Friday, November 13, 2009

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

When I got to the part of having the flu where I could open my eyes for a bit, I lay in bed and read some children's books. The first one was Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian because I've been seeing recommendations of it everywhere and my friend the Lass particularly wanted me to read it.

Despite having grown up hearing stories from great-aunts and great-grandmothers about "our Indian blood" (in the south, this was often an attempt to gloss over "our African blood") and having been raised in a midwest city next to Trail of Tears State Park, where the Cherokee Princess Otahki died, I've never gotten particularly interested in Native American culture, aside from what everyone learns in school or from reading Mary Oliver and Louise Erdrich. I know just enough to be amused when I find out that a friend's child is in a school band called the "Marching Braves." And I'm always bemused to read about instances of prejudice against "Indians," which is a main feature of Alexie's book.

It seems that in the American west, there must actually be some prejudice, especially concerning reservations and casinos. To try to understand that, I found myself thinking about moving to Middletown, Rhode Island in the 1980's, when I remember encountering a kind of prejudice I'd never even heard of--against the Portuguese. The Portuguese?! At first it struck me that these folks had whirled a globe and chosen someone to pick on at random. Then I began to see some of the tensions between people whose families were brought to the area to fish or a living, and people who came to the area for other, often less desperate, reasons. It still seems strange to me, but if I close my eyes and squint a little I can see some of why it might have started.

The interesting part of this book, for me, is not how downtrodden the main character, Junior, is, or even how he deals with adversity. It's how he refuses to see through the narrow lenses offered him by the "Indian world" or the "White world." Although I'm not a fan of cartoon illustrations in general, I did like one picture with the caption "boys can hold hands until they turn nine." It seems to me the opinion of an extraordinarily gentle--perhaps extraordinarily hard-headed--boy; when I ask 19-year-old college students how long boys can hold hands, they generally tell me that it's not allowed after the age of 6, when the boys go to first grade.

Especially after reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, featuring a British schoolboy who gets special powers from a 50-year-old school book, I don't sympathize with Junior's anger when he gets a geometry book that's 30 years old and belonged to his mother. If it was a History book, maybe I'd understand, but geometry hasn't changed that much in the past century. Yet this is the perceived "unfairness" that gets Junior out of the reservation school and into a nearby small-town public school where the children learn more. One of Junior's new classmates is a "genius farm boy" named Gordy, who tells him to look at the small high school library (3,412 books) and consider that "if you read one of these books a day, it would still take you almost ten years to finish." When Junior asks what his point is, Gordy elaborates: "the world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don't know." What redeems Junior as a character, at least for me, is that he's eager to learn. He befriends people who at first seem "racist" to him, and he learns enough about himself to start showing his best side to people, rather than always pushing them away.

Perhaps because this is a book for children, the type of Indian Junior identifies with is not well delineated. He tells stories like this one:
"Now, in the old days, Indians used to be forgiving of any kind of eccentricity. In fact, weird people were often celebrated.
Epileptics were often shamans because people just assumed that God gave seizure-visions to the lucky ones.
Gay people were seen as magical, too.
I mean, like in many cultures, men were viewed as warriors and women were viewed as caregivers. But gay people, being both male and female, were seen as both warriors and caregivers.
Gay people could do anything. They were like Swiss Army knives!
My grandmother had no use for all the gay bashing and homophobia in the world, especially among other Indians.
'Jeez,' she said. "Who cares if a man wants to marry another man? All I want to know is who's going to pick up all the dirty socks?'
Of course ever since white people showed up and brought along their Christianity and their fears of eccentricity, Indians have gradually lost all of their tolerance.
Indians can be just as judgmental and hateful as any white person.
But not my grandmother.
She still hung on to that old-time Indian spirit, you know?"

This story, with its unspecified "kinds" of "Indians" reminds me of the response a friend of mine once got when he correctly identified the home country of a visiting student as Cameroon. The student was so grateful to be recognized that he blurted out "most think that all of Africa is one small village!" Rather than "the Spokane Tribe," which is mentioned, most of Junior's musings seem to be about generic "Indians" as if all Native Americans were from one small tribe.

In the part of the midwest where I grew up, a game children sometimes play is reciting how many different countries their ancestors came from, and the child who can remember the longest list without being suspected of making them up on the spot wins. I wasn't terribly good at the game; usually only getting in three or four from my mother's side and the same from my father's. How good would you be at this game?


Harriet said...

