Book-of-the-Year Author Brings Comedy to Serious Issues
By DIOVER DUARIO, Two Rivers Tribune Contributing Writer
Not a soul was left sitting as applause roared through Van Duzer Theatre on March 5 following Sherman Alexie’s two-hour laugh-a-palooza before a sold-out crowd at Humboldt State University.
The event that billed Alexie as the speaker about “War Dances,” his book of poems and short stories, quickly turned into a poignant comedic stand-up touching upon several sensitive issues, and more than a handful of hilarious anecdotes kept the audience laughing from start to finish.
A man of mixed Native American and European heritage, Alexie was born and raised in East Washington state and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. He was born with hydrocephalus, a condition occurring when there are excessive amounts of cerebral brain fluid in the cranial cavity. Despite poor chances, he survived the surgery with no damage to his brain.
“The first seven years of my life was spent in a hospital around obsessive-compulsive, Type-A, smart white people: mostly nuns and nurses,” Alexie said. “I never danced, sang, fished, or spoke my language and the smoke lodge was too f***ing hot.”
Though health issues and a disconnect with Native cultural practice left him feeling like an outcast from an early age, Alexie found an unexpected niche as a storyteller.
“I watch and listen, I pay attention to human beings and people from my past,” Alexie said. “I love my job. I travel the world telling stories. How Indian is that?”
Alexie professes deep love and a sense of pride for his people, while admitting the flaws and difficulties within their own communities. However, travelling in the 21st century as a mixed-race Native American, he was most surprised when he didn’t stick out of a crowd.
“Like many of you, I am ambiguously ethnic. Nobody ever guesses that you’re Indian,” Alexie said. “In the big city I’m like ‘damn, nobody’s staring at me with hate in their eyes,’ nobody cares what you are. That’s how f***ed up colonialism is, I missed racism completely.”
Throughout the evening, Alexie pointed out the inherent cultural pitfalls of being Native American today and the importance on knowing oneself.
“The thing that’s bad for us as Natives is when we start thinking we’re inferior, our thoughts, our beliefs, , and dreams are inferior,” Alexie said. “Me, I’m as rez as it gets. I didn’t get running water in my house until I was seven and indoor plumbing a year later. But that’s not our identity.”
Another warning he had for Indians and youth in particular is to avoid self-loathing. “It’s so contradictory, and I know you all [in Humboldt County] can relate; to be sad in such a beautiful place, you start to get angry at the beauty,” Alexie said.
The crowd was a mosaic of mixed identities, heritages, orientations, and beliefs. While some people in the audience were initially skeptical of what had been billed as a “seminar,” everyone left with a unique human experience: sharing and understanding each other’s struggle through humor.
Ruby Hamilton, 76, has been a fan of Alexie for more than 15 years. Originally from Arizona and now living in Cutten, she brought to two granddaughters along to see the show.
“I’ve seen him do other things like readings in New York City, but this one was really different,” Hamilton said. “He’s older, and it’s like a whole new side of him.”
Kevin Martinez, 21, is a Humboldt State psychology major from the Los Angeles area who came across free tickets to the show and decided to check it out. He was impressed by how Alexie managed to navigate the sensitive topics of cultural and social discourse with ease.
“There are couple points that resonated with me, but even though I’m a person of color, I can’t claim to relate entirely to his struggle,” Martinez said. “It’s pretty smart the way he goes about speaking on things to the average person who doesn’t think about it that much.”
Assistant Professor of Social Work professor César Abarca came to the show at the behest of his wife. Tired and somewhat cranky, he stood outside afterward and said he was glad that he decided to come.
“Alexie blew my mind. I was laughing all the way,” Abarca said. “There is a real wisdom, I think, in how he was just being real with who he is and his challenges growing up.”
Adrienne Colegrove-Raymond is the director of the Native American Center for Academic Excellence, a coordinator for the Indian Tribal Education & Personnel Program (ITEPP) for Humboldt State, and a Hoopa tribal member. She had never seen or heard Alexie perform, so she was unsure what to expect at the show.
“I’ve read all of his novels and it’s a real treat to have him on campus, but I was unsure about attending because some of the content in his books makes me feel uneasy,” Colegrove-Raymond said. “But I thoroughly enjoyed his message, especially the power of writing and knowing our value. It makes me proud.”
Despite having come a long way from his humble beginnings, Alexie vividly remembers the trials of an oppressed people. And for that, he spoke of the merits of storytelling.
“The greatest weapon used against those without power is silencing them. So tell your damn story,” Alexie said.