“Are you an Indian?” he asked me.
Of course I was. (Jesus, my black hair hung down past my ass and I was dark as a pecan!) I’d grown up on my reservation with my tribe. I understood most of the Spokane language, though I’d always spoken it like a Jesuit priest. Hell, I’d been in three car wrecks! And most important, every member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians could tell you the exact place and time where I’d lost my virginity. Why? Because I’d told each and every one of them. I mean, I knew the real names, nicknames, and secret names of every dog that had lived on my reservation during the last twenty years.
“Yeah, I’m Indian,” I said.
— from “One Good Man”
The Toughest Indian in the World is a collection of short stories by acclaimed author Sherman Alexie. A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, Alexie writes almost exclusively about Indians (Indians, not Native Americans), particularly those who are also all or part Spokane or Coeur d’Alene.
The stories in The Toughest Indian in the World are about identity and how it informs and guides relationships: about what it means to be an Indian, a man, a woman, a person, a Coeur d’Alene, a Spokane, a wife, a husband, a lover, a son, and many other labels people either find themselves tagged with or claim for themselves. “Assimilation,” the story that opens the collection, makes this examination of identity and its role in forming relationships explicit in its opening paragraph:
For the first time in her life, [Mary Lynn] wanted to go to bed with an Indian man only because he was Indian. She was a Coeur d’Alene Indian married to a white man; she was a wife who wanted to have sex with an indigenous stranger. She didn’t care about the stranger’s job or his hobbies…. She didn’t care if he was handsome or ugly, mostly because she wasn’t sure exactly what those terms meant anymore and how much relevance they truly had when it came to choosing sexual partners.
The narrator of the title story informs the reader that, because he is a Spokane Indian, he only picks up Indian hitchhikers, a habit he acquired from his father. “Dear John Wayne” records an interview between a white anthropologist and an elderly Indian woman who claims to have had an affair with John Wayne during filming of “The Searchers.” When the interviewer attempts to assert his erudition and authority she retorts:
For the last one hundred and eighteen years, I have lived in your world, your white world. In order to survive, to thrive, I have to be white for fifty-seven minutes of every hour.
Q: How about the other three minutes?
A: That, sir, is when I get to be Indian, and you have no idea, no concept, no possible way of knowing what happens in those three minutes.
Q: Then tell me. That’s what I’m here for.
A: Oh, no, no, no. Those three minutes belong to us. They are very secret You’ve colonized Indian land but I am not about to let you colonize my heart and mind.
In exploring identity in its many guises, Alexie’s stories are not only insightful but also wickedly funny, compassionate, sometimes angry, gorgeously lyrical, astonishing, and occasionally terrifying. On this last note I must cite “The Sin Eaters,” which opens with stunningly beautiful imagery but quickly becomes one of the most horrifying stories I’ve ever read.
On that morning, the sun rose and bloomed like blood in a glass syringe. The entire Spokane Indian Reservation and all of its people and places were clean and scrubbed. The Spokane River rose up from its bed like a man who had been healed and joyously wept all the way down to its confluence with the Columbia River.
Those were the days before the first color televisions were smuggled onto the reservation, but after a man with blue eyes had dropped two symmetrical slices of the sun on Japan. All of it happened before a handsome Catholic was assassinated in Dallas, leaving a bright red mark on the tape measure of time, but after the men with blue eyes had carried dark-eyed children into the ovens and made them ash.
In “The Sin Eaters,” Indians are rounded up by armed commandoes, shaved, stripped, and probed, then herded into underground bunkers where they are sorted according to racial purity (fullblood, half-blood, etc.) and forced to donate their blood in “a great patriotic service” that apparently involves a contamination affecting white people. Afterwards those deemed fertile are paired off and forced to have sex or “be eliminated”; the narrator, a twelve-year-old boy, is taken to a woman who tells him she’s already had sex with five men that day.
The Indian woman lifted her face toward the ceiling and screamed. I imagined that all the Indians in the world—all of those who had survived the blood parade—turned their heads when they heard the sound of her voice. I would never again see most of those Indians. For the rest of my life, I would only see rooms with white walls and the brown skin of naked Indian women. For the rest of my life, they would come to my room and lie down with me.
In some respects, “The Sin Eaters” can be classified as speculative fiction, and would fit well in an anthology of horror or science fiction. In fact, the rich imagery and provocative theme reminded me strongly of Octavia E. Butler. In other respects, however, “The Sin Eaters” is not speculative but symbolic and allegorical, re-envisioning the genuine holocaust Indians have suffered ever since the first white explorers set foot on the American continent in language and images one might find in the dystopian, post-apocalyptic films so popular these days. The description of white people as vampires determined to drain Indians of their purifying blood is so powerful because it is so apt.
The Toughest Indian in the World was a random buy for me. Alexie’s name had flitted across my radar screen before but I’d never read anything by him and didn’t know what to expect. I don’t think I’d read more than half of the opening story before commenting on my LiveJournal about this amazing book I’d found, and why hadn’t I heard of this writer before? To which several people replied, all agreeing that Alexie is a fantastic writer whose stories linger in one’s mind long after the book has been set aside. I couldn’t agree more, and enthusiastically recommend The Toughest Indian in the World – and Sherman Alexie – to any reader.