Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie

(This essay first appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction)

The American Indian(1) has long fascinated writers, and readers, of all sorts of fiction, from the old pulp Westerns ("Bang! Bang! went Buffalo Bill's Winchester, and two more redskins bit the dust") to modern detective novels. There are even "Indian romances" featuring hot goings-on between moist-thighed white heroines and aboriginal Fabios - a striking mark of progress; only a few decades ago it was a given in popular fiction that getting laid by an Indian constituted a Fate Worse Than Death.(2) And now and then there appear serious works of high literary merit, such as Scott Momaday's House Made Of Dawn or James Welch's Winter In The Blood.

Quite a few science fiction writers (e.g. Roger Zelazny, Howard Waldrop) have written novels or stories based on Indian themes, and in 1994 Tor published Tales From The Great Turtle, a much-hyped and generally disappointing anthology of "Fantasy In The Native American Tradition," edited by Richard Gilliam and, nominally, Piers Anthony.(3)

In all this, one element has been absent, or nearly so: the voices of the Indians themselves. Ever since Fenimore Cooper's twig-snapping Algonquians went crashing through the trackless forest, and Hiawatha began floundering through Henry Longfellow's equally impenetrable blank verse, plenty of white authors have taken it upon themselves to interpret and describe the Indian world; but, except in the field of modern poetry, the Indian writer remains a rarity.

As for speculative fiction, the only widely-read Indian author who comes to mind - unless you take Craig Strete's claims seriously - is Martin Cruz Smith, and his work only occasionally falls within speculative parameters. And, despite the general impression conveyed by the packaging, only a few of the stories in Tales From The Great Turtle were written by Native Americans(4).

The situation has been further confused in recent years by the emergence of a whole tribe of transracial poseurs. Fake Indians are as common as quartz crystals in the New Age subculture(5), which devours anything to do with "Native American spirituality" - since very few real Indians will discuss such matters with whites, the phonies generally have a clear field - but they turn up in other genres as well. Several white writers have based lucrative careers on imaginary or minute traces of Indian blood.

But why so little published fiction by real Indians - a people, after all, with a wonderfully rich storytelling tradition? One little-recognized problem lies in what might be called the expectation barrier. White America has certain definite ideas as to what it wants to hear from Indians - at least the publishing industry thinks so, and for once it is probably right - and the Indian writer whose work fails to fit the accepted template can expect a lot of frustration.

There is of course a widespread fascination with Indian legends and mythic traditions. There is also a well-established market for tales about Indian life in bygone times - tipis and buffalo hunts and all that - and now it is even okay to show white people behaving badly and Indians getting screwed. Just as long as it's all in the past, with enough intervening generations to filter the guilt down to a bearable and even titillating level....

Talking animals and colorful Neolithics, you see, are safe; they don't make anyone uncomfortable. Live Indians, with attitudes and agendas of their own, are another matter. In the literary marketplace, the only good Indians are still dead ones - or the bleached-out Tonto-knockoff androids created by white writers(6).

But, as one West Point graduate after another learned, there's no such thing as a 100% secure Indian barrier. And sure enough, here comes Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, with a great crazy in-your-face book that is to the usual sanitized, sentimentalized, cliche-choked "Indian novel" as a rutting bull elk is to Bambi.

Reservation Blues begins with a man who is neither Indian nor white: blues great Robert Johnson(7), who arrives on the Spokane reservation in search of - literally - the woman of his dreams. Johnson, it seems, did not die in 1938 as history records, but faked his own murder in a vain attempt to escape from Satan, with whom he had a deal. Pursued over the decades by "the Gentleman", Johnson has dreams of an old woman on a mountaintop who holds his only hope of redemption.

Tribal storyteller Thomas Builds-the-Fire takes him to the mountain cabin of a mysterious medicine woman known as Big Mom. Afterward, Thomas discovers that Johnson has left him his guitar. Thus inspired, Thomas hooks up with a couple of other tribal misfits: Junior Polatkin, who drives the reservation water truck, and Victor Joseph, who is simply a lout. (But "Junior could be an asshole, too, because Victor was extremely contagious.") Together they form a rock band. None of them has any musical talent, but this doesn't matter too much because Robert Johnson's demonically possessed guitar has the power to turn even Victor into an instant genius. There is a price: the guitar inflicts painful burns on the hands of anyone who plays it. (It also sets fire to trees, plays itself, and talks. Sarcastically.)

With the Guitar From Hell and a repertoire of four and a half chords, the band begins a weird odyssey through a series of Indian-bar gigs and then out into the white world. Along the way they pick up a pair of vocalists: the Warm Water sisters, Checkers and Chess, from the Flathead reservation. They also acquire a couple of white groupies ("New Age princesses"), Betty and Veronica.

But there is much more to the story than simple Boyz-on-the-Rez hijinks. Without ever quite lowering the mocking mask of fantasy, without ever descending to mere preaching or teaching, Sherman Alexie portrays the present-day Indian scene with painful accuracy. It's all here: the alcoholic parents, the old cars, the barely-edible commodity foods, the corrupt tribal politicians and the vicious bullies who act as their enforcers (no lovable Tony Hillerman cops in this book), even the demented world of Indian basketball.

Over and against all this stands the enigmatic figure of Big Mom. Nobody knows how old she is; it is not even certain that she ages in any usual sense. Her memories seem to go back at least to the middle of the nineteenth century and the defeat of the Spokane Indians by white troops; her powers are legendary, though many of her own tribe refuse to believe even in her existence: "Junior and Victor once saw Big Mom walk across Benjamin Pond but quickly erased it from memory. Junior and Victor had limited skills but they were damn good at denial."

Besides being a shamaness, Big Mom is a music teacher. And not just to Indians; she may or may not have taught Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix all they knew, as well as Les Paul, Benny Goodman, and the Andrews Sisters. (Not Jim Morrison, though. Sherman Alexie seems to have a real problem about Jim Morrison.)

For purposes of the story, she also functions as a wise commentator with a finely-calibrated bullshit detector. Impatient with the pervasive Indian-warrior-macho mystique ("Indian men have started to believe their own publicity and run around acting like the Indians in movies"), she asks: "When are Indians going to have heroes who don't hurt people?"

Coached by Big Mom, the band leaves for New York and its audition with Cavalry Records(8). The audition is a catastrophe. The band returns to the reservation to disgrace but, in the end, a kind of salvation.

Meanwhile, Cavalry Records still likes the idea of promoting an Indian group. They offer a contract to Betty and Veronica. The two groupies are white, but with a few tanning sessions, a little cosmetic surgery, some promo, who's to know? Real Indians didn't work out so well, but maybe the manufactured kind will be easier to control.

Thomas Builds-the-Fire is home alone when he hears the bogus duo's debut single. Immediately he begins running about the house, gathering up all his most prized personal belongings - letters, souvenirs, pictures of his parents - and piling them on the kitchen table, convinced that somebody is going to steal them next.

The story that is made up, Ernest Hemingway said, can be truer than the account of actual events. In Reservation Blues Sherman Alexie has used the elements of outrageous fantasy to limn the realities of modern Indian life - and not just Indian life; because, as Thomas Builds-the-Fire observes: "Ain't nothing gone wrong on the reservation that hasn't gone wrong everywhere else."


(1) Honest, it's okay to say "Indian." The politically correct "Native American" is seldom used by most of the people to whom it refers; at least nearly all the Indians I know continue to say "Indian" and use the clumsy neologism, if at all, self-consciously - or when doing comic impressions of well-meaning white people.

(2) Curiously enough, there does not seem to have been one entitled Sweet Savage Savage.

(3) It is difficult to determine what Mr. Anthony's actual contributions were, beyond the use of his name and an introduction guaranteed to enrage any Indian who reads it.

(4) Yes, yes, but in this case the term is appropriate, because at least one contributor is Eskimo.

(5) A strikingly apt use, by the way, of the prefix "sub".

(6) Especially white mystery writers. But let's not go there just now.

(7) The greatest blues musician of all time. This is not open to debate.

(8) The record-company executives are named Wright and Sheridan, which may not register on white readers. Wright was the officer who led the 1858 campaign that crushed the Spokanes, while General Sheridan was the charming fellow who said, "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead ones."