Racial Message (Rave On)
Sep 25, 2008 15:55 PDT
Native insight: Textbook guides teachers on author's racial messages -
Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2008
By JODI RAVE of the Missoulian
It ain't easy being Indian. So says one of America's premier Native
writers of contemporary Indian 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 Americana in modern
times, stories often told by Alexie with an acerbic twist.
To wit, says Alexie: “I rooted for John Wayne � even though I
knew he was going to kill his niece because she had been ‘soiled' by the
Indians. Hell, I rooted for John Wayne because I understood why he
wanted to kill his niece. I hated those Indians just as much as John
So why would an Indian hate Indians?
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
world-acclaimed 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 guidebook 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 about a series of
quotes from chapter one of Alexie's book. The teacher then asked
students to explain what they thought the book might be about.
Each student group agreed on a recurrent theme: prejudice and racism.
On Friday, 75 students at Hellgate will meet and read Alexie's work in
recognition of Montana's Native American Heritage Day. Each student has
received copies of the “The Absolutely True Diary of a 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's
already read the book once.
“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
Alexie's “stories resonate with students of all races,” said Bruce, an
English professor at the University of Montana. “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
Bruce, also director of the Montana Writing Project, is one of five
nationwide recipients of a $10,000 teacher development grant from the
McCarthey Dressman Education Foundation. It was announced on 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 like 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
insightful criticisms of his work. Gloria Bird, a Spokane Indian, 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. And he's given a voice to one of the
most invisible populations in the United States.
Anna Baldwin, a teacher at Arlee High School on the Flathead
Reservation, said 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.”
Reporter Jodi Rave can be reached at 1-800-366-7186 or