Spokane Words: An Interview with Sherman Alexie

This interview between Sherman Alexie and Tomson Highway took place at the 17th Annual International Festival of Authors in Toronto on October 28, 1996.

Tomson Highway (T.H.): Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Tomson Highway and I am both your host and interviewer for today's interview. I am a writer here in this fabulous city of Toronto! Please welcome, from the United States of America, Mr. Sherman Alexie.

Sherman Alexie (S.A.): Thank you.

(T.H.)I'm curious -- your name, where does it come from?

(S.A.)Sherman? I'm a junior. I'm Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr. Junior's a very common name on the reservations. Go onto any reservation and say, "Hey Junior!" and 17 men and three women turn around. My dad was Sherman, my grandfather was Alphonse, my great-grandfather was Adolph; had another great-great-grandfather who was Aristotle...

(T.H.) Really?

(S.A.) Not those ones - different ones!

(T.H.) Well, thank the living Lord Jesus you ain't called "Jim." Now, your tribal affiliation?

(S.A.) I'm enrolled Spokane from my mother's side. My father's Coeur D'Alene. The name means "heart of --"

(T.H.) Alene. Who, in this country, is the Prime Minister's wife!

(S.A.) Oh, we predicted her arrival, then.

My other tribe is the Spokane, where I grew up, on the Spokane Reservation. It's Spo-kan-ee, actually, and it means "children of the sun."

(T.H.) Why do you say "my other tribe"? Are you half and half?

(S.A.) My mother's side is Spokane, Salish, Kootenay and Colville Indian, which are all Salish; they are all related -- speak the same language.

(T.H.) How many people live on the Spokane Indian Reservation?

(S.A.) About a thousand. There's about 2500 Spokanes altogether. Most of the others live in the city of Spokane, which is just off our reservation.

(T.H.) Tell us a little about Spokane Indian Reservation.

(S.A.)We're a Salmon people. Our religions, our culture, our dancing, our singing - had everything to do with the salmon. We were devastated by the Grand Coulee Dam. It took away 7,000 miles of salmon spawning beds from the interior Indians in Washington, Idaho and Montana. We've had to create a religion for many years. We had fish hatcheries so now our salmon are homegrown. People often ask me, "Why didn't they build a fish ladder?" I say, "You haven't seen the Grand Coulee Dam, have you?"

(T.H.) The principal source of economic survival today on the Spokane Indian Reservation is...?

(S.A.) Forestry. And now casinos and bingo halls. Yes, we are casino-owning Americans.

(T.H.) Really? How's it doing?

(S.A.) Very well, thank you. On my reservation unemployment was about 90% before the bingo hall and casino; now it's about 10%. They worry about the Mafia coming in and taking over the casinos. I say, "Indians couldn't tell the difference between the Mafia and the United States government. Even if the Mafia did come in and take over, we'd welcome them, because we'd be better organized and the government wouldn't mess with us. And we'd have much better pasta! No more Kraft macaroni and cheese.

(T.H.) The Spokane language, do you speak it?

(S.A.) No, I understand it. My parents are both fluent in Salish but they didn't teach us.

(T.H.) Why not?

(S.A.) When I was very young, my mom told us, "English will be your best weapon." My own language wasn't going to save me. English would. And it has. I'm a writer, making my living off writing in English. I do use Spokane language in my work where I would use it myself like in phrases or dirty words. I can tell people what I think of them in two languages.

(T.H.) Fantastic! Tell us about your education. There was an elementary school on your rez...

(S.A.) I went to the tribal school, until eighth grade and then I transferred off the reservations to a border town high school, which was an all-white high school and very German. It was a German immigrant community.

(T.H.) What do you mean by border town?

(S.A.) A town; a not-Indian town on the border of the reservation.

(T.H.) So there was half-white, half-Indian?

(S.A.) No, it was me and all the rest of the --

(T.H.) You and the Germans!

(S.A.) Me and the Germans.

