Sherman Alexie is the most successful American Indian writer in America today, an artist of real distinction. He is also a rarity among minority writers in that he doesn’t feel compelled to take sides in the multicultural and political wars. Alexie has written nine books of poetry and fiction, and edited several other collections. He wrote the scripts to the movie Smoke Signals, and his new movie The Business of Fancy Dancing, which he also directed. His work is widely acclaimed The NYT Book Review called him “one of the major lyric voices of our time.”
However, this hasn’t protected Alexie from criticism by political Indians. He “pan-Indians” or plays with Indian stereotypes that exist in the white mind: all Indians are alike, all are from Pine Ridge, and all throw knives. But Alexie is a shrewd observer of Indian behavior behind the stereotypes. He also observes white behavior with the same racial candor. He said once that he could make his living solely off the thousands of middle-class white women who inhale his books.
“Indians are a bunch of rednecks,” Alexie told Robert Capriccioso in an interview for News From Indian Country (June 30, 2003) and “white liberals think that Indians are so living and peaceful and sacred.” On Bill Clinton’s Dialogue on Race (1998), on national television, Alexie said, “We are actually probably a lot more conservative and racist than any other single group of people. We are much more reactionary. It’s funny. Politically, we give our money to the Democrats, but we vote for Republicans.”
Richard Poe has noted that Alexie never comments on the political implications of these remarks. But perhaps that’s the whole point. Alexie doesn’t interpret. He only observes irony as a political independent. He wants to create “art that alienates the largest possible amount of people,” he told Capriccioso. Now that really is funny.
After Alexie read my latest Frontpagemag article on Indian casinos, he said, “The casinos are a sign that Indians have completely assimilated.” He recently noticed that Carrot Top was appearing at Sandia Casino in New Mexico. “Five hundred years of political struggle, so we can have Carrot Top. Geronimo would be so proud.”
Yet, Alexie is not committed to political struggle himself. He knows about my push for Indian patriotism, and finds that interesting, probably because of the irony inherent. I definitely take political sides. I asked him whether he regretted the fact that Indians are basically conservative. I got the impression he wished Indians were otherwise. He replied, “I don’t regret or praise Indian conservatism. It just is. I just find it interesting that ‘rez’ Indians share political views with the group (conservative white folks) who are most interested in taking away Indian treaty rights.”
Well, Clinton took $170,000 from Oklahoma Cheyenne, in exchange for land promises he completely betrayed. Moreover, Democrats are certainly interested in taking campaign contributions from Indian casinos. California Governor Grey Davis took $1.8 million in 1998, from California Indians, in return for providing them more casino licenses. If Alexie thinks casinos show “complete assimilation,” by Indians, then our so-called Indian sovereignty--bought by casino money--isn’t so “Indian” after all.
But Alexie is not even saying whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. He remains a staunchly unbiased commentator. He simply observes the irony.
His movie Fancy Dancing, for instance, about a homosexual Indian poet who returns to his home on the reservation, is not a judgment, but an observation. The film was awarded Best Feature at San Francisco’s 26th annual homosexual Film Festival last summer (June, 2002). Outfest, southern California’s largest homosexual film festival, awarded Fancy Dancing Outstanding Screen Writing, and Outstanding Actor was awarded to Evan Adams, the film’s lead actor.
Capriccioso's interview with Alexie revealed interesting points about Fancy Dancing, and about Alexie. Alexie recalls a film crew member’s comments when they were making the film: “It’s too Indian for white people, too white for Indian people, and too gay for everybody.” Alexie told Capriccioso, “It’s going to have a limited audience, always, but I don’t care. I made it because I wanted to make it.”
Alexie has never claimed to be an Indian leader, advisor, elder, spiritual visionary, or any such role. He admits many Indians accuse him of not being “Indian” enough. Well, I often meet that accusation myself. But how could two Indians with such different purposes both be accused of not being Indian enough? Maybe we’re not so different, in the eyes of Indians.