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...
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