MISSOULA, Mont. - It ain't easy being Native. So says one of America's premier writers of contemporary Native American life.
To help explain the racial complexities that permeate Sherman Alexie's work, a textbook for teachers, "Sherman Alexie in the Classroom," was recently published to help educators explore Native America in modern times, stories often told by Alexie with an acerbic twist.
For example, Alexie wrote, describing the movie, "The Searchers": "I rooted for John Wayne … even though I knew he was going to kill his niece because she had been 'soiled' by the Indians. … I rooted for John Wayne because I understood why he wanted to kill his niece. I hated those Indians just as much as John Wayne did."
English literature professors and teachers Heather Bruce, Anna Baldwin and Christabel Umphrey explain this paradox in "Sherman Alexie in the Classroom," a high school literature series published by the National Council of Teachers of English. The text examines Alexie's provocative body of work, ranging from poetry and novels to film scripts. His magical imagination has paved the way for him to become a best-selling novelist, spoken-word poet, stand-up comedian and award-winning filmmaker and short-story writer.
Alexie, who is of Spokane and Coeur d'Alene tribal heritage, often explores racism in his stories while simultaneously allowing his characters to deliver comedic punch lines.
In his most popular book to date, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," the winner of the 2007 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, Alexie unleashes a tale of adolescent trials told by a geeky kid born into this world with "brain grease."
The ungainly boy with too-big feet is rejected by his peers. But, he ultimately prevails as a hero of sorts.
Authors of the teaching-Alexie book say the text will help non-Native teachers and students "work through their white guilt and develop anti-racist perspectives."
On Tuesday, Carla Hinman's freshman class at Hellgate High School began reading from "Part-Time Indian." Hinman began the class discussion by asking students to discuss a series of quotes from the book. The teacher then asked the students to explain what they thought the book might be about.
Each student group agreed on a recurrent theme: Prejudice and racism.
Friday, 75 students at Hellgate met and read Alexie's work in recognition of Montana's Native American Heritage Day. Each student received copies of "Part-Time Indian," which is said to be an autobiographical sketch of Alexie's life while growing up on the Spokane Reservation in eastern Washington.
Fourteen-year-old Hannah Wolf, a student in Hinman's class, said she has already read the book.
"It was kind of depressing in the first two chapters. It made me cry," she said. "But toward the middle of the book, he started standing up for himself."
Alexie's "stories resonate with students of all races," said Bruce, an English professor at the University of Montana in Missoula. "They relate to his sarcasm and to his humor. It kind of has a comedy channel feel to it. Other writers are far more serious, and it's difficult for young people to engage."
Bruce, also director of the Montana Writing Project, is one of five nationwide recipients to receive a $10,000 teacher development grant from
the McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation. It was announced Tuesday that she will use the money for a writing project initiative to create a K-12 curriculum to help students learn more about Montana's Native people while engaging in "reading, writing, and research practices that stand at the heart of inquiry and literacy."
Authors like Alexie have helped educators such as Bruce bring a discussion of Native life into the classroom.
Still, others warn that Alexie's words shouldn't be taken too seriously.
Critics routinely argue that he perpetuates and exaggerates reservation life. Chapter Six in "Sherman Alexie in the Classroom" offers some criticisms of his work. Gloria Bird, of the Spokane tribe, writes that just because someone is a Native writer doesn't mean they automatically produce an authentic version of Native life.
Even so, Alexie has put Native life, good and bad, before an international audience of readers.
Anna Baldwin, a teacher at Arlee High School on the Flathead Reservation, said that if not for Alexie, some of her students would never have read a book from cover to cover. "My students respond to them," said Baldwin, a co-author of the teaching-Alexie textbook. "The books are so contemporary - and it's the whole reservation culture that is embedded in the books. Sherman Alexie's work is like a door for some kids to get into literature."
Reach reporter Jodi Rave at 800-366-7186 or firstname.lastname@example.org