March 9, 2009

Native American Writer Details Personal Struggle

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“Just so you know, I got here because of rage,” said Sherman Alexie, an award-winning Native American writer and occasional comedian, in a half-serious, half-facetious manner at the Statler Auditorium in his Friday evening lecture, “The Partially True Story of the True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”
Alexie’s first young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian won the 2007 National Book Award in Young People’s Literature. The lecture, which was based on this novel, presented an overview of the author’s childhood and development as a writer.
Alexie frequently elicited laughter from the nearly 600-person audience as he often joked about the many tragedies of his younger years.
As a six-month-old baby, Alexie needed brain surgery due to an abnormal accumulation of water in his brain, a condition called hydrocephalus. Although he survived the surgery, he suffered seizure throughout his childhood. The sickness, however, was only one part of Alexie’s rough childhood.
“I was sick, very sick, and very poor on top of that … Even your food was constantly reminding you of how poor you were,” Alexie said.
Alexie grew up eating food provided by the government with his family on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. Partly as a result of the reservation’s impoverishment, Alexie developed a rather bitter outlook on life as an adolescent.
According to Alexie, he was dehumanized constantly as a poor, disabled Native American.
“I personally hate any philosophy that dehumanizes human beings,” Alexie said.

[img_assist|nid=35930|title=True Story|desc=Native American writer Sherman Alexie speaks about his personal experience in Statler Auditorium on Friday.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
“You don’t live like that and not collect pounds and pounds of rage,” he added.
Alexie pointed to the audience to address and belittle existing Native American stereotypes.
“You thought you were the ones colonized,” Alexie said sarcastically. “I wish we were the people that you think we are, and I wish you were the people in the Declaration of Independence.”
The cultural and political circumstances of imperialism that promoted the perceived white superiority and inferiority of America’s indigenous peoples had wrapped the young Alexie in layers of shame.
“People tell me [I should be happy] because I’m successful and I love what I do. But they forget that it comes out of damage,” Alexie said.
Everything changed for the teenage Alexie, however, when he realized that he had the choice of leaving the reservation and attending a nearby, prominently white high school in the 1980s. Yet, due to his heavy, indigenous accent and the color of his skin, he was initially laughed at and mocked by other students.
“I was so scared of them,” he said.
The beginning days of high school posed Alexie the toughest challenges to his identity. He was alienated by his own people who felt betrayed by Alexie for leaving the reservation, and he was initially forced to cope with the racist attitudes of white students in his high school.
Nevertheless, as Alexie began to befriend some white students, he discovered that fear was one of the root causes of their racism.
“They literally thought I was going to pull out a bow and arrow and shoot them,” Alexie said.
Although Alexie struggled with stereotypes and preconceived notions of what it meant to be Native American throughout his youth, he noted that the people who had done the most damage to him were other Native Americans.
Alexie specifically addressed Native American youths in the audience, telling them that it is “okay” to leave the reservation in search of a better life, even amidst the criticisms of tribe members and other races.
Alexie received a wide, standing ovation from the audience at the end of his lecture.
Many student members of the audience had become acquainted to Alexie in high school through required readings.
“I was introduced to Sherman Alexie through my ethics study class in high school, where we learned about the exploitation of Native Americans,” Anna Chang ’12 said.
Brice Cook ’11 was also introduced to Alexie in high school and has continued to read the author’s literary works. Cook thoroughly enjoyed reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and felt that the book really spoke to him as a student who has left all his friends back home in Idaho to attend Cornell.
Fay Gougakis, a resident of Ithaca, was greatly impressed by Alexie’s lecturing style.
“One thing that really stands out now [is that] this guy is really funny … He’s so talented [and] so humorous. He blends the seriousness with comedy — the skill of a true artist,” Gougakis said.
Alexie, a graduate of Washington State University, has appeared on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report and NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He wrote and produced the 1999 film Smoke Signals, which won the Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. Alexie is currently working on a screenplay of The Toughest Indian in the World, which he will direct and co-produce, and a new adult novel Fire with Fire, which will be published in 2010.
Alexie’s lecture was part of Cornell University Graduate School’s 2009 Spencer T. and Ann W. Olin lecture series.