I just read this too, although I had a slightly different take on the generic "Indian" vs. more specific "Spokane Tribe." I am, by no means, an expert, but I know from some of the ethnomusicology papers I've been to in the past few years that for many Native Americans (generally the preferred term in my field, although Alexie does not ever use it to the best of my recollection there is a tension between the two terms. For many the specific term encompasses such a small or diffuse group that generic takes precedence. The powwow, for example, tends to be inter-tribal. And there are now cultures within cultures -- there is Indian culture and then there is tribal culture. So I don't think that lumping all Native Americans under the label "Indian" is the same, even for reservation dwellers, as lumping all Cameroonians under the label "African." Does that make sense? As for my family list, it is fairly long, but entirely European. Both sides of my family have roots in Scotland. One side also has Italian, German and Swiss (and probably a few others as well). The other one came pretty solidly from the British Isles. Both sides immigrated around the turn of the 20th century, the English side slightly earlier. The German side has one big question mark. The family name is a Germanized version of a Hebrew word. And though the older members of that family were all devout Lutherans, some virulently anti-Semitic, the few pieces of family china that survive feature a star of David very prominently in the design. So there are still, perhaps, some unanswered questions about the family history. We wonder about prejudice within the family of the family itself. Which, now that I think of it, is part of what Junior is dealing with. When downtrodden, we seem to have the need to define ourselves by who we are not to make ourselves feel better.

Amanda said...

I can't tell if you liked this book or not. And honestly, I can't really say if I did either. I did in some ways but in others, I didn't really feel the book. Not for any of the reasons you mention, though.

lemming said...

I somehow missed Louise Erdrich growing up, and only stumble through her books every now and again when they cross my path. (I tend to pick up books at the library which other people have just left on tables.)

It's funny for me to read your literary musing on this, as most of what I know of Native Americans and Indians in literature comes from reading historical studies on Indians in literature. (laughter) In your copious free time, June Namais White Captives is terrific fun.

re: family countries - no problem, but my list can't compare to Harriet's.

bermudaonion said...

I've read tons of raves about this book too and now I'm really wondering why. I don't like the whole "lumping" together aspect. My grandparents immigrated from Lithuania and would get very upset when someone would call them Russian.

Cathy said...

I'd be fair to middlin' at the game. My mother and grandmother worked on the family history. Got it back to the 15th century. England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia. The list isn't that long.

I went to college at BYU although I'm not LDS. At the time 14 credits of religion courses were mandatory. In one class, the professor asked how many students in class were first generation Americans. (This class had about 150 students.) A good chunk raised their hands. By the time he got to the fifth generation, everyone else had raised their hands. "I guess that's everyone," he said. "No, it's not," I called out. 1636 was when the first of my ancestors came over here (to Virginia). Guess they were sick of the old countries!

readersguide said...

I also can't tell if you liked this book or not, and I didn't really like it either -- maybe for the same reasons. Or it just didn't seem to have enough there. In any case, I am quite certain that my kids' latin books were at least 30 years old, and as we all know, latin is a language for priviledged white kids. And I would sadly lose at the game as my ancestors, some of who are actually John Alden and Priscilla Mullein!, are exclusively from the British Isles, assuming that includes the Republic of Ireland (does it?) -- as far as we know . . . I do have a mysterious great grandfather about whom not much at all is known. Harriet -- that's a fascinating story about the name and the China. You should research it, and write a book about it. What part of Germany where they from?

kittiesx3 said...

I've only read books written by Native Americans for adults-- Iesp liked the writings of N. Scott Momaday and Luci Tapahonso. Both list their tribes and Luci includes her clan in her biography so it does seem odd that Junior is so vague about himself.

Loved this line: f I close my eyes and squint a little I can see some of why it might have started. I felt that way reading one of Tapahonso's books (title entirely escapes me) where she talked about being chastised by her sister for never leaving her children with her sister. That extended family arrangement, with the sending of children to your siblings for months and months, was commonplace in her culture, yet Luci was not participating and her sister felt hurt. That was my "squinty eye" moment, I got a tiny glimpse into a culture very different from my own--I could never in a million years imagine sending my children to live with any of my siblings.

I'd mess up your game rules, I'm afraid. While I don't know my genealogy very far back, I do come from a very divorced family so what I lack in depth of knowledge I make up for in width and also oddness. For example, I have one full sibling, three half siblings, and at least seven step-siblings. It only gets more complicated from there.

Jeanne said...

Harriet, that does make sense about cultures within cultures. (Nothing makes a gently bred Arkansan madder than being called a hillbilly, for instance.)

Amanda, I enjoyed reading the book once the narrator got past some of his own prejudices.

Lemming, you know more than I do, then!

BermudaOnion, that's a traditional rivalry, isn't it--Lithuania and Russia? It's part of the background of the captain of the sub in The Hunt For Red October (Tom Clancy).

