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Sherman Alexie on Living Outside Cultural Borders

Tuesday, 16 April 2013 13:10 By Bill Moyers, Moyers & Company | Video

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Born on a Native American reservation, Sherman Alexie has been navigating the cultural boundaries of American culture in lauded poetry, novels, short stories, screenplays, even stand-up comedy for over two decades. Alexie joins Bill to share his irreverent perspective on contemporary American life, and discuss the challenges of living in two different cultures at the same time, especially when one has so much dominance over the other.

“I know a lot more about being white than you know about being Indian,” Alexie tells Bill.

Alexie’s latest collection of stories, Blasphemy, was published in October, 2012. He joins us for an online live chat on Tuesday, April 16 @ 1 pm. Get details and submit your questions.

TRANSCRIPT

Bill Moyers: Let's talk now with Sherman Alexie. He comes from a long line of people who have lived the consequences of inequality, Native Americans, the first Americans. They were the target of genocide, ethnic cleansing, which for years was the hidden history of America, kept in the closet by the authors and enforcers of white mythology.

How do you grapple with such a long denied history? If you are Sherman Alexie, you face it down with candor and even irreverence, writing poems, novels, and short stories, and even movies. Here's a clip from "Smoke Signals" that Alexie wrote and co-produced in 1998:

VICTOR IN SMOKE SIGNALS: You got to look mean or people won't respect you. White people will run all over you if you don't look mean. You got to look like a warrior. You got to look like you just came back from killing a buffalo.

THOMAS IN SMOKE SIGNALS: But our tribe never hunted buffalo, we were fishermen.

VICTOR IN SMOKE SIGNALS: What? You want to look like you just came back from catching a fish? This ain't "Dances with Salmon," you know.

Bill Moyers: Alexie has published 22 books of poetry and fiction, including "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," "War Dances," and "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," a book for young adults and winner of the National Book Award. His latest work is a collection of short stories, old and new, with the title, "Blasphemy." I'll ask him why.

He now lives in Seattle, like many of his characters who left the reservation for the city, living in between, and traveling across boundaries both real and imagined.

Bill Moyers: Sherman Alexie, welcome.

Sherman Alexie:Oh, thank you. It's good to be here.

Bill Moyers: Life for you is a lot of in between, isn't it?

Sherman Alexie:Well, as a native, as a colonized people you do live in the in between. The thing is I'm native. But necessarily because I'm a member of the country, I'm also a White American.

Bill Moyers: But you must feel at home in that in between now, because so many people are, as you say, living there.

Sherman Alexie:I was taught that it was not easy, that there was something destructive about it. I was taught by my elders, my parents that it was a bad, dangerous place to be. But I've come to realize it's actually, it's pretty magical. You know? I can be in a room full of Indians and non-Indians. And I can switch in the middle of sentences. So, and also because I'm ambiguously ethnic looking, you know, I come to New York and I can be anything. People generally think I'm half of whatever they are.

So, I end up feeling like a spy in the house of ethnicity, you know? Because people will talk around me as they would talk around the people in their cultural group. So I get to hear all the secrets and jokes and you know, I'm a part of every community because of the way I look.

Bill Moyers: Is that a big change from your parents' generation and your generation?

Sherman Alexie:Oh, I mean, I grew up in a monoculture. We did a family tree in sixth grade on the rez and everybody was related.

Bill Moyers: On the reservation?

Sherman Alexie:Yes, including the teacher. My mom and dad met when he moved to the rez, when he was five and she was 14. And she helped him get a drink at a water fountain. My mom was born in the house where her mom was born. So we were as isolated in the sense of Native Americans as anybody else. So, you know, I realized later on that when I left the rez to go to the White high school on the border of the rez I was a first-generation immigrant, you know? I'm an indigenous immigrant.

Bill Moyers: What is it like to be an alien in the land of your birth?

Sherman Alexie:I mean, it's a destructive feeling. Because, you know, a lot of native culture has been destroyed. So you already feel lost inside your culture. And then you add up feeling lost and insignificant inside the larger culture. So you end up feeling lost squared. And to never be recognized, to never have any power, you know, other minority communities actually have a lot of economic, cultural power. But we don't, you know? Not at all.

I mean, you can still have the Washington Redskins, you know? You can still have the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians, which is by far the worst. And if you look at Chief Wahoo on their hats and put Sambo next to him, it's the same thing. And, you know, you could never have Sambo anymore.

Most, you know, at least half the country thinks the mascot issue is insignificant. But I think it's indicative of the ways in which Indians have no cultural power. We're still placed in the past. So we're either in the past or we're only viewed through casinos.

Bill Moyers: Do you feel shoved back into that tight space, that closet, even by the questions I ask about Indians, natives, reservation, all of that?

Sherman Alexie:Sometimes. But, I'm, you know, it's who I am. So I have no issue talking about it. You know, I know a lot more about being White than you know about being Indian. I am extremely conscious of my tribalism. And when you talk about tribalism, you talk about living in a black and white world. I mean, Native American tribalism sovereignty, even the political fight for sovereignty and cultural sovereignty is a very us versus them. And I think a lot of people in this country, especially European Americans and those descended from Europeans don't see themselves as tribal, you know? I don't think, for instance, Republicans see themselves as tribal. I was speaking to a Republican here in New York, a friend of mine. And, you know, I asked him, "Do you think it's an accident that, what, 80 percent of Republicans are White males?" And he did. I mean, he--

Bill Moyers: Coincidence, huh?

Sherman Alexie:Yes. He couldn't even imagine that he's part of a tribe. So as a member of a tribe, I think I have a more conscious relationship with black and white thinking. And I used to be quite a black and white thinker in public life and private life until 9/11, you know? And the end game of tribalism is flying planes into building. That's the end game. So since then, I have tried, and I fail often, but I have tried to live in the in between. To be conscious what did Fitzgerald say? The sign of a superior mind is the ability to hold two different ideas. Keats called it negative capability. So I have tried to be in that and fail often, but I try.

Bill Moyers: That's what I get from your poems. You even see Yo Yo Ma's cello differently from the rest of us. That's one of my favorites. Would you read it?

Sherman Alexie:Oh, yes--

Bill Moyers: Here it is.

Sherman Alexie:And this poem is called Tribal Music.

Watching PBS, it occurs
To me that I want to be
Yo Yo Ma's cello.

Hello! Does this mean
That I'm sexually attracted
To Yo Yo Ma? Nah,

He's cute and thin
Looks great in a tux,
And makes the big bucks,

But I long to be simultaneously
As strong and fragile
As the cello. I want to be

The union of fingertip
And string. I want less
To be a timorous human

And desire more
To become a solid
Wooden thing, warm

To the touch but much
Colder when left
Alone in my case. I need

To flee the mystery
Of mortality and insanity
And become that space

Between the notes.
I no longer want to be the root
Cause of anybody's pain,

Especially my own.
O, Yo Yo Ma, I hem
And haw, but let's be clear:

I want to abandon
My sixteen-drum fear
And inhabit the pause

That happens between falling
In love and collapsing
Because of love. I want

To be sane. I want to be
Clean and visionary
Like a windowpane.

Bill Moyers: Where does that come from?

Sherman Alexie:Well, you know, number one, the cello looks like a woman to me. And, you know, the curves. And so I am in a way, and it's funny to admit this, I am sexually attracted to the cello, the curves really get me. So as I watched him play, you know, Yo Yo Ma is sort of making love to a beautiful woman.

And I want to be that beautiful. So I was thinking of that watching it. And then it occurred to me, you know, I'm a man. I don't want to be a woman. But I want to be the object of beauty. I want to be so clearly beautiful. And in a way it's a need for perfection, you know, the desire to be perfect, even though I can't be and even though if I really started thinking about it I don't want to be. But there's a state of nirvana or bliss especially when Yo Yo Ma's playing. I want to be that blissful. And it's so fleeting. And I'm just incapable of it.

Bill Moyers: Yearning for that moment of sanity or that place of sanity?

Sherman Alexie:Yes.

