The Common Good
September-October 2002

Which Tribe?

by Julienne Gage | September-October 2002

Spokane Indian Sherman Alexie often snaps "that's personal" during interviews, yet the characters in his books and films closely follow his own life growing up on the Spokane Indian ...

Spokane Indian Sherman Alexie often snaps "that's personal" during interviews, yet the characters in his books and films closely follow his own life growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington.

The Business of Fancydancing—Alexie's second movie and first directorial effort—is the most personal yet. The 35-year-old author of the novels Indian Killer and Reservation Blues, books of poetry, and short stories, and screenwriter of the 1998 hit Smoke Signals, debuted his new movie at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Now it's making its way across screens and film festivals throughout the country.

More abstract and poetic than Smoke Signals, Fancydancing offers a complex dialogue on ethnic identity. In the film, Seymour Polatkin (Evan Adams) and Aristotle Joseph (Gene Tagaban), two high school valedictorians from the Spokane Indian Reservation, leave their native culture for university life in Seattle. Seymour becomes a writer and successfully markets his Indian identity by drawing on his childhood reservation experiences.

Aristotle doesn't adapt so easily to the white world. Resentful and angry, he returns to the reservation where he develops an alcohol problem and a violent disposition. When Mouse (Swil Kanim), a talented but cynical Indian violinist, dies, Seymour returns to Wellpinit—after 16 years—to attend the funeral.

The drive is a mere six hours, but the emotional journey is complicated. Seymour's white lover, Steven (affectionately known as Custer), fears that Seymour will decide to stay on the "rez." And not all of his old Spokane friends are excited to see the Indian—nicknamed "The Little Public Relations Warrior" by Aristotle—who made it big by writing about their personal tragedies.

In truth, many Indians are troubled by Alexie's presentation of his native people. He receives a lot of pressure to present Indians as wise chiefs and not as a group of marginalized people living in impoverished land reserves where alcoholism and domestic abuse are common. Alexie, who himself suffered from a broken family and alcoholism, wants to both name social problems and reclaim the magic of his heritage.

"A lot of Indians have been bombarded with so many negative images that they think it's more important to talk about positive role modelling," Alexie told Sojourners in a January interview. "I'm just interested in human beings. We Indians are not superior or inferior; we're just as messy as any other group of human beings. That's what I write about. I'm a fiction writer, not a sociologist. I grew up in a place that I'm heavily influenced by, but I also approach it with imagination."

NONETHELESS, QUESTIONS of race and identity weigh heavy on the characters' minds. In the midst of Seymour's college romance with Agnes Roth (Michelle St. John), a half-Jewish, half-Spokane native who did not grow up on the reservation, Seymour decides he's gay. Saying that Indians are a species on the brink of extinction, Agnes goes to Wellpinit to get in touch with her roots, later involving herself in a fruitless relationship with Aristotle. Others have similar needs for social and ethnic belonging. Teresa (Cynthia Geary), a white woman who was a close companion of Mouse, explains at his funeral that she could not understand how she held so much affection for a bitter man who constantly called her an ugly suyapi (white person).

"All the characters are looking for some ideal of identity that doesn't exist," Alexie said.

Despite his sometimes harsh critique of white and Indian culture in America, the author, whose books are published in 18 countries, said, "At the risk of sounding patriotic, I don't exist anywhere else in the world. That says as much about me as it does about the U.S.; not just about being Indian but being poor from Spokane. There are all sorts of boxes that I made my way out of. The caste system is stronger in other countries.

"I don't feel a special mission toward Indians," he continued. "A poor kid from Selkirk [a small, mostly white town near the Spokane reservation] has as few chances as an Indian kid from Wellpinit. I tell these kids, "Read every book in the library starting with the As. If there aren't enough books, hitchhike to the next town and read all the books in that one.'"

Like Seymour, Alexie has faced plenty of resentment along with the positive publicity. "I used to feel twisted and torn because I lived in the white world but came from the Indian one," he said. "But then I realized I felt that way out of guilt because I can thrive successfully in both worlds. It makes me special because I can be from two tribes."

Julienne Gage, a former Sojourners intern, works as a journalist in Spain. For more information about The Business of Fancydancing and to check screening locations, see www.fallsapart.com.

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