The day I discovered Native Americans, my world altered a little. I believed until then that Christopher Columbus sailed to a large land mass and brought his country men over, fellow white people who would then make this their nation, a United States of America. Our social studies textbooks thought him important, and it turns out he was even more important than we realized – he had a holiday to his name and a song in Shankar’s movie. Later, I found out they were called Indians. And for a while afterwards, I walked around asking – if they are Indian, what am I? Do they prefer one name over another? Would they call me Indian too? What do they call themselves? None of these questions were answered.
Much like other discoveries, I came upon Sherman Alexie’s book Ten Little Indians by chance. The stories in this book all focus on Spokane Indians in Washington State, living out their lives in Seattle. They are regular city people, not wise elder stereotypes. The Indians in the stories are always present but never romanticized, their experiences are both specific and universal. They go to college, play basketball, start families, build homes, roam the streets and make inappropriate jokes.
These jokes find their place in may of the stories, either through a character’s skewed sense of humour, or the author himself being intentionally funny. Protagonists are repeatedly asked how they can afford to find humour in all kinds of situations, and one of them makes a joke that Indians and Jews are the funniest tribes he knows, so genocide might have something to do with it. In another story, a woman walks out of a bomb blast and spends time with a stranger whose wife left him because of his terrible jokes. Many characters seem to have a connection with basketball, which I found to be interesting, as I was not aware of this relationship previously.
I liked some stories more than others. In Search Engine, college student Corliss is pushed by Fate to read a book of poems by a Spokane Indian, when this book falls on her at the library. She sets out to find the poet, whom she thinks is probably the only other member of her tribe to be seduced by words. In What You Pawn I Will Redeem, a perpetually homeless and frequently drunk Indian man must get 1000 dollars within a day to buy his grandmother’s regalia from a pawn shop. In Do You Know Where I Am, a young couple start their life together with the shadow of a lie haunting them. They are Native American royalty, the narrator says, with affluent parents and college degrees.
The author talks about the problems this American Indian community faces, but he does so in a gentle and sensitive manner. He looks at homelessness, alcoholism, mental stability, the loss of a homeland, the quest for spiritual guidance and the need for ritual in its absence. He also brings in a delicious irony at all times, evident in this exchange between a white person and an Indian person: Go home, the white inhabitant says to the brown one. Oh well.