Bill Moyers: You say in there, "To be sane."

Sherman Alexie:Yes. Well, I'm bipolar. So, you know, I myself veer between these extremes. And to be in the middle is a strong desire. And I mean, I'm working on this idea, I don't know where it's going to go, that being tribal, being colonized automatically makes you bipolar. I think the entire Native American world is bipolar.

Bill Moyers: But is this your imagination or are you clinically bipolar?

Sherman Alexie:I'm clinically--

Bill Moyers: You've been diagnosed--

Sherman Alexie:I've been diagnosed. I'm medicated. And the medication's working right now. I mean as any person watching this who knows anything the, you know, the medications have to be adjusted constantly, because your brain sneaks around it, you know? Your brain is like the, your bipolar brain is like the soldiers. And your sanity is like the civilians.

Bill Moyers: Help me understand what the experience of bipolarity is, what happens to you?

Sherman Alexie:Well, you know, when you're depressed, you know, it's like the world has ended. Even getting out of bed takes the most massive amount of effort. But when you're manic, oh, it's so addicting. You know, I have finished novels in two weeks in manic stages.

Just staying up, you know, two days in a row writing and great stuff often. I mean, you're crazy. So you get these incredible images. You know, forget Yo Yo Ma's cello. I mean, it ends up being, you know, I'm, well, I'm hearkening back to somebody like Sylvia Plath, you know, writing Colossus, you know, Daddy, you know, "You do not do." You know, which directly comes out of mental illness. And depression and mania. I would venture that most of the world's great art has come out of manic periods in an artist's life.

Bill Moyers: But has it ever occurred to you that there's been more preoccupation with Sylvia Plath's illness than with her poetry?

Sherman Alexie:Oh yeah. I mean, there's a new biography out about her. And it's the same story. It's about her craziness.

Bill Moyers: Why is that?

Sherman Alexie:I think we're more interested in the biography.

Bill Moyers: The story.

Sherman Alexie:Yeah, and especially in this era, where there are no secrets anymore, where the audience in fact desires so much to know more about the artist. You know? You're supposed to now Twitter everything you're feeling, you know? You go to, you know, some artist's, writer's Twitters. And like everybody else, they're talking about what they had for dinner, you know? All over writer's Twitter feeds and Facebook pages are pictures of what they had for dinner. And why anybody would care, you know, that I had a bowl of cereal in my hotel room this morning, I don't get it. And—

Bill Moyers: So does that explain The Facebook Sonnet?

Sherman Alexie:Oh, definitely. Definitely.

Bill Moyers: All right, let's hear that one.

Sherman Alexie:The Facebook Sonnet.

Welcome to the endless high school
Reunion. Welcome to past friends
And lovers, however kind or cruel.
Let's undervalue and unmend

The present. Why can't we pretend
Every stage of life is the same?
Let's exhume, resume, and extend
Childhood. Let's all play the games

That occupy the young. Let fame
And shame intertwine. Let one's search
For God become public domain.
Let church.com become our church.

Let [us] sign up, sign in, and confess
Here at the altar of loneliness.

Bill Moyers: Sherry Turkle has written a book called Alone Together on just this point. Talking about how the internet has produced this serial isolation.

Sherman Alexie:Well, when I think the human is so complex, you know? And as we're relating here, we're relating on so many different levels that we don't consciously understand. I mean, we're actually smelling each other right now, but our, we, as we talk, don't know that, but our bodies know that, you know? My gestures, your gestures, the look in your eye. And the internet takes all that away. There was, there is one level of communication on the internet, which actually in a way is really insulting to the complexity of being human.

Bill Moyers: How so?

Sherman Alexie:It limits us to one sense.

Bill Moyers: One dimension.

Sherman Alexie:One dimension. And that's not who we are. The poetry, if you will, of life is reduced to this sort of dry, scientific, you know, it's the worst sort of précis of who we are. And, you know, I don't have Facebook friends. I have friends. And a lot of my friends play basketball. And when we play basketball together, literally, we're touching each other.

And that can't be replicated in any form whatsoever with the internet. And when people say they're really connecting with somebody, I think, it occurs to me that I don't know that they've ever really connected with anybody if they think the internet is how you do it.

You know? It's postcard relationships. In order to know somebody through their words, I mean, it has to be an, it has to be a letter, you know? It has to be a long e-mail. It has to be a five-page hand-written letter, you know, it has to be overwhelming and messy and sloppy as humans are.

And Facebook and Twitter and these other social sites bring every, I mean, 140 characters. I mean, I'm on Twitter and I have fun. But I don't think anybody learns anything about me as a person.

You know, one of the things I've always tried to do as a public person is limit the gap between who I am on a daily basis and who I am on a stage. You know, I've tried to be as honest—

Bill Moyers: Consciously

Sherman Alexie:--Yes, I've tried to be as honest as possible.

Bill Moyers: How are you different?

Sherman Alexie:Well, I think I'm a more gentle person in private, maybe slightly more gentle. I mean, I'm a lot more confrontational in public. I mean, I'm very angry person.

Bill Moyers: At what?

Sherman Alexie:Oppression.

Bill Moyers: Oppression?

Sherman Alexie:Racism, sexism, colonialism, the sins of capitalism, the sins of socialism, human weakness, human cruelty. You know, when we behave more like a lion pride than people with prehensile thumbs.

Bill Moyers: Is writing cathartic for you? Is it healing?

Sherman Alexie:No. I think it can be healing for readers. You know, I have been helped and healed by other people's words.

Bill Moyers: Same here.

Sherman Alexie:But I, my own words for myself, oh man, I don't think so.

Bill Moyers: Do you think of yourself as a poet first and foremost? Because that's how I first got introduced to you.

Sherman Alexie:I'm naturally a poet. I started as a poet. I think it's how I look at the world, you know?

Bill Moyers: What, how does it help you see the world?

Sherman Alexie:You know, I look at Yo Yo Ma's cello and want to be the cello. I think a novelist would want to write about where the cello came from, who built it. I don't care.

Bill Moyers: In this poem, Tribal Music, whose tribal music are you writing about?

Sherman Alexie:Mine. A tribe of one. You know, one of the things about being tribal, being a member of a tribe is the force that makes you, that makes the tribe, for you to be like the tribe, to share similar values, to be less of an individual and more a very conscious member of a community to share political beliefs, to share cultural beliefs.

And I've always resisted that. One of the misconceptions about Indians, you know, because liberals love Indians, you know? White liberals worship Indians. But actually, Indians are a conservative lot. I mean, we by and large we vote Democrat, but we live very Republican lives, you know? Indian communities, there's no separation of church and state, war is a virtue, guns are everywhere, by and large pro-life. So, you know, once again, it's a very bipolar existence.

You know, this, you know, knowing that Democrats, by and large, are going to support us more. But still behaving like Republicans. You know, it occurs to me it's like a big city Republicans, who live these incredibly liberal, secular lives in the city, while espousing small town religious politics.

Bill Moyers: You're so different from how I expected you to be, quite frankly, because I have never met you. Although one of my producers met you some years ago, 11 years ago, I think, Rick Fields. And I have a clip of the piece that we ran on my show then about you from Seattle. Take a peek.

Sherman Alexie:But my dad, that alcoholic nomad, he used to leave my family for days or weeks at a time drinking and roaming. And I would lie awake all night waiting for him to come home, and five or six times I cried myself sick into the hospital. And I'd lie awake in the kids' ward, ignoring the night shift nurses who came in and said, "Please, try and get a little sleep." So maybe I learned how to be an insomniac because I'm still waiting for my father to come home.

Bill Moyers: What's changed for you since then?

Sherman Alexie:Medication. I was undiagnosed bipolar. And staying awake was directly the result of that. Either staying awake because I was depressed and didn't want to fall asleep for the nightmares or because I was manic and couldn't fall asleep because I had a million things to do.

Bill Moyers: Did your father ever come home?

Sherman Alexie:No. You know, I cut my hair when he died as part of a ceremony. And you can grow it back when the grieving is over. It's been 10 years since he died. So... and I haven't grown my hair back. And I doubt I will.

