made of Dawn in 1968 (Rupert 173). Sherman Alexie challenges the status quo as he examines the dualisms Rupert refers to, and through his writing delivers a new understanding of Indian life to his readers. Alexie works in five different genres: short story, novel, non-fiction, poetry and screenplay; however, my focus is on his poetry. The poetry has not been as thoroughly explored as the other genres. Although the fiction and the poetry both contain historical references
throughout, the poetry, unencumbered by the need for a linear narrative, moves more freely between time periods and shifting identities of major historical characters such as Crazy Horse. For this reason, the poetry is rich with themes of racial violence, displacement, and extermination that occur during various periods but are woven together within the poems. The line between past, present, and future is porous in Alexie's poetry so that interpenetrations of historical eras occur, thus creating a timeline that can only exist in a mythological sense.
3 In his poetry, Alexie uses a strategy that I call "pulling history forward"; that is, he foregrounds often marginalized historical details, causing the reader to acknowledge a difficult and violent past and a present that is still largely determined by that past. Alexie brings history forward to the present in his poetry by exploring themes of displacement and extermination, and he foregrounds history in a more specific way by writing individual historic events into his poetry. Through storytelling, Alexie weaves historic details with more current events so that they are intrinsically linked in the text, thus creating an awareness of the difficulties and complexities of Indian life today. In retelling the violent history, or story, of the United States, Alexie makes the reader aware of the uncomfortable disconnect between what happened and what is still happening to the Indigenous Peoples
of this country, and what the history books and popular mythology tell us. In Understanding Sherman Alexie, Donald Grassian acknowledges this disconnect, stating that one of Alexie's "purposes is to rewrite dominant American history, which barely acknowledges the violent colonization and subsequent massacres of Indians by European settlers, because [. . .] to do so would severely damage American national identity
and pride" (8). Alexie joins Native writers and scholars in other disciplines who are also involved in the task of retelling the history of the United States and challenging the dominant national narrative so that the disturbing and violent narrative of colonization is included. For example, Ned Blackhawk, in his book Violence Over the Land, argues that "still missing from most narratives of American history are clear and informed analyses of our nation's indigenous peoples. Although Indians are emblematic of America and continue to excite imaginations of the young both here and abroad, Indian History
is no mere
4 curiosity or sideshow in the drama of the American past" (2-3). Blackhawk further articulates this view by challenging generally accepted narratives of American history: "The narrative of American history [. . .] has failed to gauge the violence that remade much of the continent before U.S. expansion. Nor have American historians fully assessed the violent effects of such expansion on the many Indian peoples caught within these continental changes" (1). By telling the history of the Shoshone people and challenging currently accepted views, Blackhawk is challenging our national narrative in the same way that Sherman Alexie does by pulling history forward in his poetry. In the poetry, Alexie positions the historical narrative of marginalization, violence and colonization beside the dominant national narratives of freedom, democracy and entitlement, using complex poetic forms, such as the sonnet, to add to the complexity of his work, while also providing structure to painful narratives. The poetry this paper examines deals with history in three different ways: it explores and complicates broad themes of extermination and displacement using the analogy of nonhuman pests; it resurrects Crazy Horse as both the historic warrior and a more contemporary version of Native men; and it undertakes a more specific exploration of actual historical events so that previously marginalized historical details are centralized in the poems. These methods create awareness in the reader by articulating the recurrent traumas that Native populations have been subject to over the last 500 hundred years. Poems on Displacement and Extermination Since first contact with European explorers, the indigenous people of the Americas have been represented in a language determined by those who came to conquer and settle the lands that once belonged to the newly conquered. From the very
5 beginning, when the term `Indian' was used to refer to the original inhabitants of the Americas, Native Americans' status has been, and still is, reflected in the terms that the dominant culture employs to refer to them. The various names that have been used to refer to Indians has evolved as their political and geographical situation has evolved, and most recently, from the INDIAN WARS
of the late 1800's through today, the names of common pests have often been used to refer to native populations. Scholar Katie Kane states in her article, "Nits Make Lice: Drogheda, Sand Creek, and the Poetics of Colonial Extermination": Metaphors for the natives matched transformation in land ownership that took place as the state systemized its Indian policy
from the semi-organized approach of "Removal" in the early part of the nineteenth century to the procedure of reservationing in the mid 1800's. As the land in North America changed hands from native to settler, the `noble savage' of Fenimore Cooper's prose became the Cherokee `dogs' of Andrew Jackson's day, and the vermin of Chivington's epoch, "nits make lice." Colonial metaphors can be read for the histories they record of shifting power balance between colonizer and colonized. (92) Reflecting on the historical use of metaphors involving pests and vermin to refer to Native Americans, Kane illustrates how language is used to shape popular perceptions of race. There is a consistent theme of invasion, displacement and extermination Sherman Alexie's poetry, and in order to convey these themes, he employs various nonhuman forms of life that occupy space otherwise claimed by human inhabitants. Alexie's non-human life forms represent a variety of species including birds, insects and
6 small mammals, and what they all have in common is that they represent unwanted pests that need to be removed so that the privileged and entitled human occupants can justify their claim to the space they occupy. Using invading insects and other common, yet despised household pests as imperial metaphors, these poems explore the triplet themes of invasion, displacement and extermination. The poem "The Theology of Cockroaches" (One Stick Song, 2000) is a subtle exploration of invasion. The speaker is uncertain and ambiguous about the threat a possible cockroach might pose. While reflecting on the possible invasion, "The Theology of Cockroaches" features a commonly reviled pest as its focus; however, this invasion is more an imagined trespass than a real one. The possibility of the cockroach represents a pervasive fear of invasion, as well as a threat to the speaker's way of life. While the cockroach is never actually spotted, Diane, the speaker's wife (also the name of Alexie's wife) believes she saw it "scuttle along the baseboard / though she cannot be positive / because she was otherwise distracted / and only saw it out of the corner / of her eyes, the cockroach / or rather, the potential cockroach" (5-9). The cockroach of this poem is the embodiment of an inherent fear of invasion, loss of home and security to an unseen threat. The speaker's wife never actually spots the cockroach, and believes that it "vanished / before she could get a good look at it" (11-12). The possibility this single cockroach carries is the fear of a larger invasion because "cockroaches are never alone" (46-47). Alexie uses this opportunity to refer to the European invasion of the Americas: "Impossible. The impossible cockroach / Is not alone, I think, cockroaches / Are never alone, never hermits never/ The last on one the ship, never / The one who dies alone. /
7 Christopher Columbus
