Online Edition: Fall 2003

Ten Little Indians

Sherman Alexie

Grove Press ($24)

by Anne Bergen-Aurand and Brian Bergen-Aurand

That's Sherman, not Shaman." At a reading for this new short story collection at the Newberry Library in Chicago, Alexie responded to a question with that quip. While it garnered the laugh it was obviously meant to, it also conveyed a serious message, one Alexie has been trying to get across for years. Like much of his other work, this collection of nine stories challenges the many stereotypes people have about Indians (which is Alexie's preferred term for Native Americans), including those held by Indians themselves.

Alexie's characters are clearly exhausted with expectations of magic, spiritualism, and salvation, and they are too impoverished, too homeless, too sexually distracted, or too overwhelmed by the fallout of September 11th to heal anyone else. In "The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above," the narrator's mother, Estelle, becomes the guide for a group of guru-seeking white women, though from her son's point of view, "Of course she wasn't a magician. She was a mess! She failed parenting quizzes!" He goes on to ask, "What is it about Indians that turns otherwise intelligent, interesting, and capable people into blithering idiots? I don't think every white person I meet has the spiritual talents and service commitment of a Jesuit priest, but white folks often think we Indians are shamanic geniuses." The collection dwells on that question, asking Shaman-seekers everywhere to reconsider their quests.

This is the pull of Alexie at his best. Ten Little Indians recalls The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Reservation Blues, and the screenplay for Smoke Signals--all works in which failures and successes develop between the reservation and the other world, even when the two never come into direct contact. The most important struggles evoke new definitions of what it means to fail and succeed on both sides of the reservation border. Most of all, Alexie's work puts forth a funny, sexy, and biting challenge to static definitions of either side of the hyphen in American-Indian.

Like other prominent Indian writers such as Louise Erdrich and James Welch, Alexie describes contemporary characters straddling identities, ethnicities, economic situations, and cultures, but in these pages Alexie brings this balancing act to the present moment. He writes about devout Catholic Indians and Indians who know the words to every Hank Williams song. He writes about Indians who work the Seattle docks, political aides who are Indian, Indians who teach American history at community colleges, and globetrotting Indians who sell ideas. Their boundaries and self-identifications often lack coherence and are filled with contradiction; like Whitman's speaker in "Song of Myself," they "contain multitudes." William, the salesman in "Flight Patterns" doesn't "want to choose between Ernie Hemingway and the Spokane tribal elders, between Mia Hamm and Crazy Horse, between The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and Chief Dan George." The Brady Bunch meets fancy dancing as Alexie performs the quintessential postmodern pastiche of drawing deeply from mass and tribal culture.

It would be easy to see how these characters grow to hate the white hegemony that demands they "Go back where they came from." However, Alexie's stories draw their characters between the worlds of white racism, white vanity, white rage, and white ignorance, and those of white compassion, white genius, and white poetry. This cosmopolitanism and the ills and benefits which accompany it come across clearest in the two dominant stories of the collection: "Lawyer's League" and "What You Pawn I Will Redeem." Here Alexie refuses to let anyone off the hook. An Indian taunted by a racist does not have the right to lash out without consequences. An Indian grandmother's stolen fancy-dancing regalia must be reclaimed through hard work.

Because of this complex culture, almost all of the characters here are searching for identity and remain split. They are never wholly able to trust in either side of the divide and are rarely trusted wholly in return. In "The Search Engine" a student who finds a book of poetry written by a Spokane Indian 30 years earlier feels a connection that leads her on an arduous trail to find the poet and speak with him. When she finally tracks him down, he explains that he is "not really a Spokane Indian"--he distrusts his own identity as Indian because he was "adopted out and raised by a white family." In "Lawyer's League" we meet Richard, whose father "is an African American giant who played defensive end for the University of Washington Huskies," and whose mother "is a petite Spokane Indian ballerina who majored in dance at U-Dub." Richard remarks "genetically speaking, I'm a graceful monster. . . . culturally speaking, I'm a biracial revolutionary leftist magician with a twenty-foot jumper encoded in my DNA." And in "Can I Get a Witness," a woman who is disconnected from her husband, sons, and her own life finds opportunity for escape as she steps out of the rubble of a terrorist explosion. All these stories are about belief and disbelief, and their specific contradictions, self-questioning, and deceptions reflect a skepticism of official accounts of September 11th and the erosion of an imagined American way of life.

In this way, Ten Little Indians is tied to an American psyche haunted by the destruction of the World Trade Center, the continued scapegoating of people of color, and the unconsidered proclamations of the innocence of the victims. The events of September 11th appear in a handful of stories, and are clearly present in the minds of some of the characters, but in "Can I Get a Witness," they have a prominent role. As a woman who has just survived the explosion delivers her diatribe about reactions to the attacks, the reader is left wondering if the trauma she has endured only minutes before has made her thinking frenetic and absurd or clearer and more insightful.

In the end, Ten Little Indians tells the tales of a group of exceptional people who are average and average people who are exceptional. More reminiscent of Raymond Carver's episodic What We Talk About When We Talk About Love than the geographically contained Sherwood Anderson of Winesburg, Ohio, Alexie's stories are "ambiguously ethnic," mourning, delighting, and devious in that ambiguity. These characters are transients, confused and untrusting, who are sometimes steadfast and sometimes tempted by fatalism. Yet, when they cry too easily, meet enroute to the airport, or dance in a Seattle intersection, there is something ever so slight and grand they redeem.

The unresolved lesson of Ten Little Indians comes from a few lines in the first story. "Maybe Indians are just big-footed hitchhikers eager to tell a joke! That wasn't a profound thought, but maybe it was an accurate one. But can you be accurate without profundity? Corliss didn't know the answer to the question."


Fall 2003 Table of Contents