Humor for Social Change
Sherman Alexie is arguably one of the most visible and influential Native American writers today. A writer of extraordinary talent, Alexie has honed his unique voice through a mix of humor, Native American vernacular, and stereotype; he invokes Native American stereotypes in order to defy them or expose issues that plague Native American culture today. He uses stereotypes to expose larger truths about society. His works are especially relevant for all the social and political issues he touches upon, addressing civil rights issues pertinent to Native Americans, homosexuals, and other marginalized groups.
Alexie is able to utilize stereotypes while reimagining, often criticizing them and using them to convey information about the social reality of Native Americans today. In his poem “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” Alexie basically presents the reader with a list of common Indian stereotypes. He plays up the notion of tragedy, as well as the mutually exclusivity between Indians and Whites. He invokes romantic imagery associated with Indians such as horse cultures and mountains, playing into the historic Native American archetypes. This type of imagery, though positive, does not speak to the Native American history or current reality. To write of Indians at peace in nature is to deny the colonization process that took place in America. Gerald Vizenor writes that such imagery and, “The attention to manifest manners and the romance of the land would annihilate tribal names, languages, oral stories, and natural reason” (Vizenor, 13). Alexie alludes to this destruction of culture in the last lines of the poem: “In the Great American Indian novel, when it is finally written,/ all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts” (Alexie, Lines 40-41). Tough his imagery may be poetic and beautiful, the tone is ominous.
He parallels positive, poetic imagery and stereotypes with dark imagery and stereotypes throughout the poem. He also writes: “The hero must be a half-breed, half white and half Indian, preferably/ from a horse culture. He should often weep alone. That is mandatory...There must be one murder, one suicide, one attempted rape. /Alcohol should be consumed. Cars must be driven at high speeds” (Alexie, Lines 3-4; 24-25). His use of the word “must” sarcastically addresses the stereotypes that homogenize Native Americans form many different tribes and cultures. The use of the word “mandatory” is more humorous and mocks the stereotype of the weeping Indian. By juxtaposing romantic as well as violent imagery of Native Americans, Alexie is complicating the expectations of the reader. As Scott B. Vickers writes in his book Native American Identitites, “Such social realism has come to set modern Native writing apart from the romanticized versions of Indian life that dominated earlier works” (Vickers, 132). What Alexie does is more complicated than simply relying on social realism; he takes advantage of the more idealized stereotypes and, without denying their authenticity, exposes darker truths about Indian life.
Alexie’s works are important because they raise awareness of problems that Native American communities around the country face, such as pervasive alcoholism and diabetes. Critics have argued that by focusing so much of his work on these issues that Alexie has reinforced the negative stereotype of the sick, drunken Indian. However, according to the American Diabetes Association, 30% of all Native Americans (including Alaskan Natives) have pre-diabetes, and these demographics are at a 2.2 times higher risk of developing diabetes than non-Hispanic Americans. There has been a 68% increase in diabetes between 1994 and 2004 in the Native American communities. By including characters that face, overcome, or are defeated by issues such as alcoholism and diabetes, Alexie creates a higher level of social awareness that is necessary in order for change to ever occur. He does not limit his commentary solely to Indian communities, however. In his short story “War Dances” he ruminates on the healthcare system while asking a nurse for an extra blanket. The character’s father has just undergone surgery to remove a foot, a complication of diabetes. The nurse was a:
Health care provider, and she knew she was supposed to be compassionate, but my father, an alcoholic, diabetic Indian with terminally damaged kidneys, had just endured an incredibly expensive surgery for what? So he could ride his motorized wheelchair to the bar and win bets by showing off his disfigured foot? I know she didn’t want to be cruel, but she believed there was a point when doctors should stop rescuing people from their own self-destructive impulses (Alexie, War Dances, 33).
