Posted by: gdevi | May 29, 2014

Some Excerpts

Here are some excerpts from my article on Alexie’s Reservation Blues. It is a draft. I am thinking of writing a book on Alexie.

When Hellhounds became Horses: Robert Johnson Seeks Medicine in Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues

It seems that sin is geographical. Bertrand Russell, On the Value of Scepticism

But still the crossroads does have a certain dangerous potency; dangerous because a man might perish there wrestling with multiple-headed spirits, but also he might be lucky and return to his people with the boon of prophetic vision. Chinua Achebe, Named for Victoria, Queen of England

In a 1978 photograph of the American Indian Movement’s “Long Walk” from San Francisco to Washington DC for tribal rights, black civil rights celebrities and the activists of the native rights movement sit together: Muhammad Ali, Buffy St. Marie, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Harold Smith, Stevie Wonder, Marlon Brando, Max Gail, Dick Gregory, Richie Havens, and David Amram[1]. The Smithsonian exhibition Indivisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas, which displays the photograph, indeed, follows the premise set by the ethno-historical and historiographical work done by Native American scholars such as Jack Forbes on the links between the two communities. Forbes’s Black Africans and Native Americans: Color, Race and Caste in the Evolution of Red Black Peoples, for instance, offers a fascinating corrective to Eurocentric narratives of pre-colonial and colonial Americas that prefer the Europe-Africa/ Europe-Native America distribution to tell the story of colonization, and not its African/Native American vector.  . . . Forbes further cautions that “I believe it will be quite important for scholars to study the evolution of ‘colored’, mixed groups in the Americas on a comparative basis without becoming locked into paradigms formed essentially by North American white racism and fascination with only the black-white nexus” (264).

African American scholar, critic and culture theorist Henry Louis Gates, Jr. would disagree with Forbes’ assertion. In a 2013 article entitled “How ‘Black’ is Black America?” Gates describes his participation in the PBS series on genealogy and genetics, African American Lives 1 and 2, and Finding Your Roots, where five DNA companies analyzed the autosomal DNA of Gates’ guests to determine how much of their ancestry traces to “each of the world’s ancestral populations, people who lived in particular geographical regions, say, 500 years ago, via an “admixture test.”[2]”  . . . Gates calls the common claim that many African Americans make about their high percentage of Native American ancestry “a myth,” and asserts that “the bottom line is that black and white Americans are inextricably interconnected at the level of their genomes . . .

. . . Thomas Biolsi in “Imagined Geographies: Sovereignty, Indigenous Space, and American Indian Struggle” cites the “Declaration of Sovereignty” enacted by the Tribal Council of the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon to exemplify the enduring sovereign character of the native rights movement:

Our people have exercised inherent sovereignty, as nations, on the Columbia Plateau for thousands of years, since time immemorial . . . .We. . .Hereby declare our national sovereignty. We declare the existence of this inherent sovereign authority—the absolute right to govern, to determine our destiny, and to control all persons, land, water, resources and activities, free of all outside interference—throughout our homeland. (239)

Biolsi notes that the above language distinctly echoes the content and intent of the worldwide discourse on anti-colonialism and nationalist self-determination. Indeed, in an interview with Sonoma Independent, Sherman Alexie emphasized as much: “”I’m a colonized man. We’re a colonized people. This is South Africa here, and people don’t want to admit that. The United States is a colony, and I’m always going to write like one who is colonized, and that’s with a lot of anger[3].” Alexie’s outrage is justified. In 2007, when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” a total of 144 states or countries voted in favor of its adoption, while United States, along with Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, voted against it.[4]

. . . .

As postcolonial texts, Alexie’s stories problematize nation building, whether American or Indian. They call attention to what it means to be a sovereign Indian without sovereignty in the United States in a historically contingent manner. Alexie has no particular use for representational realism, sacrificing the granularity of this mode in favor of a dense textual matrix of many master narratives of colonialism and its losses from the perspective of the colonized. In its meanderings through such a palimpsest, these stories become necessarily aporetic. Alexie’s Reservation Blues (1995) is a cautionary tale about the cost of assimilating oneself to the nation-building project, represented in the archetypal story of the artist who sells his soul to the devil to advance himself. The figure of the bluesman at the crossroads selling his soul to the devil becomes an allegory for the desire to belong.  . . .  Reservation Blues is a dense palimpsest of the white/non-white color line experienced by two “colored” groups who come to the aid of each other. I explore two particular nodes in this palimpsest: the Blues as a trope, and the conflation of colonization and slavery.

