In Sherman Alexei's Indian Killer, why do the white people seek out Indian lifestyle as a means of belonging and being part of the community?
Early in his novel Indian Killer, Sherman Alexei describes in methodical detail the birth of John, and his transference through a surrealistic scene involving violent attacks on Native Americans into the arms of the woman who will be his mother, Olivia Smith. Olivia’s first impulse is to breast feed her newly-born son. It rapidly becomes apparent, however, that she is incapable of producing the nourishment the baby needs. Alexei relates the scene as follows:
“She unbuttons the top of her dress, opens her bra, and offers John her large, pale breasts with pink nipples. John’s birth mother had small brown breasts with brown nipples, though he never suckled at them. Still, he knows there is a difference, and as John takes the white woman’s right nipple into his mouth and pulls at her breast, he discovers it is empty.”
Following the sorrowful scene in which a 14-year-old teenage mother cries frantically to be able to hold a baby that is whisked away to be handed to wealthy white couple unable to conceive, Alexei takes the reader back a few months, to a discussion between this couple, Olivia and Daniel, and the “agent” advising them on adoption options. The agent explains to Olivia and Daniel that the waiting list for a white baby is very long and that the wait for a white baby could take many years. The alternative, he explains, is a physically or mentally disabled baby, or one of color. The most attractive option, the agent reveals, is an Indian baby due to be born in three months to the aforementioned teenager. The agent then explains that, while placing the baby with an Indian family would be preferential, the most realistic option for the baby will be with a white family. As he rationalizes this violation of Native American tradition (and, truth be told, federal law), he states, “The best place for this baby is with a white family. This child will be saved a lot of pain by growing up in a white family. It’s the best thing, really.”
Alexei’s narrative is both accurate and scathing in its indictment of the process by which Indian culture has been systematically, over hundreds of years, decimated in deference to that introduced to North America by European settlers. The Smiths, though, are hardly the personification of evil; on the contrary, they are loving, attentive people and, Alexei notes, after they decide to adopt the Indian baby Olivia dutifully immerse herself in Native American culture. As Alexei describes it:
“After John arrived, she spent hours in the library. With John sleeping beside her, she would do research on Native American history and culture. . .She bought all the children’s books about Indians and read them aloud to John. Daniel thought it was an obsessive thing to do, but he did not say anything.”
While Daniel does not share Olivia’s obsession with Native American cultures and traditions, he is sensitive to the need to ensure that John grows up aware of his heritage, towards which end he insists that the baby boy be baptized by an Indian, Father Duncan, an eccentric but knowledge Spokane Indian Jesuit. Throughout John’s childhood, his parents will be sensitive to the need for their son to be aware of and knowledgeable about his Native American heritage. Daniel even takes John to a basketball tournament composed entirely of Indians of every tribe imaginable, an eye-opening experience for the young boy, as he is able to observe such a wide variety of Native Americans in one venue for one shared purpose. It is at this basketball tournament, however, where John is awakened to the reality of contemporary Native American communities – communities so dysfunctional that self-deprecation is the common denominator among those in attendance. The Indian athletes laugh and the crowd watching laughs, and it fills John with a sense of remorse. For the first time, he is observing the vast gulf between the idealized depiction of Native Americans in which he has been inculcated since he was a toddler by his white parents and the reality of a people so ground down over the centuries that success in any given endeavor is secondary to amusement at ineptitude.
There is a point to Alexei’s depiction of the gulf between the dominant white culture that brutally subdued the indigenous tribes that cultivated the land long before Europeans began arriving and the heart-breaking dysfunction that defines Native American lives today. What does that have to do with white people immersing themselves in Native culture? Alexei is taking aim squarely at the condescending white approach to minority cultures that for centuries were mocked and, in the case of Native Americans, deliberately denigrated and destroyed. That John Smith, raised by caring, loving white parents, should develop a visceral need to destroy white lives is the irony of Indian Killer. John grows increasingly bitter over the fate of Native tribes and the destruction of those cultures by avaricious whites, and the naïve liberal white is the worst, because that is the category of Caucasian humanity that looks down at the Native American communities with pity and believes it is doing the indigenous peoples a favor by deigning to “understand” these communities. Alexei’s protagonist is not a ‘sit-around-the-campfire-singing-Kumbaya’ type of guy. Indian Killer depicts white liberals as almost as pathetic fools, as with Jack Wilson, derided as the quintessential “wannabe Indian,” and Marie’s rationalization of John’s presumed guilt for the murders of whites that are never actually resolved: “if some Indian is killing white guys, then it’s a credit to us that it took over five hundred years for it to happen.”
The “wannabe Indians” in Indian Killer are ‘do-gooders’ who, Alexei suggests, might be better off sticking to their own ethnicities. The whites seek to immerse themselves in Indian culture, however, because they want to believe they understand five-hundred-years-worth of suffering.