Sherman Alexie Jr., self-professed “res” American Indian, dislikes casinos, mascots and Oklahoma for stealing his favorite basketball team.
Northeastern State University welcomed the celebrated poet, writer and filmmaker to campus Wednesday, and the audience was treated to 90 minutes of witty and unblinking observation from the perspective of an American Indian all-too-familiar with life on a reservation.
Alexie, named one of the 21st Century’s top 20 writers by The New Yorker, delivered what was essentially a standup monologue to a packed house in the auditorium of the W. Roger Webb Educational Technology Center. Some of Alexie’s best-known works are “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” a book of short stories, and the film “Smoke Signals.”
Drawing from his own life experiences, Alexie’s stories were humorous and often uttered with R-rated language, but they also underlined the struggles many American Indians confront, including stereotype, poverty and racism.
“Race is all surface,” he said. “Our DNA is like 99.99 percent the same no matter who we are. I mean, we share like 78 percent of our DNA with f***ing bananas.”
He also joked with the audience. Noting that the thick-framed glasses he hated wearing as a child on the reservation were now in style, he scanned for someone wearing a pair.
“You think you look cool,” he asked. “To me, you look poor.”
Alexie discussed the cliched images of American Indians, and the frustration they can arouse.
“I know the Cherokees are kind of touristy,” he said. “But people want to see us singing coyote songs.”
Living on a reservation, Alexie realized he wouldn’t get the education he wanted.
“I opened a math book, and it had my mother’s name in it - her maiden name,” he said. “I threw it across the room, and I knew I had to leave.”
He enrolled - as the only Native student - at Pembroke Academy in Reardon, Wash., just outside the Spokane Indian Reservation and completed his high school education. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Washington State University.
While enjoying success in his career, Alexie said he receives sporadic criticism from some American Indians, and is always assessing himself.
“Sometimes I think they are paying me too much money to do this,” he said. “But I am the one traveling the world telling stories. I am the traditional one. Why would I let casino-loving Indians ever make me feel less than Indian?”
On occasion, Alexie discussed his dislikes, saying “I hate the casinos,” and “I hate the mascots,” and “I hate you for stealing my Seattle Supersonics - my two favorite holidays are Christmas and the day the Thunder loses in the playoffs.”
But he ended his soliloquy with his wants, noting that poverty makes people acutely aware of “wanting.”
“What do I want?” he asked. “I don’t know. Are we supposed to know? I want to lose weight, but whenever I have an emotion I eat. I want my son to add five miles an hour to his fastball. I want the Pulitzer.”
He mentioned a final “want” which he said would summarize his entire life and all its trials and successes.
“Today, there is a shuttle bus that picks up kids from the tribal campus and drives them the 22 miles to that little white farm town [Reardon] to go to high school,” he said. “Last year, 42 Spokane Indian kids went to that school. Nobody thanks me. You know what I want? I want that shuttle bus to be named after me.”
Alexie’s visit was sponsored by NSU’s Project I’m Ready, and funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences, the Indigenous Scholars Development Center and the Sequoyah Institute.
To read about American Indian poet and author Sherman Alexie Jr., visit tahlequahTDP.com.