. . . .

Notwithstanding Gates’ scientifically backed assertion regarding “the myth” of Indian (Alexie’s preferred term) ancestry to African Americans, African American-identified performers and writers, from the musician Jimi Hendrix to the writer Alice Walker, have actively echoed this myth in their own creative productions as a crucial constituent of their American identity. The textual bonds they create are sacred, symbolic and life sustaining, as myths tend to be. In Alice Walker’s novel Meridian (1976), for instance, the young African American protagonist Meridian, a civil rights activist, not only disassociates herself from her mother’s Christianity, but bends strongly towards her father’s animistic and mystic spirituality, a spirituality that is bonded in passion and tears with the Cherokee memorabilia that he collects. . . .

. . . .

Elective affinity brings together a father, son and Jimi Hendrix’s music in Alexie’s short story “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock” from Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.  Victor Joseph, the young Indian protagonist, watches his father slide deeper and deeper into alcoholism and despair through an uneventful life in the reservation interrupted by two iconic cultural moments. In one, Joseph Sr. joins others in demonstrating in Spokane, Washington, during the Vietnam War and gets arrested. In two, he hitchhikes to Woodstock, New York to hear Jimi Hendrix play “The Star-Spangled Banner.” . . .

. . . .

Alexie’s postcolonial critique becomes visible in the space opened up by the two renditions of the national anthem. The patriotic anthem promises the soundtrack of a successful, cohesive nation, the land of the free and the home of the brave. Hendrix’s rendition is a tendentious critique of that war culture, a war of aggression fought against another foreign sovereign nation, Vietnam, performed at an optimal moment in the nation’s history: “Over and over, the house filled with the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air” (26). If we read this sentence literally to mean Victor’s house bombed, it is intended, I would argue. In the reservation, “Star-Spangled Banner,” both the patriotic as well as the countercultural, become the mass-produced, commodified go-to song about the original war of aggression against the Indians in the eyes of a dissipated man. . .

. . . .

The bluesman Robert Johnson himself visits the town of Wellpinit in the Spokane Indian Reservation in 1992 as Reservation Blues begins its story. The opening chapter introduces the temporal and spatial dislocation in the narrative through an intentional disruption of chronology that plunges the entire narrative into mythical time. The events move back and forth between the narrative present of 1992, 1938, the year of Robert Johnson’s death by poisoning, and 1858, the year of Spokane Wars. This temporal dislocation makes it possible for the allegory to peak through successive generations and race-relations with their varied socio-historical settings and cast of characters. Johnson, the narrator tells us, did not arrive at the Reservation “by accident” (3). Indeed, the framework of mythical time tells us he is on a mythical errand; the African American man “goin’ to the Nation.” Johnson tells Thomas Builds-The-Fire that he “made a bad deal years ago,” and that he is looking for the old woman who lives on a hill who “can fix what’s wrong with me” (5).

. . . .

. . .  In “Going to the Nation: The Idea of Oklahoma in Early Blues Recordings,” Chris Smith notes that in the postwar years, Blues songs between the years 1920-1940 made numerous references to “goin’ to the Nation,” and “goin’ to the Territo’(ry),” where the “nation” stood for the Indian nation, and the “territory” stood for Oklahoma before its 1907 statehood (85). Blues compositions such as Bessie Smith’s “Work House Blues,” Freezone’s “Indian Squaw Blues,” Papa Charlie Jackson’s “The Faking Blues,” Priscilla Stewart’s “Going to the Nation,” Leroy Carr’s “Long Road Blues,” and Bo Carter’s “So Long, Baby, So Long,” “World in a Jug,” and “Country Farm Blues,” all employ the trope of a black man or woman traveling to the “Indian Nation” in search of freedom. These blues lyrics follow a formulaic development with expository verses describing the hardship followed by the solution. “Work House Blues,” made famous by Bessie Smith, represents the typical form:

Everybody’s cryin’ the workhouse blues all day, oh, Lord, oh, Lord

The work is so hard thirty days is so long, oh, Lord, oh, Lord

I can’t plough, I can’t cook.

If I’d run away wouldn’t that be good?

