In quick glimpses of the different grades in school, Native American author Sherman Alexie is able to capture what it was like growing up in the white, American culture for him. Each academic year is a snapshot of an experience, drawing on the differences of what it means to be a non-white student in an area that still struggles under the effects of colonization. Although it’s been hundreds of years since European explorers came to North America, settlers, and then the government pushed for western expansion into Indian territories, Native Americans gradually saw their land and culture diminish as they were ultimately relocated to reservations. The feelings of oppression, however, still linger and they become obvious even through the eyes of a young boy. The treatment and oppression seen in Alexie’s “Indian Education” is a personal, raw look at the effects of white colonization in current Native American lives as seen through his years in school, and it even transcends his school years and parallels issues in our society today.
A critical component behind post colonialism stems from the original definition of colonization—the integrating of the dominant country into the one that has been taken over. Throughout history, this was the movement of one country into another. In cases where military use was involved, it was for total assimilation of the two cultures. Herein lies the problem of colonization. The dominant culture infiltrates the submissive culture, slowly causing the submissive (or weaker) culture to disappear. With this comes the formation of the binary opposites, the strong culture versus the weak culture. Often the dominant binary is the one shown in the positive light, as the more superior and privileged culture. When it comes to studying the effects of this in literature, it’s important to see the portrayal of the two conflicting cultures. How are these binary opposites shown? Is the dominant culture shown to be completely oppressing the other culture? Or is the submissive culture fighting against being oppressed? In analyzing poems and literature, the author’s background is key to helping understand the depictions of the culture as well.
Elementary school is typically a time of fun and games for most children; a time before academics becomes too strenuous. For young Alexie though, it isn’t a time of simple pleasures. He was frequently tormented by his own Native American classmates, called names such as “Junior Falls Down,” “Bloody Nose,” “Steal His Lunch,” and “Cries-Like-a-White-Boy” (Alexie 1. 3). These cruel nicknames, while they may seem childish, are deeply rooted in Native American culture, characteristics of oppression. Names in the Native American culture are often selected with the help of an elder or religious leader in the tribe. Or the name may not be chosen until the child is older, and it can be based off an experience or a dream (Lewis). In regards to Alexie’s unwelcome nicknames, it’s a mockery of the children’s own culture—acting as bullies and being cruel over someone who appeared to be weaker.
Alexie’s third grade teacher Betty Towle also represents the dangers and attitudes of post colonialism. Towle is a missionary teacher, there to help teach the young students on the reservation. Her distain for the Native American culture is seen when she insists that Alexie “cut [his braids] or keep [him] home from class,” showing her perceived superiority based on her white culture (Alexie 1. 14). This treatment of Alexie stems from the idea that the dominant culture’s appearance is the right one and that everyone else should adhere to it. But in this situation, the submissive culture retaliated when Alexie’s “parents came in the next day and dragged their braids across Betty Towle’s desk” (Alexie 1. 14). This small act of defiance helps show that even subtle reactions towards a dominant culture can have an impact.
A continual theme found throughout Alexie’s school years is that of cultural appropriation. This is something that is found not only in his writing, but also in our world today. The school that Alexie transfers to, “an off-reservation, all-white high school,” has Indians as their mascot (Alexie 1), of which Alexie believes he is “probably the only actual Indian ever to play for a school with such a mascot” (Alexie 2. 66). There are many examples of schools having names and mascots based on different Native American tribes and symbols, and these mascots are now seen as racist caricatures of Native Americans and even carry negative overtones such as the “Redskins” NFL team in Washington D.C. For Native Americans, the term “redskin” is a slur and a generalization of the people and their skin color. A quote from a CNN interview supports Alexie’s feelings of being the only Indian to actually play for a team with such a mascot. Kevin Gover, head of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian states, “A good many Americans don’t know any Indians.” Along with these other examples, redskins, savages, Indians, tribe, etc., comes the actual depiction of the mascots. Many times these mascots run around wearing headdresses, waving tomahawks, and beating drums. These images have created a metaphor of what it means to be a Native American and continue to push the stereotype of what it means to be a Native American (Basu).