Bill Moyers: He was an alcoholic?

Sherman Alexie:Oh, lifelong, really.

Bill Moyers: There's one scene in your short story War Dances, where the narrator's in the hospital with his father, who has just had surgery. He's cold. And the son is trying to find a blanket for him. Why don't you read this excerpt, War Dances, from Blasphemy.

SHERMAN ALEXIE:

I walked down the hallway - the recovery hallway - to the nurses' station. There were three woman nurses, two white and one black. Being Native American-Spokane and Coeur d'Alene Indian, I hoped my darker pigment would give me an edge with the black nurse, so I addressed her directly.
"My father is cold," I said. "Can I get another blanket?"

The Black nurse glanced up from her paperwork and regarded me. Her expression was neither compassionate nor callous.
"How can I help you, sir? " she asked.
"I'd like another blanket for my father. He's cold."
"I'll be with you in a moment, sir."
She looked back down at her paperwork. She made a few notes. Not knowing what
else to do, I stood there and waited.
"Sir," the Black nurse said, "I'll be with you in a moment."

She was irritated. I understood. After all, how many thousands of times had she been asked for an extra blanket? She was a nurse, an educated woman, not a damn housekeeper. And it was never really about an extra blanket, was it? No, when people asked for an extra blanket, they were asking for a time machine. And, yes, she knew she was a health care provider. And she knew she was supposed to be compassionate, but my father, an alcoholic, diabetic Indian with terminally damaged kidneys, had just endured an incredibly expensive surgery for what? So he could ride his motorized wheelchair to the bar and win bets by showing off his disfigured foot? I know she didn't want to be cruel, but she believed there was a point when doctors should stop rescuing people from their own self-destructive impulses. And I couldn't disagree with her but I could ask for the most basic of comforts, couldn't I? "My father," I said, "an extra blanket, please. "

Bill Moyers: Autobiographical?

Sherman Alexie:Oh, completely. You know, I remember when my first short stories came out and people were calling it autobiographical and I fought it. And then 10 years later I reread the book and thought, "Oh shoot, this is memoir."

Bill Moyers: Eventually, the son in the story finds a Pendleton blanket. What's a Pendleton blanket?

Sherman Alexie:It's actually made by a White-owned company in Oregon. These blankets have become highly sacred among Indians. And actually, the Pendleton Company's amazing in their relationship with Indians. So, you know, we love the Pendleton Company in Oregon. And they're gifts. You know, the joke is they're like Native American fruitcakes. The same blanket travels over and over and over. And nobody ever uses it.

Bill Moyers: Was that you searching for a blanket or wishing you were--

Sherman Alexie:Wishing and the desire to go out. Because I knew there'd be Indians in the hospital, you know? If you're near an Indian community, there are Indians in the hospital. And so I knew somewhere in that hospital was an Indian family with more than one Pendleton.

Bill Moyers: And in the story, the son brings the blanket back. And he and his father sing together. Did that happen?

Sherman Alexie:No, we never sang together.

Bill Moyers: You wish it had happened?

Sherman Alexie:Yes. I mean, even if we'd sang Elvis together, that would have been great.

Bill Moyers: You know that you've been described as both an explorer and an exploder of Indian stereotype. And alcohol is surely one of the most persistent stereotypes, correct?

Sherman Alexie:It's not a stereotype. It's a damp, damp reality. I mean, Native Americans have an epidemic rate of alcoholism. I'm an alcoholic, recovering. My father was an alcoholic. My big brother's an alcoholic. One of my little sister's an alcoholic. My mom's a recovering alcoholic. Every single one of my cousins is a drinker. All of my aunts and uncles were drinkers, some of them have quit, some of them never did. You know, my classmates, you know, three have died in alcoholic-related accidents. My brother has had five best friends die in alcohol-related accidents. And we're not atypical.

Bill Moyers: What have you come to understand about that?

Sherman Alexie:It's medication. Trying to take away the pain. And in a way it has substituted for cultural ways of dealing with the pain. So instead of singing, we're drinking. And my father often said, "I drink because I'm Indian," which, you know, is the saddest thing imaginable.

Bill Moyers: Why did you drink?

Sherman Alexie:Because I'm Indian.

Bill Moyers: How do you, how do you stay sober?

Sherman Alexie:Because I don't want to disappoint all those hungry sons out there, whose own fathers have failed them. Because whether or not I believe in visions or omens, the last time I drank, I completely destroyed my then girlfriend's birthday party with my alcoholic behavior. And woke up the next day, late in the afternoon feeling deeply ashamed and thinking once again, "I'm going to quit." You know, I tried eight or nine times. But I woke up, went and checked my mail, and the acceptance from "Hanging Loose" for my first poetry book was in the mail. And I thought, "Okay, this is a sign. Write poems, sober up."

Bill Moyers: And you did?

Sherman Alexie:And I did.

Bill Moyers: You live in Seattle now. You've lived there for how long?

Sherman Alexie:Twenty years.

Bill Moyers: But as a boy you lived on the Spokane--

Sherman Alexie:Indian Reservation.

Bill Moyers: --Reservation. How do you feel where you're in a place where your people were ethnically cleansed?

Sherman Alexie:We didn't make reservations. The military, the US military and government made reservations. And it was a place where we're supposed to be concentrated and die and disappear. And I don't know, and I think it's only out of self-destructive impulses that Native Americans have turned reservations into sacred spaces.

Bill Moyers: You don't consider them sacred?

Sherman Alexie:No. Often the place where reservations are aren't where the sacred locations were for tribes. I think Spokane, because it's where Spokane Falls is, I think the city is actually far more sacred than the reservation.

Bill Moyers: Well, more Indians today live in the cities than live on reservations.

Sherman Alexie:It's almost 70 percent of natives live off the reservation. It's not easy to live in either place.

Bill Moyers: Can American Indians ever feel easy in a country that is haunted by the memories of genocide, ethnic cleansing?

Sherman Alexie:I think for that process to begin, the United States would have to officially apologize. I mean, there's a Holocaust museum in the United States, which I think there should be.

Bill Moyers: Right in downtown Washington.

Sherman Alexie:But there should also be a Native American Holocaust Museum.

Bill Moyers: Why isn't there?

Sherman Alexie:This country's not good at admitting to its sins.

Bill Moyers: Have you ever heard an apology for what happened?

Sherman Alexie:From White liberals. But never from White conservatives.

Bill Moyers: These were, you were nearly exterminated. You--

Sherman Alexie:Oh, late 19th century, early 20th, we almost blinked out. Ironically, the reservations also saved us, because they concentrated us.

Bill Moyers: How did that save you?

Sherman Alexie:Breeding. You know? It wasn't until much later when the US government realized that relocation, taking us out of, you know, highly-concentrated ethnic communities was the way to dissipate us. And that didn't work either, you know? There are blond Indians now, red-headed Indians. So it was cultural protection. It was sovereignty. The impulse to be together in a little group.

BILL MOYERS In this sense, possessed of a horrendous memory, do you sometimes think of yourself as Jewish?

Sherman Alexie:Constantly. I have a really strong identification with that. And, you know, it's funny, because my poetry editors are Jewish. And, you know, I have quite an international following. And one of my editors tells the story of she and her husband were in Europe and these Italian scholars were really obsessed and questioning about, you know, "What is the relationship between Jewish people and Indians?" And using my work as sort of this universal idea. And they asked her, "What does the Native world think about," you know, "Jewish people and Native Americans?" And she said, "I think only Sherman talks about that." So I, it's a very personal vision.

The big thing is humor. Humor in the face of incredible epic pain. I mean, Jewish folks invented American comedy. When you're being funny in the United States, you're being Jewish. And despite all this incredible dislocation. And the thing, you know, even though it's pretty similar in population, the number of Jewish folks and the number of Native Americans, they've had this incredible success. They have this incredible cultural power.