‘Cause I’m goin’ to the Nation, goin’ to the Territo’ (2x)

I got to leave here, I got to get the next train goin’. (85)

Smith notes that neither Oklahoma nor the Indian Nation were by no means a just safe haven for the racially segregated, poor, exploited, overworked southern African Americans (86). I would add that the “Indian Nation” as a symbol of freedom, and the trope of “goin’ to the Territor’” as a passage to freedom constitute an early Blues myth, a myth of migration, refuge, and settlement for the African Americans from the disenfranchised south. This mythical function of the Blues is evident in the fact that Charlie Patton’s “Down the Dirt Road Blues” (1) and Jesse James’ “Lonesome Day Blues” (2), both discussed in Smith’s article, speak about “goin’ to the Territor’” with disillusionment:

I feel like choppin’ it, chips flyin’ everywhere (2x)

I’ve been to the Nation, lord, but I couldn’t stay there. (1) (93)


I’ve been to the Nation, round the Territo’

You hear me talkin’ to you, you got to reap what you sow!

I done been all through the Nation and round the Territo’

But I ain’t found no Heaven on Earth, lord, nowhere I go. (2) (91)

. . . . Both Patton and James are contemporaneous with the other compositions that speak of “goin’ to the Territor’” and “going to the Nation” as a passage to freedom. They are also contemporary with Robert Johnson’s life, and death in 1938. Reservation Blues commences with this myth of “goin’ to the Nation,” which directly plunges the reservation into mythical time.

Mythical time is equal opportunity and fairshare. Soon after Thomas agrees to take Robert Johnson to Big Mom, the medicine woman, Alexie deepens the palimpsest of time by adding 1858 on top of 1992 and 1938. There was music in the reservation before the Blues. Wellpinit Reservation is still shrouded in the screams of the 800 horses General Wright slaughtered in 1858 in an exercise of shock, awe, slaughter and devastation that brought Eastern Washington under United States through the defeat of the Coeur d’Alene, the Spokane and the Palouse Indians in the Spokane Wars[7]. . . .  In 1858, after the slaughter of the horses, Big Mom had gone out and collected the bones of the most beautiful horse and made a flute from its ribs (10). The slaughtered Indian horses came to her in the form of musicians like Jimi Hendrix. She had taught “all those great musicians who shaped the twentieth century,” including Elvis, Diana Ross, Chuck Berry, and Les Paul; she taught Paul McCartney how to play “Yesterday” (201). Big Mom lives simultaneously in the past, present and the future. Big Mom’s character makes the reservation into a liminal space and reservation time into mythical time. The liminal character of the reservation is evident in the two epigraphs to the novel. Charles Mingus contributes “God’s old lady, she sure is a big chick.” Robert Johnson adds, “I went to the crossroad/ fell down on my knees/ I went to the crossroad/ fell down on my knees.”

. .  . .

Alexie tell us that Big Mom did not accept Jim Morrison: “Please don’t say that name, “ Big Mom said. “I’m so tired of that name. It’s irritating how much I have to hear that name” (207). Big Mom’s rejection of Jim Morrison as a wannabe costume Indian is part of Alexie’s postcolonial critique of the United States. Because, what does it mean to be an Indian in the United States? When Robert Johnson’s guitar attaches itself to the young Indian Victor Joseph, it is opportunity; when Victor, Thomas, Junior Polatkin, the sisters Chess and Checkers Warm Water form “The Coyote Springs Blues Band,” it is opportunity; when the talent scouts for Cavalry Record company, Wright, Sheridan and Armstrong, show interest in them, it is opportunity; when the band auditions for Cavalry Records, it is opportunity. It is opportunity for Indians to belong to the United States, to be successful colonized subjects. That is one way to be an Indian in the United States.

. . . .

When viewed through the palimpsest of mythical time, the bluesman Robert Johnson selling his soul to the Devil has more in common with an Indian treaty with the United States—or a contract with a record label—than with the legendary Faust who bartered his soul for Knowledge. Face to face with the “Gentleman” at the crossroads, Robert Johnson offers the “handsome white man” his “freedom,” in return for him teaching Johnson how to play guitar better than anybody ever. The Gentleman mockingly informs Johnson, “You are a black man in Mississippi. I don’t care if it is 1930. You ain’t got much freedom to offer me” (264). When Robert Johnson tells the Gentleman “I’ll give you all I got,” inside mythical time, we hear the horses scream (265).