(T.H.) Oh my God! (S.A.) I started worrying, you know. I started thinking, "They're not going to start those things here, are they?" I thought the whole world had turned blonde overnight!

(T.H.) That was a very traumatic time in your life?

(S.A.) Terrifying. There's a rez accent. I don't know if all these people here have heard it -- it sounds vaguely Canadian, actually.

(T.H.) Can you just give us a taste?

(S.A.) Okay. Idt's sorda like dis -- sordof a liddle sing-song qual-I-ty to it. And dere's a lot of enit which means "ain't it." "Eh" is a word we use a lot, too. I hear people here saying it. I heard this camera guy say, "eh," and I thought, "Is he Indian?"

So I walk off the reservation into this small German immigrant high school and start talking like this. This very pretty blonde woman looks at me and says, "You talk really funny." I didn't speak again for a month and a half.

(T.H.) How long were you in this linguistic cultural hell - to paraphrase Adrienne Clarkson?

(S.A.) Exactly what I was thinking. I was 13 years old and I was thinking. "Ya know, I am in a linguistic hell."

(S.A.) It ended up being fine. All those qualities about me that made me an ugly duckling on the reservation - ambitious, competitive and individualistic - these are not necessarily good things to be when you're part of a tribe. I was into books. I've always loved reading. I planned on becoming a doctor, a pediatrician.

(T.H.) You weren't sporty?

Sherman Alexie
(S.A.) I played basketball, but I was more interested in books. I wasn't a guy who did dangerous things. I remember once we set up this wooden ramp. We'd go down this sand hill and jump over the ramp on our bicycles. The jump took us over an open sewer pit. If you didn't do this, you weren't a man. So, we're these nine-year old Indian kids jumping over open sewer pits, and we didn't always make it.

(T.H.) This is when you became... intellectual.

(S.A.) It was either in the sewer or intellectual. It was either smell like this or smell like that.

(T.H.) Well thank the living Lord Jesus for that sewer, otherwise we wouldn't have your books. Then you went to high school in Spokane, I take it? (S.A.) No, I went to high school at Reardon; I went to college in Spokane at a Jesuit university. I am Catholic. I'm not sure exactly why I went for more punishment. (T.H.) Hang on. You were raised Roman Catholic?

(S.A.) Not Roman.

(T.H.) What kind of Catholic?

(S.A.) Spokane Indian Catholic.

(T.H.) You were raised a Catholic, and then you went to a Jesuit Catholic school, which is a Roman Catholic School. What happened when you first walked in that door?

(S.A.) The Jesuits were trying to hold on to their original mission to educate the Indians, and I was the only Indian there so they really tried to educate me. I'd skip class, they'd call me up, "Hey Sherman, why'd you skip class?" "Well, because I was tired." "Why were you tired?" "Well, because I was sleepy." They didn't understand the simplest things.

(T.H.) These Jesuits were the people who first missionized that area, right?

(S.A.) One of my great-great-great-great grandmothers (Christine Polotkin) first saw the coming of the black crows. She had a dream about European contact. She dreamed about three ravens with white stars on their necks showing up and coming to the people, and the ravens saying, "If you don't listen to us and do what we say, you're all going to die." A week later, three Jesuits showed up, in black, with white stars at their necks. And everybody said, "All right...."

(T.H.) So you got a degree at this university? (S.A.) No, I transferred -- well, I ran. I fled. They're chasing me still. They were running after me -- the Jesuits -- trying to save me; they lifted up their cassocks and they were wearing Nikes. I didn't realize God had a shoe deal.

I went to Washington State University where I got a Bachelor's in American Studies. That is a real degree. People sometimes think, "What is American Studies?"

(T.H.) What is American Studies?

(S.A.) It's where you study the United States. History, literature, sociology, anthropology, all that stuff. I was majoring in most everything. I couldn't figure out what I wanted to be. I was going to be a doctor, a lawyer, an accountant, an English major. One day I sat down, added up all my credits and looked at the American Studies degree. I realized, "I've got most of those credits." American Studies is for those people who are...eclectic.

