Sherman Alexie rails at Cornell

Leslie Logan, Today correspondent
3/30/09

ITHACA, N.Y. – Sherman Alexie talks rapidly and with great enthusiasm about the size of his abnormally large head. He attributes his oversized cranium to hydrocephalitis – water on the brain – as an infant, a condition that should have killed him or rendered him a vegetable.

He rolls this morose tale in his very own brand of “Ind’n humor,” so rather than tears, he elicits a torrent of laughter from the audience that ripples through the lecture hall.

Alexie appeared before a packed crowd at the Statler Hall Auditorium on Cornell University’s sprawling, hilly campus March 6. He likes to call people out on their biases, hang ups, prejudices and privilege; he reaches out and metaphorically pokes his finger in peoples’ eyes. During Alexie’s nearly two-hour lecture/standup comic routine/rant he touched on a range of topics from the personal, to politics, to social commentary, to the basic desire to belong to a group and be accepted.

He ribbed the Ivy League school for its unmistakable foresight in having nestled itself in the winding hills high above the townspeople peppered along the shores of Cayuga Lake – an institution deliberately situated to look down on the people below.

With wide-eyed, full-grinned mischief he affectionately called the Cornell crowd of students a bunch of over-privileged tofu-eating kids, and that was the mild beginning. He took a tough-love cajoling approach to the brown students, telling them he didn’t want to hear how hard their struggle was to get to university or how hard they fought to make the grade.

“You’ve already won!” Alexie howled. “If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve made it to the top of the hill! You’ve beat the system!”

In his recent book, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian,” which received the National Book Award in the young adult category, Alexie talked about what it was like to be the Indian kid who left the reservation to be the only Indian kid at the “white” school.

“First, you got punished for leaving, so you got pounded by the Indian kids,” he said. Walking across the stage in a strut with his back straight and tall, and his head cocked, he assumed the role of one of his Indian aggressors, “What? You think you’re better than the rest of us? You think you’re so smart?”

“Then, when I got to the white kids’ school, I got pounded for being Indian because I didn’t belong and I had no business being there,” he said with a shrug. “And when they asked me my name, I told them: ‘Junior.’ Well they laughed and pounded me some more because they never heard of anyone with the name ‘Junior.’”

Alexie deliberately touches nerves, but he couches his stinging criticism with comic good humor. For a few brief moments he seemed to deliberately step back from the routine, straying from the banter. “I got where I am because of rage,” Alexie stated point blank. His words hung in the air; the weighty seriousness cast a pall.

Few people or issues are spared Alexie’s wit and sharp tongue – including fellow Indians. “The people who’ve done the most damage to me are other Indians. We Indians can be as imperialistic, self-serving, and self-righteous as the next group. … Right now, I’m soooo mad at my
own tribe.”

Alexie, who is Spokane/Couer d’Alene alluded to enrollment practices and being unable to enroll his own children in either his wife’s tribe or his own. He said his two boys are a combination of about five or six different tribes, with some German, and other European blood thrown in for good measure.

When asked if he finds tribal enrollment practices to be archaic and whether they should be changed to suit
contemporary needs, he replied, “We all know that tribes’ enrollment practices are problematic. The lust for casino money has become a huge factor in enrollment policies. Tribal enrollment and membership are now really business decisions, and with any business decision, the process must be transparent and held up to close scrutiny.”

Overall, Alexie suggests Indian country look inward and take personal responsibility for its problems. “But neither should we let the white folks off the hook; we also have to hold the outside world accountable.”

He demanded an acknowledgment of the genocide that wiped out entire tribes of people. “Where is our roomful of moccasins?” asked Alexie, referring to the Holocaust Museum’s powerful room full of shoes that illustrates the thousands of lives lost in Nazi extermination camps. “We need our own Holocaust Museum. Nobody calls it genocide, what happened to the Indians; we just let it all go.”

Later, he was asked if given the opportunity to do his own exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian, what it would feature. Without hesitation, he said, “The genocide. The story has not been told.”

 

Editor’s note: During Sherman Alexie’s speech it could have been misinterpreted that he is mad at his tribe about his kid’s enrollment. Alexie later clarified that he is not mad at his tribe for his kids, but because of the enrollment decisions about other people’s kids.

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