by Nona Blyth Cloud
I hope Sherman Alexie (1966 — ) will forgive me for the title. I chose it to make a point: far too many people in the U.S. do think of Indians as ghosts from the past. Alexie has said he prefers ‘Indians’ to ‘Native Americans,’ which he considers an oxymoronic term born of white guilt.
There are over 5 million Americans today who are members of the 562 ‘federally recognized’ Indian tribes, bands, nations, pueblos, rancherias, communities and Native villages in the United States.
Sherman Alexie, whose tribal heritage is both Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, often writes about hard times growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He was the first person in his family to go to college. As he tells it in the ‘By Heart’ series for The Atlantic in October 2013:
“…by complete chance, I enrolled in a poetry workshop that changed my life. On the first day, the teacher, Alex Kuo, gave me an anthology of contemporary Native poetry called Songs from this Earth on Turtle’s Back. There were poems by Adrian C. Louis, a Paiute Indian, and one in particular called “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile.” If I hadn’t found this poem, I don’t think I ever would have found my way as a writer. I would have been a high school English teacher who coached basketball. My life would have taken a completely different path…
‘Oh, Uncle Adrian, I’m in the reservation of my mind.’
…that line made me want to drop everything and be a poet. It was that earth-shaking. I was a reservation Indian. I had no options. Being a writer wasn’t anywhere near the menu. So, it wasn’t a lightning bolt—it was an atomic bomb. I read it and thought, “This is what I want to do.”
(For the complete Louis poem, go to:
The Western Hemisphere is called the ‘New World’ and America is referred to as a ‘young country,’ but evidence of a human presence on the land goes back at least 13,500 years, and some theories say the First People were already here over 20,000 years ago.
On the Amtrak from Boston to New York City
The white woman across the aisle from me says ‘Look,
look at all the history, that house
on the hill there is over two hundred years old, ‘
as she points out the window past me
into what she has been taught. I have learned
little more about American history during my few days
back East than what I expected and far less
of what we should all know of the tribal stories
whose architecture is 15,000 years older
than the corners of the house that sits
museumed on the hill. ‘Walden Pond, ‘
the woman on the train asks, ‘Did you see Walden Pond? ‘
and I don’t have a cruel enough heart to break
her own by telling her there are five Walden Ponds
on my little reservation out West
and at least a hundred more surrounding Spokane,
the city I pretended to call my home. ‘Listen, ‘
I could have told her. ‘I don’t give a shit
about Walden. I know the Indians were living stories
around that pond before Walden’s grandparents were born
and before his grandparents’ grandparents were born.
I’m tired of hearing about Don-fucking-Henley saving it, too,
because that’s redundant. If Don Henley’s brothers and sisters
and mothers and father hadn’t come here in the first place
then nothing would need to be saved.’
But I didn’t say a word to the woman about Walden
Pond because she smiled so much and seemed delighted
that I thought to bring her an orange juice
back from the food car. I respect elders
of every color. All I really did was eat
my tasteless sandwich, drink my Diet Pepsi
and nod my head whenever the woman pointed out
another little piece of her country’s history
while I, as all Indians have done
since this war began, made plans
for what I would do and say the next time
somebody from the enemy thought I was one of their own.
I had a similar experience to the one Alexie writes about in this poem. It’s part of the human condition no matter what your heritage might be.
Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World
The morning air is all awash with angels
— Richard Wilbur, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”
The eyes open to a blue telephone
In the bathroom of this five-star hotel.
Who is blessed among us and most deserves
The first call? I choose my father because
He’s astounded by bathroom telephones.
I dial home. My mother answers. “Hey, Ma,”
I say, “Can I talk to Poppa?” She gasps,
And then I remember that my father
Has been dead for nearly a year. “Shit, Mom,”
I say. “I forgot he’s dead. I’m sorry—
How did I forget?” “It’s okay,” she says.
“I made him a cup of instant coffee
This morning and left it on the table—
Like I have for, what, twenty-seven years—
And I didn’t realize my mistake
Until this afternoon.” My mother laughs
At the angels who wait for us to pause
During the most ordinary of days
And sing our praise to forgetfulness
Before they slap our souls with their cold wings.
Those angels burden and unbalance us.
Those fucking angels ride us piggyback.
Those angels, forever falling, snare us
and haul us, prey and praying, into dust.
Here he lampoons the attitudes about Indians that frequently show up in books and on our big and small screens.
How to Write the Great American Indian Novel
All of the Indians must have tragic features: tragic noses, eyes, and arms.
Their hands and fingers must be tragic when they reach for tragic food.
The hero must be a half-breed, half white and half Indian, preferably
from a horse culture. He should often weep alone. That is mandatory.
If the hero is an Indian woman, she is beautiful. She must be slender
and in love with a white man. But if she loves an Indian man
then he must be a half-breed, preferably from a horse culture.
If the Indian woman loves a white man, then he has to be so white
that we can see the blue veins running through his skin like rivers.
When the Indian woman steps out of her dress, the white man gasps
at the endless beauty of her brown skin. She should be compared to nature:
brown hills, mountains, fertile valleys, dewy grass, wind, and clear water.
If she is compared to murky water, however, then she must have a secret.
Indians always have secrets, which are carefully and slowly revealed.
Yet Indian secrets can be disclosed suddenly, like a storm.
Indian men, of course, are storms. They should destroy the lives
of any white women who choose to love them. All white women love
Indian men. That is always the case. White women feign disgust
at the savage in blue jeans and T-shirt, but secretly lust after him.
White women dream about half-breed Indian men from horse cultures.
