- Inhabiting IndiannessSherman Alexie's Indian Killer and the Phenomenology of White Sincerity
Have we somehow travelled back to the nineteenth century?—Sherman Alexie, Indian Killer
On July 9, 1998, Spokane / Coeur d'Alene writer Sherman Alexie appeared alongside President Bill Clinton on PBS NewsHour as part of a series of panel discussions entitled "President Clinton's Dialogue on Race."1 Turning to Alexie early in the broadcast, Clinton offered the following:
When I was running for President in 1992, I didn't know much about the American Indian condition except that we had a significant but very small population of Indians in my home state and that my grandmother was one-quarter Cherokee. That's all I knew. I spent a lot of time going around … to the reservations … to learn about this sort of nation-to-nation legal relationship that is supposed to exist between the US Government and the Native American tribes. … What I concluded … [was] that they have not been given enough empowerment or responsibility or tools to make the most of their own lives. … So they literally got the worst of both worlds. They weren't getting enough help and they certainly didn't have enough responsibility and power, in my view, to build a future. So what do you think the most important thing is for Americans to know about American Indians?2
Asked to maneuver within a narrow framework that confines Native American political sovereignty to the precarious status of a "sort of … supposed to" liminality and positions Indigenous peoples themselves as living in the "worst" of possible worlds, Alexie responded: "I think [End Page 29] the primary thing that people need to know about Indians is … that we really do exist as political entities and sovereign political nations … [and that] we are separate politically and economically. And should be." Alexie's "really do exist" pointed to the gap between Clinton's notional "Indian" and the former president's apparent inability to recognize the reality of Indigenous political sovereignty. Recounting the ways people talk to him about race, Alexie sharpened the point: "Usually … what [people] will do is come up to me and tell me they're Cherokee. But that's usually what it amounts to. Nobody talks about Indians." Taken together, Alexie's responses pointed out two related phenomena: on the one hand, how claims to Indigenous identity, particularly Cherokeeness in this example, work to open up affective space for sincere claims to solidarity; and on the other, how the sincere feelings those claims generate work for those who offer them to silence Indigenous peoples' political—and affective—sovereignty, filling space instead with talk about themselves.3
At least for most of the panel's hour, indeed no one was talking about Indians. The irony of this relative silence, especially given Clinton's claims, is that Alexie needed to make the point in the first place. Alexie and Clinton's conversation, and its quick fizzling out, reads like a scene-for-scene rewrite of the interactions between well-meaning but utterly unreflective white anthropology professor Clarence Mather and politically motivated Spokane student Marie Polatkin in Alexie's 1996 novel Indian Killer. Throughout the course of their interactions, Mather repeatedly attempts to build bridges and gain Marie's goodwill, only to not recognize how his efforts silence her abilities to respond from a position not already bounded by his discourse. While the stakes are different, the effect is the same. In both sets of interactions between white men and the Indigenous people they attempt to stand in solidarity with, what gets most in the way of seeing their sincere ambitions realized is the degree to which their whiteness colors their affects and, as a result, screens out the violence of their good intentions.
How is it that such sincere moments, good intentions, and well-meaning gestures at solidarity—in Indian Killer as well as on PBS—get in the way of genuine engagement with the core problem of actively silencing Indigenous peoples and dismissing Indigenous sovereignty? How do claims to "Indianness" position Indigenous identity, for the white men in these examples, as a supplement for their affective experience [End...