Wednesday, November 12, 2014

It Ain't Just a Story: Writing about 21st Century Native Americans

Kayla Greenwell
Last week, Kathryn Page Camp deconstructed the Native American stereotype as she discussed the importance of historically accurate representations in writing. Stereotypes not only make our writing bland and incorrect, but also reflect the institutionalized racism in our society. It’s a lose-lose situation.
It is interesting to think about, if you are writing Native American history—but what if you are writing about the realities that Native Americans face today? Of living on the reservation and dealing with the struggles and prejudices that a 21st Century Indian encounters?
I look to Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, to answer my question. Alexie is the best-selling author of 24 books—and he still finds time to make films and do stand-up. Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. Alexis pulled from these experiences when he wrote The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
Alexie creates a beautifully written, accessible narrative about a young boy named Junior. What is special to me about this novel is how Alexie realistically portrays the difficulties of reservation life. Don’t get me wrong, the book is hilarious. But in-between the jokes and comical insights, the reader begins to see the legitimate struggles of contemporary reservation life: poverty, alcoholism, housing, and employment. To show you what I mean, here is an excerpt from a chapter titled “Halloween.”
At school today, I went dressed as a homeless dude. It was a pretty easy costume for me. There’s not much difference between my good and bad clothes, so I pretty much look half-homeless anyway.
And Penelope went dressed as a homeless woman. Of course, she was the most beautiful homeless woman who ever lived.
We made a cute couple. Of course, we weren’t a couple at all, but I still found the need to comment on our common taste.
“Hey,” I said. “We have the same costume.”
I thought she was going to sniff at me again, but she almost smiled.
“You have a good costume,” Penelope said. “You look really homeless.”
“Thank you,” I said. “You look really cute.”
“I’m not trying to be cute,” she said. “I’m wearing this to protest the treatment of homeless people in this country. I’m going to ask only for spare change tonight, instead of candy, and I’m going to give it all to the homeless.”
I didn’t understand how wearing a Halloween costume could become a political statement, but I admired her commitment. I wanted her to admire my commitment, too. So I lied.
“Well,” I said. “I’m wearing this to protest the treatment of homeless Native Americans in this country.”
“Oh,” she said. “I guess that’s pretty cool.”
“Yeah, that spare change thing is a good idea. I think I might do that, too.”
Of course, after school, I’d be trick-or-treating on the rez, so I wouldn’t collect as much spare change as Penelope would in Reardan
It is sad to admit, but it seems that there are just too many problems in this world for one person to focus on. Unless we are constantly reminded of issues in front of us, we become disconnected with them. I fear that many Americans don’t realize that these pervasive issues still exist today. It seems impossible that issues from a century ago could still exist today, but they do. We forget, but thankfully there are writers like Sherman Alexie to remind us. Alexie quotes W. B. Yeats as the novel opens, and I think it would be a great place to end. Just remember, “There is another world, but it is in this one.”

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