was a cockroach / And look what followed him" (43-48). The association of the solitary cockroach with Christopher Columbus, a figure who serves as a national symbol of exploration and discovery, transforms this personal confrontation of husband and wife in their upscale bathroom with a single possible cockroach into a historically real full-scale invasion. By naming Columbus a cockroach, Alexie evokes the seemingly unending invasion of settlers that forever changed the lives of the indigenous peoples of the Americas. The fear of invasion in the poem can be interpreted as both a mild form of paranoia and also a realistic fear, because if Diane really did see a cockroach then surely there are hundreds more hidden in the walls and floors. However, the uncertainly of the existence of the invading cockroach permeates this poem as the speaker refers to the insect as an unseen "angel that scuttles along the hardwood" (75-76). In a continuation of the religious imagery introduced in the title "Theology of Cockroaches," the poem concludes with the speaker and his wife Diane kneeling in the bathroom and wondering, "was the cockroach / not a cockroach at all, but a visible prayer / a corporeal sin, a tiny piece / of forgiveness" (90-93). Along with the implied fear of invasion, there is also the loss of distance the husband and wife have put between themselves and a former life of poverty. By linking the persona of Christopher Columbus with the possible presence of cockroaches in the speaker's bathroom, Alexie has linked the concept of invasion and loss of safety and comfort in his own home with the violent occupation and colonization of North America by European settlers after first contact in 1492. As in "Theology of Cockroaches," Alexie specifically foregrounds the ideas of invasion and displacement in the poem "Small Ceremonies" from the collection titled
8 Face (2009). The poem features a metaphorical struggle between a spider who inhabits a mailbox and the owner of that mailbox. The speaker describes his frequent skirmishes with the single spider that has made its home there. On daily trips to collect his mail, the speaker pushes the web aside destroying the spider's home, yet he finds comparison with the fragile creature that has come to inhabit this space creating an ambivalence regarding the need to remove the spider: "Union worker and guerilla soldier / Will not surrender to me. I admire / this spider, though what I see as boldness / Is likely the dumb instinct to survive" (25-28). The relationship between speaker and spider is personal in this poem, as the two individuals face off each day. The speaker admits that he admires the spider for its boldness and perseverance, even though he knows these traits may only be survival instincts, yet he fails to see his own perseverance in collecting his mail each day in the same light, that is, as a necessary daily act. While the speaker in "Small Ceremonies" shows sympathy for the spider, including an attempted recognition of the spider's identity, he continues for seven mornings to destroy the spider's web in order to collect his mail, and eventually, on the eighth morning, the spider has relinquished and abandoned its home in the mailbox. The speaker expresses guilt for the damage he wreaks during his daily cycle of living: "I only ask these questions / Because I want to confess and atone / for the small sin of valuing my life / More than the life of this nameless spider, who rebuilds its damn web for seven days and seven nights / This eight legged architect, street fighter" (19-24). While feeling the need to confess and be forgiven for his destruction of the spider's web, there is also a justification of that destruction implied within the speaker's confession, as he admits to the "small sin of valuing" his life more than the life of "this nameless
9 spider" [emphasis mine]. The speaker explicitly tells the reader that his sin is "small" and further diminishes the importance of the spider by calling it "nameless". While juxtaposing the needs of the speaker who visits his mailbox daily to collect his mail with the spider who has inconveniently chosen this spot to build its home, Alexie alludes to the constant and often violent confrontations over land that Native Americans have continuously encountered. The speaker's simple need to fetch his mail is pitted against the "eight legged architect" and "street fighter" spider's home building effort, and the speaker displays an ambivalence regarding the actual need to displace the spider that he obviously admires. Even as the speaker tells us "I want to confess and atone / for the small sin of valuing my life/ more than the life of this nameless spider" he is not convincing, as his ability to collect his daily mail is not exactly a life sustaining activity when we see it pitted against the spider who tenaciously rebuilds its home day after day (19-21). While the speaker doesn't actually take the spider's life, it is very clear that getting his mail from the mailbox each day has more value than the spider who resides there, so that the spider is marginalized and devalued. The speaker lives with the knowledge that he is entitled and possesses the power to decide the spider's fate regardless of his respect for the spider, mimicking paternalistic colonial power over Indian populations. By pairing the owner of the mailbox with the solitary spider, Alexie recreates the opposition between the historical narrative of freedom and entitlement and the colonial paradigm of violent displacement. While the poem "Naked and Damp with a Towel Around My Head I Noticed Movement on the Basement Carpet" (Face, 2009) continues the theme of invasion and displacement in its exploration of unwanted pests, the poem introduces the idea of
10 historical extermination or genocide. Alexie uses an incident of ant infestation to shape this exploration of invasion, war, and extermination for the purpose of protecting the speaker's home. The first line of "Naked and Damp" refers immediately to the writhing mass of unwanted insects: "Ants invaded our home, our walls, ceilings and floors. / I killed the little red bastards by the dozens" (1-2). Explicitly militaristic language continues throughout the poem, for example, "They would not retreat or surrender. They warred" (3). There is a change in tone from the previous two poems where the conflict was personal. In "Naked and Damp" the invaders are not seen as individuals who possess a singular identity that the speaker can identify with, like the solitary spider or the possible cockroach. The invading ants are depicted as "little red bastards" that the speaker discovers after taking a shower in a basement bathroom (2). Like the voice in "Theology of Cockroaches," the speaker admits that the ants who occupied his home possess the ability to rob him of his current comfortable life style
, simply by bringing with them the memory of years of living in poverty
on the reservation: "Fuck the ants! I felt poor / Again like a rez urchin, as if a dozen / Years of peace and joy had been destroyed by the war / With these terrorists" (13-15). The invasion of ants and the insecurity they carry with them causes a violent reaction in the speaker as he both identifies with the insects as his "sacred little cousins," yet explains that "I killed and killed and killed my ant cousins / I protected my home, my walls, ceilings and floors, / Because the rich must always make war on the poor" (17-19). The ants are compared to terrorists who have the ability to steal the speaker's well being and cause him to feel like a "rez urchin" as they destroy "years of peace" while at the same time, Alexie introduces the idea of class warfare in the line "the rich must always make war on the poor." (14-
11 15, 17-19). The final two stanzas of "Naked and Damp" emphasize the metaphorical battle between the privileged speaker and the powerless ants; even though he recognizes the ants as cousins, connecting invaded and invader, the speaker wonders what "profane boor / wants to genocide his sacred little cousins?" (10-11). While defending his need to protect his home and lifestyle, the speaker shows ambivalence towards the task at hand by finding connection between the ants and himself. Alexie conjures images of war and terrorist attacks, and refers to the historical persona of General Sheridan as he compares the invading ants to "Phillip Sheridan and his illiterate corps / Of cavalry grunts" (4-5) who were responsible for, among other things, the campaign to exterminate the buffalo in the early 1870's in order to deprive the Indians of their primary food source and deplete native populations through starvation.1 The speaker's ambivalence toward the invading ants in "Naked and Damp" takes a more literal form as he names the ants "little red bastards" in the first stanza, identifying them with Indians, yet he complicates this view even further in the second stanza when he finds comparison with "Phil Sheridan and his illiterate corps / Of cavalry grunts" (2, 4-5), thus identifying the ants with both Indians and the invading Europeans. No matter the ambivalence, the speaker ultimately names the ants "terrorists"; that "I killed and killed and killed and killed", even as he names them "my ant cousins" he protects "my home, my walls, ceiling and floors" (16-18). The language of war, terrorism and genocide is used throughout the poem conjuring the violent colonization and massacres that have been inflicted upon Native populations as more and more 1 In Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown explains that "Of the 3,700,000 buffalo destroyed from 1872 through 1874 only 150,000 were killed by Indians. When a group of concerned Texans asked General Sheridan if something should not be done to stop the white hunter's wholesale slaughter, he replied, "Let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance" (265).
