Wednesday, November 5, 2008
The Unauthorized Autobiography of Me
The Unauthorized Autobiography of Me
Late summer night on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Ten
Indians are playing basketball on a court barely illuminated
by the streetlight above them. They will play until the
brown, leather ball is invisible in the dark, They will play
until an errant pass jams a finger, knocks a pair of glasses
off the face, smashes a nose and draws blood. They will
play until the ball bounces off the court and disappears
into the shadows.
This may be all you need to know about Native American
Thesis: I have never met a Native American. Thesis repeated:
I have met thousands of Indians.
November 1994, Manhattan, PEN American panel on Indian
Literature. N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Gloria Miguel,
Joy Harjo, me. Two or three hundred people in the audience.
Mostly non-Indians, an Indian or three. Questions and answers.
"Why do you insist on calling yourselves Indian?" asks a
white woman in a nice hat. "It's so demeaning."
"Listen," I say. "The word belongs to us now. We are Indians.
That has nothing to do with Indians from India. We are not
American Indians. We are Indians, pronounced In-din. It
belongs to us. We own it and we're not going to give it back."
So much has been taken from us that we hold onto the
smallest things left with all the strength we have.
1976: Winter on the Spokane Indian Reservation. My two
cousins, S and G, have enough money for gloves. They buy
them at Irene's Grocery Store. Irene is a white woman
who has lived on our reservation since the beginning
of time. I have no money for gloves. My hands are
We build snow fortresses on the football field. Since
we are Indian boys playing, there must be a war.
We stockpile snowballs. S and G build their fortress
on the fifty-yard line. I build mine on the thirty-
yard line. We begin our little war.
My cousins are good warriors. They throw snowballs
with precision. I am bombarded, under seige, defeated
quickly. My cousins bury me in the snow. My grave is
shallow. If my cousins knew how to dance, they
might have danced on my grave. But they do know
how to laugh, so they laugh. They are my cousins,
meaning we are related in the Indian way. My father
drank beers with their father for most of two decades,
and that is enough to make us relatives. Indians
gather relatives like firewood, protection against
the cold. I am buried in the snow, cold, without
protection. My hands are bare.
After a short celebration, my cousins exhume me.
I am too cold to fight. Shivering, I walk home,
anxious for warmth. I know my mother is home. She
is probably sewing quilts. If she sells a quilt,
we have dinner. If she fails to sell a quilt, we
go hungry. My mother has never failed to sell a
quilt. But the threat of hunger is always there.
When I step into the house, my mother is sewing
yet another quilt. She is singing a song under
her breath. You might assume she is singing a
highly traditional Spokane Indian song. In fact,
she is singing Donna Fargo's "The Happiest Girl
in the Whole USA." Improbably, this is a highly
traditional Spokane Indian song. The living room
is dark in the late afternoon. The house is cold.
My mother is wearing her coat and shoes.
"Why don't you turn up the heat?" I ask my mother.
"No electricity," she says.
"Power went out?" I ask.
"Didn't pay the bill," she says.
I am colder. I inhale, exhale, my breath visible
inside the house. I can hear a car sliding on the
icy road outside. My mother is making a quilt. This
quilt will pay for the electricity. Her fingers are
stiff and painful from the cold. She is sewing as
fast as she can.
On the jukebox in the bar: Hank Williams, Patsy Cline,
Johnny Cash, Charlie Rich, Freddy Fender, Donna Fargo.
On the radio in the car: Creedence Clearwater Revival,
Three Dog Night, Blood Sweat & Tears, Janis Joplin,
early Stones, earlier Beatles.
On the stereo in the house: Glen Campbell, Roy Orbison,
Johnny Horton, Loretta Lynn, "The Ballad of the
1975, Mr. Manley, the fourth grade music teacher, sets
a row of musical instruments in front of us. From left to
right, a flute, clarinet, French horn, trombone, trumpet,
tuba, drum. We're getting our first chance to play this
kind of music.
"Now," he explains, "I want all of you to line up behind
the instrument you'd like to learn how to play."
