Despite 400 years of what amounted to genocide at the hands of Europeans, indigenous peoples of North America – known variously as Native Americans, First Peoples, Amerinds, or their own preferred appellation, “Indians” (a name bestowed by Columbus who believed he had actually reached India in 1492) stubbornly remain. Beyond the borders of the reservations – some awash in casino dollars, others as impoverished as any country in sub-Saharan Africa – Indians have assimilated to a degree, as was the wish of their Euro-American conquerors, working as teachers, psychologists, lawyers, politicians, professional soldiers, restaurateurs, engineers, physicists and other white collar professionals. These upper-middle and middle-class, “assimilated” Indians are not generally represented in the media or popular literature.
Perhaps this is because the “assimilation” has not fully taken; no matter how much a part of mainstream modern American society they become, they can never completely leave behind their “Indian-ness.” This is a theme that runs throughout the stories of Couer d’Alene Indian writer and poet Sherman Alexie.
This is shown in a very poignant manner in the short story Assimilation, in which a middle-class Indian woman, married to a blue-eyed Euro-American (perhaps in response to old stereotypes, Alexie has made all his Euro characters blue-eyed), feels a compulsion to have an extra-marital affair with an Indian man for a single reason: she herself is an Indian. Still attracted to her husband, she finds herself becoming bored with the whole thing and has an intense desire to have sex with a complete stranger for no other reason than her husband is white.
On the surface, this is a typical story about a woman bored with her marriage, seeking a bit of a thrill, aware of her husband’s shortcoming, but in the end, realizing her love for him in the context of tragedy. The twist is the fact that hers is a “mixed” marriage, and that she is an Indian. Such unions between Indian women and white men (and occasionally, Indian men and white women) were fairly common along the western frontier during the 19th century, but usually involved the white partner becoming assimilated into the Indian culture – or at least living in close proximity to it. Men who took Indian wives were typically mountain men, hunters and trappers whose lifestyles were similar to the Indians among whom they lived. White women who would up with Indian husbands were invariably ones who had been captured as young girls and raised as Indians.
In Assimilation, Sherman Alexie turns this situation completely on its head. In a new century and an alien culture and society, it is the Indian who has assimilated into white culture. The problem is a sticky little issue called “race.” Among Indians prior to the encounter with whites, “race” was unknown. Even with the first contacts starting with Lewis and Clark (the Spanish had been quite merciless in their dealings with Indians further south) and early French-Canadian trappers (who frequently intermarried with Indians, to which numerous French surnames on Northern and Northwestern reservations will attest), race was less an issue of skin color and more a matter of language, dress and culture. A blond, blue-eyed man who spoke the language, wore traditional clothing and practiced Indian ways was considered, for all intent and purposes, an Indian.
Mary Lynn attempts to tell herself here that she is indeed simply bored and needs to “shake things up” – but the deep and meaningful symbols that surround here – which are always there in the background – betrays her as someone trying to convince herself of something she doesn’t really believe. For example, on pages 5 and 6, her ruminations of Indian men she’d known growing up – undependable, unreliable, “liars, cheats and thieves” – versus white men – predictable and mundane – make her earlier claims that the affair has nothing to do with being an Indian somehow ring hollow. As hunters and gatherers, the lives of Indians before the arrival of Europeans was unpredictable – even dangerous – but it was their life. The agricultural society (symbolized in this story by urban life) was certainly more predictable and dependable – but it was a lifestyle imposed from outside.
The “metaphors” occur here on many levels. The “deep symbolism” here can be found in the Indian man she chooses for an affair, who simply happens to be the first one who comes along – a “fat Lummi” of questionable hygiene – and the setting, a seedy hotel in downtown Seattle. In a real way, this is a “cleansing ritual” for her. Mary Lynn’s need for a “thrill” is really symbolic of her need to deal with her guilt over leaving the “rez,” the privilege of walking to work at Microsoft which she shares with 21 other American Indians who had ever been so privileged (15), subconsciously acknowledging the reason her own parent seem to favour her dark-skinned sons over her light-skinned daughters. Likewise, the 520 bridge – over which she and Jeremiah “loved each other across the distance – is a deep and meaningful symbol of the divide across which she and the man of her choosing much reach in order to make their union work.
Mary Lynn does not truly resolve this issue by the end of the story; rather, the issue seems to go back into the closet where it exists most of the time. One could imagine that it will eventually re-emerge at some point. In a way, this story is not so much a celebration of the triumph of love as it is a eulogy for the death of diversity. Mary Lynn may have the straight black hair, the copper skin and Asiatic features of her ancestors who crossed the Bering Strait millennia ago, but for all intents and purposes, she has become a white woman – in the same way that captured white girls and mountain men of 150 years ago invariably became Indian. We may rejoice that True Love triumphs in the end, but in regaining her love for Jeremiah, Mary Lynn has given up something nearly as precious.
We cannot know what Mary Lynn’s Indian name is or would have been. But in this story, we know that unlike the captive white girl of 150 years ago, there is still full-blooded Coeur d’Alene Indian woman living and breathing, however deeply she may be buried who is still connected to that heritage – no matter how beaten-down and dysfunctional it has become in its modern form.
Alexie, Sherman. The Toughest Indian In The World (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000).