Through the loosely connected stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie’s polyphonic narratives reimagine reservation life for a contemporary audience. Alexie uses different voices present within the text to comment on the complex social and political factors which shape modern Indian life; family, tribe, memory, relations to the past and tensions between tradition and modernity, survival, and media representation and stereotyping. Such issues inform Daniel Grassian’s critical view that Alexie’s major challenge as a writer of American Indian literature, is ‘to help his audience think about the issues he writes about, even if his positions on those issues are radical, disturbing, and confrontational’. That it is necessary for Alexie to assume such positions to comment upon these important issues is a result of continued European and white American cultural domination and oppression which has reduced the Native American presence to a few persistent stereotypes. Beginning with his use of multiple narrative voices which introduce different perspectives on Indian life, this article considers the methods Alexie employs to help his audience decode centuries of myth and deconstruct the stereotypes.
The first voice to consider is that of Alexie himself, for whom ‘being Indian is the primary determinant of his identity and defines his writing’. As a Spokane Indian who grew up on the reservation, Alexie offers an authentic indigenous voice which challenges white domination of Native American culture and history by its very presence. ‘If I write it’, Alexie opines, ‘it’s an Indian novel’, regardless of the subject matter. The nativity of the author is often inescapable when considering ethnic literature because as Gerald Vizenor points out; ‘I am the voice here, in a conversation, but not in a designated category’. Vizenor states the first person narrative, in which many of the stories in Lone Ranger and Tonto are told, ‘teases the reader to hear the pronoun [I] as his own’. Vizenor provides an approach to Alexie’s work which encourages consideration of the reader as a narrative presence within the text, the ethnicity of which can be assumed or transferred by the reader who identifies with it, becoming what Vizenor has described as a simulation of the author in their absence. That is not to say that the reader substitutes Alexie’s ethnicity for their own, but rather interprets the narrator, and therefore character, from their own perspective as either a non-native or as a simulation of the author’s absent ethnicity. Vizenor’s simulative approach therefore demonstrates how Alexie’s use of the first person pronoun invites the reader to consider the narrator’s experiences from a different perspective to that which might previously have been assumed.
In ‘A Drug Called Tradition’, Victor the primary narrator reveals that although leasing reservation land to corporations may actually provide short-term prosperity for Native American communities, the Indians ‘can all hear our ancestors laughing in the trees’. When he reveals ‘we can never tell whether they’re laughing at the Indians or the whites’ , the reader becomes isolated from the narrative and is once again compelled to become Vizenor’s ‘simulated presence in a first person voice’. The sudden unreliability of the narrator invites consideration of who, or what, is the subject of ancient derision, and the intrusion of an uncanny presence represents another technique through which Alexie promotes a revisionist approach to the issues he comments upon. The ambiguous presence of the ancestors also highlights the story’s central theme; the tension between Indian and Western cultures, but as Evan Wu argues, this is not to suggest Alexie advocates separatism. By bringing the past into conflict with the present, Alexie prescribes ‘a more pragmatic approach to the continuing friction between Native American traditions and present day realities of Western culture’. Later, Victor, Thomas Builds-the-Fire and Junior drive to Lake Benjamin and after ingesting some kind of drug, experience hallucinations in which they steal horses, dance naked around fires, and await the acquisition of their true Indian names.
From Wu’s perspective, each ‘vision’ can be interpreted symbolically as a ‘rebirth of Indian tradition’ in contrast with the ‘horsepowered warriors’ escaping present realities through a drug-fuelled experience that promises to be very spiritual and ‘very fucking Indian’. However, as Victor’s drug, Thomas’ land leasing arrangement, and Junior’s Camaro demonstrate, there is already a degree of dependency on the Western culture they reject. When they try, and ultimately fail, to become ‘real’ Indians, it is partly because of the influence of dominant Western culture and partly because of the sense of disconnection experienced when Victor realises he no longer understands his ancestors’ laughter. Alexie’s thematic focus in ‘A Drug Called Tradition’ illustrates the present condition for many Indians whose view of the future is restricted to ‘the polarized logic of separatism or assimilation’. But in order to change their present condition, it is imperative for Indians to ‘keep moving, keep walking, in step with your skeletons’, and as Wu argues, ‘staying “in step” with the present includes the white culture which accompanies it’. By presenting the modern Native American as disconnected from the sense of tradition that informs many generic representations of Indian life and culture, Alexie not only challenges those misconceptions, but offers hope for the future through the possibility of cultural hybridity.