12 European settlers, encouraged by tantalizing offers of cheap or free land offered by the U.S. Government, spread across the United States, and the two opposing populations pushed against each other. By writing the ant invasion in these militaristic terms the poem becomes an allegory of the not so distant past of violent struggles over land and the rights of Native Americans. A more subtle narrative of marginalization and extermination as a consequence of colonialism appears in "Blood Sonnet #3," one in a series of five sonnets titled "The Blood Sonnets" (Face, 2009). The poem returns to the idea of unwanted interlopers, however, this time they are found dead in the subterranean space below the speaker's house, so that the need to go on the offensive is unnecessary. "In the crawl space" the speaker finds "gray feathers in the dirt" that at first seem to be a dead bird, but upon closer examination he sees "the fur / of a dead mother rat" and her unborn babies "who died in their mother's womb, / and the one who was birthed and died alone / in the crawlspace dark" (1-2, 3-4, 6-8). This reference to the unborn offspring and the one infant who actually made it through the difficult birthing process only to be left alone to die in the crawlspace, conjures a horrifying image of a helpless mother and newborn left alone in the dark to die. The speaker explores the site of this tragedy that happened "weeks or months back," and sadness permeates the text as the speaker mourns the loss of two generations of a rat family and asks himself "Why do I mourn these rats? Why do I care? / Because even the vermin need our prayers? (9, 13-14). Even as the speaker prepares to remove the dead remains of the rats from his basement, he conveys ambivalence toward the dead rat family, as his conflicting emotions surface. These opposing emotions, along with language denoting pests, such as "vermin" to name the
13 rats, informs the reader that if the rats were alive, the speaker's feelings towards the rats would be less tender. The mother rat and her offspring, all dead for "weeks or months" call to mind historical images of populations deemed disposable, pushed to the edges of society, left without resources for survival, and often murdered or left for dead in the process (9). In this narrative the subjects die alone and are only valued as individuals later when their lifeless remains must be removed. In "Blood Sonnet #3" the speaker admits that he "shall be haunted by the small bones" of the lifeless rats, which implies complicity and guilt (5). While the rats die alone and forgotten in the dark crawlspace, those living overhead in the light move through their days with assuredness, knowing they have a rightful place in the world. The marginalization of the rats and their need for a home rubs uncomfortably against the homeowner's need to safeguard his living space against invading rats or other "vermin". Alexie again uses the allegory of unwanted pests who must die in order for the lives of the privileged population to flourish, but complicates the need for displacement as the speaker in the poem "mourns the loss of two generations of rats" and is "haunted" by the small dead bodies he finds in his crawlspace and states "even the vermin need our prayers" (14). By placing the rat corpses in the hidden space beneath the speaker's house, Alexie literally marginalizes the animals. He creates a focal point for the reader to see one life as more valuable than another, calling comparison to the European project of colonization in the U. S. where the colonizers are privileged and Native populations are marginalized and subjected to the will of colonizing powers. Using a domestic story of starlings nesting too close to a sick child's bedroom window to relate the historical theme of othering and genocide of Indian populations,
14 "Avian Nights" (Face, 2009) is an exploration of opposing populations rubbing against each other with violent and deadly results. In the process of relating this domestic saga, Alexie uses the battle a homeowner wages on starlings that have nested in the eaves of his house. The unquestioning ease with which the violent and deadly removal takes place mirrors the deadly violence and removals of Indian populations, highlighting the recurrent trauma they have been subjected to since first contact. The poem alludes to the violent history of invasion, displacement and extermination in the United States, using starlings, depicted here as "rats with wings" (2). The speaker's home is beset by starlings necessitating the need to employ "a quick exterminator" to remove the unwanted birds and their nests (4). The hired exterminator "Sings / In Spanish as he pulls three baby birds / [. . .] uses a thumb / And finger to snap the bird's necks-crack, crack / Crack, then drops the bodies to the driveway (4-10). The Spanish speaking exterminator, who brings to mind the invasion of the conquistadors, unflinchingly finishes the job of ridding the home of these "odd, filthy, and graceless" birds (71). The exterminator sings in Spanish as he completes his job, but remains an uninvolved outsider who fills the role of mercenary, paid to take care of the unpleasant but necessary killing and removal of these "scavengers we pay to have killed" (3). The presence of the starling's "shit soaked nests" and the strange, noisy birds or "Rats with wings" that inhabit the speaker's home are contrasted with the domestic needs of this suburban family, as the parents attempt to protect their sick son from the disturbing presence of the birds who have built their nests under the eaves, outside the child's bedroom window (2).
15 The poem begins with the invasion of the starlings and ends with their justified extermination. "We had to do this. / We rationalize. They woke up our son / with their strange songs and the beating of their wings" (25-27). The "strange songs" and "beating of their wings" evokes the pulsating and chant-like singing and drums of Indian music. The speaker's rational viewpoint disintegrates when the scene of the worried parents visiting their sick son in the hospital is juxtaposed with the adult starlings who return to the site of their destroyed nests for three days, continually screaming "scree-scree-scree" (24). The beloved son of the poem crashes three times during the night and the parents "attacked the walls of the ICU / With human wings. Scree-scree-scree. Grief can take / the form of starlings, of birds who refuse / to leave the dead" (65-68). The comparison of starlings whose offspring have been killed and nest destroyed with worried and bereft parents, evokes a more sympathetic view of the equally bereft adult starlings who continually return in search of their destroyed brood. The final two stanzas of the poem further complicate the disturbing struggle between the protective parents and the birds longing to return to their destroyed home and dead offspring: I'm positive they would open the doors Of our house and come for us as we sleep. We killed their children. We started this war, Tell me what is the difference between Birds and us, between their pain and our pain? We build monuments; they rebuild nests. They lay other eggs; we conceive again Dumb birds, dumb starlings, dumb women, dumb men. (73-80)
16 The removal and extermination of the starlings is defended, just as in the history of the conquest of the Americas and the genocide that followed. While the speaker is complicit in the death of the starlings, difference and the othering of the contained and removed birds is employed to validate the relative inferiority of the conquered, in this case, the starlings. While exploring this complicity the speaker asks "Do starlings celebrate their days of birth? / Do they lust and take each other to bed / [. . .] How do they bury their dead?" (33-36). Even as the ambivalent speaker tries to find connection with the birds, the questions he poses highlight racist presumptions of difference as the privileged family is affirmed in their assumed superiority, and the paid mercenary upholds this privileged position by destroying/removing the birds from their suburban home. By using the starling / human dichotomy, Alexie refers to the highly uneven Native/European dichotomy with the Natives most often viewed as easily contained, removed, and disposed of; however, in "Avian Nights" the speaker displays awareness that this binary opposition is questionable. In an earlier collection titled One Stick Song (2002), the ideas of invasion and massacre are explored, but this time the poems take on a more explicitly violent `us against them' tone than the previous poems I've discussed. "The Mice War," for example, is an exploration of senseless violence and killing. The speaker is a boy who passes time with his cousin one day by dumping garbage cans in order to find mice in the reservation landfill. What originally appears as a childhood prank quickly turns into a brutal, bloody one-sided battle between the boys and the mice: We dumped the six garbage cans and watched dozens of mice race for their lives across the gray sand of the reservation
17 landfill. With shovel and broom stick, my cousin and I chased them down. I beheaded twenty-seven before I simply beat one mouse into a red puddle. The reservation had taught me to hate, so it was easy to hate the mice. (1-6) Even as the speaker recognizes his own weaknesses and the larger reason behind his younger self`s murderous attack on the mice, he admits to the reader that the reservation had taught them to hate. In poetic terms, "The Mice War" employs epistrophe, an intricate weaving of end line repetition with stanzas that are three lines in length, and the end words of each line are repeated in each stanza throughout the poem. This form provides a neatly organized structure that gives shape to the pain and cruelty in this poem, while emphasizing the repetitive nature of killing that the boys inflict upon the mice. Alexie's use of variations of the same three words at the end of each line; "mice", "reservation" and "I" mirror the inescapable cycle of violence
that the boys are trapped in. They kill the mice because: "the reservation/ had taught [them]to hate" so that the hate spreads to the world around them as the boys "beat the grass because it was grass" and "stepped on that mouse because it was a part of all mice" (5-6, 13, 17). While the speaker defines his actions as sin, and attempts redemption through prayer, no such redemption is available, only painful memories of this violent attack on the mice "who in the beginning and in the end, only wanted to be mice, / while we were two Indian boys, my cousin and I / who, in our beginning, in our end, wanted to flee the reservation" (One Stick Song, 31-33). The cycle of poverty and violence for the two
18 boys in "The Mice War" can only be broken by leaving the reservation.2 The senseless killing and dismembering the boys inflict on the mouse population "across the gray sand" has elements of The Sand Creek massacre of 1864, when Colonel Chivington and his cavalry descended upon the camp of 600 Cheyenne Indians led by Black Kettle and ruthlessly shot, killed and dismembered as many Indians as they could regardless of age or sex, in spite of the fact that the Indians were flying a white flag of surrender and an American flag for protection (Brown, 88-90). The two boys in "Mice Wars" are caught up in a destructive cycle of violence caused by the trauma of war, genocide and large-scale displacement passed down through generations of Native Americans. In her paper "The Trans/Historicity of Trauma in Jeanette Armstrong's Slash and Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer," Nancy Van Styvendale explains this view of trauma as "Rooted in psychoanalytic and poststructuralist methodology" while referring to "the way in which traumatic events, because they cannot be known or integrated by the survivor as they occur, are indirectly accessible only as a symptom--that is, in their belated return to the survivor as repetitive dreams, flashbacks, and reenactments of the event" (204). According to this view, the boys in "The Mice War" are reenacting multiple scenes of war, genocide and displacement as they wreak havoc on the mice population at the reservation landfill. In the cycle of poems discussed in this section, Alexie repeatedly uses the persistent struggle of privileged humans attempting to keep their home environment free of invading insects, birds, rats and other nonhuman life forms that are often considered pests. These reviled pests become easy targets even when they have not actually 2 Not all of Alexie's work comes to the conclusion that one must leave the reservation behind to avoid this cycle. See for example "Giving Blood" in The Business of Fancydancing.