This loaded passage tackles many issues at once. Alexie acknowledges the fact that his father is Indian, calling attention to the fact that alcoholism and diabetes are especially problematic for Indian people, stereotypical or no. However, the larger questions he asks can be applied more broadly to the health care system. Health care reform is a hot topic today, and Alexie is critiquing providers, the ineffective solutions, and the patients. He presents the nurse as disillusioned, but qualifies her feelings. The character feels sympathy for his father, but does not make excuses for his condition. In fact, he realizes his father’s health problems resulted from his own “self-destructive impulses.” This type of thinking is related to issues that arise when discussing insurance and Medicare. Why should one person pay for another person’s self-destruction? This in turn addresses the issue of a health care system that acts on drastic measures once a problem is too late, rather than focusing on lifestyle choices. Often pharmaceutical and surgical options are cheaper and less time consuming than intensive behavioral therapy, even if the latter may be more effective. Alexie forces the reader to question the given solution and consider alternatives- if his father had made healthier choices, he would not have needed to get his foot removed. This type of logic is crucial for fighting the various lifestyle-related epidemics that plague America today, such as diabetes, obesity, and alcoholism.
Alcohol and its disastrous effects are common themes in Alexie’s work. Though the characters in question are usually Indian, this is not always the case, and though it may seem he is promoting the stereotypical image of a “drunken Indian” he is calling attention to a larger problem that crosses demographic lines, affecting people all over the world. In his short story “The Senator’s Son” he features an act of violence, fueled by alcohol, committed by white characters. He is able to connect to a wider audience by presenting this problem as general, while still focusing specifically on Native American populations. It is important for him to do this: “’17.0 percent to 19.0 percent of all Indian deaths are probably alcohol related’ as compard with the general U.S. average of 4.7 percent” (Vickers, 161). The drunken Indian may be a stereotype, but that does not mean the problem should be denied; Alexie knows this and refuses to ignore what he sees as an epidemic. As he writes in the short story “Jesus Christ’s Half Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation”: “my cousin says all the Indians there are gone and do I know where they went? I write back and tell him to look in the A.A. meeting” (Alexie, The Lone Ranger…Heaven, 124). Though the subject matter is not humorous, Alexie uses humor to address it, and though the commentary is primarily negative it could be seen as somewhat optimistic because at least the Indians are in A.A. If they are at A.A. they are alcoholics but at least they are seeking change; he is addressing a problem and posing a solution. By presenting these problems with humor, Alexie is able to address them without being overly didactic.
Humor is an especially important tool in Alexie’s writing; this is a way he can introduce stereotypes while criticizing them. He also uses humor as a vehicle for social commentary, and forces the reader to question the value of such humor. In War Dances he writes:
Your son has often made the joke that you were the only Indian of your generation who went to Catholic school on purpose. This is, of course, a tasteless joke that makes light of the forced incarceration and subsequent physical, spiritual, cultural, and sexual abuse of tens of thousands of Native American children in Catholic and Protestant boarding schools. In consideration of your son’s questionable judgment in telling jokes, do you think there should be any moral limits placed on comedy? (Alexie, War Dances, 58).
Like so much of Alexie’s writings, this passage has layers of social commentary. The exposure of sexual abuse scandals has shaken the foundation of the Church around the world; after many years of abuse priests and other pedophiles are finally being indicted. Though Alexie is specifically pointing out abuse suffered by Indian children the larger social implication cannot be ignored. It is also enlightening, however, for readers who may not be aware of the religious boarding schools forced upon Native American children. Children were forced from their homes, away from their families, to adopt the ideals of missionaries. They were forced to give up their language, cut their hair, and deny their cultures. Though Alexie jokes about topics such as this, he calls into question the morality of such a thing, revealing how serious he truly takes the subject matter. This passage is also important because, framed within the faint boundaries of a joke, it reveals negative feelings towards religions that, though originally forced upon them, have been embraced by many Indians. And indeed, many of Alexie’s works mention God, prayer and Christian ideology.
Christianity, however, is not the only religion Alexie touches upon. In his short story “The Senator’s Son” Alexie explores what it means to be honest and Christian. The characters in this story fight with their fathers, and ultimately forgive them. The narrator’s father teaches him about forgiveness using the terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11. The narrator’s father “was compassionate and Christian enough to know that those nineteen men, no matter how evil their actions and corrupt their souls, could have been saved” (Alexie, War Dances, 91). Here Alexie is connecting with his American audience through the examination of a shared tragedy, without isolating the Muslim community. Alexie uses patriotism very carefully in his works; he rejects what could be a stereotypical Indian standpoint by defending the United States and its government, despite the heinous crimes of the past.
