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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 212

Indian Killer, by Sherman Alexie, is a story about a serial murderer on an Indian reservation in Washington, and it highlights the link between racial injustice and violence. The Native Americans in Alexie’s story are all fighting for survival, a condition that characterizes their life. Living on reservations, they feel broken and crippled by pent-up rage. Their oppression by white people, they have come to realize, now defines their existence. Their cultures have been devalued, their people have been enslaved, and the society they live in is now fueled by anger and resentment.

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Throughout the story, Alexie conveys the idea that Native Americans feel lost and misunderstood. Caught in between worlds, they feel like they belong nowhere. Reservation life is not a life that they can ever feel bonded to, because they are essentially enslaved in both a physical and emotional sense. Because the crimes in the story are motivated by racism and hatred and the anger it engenders, violence is used by the characters as a means of retribution for past injustices. Because the Indian Killer is never caught, Alexie seems to be saying that the plight of the Native Americans and the conflict they suffer as a result continues to plague their existence and will never be fully resolved.

Indian Killer

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1921

As a full-blooded Native American, born and reared in Wellpinit on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington, Sherman Alexie is well aware of his people’s problems in contemporary, white- dominated society. Since 1992, when as a college student he published his first book, a collection of poems entitled I Would Steal Horses, he has voiced his concerns about Native Americans in several genres, including fiction. There were five short stories in The Business of Fancydancing (1992), as well as a number of poems and vignettes, while The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) was devoted entirely to short fiction. A number of the characters from that collection reappeared in Alexie’s first novel, Reservation Blues (1995). Like his other works, Reservation Blues told the stories of people who, having lost the traditions which once sustained them, live desperate lives, bereft of hope and of significance.

Indian Killer has the same subject and the same settings as that novel and Alexie’s earlier short stories. Like Reservation Blues, it is also complex in structure, using various points of view in order to illuminate the lives of not just one protagonist, but a number of characters. While the earlier works were brightened by flashes of humor, however, the tone of Indian Killer is quite different. Even though Alexie presents some scenes in which a group of Indians fall into uncontrollable laughter, which the author says is their way of driving away the devils that haunt them, he does not join the fun. Instead, he maintains a tone of righteous indignation, stressing the tragic consequences of prejudice and discrimination.

The protagonist of Indian Killer is John Smith, who is first shown at the time of his birth to a fourteen-year-old Indian girl. Despite the young mother’s heartrending cries for her baby, a nurse bundles him up immediately after the delivery and rushes him out to a helicopter. Soon he is in the arms of Olivia Smith, a well-to-do, childless white woman, and her architect husband Daniel. A kindly, well-meaning couple, they adopt him and rear him as lovingly as if he were of their own blood, never realizing that the fact John is cut off from his heritage will eventually drive him mad. While Olivia does her best to inform John about his people and frequently takes him to functions where other Native Americans are present, all of her efforts fail to give John a sense of his own identity. Without knowing the name of his mother or even of her tribe, he will never feel a part of the Indian community.

Meanwhile, John is also coming to realize that he has no place in the white world. As a young child, he is troubled by the fact that his skin color is so different from that of his parents. Because they show John so much affection, however, it is not until he is old enough to date that he really becomes aware of prejudice or how he will be isolated as an Indian in a white society. Although the parents of the white girls he likes are invariably polite when John comes to pick up their daughters, his request for the second date is always met with some excuse. By the time he has finished high school, John is convinced that he must find his identity among his own people, rather than among the whites, who have so clearly rejected him.

Turning down his parents’ offer of a college education, John goes to Seattle and becomes a construction worker, primarily because he has read that other Native Americans can be found building skyscrapers. His coworkers, however, are white, and although they are friendly enough, John will have nothing to do with them. He also avoids his parents. Increasingly concerned about their only son, Olivia and Daniel besiege him with letters. When he does not respond, they take turns coming to Seattle, hoping to find him and win him back, but John evades them. Throughout this period of self-imposed seclusion, he broods about the wrongs that have been done to him and to all Native Americans. Eventually, he begins to believe that only by killing a white man will he become a part of his community. After that initial murder, for the first time John feels that his life has a purpose and he has a real identity. Thereafter, he is an Indian warrior, who stalks his victims, scalps and mutilates them, then disappears into the darkness, leaving two white owl feathers as his signature.