Dawn, Loretta, and Karen line up behind the flute. Melissa
and Michelle behind the clarinet. Lori and Willette, the
French horn. All ten Indian boys line up behind
1970: My sister Mary is beautiful. She is fourteen years
older than me. She wears short skirts and nylons because
she is supposed to wear short skirts and nylons. It is
expected. Her black hair is combed long, straight. Often,
she sits in her favorite chair, the fake leather lounger
we rescued from the dump. Holding a hand mirror, she
combs her hair, applies make-up. Much lipstick and eye
shadow, no foundation. She is always leaving the house.
I do not know where she goes.
I do remember sitting at her feet, rubbing my cheek
against her nyloned calf, while she waited for her ride.
In Montana in 1981, she died in an early morning fire.
At that time, I was sleeping at a friend's house in
Washington state. I was not dreaming of my sister.
"Sherman," says the critic. "How does the oral tradition
apply to your work?"
"Well," I say, as I hold my latest book close to me,
"It doesn't apply at all because I typed this. And
when I'm typing, I'm really, really quiet."
1977: Summer. Steve and I went to attend the KISS
concert in Spokane. KISS is very popular on my reservation.
Gene Simmons, the bass player, Paul Stanley, lead singer
and rhythm guitarist, Ace Frehley, lead guitar. Peter
Criss, drums. All four hide their faces behind
elaborate make-up; Simmons the devil, Stanley the
lover, Frehley the space man. Criss the cat.
The songs: "Do You Love Me," "Calling Dr. Love,"
"Love Gun," "Makin' Love," and "C'mon and Love Me."
Steve and I are too young to go on our own. His
uncle and aunt, born-again Christians, decide to
chaperon us. Inside the Spokane Coliseum, the four
of us find seats far from the stage and the
enormous speakers. Uncle and Aunt wanted to avoid
the bulk of the crowd, but have landed us in the
unofficial pot-smoking section. We are over-
whelmed by the sweet smoke. Steve and I cover
our mouths and noses with Styrofoam cups and
try to breathe normally.
KISS opens their show with staged explosions,
flashing red lights, a prolonged guitar solo
by Frehley. Simmons spits fire. The crowd
rushes the stage. All the pot smokers in our
section hold lighters, tiny flames flickering
high above their heads. The songs are so
familiar we know all the words. The audience
The songs: "Let Me Go, Rock 'n' Roll," "Detroit
Rock City," "Rock and Roll All Nite."
The decibel level is tremendous. Steve and I
can feel the sound waves crashing against the
Styrofoam cups we hold over our faces. Aunt
and Uncle are panicked, finally convinced
that the devil plays a mean guitar. This is
too much for them. It is also too much for
Steve and me, but we pretend to be disappointed
when Aunt and Uncle drag us out of the Coliseum.
During the drive home, Aunt and Uncle play
Christian music on the radio. Loudly and badly
they sing along. Steve and I are in the back
of the Pacer, lookin up through the strangely
curved rear window. There is a meteor shower,
the largest in a decade. Steve and I smell
like pot smoke. We smile at this. Our ears
ring. We make wishes on the shooting stars,
though both of us know that a shooting star
is not a star. It's just a sliver of stone.
I made a very conscious decision to marry an Indian
woman, who made a very conscous decision to marry me.
Our hope: to give birth to and raise Indian
children who love themselves. That is the most
1982: I am the only Indian student at Reardan High,
an all-white school in a small farm town just outside
my reservation. I am in the pizza parlor, sharing
a deluxe with my white friends. We are talking and
laughing. A drunk Indian walks in. He staggers
to the counter and orders a beer. The waiter ignores
him. We are all silent.
At our table, S is shaking her head. She leans toward
us as if to share a secret.
"Man," she says, "I hate Indians."
I am curious about the writers who identify themselves
as mixed-blood Indians. Is it difficult for them to
decide which container they should put their nouns
and verbs into? Invisibility, after all, can be
useful, as a blonde, Aryan-featured Jew in Germany
might have found during WWII. Then again, I think
of the horror stories that such a pale indetected
Jew could tell about life during the Holocaust.
An Incomplete List of People I Wish Were Indian
Susan B. Anthony
Robert De Niro
Billie Jean King
Martin Luther King, Jr.
1995: Summer, Seattle, Washington. I am idling at a
red light when a car filled with white boys pulls up
beside me. The white boy in the front passenger seat
leans out his window.
"I hate you Indian motherfuckers," he screams.
quietly wait for the green light.
1978: David, Randy, Steve, and I decide to form a
reservation doowop group, like the Platters.
