Copyright © 2000 Sherman Alexie. All rights reserved.
The Unauthorized Autobiography of Me
Late summer night on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Ten Indiansare playing basketball on a court barely illuminated by thestreetlight above them. They will play until the brown, leather ballis invisible in the dark. They will play until an errant pass jams afinger, knocks a pair of glasses off the face, smashes a nose anddraws blood. They will play until the ball bounces off the courtand disappears into the shadows.
This may be all you need to know about Native American literature.
* * *
Thesis: I have never met a Native American. Thesis repeated:I have met thousands of Indians.
* * *
November 1994, Manhattan: PEN American panel on Indian Literature.N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Gloria Miguel, JoyHarjo, me. Two or three hundred people in the audience. Mostlynon-Indians, an Indian or three. Questions and answers.
"Why do you insist on calling yourselves Indian?" asks a whitewoman in a nice hat. "It's so demeaning."
"Listen," I say. "The word belongs to us now. We are Indians. Thathas nothing to do with Indians from India. We are not AmericanIndians. We are Indians, pronounced In-din. It belongs to us. Weown it and we're not going to give it back."
So much has been taken from us that we hold onto the smallestthings left with all the strength we have.
* * *
1976: Winter on the Spokane Indian Reservation. My two cousins,S and G, have enough money for gloves. They buy them at Irene'sGrocery Store. Irene is a white woman who has lived on our reservationsince the beginning of time. I have no money for gloves. Myhands are bare.
We build snow fortresses on the football field. Since we are Indianboys playing, there must be a war. We stockpile snowballs. S andG build their fortress on the fifty-yard line. I build mine on thethirty-yard line. We begin our little war.
My cousins are good warriors. They throw snowballs with precision.I am bombarded, under siege, defeated quickly. My cousinsbury me in the snow. My grave is shallow. If my cousins knewhow to dance, they might have danced on my grave. But theyknow how to laugh, so they laugh. They are my cousins, meaningwe are related in the Indian way. My father drank beers with theirfather for most of two decades, and that is enough to make us relatives.Indians gather relatives like firewood, protection against thecold. I am buried in the snow, cold, without protection. My handsare bare.
After a short celebration, my cousins exhume me. I am too cold tofight. Shivering, I walk home, anxious for warmth. I know mymother is home. She is probably sewing a quilt. She is alwayssewing quilts. If she sells a quilt, we have dinner. If she fails to sella quilt, we go hungry. My mother has never failed to sell a quilt.But the threat of hunger is always there.
When I step into the house, my mother is sewing yet anotherquilt. She is singing a song under her breath. You might assumeshe is singing a highly traditional Spokane Indian song. In fact, sheis singing Donna Fargo's "The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA."Improbably, this is a highly traditional Spokane Indian song. Theliving room is dark in the late afternoon. The house is cold. Mymother is wearing her coat and shoes.
"Why don't you turn up the heat?" I ask my mother.
"No electricity," she says.
"Power went out?" I ask.
"Didn't pay the bill," she says.
I am colder. I inhale, exhale, my breath visible inside the house. Ican hear a car sliding on the icy road outside. My mother is makinga quilt. This quilt will pay for the electricity. Her fingers arestiff and painful from the cold. She is sewing as fast as she can.
* * *
On the jukebox in the bar: Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, JohnnyCash, Charlie Rich, Freddy Fender, Donna Fargo.
On the radio in the car: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Three DogNight, Blood Sweat & Tears, Janis Joplin, early Stones, earlier Beatles.
On the stereo in the house: Glen Campbell, Roy Orbison, JohnnyHorton, Loretta Lynn, "The Ballad of the Green Beret."
* * *
1975: Mr. Manley, the fourth grade music teacher, sets a row ofmusical instruments in front of us. From left to right, a flute, clarinet,French horn, trombone, trumpet, tuba, drum. We're gettingour first chance to play this kind of music.
"Now," he explains, "I want all of you to line up behind the instrumentyou'd like to learn how to play."
Dawn, Loretta, and Karen line up behind the flute. Melissa andMichelle behind the clarinet. Lori and Willette, the French horn.All ten Indian boys line up behind the drum.
* * *
1970: My sister Mary is beautiful. She is fourteen years older thanme. She wears short skirts and nylons because she is supposed towear short skirts and nylons. It is expected. Her black hair iscombed long, straight. Often, she sits in her favorite chair, the fakeleather lounger we rescued from the dump. Holding a hand mirror,she combs her hair, applies her make-up. Much lipstick andeye shadow, no foundation. She is always leaving the house. I donot know where she goes.
