One Voice, Among a Few, Among Many

Something occurred to me while reading the first few chapters of Sherman Alexie’s award-winning Young Adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian. Reading Alexie’s pseudo-memoir was the first book in a long time I could remember reading with a Native American protagonist. When I thought about it further, I could maybe count on two hands the number of novels I had read in my lifetime with prominent Native American characters. Whether they aren’t represented nearly enough in literature or I just haven’t chosen to read their books is unknown (the probable answer is unfortunately both), but this was a learning experience for me regardless.

ABTDPTI
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. Courtesy of Goodreads.

The reservation experience was one I was aware of, having grown up in Western Washington within driving distance of several reservations. I had heard of the stereotypes about reservation life, I guess I had considered them just that: harmful stereotypes, without much truth to them. So I was somewhat startled to read about Alexie’s experience reflecting a lot of those problems like poverty, alcoholism, unemployment, etc. I had assumed were overexaggerated racist fictions. The book reflected that these problems were, to some degree, real.

However, there has been backlash against this portrayal. While this experience might have been Alexie’s reality, and the reality of many other Native Americans, it’s not the reality for others. They argue that this book only enforces those harmful stereotypes which negatively impacts both Native populations view of themselves, and outside perception of these groups.

Alexie recognizes this too. In an interview with Northern Arizona University’s student newspaper, in answer to a question about Native American stereotypes, Alexie says, “There are no stereotypes of anybody, really. The stereotypes wouldn’t exist if they weren’t by some large measure true. That’s one of the jokes I tell, you know? White guys do want to own everything and Indians do have a problem with alcohol. You are a bunch of imperialistic bastards, that’s not a stereotype. And we do have issues with addiction, and unemployment, and time. You know, any group of people is viewed a lot more simplistically when you start talking about large groups.” He goes on to say that because there is so little representation of Native Americans in mass media, let alone an avenue to speak for themselves, the stereotypes that were created long ago stick around and become distorted. But saying that he speaks for all Native American experiences is “like saying John Updike is in charge of white folks.”[1]

This book is a singular experience of one Native American boy contributing a narrative to a world of media where his voice is underrepresented. We cannot think of “The Native American Experience” as a singular, homogenous experience, though it seems easy to with minority group experiences, especially when their narratives are unheard and underrepresented in media.

Sherman Alexie’s book is an important one – well written, appealing, accessible to young people, and a Native American story from a Native American author. He is one a small number of Native voices in media, but he is not the only one, nor does he speak for the 5.5 million people who identify as Native American today. The book sheds much needed light, but it is not the only one, and there is much more to hear.

Considering all this in the week since our class discussion, I am left to conclude one thing. To understand the challenges faced by these Native Peoples, I need to read more than my present count of a half dozen books on Native American life. I need to learn more about their history, and I need to listen voices speaking out today. Their experiences are out there, and if there is a way to amplify their voices and make them heard – through activism or literature – we all can come to understand each other’s lives better.

 

 

[1] Sundt, Gary. “Sherman Alexie: The Lumberjack Interview” The Lumberjack, March 5, 2009. Online. https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/NatNews/conversations/topics/48471

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