During recess, we practice behind the old tribal
school. Steve, a falsetto, is the best singer.
I am the worst singer, but have the deepest
voice, and am therefore an asset.
"What songs do you want to sing?" asks David.
"Tracks of My Tears," says Steve, who always
decides these kind of things.
We sing, desperately trying to remember the lyrics
to that song. We try to remember other songs. We
remember the chorus to most, the first verse of
a few, and only one in its entirety. For some
reason, we all know the lyrics to "Monster Mash."
However, I'm the only one who can manage to sing
in a pseudo-Transylvanian accent that the song
requires. This dubious skill makes me lead singer,
despite Steve's protests.
"We need a name for our group," says Randy.
"How about The Warriors?" I ask.
Everybody agrees. We've watched a lot of Westerns.
We sing "Monster Mash" over and over. We want to
be famous. We want all the little Indian girls
to shout our names. Finally, after days of practice,
we are ready for our debut. Walking in line, like
soldiers, the four of us parade around the playground.
We sing "Monster Mash." I am in front, followed by
Steve, David, then Randy, who is the shortest, but
the toughest Indian fighter our reservation has ever
known. We sing. We are The Warriors. All the other
Indian boys and girls line up behind us as we march.
We are heroes. We are loved. I sing with everything
I have inside of me: pain, happiness, anger,
depression, heart, soul, small intestine. I sing
and am rewarded with people who listen.
That is why I am a poet.
I remember watching Richard Nixon, during the
Watergate affair, as he held a press conference
and told the entire world that he was not a crook.
For the first time, I understood that storytellers
could be bad people.
Poetry = Anger x Imagination
Every time I venture into the bookstore, I find
another book about Indians. There are hundreds of
books about Indians published every year, yet so
few are written by Indians. I gather all the books
written by Indians. I discover:
A book written by a person who identifies as mixed-
blood will sell more copies than a book who identifies
as strictly Indian.
A book written by a non-Indian will sell more copies
than a book written by either a mixed-blood or an
Reservation Indian writers are rarely published
in any form.
A book about Indian life in the past, whether written
by a non-Indian, mixed-blood, or Indian will sell more
copies than a book about Indian life in the twentieth
If you are a non-Indian writing about Indians, it is
almost guaranteed that something positive will be
written about you by Tony Hillerman.
Indian writers who are women will be compared to
Louise Erdich. Indian writers who are men will be
compared with Michael Dorris.
A very small percentage of the readers of Indian
literature have heard of Simon J. Ortiz. This is
Books about the Sioux sell more copies than all of the
books written about other tribes combined.
Mixed-blood writers often write about any tribe which
interests them, whether or not they are related
to that tribe.
Writers who use obvious Indian names, such as Eagle
Woman and Pretty Shield, are usually non-Indian.
Non-Indian writers usually say "Great Spirit,"
"Mother Earth," "Two-Legged, Four-Legged, and Winged."
Mixed-blood writers usually say "Creator," "Mother
Earth," "Two-Legged, Four-Legged, and Winged."
Indian writers usually say "God," "Mother Earth,"
"Human Being, Dog, and Bird."
If a book about Indians contains no dogs, then it
was written by a non-Indian or mixed-blood writer.
If on a cover of a book there are winged animals
who aren't supposed to have wings, then it was
written by a non-Indian.
Successful non-Indian writers are viewed as well-
informed about Indian life. Successful mixed-blood
writers are viewed as wonderful translators
of Indian life. Successful Indian writers are
viewed as traditional storytellers of Indian life.
Very few Indian and mixed-blood writers speak their
tribal languages. Even fewer non-Indian writers speak
their tribal languages.
Indians often write exclusively about reservation life,
even if they never lived on a reservation.
Mixed-bloods often write exclusively about Indians,
even if they grew up in non-Indian communities.
Non-Indian writers always write about reservation life.
Nobody has written the great urban Indian novel yet.
Most Indians who write about Indians are fiction
writers. Fiction about Indians sells.
Have you stood in a crowded room where nobody looks
like you? If you are white, have you stood in a room
full of black people? Are you an Irish man who has
strolled through the streets of Compton? If you are
black, have you stood in a room full of white people?