I do remember sitting at her feet, rubbing my cheek against hernyloned calf, while she waited for her ride. In Montana in 1981, shedied in an early morning fire. At the time, I was sleeping at afriend's house in Washington state. I was not dreaming of my sister.
* * *
"Sherman," says the critic, "How does the oral tradition apply toyour work?"
"Well," I say, as I hold my latest book close to me, "It doesn't applyat all because I typed this. And when I'm typing, I'm really, reallyquiet."
* * *
1977: Summer. Steve and I want to attend the KISS concert inSpokane. KISS is very popular on my reservation. Gene Simmons,the bass player. Paul Stanley, lead singer and rhythm guitarist. AceFrehley, lead guitar. Peter Criss, drums. All four hide their facesbehind elaborate make-up. Simmons the devil, Stanley the lover,Frehley the space man, Criss the cat.
The songs: "Do You Love Me," "Calling Dr. Love," "Love Gun,""Makin' Love," "C'mon and Love Me."
Steve and I are too young to go on our own. His uncle and aunt,born-again Christians, decide to chaperon us. Inside the SpokaneColiseum, the four of us find seats far from the stage and the enormousspeakers. Uncle and Aunt wanted to avoid the bulk of thecrowd, but have landed us in the unofficial pot-smoking section. Weare overwhelmed by the sweet smoke. Steve and I cover our mouthsand noses with Styrofoam cups and try to breathe normally.
KISS opens their show with staged explosions, flashing red lights, aprolonged guitar solo by Frehley. Simmons spits fire. The crowdrushes the stage. All the pot smokers in our section hold lighters,tiny flames flickering, high above their heads. The songs are sofamiliar we know all the words. The audience sings along.
The songs: "Let Me Go, Rock `n' Roll," "Detroit Rock City," "Rockand Roll All Nite."
The decibel level is tremendous. Steve and I can feel the soundwaves crashing against the Styrofoam cups we hold over our faces.Aunt and Uncle are panicked, finally convinced that the devilplays a mean guitar. This is too much for them. It is also too muchfor Steve and me, but we pretend to be disappointed when Auntand Uncle drag us out of the Coliseum.
During the drive home, Aunt and Uncle play Christian music onthe radio. Loudly and badly, they sing along. Steve and I are in theback of the Pacer, looking up through the strangely curved rearwindow. There is a meteor shower, the largest in a decade. Steveand I smell like pot smoke. We smile at this. Our ears ring. Wemake wishes on the shooting stars, though both of us know that ashooting star is not a star. It's just a sliver of stone.
* * *
I made a very conscious decision to marry an Indian woman, whomade a very conscious decision to marry me.
Our hope: to give birth to and raise Indian children who lovethemselves. That is the most revolutionary act.
* * *
1982: I am the only Indian student at Reardan High, an all-whiteschool in a small farm town just outside my reservation. I am in thepizza parlor, sharing a deluxe with my white friends. We are talkingand laughing. A drunk Indian walks in. He staggers to the counterand orders a beer. The waiter ignores him. We are all silent.
At our table, S is shaking her head. She leans toward us as if toshare a secret.
"Man," she says, "I hate Indians."
* * *
I am curious about the writers who identify themselves as mixed-bloodIndians. Is it difficult for them to decide which containerthey should put their nouns and verbs into? Invisibility, after all,can be useful, as a blonde, Aryan-featured Jew in Germany mighthave found during World War II. Then again, I think of the horrorstories that such a pale undetected Jew could tell about life duringthe Holocaust.
* * *
An Incomplete List of People I Wish Were Indian
Kareem Abdul-JabbarAdamMuhammad AliSusan B. AnthonyJimmy CarterPatsy ClineD.B. CooperRobert DeNiroEmily DickinsonIsadora DuncanAmelia EarhartEveDiane FosseyJesus ChristRobert JohnsonHelen KellerBillie Jean KingMartin Luther King, Jr.John LennonMary MagdalenePablo NerudaFlannery O'ConnorRosa ParksWilma RudolphSapphoWilliam ShakespeareBruce SpringsteenMeryl StreepJohn SteinbeckSupermanHarriet TubmanVoltaireWalt Whitman
* * *
1995: Summer. Seattle, Washington. I am idling at a red light whena car filled with white boys pulls up beside me. The white boy inthe front passenger seat leans out his window.