19 invaded a living space, such as the mice in "Mice Wars", where the boys attack on the mice mimics both colonial warfare and the kind of violence that we connect with hate crimes. In Alexie's poetry the human vs. pest struggle becomes a metaphor for the historical violence inflicted upon Native populations from 1492 until the end of the Indian Wars of the late 1800's, and the othering and marginalization that still takes place today.3 Crazy Horse Poems Alexie consistently refers to historical events and places them in a modern context to illustrate how the past and present are inherently linked, with the reality for Indians today determined by a disturbing and violent history. Critic Kathleen Carroll explains "By drawing the past into the present, Alexie brings the subordinate and the dominant cultures into conversation with each other and subliminally critiques the ways that being inscribed within the Eurocentric stereotype of `the white man's Indian' have usurped Native American's efforts to re-imagine and recreate a modern identity" (75). Nowhere in the poetry is this effort to recreate and re-imagine a modern identity by creating a dialogue between the two cultures more apparent than in the poetry that features Crazy Horse as a central image. Crazy Horse is an iconic historic symbol often remembered for his role in the defeat of Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn. Afterwards he was taken into custody by the U.S. military and killed. Crazy Horse is featured in many of Alexie's poems as both a contemporary figure as well as the 3 The timelessness of this theme was highlighted recently in an especially ugly way. A recent ad on the website UsedWinnipeg.com carried this content: "Have you ever had the experience of getting home to find those pesky little buggers hanging outside your home, in the back alley or on the corner??? Well fear no more; with my service I will simply do a harmless relocation. With one phone call I will arrive and net the pest, load them in the containment unit (pickup truck) and then relocate them to their habitat." The ad contained a photo of three Indian teenagers to illustrate what pests might need to be removed.
20 historical warrior figure. In keeping with much of his other work, Alexie uses the persona of Crazy Horse to emphasize themes of poverty, displacement and cultural identity
, while also blending these issues with historical events. The line between past and present is porous in the poems so that the difference between past and present is blurred or confused. Crazy Horse appears as a contemporary male Indian in the poem, while also appearing simultaneously as the historical figure that is thought to have so famously defeated Custer; however Alexie's modern day personification of Crazy Horse is no war hero. The poems highlight the many difficulties that today's Indians must cope with, while also connecting historical themes of colonial violence, genocide and displacement. Through storytelling Sherman Alexie weaves details of Crazy Horse's life into the life of a contemporary Indian man in "Giving Blood," from The Business of Fancydancing published in 1992. This is a narrative poem that portrays Crazy Horse as a young man whose identity shifts from a contemporary time frame to a historical one, confusing the line between past and present. Crazy Horse finds that he has been left behind in the city with no money or other resources "because all the Indians left this city while I was / sleeping / and forgot to tell me" (3-5). In need of money so he can catch a cab back to the reservation, he goes to the local blood bank to sell his blood, his only resource of value. Originally hoping to sell "three to four pints of blood" he learns that the limit is one pint, and he has to submit to an "extensive screening process which involves a physical / examination / and interview / which is a pain in the ass but I need the money so I sit down" (9, 14-17). Alexie loops the narrative from present to past and back again during the screening process. The speaker responds to the white nurse's
21 questions when he explains that his name is Crazy Horse and his birthday is June 25, 1876, and the nurse's litany of perfunctory questions continues, including invasive requests for personal information
such as religious preference and sexual partners. The final ironic question she asks Crazy Horse is "if I still have enough heart / and I tell her I don't know it's been a long time but I'd like to / give it a try" (35-37). When all his vital information is fed into the computer the nurse informs him "I'm / sorry Mr. Crazy Horse / but we've already taken too much of your blood / and you won't be eligible / to donate for another generation or two" (43-47). The screening process at the blood bank mirrors the government bureaucracy established to determine Native and Tribal identity with the measurement of exactly how much native blood an individual possesses to determine native identity by U.S. government standards. Heart and blood are bonded in "Giving Blood," linking the Life Force
of Crazy Horse with all Indians when the nurse tells him "we've already taken too much of your blood"(44). Perhaps this ironic statement refers to the fact that Crazy Horse was murdered while incarcerated after the Battle of Little Bighorn, as well as the fact that so many Indians have literally lost their blood in the many violent and deadly confrontations with colonial power. The nurse not only questions whether or not Crazy Horse has "enough heart" but also refuses to allow him to sell his blood, because, historically speaking, the government has "taken too much." The statistics of race and origin that are so often used to control populations are quantified by the computer, and Crazy Horse finds that even his blood has no economic value. Crazy Horse has been so degraded and depleted by history that the blood bank won't accept his blood, his only available resource after years of colonization and subjugation. "Giving Blood" reflects on themes of violent colonial history and its legacy
22 of stolen resources and poverty in Native communities. The historical legacy of poverty, degraded health, and depleted resources due to violent and repressive colonial policies has left this modern day Crazy Horse stranded in the city with no possible way to return to the reservation and join the Indians who left him behind. This narrative juxtaposes the stranded and abandoned status of the speaker against the all-powerful nurse at the blood bank, reinventing the relationship of the privileged and entitled ruling class with Indians who have been impoverished by 500 years of colonial violence and domination. In another surreal look at Crazy Horse, Alexie uses his persona to explore the experience of a veteran of a more recent war in the poem "War All the Time" from Alexie's first collection of poetry, The Business of Fancydancing (1992). While this character mimics Crazy Horse's warrior status, the word "crazy" in his name is also relevant because this contemporary warrior has been so traumatized by his military experience that he has become a dysfunctional Indian. The Crazy Horse of this poem is a Viet Nam
vet who goes directly to the Breakaway Bar when he returns to the reservation from Viet Nam. The poem implicates the Breakaway Bar as Crazy Horse's home when the bar is identified as the place where he received his official draft notice: "Crazy Horse comes back from Viet Nam / Straight into the Breakaway Bar, / Sits down at the same table / He was sitting at two years earlier / When he received his draft notice" (1-5). This modern version of Crazy Horse mirrors the historical figure's warrior status; however, instead of traditional dress he is decorated with army issue medals. While Crazy Horse was in the dense jungles of Viet Nam he never saw his Indian image in the face of another soldier, and was never able to identify the enemy, "because there are no mirrors in the bush / only eyes tracing paths through the air / eyes
23 tearing into the chest, searching / for the heart" (9-12). In this manifestation of Crazy Horse the traumatized war hero is unsure of his racial identity, and his status as war hero is meaningless to his existence at home "because he's some color of hero / although he doesn't know if it's red or white"(7-8). Just as Alexie uses the heart as a central metaphor in "Giving Blood," the heart is also at the center of this poem, and refers to the essence or true identity
of Crazy Horse. While the nurse at the blood bank asked Crazy Horse if he had "enough heart," here the enemy's eyes search for and tear into his chest in search of his heart. His heart is not only his central life force but also the source of his identity. While the lines between enemy and friend are blurred in the jungles of Viet Nam where Crazy Horse felt eyes upon him but could not actually see or know who the enemy was, the line between fearless warrior and damaged vet is also blurred. Crazy Horse returns home as a war ravaged alcoholic vet who has lost everything including his sense of self: "Crazy Horse sells his medals / when he goes broke, buys a dozen beers / and drinks them all, tells the Bartender / he's short on time all the time now" (12-15). Crazy Horse is living with knowledge that was seared into him in battle, that life is finite and could come to an abrupt and violent end at any moment. In a conversation with the bartender, "Crazy Horse tells him you can't stop a man / from trying to survive, no matter where he is" (20-21). Survival at home is just as tenuous as it was in the chaos and violence of Viet Nam and takes precedence over all other activities, including racial identification and the revolutionary fervor that Crazy Horse might otherwise embody. Crazy Horse lives like he's dying, because he is "short on time all the time now" and measures time by "leaning out car windows / shattering beer bottles off road signs" in a reservation re-
24 enactment of launching bombs or grenades, except now the only person he is killing is himself (15, 16-17). While Alexie has been criticized by some Native authors for his depiction of drunken Indians, critic Stephen Evans believes that "Alexie's drunken Indians achieve and convey for readers vital resonances of realism when he uses them to express recursive, historical patterns of defeat and exploitation of Indian peoples by white civilization" (54). In "War All the Time" Crazy Horse has made the ultimate sacrifice for a country that has already taken so much from him, so that as a returning vet he has lost both his identity and his sanity, and is living only to die, in a repeating cycle of the historic pattern of defeat and exploitation that Evans refers to. Using Crazy Horse as both a historical icon and a modern Indian, Alexie interrogates power relationships and institutions that uphold those relationships in "Indian Education" from the Old Shirts & New Skins (1993). In the poem, the remains of Crazy Horse are in a storage room at the Smithsonian Museum in a crate erroneously marked "ANONYMOUS HOPI MALE" (4). This ironic placement of Crazy Horse brings to light to the fact that many Native American Art
ifacts in museums today are considered important tribal and cultural artifact
s that have been removed from tribal lands to add to the inventory of private collectors and museums across the country. In this poem, however, the museum curators don't even realize the true identification or value of what they have. Alexie uses his own version of magic realism in the narrative as Crazy Horse begins exploring the museum where he finds; "The surface of the moon, Judy Garland / and her red shoes, a stuffed horse named / Comanche, the only surviving / member of the Seventh Cavalry / at Little Big Horn" (6-10) These iconic cultural images blend native and mainstream culture, juxtaposing a crazy quilt of clashing
25 cultural metaphors and symbols. Crazy Horse eventually ends up watching cable television
after a security guard leaves him in a room alone, where he "watched a basketball game, every black and white / western, a documentary about a scientist / who travelled the Great Plains in the 1800's / measuring Indians and settlers, discovering / that the Indians were two inches taller / on average. . ." (14-19). Basketball and westerns appear beside a bogus scientific study in this ironic passage which depicts Crazy Horse exploring images of mainstream culture as well as mainstream culture's imagined Indians. The scientist and his project of measuring and comparing the heights of settler populations against native populations refers to scientific and anthropological studies that took place during the 19th century, with much of this inquiry based on racist stereotypes, and used to substantiate pre-existing racial assumptions. In the concluding lines of this poem, "Crazy Horse measured himself / against the fact of a mirror, traded faces / with a taxi driver and memorized the city, / folding, unfolding, his mapped heart" (21-24). As with the previous two poems, the heart of Crazy Horse is a key symbol. The repetitions of both the mirror and the heart point to the internal and external sense of identity of the Native male who is misunderstood by both mainstream culture and the scientific community
. In "Indian Education" the reader is faced with the uncomfortable fact that indigenous remains in many museums like the Smithsonian represent a widespread theft of cultures, while the movies Crazy Horse views amount to misrepresentation and the upholding of white culture while Indians are presented as celluloid stereotypes of stoic or violent Indians who are doomed to extinction.