. . .  The colonial past is intact when it reaches the Coyote Springs Blues Band. Cavalry Records and its scouts and agents, Armstrong, Wright and Sheridan of the various US/Indian Wars notoriety represent the United States. The enslavement of African Americans is the commodified Blues. Coyote Springs wrecks their audition; Robert Johnson’s guitar gouges Victor’s hands, as he plays for Wright, Sheridan and Armstrong in an act of divine intervention. Victor smashes the studio saxophone and the band returns back to the reservation with a broken contract.

. . . .

The allegory of the sold-out soul has a deeper political function for Alexie. Alexie preserves and updates the myth of the African American who went to “the Nation” for freedom and peace. “This Tribe’s been waitin’ for me for a long time. I’m goin’ to stay right here,” Robert Johnson tells Thomas. And Big Mom cures Robert Johnson; she gives him a cedar harmonica that she carves herself: “You were supposed to be a harp player. You’re a good harp player. All by yourself, you can play a mean harp” (278). As Chinua Achebe notes in the epigraph to this article, the crossroads where Robert Johnson encountered the Gentleman is a liminal place of prophecy. It is not geographically delimited to Mississippi; it exists in the Spokane Indian Reservation as well. The bluesman brings the prophecy to the Indians. When Thomas, Chess and Checkers decide to leave the reservation and go “west,” to “Spokane,” they do so after having fallen down on their knees at the crossroads as a place of liminality. But they go west, not with hellhounds on their trail, but with shadow horses galloping down the road in front of them, “leading Indians toward the city” (306). Alexie updates the myth of the crossroads: when the colonized survive and overcome the offer of the crossroads, they are in eternal transit. Aporetic? Perhaps. But they are not alone. They travel with the shadow horses from their own history.


[1] “Indivisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas.” Smithsonian Institution. 25 May 2014.

[2] Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Exactly How “Black” is Black America”? 25 May 2014.

[3]Gretchen Giles, “Seeing Red.” 25 May 2014.

[4]“International Indian Treaty Council: History is Made for Indigenous Peoples at United Nations.” IITC. 25 May 2014.

[5] Kwame Anthony Appiah, “The Postcolonial and the Postmodern.” The Post Colonial Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1995: 123.

[6] “Song Stories:Star-Spangled Banner, Jimi Hendrix 1969.” Rolling Stones. 25 May 2014.

[7] “History of the Northwest: Oregon and Washington.” 25 May 2014.


Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. “Named for Victoria, Queen of England.” The Post-Colonial Studies         Reader. Ed. Bill Ashcroft et al. London & New York: Routledge, 1995.

Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities. London & New York: Verso, 1983. Kindle   file.

Alexie, Sherman. Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. New York: Grove Press,      1993.

—–.Reservation Blues. New York: Warner Books, 1995.

Appiah, Kwame Anthony. “The Postcolonial and the Postmodern.” The Post-Colonial     Studies Reader. Ed. Bill Ashcroft et al. London & New York: Routledge, 1995.

Biolsi, Thomas. “Imagined Geographies: Sovereignty, Indigenous Space, and American      Indian Struggle.” American Ethnologist 32(2) (2005): 239-259.

Byrd, Jodi. A. The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism. Minneapolis:             University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Kindle file.

Downey, Anne M. “A Broken and Bloody Hoop”: The Intertextuality of Black Elk Speaks and Alice Walker’s Meridian.” MELUS 19 (3) (1994): 37-45.

Forbes, Jack D. Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red Black Peoples. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Gates Jr., Henry Louis. “Exactly How “Black” is Black America”? The Root. 11 Feb. 2013. Web. 25 May 2014.

—–.The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African-American Literary Criticism. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

Giles, Gretchen. “Seeing Red.” Sonoma Independent. 3-9 Oct. 1996. Web. 25 May 2014.

“Indivisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas.” Smithsonian Institution. Web. 25 May 2014.

“International Indian Treaty Council: History is Made for Indigenous Peoples at United Nations.” IITC. 16 Sept. 2007. Web. 25 May 2014.

Russell, Bertrand. “On the Value of Scepticism.” The Will to Doubt. New York: Philosophical Library, Incorpo, 1983.

Smith, Chris. “Going to the Nation: The Idea of Oklahoma in Early Blues Recordings.” Popular Music. 26 (1) (2007):83-96.

“Song Stories: Star-Spangled Banner, Jimi Hendrix 1969.” Rolling Stones. Web. 25 May 2014.

Walker, Alice. Meridian. San Diego: Harcourt. 2003.



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