"I hate you Indian motherfuckers," he screams.
Iquietly wait for the green light.
1978: David, Randy, Steve, and I decide to form a reservationdoowop group, like the Platters. During recess, we practice behindthe old tribal school. Steve, a falsetto, is the best singer. I am theworst singer, but have the deepest voice, and am therefore anasset.
"What songs do you want to sing?" asks David.
"Tracks of My Tears," says Steve, who always decides these kind ofthings.
We sing, desperately trying to remember the lyrics to that song.We try to remember other songs. We remember the chorus tomost, the first verse of a few, and only one in its entirety. For somereason, we all know the lyrics of "Monster Mash." However, I'mthe only one who can manage to sing with the pseudo-Transylvanianaccent that the song requires. This dubious skill makes me thelead singer, despite Steve's protests.
"We need a name for our group," says Randy.
"How about The Warriors?" I ask.
Everybody agrees. We've watched a lot of Westerns.
We sing "Monster Mash" over and over. We want to be famous.We want all the little Indian girls to shout our names. Finally, afterdays of practice, we are ready for our debut. Walking in line likesoldiers, the four of us parade around the playground. We sing"Monster Mash." I am in front, followed by Steve, David, thenRandy, who is the shortest, but the toughest fighter our reservationhas ever known. We sing. We are The Warriors. All the otherIndian boys and girls line up behind us as we march. We areheroes. We are loved. I sing with everything I have inside of me:pain, happiness, anger, depression, heart, soul, small intestine. Ising and am rewarded with people who listen.
That is why I am a poet.
* * *
I remember watching Richard Nixon, during the Watergate affair,as he held a press conference and told the entire world that he wasnot a crook.
For the first time, I understood that storytellers could be bad people.
* * *
Poetry = Anger x Imagination
* * *
Every time I venture into the bookstore, I find another book aboutIndians. There are hundreds of books about Indians publishedevery year, yet so few are written by Indians. I gather all the bookswritten about Indians. I discover:
A book written by a person who identifies as mixed-blood will sellmore copies than a book written by a person who identifies asstrictly Indian.
A book written by a non-Indian will sell more copies than a bookwritten by either a mixed-blood or an Indian writer.
Reservation Indian writers are rarely published in any form.
A book about Indian life in the past, whether written by a non-Indian,mixed-blood, or Indian, will sell more copies than a bookabout Indian life in the twentieth century.
If you are a non-Indian writing about Indians, it is almost guaranteedthat something positive will be written about you by TonyHillerman.
Indian writers who are women will be compared with LouiseErdrich. Indian writers who are men will be compared withMichael Dorris.
A very small percentage of the readers of Indian literature haveheard of Simon J. Ortiz. This is a crime.
Books about the Sioux sell more copies than all of the books writtenabout other tribes combined.
Mixed-blood writers often write about any tribe which intereststhem, whether or not they are related to that tribe.
Writers who use obvious Indian names, such as Eagle Woman andPretty Shield, are usually non-Indian.
Non-Indian writers usually say "Great Spirit," "Mother Earth,""Two-Legged, Four-Legged, and Winged." Mixed-blood writersusually say "Creator, "Mother Earth," "Two-Legged, Four- Legged,and Winged." Indian writers usually say "God," "Mother Earth,""Human Being, Dog, and Bird."
If a book about Indians contains no dogs, then it was written by anon-Indian or mixed-blood writer.
If on the cover of a book there are winged animals who aren't supposedto have wings, then it was written by a non-Indian.
Successful non-Indian writers are viewed as well-informed aboutIndian life. Successful mixed-blood writers are viewed as wonderfultranslators of Indian life. Successful Indian writers are viewedas traditional storytellers of Indian life.
Very few Indian and mixed-blood writers speak their tribal languages.Even fewer non-Indian writers speak their tribal languages.
Indians often write exclusively about reservation life, even if theynever lived on a reservation.
Mixed-bloods often write exclusively about Indians, even if theygrew up in non-Indian communities.
Non-Indian writers always write about reservation life.
Nobody has written the great urban Indian novel yet.
Most non-Indians who write about Indians are fiction writers. Fictionabout Indians sells.