26 The resurrecting of Crazy Horse enables Alexie to explore the complexities of Indian life today while also drawing on historical images to contextualize Native pain. In his essay "Word as Weapon" Dean Radar comments on Alexie's poetry that employs historical figures like Crazy Horse: "Drawing its power from the ability of the reader to picture and comprehend the juxtapositions of class, privilege, and agency, Alexie's poems riff on that image through intriguing twists of language and metaphor" (156). In "The Year of the Indian" (First Indian on the Moon, 1993), Alexie uses Crazy Horse to create contrasting images through the lens of seasonal celebrations as practiced by the privileged culture, and placing them beside the reality on the reservation. The calendar year illustrates the cycle of a normal year, its seasons and holidays juxtaposed against social issues
that impact native communities, such as poverty, alcoholism, hopelessness, and the colonial legacy of violence. Crazy Horse appears in the month of April as Jesus Christ
but there is no hope for a Native savior in these lines: How would your heart change if I told you Jesus Christ had already come back for the second time and got crucified again? he called himself Crazy Horse and never said anything about a third attempt. (36-39) Referring to the Easter holiday and Christian celebration of the resurrection of Christ, Alexie inserts Crazy Horse into this example of Christian mythology, removing the comfort of hope that Christian religion
s provide followers in their belief in the inevitably of the second coming of Christ. Crazy Horse appears in another major holiday, this time in December, masquerading as Santa Claus for the reservation school Christmas party. Crazy Horse "reads the letters of the Indian boys / and girls asking for
27 jobs, college educations, a ticket for a / Greyhound bus traveling back or ahead five hundred years" (152-154). These children ask Crazy Horse / Santa Claus for meaningful, productive lives, escape from the reservation and current repressive time period, yet all this Crazy Horse / Santa Claus can offer them is "a few hard candies, an orange, and miles and miles of treaties" (155-156). Crazy Horse, historically a powerful warrior, is now an impotent cultural icon with nothing of value to offer his people. The Breakaway Bar appears again in this poem as the place that Crazy Horse retreats to after escaping from the disappointed children to watch the classic holiday film White Christmas, featuring "choirboys who go home afterward and open / their presents, all finding rifles, hammers and nails to build walls" (159-160). The irony of the movie title paired with the choir boy's gifts creates a sense of empire and entitlement as the white choir boys receive the tools of empire and control, such as rifles, and tools for building walls. Alexie repeatedly weaves symbols of both dominant and native cultures in these poems, creating an unsettling juxtaposition that illustrates how the various cultures have blended while at the same time resisted this move towards hybridity. There is an inherent violence in this juxtaposition as the symbols of the dominant culture serve to repress or reshape those originating from Native cultures. Alexie uses the language of treaties and racist edicts as he positions the colonial narrative beside images from popular culture, such as a 7-11 convenience store, and milk cartons bearing photos of missing children in the poem "Missing" from the The Business of Fancydancing. Crazy Horse is introduced to the reader as contemporary Indian working midnights for minimum wage at a 7-11. Crazy Horse learns how to take inventory, decides his dreams
28 have expired have become so old they must be sent back to the distributor recycled and shipped to another city, a photo of Crazy Horse printed on each container. (13-18) The text of this poem is interspersed with capitalized edicts and official statements that pronounce rules or use treaty language such as "AS LONG AS WINDS BLOW GRASSES GROW AND RIVERS FLOW" and "NO INDIANS ALOUD" (1920, 26). These statements paired with the narrative in the rest of the poem veer from straightforward storytelling to the magical realism that Alexie often uses to bend time and reality. By using this technique, Alexie creates an ironic portrait of Crazy Horse, who realizes that he is outdated and recycled; his image only manifested in mirrors or represented in a one-dimensional photo on a milk container. In the end, Crazy Horse is only an illusion "fancydancing in the eyes and ears and mouths / of Indian boys" dependent on government checks (24-25). Once again the imagery of mirrors and hearts appear, referring to a crisis of character as Crazy Horse searches through the trash for his identity. As the title of the poem implies, Crazy Horse has vanished into mirrors and history, and the promise of his victory against Custer is also lost in the bottles, government checks and minimum wage jobs that are the reality for many reservation Indians today: "Indian boys / [. . .] / afraid of their hands, reaching for bottles, hips, government checks / every hour punched into their hearts, floating just above minimum" (24-27). By linking historic treaties with a contemporary Crazy Horse who has essentially disappeared, Alexie links the past legacy of broken treaties and racist laws to
29 suppress native populations with current issues of alcoholism, dependence on government money, and minimum wage jobs. In many of the Crazy Horse poems, Alexie weaves historic details with current issues to interrogate the role Crazy Horse played at the Battle of Little Bighorn, while also commenting on current issues of poverty, alcohol abuse and the loss of language, intrinsically linking history with current times in the poem. For example, Crazy Horse plays a leading role in the poem "Crazy Horse Speaks," which first appeared in Old Shirts & New Skins in 1996. In this poem, Crazy Horse speaks in first person about his role in the Battle of Little Big Horn: "Little Big Horn does not belong to me. / I was there / my horse exploded beneath me. / I searched for Long Hair / the man you call Custer [. . .] But it wasn't me who killed him / it was ______ / who poked holes in Custer' ears / and left the body for proof" (12-21). In addition to speaking about the historic battle at Little Big Horn, the speaker refers to the fact that many Indians today believe that Crazy Horse is not the warrior who actually killed Custer. While this version of Crazy Horse still possesses his racial identity, his power as a warrior is depleted by years of degradation and poverty. Crazy Horse tells the reader, "I wear the color of my skin / like a brown paper bag / wrapped around a bottle" alluding to the stereotype of the drunken Indian (28-30). The historical and cultural aftermath of Little Big Horn, and the continual sequential colonial violence that Indians have endured from first contact through the Indian wars of the late 1800's, and since, has created a cycle of degradation, poverty, and alcoholism for many modern day Indians. Currently language is a key issue in Native communities as Indians try to preserve or resurrect tribal languages and broaden their usage, while concurrently, the use of the English
30 language is widely accepted, yet also viewed as the language of oppression: "Sleeping between / the pages of dictionaries / your language cuts / tears holes in my tongue / until I do not have the strength to use the word Love" (31-36). While referring to the loss of tribal languages as well as the loss of cultural cohesion and power when policies of assimilation were enforced, Alexie depicts Crazy Horse as an exhausted alcoholic Indian who has been usurped of his language, his strength as a warrior, and the ability to connect to others through language. While Crazy Horse is primarily remembered today for the epic battle against Custer at Little Big Horn, in "Crazy Horse Speaks" he insists that even though he was present at this battle, the historical event is much more complicated than popular history suggests. Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, the two most well known and often written about Indian leaders involved in the Battle of Little Big Horn, were fighting for their lives and their people's freedom during the time leading up to the Battle at Little Big Horn: "I sat a across the fire / from Sitting Bull / shared smoke and eyes. / We both saw the same thing / our futures tight and small / an 8 x 10 dream / called the reservation. / We had no alternatives / but to fight again and again" (43-52). For Indians at this moment in history everything was at stake, their future, their freedom, their land, and their lives, so that this reference to Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse huddled around a smoky fire planning to fight Custer and his cavalry, also carries the significance of all the battles Indians fought against the European invaders. With so much at stake and so much to lose, the two leaders chose "to fight again and again" rather than be contained by "an 8 x 10 dream / called the reservation." Crazy Horse also complains about his marginalized and static position in the historic narrative as the crazy skin that took
31 Custer on and actually won. Grassian argues that "Crazy Horse criticizes his unmerited label of Crazy, claiming instead that his identity has been tarnished by mainstream Americans, who are unwilling or unable to comprehend him" (35). While Crazy Horse today is almost always paired with the Battle of Little Big Horn, he tells the reader that even though he longed to be anonymous, he has somehow become all of the images related to Indian Warriors in popular culture: "I am the mirror / practicing masks / and definitions. / I have always wanted to be anonymous / instead of the crazy skin / who rode his horse backwards / and laid down alone" (60-66). The poem, organized in seven numbered stanzas, moves back and forth from the actual battle in stanzas two and four, to the "vault of The Mormon Church" in stanza one, that is said to contain "3,000 skeletons of my cousins," while Crazy Horse addresses history and it's legacy today (23). While Crazy Horse appears in several different manifestations in these poems, an underlying theme unifies them. The Crazy Horse persona illustrates how mainstream culture and native cultures both blend with each other in a move towards hybridity, yet also how uneasy and dangerous this juxtaposition of cultures can be for Native Americans. Grassian argues that historical figures like Crazy Horse are employed to "symbolize aspects of Native or mainstream America. Alexie chooses Crazy Horse as an archetypal Indian symbol for his unrelenting desire to defend Native lands and culture as well as his role in the defeat of Custer at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876" (26-27). By linking the historic warrior Crazy Horse to current events in "Crazy Horse Speaks," Alexie links the past and present, highlighting violent and repressive aspects of
