National Book Award Winner, former stand-up comic, poet and fry bread expert Sherman Alexie was in Grand Rapids last night to discuss his writing, but mostly to do his patented Indian stand-up comedy. Many in the absolutely packed Eberhard Center on the campus of Grand Valley State University in downtown Grand Rapids Michigan were surprised at his blue humor which, however, seemed appropriate in a college setting and never was far from his hidden message.
Alexie uses his skills as a stand-up comic to bring home not only his secrets of writing, but also some very astringent messages about colonialism and Indian rights. Please take notice. Never once did he use the phrase “native american”. He could’ve gone all night, but his one-hour presentation was continuously punctuated with clapping and laughter. Only a few in the audience weren’t cracking a smile and Alexie like a good comedian, of course, noted that.
Following his presentation, a very long line snaked through the Eberhard Center waiting patiently for him to sign his books. He started his presentation by making reference to Dennis Banks (co-founder of the American Indian Movement) who made a presentation at the Great Lakes History Conference earlier in the day and to Indian Scholar, Yale Professor, author and Detroit native Ned Blackhawk who was set to present on Saturday. He called Banks “old school”; Blackhawk “new school” and himself “middle school”.
He told the audience that his early childhood medical problems put him on the track to a college education by exposing him to a peer group of college graduates and white adults in the medical care system.
Alexie also made sure the attentive audience knew that for him it “was always about books”. And he credits his mother and father for that.
“The only house I remembered that was filled with books was ours.”
He told a great story about how this year he got “hate mail” from Kindle lovers when he insulted the device at a panel discussion at Book Expo America. He reflected on how his copy of the “Great Gatsby” which he calls the “first great American Indian novel” is filled with decades of notes in the margin. He called this the “archaeology of the book”.
His rap on mixed tapes and the influence of music in his life was hilarious and touching at the same time. It seemed to especially resonate with the under 30 crowd in the audience. He was like an Indian Nick Hornby in describing the importance of vinyl in his life on the Rez.
Although his references to popular culture, sexual peccadilloes and the importance of storytelling brought apt attention from the audience, his message about politics. colonialism, writing, identity and the excesses of tribalism was always percolating just under the surface. He said something like, “Even though Indians are the most tribally raised ever-I am terrified of tribalism.”
GVSU was videotaping his presentation and hopefully it will be available on a public access TV station.
In 2007, year Sherman’s book, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” won the National Book Award and he now has a new book out “War Dances”. Other books of his include “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” and the “Toughest Indian in the World”. His film “Smoke Signals” is the best depiction of Rez life ever done. It will make you laugh like an Indian. He lives in the land of kindle with his spouse and two children.
He made a lot of new friends including the young couple who spent their wedding anniversary taking in a little Indian humor. And thanks Sherman for signing my Tonto bedable action figure (“In honor of Jay Silverheels”). I’m jealous Alexie’s Tonto still has his six guns. I have no clue how Tonto ever tolerated that stupid white man who always got himself tied up in some miner’s shack.