* * *
Have you stood in a crowded room where nobody looks like you?If you are white, have you stood in a room full of black people?Are you an Irish man who has strolled through the streets ofCompton? If you are black, have you stood in a room full of whitepeople? Are you an African-American man who has played theback nine at the local country club? If you are a woman, have youstood in a room full of men? Are you Sandra Day O'Connor orRuth Ginsberg?
Since I left the reservation, almost every room I enter is filled withpeople who do not look like me. There are only two million Indiansin this country. We could all fit into one medium-sized city.Someone should look into it.
Often, I am most alone in bookstores where I am reading from mywork. I look up from the page at white faces. This is frightening.
* * *
There is an apple tree outside my grandmother's house on thereservation. The apples are green; my grandmother's house isgreen. This is the game: My siblings and I try to sneak apples fromthe tree. Sometimes, our friends will join our raiding expeditions.My grandmother believes green apples are poison and is simplytrying to protect us from sickness. There is nothing biblical aboutthis story.
The game has rules. We always have to raid the tree during daylight.My grandmother has bad eyes and it would be unfair tochallenge her in the dark. We all have to approach the tree at thesame time. Arnold, my older brother. Kim and Arlene, my youngertwin sisters. We have to climb the tree to steal apples, ignoring thefruit which hangs low to the ground.
Arnold is the best apple thief on the reservation. He is chubby, butquick. He is fearless in the tree, climbing to the top for theplumpest apples. He hangs from a branch with one arm, reachesfor apples with the other, and fills his pockets with his booty. Ilove him like crazy. My sisters are more conservative. Often theygrab one apple and eat it quickly, sitting on a sturdy branch. Ialways like the green apples with a hint of red. While we are busyraiding the tree, we also keep an eye on our grandmother's house.She is a big woman, nearly six feet tall. At the age of seventy, shecan still outrun any ten-year-old.
Arnold, of course, is always the first kid out of the tree. He hangsfrom a branch, drops to the ground, and screams loudly, announcingour presence to our grandmother. He runs away, leaving mysisters and me stuck in the tree. We scramble to the ground andtry to escape.
"Junior," she shouts and I freeze. That's the rule. Sometimes adozen Indian kids have been in that tree, scattering in randomdirections when our grandmother bursts out of the house. If sheremembers your name, you are a prisoner of war. And, believeme, no matter how many kids are running away, my grandmotheralways remembers my name.
My grandmother died when I was fourteen years old. I miss her. Imiss everybody.
"Junior," she shouts and I close my eyes in disgust. Capturedagain! I wait as she walks up to me. She holds out her hand and Igive her the stolen apples. Then she smacks me gently on the topof my head. I am free to run then, pretending she never caught mein the first place. I try to catch up with the others. Runningthrough the trees surrounding my grandmother's house, I shoutout their names.
* * *
So many people claim to be Indian, speaking of an Indian grandmother,a warrior grandfather. Suppose the United States governmentannounced that all Indians had to return to their reservation.How many of these people would not shove that Indian ancestorback into the closet?
* * *
My mother still makes quilts. My wife and I sleep beneath one.My brother works for our tribal casino. One sister works for ourbingo hall, while the other works in the tribal finance department.Our adopted little brother, James, who is actually our secondcousin, is a freshman at Reardan High School. He can run the milein five minutes.
My father is an alcoholic. He used to leave us for weeks at a timeto drink with his friends and cousins. I missed him so much I'dcry myself sick.
I could always tell when he was going to leave. He would be tense,quiet, unable to concentrate. He'd flip through magazines andtelevision channels. He'd open the refrigerator door, study its contents,shut the door, and walk away. Five minutes later, he'd beback at the fridge, rearranging items on the shelves. I would followhim from place to place, trying to prevent his escape.
Once, he went into the bathroom, which had no windows, while Isat outside the only door and waited for him. I could not hear himinside. I knocked on the thin wood. I was five years old.
"Are you there?" I asked. "Are you still there?"
Every time he left, I ended up in the emergency room. But Ialways got well and he always came back. He'd walk in the doorwithout warning. We'd forgive him.
Years later, I am giving a reading at a bookstore in Spokane, Washington.There is a large crowd. I read a story about an Indianfather who leaves his family for good. He moves to a city a thousandmiles away. Then he dies. It is a sad story. When I finish, awoman in the front row breaks into tears.
"What's wrong?" I ask her.
"I'm so sorry about your father," she says.
"Thank you," I say, "But that's my father sitting right next to you."