Are you an African-American man, who has played a
back nine at the local country club? If you are a
woman, have you stood in a room full of men? Are
you Sandra Day O'Conner or Ruth Ginsberg?
Since I left the reservation, almost every room I
enter is filled with people that do not look like
me. There are only two million Indians in the
country. We could all fit into one medium-sized
city. Someone should look into it.
Often, I am most alone in bookstores where I am
reading from my work. I look up from the page
at white faces. This is frightening.
There is an apple tree outside my grandmother's house
on the reservation. The apples are green; my
grandmother's house is green. This is the game:
My siblings and I try to sneak apples from the
tree. Sometimes, our friends will join our raidsing
expeditions. My grandmother believes green apples
are poison and is simply trying to protect us
from sickness. There is nothing biblical about
The game has rules. We always have to raid the tree
during the daylight. My grandmother has bad eyes and
it would be unfair to challenge her in the dark.
We all have to approach the tree at the same time.
Arnold, my older brother, Kim and Arlene, my
younger twin sisters. We have to climb the tree to
steal apples, ignoring the fruit which hands close
to the ground.
Arnold is the best apple thief on the reservation.
He is chubby, but quick. He is fearless in the
tree, climbing to the top for the plumpest apples.
He hands from a branch with one arm, reaches
for apples with the other, and fills his pockets
with his booty. I love him like crazy. My
sisters are more conservative. Often they grab
one apple and eat it quickly, sitting on a
sturdy branch. I always like the green apples
with a hint of red. While we are busy raiding
the tree, we also keep an eye on our
grandmother's house. She is a big woman,
nearly six feet tall. At th age of seventy,
she can still outrun any ten-year old.
Arnold, of course, is always the first kid out
of the tree. He hangs from a branch,drops to
the ground, and screams loudly, announcing
our presence to our grandmother. He runs away,
leaving my sisters and me stuck in the tree.
We scramble to the ground and try to escape.
"Junior," she shouts and I freeze. That's the
rule. Sometimes a dozen Indian kids have been in
that tree, scattering in random directions
when our grandmother bursts out of the house.
If she remembers your name, you are a prisoner
of war. And, belive me, no matter how many kids
are running away, my grandmother always remembers
My grandmother died when I was fourteen years old.
I miss her. I miss everybody.
"Junior," she shouts and I close my eyes in
disgust. Captured again! I wait as she walks
up to me. She holds out her hand and I give
her the stolen apples. Then she smacks me
gently on the top of my head. I am free to
run then, pretending she never caught me in
the first place. I try to catch up with the
others. Running through the trees surrounding
my grandmother's house. I shout out their names.
So many people claim to be Indian, speaking of
an Indian grandmother, a warrior grandfather.
Suppose the United States Government announced
that all Indians had to return to their
reservation. How many of these people would not
shove the Indian ancestor back into the closet?
My mother still makes quilts, My wife and I sleep
beneath one. My brother works for our tribal casino.
One sister works for our bingo hall, while the other
works in the tribal finance department. Our adopted
little brother, James, who is actually our second
cousin, is a freshman at Reardan High School. He can run
the mile in five minutes.
My father is an alcoholic. He used to leave us for
weeks at a time to drink with his friends and cousins.
I missed him so much I'd cry myself sick.
I could always tell when he was going to leave. He
would be tense, quiet, unable to concentrate. He'd
flip through magazines and television channels.
He'd open the refrigerator door, study its contents,
shut the door, and walk away. Five minutes later,
he'd be back at the fridge, rearranging items on the
shelves. I would follow him from place to place,
trying to prevent his escape.
Once, he went into the bathroom, which had no
windows, while I sat outside the only door and
waited for him. I could not hear him inside.
I knocked on the thin wood. I was five years old.
"Are you there?," I asked. "Are you still there?"
Every time he left, I ended up in the emergency
room. But I always got well and he always came
back. He'd walk in the door without warning.
We'd forgive him.
Years later, I am giving a reading at a bookstore
in Spokane, Washington. There is a large crowd.
I read a story about an Indian father who leaves
his family for good. He moves to a city a
thousand miles away. Then he dies. It is a sad
story. When I finish, a woman in the front row
breaks into tears.
"What's wrong?" I ask her.
"I'm so sorry about your father," she says.
"Thank you," I say, "But that's my father sitting
right next to you."
Sherman Alexie.......from One Stick Song