What It Means To Be An Indian

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An essay I wrote in my Senior year of High School (with a few improvements) on What It Means To Be An Indian using the work of Sherman Alexie as a basis of the essay. Now, I did put a BIT of my own views into this updated version. However, before you go an say "How would you know, you sure dont look native" Uh ho, but I am, at least part Indian, so take the points in this as you will and as always I appreciate constructive feedback. ;)

Submitted: May 09, 2015

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Submitted: May 09, 2015



Sherman Alexie is a Native poet, film maker and novelist. He is the son of a Spokane father and a Coeur d'Alene mother. He spent a significant amount of time on the Spokane Indian Reservation where he faced numerous hardships. Alexie has taken his experiences on the reservation and incorporated them into his works. In much of his writing, he has clearly expressed his thoughts on what it means to be an Indian, according to non-indians and Indians alike. But, what does it mean to be an Indian according to Alexie himself? From the information gathered throughout reading his works, interviews and articles by and about him, it can be concluded that to him, being Indian means being resilient, overcoming stereotypes, preserving Native culture and dealing with hardship and the culture clash between Natives and non-natives. 

Indians are perceived as many things, but rarely are any of the perceptions accurate. The most common generalizations of Indians are that they are all violent, drunk, and uneducated. Because of these stereotypes, the media portrays Indians in an antogonistic light. The newer generations of Indians have become so accustom to these stereotypes that they feel they must conform to them. This is especially true when they are interacting with non-natives in order not to be questioned or looked at strangely. Part of an article Alexie wrote, entitled I hated tonto (Still do), explains this point quite well. Alexie writes: "I watched the movies and saw the kind of Indian I was supposed to be." This ties into the thought that Indians must be something they are expected to be. not who or what they really are. 

Alexie also speaks about preserving the "good part" of Native culture throughout his works. Alexie expresses that he wants natvies to remember how peaceful and pure things used to be. How people were connected with their culture and had respect not only for themselves but for those around them and their environment. Examples of this are finding beauty in simple things. The following quote from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven displays this thought perfectly. "There is something beautiful about an Indian boy with hair so black it collects sunlight." (Alexie 146) To refer to a quote with a similar theme, "An Indian man aint nothin without his hair." ("Smoke Signals") This quote from the character Victor. shows the type of thing that is really important to Natives and how something like hair may seem so insignificant or simple to others. But, it means a great deal to Natives and the culture. Simple things like the tradition of men keeping their hair long is something that should be preserved as much as possible. Another way to look at this quote, which shows Alexie's point of view, is that hair is like an Indians pride. Therefore, Alexie is essentially saying : "An Indian man aint nothin without his pride." This viewpoint is a theme found often in Alexie's writing ; pride. Also expressed through Alexie's writings, is the thought that it shouldnt matter what others think Natives are or should be. It only matters how each individual Native thinks of themselves and the importance of knowing and believing in who you truly are. This is something that Natives must remember if they want to see real progress and positive futures for themselves and the reputation and view of native people. 

Natives and their relationships with whites/non-natives, and their attitudes towards them is another common topic Alexie often discusses. He explains that relationships between non-natives and natives are often strained and natives feel an uneasiness around them. Such feeling is shown through a quote that Victor said in the movie Smoke Signals. "White people will walk all over you if you dont look mean." This, to some extent is true. Natives feel the need to put up a wall between themselves and non-natives in order not to get into any type of confrontation and not to be taken advantage of. Alexie reveals this to be an ongoing problem. 

Natives have had to deal with hardship inflicted upon them for hundreds of years. Such hardships include alcoholism, excessive domestic violence, and poverty along with language and cultural barriers. Indians must be resilient and work through these obstacles that are not limited to those listed above. Alcoholism and domestic violence are still new acts in Native culture, but are common in many non-native cultures. There are many instances where Native women are abused on the reservation where theyve spent their whole lives and cannot leave due to low knowledge of the English language and/or culture and laws off the reservation. Yet another problem natives face is lack of understanding and sensitivity from the white run agencies and workers who are supposed to help victims of abuse. Alexie often refers to his own experience in seeing his mother being abused by his father due to alcohol problems. He also expresses how important it is to him to never have his children know the ugly side of being an Indian and never repeat the cycle that destroys so many Native families. 

With all things considered, we can conclude that being an Indian means a lot of things. But the most prominent thing that being an Indian means, is being resilient and standing up and fighting for the preservation of the culture, people and future. 

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