32 colonialism so that the historical connection to the present is made, and can be seen as a cause of major challenges that Indian communities face today. There is humor and irony in Alexie's depiction of Crazy Horse. All the Crazy Horse poems employ elements of magic realism so that the past and present blend together and events exist outside the normal rules of a linear narrative. By using elements of magic realism, Alexie is able to bend time, placing historical events in contemporary time, thus bringing historical awareness to the present day. Grassian suggests that Alexie "imagines Crazy Horse in contemporary society
, but as a person who has lost his revolutionary fervor. He does this to show how the spirit of Crazy Horse has vanished for most contemporary Indians, whom, he suggests, have grown complacent" (27). The poems using the Crazy Horse persona create awareness of the recurrent trauma inflicted on Indians from the moment of first contact through current times. Specific Historic Events Sherman Alexie alludes to history and even specific historical characters in the poetry I discussed earlier, however, in this section the emphasis is on poems that refer to specific historical events. By placing often marginalized historic details at the center of these poems, Alexie not only brings a new historic awareness to the reader, he also centralizes history that is often left out of the dominant historical narrative of the United States. Beginning with the arrival of Columbus and moving on through several confrontations and massacres, the poems highlight specific violent moments in history that shaped the colonial project, showing the asymmetrical relationship between the
33 explorers who first arrived on the shores of this continent, the U.S. and British military, and the indigenous peoples of the United States. The speaker in "Postcards to Columbus" (Old Shirts & New Skins) asks the reader to time travel with him; "Beginning at the front door of the White House
, travel west / for 500 years, pass through small towns and house fires, [. . .] / until you find yourself / back at the beginning of this journey, this history and country / folded over itself like a Mobius strip" (1-5). Like the continually looping Mobius strip, the journey that is history folds over itself and loops back around from the front door of the White House, the metaphorical center of power in the U.S., and back to the arrival of Christopher Columbus, like a cassette tape that plays continuously. In this exploration of history, Alexie refers to Columbus as the "most successful Real Estate
agent / who ever lived, sold acres of myth, a house built on stilts / above the river salmon travel by genetic memory" (15-17). Columbus is a national symbol of the "discovery" of North America, which was subsequently opened to waves upon waves of immigrants who came to settle the "empty" land. The indigenous peoples who lived on this land for centuries were judged worthless and disposable, pushed aside, making room for the new inhabitants to occupy the land that became a valuable commodity to be bought and sold as real estate. While Columbus is a key symbol in the mythology of United States history, Alexie calls to mind "acres of myths" and another older mythology, that of the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene people whose creation myths describe the geology of the land of intertwined rivers and the Spokane Waterfalls that salmon once traveled up to spawn and die each year (16). Spokane mythology tells the story of two lovers, Stinging Bee
34 and Chief Mosquetquat's daughter, who poisoned the jealous husband who stood in the way of their union. As punishment for their murderous behavior, the male lover, Stinging Bee, was destined to become the rocks that form the top of Spokane Falls and his lover, Chief Mosquetquat's daughter became the deep pit that the powerful waterfalls plunge into (Ruby 3-4). The Spokane and Coeur d'Alene people were historically considered salmon people because of their dependence on this food source. The development of this river system and building of the Grand Coulee Dam, built between 1935 and 1940, put an end to this crucial subsistence activity (Ruby 279). While "Postcards to Columbus" calls attention to the relatively short history of the United States, Alexie overlays this history with the much longer tribal history and mythology of the Spokane people who depended on the salmon that traveled up the Spokane River to spawn each year. Alexie juxtaposes the past and present while also referring to the contentious issue of language: "Beneath the burden / of 15,000 years my tribe celebrated this country's 200th birthday / by refusing to speak English" (17-19). The speaker suggests that they "will honor the 500th anniversary / of your invasion, Columbus, by driving blindfolded cross-country / naming the first tree we destroy America. / Our flag will be a white sheet / stained with blood and piss" (20-23). The white sheet of surrender is stained with the "blood and piss" of genocide and murder while the tree destroyed in their blindfolded journey is named "America," so that this destructive event marks the beginning of a new nation created in the violent collision of cultures. "Postcards to Columbus" positions the dominant national historical narrative of freedom and entitlement beside the longer Spokane and Coeur d'Alene narrative that
35 goes back "15,000 years," and positions Indians as a people with a rich and long history that goes back much farther than first contact (18). By blending images from popular culture with history, Alexie complicates the generally accepted view of American history and reminds the reader that the relatively short history of this country is marked by scores and scores of violent confrontations with Native peoples. The massacre at Sand Creek, mentioned earlier in this discussion, is one such violent encounter. Referring to the famously violent movie of the same name, Alexie's poem "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" from Old Shirts & New Skins, examines the Sand Creek Massacre led by Colonel Chivington, the man "who advocated the killing and scalping of all Indians, even infants" using the logic that "nits make lice" (Brown 90). By referring to the famous slasher movie in the opening of this poem, Alexie evokes an unnatural violence that is so horrible it is difficult to imagine beyond a movie screen where we are allowed to close our eyes to shut out the images, or enjoy them with the knowledge that they are a created fiction produced for our entertainment. For the victims at Sand Creek there is no such luxury. The fear and terror are real and inescapable at "the killing grounds/ of Sand Creek / where 105 Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho women and children / and 28 men were slaughtered by 700 heavily armed soldiers, / led by Colonel Chivington and his volunteers" (18-23). Alexie moves easily from the past to the present day experience of watching a film for pleasure. The speaker comments on the pornographic violence of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: "I have seen it / and like it: The butchery, its dark humor / and the thin line between art and exploitation" (29-31). "The thin line between art and exploitation" is easily visible in this movie that exploits explicit violence for profit; however, that same "thin line"
36 between art and exploitation is employed by Alexie to highlight the brutality born of racial hatred and greed that motivated Chivington and his regiment of drunken soldiers to embark on their wholesale killing of the Indian men, women and children present at Sand Creek on November 29, 1864 (Brown 91). The speaker returns to the violent history of the film and the Sand Creek Massacre, so that history is again looping continually, like the Mobius strip, but this time on film: "I first saw it in the reservation drive-in / and witnessed the collected history / of America roll and roll across the screen, / voices and dreams distorted by tin speakers (38-41). The violent story of the Sand Creek Massacre was corroborated later by Lieutenant James Connor the day after the violence occurred when he described the killing ground: "In going over the battleground the next day I did not see a body of man, woman or child but was scalped, and in many instances their bodies were mutilated in the most horrible manner - men, woman and children's privates cut out, & etc. I heard one man say that he had cut out a woman's private parts and had them for exhibition on a stick" (Brown 90). The images of the violent usurpation of autonomy, land, family, community and life "roll and roll across the screen" when history is examined, especially the years between 1860 and 1890, an era of "incredible violence, greed, audacity [. . .] and an almost reverential attitude toward the ideal of personal freedom for those who already had it" (Brown xvii). In contrast, the voices of the Indians who did survive these years was often only heard through translations by reporters curious of how the `red man' felt in the face of what was thought to be their sure demise, so that their "voices and dreams" were "distorted by" by "tin speakers" and only heard by bystanders anxious for a peek at an authentic red man before they all disappeared (41).