And in a way, I wish that was us. In a way, that could have easily been us. You know? Indians with our storytelling and artistic ability could have created Hollywood. We could have created American comedy. So in some ways, we're the yin and yang of the American genocidal coin.

Bill Moyers: There's a poem that I have read several times in anticipation of this meeting. And this one is troubling. Another Proclamation.

Sherman Alexie:Another Proclamation.

When
Lincoln
Delivered
The
Emancipation
Proclamation,
Who
Knew

that, one year earlier, in 1862, he'd signed and approved the order for the largest public execution in United States history? Who did they execute? "Mulatto, mixed-bloods, and Indians." Why did they execute them? "For uprising against the State and her citizens." Where did they execute them? Mankato, Minnesota. How did they execute them? Well, Abraham Lincoln thought it was good

And
Just
To
Hang
Thirty-eight
Sioux

simultaneously. Yes, in front of a large and cheering crowd, thirty-eight Indians dropped to their deaths. Yes, thirty-eight necks snapped. But before they died, thirty-eight Indians sang their death songs. Can you imagine the cacophony of thirty-eight different death songs? But wait, one Indian was pardoned at the last minute, so only thirty-seven Indians had to sing their death songs. But O, O, O, O, can you imagine the cacophony of that one survivor's mourning song? If he taught you the words, do you think you would sing along?

Bill Moyers: Talk about that.

Sherman Alexie:Well, essentially, they were executed for terrorism. The perception of being terrorists for defending themselves and their people from colonial incursions.

Bill Moyers: As the Whites had been pushing into Minnesota, pushing them further west. And promised them, as I understand it, food in exchange for land. And then the food didn't come. And the Indians reacted violently.

Sherman Alexie:And then all over the country massacres happening of people they, you know, they would push these tribes and these people onto reservations and then send the soldiers in to wage war on them. I just learned, I don't know why I didn't know this, some sort of denial I guess. But they gave medals of honor to U.S. soldiers who participated at Wounded Knee, absolute massacres of unarmed women, children, and elderly people.

They gave medals of honor. And, you know, this idea of Lincoln as this great savior. Which is true. But in deifying him, it completely, completely whitewashes the fact that he was also a complete part of the colonization of Indians, a complete part of the wholesale slaughter of Indians.

Bill Moyers: He lived in the in between like everyone. What I know of this incident is that 303 Indians were sentenced to death. President Lincoln commuted the sentences of 265 of them on the basis he himself said of not enough evidence, but allowed 38 of them to be hanged.

Sherman Alexie:So, the hypocrisy abounds. So once again, the way in which I watch Lincoln the movie is far different than most people watch Lincoln.

That movie in no way portrayed the complexity of human beings, and certainly does not portray the complexity of Lincoln, who for his genius was also, you know, an incredibly, as any politician, an incredibly conflicted and conflicting man, who was capable of ordering great evil. And who did, in fact, by ordering it, created a great evil, committed great evil, a sinful, sinful man that Lincoln.

Bill Moyers: Had you known about the story for a long time?

Sherman Alexie:You know, most Indians know a lot about the massacres. They're touchstones. They're a myth for us.

Bill Moyers: What saved you spiritually? What saved you inwardly?

Sherman Alexie:Storytelling.

Bill Moyers: How so?

Sherman Alexie:The age-old stories, you know, sort of an actual sacred nostalgia. And keeping all the ghosts alive, keeping all the memories alive. If you tell a story well enough, everybody in it is right there. So nobody ever dies.

Bill Moyers: Why did you call this book Blasphemy?

Sherman Alexie:Because I've been so often accused of it by Indians and non-Indians.

Bill Moyers: How so?

Sherman Alexie:Because I question everything. Because even though I do believe in the sacred, I believe just as strongly in questioning what people think is sacred. Because we're humans and we make mistakes. So, you know, I do my best to point out our weaknesses. And people don't like that. And the weaknesses of our institutions and the weaknesses of our politicians and the weaknesses of our religions.

Once again, 9/11, was the event for me. 9/11 turned all sorts of people into fundamentalists who weren't otherwise, on the left and the right, in the Christian worlds and in the Muslim worlds. And I refuse to participate.

Bill Moyers: So what do you mean by blasphemy?

Sherman Alexie:I don't believe in your God. And "your" means the royal "your."

Bill Moyers: Do you believe in your God?

Sherman Alexie:No.

Bill Moyers: What do you believe in?

Sherman Alexie:Stories. Stories are my God.

BILL MOYERS Would you read this for me?

SHERMAN ALEXIE:
Vilify.

I've never been to Mount Rushmore. It's just too silly. Even now, as I write this,
I'm thinking
About the T-shirt that has four presidential faces on the front and four bare asses
on the back.
Who's on that damn T-shirt anyway? Is it both Roosevelt, Jefferson, and Lincoln?

Don't get me wrong, I love my country. But epic sculpture just leaves me blinking
With dry-eyed boredom (and don't get me started on blown glass art. I really
hate that crap).
I've never been to Mount Rushmore. It's just too silly. Even now, as I write this,
I'm thinking

That I'd much rather commemorate other president. Let's honor JFK's whoring
and drinking
Or the thirteen duels Andrew Jackson fought to defend his wife's honor. Why
don't we sculpt that?
Who's on that damn Rushmore anyway? Is it McKinley, Arthur, Garfield,
and Lincoln?

And, yes, I know, there's a rival sculpture of Crazy Horse, but the sight of that
one is ball-shrinking
Because Crazy Horse never allowed his image to be captured, so which sculptor
do you think he'd now attack?
I've never been to Mount Rushmore. It's just too silly. Even now, as I write this
I'm thinking

About George W's wartime lies, Clinton's cigars, and Nixon's microphones, and
I'm cringing
Because I know every president, no matter how great on the surface, owned a
heart chewed by rats.
Who's on that damn Rushmore anyway? Is it Buchanan, both Adamses,
and Mr. Lincoln?

Answer me this: After the slaughterhouse goes out of business, how long
will it go on stinking
Of red death and white desire? Should we just cover the
presidents' faces with gas masks?
Who cares? I've never been to Rushmore. It's too silly. Even now, as I write
this, I'm thinking:
"Who's on that damn mountain anyway? Is it Jefferson, Washington,
vReagan, and Lincoln?"

Bill Moyers: Now go eight pages over to page 38 and read me your footnote.

Sherman Alexie:So it's footnote 13.

Honestly, I've never been there. This is not a conceit for the poem. I've truly never had any interest in visiting Mount Rushmore or the Crazy Horse memorial. Once while driving in the region, I thought about stopping by, but I didn't. I have no regrets. I've seen Alfred Hitchcock's film "North by Northwest," where Cary Grant's climactic battle with the bad guys happens on the face of Mount Rushmore. It's exciting. But I much prefer the ending where we watch Grant and Eva Marie Saint start to make out in their train car, and then cut to the final shot of that awesomely phallic train penetrating a wonderfully vaginal mountain tunnel. I'm a lover, not a fighter."

Bill Moyers: And we're all glad for that. Sherman Alexie, I really enjoyed this time with you. And thank you very much for sharing it.

Sherman Alexie:Thank you, thank you.

 

 

Interview Producer: Gail Ablow. Editors: Rob Kuhns & Andrew M.I. Lee. Associate Producer: Robert Booth.

Photographer: Alton Christensen.

Bill Moyers

A broadcast journalist for more than four decades, Bill Moyers has been recognized as one of the unique voices of our times, one that resonates with multiple generations. In 2012, at the age of 77, Moyers begins his latest media venture with the launch of "Moyers & Company." With his wife and creative partner, Judith Davidson Moyers, Bill Moyers has produced such groundbreaking public affairs series as "NOW with Bill Moyers" (2002-2005) and "Bill Moyers Journal" (2007-2010). 

For his work, Moyers has received more than 30 Emmys, two prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, nine Peabodys, and three George Polk Awards. Moyers' most recent book, "Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues," was published in May 2011. He currently serves as president of the Schumann Media Center, a nonprofit organization that supports independent journalism.


