On October 1, renowned Spokane author Sherman Alexie was invited to speak at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, not far from his boyhood home on the rez. The college, named in honor of Marcus Whitman, a missionary famously killed by Indians, had recently selected Alexie’s book Reservation Blues for its summer reading program. But if they expected an intellectual discourse about the novel or about life on the rez or about the ironies of a Spokane native addressing the “Missionaries” (yes, that is their mascot), they were left disappointed. Instead, Alexie embarked on a ninety-minute free-wheeling stand-up comedy routine that left the crowd wondering whether he was a jaded performer toying with the crowd (and sometimes making fun of them) or a clever poet/writer who had no interest in predictable monologues.
Let’s assume the latter, as Alexie has said that he does stand-up comedy so the audience can get to know him. Why regurgitate a book to them that they have already read?
Woven between his jokes and the audience’s constant laughter was Alexie’s favorite theme: art is a social weapon. Art exposes that which is off, pretentious, oppressive, unequal, or ostentatious. Art will offend those that have a vested interest in the status quo. He views himself as an artist and nothing is too sacred for his barbs.
One of his common targets is white liberals who idolize Native Americans as noble, pure, and one with nature– a stereotype that has swirled around this continent since the first large scale displacement of Native communities. Call it conqueror’s guilt. He positively skewered the white hippy fetish for “spirit animals” (while bemoaning that his rejection of such beliefs had just been called into question by a squirrel that had crawled up his pant leg earlier in the day).
By example, Alexie presents himself more as a cosmopolitan man living in Seattle (which he is) than a stoic Indian crying a solitary tear over a polluted earth (referring to a famous old advertisement). A few years ago the 1491’s (a Native performing group) attempted to break down stereotypes of Native Americans by releasing a YouTube video of smiling Indians (dedicated to Edward Curtis, the photographer known for publishing only the serious expressions). Alexie goes one step further by joking about electronic media, double chins, and bad art in hotel rooms.
His own ethnic group was not spared either. He imitated a tribal elder who solemnly announced that he was seeking guidance from the four directions. “Dude,” Alexie said, “we are talking about a casino parking garage.” But then Alexie caught himself and looked at the audience, “I just called a council member ‘dude’. That,” he proclaimed, “is art.”
But Alexie’s ethnic background is not just any ethnic group. His was the one that used to live here, that was displaced, and that is now, in his presence, reclaiming the stage.
The history of the area is present for anyone who looks. The Columbia River, once filled with salmon, is now a stair step of lakes and hydroelectric dams. (Fifty percent of the nation’s salmon were wiped out by one dam, the Grand Coulee. The other dams did a fair job on the rest.) At the west end of the Walla Walla valley lie the old French farms (like Touchet) where Peopeomoxmox was mutilated under a flag of truce. He now stands in bronze, ears and hands and feet intact, in downtown Walla Walla. It only became acceptable to honor him with the statue within the last few decades. And of course, there is the Whitman Mission, the source of so much local lore and remembrance. The Marcus Whitman Hotel and Conference Center, the nicest place in town and quite possibly where Alexie was housed, is across the street from Peopeomoxmox’s statue. Down the highway, the Umatilla now have an army depot named after them. Ironies abound. The Cayuse, whose members were accused of the Whitman murders and who consequently suffered ethnic cleansing and confinement on a reservation (as did all the tribes in the area), are not prominently memorialized.
Alexie made a few passing references to Native history. He wondered how many Indian killers had stayed in his old hotel rooms. He referred to Andrew Jackson as a genocidal maniac (which drew a surprising amount of applause from the liberal audience). And he bemoaned the environmental destruction of the Columbia River – they had to “fuck it all up” because it was all sacred and beautiful.
But most of the ironies of past and present were left unsaid, summed up by the short quip, “Notice I haven’t even mentioned the Whitmans.” Like any good writer, Alexie illustrated the irony taking place with his grand finale.
He reclaimed the Whitmans’ stage with Native song and dance. He had met with local tribal members earlier in the day, many of whom were in attendance. One young Umatilla woman had told him of her ambition to become an astronaut. The question Alexie posed to us was, “what would the first indigenous woman astronaut say if she was the first person to set foot on Mars?”
He instantly rejected Neil Armstrong’s giant leap language and quickly landed on something more Indian. She would address all the potential Martian life forms past and present and ask permission to walk upon their planet.
It was hard to know if he was serious or poking fun at another Indian stereotype. Regardless, he then proceeded to orchestrate the Mars landing on stage. He called up three Umatilla drummers (addressing the “lead singer” in homage to a running joke in Reservation Blues) as well as the young astronaut-to-be. The audience was then treated to the spectacle of the Umatillas performing the Grand Entry (a traditional opening to Indian pow-wows) past a podium emblazoned with the name of Whitman. It wasn’t Mars, but given the history of the area, it may as well have been.
What made this possible? What is it that has enabled a Spokane rez boy to address the white elite at Whitman College? And what allowed the Umatilla to march and drum across a stage memorializing Marcus Whitman and to be applauded for it? It is art and stories and laughter, Alexie has said, that tears down such walls and brings people together.