At one time it was a deliberate policy of both the United States and Canada to remove Native American children from their parent's homes. In the early years they didn't make any excuses. They just rounded them up and took them off to residential schools where they stole their language, religion and identity.
But in latter years they became more sophisticated, sending social workers onto reserves and declaring conditions unfit for children. The children would then be placed into foster homes with white parents and in white neighborhoods where they stood out like sore thumbs. If being subject to the racism of their peers wasn't bad enough, all they learned about their people were the stereotypes taught in schools and depicted by movies and television.
This practice was theoretically stopped in both countries by laws that required Native children to be fostered with Native families. Only if a suitable Native family couldn't be found or if a child somehow fell through the cracks by not being a registered, or status, Indian, could they end up being placed with a white family.
Sherman Alexie's most recent novel, Flight from Black Cat Press and distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada, is about the sense of displacement felt by children who end up on the merry-go-round of foster care. Zits is a fifteen-year-old half-Irish half-Indian on his twentieth foster home. At the beginning of the book he asks us to call him Zits because that is what everyone calls him and it's all he has in terms of self-identification
According to Zits, he's got forty-seven zits on his face and he can’t even begin to count the number of them on his back. Ugly, unlovable, revolting; this is how he feels and how he looks. It must be true, he's only been in foster care for six years and already he's been thrown out of nineteen foster homes.
He ended up on the foster care merry-go-round because his father left his mother about two minutes after he was born and his mother died of breast cancer when he was six years old. The Indian Removal Act should have kept him with Indian families but he was never registered as an Indian.
He keeps getting arrested and sent to juvenile prison and then sent back out to another foster family. He's committed arson, he's stolen cars, and he got drunk when he was twelve with some street Indians in Seattle, the city where he lives. Soon he'll run out of chances, he'll run out of options and start going to adult jail, become an adult drunk Indian alone with his anger, his loneliness, and his feelings of abandonment. Alone with the hurt of being alone and not loved.
But then something strange happens to Zits. He gets arrested for pushing his twentieth foster mother (she said he punched her and who are you going believe, a good-hearted woman with six foster children and the government cheques that go with them or a half-breed kid who's been in and out of jail since he was twelve). Getting arrested isn't the strange part it's meeting the white kid called Justice in the prison – that's strange.
Justice talks about justice and the form that he preaches is vengeance. Don't you want to get back at the all the white people who made you what you are today? Aren't you angry he says? When Justice gets out of jail he comes and breaks Zits out of the juvenile halfway-home he goes to from juvenile prison. He takes Zits to live with him in an old abandoned warehouse.
He gives Zits two guns – one a thirty-eight special, the other a paintball gun. Zits goes to a bank to exact justice and starts shooting people until a guard blows the back of his head off. It's when he wakes up and he's not dead that he realizes things are weird. Especially considering the fact that when he wakes up he's a white FBI agent and it's no longer 2007 but 1973 and he and his partner are out in Indian country to put down the Indians who are raising a ruckus demanding rights and everything.
And so it goes: he goes to Little Big Horn as a twelve -year-old Indian child and is forced to kill somebody as revenge for a soldier almost cutting his throat; he becomes a scout leading a troop of cavalry to revenge the murder of settlers by Indians and ends up saving the life of a soldier who rescues a small Indian child; and he comes back to the future where he's a white airplane pilot who teaches people how to fly, one of whom is a terrorist who crashes a commercial plane into downtown Chicago.