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Sherman Alexie on Living Outside Cultural Borders

Tuesday, 16 April 2013 13:10 By Bill Moyers, Moyers & Company | Video

Media

Born on a Native American reservation, Sherman Alexie has been navigating the cultural boundaries of American culture in lauded poetry, novels, short stories, screenplays, even stand-up comedy for over two decades. Alexie joins Bill to share his irreverent perspective on contemporary American life, and discuss the challenges of living in two different cultures at the same time, especially when one has so much dominance over the other.

“I know a lot more about being white than you know about being Indian,” Alexie tells Bill.

Alexie’s latest collection of stories, Blasphemy, was published in October, 2012. He joins us for an online live chat on Tuesday, April 16 @ 1 pm. Get details and submit your questions.

TRANSCRIPT

Bill Moyers: Let's talk now with Sherman Alexie. He comes from a long line of people who have lived the consequences of inequality, Native Americans, the first Americans. They were the target of genocide, ethnic cleansing, which for years was the hidden history of America, kept in the closet by the authors and enforcers of white mythology.

How do you grapple with such a long denied history? If you are Sherman Alexie, you face it down with candor and even irreverence, writing poems, novels, and short stories, and even movies. Here's a clip from "Smoke Signals" that Alexie wrote and co-produced in 1998:

VICTOR IN SMOKE SIGNALS: You got to look mean or people won't respect you. White people will run all over you if you don't look mean. You got to look like a warrior. You got to look like you just came back from killing a buffalo.

THOMAS IN SMOKE SIGNALS: But our tribe never hunted buffalo, we were fishermen.

VICTOR IN SMOKE SIGNALS: What? You want to look like you just came back from catching a fish? This ain't "Dances with Salmon," you know.

Bill Moyers: Alexie has published 22 books of poetry and fiction, including "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," "War Dances," and "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian," a book for young adults and winner of the National Book Award. His latest work is a collection of short stories, old and new, with the title, "Blasphemy." I'll ask him why.

He now lives in Seattle, like many of his characters who left the reservation for the city, living in between, and traveling across boundaries both real and imagined.

Bill Moyers: Sherman Alexie, welcome.

Sherman Alexie:Oh, thank you. It's good to be here.

Bill Moyers: Life for you is a lot of in between, isn't it?

Sherman Alexie:Well, as a native, as a colonized people you do live in the in between. The thing is I'm native. But necessarily because I'm a member of the country, I'm also a White American.

Bill Moyers: But you must feel at home in that in between now, because so many people are, as you say, living there.

Sherman Alexie:I was taught that it was not easy, that there was something destructive about it. I was taught by my elders, my parents that it was a bad, dangerous place to be. But I've come to realize it's actually, it's pretty magical. You know? I can be in a room full of Indians and non-Indians. And I can switch in the middle of sentences. So, and also because I'm ambiguously ethnic looking, you know, I come to New York and I can be anything. People generally think I'm half of whatever they are.

So, I end up feeling like a spy in the house of ethnicity, you know? Because people will talk around me as they would talk around the people in their cultural group. So I get to hear all the secrets and jokes and you know, I'm a part of every community because of the way I look.

Bill Moyers: Is that a big change from your parents' generation and your generation?

Sherman Alexie:Oh, I mean, I grew up in a monoculture. We did a family tree in sixth grade on the rez and everybody was related.

Bill Moyers: On the reservation?

Sherman Alexie:Yes, including the teacher. My mom and dad met when he moved to the rez, when he was five and she was 14. And she helped him get a drink at a water fountain. My mom was born in the house where her mom was born. So we were as isolated in the sense of Native Americans as anybody else. So, you know, I realized later on that when I left the rez to go to the White high school on the border of the rez I was a first-generation immigrant, you know? I'm an indigenous immigrant.

Bill Moyers: What is it like to be an alien in the land of your birth?

Sherman Alexie:I mean, it's a destructive feeling. Because, you know, a lot of native culture has been destroyed. So you already feel lost inside your culture. And then you add up feeling lost and insignificant inside the larger culture. So you end up feeling lost squared. And to never be recognized, to never have any power, you know, other minority communities actually have a lot of economic, cultural power. But we don't, you know? Not at all.

I mean, you can still have the Washington Redskins, you know? You can still have the Atlanta Braves and the Cleveland Indians, which is by far the worst. And if you look at Chief Wahoo on their hats and put Sambo next to him, it's the same thing. And, you know, you could never have Sambo anymore.

Most, you know, at least half the country thinks the mascot issue is insignificant. But I think it's indicative of the ways in which Indians have no cultural power. We're still placed in the past. So we're either in the past or we're only viewed through casinos.

Bill Moyers: Do you feel shoved back into that tight space, that closet, even by the questions I ask about Indians, natives, reservation, all of that?

Sherman Alexie:Sometimes. But, I'm, you know, it's who I am. So I have no issue talking about it. You know, I know a lot more about being White than you know about being Indian. I am extremely conscious of my tribalism. And when you talk about tribalism, you talk about living in a black and white world. I mean, Native American tribalism sovereignty, even the political fight for sovereignty and cultural sovereignty is a very us versus them. And I think a lot of people in this country, especially European Americans and those descended from Europeans don't see themselves as tribal, you know? I don't think, for instance, Republicans see themselves as tribal. I was speaking to a Republican here in New York, a friend of mine. And, you know, I asked him, "Do you think it's an accident that, what, 80 percent of Republicans are White males?" And he did. I mean, he--

Bill Moyers: Coincidence, huh?

Sherman Alexie:Yes. He couldn't even imagine that he's part of a tribe. So as a member of a tribe, I think I have a more conscious relationship with black and white thinking. And I used to be quite a black and white thinker in public life and private life until 9/11, you know? And the end game of tribalism is flying planes into building. That's the end game. So since then, I have tried, and I fail often, but I have tried to live in the in between. To be conscious what did Fitzgerald say? The sign of a superior mind is the ability to hold two different ideas. Keats called it negative capability. So I have tried to be in that and fail often, but I try.

Bill Moyers: That's what I get from your poems. You even see Yo Yo Ma's cello differently from the rest of us. That's one of my favorites. Would you read it?

Sherman Alexie:Oh, yes--

Bill Moyers: Here it is.

Sherman Alexie:And this poem is called Tribal Music.

Watching PBS, it occurs
To me that I want to be
Yo Yo Ma's cello.

Hello! Does this mean
That I'm sexually attracted
To Yo Yo Ma? Nah,

He's cute and thin
Looks great in a tux,
And makes the big bucks,

But I long to be simultaneously
As strong and fragile
As the cello. I want to be

The union of fingertip
And string. I want less
To be a timorous human

And desire more
To become a solid
Wooden thing, warm

To the touch but much
Colder when left
Alone in my case. I need

To flee the mystery
Of mortality and insanity
And become that space

Between the notes.
I no longer want to be the root
Cause of anybody's pain,

Especially my own.
O, Yo Yo Ma, I hem
And haw, but let's be clear:

I want to abandon
My sixteen-drum fear
And inhabit the pause

That happens between falling
In love and collapsing
Because of love. I want

To be sane. I want to be
Clean and visionary
Like a windowpane.

Bill Moyers: Where does that come from?

Sherman Alexie:Well, you know, number one, the cello looks like a woman to me. And, you know, the curves. And so I am in a way, and it's funny to admit this, I am sexually attracted to the cello, the curves really get me. So as I watched him play, you know, Yo Yo Ma is sort of making love to a beautiful woman.

And I want to be that beautiful. So I was thinking of that watching it. And then it occurred to me, you know, I'm a man. I don't want to be a woman. But I want to be the object of beauty. I want to be so clearly beautiful. And in a way it's a need for perfection, you know, the desire to be perfect, even though I can't be and even though if I really started thinking about it I don't want to be. But there's a state of nirvana or bliss especially when Yo Yo Ma's playing. I want to be that blissful. And it's so fleeting. And I'm just incapable of it.

Bill Moyers: Yearning for that moment of sanity or that place of sanity?

Sherman Alexie:Yes.