(T.H.) Congratulations! You're a success! When did you start writing?

(S.A.) I started writing because I kept fainting in human anatomy class and needed a career change. The only class that fit where the human anatomy class had been was a poetry writing workshop. I always liked poetry. I'd never heard of, or nobody'd ever showed me, a book written by a First Nations person, ever. I got into the class, and my professor, Alex Kwo, gave me an anthology of contemporary Native American poetry called Songs From This Earth on Turtle's Back. I opened it up and -- oh my gosh -- I saw my life in poems and stories for the very first time.

(T.H.) Who were some of the writers in the book?

(S.A.) Linda Hogan, Simon Ortiz, Joy Harjo, James Welch, Adrian Lewis. There were poems about reservation life: fry bread, bannock, 49's, fried baloney, government food and terrible housing. But there was also joy and happiness. There's a line by a Paiute poet named Adrian Lewis that says, "Oh, Uncle Adrian, I'm in the reservation of my mind." I thought, "Oh my God, somebody understand me!: At that moment I realized, "I can do this!" That's when I started writing -- in 1989.

(T.H.) The poetry that you would have studied in American Studies, for instance, the poetry of Wallace Stevens or e.e. cummings or Emily Dickinson never influenced you at all?

(S.A.) Of course it did. I loved that stuff. I still love it. Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are two of my favorites. Wallace Stevens leaves me kind of dry, but the other poets, they're still a primary influence. I always tell people my literary influences are Stephen King, John Steinbeck, and my mother, my grandfather and the Brady Bunch.

(T.H.)Then you moved on to short stories.

(S.A.) I'd written a couple of them in college. After my first book of poems, The Business of Fancy Dancing, was published by Hanging Loose Press in Brooklyn, New York, I got a great New York Times book review. The review called me "one of the major lyric voices of our time." I was a 25-year old Spokane Indian guy working as a secretary at a high school exchange program in Spokane, Washington when my poetry editor faxed that review to me. I pulled it out of the fax machine beside my desk and read, "...one of the major lyric voices of our time." I thought, "Great! Where do I go from here!?" After that, the agents started calling me.

(T.H.) Where did the book of poetry come from?

(S.A.) It was my first semester poetry manuscript. Part of the assignment was to submit to literary magazines. The one I liked in the Washington State library was Hanging Loose magazine. I liked that it started the same year I was born. The magazine, the press and I are the same age. Over the next year and a half they kept taking poems of mine to publish. Then they asked if I had a manuscript. I said, "Yes!" and sent it in.

It was a thousand copies. I figured I'd sell a hundred and fifty to my family. My mom would buy a hundred herself and that would be about it. But, it took off. I never expected it. Sometimes I think it would have been nicer if it had not been as big, because my career has been a rocket ride. There's a lot of pressure.

(T.H.) That would have been about six years ago?

(S.A.) The book came out in 1992. It was accepted in late 1990.

(T.H.) Then you moved on to short stories -- how did that transfer?

(S.A.) The agents started calling me after the book of poems was published. They asked me if I had a fiction manuscript because that's what they could sell. I said, "Yes," and then went and wrote short stories. I had some from college, but I wrote about half of my first book of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, in three months; in between the review and when I submitted the book to agents.

It was an economic move, I'm not ashamed to say. In fact, you can tell which stories were pre-Fancy Dancing and post-Fancy Dancing. The ones pre - are much more like poems. The ones post - are much more straight narrative stories.

(T.H.) Fantastic! Tell us a little bit more about the Lone Ranger and Tonto.

(S.A.) The title, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfightin Heaven, came to me in a dream. In this dream, I was sitting in a huge arena. I could see people boxing, miles away it seemed. This gentleman with a hawk face, dressed completely in red, everything was red -- boots, shoes cap, top hat -- sat down beside me. I said, "What's going on down there?" He said, "Oh, that the Lone Ranger and Tonto. They're boxing. The winner get to go to heaven and the loser has to go to hell."

