Shape-shifting: fluctuating patterns of Indian identity in Sherman Alexie's fiction
Sherman Alexie's depiction of Indian identity has paralleled his own constantly changing definition of what it means to be Indian. Alexie's early writings, The Business of Fancydancing, Old Shirts and New Skins, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and Reservation Blues, reflect the tragedy and despair of growing up on the Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation. In these early writings, Alexie examines the shape of Indian identity on the reservation, where too often success is equated with mere survival. Alexie's writing then shifted to reflect the experiences of urban Indians. Alexie's Indians in Indian Killer, Smoke Signals, and The Toughest Indian in the World live in the city, but their problems - destructive responses to negative stereotyping and haunting questions about what it means to be Indian - are similar to their reservation counterparts. The externals have shifted, but the core issues remain. As with his earlier fiction, Alexie wrestles with the question of identity by challenging stereotypes, even as he explores why they perhaps exist. Another significant shift appears in Alexie's latest work, Ten Little Indians, where he looks at Indian identity in a global context rather than a historical one. By giving over aspects of his stories to characters of different cultures, Alexie broadens his scope to see how the lives of Indians parallel the experiences of people from other cultures. In this newest shape of Indian identity - Indian as international community member - Alexie demonstrates his own ongoing, and often conflicted, journey toward understanding Indian identity. Alexie's writing reveals both his love and his hate for the reservation, the city, and even his cultural heritage. While tough to categorize, it is in his contradictions, and his authentic grappling with these contradictions, that Alexie derives much of his power. And while his stories reflect the experiences of Indian characters, they are ensconced in emotions experienced by everybody.