37 "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" opens with an eight-line stanza that begins with one word, while each line after grows in complexity as Alexie juxtaposes the film with the events at Sand Creek. I Have seen it and like it: the blood, The way like Sand Creek Even its name brings fear, Because I am an American Indian and have learned Words are another kind of violence (1-8). The tension builds from the first line of this stanza, when Alexie refers to the film, and builds throughout the eight lines as the speaker moves back and forth across the thin line that separates violence for entertainment and pleasure to violence whose only purpose is destruction and dominance. Violence is evoked both in blood and fear, demonstrating a power that has the ability to dominate, diminish and destroy a people. The first eight lines of "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" with their abrupt line endings set the mood for this poem. Alexie calls attention to themes embedded in history; the personal "I" who has seen "it" and the blood of "it" at "Sand Creek" that brought "fear" and repulsion to whites and Indians alike, and all "Americans" who have learned that "violence," both written and witnessed, is the legacy of history. The enjambment Alexie uses in the opening eight lines of the poem is critical in establishing the tone and theme of this poem about colonial and racial violence. Positioning the Sand Creek Massacre
38 against the violent slasher film causes the reader to acknowledge the violence inherent in the colonial legacy of United States, while also taking note of the senseless violence that serves as entertainment today. Moving from the famous massacre at Sand Creek to an event that is a remarkable example of violence that is rarely written about in history texts unless they are specific to Spokane tribal history, is the story of a massive slaughter of horses that belonged to the Spokane people. In the poem titled "Horses," from Old Shirts & New Skins, Alexie opens with a description of the purposeful killing of a large number of horses owned by the Spokane Indians in September of 1858, by Colonel Wright and his cavalry force
s. As the poem moves forward, each section is separated by an asterisk and refers to horses and the different ways they have been meaningful to Native people. In the second section the speaker reminisces, "I remember an Indian / cowboy rode a horse through a fence [. . .] rode a horse named Custer's Revenge" (5), and goes on in three highly repetitive stanzas to tell the reader how the ironically named horse broke the Indian cowboy. In the following section, the speaker returns to the events of 1858 and the slaughter of 1000 horses but uses this opportunity to bring the event and the horses forward by creating a survivor who "was found in Montana, / giving birth to a colt, born running from the United States Cavalry, / born running into the Kentucky Derby, giving birth to a colt" (18-20). In this one line, Alexie has brought the original events of 1858 forward through two generations and a modern role for horses, however; this time the horse is relegated to the status of a commodity, a horse who earns his owners a royal living as he "set a record for the mile-and-a-half" in the Kentucky Derby (21). In the following section of "Horses" the speaker refers to a cousin who "rode his horse in a
39 reservation cross-country race" and beat the horse bloody when it would not go down the mountain: "my cousin cried and whipped, kicked the horse / bloody, but the horse would not, would not go down the mountain" (25, 30-32). As the trajectory of the poem moves forward, Alexie returns to the form of the first stanza except this time he only refers to "the sound of gunshots, / 1,000 rifles, last night, I woke to the sound / of gunshots "(33-35). As the speaker reflects on the many roles horses have played in Native culture we again get the sense of history looping from the original event in 1858 forward to the present and then back to the Indian Wars and the Plains Indian warrior who "rode her horse 18 hours a day, the Plains Indian / rode under her horse's neck in to battle" (39-40). Commenting on the complex roles horses have played beginning with the events of 1858, the speaker states "I wanted to steal it all back, steal / 1,000 ponies back from the United States Cavalry, / steal the ponies stolen from the Spokane Indians, / steal the horse named Spokane, steal / the Kentucky Derby, steal the mile-and-a-half, / steal every pony in my life" (46-51). Throughout the poem "Horses," Alexie uses a consistent pattern of four line stanzas with only a few exceptions, as he explores a violent moment in tribal history as well the many roles horses have played over time and up to the present day. In the first part of this poem, Alexie repeats a slightly altered version of the first stanza three different times with three stanzas between. This section describes the killing field of September 9, 1858, when Colonel Wright and his soldiers discovered a large group of Spokane horses numbering close to 1000 that belonged to the Spokane people near the Spokane Bridge: 1,000 ponies, the United States Cavalry stole 1,000 ponies
40 From the Spokane Indians, shot 1,000 ponies & only 1 survived, Shot 1,000 ponies & left them as monuments, left 1,000 ponies Falling into dust, fallen, shot 1,000 ponies & only 1 survived. (1-4) The soldiers kept some horses for their own use and killed the rest by shooting them. It took two full days for the soldiers to complete the task of killing the horses and their bodies were left to rot and decay. Eventually only the bones of the dead horses were left at the site serving as a reminder of this horrific event, and the site was often referred to as Wright's bone yard (Ruby 137). Today there is a historical marker to identify this place and moment in history, and many of the bones from the slaughtered horses can still be found scattered in the area. The incident was part of a larger campaign to suppress and weaken the Spokane and Coeur d'Alene peoples in what is now Washington State
. In Colonel George Wright's journal he wrote: The chastisement which these Indians have received has been severe but well merited, and absolutely necessary to impress them with our power. For the last eighty miles our route has been marked by slaughter and devastation; horses and a large number of cattle have been appropriated to our own use; many horses, with large quantities of wheat and oats, also many caches of vegetables, kamas, and dried berries, have been destroyed. A blow has been struck which they will never forget (Nisbet). Colonel Wright's "desire to punish the Indians for their resistance" is made clear in his straightforward statement, "without horses the Indians are powerless" (Ruby 136). The repetition in the poem creates a looping of images like the Mobius strip Alexie
41 referred to in "Postcards to Columbus." The powerful repetitions in "Horses" work together in a way that creates a rhythm mimicking the continuous gunshots that took place over a period of 48 hours to kill 1000 horses. The repetition Alexie consistently employs in "Horses" also serves to create a series of inescapable images so that the reader receives no reprieve from the horror of history or the image of today's" Indian cowboy [. . .] broken by the horse named Custer's Revenge" (10-12). By telling the story of the horse massacre and juxtaposing it with the short vignettes describing the significance of horses within Native cultures, Alexie brings the cruelty of the horse slaughter forward and links it to the current reality of the "broken Indian cowboy" as well as the privileged culture's ability to cause suffering for the sole purpose of degrading and pacifying a people. In Alexie's most recent collection of poetry and prose published in 2009, and titled War Dances he pairs short fiction with poetry. Several of the poems in the collection directly refer to violent events during the period of colonization and the violent suppression of Native Americans. In the poem "Another Proclamation" Alexie relates the events that took place in Mankato, Minnesota in 1862. In this poem the form Alexie uses is a mixed genre poem comprised of single word lines interspersed with prose stanzas to juxtapose the mass hanging that took place at Mankato in 1862 with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The single word lines interspersed with the prose stanzas amplify the history he highlights in "Another Proclamation": When Lincoln Delivered
