The Toughest Indian in the World

by Sherman Alexie

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This story about a Native American (Sherman Alexie prefers the term “Indian”) who has left the reservation but yearns for his tribe’s mythic past begins with a prologue in which the protagonist relates his father’s advice to pick up only Native American hitchhikers, warning him that white people will kill you because they smell the dead salmon on you.

When the narrator was a boy, his father would point out hitchhikers on the road: If a hitchhiker were a fellow Native American, he would stop, but if he were a white man his father would drive by without comment. This, the narrator says, is how he learned to be silent in the presence of white people, for Native Americans believe that white people will vanish if ignored enough times. The narrator, a feature writer for a newspaper, says that he now picks up three or four Native American hitchhikers a week. His coworkers at the newspaper office think he is crazy to take such chances.

The central event of the story begins when the narrator picks up a Native American hitchhiker and recognizes from the man’s twisted and scarred hands that he is a prizefighter. The man tells the narrator that he goes from reservation to reservation, offering to fight the best fighter there, winner take all. The last Native American he fought was a young man billed as the “toughest Indian in the world,” who refused to go down no matter how much the man hit him. Knowing that the young fighter would die before he went down, the hitchhiker sat down on the mat and let himself be counted out.

When the narrator stops at the town of Wenatchee, he invites the hitchhiker to spend the night with him. Later in bed, the hitchhiker begins to fondle the narrator and then says he wants to be inside him. Although the narrator says that he has never done this before and insists that he is not gay, he agrees. After they have sex, the narrator tells the hitchhiker he thinks he had better leave.

After taking a shower, doing some shadow boxing, and searching his body for changes, the narrator goes to bed, wondering if he is a warrior in this life and if he had been a warrior in a previous life. The next morning, he wakes up and starts walking barefoot away from the motel. The story ends with his saying if someone were to break open his heart they would find “the thin white skeletons of one thousand salmon.”

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