Bill Moyers: You say in there, "To be sane."

Sherman Alexie:Yes. Well, I'm bipolar. So, you know, I myself veer between these extremes. And to be in the middle is a strong desire. And I mean, I'm working on this idea, I don't know where it's going to go, that being tribal, being colonized automatically makes you bipolar. I think the entire Native American world is bipolar.

Bill Moyers: But is this your imagination or are you clinically bipolar?

Sherman Alexie:I'm clinically--

Bill Moyers: You've been diagnosed--

Sherman Alexie:I've been diagnosed. I'm medicated. And the medication's working right now. I mean as any person watching this who knows anything the, you know, the medications have to be adjusted constantly, because your brain sneaks around it, you know? Your brain is like the, your bipolar brain is like the soldiers. And your sanity is like the civilians.

Bill Moyers: Help me understand what the experience of bipolarity is, what happens to you?

Sherman Alexie:Well, you know, when you're depressed, you know, it's like the world has ended. Even getting out of bed takes the most massive amount of effort. But when you're manic, oh, it's so addicting. You know, I have finished novels in two weeks in manic stages.

Just staying up, you know, two days in a row writing and great stuff often. I mean, you're crazy. So you get these incredible images. You know, forget Yo Yo Ma's cello. I mean, it ends up being, you know, I'm, well, I'm hearkening back to somebody like Sylvia Plath, you know, writing Colossus, you know, Daddy, you know, "You do not do." You know, which directly comes out of mental illness. And depression and mania. I would venture that most of the world's great art has come out of manic periods in an artist's life.

Bill Moyers: But has it ever occurred to you that there's been more preoccupation with Sylvia Plath's illness than with her poetry?

Sherman Alexie:Oh yeah. I mean, there's a new biography out about her. And it's the same story. It's about her craziness.

Bill Moyers: Why is that?

Sherman Alexie:I think we're more interested in the biography.

Bill Moyers: The story.

Sherman Alexie:Yeah, and especially in this era, where there are no secrets anymore, where the audience in fact desires so much to know more about the artist. You know? You're supposed to now Twitter everything you're feeling, you know? You go to, you know, some artist's, writer's Twitters. And like everybody else, they're talking about what they had for dinner, you know? All over writer's Twitter feeds and Facebook pages are pictures of what they had for dinner. And why anybody would care, you know, that I had a bowl of cereal in my hotel room this morning, I don't get it. And—

Bill Moyers: So does that explain The Facebook Sonnet?

Sherman Alexie:Oh, definitely. Definitely.

Bill Moyers: All right, let's hear that one.

Sherman Alexie:The Facebook Sonnet.

Welcome to the endless high school
Reunion. Welcome to past friends
And lovers, however kind or cruel.
Let's undervalue and unmend

The present. Why can't we pretend
Every stage of life is the same?
Let's exhume, resume, and extend
Childhood. Let's all play the games

That occupy the young. Let fame
And shame intertwine. Let one's search
For God become public domain.
Let church.com become our church.

Let [us] sign up, sign in, and confess
Here at the altar of loneliness.

Bill Moyers: Sherry Turkle has written a book called Alone Together on just this point. Talking about how the internet has produced this serial isolation.

Sherman Alexie:Well, when I think the human is so complex, you know? And as we're relating here, we're relating on so many different levels that we don't consciously understand. I mean, we're actually smelling each other right now, but our, we, as we talk, don't know that, but our bodies know that, you know? My gestures, your gestures, the look in your eye. And the internet takes all that away. There was, there is one level of communication on the internet, which actually in a way is really insulting to the complexity of being human.

Bill Moyers: How so?

Sherman Alexie:It limits us to one sense.

Bill Moyers: One dimension.

Sherman Alexie:One dimension. And that's not who we are. The poetry, if you will, of life is reduced to this sort of dry, scientific, you know, it's the worst sort of précis of who we are. And, you know, I don't have Facebook friends. I have friends. And a lot of my friends play basketball. And when we play basketball together, literally, we're touching each other.

And that can't be replicated in any form whatsoever with the internet. And when people say they're really connecting with somebody, I think, it occurs to me that I don't know that they've ever really connected with anybody if they think the internet is how you do it.

You know? It's postcard relationships. In order to know somebody through their words, I mean, it has to be an, it has to be a letter, you know? It has to be a long e-mail. It has to be a five-page hand-written letter, you know, it has to be overwhelming and messy and sloppy as humans are.

And Facebook and Twitter and these other social sites bring every, I mean, 140 characters. I mean, I'm on Twitter and I have fun. But I don't think anybody learns anything about me as a person.

You know, one of the things I've always tried to do as a public person is limit the gap between who I am on a daily basis and who I am on a stage. You know, I've tried to be as honest—

Bill Moyers: Consciously

Sherman Alexie:--Yes, I've tried to be as honest as possible.

Bill Moyers: How are you different?

Sherman Alexie:Well, I think I'm a more gentle person in private, maybe slightly more gentle. I mean, I'm a lot more confrontational in public. I mean, I'm very angry person.

Bill Moyers: At what?

Sherman Alexie:Oppression.

Bill Moyers: Oppression?

Sherman Alexie:Racism, sexism, colonialism, the sins of capitalism, the sins of socialism, human weakness, human cruelty. You know, when we behave more like a lion pride than people with prehensile thumbs.

Bill Moyers: Is writing cathartic for you? Is it healing?

Sherman Alexie:No. I think it can be healing for readers. You know, I have been helped and healed by other people's words.

Bill Moyers: Same here.

Sherman Alexie:But I, my own words for myself, oh man, I don't think so.

Bill Moyers: Do you think of yourself as a poet first and foremost? Because that's how I first got introduced to you.

Sherman Alexie:I'm naturally a poet. I started as a poet. I think it's how I look at the world, you know?

Bill Moyers: What, how does it help you see the world?

Sherman Alexie:You know, I look at Yo Yo Ma's cello and want to be the cello. I think a novelist would want to write about where the cello came from, who built it. I don't care.

Bill Moyers: In this poem, Tribal Music, whose tribal music are you writing about?

Sherman Alexie:Mine. A tribe of one. You know, one of the things about being tribal, being a member of a tribe is the force that makes you, that makes the tribe, for you to be like the tribe, to share similar values, to be less of an individual and more a very conscious member of a community to share political beliefs, to share cultural beliefs.

And I've always resisted that. One of the misconceptions about Indians, you know, because liberals love Indians, you know? White liberals worship Indians. But actually, Indians are a conservative lot. I mean, we by and large we vote Democrat, but we live very Republican lives, you know? Indian communities, there's no separation of church and state, war is a virtue, guns are everywhere, by and large pro-life. So, you know, once again, it's a very bipolar existence.

You know, this, you know, knowing that Democrats, by and large, are going to support us more. But still behaving like Republicans. You know, it occurs to me it's like a big city Republicans, who live these incredibly liberal, secular lives in the city, while espousing small town religious politics.

Bill Moyers: You're so different from how I expected you to be, quite frankly, because I have never met you. Although one of my producers met you some years ago, 11 years ago, I think, Rick Fields. And I have a clip of the piece that we ran on my show then about you from Seattle. Take a peek.

Sherman Alexie:But my dad, that alcoholic nomad, he used to leave my family for days or weeks at a time drinking and roaming. And I would lie awake all night waiting for him to come home, and five or six times I cried myself sick into the hospital. And I'd lie awake in the kids' ward, ignoring the night shift nurses who came in and said, "Please, try and get a little sleep." So maybe I learned how to be an insomniac because I'm still waiting for my father to come home.

Bill Moyers: What's changed for you since then?

Sherman Alexie:Medication. I was undiagnosed bipolar. And staying awake was directly the result of that. Either staying awake because I was depressed and didn't want to fall asleep for the nightmares or because I was manic and couldn't fall asleep because I had a million things to do.

Bill Moyers: Did your father ever come home?

Sherman Alexie:No. You know, I cut my hair when he died as part of a ceremony. And you can grow it back when the grieving is over. It's been 10 years since he died. So... and I haven't grown my hair back. And I doubt I will.

