In Sherman Alexie’s story, “A Drug Called Tradition,” from his story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Victor, the narrator, speaks about what he calls the skeletons of the past and the future: “There are things you should learn. Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you … Now, these skeletons are made of memories, dreams, and voices.
And they can trap you in the in-between, between touching and becoming. But they’re not necessarily evil, unless you let them be. What you have to do is keep moving, keep walking, in step with your skeletons … no matter what they do, keep walking, keep moving …”
This idea about skeletons, or the hauntings and the remnants of tradition, and the bones absent of flesh, but animate and manifest, is metonymic of the larger ideas and questions Alexie grapples with in this work: that is, how can a member or a performer of a tradition negotiate the seemingly incompatible drives of that tradition—the desire to perpetuate, to conserve, to maintain an idiom and its meaning, but at the same time, to accommodate the need to innovate, to create, and to move forward in a tradition, and explode and shape its word power?
How can a participant in a tradition walk with the skeletons and traditions, but walk and innovate at a pace that avoids being trapped by their embrace? My discussion of Alexie’s work challenges the dogmatic and conservative insistence that, while a written, authored work can be considered a folklore text, it is not and cannot be called folklore. This essay is directed toward both scholars entrenched in the study of literary texts and to academic folklorists who insist on conventional and conservative parameters for what constitutes folklore.
My aim is to articulate an approach to this particular authored text which would prevent the incorrect and casual identification of folklore in literature, as well as any preemptive dismissal of its presence in this novel. By reading Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven as a literary construction as well as a work born of a particular culture and artistic tradition, I insist on a more complicated understanding of its content, shape, and meanings in a critique of folklore theories which limit and confine our concepts of the power and dimensions of haped words. I also challenge the popular but simplistic notion that Native American writing is somehow more “oral” than other texts, and I combat in part the increasingly useless distinction between the written and oral manifestation of verbal art by relying on some ideas of Dell Hymes as well as John Miles Foley.
Foley, who considers text a medium for representing parts of an oral traditional performance, argues in The Singer of Tales in Performance (1995) that a text (or the material written representation of folklore) cannot be declared something “different in species” from the oral tradition to which it is related, asking instead “how a given text continues the tradition of reception? We can achieve an understanding of Alexie’s text’s reception and its place in a tradition, of course, by understanding the written representation on its own terms, by relying on textual indications of performance, and by learning or understanding the “institutionalized meanings” within the register of the tradition.
That is, we can examine Alexie’s text for its literary practices which represent those signals of performance, and then we can begin to seek a truer understanding of traditional meanings and ideas. Alexie, of course, relies on our readerly knowledge that we inscribe into his text, and then he uses literary devices that are both conventional and which subvert and d disrupt western literary principles.
I assert, however, that besides easily dissecting Alexie’s story collection and recognizing textual indications of meaning and performance, and beyond identifying keys to performance which indicate how this text might register with people in Alexie’s folk group, I also contend that there is a kind of living dimension to the authored, printed word that cannot be summarily discounted unless we are unwilling to examine and enflesh our understanding of word power and a living tradition, and I argue for a more expansive notion of how folklore processes can be exchanged and represented.
Sherman Alexie, a Spokane and Coeur D’Alene American Indian, is an academically trained writer and political activist who wrote and produced the film Smoke Signals, based upon his work The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Born in 1966, Alexie grew up on the Spokane reservation in central Washington, and attended Gonzaga State and Washington State University, where he earned a BA in 1991. Alexie, who cites Adrian C.
Louis, Simon Ortiz, Joy Harjo, and Linda Hogan as models, has published thirteen books, including seven collections of poetry. He asserts that his writing is primarily autobiographical: “It’s fiction as autobiography, or autobiography as fiction, I’m not sure which one. ” This self-described life writing, accompanied by a skewering humor and scathing wit, earned Alexie a reputation as an ego-driven and opportunistic writer.
In a feature interview on National Public Radio, Liane Hansen quotes a woman who grew up knowing the author: “What people on the reservation feel is that he’s making fun of them. It’s supposed to be fiction, but we all know whom he’s writing about. He has wounded a lot of people. ” He has also been criticized by other Native American and non-native novelists for his position that only Native Americans can write characters who are Indian, and he is known for vilifying white authors for attempting to do so, particularly Barbara Kingsolver.
Kingsolver insists she resents his attitude because it would “limit the scope” of most authors; presumably she resists confining authors to composing characters of their own ethnic and cultural background. Alexie explains, “I write what I know, and I don’t try to mythologize myself, which is what some seem to want, and which some Indian women and men writers are doing, this Earth Mother and Shaman Man thing, trying to create these “authentic, traditional” Indians.
We don’t live our lives that way. ” I find myself torn between agreeing with his criticism of writers such as Kingsolver or Tony Hillerman, who capitalize on the popularity of the Native American novel genre and perpetuate romantic stereotypes in their characterizations of Indian people, and my own rejection of the impossibility of non-Natives studying, reading, and writing about Native American people and culture in ways that are not colonizing and destructive.
I think, however, that Alexie’s own work is important because of its consumption by a variety of audiences, and I attribute the variety of response to his work to the confluence of traditions and multiple registers he taps in the creation of his art.