Sherman Alexie, Popejoy Theater
Beatlick Press was contacted by Bookworks recently to announce we had won two free tickets to the Sherman Alexie event at Popejoy Theater. So along with editor Deborah Woodside Coy (a huge Alexie fan) I happily attended.
The full audience by show time was greeted in a Native American tongue by Tara Gatewood, host of “Native American Talking” radio show (KUNM 89.9). Immediately I recognized her familiar voice as I love the Native-American radio broadcast locally on NPR. She told us it was during her sojourn in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she first experienced the “Sherman Zone.”
This being my first event for him I half expected he would be reading from various books, but Sherman Alexie on stage can best be called a comedy performance. He leaned heavily on an Indian theme and racial
discrimination. Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian born and raised in the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. His self-deprecating comments put his humanity on the line immediately and made him likeable.
In his opening he told how he acclimated himself to our area by going on a green chile splurge which conflicted with his “Salmon Boy” stomach and cancelled any site seeing he might have wanted to accomplish while in
town. After some more jokes localized for familiarity, like trying to merge in Albuquerque traffic, (I’m fairly sure that joke works in every city) he jumped on his first theme of dark skins vs light skins.
He calls himself “ambiguously ethnic.” Alexie made so many politically incorrect jokes that coming from anyone else’s mouth could have really been offensive, but coming from him the indigenously mixed crowd took them all in good-hearted stride.
Themes included the Navajos versus the white people, insecure pale Indians, and casinos. One stereotypical jokes: There will never be a Native American suicide bomber, they would never be on time.
Next was an impersonation of the brown people’s head nod of acknowledgement, barely perceptible to the naked eye. He commented on the banned books about Indian and Hispanic culture recently banned in Arizona.
Then he shared the conflicts he has experienced at Border Patrol and his ultimate approach to avoid hassle.
He is the personification of the “insecure pale Indians” of which he mentioned. When you are not identified internally as Native-American it creates insecurity, he said, and in his own mind as a youth he created his own race,
to cope. He self-proclaimed to be “an indigineous whore.” Alexie seemed to want to confess. Because he is a light-skinned Indian and can “pass” acceptably past many barriers confronting darker skinned people, he is conflicted now with the privilege of his success.
“Post 9/11 racial discrimination increased,” Alexie said. “In Seattle, I have experienced road rage from white guys in a Prius yelling, ‘Go back to your own country.’” And then he paradoxically shakes his head in question
toward the audience. He regaled us time and again with his stories, reminding us story telling is one of the oldest human activities. He sees himself as a storyteller who got lucky.
But he hasn’t batted a thousand. His had more than the average share of shakedowns with airport security in lieu of his heavy travel schedule. All the while being complimented on his packing skills, he said.
He had quite a few tales about trying to get through airport security with his kind of looks. In his skit he takes off his shoes talking about his airport security routine and then left them off for the rest of his performance as he sunk into a more comfortable posture and kept relating his stories
His strategy is to not stand out in a crowd. “Be uniform,” he advised, “so that you are not that important. Be alike in the security line, be the same. And afterwards get weird.”
Alexie wanted to acknowledge all the Indians in college now and asked of the audience who was in college, who was graduating, he praised them all and asked them to stand up and be recognized.
Alexie claims Indians could do more to emphasize these successful students and would like to see more ceremonies for them incorporated into pow wows and dances. He calls for more political activism within this group as well.
He holds great distain for the “Casino Indians.”
“When an Indian tribe gets a casino, they've officially declared that they've lost the war. It's the final submission,” he has said.
“We become our own peer group. Indians have forgotten the reservations where they now live are often not their traditional lands, but a place where they were put through an act of war. They are often not even in a spiritual place.”
“I've spent very little time on my reservation in the last twenty years. Personally, there's too much pain. I actually think I'm more traditional as a writing nomad than people who never leave the reservation,” he has said.
“Be kinetic as Natives, love your traditions, but create new ones. All traditions were new and scary at one time. Be new and scary.”
“We grow afraid of what we might forget,” he said. “We will find peace and value through community in knowing that we belong to each other.”
It was an ironic twist as Deborah and I walked out of Popejoy Hall to pass the last remnants of a large group of marchers protesting the racial discrimination and use of force by the Albuquerque Police. Discrimination is alive and well.
I applaud Sherman Alexie for using his platform to speak out, raise human consciousness and call for equality instead of just reading from a book, which was what I expected. He educates and conjoles with humor, an excellent experience for us at Beatlick Press.