Kathleen L. Carroll identifies another aspect of Alexie’s approach to engaging his audience when she observes that many of his stories begin ‘at points of understanding shared by narrator and reader; Native American stereotypes’. Alexie’s multitude of narrative voices, she writes, frequently ‘adopt the point of view of the “white man’s Indian” to tell their stories; their assumption of these personae exteriorizes readers’ internalized notions, forcing them to confront their socialized attitudes’. To challenge popular generalisations, typically the stoic, noble Indian, the romanticised New Age Indian and the vanishing Indian associated with James Fenimore Cooper’s Chingachgook, Alexie constructs characters which initially appear to conform to type. However, once recognition is established, these stereotypes are carefully subverted through characterisation and the sophisticated use of humour which is clearly evident in both Alexie’s literary work, and the film Smoke Signals
Adapted from the short story ‘This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona’, Smoke Signals is a contemporary road movie which focuses on Alexie’s recurring characters, Victor and Thomas, to explore popular cinema’s representations of Native Americans. Following the death of his estranged father, Victor must make the long journey to Arizona to return his ashes to the Spokane reservation. Unable to finance the trip through the Tribal Council, Victor reluctantly enlists Thomas to help meet the costs and the two young men begin a journey which is both physical and metaphoric. In support of Carroll’s view of the function of Indian stereotypes in Alexie’s work, the film depicts Victor as a warrior and Thomas as a shamanistic figure. But through the metaphor of the journey, Victor’s character can be seen to change as he is reconciled with the past symbolised by his father, reprising a previously identified theme of Alexie’s work, and once more demonstrating the deconstruction of Indian stereotypes. And as Carroll points out, the appropriation of a Westernised approach to storytelling provides another example of Alexie’s manipulation of conventional thinking.
The humour in Alexie’s work, like the socio-political and cultural issues he addresses, and the elementary characters whose multifarious natures are gradually revealed through narrative progression, is equally complex and performs diverse functions. In Smoke Signals, not only does humour enable the comedic subversion of stereotypes, but as Joseph L. Coulombe explains, it allows characters to ‘display strengths and hide weaknesses, to expose prejudices and avoid realities, and to create bonds and construct barricades’. The scene on the bus in which Victor tells Thomas to ‘quit grinning like an idiot’ and ‘get stoic’ because ‘white people will run all over you if you don’t look mean’, epitomises Coulombe’s and Carroll’s points. When the assumed ‘warrior look’ fails to prevent them losing their seats to white ‘cowboys’, prompting Thomas to retort, ‘I guess your warrior look doesn’t work every time’, humour becomes ‘a means of connection as well as an instrument of separation’. Not only is the stereotype subverted, but a sense of cultural disconnection is apparent because Victor’s understanding of Indianness is partly informed by Western culture as Thomas later confirms when he announces; ‘The only thing more pathetic than Indians on TV is Indians watching Indians on TV’. Furthermore, Victor interprets the ‘warrior look’ as an outward display of strength which hides Thomas’ perceived weakness. And when the reality of white prejudice is exposed, humour in the form of a song about Western icon ‘John Wayne’s teeth’ simultaneously creates a bond between them and constructs a barricade between the ‘cowboys’ and the Indians. However, as Coulombe maintains, Alexie’s complex humour allows him to negotiate cultural differences while ‘instigating crucial dialogue about social and moral issues especially important to Indian communities’.
By definition, as with his literature, Alexie’s presence as a Native American filmmaker, challenges convention by providing an authentic native voice which communicates opposition to popular culture’s decades of misrepresentation in its own visual language. By ‘using pop culture like most poets use Latin’ , Alexie addresses a wide audience, both native and non-native, on subjects which are long overdue revision; reaching out in the process to the Indian children he believes are ‘mainly influenced by white-dominated culture’. As demonstrated, the use of polyphonic narratives in his reimagining of the reservation impacts upon his audience’s understanding of the important themes and issues he seeks to address, forcing consideration of the narrator’s experiences from a unique perspective. While the different narrative approaches unsettle the reader’s perceptions of time and space, compelling their intellectual involvement as illustrated by Gerald Vizenor’s conceptualisation of simulative narrative presence. And the intrusive and uncanny presence of the traditional past brought into opposition with the present reveals the tensions which exist both within American Indian culture and without, although the pragmatic approach described by Evan Wu points to the possibility of cultural hybridity as a means of resolving present conflicts. His characterisation and humorous subversion of established stereotypes again has a disturbing effect, further questioning the audience’s socialised attitudes and showing how irony and humour can be utilised for both connectivity and separatism whilst providing a platform for socio-political and cultural discourse. In addition to the methods this paper has highlighted, Alexie’s characteristic approach to presenting an image of the Native American which is thought provoking because it is different carefully deconstructs the stereotype to reveal the complex and ambiguous individual within. Alexie’s strength is his ability to portray the American Indians as flawed and imperfect people who, rather than advocating stoicism, are capable of the displays of fierce emotion which are common to humanity.
Alexie, Sherman, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, (London: Vintage, 1997).
Kathleen L. Carroll, ‘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, Vol. 38, No. 1, (2005).
Coulombe, Joseph L., ‘The Approximate Size of His Favourite Tumour: Sherman Alexie’s comic connections and Disconnections in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven’, The American Indian Quarterly, 26.1 (2002).
Eyre, Chris, (dir.), Smoke Signals (Miramax Films, 1998).
Grassian, Daniel, Understanding Sherman Alexie, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2005).
Vizenor, Gerald, and A. Robert Lee, Postindian Conversations, (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).
Wu, Evan, ‘Rehabilitation For Separatists: Sherman Alexie’s A Drug Called Tradition’, Expose The Journal of the Harvard University Writing Programme, (2011).