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When I Saw Sherman Alexie

sherman alexie

So Saturday night I went to see Sherman Alexie at the U of M, put on by its American Indian Association. When my wife was in college, she took an American Indian History class, and one of the required reading was Reservation Blues. I read it too and loved it, reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian years later.

I didn’t have an idea of what he was going to talk about. And I don’t think he did either. I don’t think anyone did. When I sat down, there was about eight or ten people sitting in a circle on the stage, which made me think it was going to be some kind of round table discussion where I couldn’t see half the people. But what I couldn’t see was that they were surrounding a drum, not a table. It was actually a “welcome song” to start the evening. No complaints about that – it was pretty cool.

But then the lameness started. The student MCs I can forgive — they’re young, they’re inexperienced, they live in a niche world. But the “opening act” was… not good. It was like someone asked two professors “hey, we need to kill time before Sherman Alexie gets here, can you talk for twenty minutes?” “About what?” “(vanishes)”.

A obese social worker from Red Lake and a retired Indian professor told lame dad jokes with long pauses in-between. They sat at a podium and said things like “My Indian name is Running Deer, my son’s name is Walking Deer, my wife’s name is ‘Yes, Dear’.” It was the most awkward thing I’d ever seen. “What do you call an Indian bank? Tuckabuckadayaway.” I cannot believe these people did any kind of preparation beforehand.

Then more awkwardness by the student MC’s that felt like delaying. The whitest, blondest student president of the American Indian Student Society finally brought him out. It seemed like the entire night, no one knew what they were going to talk about. And that includes the main attraction. I suppose there was a connecting thread about the death of his mother, but even now, I couldn’t tell you a thing about her.

I think the first thing he said was how he looked different because he had just had brain surgery to remove a tumor, so he had lost his “geroni-fro”. And it continued like that. Imagine all the most vulgar, inappropriate parts of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian condensed and put into an adult version. About twenty minutes in, I wanted to leave. I was just so uncomfortable.  Especially when he started talking politics and insulted liberals. That’s when he totally lost me. That’s the sort of disrespect that keeps us divided as a nation.

At one point he called himself “Oedipus Rez” because he realized his mom was big-breasted and hot. So uncomfortable. Frequent mentions they lived with seventeen people in a one-room house with no running water or electricity. One time he slept in the doghouse because his mom threw him out after a temper tantrum. He doesn’t understand the concept of affection. His sisters were freaking out with laughter because they knew, with his mom on hospice drugs that made her happy, she’d be touching him. The first time he went to his white friend’s house, he thought someone had died because everyone sat down together. And that he should have brought his drum for a grief song.

You know how, when there’s a comedian of a non-white race, ALL their comedy is based on being that race. Not like being on point with race issues, like Dave Chapelle or Chris Rock or Key & Peele. I mean Carlos Mencia, George Lopez, Kevin Hart, Woody Allen — their entire shtick is repeating and playing off their own stereotypes. I’ve never seen an Asian comedian that didn’t center their act on being Asian. If they were another race, they’d be reamed. But somehow, if it’s themselves, that makes it okay. If the Washington Redskins were composed entirely of Native Americans, would that be okay?

For some reason all I can remember is the story of how he ate a bad Dorito and his mother’s viewing, and it made him poop so much he clogged the toilet in the funeral home (he explained he has a small bladder, but a big rectum) which he couldn’t just leave for someone in mourning to find. So he wrapped a paper towel around his hand — except for two fingers as pincers — and had to break it up and scoop it out.

Now I’ll be the first in line to admit I’m the whitest white privileged guy there is. So maybe I wasn’t his target audience (although if you’re less than 1% of the population at large, perhaps one should think about diversifying). I’m sorry I took the ticket for someone who would have enjoyed this more, who would have comprehended the hardships of living on the rez.

But I don’t understand how you can work so hard to defeat stereotypes and then turn around and embrace them for material. You’re pushing something away with one hand and bringing it in with the other. At no point did I see Alexie demonstrate any pride in his heritage. Maybe he doesn’t have any And that’s fine. What I saw was a guy trying to cope with his horrible life with humor. And that’s fine.  That’s what Deadpool does — humor is the only way to cope with serious, serious traumas. The kind that are too sad to cry about.

In a way, American Indian culture is reaching an extinction point, and he is a firsthand witness. In one story, he explained that their home was half sacred artifacts and the other half Native American kitsch from tourist attractions. They treat themselves as if they are all from the same tribe. I know not all Indians have powwows or drum circles.

I’m not saying race shouldn’t be seen — white-washing doesn’t end racism. Showing more diversity ends racism. But showing those races with such scorn and defamation. It’s not like he challenged views. If anything, he reinforced the views. Not that there wasn’t anything I couldn’t identify with, but it was all tainted with vulgarity and immaturity. He didn’t talk about his writing or poetry. He didn’t talk about his film. He didn’t talk about growing up with disabilities or alcoholism or any Indian affairs at all.

So no, I didn’t much like the event. But I’m glad I had the experience. If I only went to things I enjoyed, I wouldn’t have any stories to tell. I wouldn’t have anything challenging my beliefs.

