Sherman Alexie’s cultural imperialism

The Native American novelist thinks Ian Frazier had no business writing "On the Rez." He may have some trespasses of his own to answer for.

Topics: Native Americans, Books,

“When I first heard the title of Ian Frazier’s ‘On the Rez,’ his nonfiction study of the brief time he spent on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, I laughed out loud.” Thus begins Sherman Alexie, the 33-year-old novelist, poet and Spokane-Coeur d’Alene Indian, kicking off his blisteringly aggrieved dismissal of Frazier’s book in the Jan. 23 Los Angeles Times Book Review.

Alexie’s laughter, however, quickly subsides. “What denial! What romanticism!” he writes, before whacking the former New Yorker staff writer with a litany of further charges: morbidness, objectification, commodification and a “startling lack of self-consciousness,” to name just a few. The heart of Alexie’s antipathy, nonetheless, seems embedded in the following lines:

Many Indians, myself among them, believe that the concept of tribal sovereignty should logically extend to culture and religion, a concept which Frazier never addresses. Nowhere in the book does he examine his own motivations or question his observations. He writes about the Oglalas without stopping to wonder if the Oglalas want to be written about.

What Alexie is advocating here, more or less, is the “cultural enclosure of the intellectual commons” (to crib a phrase from scholar Rosemary Coombe), a sort of bulwark defense against cultural appropriation — or piracy, if you prefer. Such an approach would bind the typing fingers of even the most well-meaning outsiders, such as Frazier, leaving a culture’s stories firmly and exclusively in the hands of its own tellers. There are precedents here, of course: Alexie’s stance calls to mind the controversy William Styron brewed with his 1967 novel “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” in which the white Southern author wrote in the guise of the slave who led the famous 1831 revolt in Virginia. Several offended black critics suggested renaming the novel “The Confessions of William Styron.”

Here’s Alexie, 33 years later:

Frazier certainly displays plenty of self-confidence by beginning his book with this simple declarative sentence: “This book is about Indians, particularly the Oglala Sioux who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota, in the plains and badlands in the middle of the United States.” Notice that Frazier’s opening gambit doesn’t include possessives or qualifiers. He carefully avoids the more accurate description of his book: “This is Ian Frazier’s book containing his ideas and opinions of the Oglala culture ”

He returns to the idea a few paragraphs later:

Does [Frazier] ever admit that somebody from “the rez” has a different life experience than somebody who is just writing about the rez?

That I believe Frazier does indeed admit this — plainly, and throughout the book — is beside the point. The rub here is Alexie’s protectionist stance. Whatever emotional justifications it may have (and it’s impossible to deny that Indians have been victimized by bad art just as often as by other means), Alexie’s position is a reactionary one, inimical not only to art and journalism — to travel writing, most notably, which is what Frazier’s book amounts to — but also to science; even the slightest extrapolation sends it into ludicrous terrain. It’s easy to scoff at the bumbling hordes of men who felt affronted last year by “Stiffed,” Susan Faludi’s nonfiction inquiry into masculinity, on the grounds that a woman has no business commenting on men’s lives. But how different are their reactions, ultimately, from Alexie’s response to Frazier?

Moreover, Alexie could find himself tangled in the same web with which he’s trying to trap Frazier. In Alexie’s 1995 debut novel, “Reservation Blues,” the 1930s Mississippi Delta bluesman Robert Johnson appears, at the age of 82, in the tiny Spokane reservation town of Wellpinit. Legend has it that Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for guitar prowess; he died at 27, leaving an apocalyptic mythology for blues fans worldwide, not to mention for blacks in Mississippi. But Alexie’s exhumation is a curious one. Johnson relinquishes to the Spokanes his talking guitar (which spouts such Blues Brothers-ish exclamations as “On the road, on the road. We startin’ up a band”), and eventually, via the help of an aged Indian rock ‘n’ roll therapist named Big Mom, he is released from his Faustian pact. The novel ends with him clad in a traditional ribbon shirt, cheerily eating fry bread — his myth turned entirely upside down.

No matter how artful Alexie’s use of Johnson as a symbol and how reverential his treatment, it’s a twisted appropriation — there’s no other word — of the life and legend of a man whose music represents a pinnacle of Southern black culture. But perhaps that’s due to Alexie’s source material: In his acknowledgments, he credits — “especially,” and solely, so far as Robert Johnson is concerned — the influence of the 1985 movie “Crossroads,” which starred Ralph Macchio (that’s right) as a young (white) guitarist who graciously frees a poor, old and oh-so-helpless (black) harmonica player from a Johnsonian pact with the devil. Talk about “romanticism” — and a “startling lack of self-consciousness.” At least Ian Frazier spent time on the reservation to research his book. Sherman Alexie just went to the video store.

Jonathan Miles, a contributing editor at Men's Journal, writes regularly for Salon Books.

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