I said, "Oh, my gosh." Then I realized this was the devil. (Some people have therapists, I have audiences). I really started getting into it, "Go, Tonto, hit him, hit him!" I woke up before the fight was over, saying, "Wow, that's a great dream." I thought, "That's a title for a story, or it is a story." I wrote the story as the dream was but it seemed too much a parable. I thought the title would work better as a contemporary story, so I wrote about an interracial romance between an Indian man and a white woman. The theme of the story is the Lone Ranger and Tonto fistfight in heaven. I think this is the theme between all Indian-White relationships, not only as individuals, but as races, as colonials to colonized.

(T.H.) Not a relationship of equals, a relationship of subservience.

(S.A.) Subservience and antagonistic. Kemosabe in Apache means "idiot," as Tonto in Spanish means "idiot." They were calling each other "idiot" all those years; and they both were, so it worked out. It's always going to be antagonistic relationship between indigenous people and the colonial people. I think the theme of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is universal.

(T.H.) How did your first novel come about?

(S.A.) I had a two-book deal with Atlantic Monthly Press. I had a one-sentence description of a novel it was an all-Indian Catholic rock-and-roll band. That's what the novel ended up being about -- an all-Indian Catholic rock-and-roll band called Coyote Springs. The novel was called Reservation Blues. It is a sequel because many of the same characters and situations that existed in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven are in it. It's set on my reservation with three main characters: Thomas Builds the Fire, a misfit storyteller of the Spokane tribe; Victor Joseph, an alcoholic angry Indian guy; and Junior Polotkin, the happy-go-lucky failure. I called them "the unholy trinity of me." Reservation Blues is also about a deal with the Devil. Robert Johnson, the blues guitarist, plays a prominent role in the book. His guitar bewitches Thomas, Victor and Junior into becoming a blues band that ends up auditioning for Cavalry Records in Manhattan.

(T.H.) What about Indian Killer?

(S.A.) Indian Killer. I wrote this first and foremost because people -- critics and audiences -- kept talking about The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Reservation Blues as if they were dark, depressing, Kafka-ish, cockroach-nightmare-crawling- across-the-floor kind of books. Actually they're very funny. I think they have happy endings. I thought, "Okay, you want dark and depressing? Here you go. Here's Indian Killer. You're going to look back with fondness at the whimsical Reservation Blues, the lighthearted The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven." I abandoned my trademark humour and went for the full thriller, murder mystery. The plot-line is a series of murders of White men in Seattle that look as though an Indian is doing them. The bodies are ritually mutilated, scalped and certain objects are left at the scene. John Smith, the main character as a newborn was adopted by an upper middle-class White family, and in his adulthood is struggling to find a connection to Indian people, any sense of connection to anybody. He gently goes mad during the course of the book. I've met a lot of people like him -- "lost birds" -- Indians adopted out by non-Indian families -- we call them lost birds. One of my cousins was adopted out. I wanted to write a book about a character like that to get this out into the public. The Indian Child Welfare Act in the States in 1974 prevented such adoptions. The social problems and dysfunctions of these Indians adopted out are tremendous. Their suicide rates are off the chart, their drug and alcohol abuse rates are off the chart. There's a book here, called Inside Out, a national bestseller.

(T.H.) James Tyman, from Saskatchewan.

(S.A.) James Tyman. Someone handed it to me last week and I just read it. His story is very typical, and is not as bad as many of the stories I've heard.

(T.H.) This concept, this identity crisis, misplaced birth, was the germ for the book, the Indian germ?

(S.A.) It was the germ of the novel. I was going to write a novel about just a lost bird. I didn't realize it was going to be a murder mystery. I had an idea about a suspected Indian serial killer for a long time. It's also a novel about, not just physical murder, but the spiritual, cultural and physical murder of Indians. The title, Indian Killer, is a palindrome, really. It's ŽIndians who kill' and it's also people who kill Indians.' It's about how the dominant culture is killing the First Nations people of this country to this day, still.

(T.H.) Well, congratulations on the publication of Indian Killer. (S.A.) Thank you.

