Sherman Alexie, "Reservation Blues" (1996)
Truth be told, there are millions of people with Native American ancestry in our very own country- that's right... you know them as "Mexicans". Unfortunately that's not a realization that many Middle Americans have grasped. But it certainly puts things in perspective. The next time you hear some yahoo bitching about the flood of "illegal immigrants invading our country", you just tell them to lip up and get learned. Cause their claim on this land precedes ours. The good and honorable James K. Polk did much to obfuscate that fact.
Of course there were many nations north of the Rio Grande even before the pale-faced marauders set foot on this land of plenty. And despite the best efforts of Europeans, some of them actually still exist. Tribal lands are known as "reservations", and they spot our nation. But the majority of people have no clue what happens on them. I don't either. I don't understand their connection to the US government or the range of their autonomy. I can't tell you where the Shoshoni or the Flatheads originated. I don't know the difference between traditional Indian clothes and South-of-the-Border tourist trap trinkets. All I know is what the mainstream media tells us- Indians drink a lot, and run casinos. That's about it. I did visit the Cherokee reservation at the base of the Smoky Mountains, but I mostly saw kitschy stores and tobacco outlets.
So it's a good thing for me (and the rest of us) that Sherman Alexie writes books. He's a 40-year old Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian from Wellpinit, Washington, and he is most famous for a collection of short stories called The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993). In that book he introduced readers to a series of characters loosely based upon people from his homelands. The story of those characters was expanded in Alexie's first novel Reservation Blues (1995). The author presents a depiction of life growing up on the reservation, and the exploits of a rock band called "Coyote River". Certainly some of the stereotypes of Indian life are reinforced- alcoholism, poverty, etc., but Alexie also documents the efforts made to continue an adherence to some small semblance of tribal traditions.
Alexie's mix of gritty realism and magical surrealism is eminently accessible. The dreamlife of the inhabitants of the Spokane reservation is juxtaposed with the temptation to embrace (or by turns resist) modern American society. That conflict makes for an intriguing page-turner. While Alexie is certainly angry about the treatment his people have received, he doesn't burden the reader with a surplus of guilt. He mixes comedy and self-deprecation in equal parts, and while sections of his novel weigh heavily with sadness, one could hardly call Reservation Blues a slog. The best thing for me about reading this boook is that I have been introduced to a relatively young author with years of productivity ahead of him. And so it seems that the final chapter of the Native American story has yet to be written.