Bill Moyers: He was an alcoholic?

Sherman Alexie:Oh, lifelong, really.

Bill Moyers: There's one scene in your short story War Dances, where the narrator's in the hospital with his father, who has just had surgery. He's cold. And the son is trying to find a blanket for him. Why don't you read this excerpt, War Dances, from Blasphemy.

SHERMAN ALEXIE:

I walked down the hallway - the recovery hallway - to the nurses' station. There were three woman nurses, two white and one black. Being Native American-Spokane and Coeur d'Alene Indian, I hoped my darker pigment would give me an edge with the black nurse, so I addressed her directly.
"My father is cold," I said. "Can I get another blanket?"

The Black nurse glanced up from her paperwork and regarded me. Her expression was neither compassionate nor callous.
"How can I help you, sir? " she asked.
"I'd like another blanket for my father. He's cold."
"I'll be with you in a moment, sir."
She looked back down at her paperwork. She made a few notes. Not knowing what
else to do, I stood there and waited.
"Sir," the Black nurse said, "I'll be with you in a moment."

She was irritated. I understood. After all, how many thousands of times had she been asked for an extra blanket? She was a nurse, an educated woman, not a damn housekeeper. And it was never really about an extra blanket, was it? No, when people asked for an extra blanket, they were asking for a time machine. And, yes, she knew she was a health care provider. And she knew she was supposed to be compassionate, but my father, an alcoholic, diabetic Indian with terminally damaged kidneys, had just endured an incredibly expensive surgery for what? So he could ride his motorized wheelchair to the bar and win bets by showing off his disfigured foot? I know she didn't want to be cruel, but she believed there was a point when doctors should stop rescuing people from their own self-destructive impulses. And I couldn't disagree with her but I could ask for the most basic of comforts, couldn't I? "My father," I said, "an extra blanket, please. "

Bill Moyers: Autobiographical?

Sherman Alexie:Oh, completely. You know, I remember when my first short stories came out and people were calling it autobiographical and I fought it. And then 10 years later I reread the book and thought, "Oh shoot, this is memoir."

Bill Moyers: Eventually, the son in the story finds a Pendleton blanket. What's a Pendleton blanket?

Sherman Alexie:It's actually made by a White-owned company in Oregon. These blankets have become highly sacred among Indians. And actually, the Pendleton Company's amazing in their relationship with Indians. So, you know, we love the Pendleton Company in Oregon. And they're gifts. You know, the joke is they're like Native American fruitcakes. The same blanket travels over and over and over. And nobody ever uses it.

Bill Moyers: Was that you searching for a blanket or wishing you were--

Sherman Alexie:Wishing and the desire to go out. Because I knew there'd be Indians in the hospital, you know? If you're near an Indian community, there are Indians in the hospital. And so I knew somewhere in that hospital was an Indian family with more than one Pendleton.

Bill Moyers: And in the story, the son brings the blanket back. And he and his father sing together. Did that happen?

Sherman Alexie:No, we never sang together.

Bill Moyers: You wish it had happened?

Sherman Alexie:Yes. I mean, even if we'd sang Elvis together, that would have been great.

Bill Moyers: You know that you've been described as both an explorer and an exploder of Indian stereotype. And alcohol is surely one of the most persistent stereotypes, correct?

Sherman Alexie:It's not a stereotype. It's a damp, damp reality. I mean, Native Americans have an epidemic rate of alcoholism. I'm an alcoholic, recovering. My father was an alcoholic. My big brother's an alcoholic. One of my little sister's an alcoholic. My mom's a recovering alcoholic. Every single one of my cousins is a drinker. All of my aunts and uncles were drinkers, some of them have quit, some of them never did. You know, my classmates, you know, three have died in alcoholic-related accidents. My brother has had five best friends die in alcohol-related accidents. And we're not atypical.

Bill Moyers: What have you come to understand about that?

Sherman Alexie:It's medication. Trying to take away the pain. And in a way it has substituted for cultural ways of dealing with the pain. So instead of singing, we're drinking. And my father often said, "I drink because I'm Indian," which, you know, is the saddest thing imaginable.

Bill Moyers: Why did you drink?

Sherman Alexie:Because I'm Indian.

Bill Moyers: How do you, how do you stay sober?

Sherman Alexie:Because I don't want to disappoint all those hungry sons out there, whose own fathers have failed them. Because whether or not I believe in visions or omens, the last time I drank, I completely destroyed my then girlfriend's birthday party with my alcoholic behavior. And woke up the next day, late in the afternoon feeling deeply ashamed and thinking once again, "I'm going to quit." You know, I tried eight or nine times. But I woke up, went and checked my mail, and the acceptance from "Hanging Loose" for my first poetry book was in the mail. And I thought, "Okay, this is a sign. Write poems, sober up."

Bill Moyers: And you did?

Sherman Alexie:And I did.

Bill Moyers: You live in Seattle now. You've lived there for how long?

Sherman Alexie:Twenty years.

Bill Moyers: But as a boy you lived on the Spokane--

Sherman Alexie:Indian Reservation.

Bill Moyers: --Reservation. How do you feel where you're in a place where your people were ethnically cleansed?

Sherman Alexie:We didn't make reservations. The military, the US military and government made reservations. And it was a place where we're supposed to be concentrated and die and disappear. And I don't know, and I think it's only out of self-destructive impulses that Native Americans have turned reservations into sacred spaces.

Bill Moyers: You don't consider them sacred?

Sherman Alexie:No. Often the place where reservations are aren't where the sacred locations were for tribes. I think Spokane, because it's where Spokane Falls is, I think the city is actually far more sacred than the reservation.

Bill Moyers: Well, more Indians today live in the cities than live on reservations.

Sherman Alexie:It's almost 70 percent of natives live off the reservation. It's not easy to live in either place.

Bill Moyers: Can American Indians ever feel easy in a country that is haunted by the memories of genocide, ethnic cleansing?

Sherman Alexie:I think for that process to begin, the United States would have to officially apologize. I mean, there's a Holocaust museum in the United States, which I think there should be.

Bill Moyers: Right in downtown Washington.

Sherman Alexie:But there should also be a Native American Holocaust Museum.

Bill Moyers: Why isn't there?

Sherman Alexie:This country's not good at admitting to its sins.

Bill Moyers: Have you ever heard an apology for what happened?

Sherman Alexie:From White liberals. But never from White conservatives.

Bill Moyers: These were, you were nearly exterminated. You--

Sherman Alexie:Oh, late 19th century, early 20th, we almost blinked out. Ironically, the reservations also saved us, because they concentrated us.

Bill Moyers: How did that save you?

Sherman Alexie:Breeding. You know? It wasn't until much later when the US government realized that relocation, taking us out of, you know, highly-concentrated ethnic communities was the way to dissipate us. And that didn't work either, you know? There are blond Indians now, red-headed Indians. So it was cultural protection. It was sovereignty. The impulse to be together in a little group.

BILL MOYERS In this sense, possessed of a horrendous memory, do you sometimes think of yourself as Jewish?

Sherman Alexie:Constantly. I have a really strong identification with that. And, you know, it's funny, because my poetry editors are Jewish. And, you know, I have quite an international following. And one of my editors tells the story of she and her husband were in Europe and these Italian scholars were really obsessed and questioning about, you know, "What is the relationship between Jewish people and Indians?" And using my work as sort of this universal idea. And they asked her, "What does the Native world think about," you know, "Jewish people and Native Americans?" And she said, "I think only Sherman talks about that." So I, it's a very personal vision.

The big thing is humor. Humor in the face of incredible epic pain. I mean, Jewish folks invented American comedy. When you're being funny in the United States, you're being Jewish. And despite all this incredible dislocation. And the thing, you know, even though it's pretty similar in population, the number of Jewish folks and the number of Native Americans, they've had this incredible success. They have this incredible cultural power.