(T.H.) With the little bit of time we have left, let's open the discussion to the floor. If there's anybody who has questions, please ask now.

Question: The Colville tribe is made up of twelve tribes. Do you have any blood related to any of the tribes? Were you influenced by the Lakes Colville Indian writer Mourning Dove, who wrote a book called Cogewea.

(S.A.) No, and no. Mourning Dove, the Cogewea book, is an example of a book written by a White person which is disguised as an autobiography of an Indian person. Other examples are Black Elk Speaks, written by Black Elk, supposedly, and John Nearheart - an autobiography that Black Elk himself disavowed before he died, a fact which is conveniently omitted in any discussion of the book. There's Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions and Lakota Woman, two other supposed autobiographies, really written by White men. Lakota Woman, has gone on to be a movie and an international bestseller. As far as I know, Mary has not received any sort of royalties. The same man who wrote that book also wrote Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions. Once again, these autobiographies are not really autobiographies, they're translations. Both writers of those books have freely admitted to poetic license. Poetic license and manifest destiny are often the same thing.

Question: Why are many Indian writers not getting national attention?

(S.A.) We're not the appropriate kind of stories. If you write about Lakota Indians or horse cultures, you have a better chance of a bestseller. If you write about pre-twentieth century Indians; if you use a "corn pollen, four directions, Mother Earth, Father Sky" sort of language; or if you write about the wonderful relationship between an Indian and a White person: love affair, friendship, mentoring relationship, you have a better chance of selling a lot of books. If you are of -- now I'm not saying these people aren't Indian -- if you are of a very mixed-blood, you have a better chance of selling a lot of books. It's a particular kind of Indian experience. They have more access to the educational and publishing channels. If you write the appropriate kind of material, you have a better chance. The second you don't, your chances decrease. I'm very fortunate. I'm writing these highly political books about reservation Indians. I'm telling rez jokes in my books. I think most non-Indians don't have a clue about half the jokes in there. I'm selling a lot of copies and doing well. I'm an anomaly. Other writers are writing stories that aren't getting told and not because of their writing ability. Ninety percent of the books in any bookstore are not written very well. It's the approach. Any non-Indian writer writing about Indians is going to automatically get a better critical and commercial reception than any Indian. Tony Hillerman, for instance, any one of his novels, has sold more copies than all the books written by Indians, ever.

Question: Do you resent the fact that he writes about Indians?

(S.A.) Yes. I resent that he's made a career off Indians, and as far as I know, has not given much back. I'm on the Board of Trustees of the American Indian College Fund -- I haven't heard his name mentioned. I'm resentful that there are many writers out there making careers off Indians and doing absolutely nothing in return. There's a guy I'm reading with tomorrow evening -- Mr. Kinsella -- who's making a career writing books about Indians, and as far as I know -- he's doing nothing for Indians. People ask me and I give hard-core answers. You're making money, give it back. Donate 10% of your royalties to the Native College Fund. How about giving 10% of your royalties to the tribe you're writing about?

Question: Do you feel bound to writing just about your Native self, as opposed to non- Native issues?

(S.A.) I hate that question more than any other. It's an incredibly racist, colonial question. Nobody ever asked Raymond Carver if he was going to write about anything other than poor white people. Nobody ever asked Faulkner if he was going to write about anything more than poor, white Southern people. People don't ask those questions of non-Brown writers. I'm shocked you asked that (asked by non-White person). The author of Remains of the Day wrote that precisely because he was tired of the ghettoization of his work about British-Japanese people. I'm not limited by writing about Spokane Indians. Every theme, every story, every tragedy that exists in literature takes place in my little community. Hamlet takes place on my reservation daily. King Lear takes place on my reservation daily: "Because I could not stop for death, death kindly stopped for me." That is a total Indian couplet. I feel challenged by trying to write about Spokane Indians. They're a powerful people, and it's a powerful place. I'm never going to run out of stories or themes. To suggest otherwise, or to suggest I should be interested in something else is ridiculous.


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