“How can you criticize our history? You did the same thing in America to the Indians.”
I was on the Perth subway with several classmates two days after arriving in Australia. In a casual conversation with the stranger, a classmate had explained that we were spending time with members of the Noongar tribe in Western Australia. “Oh, watch out for those aboriginals. They steal,” he had told us.
This answer had taken us aback. While we knew Aboriginal people in Australia still faced racism in daily life, we didn’t expect to encounter it ourselves in the first days of our trip. Further, we had not anticipated this criticism of our own history when another classmate mentioned that we had been studying Australia’s Stolen Generations. But the man on the subway was right about one thing: both our nations have checkered pasts in terms of the treatment of our native populations. Even our country’s history with Indian Boarding Schools mirrors Australia’s efforts to “smooth the dying pillow” of Aboriginal cultures through harsh, assimilatory educational efforts.
As I read Sherman Alexie’s An Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I started to think about this encounter on the subway and I realized we were both wrong. In so intensely focusing on Australian Aboriginal issues, we had forgotten to look at home, while by treating the Stolen Generations as a historical issue, the man on the subway failed to see the continuing issue of racism. Moreover, we were speaking in broad institutional terms, instead of the daily lives of people whom none of us represented.
Based on his own experiences growing up, Alexie’s novel is told through the eyes (and cartoons) of fictional teenager Arnold Spirit, Jr. who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Urged by his high school teacher, Mr. P, Junior leaves the reservation and enrolls at the all-white Reardon High School 20 miles from his home. Throughout the rest of the book, Junior grapples with his outsider status both racially and socio-economically at school and amongst his community on the reservation.
The true highlight of Alexie’s young adult novel is the complex portrayal of a life on and off the Spokane Reservation from the perspective of multiple characters. Many characters like Rowdy, Junior’s best friend, do not support his decision to attend Reardon High School and feel that he is abandoning his community and Indian culture. Yet others such as Junior’s father’s best friend, Eugene, support the teenager and recognize the bravery that it takes to try breaking the cycle of poverty on the reservation by pursuing a better education elsewhere. Ultimately, Alexie’s novel clearly presents the tension between the individual and community, personal and collective experience.
This complexity is an important part of American Indian history, which so often focuses on the collective while neglecting the individual perspective. In the late 1960s a Pan-American Indian movement began to develop, influenced by the Civil Rights movement of the previous decade. In 1969 a group of Bay Area Indians occupied Alcatraz Island under the banner of “Indians of All Tribes.” Through the 1970 “Planning Grant Proposal to Develop an All-Indian University and Cultural Complex on Indian Land, Alcatraz,” the group asserted that “we don’t speak for Indians all over the country. The Indians all over the country speak for themselves.” Indians of All Tribes recognized the need for an overarching movement to lobby for the greater American Indian community, while also still representing individual voices and perspectives.
Bringing varied individual perspectives into a community history certainly presents a challenge. For Indians of All Tribes, the similarities of personal experiences across the country became a rallying point for the Pan-American Indian organization, while for Sherman Alexie’s Arnold Spirit, Jr., the varying personal perspectives created a challenging social web for him to navigate as he set out to find personal hope and freedom through an education off of the reservation.
By the end of my study trip to Australia, I found my understanding of the Aboriginal issues had been equally complicated, bringing the historical into present day and the community story to the individual level. Intimate conversations with members of the Stolen Generations in culturally significant spaces only underscored the serious problems that still exist today. The conversation on the subway now stands out as an example of confusing institutional faults with individual perspectives. Change must come from both sources, though at times they may seem diametrically opposed. However, without the Sherman Alexies a la Arnold Spirits of the world in tandem with larger movements like Indians of All Tribes, we have no chance at making even the smallest change.