And in a way, I wish that was us. In a way, that could have easily been us. You know? Indians with our storytelling and artistic ability could have created Hollywood. We could have created American comedy. So in some ways, we're the yin and yang of the American genocidal coin.

Bill Moyers: There's a poem that I have read several times in anticipation of this meeting. And this one is troubling. Another Proclamation.

Sherman Alexie:Another Proclamation.

When
Lincoln
Delivered
The
Emancipation
Proclamation,
Who
Knew

that, one year earlier, in 1862, he'd signed and approved the order for the largest public execution in United States history? Who did they execute? "Mulatto, mixed-bloods, and Indians." Why did they execute them? "For uprising against the State and her citizens." Where did they execute them? Mankato, Minnesota. How did they execute them? Well, Abraham Lincoln thought it was good

And
Just
To
Hang
Thirty-eight
Sioux

simultaneously. Yes, in front of a large and cheering crowd, thirty-eight Indians dropped to their deaths. Yes, thirty-eight necks snapped. But before they died, thirty-eight Indians sang their death songs. Can you imagine the cacophony of thirty-eight different death songs? But wait, one Indian was pardoned at the last minute, so only thirty-seven Indians had to sing their death songs. But O, O, O, O, can you imagine the cacophony of that one survivor's mourning song? If he taught you the words, do you think you would sing along?

Bill Moyers: Talk about that.

Sherman Alexie:Well, essentially, they were executed for terrorism. The perception of being terrorists for defending themselves and their people from colonial incursions.

Bill Moyers: As the Whites had been pushing into Minnesota, pushing them further west. And promised them, as I understand it, food in exchange for land. And then the food didn't come. And the Indians reacted violently.

Sherman Alexie:And then all over the country massacres happening of people they, you know, they would push these tribes and these people onto reservations and then send the soldiers in to wage war on them. I just learned, I don't know why I didn't know this, some sort of denial I guess. But they gave medals of honor to U.S. soldiers who participated at Wounded Knee, absolute massacres of unarmed women, children, and elderly people.

They gave medals of honor. And, you know, this idea of Lincoln as this great savior. Which is true. But in deifying him, it completely, completely whitewashes the fact that he was also a complete part of the colonization of Indians, a complete part of the wholesale slaughter of Indians.

Bill Moyers: He lived in the in between like everyone. What I know of this incident is that 303 Indians were sentenced to death. President Lincoln commuted the sentences of 265 of them on the basis he himself said of not enough evidence, but allowed 38 of them to be hanged.

Sherman Alexie:So, the hypocrisy abounds. So once again, the way in which I watch Lincoln the movie is far different than most people watch Lincoln.

That movie in no way portrayed the complexity of human beings, and certainly does not portray the complexity of Lincoln, who for his genius was also, you know, an incredibly, as any politician, an incredibly conflicted and conflicting man, who was capable of ordering great evil. And who did, in fact, by ordering it, created a great evil, committed great evil, a sinful, sinful man that Lincoln.

Bill Moyers: Had you known about the story for a long time?

Sherman Alexie:You know, most Indians know a lot about the massacres. They're touchstones. They're a myth for us.

Bill Moyers: What saved you spiritually? What saved you inwardly?

Sherman Alexie:Storytelling.

Bill Moyers: How so?

Sherman Alexie:The age-old stories, you know, sort of an actual sacred nostalgia. And keeping all the ghosts alive, keeping all the memories alive. If you tell a story well enough, everybody in it is right there. So nobody ever dies.

Bill Moyers: Why did you call this book Blasphemy?

Sherman Alexie:Because I've been so often accused of it by Indians and non-Indians.

Bill Moyers: How so?

Sherman Alexie:Because I question everything. Because even though I do believe in the sacred, I believe just as strongly in questioning what people think is sacred. Because we're humans and we make mistakes. So, you know, I do my best to point out our weaknesses. And people don't like that. And the weaknesses of our institutions and the weaknesses of our politicians and the weaknesses of our religions.

Once again, 9/11, was the event for me. 9/11 turned all sorts of people into fundamentalists who weren't otherwise, on the left and the right, in the Christian worlds and in the Muslim worlds. And I refuse to participate.

Bill Moyers: So what do you mean by blasphemy?

Sherman Alexie:I don't believe in your God. And "your" means the royal "your."

Bill Moyers: Do you believe in your God?

Sherman Alexie:No.

Bill Moyers: What do you believe in?

Sherman Alexie:Stories. Stories are my God.

BILL MOYERS Would you read this for me?

SHERMAN ALEXIE:
Vilify.

I've never been to Mount Rushmore. It's just too silly. Even now, as I write this,
I'm thinking
About the T-shirt that has four presidential faces on the front and four bare asses
on the back.
Who's on that damn T-shirt anyway? Is it both Roosevelt, Jefferson, and Lincoln?

Don't get me wrong, I love my country. But epic sculpture just leaves me blinking
With dry-eyed boredom (and don't get me started on blown glass art. I really
hate that crap).
I've never been to Mount Rushmore. It's just too silly. Even now, as I write this,
I'm thinking

That I'd much rather commemorate other president. Let's honor JFK's whoring
and drinking
Or the thirteen duels Andrew Jackson fought to defend his wife's honor. Why
don't we sculpt that?
Who's on that damn Rushmore anyway? Is it McKinley, Arthur, Garfield,
and Lincoln?

And, yes, I know, there's a rival sculpture of Crazy Horse, but the sight of that
one is ball-shrinking
Because Crazy Horse never allowed his image to be captured, so which sculptor
do you think he'd now attack?
I've never been to Mount Rushmore. It's just too silly. Even now, as I write this
I'm thinking

About George W's wartime lies, Clinton's cigars, and Nixon's microphones, and
I'm cringing
Because I know every president, no matter how great on the surface, owned a
heart chewed by rats.
Who's on that damn Rushmore anyway? Is it Buchanan, both Adamses,
and Mr. Lincoln?

Answer me this: After the slaughterhouse goes out of business, how long
will it go on stinking
Of red death and white desire? Should we just cover the
presidents' faces with gas masks?
Who cares? I've never been to Rushmore. It's too silly. Even now, as I write
this, I'm thinking:
"Who's on that damn mountain anyway? Is it Jefferson, Washington,
vReagan, and Lincoln?"

Bill Moyers: Now go eight pages over to page 38 and read me your footnote.

Sherman Alexie:So it's footnote 13.

Honestly, I've never been there. This is not a conceit for the poem. I've truly never had any interest in visiting Mount Rushmore or the Crazy Horse memorial. Once while driving in the region, I thought about stopping by, but I didn't. I have no regrets. I've seen Alfred Hitchcock's film "North by Northwest," where Cary Grant's climactic battle with the bad guys happens on the face of Mount Rushmore. It's exciting. But I much prefer the ending where we watch Grant and Eva Marie Saint start to make out in their train car, and then cut to the final shot of that awesomely phallic train penetrating a wonderfully vaginal mountain tunnel. I'm a lover, not a fighter."

Bill Moyers: And we're all glad for that. Sherman Alexie, I really enjoyed this time with you. And thank you very much for sharing it.

Sherman Alexie:Thank you, thank you.

 

 

Interview Producer: Gail Ablow. Editors: Rob Kuhns & Andrew M.I. Lee. Associate Producer: Robert Booth.

Photographer: Alton Christensen.

Bill Moyers

A broadcast journalist for more than four decades, Bill Moyers has been recognized as one of the unique voices of our times, one that resonates with multiple generations. In 2012, at the age of 77, Moyers begins his latest media venture with the launch of "Moyers & Company." With his wife and creative partner, Judith Davidson Moyers, Bill Moyers has produced such groundbreaking public affairs series as "NOW with Bill Moyers" (2002-2005) and "Bill Moyers Journal" (2007-2010). 

For his work, Moyers has received more than 30 Emmys, two prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, nine Peabodys, and three George Polk Awards. Moyers' most recent book, "Bill Moyers Journal: The Conversation Continues," was published in May 2011. He currently serves as president of the Schumann Media Center, a nonprofit organization that supports independent journalism.


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