Sherman Alexie won the National Book Award last night, for his book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian.
There's a lot in his book that many readers may not know or understand... What is, for example, "The Indian Health Service." And what is that reference to a "white dentist"?!
Page after page has something I identify with, or laugh aloud with... Below are some excerpts from the book.
On page 35, Mr. P (Junior's teacher) says
"When I first started teaching here, that's what we did to the rowdy ones, you know? We beat them. That's how we were taught to teach you. We were supposed to kill the Indian to save the child."
Alexie's protagonist asks Mr. P
"You killed Indians?"
And Mr. P replies
"No, no, it's just a saying. I didn't literally kill Indians. We were supposed to make you give up being Indian. Your songs and stories and language and dancing. Everything. We weren't trying to kill Indian people. We were trying to kill Indian culture."Mr. P is referring to boarding schools. Not fancy prep-schools, but schools designed to "Kill the Indian, save the man."
Take a look at the illustration on page 38, and the discussion of romance novels. When I do guest lectures, I bring along one of Cassie Edward's romance novels. They are hilarious to me, but they ARE bestsellers, consumed by... who? Women.... Librarians? Teachers? Parents? I bring one along to make the point that, if you're only reading junk, it is easy to understand why you don't recognize stereotypical content.
On page 61 are "The Unofficial and Unwritten Spokane Indian Rules of Fisticuffs." Lists like that make the rounds often, moving through cyberspace, dropping into my mailbox. Native humor.
Page 101? New chapter, called "Thanksgiving"
I always think its funny when Indians celebrate Thanksgiving. I mean, sure, the Indians and Pilgrims were best friends during that First Thanksgiving, but a few years later, the Pilgrims were shooting Indians.
So I'm never quite sure why we eat turkey like everybody else.
"Hey, Dad," I said. "What do Indians have to be so thankful for?"
"We should give thanks that they didn't kill all of us."
We laughed like crazy. It was a good day. Dad was sober. Mom was getting ready to nap. Grandma was already napping.
As you may know, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is very close to his own story. Given that, you may be interested in reading up on Alexie's people. Among the wonders of the Internet is that Native people and tribes can now get info available to the masses. Info about their history, culture, etc. from their perspective rather than something filtered through an outsider's lens. As you read/teach/discuss his novel with students and patrons, it will you and them to know the history and present-day life of his people.
Alexie is Spokane and Coeur d'Alene. Here are the links to their websites:
Spokane Tribe of Indians
You might also want to order and watch two films based on his writing. The first is SMOKE SIGNALS, and the second is THE BUSINESS OF FANCYDANCING. The latter might be controversial in some circles, because the protagonist is gay. Watch it, and keep an eye out for Alexie. He does appear in it. Then, watch it again, the second time listening to Alexie talk about the film in the directors commentary.