A snapshot from Alexie’s eighth grade year, tells the story about hearing the girls in the girls’ bathroom “whispering about anorexia and bulimia” (Alexie 2. 50). He then compares these girls, who are fearful and anxious of consuming food, to his life back home on the reservation. It’s there that his “mother stood in line to get … commodities … carried them home, happy to have food, and opened the canned beef that even the dogs wouldn’t eat” (Alexie 2. 53). It’s then he makes his most powerful statement, “There is more than one way to starve” (Alexie 2. 55).
Based on Alexie’s short biography, this is the first year at the all-white junior high and high school from which he will graduate. Throughout the story Alexie portrayed a negative light on Americans and how white people and the culture treated Native Americans. But it’s interesting to note in his later school years that he begins to show negative ways the white culture treats not just other cultures, but their own culture as well. The media often portrays people of different ethnicities to have a bond, darker skin versus lighter skin. In Alexie’s ninth grade year, this isn’t the case. A Chicano teacher accuses Alexie of drinking, blaming his Indian heritage for “staring drinking real young.” Alexie then makes the side comment that “sharing dark skin doesn’t make two men brothers,” something that is often a surprise for the white population (Alexie 2. 58-59).
Another ongoing issue throughout time is the expectations of what women should look like, coming from both the world of fashion and the media. It then goes further, breaking down what women should look like based on their race and ethnicity. Many of these appearances are based on the stereotypes for different ethnic women and their cultures. One problem with the media is it often whitewashing these women, brightening skin tones in photo shoots and a majority of the time portraying only thin, white women in magazines and films.
Alexie’s first glimpse into the pressure of media and fashion on young girls is seen at his school. However, a new problem has arisen, something he no doubt would have a problem with too. The fashion industry has dug its manicured nails into the Native American culture and picked out bits and pieces of its culture and heritage to glamorize. The latest controversy is the use of the Native American headdress. It’s often worn on women in a sexualized manner, one of the few pieces of clothing on the model. Victoria’s Secret, an international lingerie and women’s clothing retailer even sparked controversy with the use of a headdress on model Karlie Kloss, in their 2012 Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. After it came to light how offensive this was, Victoria’s Secret pulled the images of Kloss from all forms of marketing or broadcast (Misener). In the Native American culture, headdresses are a sign of honor and courage. Each feather is earned and there is often a period of self-reflection and mediation by the recipient. With the repeated use of headdresses in today’s fashion, it’s demeaning and diminishes the symbolic importance of the pieces by simply making them fashion accessories. It is a negative example of cultural appropriation and a lack of respect for their tribal traditions (Lewis).
Although Sherman Alexie’s descriptions of his years in education are brief, his writing demonstrates small ways colonialism has impacted Native American life. There are many issues with colonialism and the treatment of these dominated cultural groups. Alexie’s writing ties in with many of these through his different examples and his experiences, while also tying in with current issues today. Some of his accounts are jarring to read, and at times it seems nearly impossible to believe that instances like this still occur today. The Native American culture has been coerced and repressed since the colonists first arrived in American hundreds of years ago. And since then, Native Americans have been pushed onto reservations, places where alcoholism, drug use, poor education and health conditions are rampant. Oppression has led to depression for this culture.
This separation of Native Americans from the white culture and from their own heritage and lands has caused both small and large divides—all of which are negatively impacting the lives of American Indian people still today.
Alexie, Sherman. “Indian Education.” The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1993.
Basu, Moni. “Native American Mascots: Pride or Prejudice?” In America RSS. CNN, 14 Apr. 2013. Web. 04 May 2013. <http://inamerica.blogs.cnn.com/2013/04/04/native-american-mascots-pride-or-prejudice/>. Lewis, Orrin. “Native American Names for English-Speaking Children.” Native
Languages of the Americas: Preserving and Promoting American Indian Languages. Native Languages of America, <http://www.native-languages.org/baby.htm>.
Misener, Jessica. “Karlie Kloss Wears Native American Headdress At Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 08 Nov. 2012. Web. 03 May 2013. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/11/08/karlie-kloss-victorias-secret-headdress-fashion-show_n_2091958.html>.