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  • The Critique of Violent Atonement in Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer and David Treuer's The Hiawatha
  • Lydia R. Cooper (bio)

John Smith, the disturbed, violent Native American protagonist of Sherman Alexie's Indian Killer (1996), decides that his pain and the suffering of all Indigenous people will end only when "one white man … [dies] for all the lies that had been told to Indians" (132). John's belief that his and his people's salvation will be attained in the death of a white victim becomes the disquieting issue at the heart of Indian Killer, a question that is answered but not resolved when John decides to kill himself instead of his chosen white victim, imagining his suicide as a reenactment of the Spokane Jesuit priest Duncan's Christ-like trek into the desert, bearing in his soul the suffering of his people (412). Because of the horrifying violence at the end of the novel, Indian Killer remains Alexie's most controversial book to date, disturbing to critics, reviewers, and the author himself. In one interview, Alexie claims that the novel "still, to this day, troubles me the most" of all his books (Campbell par. 15). Indian Killer is undeniably challenging with its relentless anger and despair. John Skow's often-cited description of the book, for example, calls it "septic with … [an] unappeasable fury" (88). The "septic" violence of Indian Killer, rooted in the protagonist's self-inflicted martyrdom, reflects the same problematic sacrificial action at the heart of David Treuer's The Hiawatha (1999). In Treuer's novel, the main character, Simon, claims responsibility for murder on behalf of his nephew in order to atone for accidentally killing his brother. His expiatory act solidifies his mother's belief that he is like Cain, the prototypical Judeo-Christian scapegoat condemned to wander in [End Page 32] penance for fratricide (Treuer 23). Indian Killer and The Hiawatha thus describe acts of suffering that are manifestations of the symbolism and rhetoric of religious violence. What makes the respective death and exile in these novels so disconcerting, however, is that the acts are committed by men intent on fulfilling archetypal savior roles who nevertheless fail to save themselves or anyone else. Their failures suggest that the novels assert the critical importance of subjugating religious symbolism to practical and ethical critique.

In general, examinations of religious symbolism in Native American fiction tend to focus either on celebrations of tribal ceremonies, rituals, and beliefs as authenticating or liberating images or on criticisms of imperialist, missional aspects of American Christianity. However, in order to understand the critique of violent atonement in Alexie's Indian Killer and Treuer's The Hiawatha, it is necessary to place these novels within the context of theological and literary studies that move beyond the binary breakdown of tribal versus Christian ideology. In his article "Native and Christian: Religion and Spirituality as Transcultural Negotiation in American Indian Novels of the 1990s," Karsten Fitz draws attention to a reluctance among literary scholars to explore "the issue of whether or not it is possible to negotiate a middle ground" between "traditional tribal and Christian religions" in Native American fiction (1).1 This reluctance to navigate the admittedly tricky terrain of religion in Native fiction, particularly the contentious area between religious assimilation, syncretism, and adherence to tribal traditions, creates a gap in literary scholarship. In fact, Fitz suggests that religious contact zones in Native fiction "operat[e] as a relational cultural model" by promoting exchange over and against exclusion, a relational model that often plays out in religious forms and symbolism that are varied and generative (13). Therefore, studies of how religion and religious symbolism play out in contemporary fiction by Native authors may yield surprising and important insights into the capacity of narrative to negotiate meaningful syntheses of competing religious ideas, practices, and beliefs. Furthermore, such a study may illuminate practical methods for incorporating what Fitz calls "transcultural," or culturally hybrid, identities. [End Page 33]

Fitz's claim is part of a growing critical interest in how Native American writing describes meaningful ways of negotiating contrasting and often competing cultural contact zones through the lens of religious syncretism. James Treat, in his...


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