Cathy, that's interesting that you went to BYU. And that your roots are so mixed and go so far back--seems quintessentially American!

ReadersGuide, some of my grumpy attitude about this book may just be that I get grumpy when I'm sick. My brother and I used to call it the "couch grouch" stage.

Elizabeth, despite being your acquaintance for years and years I never knew you had such a wide variety of siblings!

Jeanne said...

And just for the record, here's my recital of ancestors: English, German, French, Italian, and "Indian" on one side and Swedish, Swiss, German, English on the other.

Anonymous said...

My grandfather always hinted that we were part Indian, but as far as I can tell it's not true at all.

witchcat said...

Could I get points for the fewest countries? Just two: Sweden and Finland.

Jeanne said...

Readersguide, Clearly there's some mystique in claiming Indian blood. My aside about it is that southerners used to use that as an excuse for anyone in the family who had dark skin etc. ("oh that's just our Indian blood")

Witchcat, I happen to know that's an unlikely combination. Another friend of mine has a Swedish mother and a Finnish father (or the other way around) and it was like the Capulets and the Montagues, to hear her tell it.

FreshHell said...

I haven't read this book so I can't add a critique but I can tell you where my family is from: England, Scotland, Ireland & Germany. On both my father's and mother's side, they climbed up through the primordial ooze and landed in Virginia ahead of the Mayflower. My father's mother and my mother used to argue about whose ancestor reached VA first. I think it was a tie.

Jeanne said...

Freshhell, I think people who live on the east coast have shorter lists than midwesterners. I remember kids who could reel off 9 or 10 countries on each side.

Tim said...

I understand your beliefs about this book and why you could think that it is exaggerated or why you could think that some things really aren't unfair. However, I believe that if you look back to the book, you would be able to find that many parts that you could consider fair or when you feel that junior is unrighteously outraged, like with the text book. I believe that many times you have not been looking deep enough in his writing. Sherman Alexie is not trying to show the unfairness you find everywhere, but the unfairness on the Reservation.

Jeanne said...

Tim, I don't believe that outrage is ever "unrighteous" or wrong. But I don't believe that fairness is retroactive.

Care said...

What fun comments this post has generated? So many things I want to respond to. First off, I can only claim Germany in my heritage that I know about. and it since I now live in Mass, I remember being curious about the Portuguese since I didn't meet any or didn't realize it when back in KS/NE. I enjoyed the Alexie book - maybe because I was along for the ride and didn't analyze it. I was quite moved by it.

Jeanne said...

Care, I've enjoyed how thought-provoking it has been to talk about this book!

Anonymous said...

I'm confused. Are you "amused" by instances of prejudice against Indians because you don't think such prejudice exists? And I can sympathize over the old textbooks because while yes, geometry might not have changed in 30 years, I don't think that's the point. I think Alexie does a good job of portraying his experiences in the res and "white" worlds and the conflicts these experiences brought up for him (this is an autobiographical book). Also, I am sick so if this doesn't make sense, I blame the fever. :P

Jeanne said...

Laura, I'm sure such prejudice does exist, but I am amused by it because to me it seems so random (like picking out the Portuguese).

And the point about old textbooks just seems wasteful to me. There is nothing wrong with most old books. (Although occasionally my students do get led astray by some previous student-without-a-clue comment written in the text they bought used.)

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. Surely it isn't "random" or amusing to someone who has lived through and is writing about it, yes?
I'm still not sure I'm completely understanding where you're coming from on this.

Jeanne said...

Lass, of course it isn't amusing to someone who's lived through it. What I'm trying to say is that it seems totally foreign and immensely odd to me. Why are people brought up with these prejudices? Like the song in South Pacific, "you've got to be carefully taught."

Anonymous said...

Okay, I think I am finally understanding. My mind is clouded this week - sorry if I came off as confrontational.

Care said...

I agree with thelass to some extent - from a HS Indian mind used to thinking of how the white gets EVERYTHING 'good' and they get the dregs, it doesn't really matter that the old math book is FINE, it matters that the whites get the new (and who cares if not 'improved') it's a judgement and eval and it's the point that they have to put up with the old crappy textbooks (even if not actually 'crappy')
oh - and I didn't even notice or think abt but yea, a geometry text book surely hasn't advanced so much but still. it's interesting what strikes us when we read, huh?

Jeanne said...

Care, that's exactly the point that I couldn't articulate--he thinks the old book shows that kids on the res always get the short end of the stick, when he's thinking this because it's become such a habit.

What I like about this book is that he overcomes those habits. As we all should--but the first step is being aware of them.

Marie said...

I do okay at this game. Your reaction to this book was really different from mine but you make some thought-provoking points. And you've got a great discussion going here in the comments!