Analyzing the Disney Villains: Governor Ratcliffe (Pocahontas)

ratcliffe pocahontas
GOVERNOR JOHN RATCLIFFE
Origin: Pocahontas (1995)

Captain Hook’s personality in Alameda Slim’s body. Ratcliffe is one of the weakest antagonists I’ve ever seen. The movie doesn’t even need him — it’s West Wide Story. He’s merely a symbol for Mother England. You know, the whole REASON their trip was funded and provided in the first place? The name even has the word “Rat” in it, and it’s not a clever pun.  That kind of move telegraphs the weakness of your character.

But you know what, fuck Disney for screwing with this guy. They propagandized him into a greedy, capitalistic slob who will destroy everything to get what he wants. Guess what — that’s what he was paid to do. That’s what John Smith was supposed to do, but he was busy rolling in the grass with a fourteen-year-old. You might as well say Scrooge McDuck is a villain (and don’t tell me he found his entire fortune by treasure hunting). And I can’t even talk about the historical inaccuracies — I gotta stick to the plot. So here you go.

motivation ratcliffe gold pocahontas

Motivation: Greed. Pure, simple, and heavy-handed. They try and throw in some back story for him like this is his “last chance” to become successful for “those backstabbers in court”. Couldn’t be more meaningless. A tossed in bit of dialogue does not a motivation make.

charstrengths ratcliffe pocahontas

Character Strengths: I like how they call him “Governor Ratcliffe” when he does no governing whatsoever. How can you call yourself a political leader of a piece of land with no buildings on it?  In fact, he’s one of the few Disney villains that loses the loyalty of his troops before the end (Scar being another ignoble example).

His time-filling song does some good to motivate the men on the search for gold. But after a few digs, they’re already discussing mutiny (side note: who exactly is the captain on this voyage?) After that, his only recourse is to redirect their anger to the Indians.

evilness ratcliffe pocahontas

Evilness: See above, regarding scapegoating the Indians for his own shortcomings. He takes the prejudices already held against them and exploits it. Of course, when Pocahontas and John Smith’s love “conquers all”, Ratcliffe shoots anyway, wounding his golden boy. Here’s a guy who doesn’t know when he’s licked. Lust for greed and power turns into petty vengeance, grasping for any victory. What did he expect to happen after he pulled that trigger?

tools ratcliffe pocahontas

Tools: Okay, do I have to talk about Wiggins and the dog? No? Good. How about the ship full of strong, hearty men ready to serve… that show immediate progressive thought and begin plans to overthrow him? Geez, it’s like the American Revolution extremely condensed.

complement ratcliffe john smith pocahontas

Complement to the Hero: The movie makes a point to feature exported characters on both sides. Chief Powhatan is just as bad as Ratcliffe, but he gets a free pass because he’s an Indian. His motivation isn’t sinful, he’s just afraid and angry. It doesn’t matter that they’re in a constant state of war, and have no interest in expanding their horizons. They’re a noble people.

And then you’ve got John Smith — the fit, blond all-American Englishman voiced by Australian Mel Gibson. Remember how I said Disney likes to make poncey and foppish villains? This one turned it up to eleven, enough for people to start taking notice. His villain song even includes the words “hey nonny nonny”.

fatal flaw ratcliffe pocahontas

Fatal Flaw: I don’t know how Ratcliffe got into his position, but he sure doesn’t know how to keep it. His poor leadership skills are only a contributing factor. The greed and wrath keep him blind to anything happening around him. He’s a worse listener than Hiccup’s father. When you have to keep saying “This is my land and I make the rules here”, it is clear that you are not.

method of defeat ratcliffe pocahontas
Is that the drunk guy from Tangled?

Method of Defeat/Death: Ratcliffe leads his men to the Powhatan village, just in time to see Pocahontas save John Smith’s life. The chief listens to the colors of the wind while Ratcliffe yanks a gun and fires. John Smith does his best Kevin Costner and jumps in front of the bullet musket ball (that somehow traveled hundreds of yards up and still hit its mark), and the men realize he’s crossed a moral event horizon. They tie him up and thrown him in the boat back to England while “I Will Always Love You” plays for John Smith and Pocahontas.

final ratcliffe pocahontas

Final Rating: One star

PREVIOUS ANALYSES:
Pinocchio’s Villains (Pinocchio)
Sykes (Oliver and Company)
Alameda Slim (Home on the Range)
Rourke (Atlantis: The Lost Empire)
The Evil Queen (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs)
Ursula (The Little Mermaid)
Dr. Facilier (The Princess and the Frog)
Gaston (Beauty and the Beast)
Willie the Giant (Mickey and the Beanstalk)
Hades (Hercules)
The Queen of Hearts (Alice in Wonderland)
Jafar (Aladdin)
Shan Yu (Mulan)
Man (Bambi)
Clayton (Tarzan)
The Horned King (The Black Cauldron)
Mother Gothel (Tangled)
Cobra Bubbles (Lilo and Stitch)
Cruella De Vil (101 Dalmatians)
Madame Medusa (The Rescuers)
Captain Hook (Peter Pan)
Amos Slade (The Fox and the Hound)
Madam Mim (The Sword in the Stone)
Claude Frollo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
Scar (The Lion King)
Prince John (Robin Hood)
Edgar (The Aristocats)
Ratigan (The Great Mouse Detective)
Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty)