restricted access 5. The "Rage Stage": Contextualizing Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer

From: Red Matters

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The "Rage Stage": Contextualizing For Pat Hilden and Shari Huhndorf "At times the poetic elan coincides with the revolutionary elan and at times they diverge." —Jean-Paul Sartre Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer (1996) begins in the "winter" of 1968-69,1 in the delivery room of "An Indian Health Service hospital," on "this reservation or that reservation. Anyreservation, a particular reservation" (3). There a dark-skinned boy is born to a fourteen-year-old Indian2 woman whohas apparently agreed to give him up for adoption. The transfer of the infant to his adoptive parents isviolent: "A man in a white jumpsuit " and a "white helmet" (6) arrives in a helicopter and seizes the boy. Then, as the helicopter lifts off,the "helicopter gunman locks and loads, strafes the reservation with explosive shells" (6). The narrator remarks, "Suddenly this is a war" (6).The war that immediately comes to mind, of course, is the war in Vietnam, then escalating. But, as I hope to show, the particular "war" that Alexie's novel dates from about 1968-69 is a war waged, not in the farawayjungles of Vietnam, called "Indian Country" by American troops, but, rather, nearer to home, in American Indian Country ; and this is a war to end domestic colonialism rather than a war to preserve foreign colonialism. After a flight of "hours, it could be days" (7) —as will already be clear ("this reservation, that reservation," etc.), here, as in his earlier fiction, Alexie worksin the mode of postmodern playwith realistic conventions— the helicopter brings the infant to Bellevue, just outside Seattle, where he Chapter 5 Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer is delivered into the hands of a "man and woman, both white and handsome " (7).They will name him John Smith (thisJohn Smith or that John Smith? any Indian John Smith?).3 This first of the novel's three sections is called "Owl Dancing" and its first chapter is called "Mythology." By the time John is in high school, his experience has already been such that he "repeatedly promised himself he would never be angry. He didn't want to be angry." Nonetheless, he finds he must often "lock himself inside a [toilet] stall and fight against his anger" (18-19). The "rage he didn't like to feel" (41) persists, however, and that rage eventually tells John just "exactly what to do with his life": John "needed to kill a white man" (25). John will speculate throughout the book as to whichwhite man is the one who most needs killing, finally deciding on a particular individual —whom he does not actually kill. Still, as late as five pages from the end of the novel, a police officer states, "John Smith was the Indian Killer. Case closed" (415), and it is no wonder that at least one reviewer of the novel4 had no doubt whatever that John Smith was, indeed, the Indian killer of the title. But this is surelymistaken. Although we are never told "exactly" what she plans to do with her life, Marie Polatkin, a young Spokane student at the Universityof Washington ,5 has feelings of anger and rage not dissimilar to John's. Marie is someone who "alwayswanted revenge" (34); she has "Hateful, powerful thoughts," indeed, she "wanted every white man to disappear. She wanted to burn them all down to ash and feast on their smoke" (85). Later, remembering that "Indian blood had often spilled on American soil," Marie "felt a beautiful kind of anger" (360). As she insists to her teacher, the despised anthropologist and Indian wannabe Dr. Clarence Mather, "if the Ghost Dance worked, there would be no exceptions. All you white people would disappear. If those dead Indians came back to life. . . . They'd kill you. They'd gut you and eat your heart" (314). Later, coming upon an attack on John by two white boys, Marie is "shocked by her anger. . . . Nearlyblind with her own rage, she had wanted to tear out their [the two white boys'] blue eyes and blind them" (375). Inasmuch as the killer has by this time actually eaten the heart of the second man he has killed, and earlier "tor [n] the white man's [thefirstvictim 's] eyesfrom his face and swallowed them whole" (54),6 Marie'sdesires to eat Mather's heart or tear out the eyes of white boys might suggest that she herself might be the killer. But this, too, seems surely not the case. Another person who might be the...


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Subject Headings

  • Indian literature -- United States -- History and criticism
  • American literature -- Indian authors -- History and criticism
  • Indians of North America -- Intellectual life.
  • Indians of North America -- Historiography.
  • Indians in literature.
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