Ten Little Indians

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

In this work Sherman Alexie addresses Americans whose ideas about American Indians have been shaped by countless stereotypes, one-dimensional figures ranging from Iron Eyes Cody weeping in television spots to the sadly debased people who, sociologists note, are the poorest ethnic group in the United States to the poor but noble and spiritual people of Tony Hillerman’s novels. Alexie has addressed these stereotypes in the past, but most of the Indians in this volume have left the reservation behind to enjoy the pleasures of middle-class American life. While these characters relish their high-tech jobs and all the indulgences that those jobs can provide, they affirm at the same time some of the traditional values of their people—their ironic humor, their modesty, their loyalty, and the joy with which they experience life.

Particularly notable is that these are very urban stories in which the reservation is always present but well in the background. The narrator of “Lawyer’s League,” for example, is the son of an “African American giant” who played football for the University of Washington and of a Spokane Indian ballet dancer. He himself is an honors graduate with a degree in political science from his father’s university. Similarly William, the high-tech executive of “Flight Patterns,” is “an Indian who didn’t smoke or drink or eat processed sugar” and whose business forces him to leave his comfortable suburban house and loving family several times a month while he flies around the United States. “Sure, he was an enrolled member of the Spokane Indian tribe, but he was also a fully recognized member of the notebook-computer tribe and the security-checkpoint tribe and the rental-car tribe.” In short, he could be recognized in any city’s airport as a warrior for the great tribe of American business.

All of Alexie’s characters are highly aware of their American Indian heritage, which is so much a part of them that one can scarcely say they honor it. In a sense, the themes of “Search Engine” are the themes of all these stories. In this story, Corliss is a college student, an English major with whom the works of poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins resonate. Corliss has made it to the university by dint of enormous effort and personal drive. In Spokane she was the paradox of “a poor kid, and a middle-class Indian” whose intense motivation made her scavenge aluminum cans to finance an SAT prep course for herself and to contact local preparatory school teachers for help in meeting the university admissions requirements. She needed to be eligible for substantial scholarships. Alexie is careful to note that Corliss receives much-needed help from generous whites; his characters live in a world of institutional racism and personal integrity in people of all races. Corliss has received no money and little support from the men of her family.

Indians were used to sharing and called it tribalism, but Corliss suspected it was yet another failed form of communism. Over the last two centuries, Indians had learned how to stand in lines for food, love, hope, sex, and dreams, but they didn’t know how to step away. They were good at line-standing and didn’t know if they’d be good at anything else.

Corliss’s ironic but loving view of her people seems to be Alexie’s own; it surfaces, with its sad humor, in most of the stories of this volume.

In the course of her story, Corliss discovers in the university library a long-forgotten volume of poetry by Harlan Atwater, a Spokane Indian. Although some of the poems are quite pedestrian, others have an element of freshness and insight, and Corliss is excited to find published poems by an Indian writer. When she tries to learn more about Atwater, however, she hits dead ends. Nothing has been written about him. Her mother, a repository of historical information about the Spokane reservation, has never heard of him. After a lengthy search (Corliss herself embodies the pun of “engine” and “injun” of the title) she manages to locate Atwater, an ordinary fellow who lives with his parents and has written no poetry for thirty years.

Under Corliss’s questioning, he explains that although he is indeed a Spokane Indian, he was adopted as an infant by a loving white couple, the elderly parents for whom he now cares. He wrote the poems about life on the reservation he scarcely knew in an effort to feel more like an Indian, and he goes on to explain, comically, how he used his brief career as a poet to seduce women. His career ended when he...

(The entire section is 1867 words.)