42 The Emancipation Proclamation, Who Knew That one year earlier, in 1862, he'd signed and approved the order for the largest public execution in United States history? Who did they execute? "Mulatto, mixed bloods, and Indians." Why did they execute them? "For uprisings against the State and her citizens." Where did they execute them? Mankato, Minnesota. How did they execute them? Well, Abraham Lincoln thought it was good And Just To Hang thirty-eight Sioux. (1-21) Alexie couples the hanging of 38 Indians at Mankato, MN, an action mandated in a proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln, with the much celebrated Emancipation Proclamation of the following year. This is a powerful example of how United States history has been manipulated for the purposes of creating a cohesive national identity built upon the myth of justice and superiority. The rarely discussed mass hanging that took place in Minnesota one year before the Emancipation Proclamation is paired with the action that Lincoln is most remembered and revered for, the proclamation that freed
43 the slaves. As a country, we celebrate our history and its heroes like Lincoln who is remembered as a "good and just" man because he signed the proclamation freeing the slaves in 1863. The two stanzas that are comprised of one word lines are amplified because each word stands on its own as a statement, yet also works with the words proceeding and following to illustrate Alexie's message that the accepted and sanctified history of the U.S. is not the entire story, that many important and disturbing incidents have been omitted, and that as a nation we need to take a deeper look at our national heroes and how they are represented in history texts. By placing the narrative of the Mankato hangings beside the proclamation that freed the slaves, Alexie calls in to question the dominant national narrative of freedom and justice for all. Alexie continues his interrogation and foregrounding of history through the lens of a specific historical event in another mixed genre poem titled "Looking Glass." This poem is a reflection on the defeat of the Nez Perce Indians at the hands of General Oliver Howard and the Ninth Cavalry: On October 5, 1877, in Idaho's Bear Paw Mountains, the Starved and exhausted Nez Perce ended their two-thousandMile flight and surrendered to General Oliver Howard and his Ninth Cavalry. When the legendary Nez Perce leader, Chief Joseph
, stood and said, "My heart is sick And Sad. From Where
44 The Sun Now Stands, I Will Fight No More Forever." (1-19). Alexie uses the mixed prose form again here, with two word sonnets interspersed with two prose stanzas, again highlighting the importance of the single word lines in the sonnets. The prose stanzas are justified so that they appear in block form with the word sonnets trailing thinly down the page like individual tears. The famous words that the Nez Perce leader Chief Joseph spoke after his defeat are amplified by placing them individually in the order Joseph spoke them. However, the reader learns that in spite of the finality of their tone and the fact that Chief Joseph "thought these were his final words" (20), the words he pronounced on that October day in 1877 were not his final words, because the legendary leader "had no idea that he / would live for another twenty-five years. First, he watched / hundreds of his people die of exile in Oklahoma. [. . . ] Exiled twice, / Joseph still led his tribe into the twentieth century, though he / eventually died of depression" (20-21, 26-28). As he does in so many other poems,
45 Alexie connects history to subsequent generations, this time by connecting Chief Joseph to the speakers Grandmother who "always said that Chief Joseph was her favorite babysitter" (31). The earlier word sonnet composed of words assumed to be Chief Joseph's final words, is mirrored by another word sonnet that depicts a conflicting version of the aging Nez Perce leader. Yes, He Would Sit In His Rocking Chair And Braid My Grandmothers Epic Hair. (32-45) "Looking Glass" relates the epic story of the Nez Perce people and their leader forced to submit and languish in exile while simultaneously using opposing mirror images of Chief Joseph at the time of surrender and the later of image of Chief Joseph,
46 the once powerful leader, now diminished to the role of the speaker's grandmother's babysitter: She always said / that Chief Joseph was her favorite babysitter" and that he braided her Epic/ Hair. The earlier tragic epic of the suppression and exile of the Nez Perce Indians is mirrored by a more routine and domestic epic, that of the grandmother's "Epic / Hair"(44-45). Referring to specific historic events in his poetry, Alexie complicates the dominant national view of Americans as a people concerned with justice and freedom, while he relates stories of targeted killing and violent suppression of Indians by the U.S. military. While some of the historical events referred to in these poems are well known, others, including the events referred to in "Horses" and "Another Proclamation" represents little known events that have been omitted from most histories of the United States. 4 Overall in his poetry, then, Alexie calls into question national histories while also foregrounding the violence of the colonial project and the subsequent trauma caused by the genocidal Indian wars. Alexie achieves this foregrounding by pulling history forward in his work, and in the process, centralizes a marginalized history by using three different methods: he highlights themes of invasion, removal and genocide using the metaphor of pests; he positions Crazy Horse in the poetry, as both the historic warrior and as a present day Indian; and he uses actual historic events in the poems in a textual recreation history in the poems. By weaving history into the poetry in these three ways, Alexie questions the dominant culture's national narrative of freedom, 4 For more information on the U.S. Army's campaign against the Nez Perce, see David Lavender's book, Let Me Be Free: The Nez Perce Tragedy published in 1992.
47 justice and the pursuit of happiness for all. Through the use of traditional poetic forms such as the sonnet, Alexie weds European literary tradition with a Native sensibility of the world and in doing so responds to the colonial occupation and ongoing oppression of Native peoples by creating a site of resistance. As a Native American writer today, Alexie contributes to the expanding discussion of history by challenging existing narratives, and also by responding to the growing call for the violent and disturbing story/history of colonialism in the United States to be included in our national narrative.
48 Works Cited Alexie, Sherman. Business of Fancydancing. New York: Hanging Loose Press, 1992. ---.Face. New York: Hanging Loose Press, 2009. ---.First Indian on the Moon. New York: Hanging Loose Press, 1993. ---.Old Shirts & New Skins. Anaheim: Pace Publication Arts, 1993. ---.One Stick Song. New York: Hanging Loose Press, 2000. ---.The Summer of Black Widows. New York: Hanging Loose Press, 1996. ---.War Dances. New York: Grove Press, 2009. Blackhawk, Ned. Violence Over The Land. Cambridge: Harvard University
Press, 2006. Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1970. Carroll, Kathleen L. "Ceremonial Tradition as Form and Theme in Sherman Alexie's "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven": A Performance-Based Approach to Native American Literature" The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, 38.1 (Spring, 2005), 74-84. Courey-Toensing, Gale. "Hate Crime Ad Prompts Police Investigation" Indian Country Today: 12 March 2010. Web. 28 March 2010. Evans, Stephen. "Open Containers: Alexie's Drunken Indians." American Indian Quarterly 25.1 (Winter, 2001), 46-72. Grassian, Donald. Understanding Sherman Alexie. Columbia: University of South Carolina
Press, 2005. Harlow, Barbara. Resistance Literature. New York: Routledge, 1987.
49 Kane, Katy. "Nits Make Lice: Drogheda, Sand Creek, and the Poetics of Extermination." Cultural Critique 42 (spring, 1999), 81-103. Lavender, David. Let Me Be Free: The Nez Perce Tragedy. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Nisbet, Jack. "River Scenes." The Pacific Northwest Inlander. 5 June 2003. Web. 12 March 2010. Radar, Dean. "Word as Weapon: Visual Culture and American Indian Poetry." Melus 27.3 (Autumn, 2002), 147-167. Ruby, Robert H. and John A. Brown. The Spokane Indians: Children of the Sun. Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma Press, 1970. Rupert, James. Cambridge Companion
to Native American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge Press, 2005. Van Styvendale, Nancy. "The Trans/Historicity of Trauma in Jeannette Armstrong's Slash and Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer." Studies in the Novel .40.1, (Spring 2004): 203-237.