Indian men are horses, smelling wild and gamey. When the Indian man
unbuttons his pants, the white woman should think of topsoil.
There must be one murder, one suicide, one attempted rape.
Alcohol should be consumed. Cars must be driven at high speeds.
Indians must see visions. White people can have the same visions
if they are in love with Indians. If a white person loves an Indian
then the white person is Indian by proximity. White people must carry
an Indian deep inside themselves. Those interior Indians are half-breed
and obviously from horse cultures. If the interior Indian is male
then he must be a warrior, especially if he is inside a white man.
If the interior Indian is female, then she must be a healer, especially if she is inside
a white woman. Sometimes there are complications.
An Indian man can be hidden inside a white woman. An Indian woman
can be hidden inside a white man. In these rare instances,
everybody is a half-breed struggling to learn more about his or her horse culture.
There must be redemption, of course, and sins must be forgiven.
For this, we need children. A white child and an Indian child, gender
not important, should express deep affection in a childlike way.
In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written,
all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts.
The Unites States government has a long, shameful history of reneging on treaties with indigenous peoples, both at home and abroad. It continues even today. There are current disputes with tribal councils across America about mineral rights, land and water use or abuse, and right-of-way for transporting hazardous materials.
In 1877, the federal government negotiated an agreement with the Spokane Tribe to reserve for the tribe a portion of its aboriginal lands within the current boundaries of the Spokane Indian Reservation. In 1881, President Rutherford B. Hayes issued an Executive Order expressly including portions of the Spokane and Columbia rivers within the Spokane Indian Reservation.
Then the Grand Coulee Dam was constructed on the Columbia River between 1933 and 1942. The Spokane Tribe had ancestral rights to the rich salmon fishing grounds at the headwaters of the Grand Coulee and along the Spokane River. That section of tribal land was flooded when the dam was built, and their traditional way of life was changed forever. Promises were made that they would share in the profits from the electrical power generated by the dam. Legislation introduced in both houses of the U.S. Congress in 2004 to finally settle the dispute over these promises is still being bounced back and forth between houses.
Sonnet, Without Salmon
1. The river is empty. 2. Empty of salmon, I mean. 3. But if you were talking to my grandmother, she would say the water doesn’t matter if the salmon are gone. 4. She never said that. I just did. But I’m giving her those words as a gesture of love. 5. She’s been gone for thirty-one years. 6. The water doesn’t matter if my grandmother is gone. 7. She swam wearing all of her clothes, even her shoes. 8. I don’t know if that was a tribal thing to do, or if she was just eccentric. 9. Has anybody ever said that dam building is an act of war against Indians? 10. And, yet, we need the electricity, too. 11. My mother said the reservation needs a new electrical grid because of all the brown- and blackouts. 12. “Why so many power outages?” I ask her. 13. “All the computers,” she says. 14. Today, in Seattle, I watched a cute couple at the next table whispering to their cell phones instead of to each other. But, chivalrous, he walked to the self-service coffee bar to get her a cup. Lovely, I thought. She was busy on her phone while he was ten feet away. When he sat back down, she said, “Oh, I was texting you to get me sugar and cream.”
Maybe someday, the opening chapter in American History textbooks will be the arrival of the First People, and Christopher Columbus thinking he had reached India will be Chapter Six.
Sources and Further Reading
- “On the Amtrak from Boston to New York City” —
- “Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World” from Face, © 2009 by Sherman Alexie, Hanging Loose Press — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/52923
- “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” from The Summer of Black Widows, © 1996 by Sherman Alexie, Hanging Loose Press — http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/52775
- “Sonnet, Without Salmon” from Orion Magazine Jul/Aug 2011 — https://orionmagazine.org/poetry/sonnet-without-salmon/
- The Business of Fancydancing, Hanging Loose Press, 1992
- I Would Steal Horses, Slipstream, 1992
- First Indian on the Moon, Hanging Loose Press, 1993
- Old Shirts and New Skins, UCLA American Indian Studies Center, 1993
- Water Flowing Home, Limberlost Press, 1994
- Seven Mourning Songs for the Cedar Flute I Have Yet to Learn to Play, Whitman College Press, 1994
- The Summer of Black Widows,Hanging Loose Press, 1996
- The Man Who Loves Salmon, Limberlost Press, 1998
- One Stick Song, Hanging Loose Press, 2000
- Il Powwow della fine del mondo(English and Italian parallel translations),QuatroVenti, 2005
- Dangerous Astronomy, Limberlost Press , 2005
- Face: Poems, Hanging Loose Press, 2009
- What I’ve Stolen, what I’ve Earned, Hanging Loose Press, 2013
Short Stories and Novels
- The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (stories), Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993
- Reservation Blues (novel), Grove/Atlantic, 1994, published as Coyote Spring, Atlantic, 1995
- Indian Killer (novel), Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996
- The Toughest Indian in the World (stories), Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000
- Ten Little Indians: Stories, Grove Press, 2003
- Flight (novel), Black Cat, 2007
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian(young adult novel), Little, Brown, 2007
- War Dances (stories and poems), Grove/Atlantic, 2009
- Blasphemy (short stories), Grove Press, 2012
- Thunder Boy Jr (children’s book), Little, Brown, 2016
- Sockeye Salmon – spawning male
- photo of Chief Morris Antelope of the Coeur d’Alene tribe (early 1900s)
- photo of a phone in a hotel bathroom
- photo of a Spokane woman, 1897
- photo of the Columbia River near Coulee, circa 1908
- photo of Chiefs at Grand Coulee Dam, 1942
- photo of Sherman Alexie
Word Cloud photo by Larry Cloud