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Sherman Alexie: Indian Killer

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Suppose that the Ghost Dance actually worked. That back in the late 1880s just before the last of the tribes were rounded up and put on reservations that their last ditch effort at salvation worked. That the white people would leave, the buffalo and other game would come back, and the Indians could have their land back again. But suppose that the effects of the Ghost Dance weren’t felt until modern times. That the ancestors whose presence were beseeched over a hundred years ago are just now showing up to exact revenge and justice.

Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie is a number of things in the guise of a murder mystery. Against the backdrop of the mysterious killings and kidnapping of white people(two men killed and a boy taken and returned by the assailant) which have been attributed to an Indian, Mr. Alexie takes us on a journey through the dark heart of contemporary Native American life. From Seattle’s skid row, to the Spokane reservation; from university students to construction workers and to the local Indian Bar where Hank Williams is considered one of them, it’s a life as far removed from New Age Self Help books as the earth from the stars.

Substance abuse and self hatred combined with an ironic pride in being native are a volatile mixture awaiting a match to be set to it’s long simmering fuse. Through the characters in the book we come to understand the fuel that will ignite the fire. Whether European or Native their lives reflect the sourness of the relationship between a conquered people and their conquerors.

John Smith was taken from his mother on the delivery table and adopted out to a white couple who were desperately searching for a baby. Now a grown man working as a construction worker he is full of an anger he doesn’t understand. Alienated from his peers by the colour of his skin all the way through his school days and raised by people who meant well, he has no idea about what it means to be an Indian except from the books his mother found to read, notions picked up from documentaries and movies extolling the virtues of the noble savage, and that most white people don’t want their daughters to date one.

At a protest powwow at the University of Washington John meets Marie Polatikin a Spokane Indian who spends her energy fighting injustice when ever and how ever she can. This includes antagonizing Dr. Clarence Mather her Professor in a Native American literature class who knows more about being Indian then Indians do, and the featured write on the syllabus, Jack Wilson, a former cop now mystery writer, claiming native heritage in a bid for distinction.

As Marie and John go about their days in Seattle, her going to classes and delivering sandwiches to the homeless, he working on the last sky scrapper being built, tensions between the native and white communities are beginning to rise. With the finding of the first body decorated with owl feathers and the disappearance of a young white collage student from the parking lot of an Indian casino it doesn’t take much for violence to break out.

Encouraged by the volatile words of a local conservative radio host, a group of young men head out to start beating up the Indian homeless that populate Seattle’s downtown core. In retaliation Marie’s cousin Reggie and two of his friends torture a young white hitchhiker, in a manner similar to what Reggie experienced at the hands of his white step-father. A former Bureau of Indian Affairs officer he tried to beat the “bad” Indian out of Reggie by making him recite historical events and dates that were important in the conquest of the Indians. When he was wrong he was beaten and asked if he really wanted to be a drunk like all the other useless Indians.

Seattle, it’s environs and inhabitants, as presented in Indian Killer are representative of a widespread problem. The manner is which our occupying people treat the original inhabitants. We have created three definitions to fit Indians into: The Drunk, The Nobel Savage, or The Good Indian which is one who is so assimilated we say “Oh I didn’t even know you were…” As long as an Indian plays within those guidelines there’s no problem.

But let them say one word about land claims, or stolen culture or anything else that sounds remotely like threatening the status quo they are immediately labelled a malcontent, or radical. This is the world of contradictions that Sherman Alexie’s Indians live in. They are supposed to be happy with what ever bones they are thrown, thrilled that white people want to appropriate the interesting bits of their culture without having to live the humiliation that is their daily life.

Indian Killer tells this story without preaching or yelling. We follow characters we genuinely care about, whether white or native, because nothing is black and white even the so called enemies are interesting and human. Even the thugs who are beating up the vagrants are shown as more then just three dimensional bigots. In the end this just makes their actions all the more disturbing

“If Crazy Horse, or Geronimo, or Sitting Bull came back…They would start a war….They’d listen to some dumb-shit Disney song and feel like
hurting somebody….if the Ghost Dance worked …All you white people would disappear. All of you. If those dead Indians came back to life…They’d kill you. They’d gut you and eat you heart.”

When Marie tells Dr. Mather why she thinks the murders are as a result of the Ghost Dance, Sherman Alexie is forcing us to examine our perceptions of Indians and think about the potential consequences for way they have been treated for the last five hundred years. He is asking us what is it going to take for a redress to happen. Is the threat of violence the only way of making people take notice of the crimes against humanity that have been, and are still being, carried out in our names by our governments?

Indian Killer’s harsh reality, depictions of violence, and casual displays of racism both overt and subtle make for tough reading. It’s a sign of the elegance of Mr. Alexie’s abilities that I felt compelled to read the book through to the end. I’m sure that many people will say upon reading this book, well that is history, it has nothing to do with me. But the author makes it clear that in this case the “Good German” does not exist as far as he’s concerned. Silence alone makes people culpable in the face of such ongoing injustice.

This is a well written book whose story and plot move along easily and quickly. The characters, while some may veer into the cliché on occasion, are on the whole believable. There will be those who find the author’s point of view objectionable and they would be well off not bothering to read this book at all. But if you have any interest in the people’s whose land this was before our families immigrated here, beyond how they are depicted in the popular press, the media, and New Age “spirit guide” books this novel is an eye opener.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site He has been writing for since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Cerulean

    Very well-written, Gypsyman. Well I shy away from this book as much as I feel for the injustices done to the Indians. I don’t want to read about the violence to white people, or red people, for that matter. Will it take at least the threat of violence to get more justice for the Indians? Probably. Fear works.

    I’ve seen a movies or movies based on Sherman Alexi’s earlier work. I believe that I might have heard him speak at the University here. They’ve hosted most of the prominient Native American writers and filmmakers to speak and show their movies at the local University and I’ve seen most of them. As a person who loves the earth, and a woman, I feel for all of us who wanted to inhabit this earth peacefully, and with respect for her original purpose. Where I was born and still live, I’ve undergone something that has similarities to what they went through and it just sucks.

  • Wendy Ferguson

    I really enjoyed this article it is not only fiction but the truth what has and is still happeneing to the native americans the true first americans. By our government and all people abound. He is a wonderful musician and his music speaks to the soul and his words of wisdom are true and we do have to wake up america and start healing ourselves and the earth and mostly the God given love of humanity we once had

  • Mark Chasing Hawks

    I cant believe you would even have the nerve to say something as ignorant as “I’ve undergone something that has similarities to what they went through”. While Im glad you “love the earth” and Im sure you mean well with this nice positive rose colored glasses outlook on life, you have absolutly no idea what its like to see and live in this country with brown skin, let alone as one who has watched their culture taken away, apart, told (by the “other” culture), and sold. You will never know the feeling of being a teen who loves life and people, walking down the street and the white woman with baby who upon seeing you pulls her child closer to her moving away from you with distrust and fear in her eyes. I do. I lived that scene, with variations, more times than I could possibly count, and there isnt an Indian (or black for that matter) man or woman who doesnt personally know that experience. And you think you can come up with something that deeply hurtful to a childs heart, and how that shapes their view of ‘fitting’ in society…?? hmmmmmmm. Well maybe, to save wear and tear on those “rosey glasses”, you should stick with those “New Age “spirit guide” books. and BTW Gypsyman good review, very insightful observations by you.