One must assume that the author is presenting Smith’s activities as a result of injustice, not as an appropriate means of redressing past grievances. The tragic life and death of his emotionally fragile protagonist, however, illustrate how difficult it is for even a Native American who has close ties with his culture, like Alexie himself, to find a place in the contemporary world. Although these murders are obviously the work of a single unbalanced person, the public’s reaction reveals the extent of prejudice against Native Americans which can be found even in the most enlightened community. For that reason, it is not difficult for one of the most obnoxious characters in the novel, the conservative talk-show host Truck Schultz, to influence his audience. The killings are a boon for him; they boost his ratings and increase his popularity. If, as a result of his broadcasts, some innocent Indians are attacked by racists, Schultz believes the victims are getting no more than they deserve. Ironically, however, Alexie and the characters who clearly serve as his spokespersons, such as the activist Marie Polatkin, are as infuriated by the whites they call “wannabe” Indians as by those who make no secret of their racial prejudice. It might be assumed that such characters as Dr. Clarence Mather are honestly sympathetic with Native Americans. Despite his Irish and British ancestry, this white professor classifies himself as an Indian by adoption. Nevertheless, he is in a sense the enemy of the very people he pretends to admire. Like Schultz, Mather profits from the Indians. He has based his entire academic career on what is actually a very superficial knowledge of Native American culture. Therefore he is threatened by Marie Polatkin’s presence in his class. As a full-blooded, reservation-reared Indian of considerable intelligence, Marie had much she could have taught Mather if he had been willing to admit his own limitations. Instead, in his arrogance, he has Marie expelled from his class so that, unchallenged, he can continue transmitting his stock of misinformation to gullible students and drawing his high salary from an administration which is just as easily fooled.

Another character who makes a good living from Native American culture is Jack Wilson, a former policeman who found writing about Indians more profitable than arresting them. When Marie learns that one of Wilson’s books is an assigned text in Mather’s course, she explodes. As she points out, although he claims to be a member of the Shilshomish tribe, Wilson has never been able to produce any proof of his ancestry. When there are so many fine writers who are real Native Americans, not just pretenders for profit, Marie asks, why are their works not incorporated into the course? She further infuriates Mather by adding that his use of Wilson’s work in a class on Native American culture constitutes an insult to the people they are supposed to be studying. Of course, Marie loses this battle; she is ousted, and Wilson’s book stays in the curriculum.

There are, however, some sympathetic white characters in Indian Killers, particularly Olivia and Daniel Smith, whose initial sin must be attributed to a flaw in the adoption process rather than any evil intent on their part. To their credit, they do try to put their son in touch with his heritage. Even if the Smiths are not totally innocent, the nightmares that disturb Daniel’s rest, the terrors that haunt Olivia, and the anguish one knows they will experience after they learn about their son all appear to place them among the victims in this novel.

Another victim, and in this case a wholly innocent one, is David Rogers. Rejecting the family prejudices, David enrolls in Mather’s class and falls under Marie’s spell. His unfeigned interest in Native Americans sends him to one of the Indian-owned gambling casinos, where he wins a considerable sum. On his way to his truck, however, he is attacked and robbed, then disappears. It is assumed that David is another victim of the Indian Killer. Prompted by their father, as well as by the rabble- rousing broadcasts of Truck Schultz, David’s brother Aaron assembles some friends and goes forth to avenge his brother’s death. Thus the violence escalates, and more innocent people become victims of racial hatred.

Another victim is Marie Polatkin’s cousin Reggie, a man of mixed blood who wants to be white as badly as Wilson wants to be an Indian. Reggie’s mother is a Native American, his father, a white man who hates Indians so much that he denies Reggie his surname until he can prove that he has eradicated his maternal heritage. It is evident, however, that Reggie still has some feeling for his mother’s people; he cannot stomach Mather’s using tapes on which elderly Native Americans talked about their people’s traditions. As a result of the ensuing fight, Reggie is expelled from college. Like John, Reggie is shown as being in an untenable position, but unlike John, he does not even know whom to attack, the white backpacker, who in skin color resembles his abusive father, or John himself, who represents the side of himself that Reggie is attempting to forget.

The use of Reggie, the would-be white, as a foil for John, the would-be Indian, is just one instance of the intricate patterning which makes Indian Killer so complex and sometimes so puzzling a novel. Alexie penetrates the mind of Aaron the Indian- hater, as well as that of the generous-spirited David; he records the thoughts of Schultz, Mather, and Wilson, permitting them to reveal themselves as essentially similar. Character balances character, and similarly, situation balances situation. Thus the Indian girl grieves for her lost baby, Olivia yearns for her grown son, and the mother of six-year-old Mark Jones agonizes over the fate of her little boy, who has been kidnapped by the notorious serial killer.

It is somewhat disturbing that Alexie exhibits so little sympathy for most of the killer’s victims, who are chosen at random merely because they are white, and that he ends the novel, not with an explicit condemnation of violence as a solution to frustration, but with the prediction that more Native American warriors will arise to take revenge on the white community. Perhaps readers are expected to take comfort in the fact that Mark Jones is returned unharmed to his family. In this single act of compassion on the part of a man who has devoted his life to killing people of another race, Alexie may intend to indicate that there is a glimmer of hope.

Sources for Further Study

Boston Globe. November 10, 1996, p. E16.

Chicago Tribune. November 17, 1996, XIV, p. 3.

The Christian Science Monitor. January 6, 1997, p. 13.

Kirkus Reviews. LXIV, August 1, 1996, p. 1064.

Library Journal. CXXI, August, 1996, p. 109.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, November 24, 1996, p. 34.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, September 16, 1996, p. 39.

San Francisco Chronicle. September 29, 1996, p. REV3.

Time. CXLVIII, October 21, 1996, p. 90.

The Washington Post. October 18, 1996, p. D3.

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