The story “The Senator’s Son” is socially important today not only for its comments on 9/11, but its unique take on gay rights. The story features two young Republican males, one of which is gay. The narrator is homophobic and participates in a drunken gay bashing in the opening scenes of the story. Alexie handles this topic eloquently, leaving the narrator undoubtedly at fault without ostracizing readers that might agree with the narrator. By making the gay character, Jeremy, a victim of violence as well as a Republican complicates the issue. Gay rights are an incredibly important civil rights issue in today’s political climate, and Alexie shows how political affiliation and sexual orientation are not always predictable. Forgiveness, as already pointed out, is a central theme of this story, and Jeremy forgives his attacker. He asks, “Aren’t all crimes, by definition, hate crimes?” (Alexie, War Dances, 97). Here Alexie is condemning all acts of violence without marginalizing the specific violence against gays.
His support for gay civil rights is even more transparent in his novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. He writes that, “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!” (Alexie, The Absolutely…Indian, 155). Here, again, is another example of Alexie using humor to get a serious point across. The inclusion of gay rights in this novel is important, because the book has been marketed as a work of young-adult (YA) fiction, so the target audience is adolescents. Alexie is advocating for gay rights, acting as a positive influence without being didactic. This technique is especially effective in YA literature, because most adolescents need guidance but are reluctant to being told what to do or believe. Alexie is able to provide an example of open-minded thinking, disguised under a veil of humor.
He also takes stereotypical Indian roles along gender binary lines, in the form of “warrior” and “caregiver”, and smudges that line, creating ambiguity. He teaches the reader about an aspect of Native American culture long forgotten. He writes, “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” (Alexie, The Absolutely…Indian, 155). Here is disrupts his solidarity with other Indians and exposes the homophobic faults that exist across cultural lines. Vickers points out how other Indian writers have not historically been advocates for gay rights, despite respect gays often found within Indian communities. Vickers writes that Alexie’s knowledge of such respect helps identify his voice as authentic:
Such concern for detail, often at odds with stereotype, rumor, and myth mongering, is a hallmark of Alexie’s writing as well, in which he denounces much of the Noble Savage/ Ignoble Savage categorization of white-authored Indian identities and writers from his own experience, often with highly comical as well as vengefully plangent effect” (Vickers, 144).
Though he blames the white man for the lost tolerance, the Indians are still culpable. By presenting tolerance this way, he is asking his readers to question homophobic mindsets and consider alternatives.
Alexie’s work calls for social change, for Native Americans and other objectified groups as well. He is successfully able to do this by manipulating stereotypes in humorous ways, allowing the reader to consider the mutability and ambiguity of identity. I would argue that his work is especially important for young readers, as it is both entertaining and socially enlightening.
- Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Little Brown and Company. New York, NY. 2007.
- Alexie, Sherman. War Dances. Falls Apart, Inc. Grove Press. New York, NY. 2009.
- Alexie, Sherman. Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fist Fight in Heaven. Grove Press. New York, NY. 1993, 2005.
- Alexie, Sherman. “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel” from The Summer of Black Widows. Hanging Loose Press. 1996.
- Oswalt, Wendell H. This Land Was Theirs: A Study of North American Indians, 3rd Edition. University of California, LA. John Wiley and Sons, Inc. 1978.
- Vickers, Scott B. Native American Identities: From Stereotype to Archetype in Art and Literature. University of New Mexico Press. Albuquerque, NM. 1998.
- Vizenor, Gerald. Manifest Manners: Postindian Warriors of Survivance. University of Nebraska Press. Lincoln, NE. 1999.
 American Diabetes Association. “Native American Complications.” http://www.diabetes.org/living-with-diabetes/complications/native-americans.html. 2012.
 Oswalt, Wendell H. This Land was Theirs.