Negotiating Violence and Identity in Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer

Giorgio Mariani,

Rome, Italy

Sherman Alexie is certainly one of the most commercially and critically successful among contemporary American Indian writers. His fame has spread well outside the USA and his books have been translated into several languages. Alexie, however, has also earned a reputation as a somewhat controversial author. In particular, his 1996 novel Indian Killer has been described by some reviewers and critics as a surprising departure from the humorous and compassionate attitude displayed in most of his previous poetry and fiction. More specifically, the novel has been subjected to a detailed and decidedly unfavorable critique by Arnold Krupat, one of the most respected and influential scholars of American Indian literature. Krupat is baffled by what he considers the novel’s espousal of a kind of militant and aggressive “Red Nationalism.” What he finds especially troubling and “frightening” is that the novel’s thesis seems to be that “anger, rage, and a desire for murderous revenge must be expressed, not repressed or channeled into other possible action” (103). In short, Indian Killer is a disturbing book because it advocates a kind of “red” terrorism (my definition, not Krupat’s) fueled by an “anti-racist racism” analogous to the one Jean-Paul Sartre described, and praised, in his well-known essay “Black Orhpeus.” The argument of this essay is that Indian Killer is a more contradictory text than Krupat and others have acknowledged. Even though it is not a perfectly realized aesthetic and cultural object, what makes this novel an important one are precisely its ideological ambiguities and structural flaws. In particular, I would like to show that if on the one hand the novel seems indeed to encourage the violent expression of pent-up Indian rage, on the other it constantly and unequivocally calls into question the “nationalist” as well as the ethical rationale of the very violence it seems to advocate. This becomes especially clear when one compares—along transcultural and transnational, rather than nationalist lines—the novel to John Ford’s classic Western The Searchers, a film that not only Indian Killer refers to, but in several ways ends up mirroring. [1] The Searchers is in fact a movie that, from the opposite point of view of the White settlers, interrogates the foundational violence of America and tries—in a contradictory way strikingly similar to that of Alexie’s narrative—to both justify and repudiate violence as a creative force.

Like so many other American Indian writers, Alexie grew up struggling against what scholars have variously described as the “pretend” or “white man’s” Indian (see Batialle and Silet; Berkhoefer). As he writes in an early and perceptive autobiographical sketch, “On the reservation, when we played Indians and cowboys, all of us little Skins fought on the same side against the cowboys in our minds. We never lost” (First Indian 102). [2]Here Alexie underlines his rejection of the role of “extra” which the “Great Western Film” of U.S. history has forced Indians to play. However, Alexie’s emphatic declaration of victory—“we never lost”—is tinged with more irony than one may at first realize. In fact, when in Indian Killer Alexie returns to the vexed question of how Indians relate to the Western culture industry, he seems much less optimistic about the possibility of beating the cowboy eternally haunting the Indian’s mind. In chapter 6 of the novel’s third section, Reggie—a youngster whose mother is Spokane and whose father is white—is watching on TV with his Indian friends Ty and Harley (who is deaf-mute) John Ford’s The Searchers. The movie stars John Wayne as Ethan Edwards, an unrecostructed Southern Civil War veteran who spends many years searching for his niece Debbie(played by Natalie Wood). The girl is kidnapped by a group of Comanches following an attack on Ethan’s brother’s farm in which the rest of the family is brutally slaughtered. As Alexie reminds his readers, however, if initially Ethan hopes to bring young Debbie back home, as time rolls on the objective of his search changes dramatically. “He planned on killing her if he ever found her, because she’d been soiled by the Indians” (319).

The three young Indians enter into a heated discussion concerning not only the plot of the movie but, implicitly, also their own attitudes towards the largely white urban world in which they live, and the tragic events unfolding therein.

“What would you do if some Indians took your niece or your child?” Harley signed the question to Ty.

“I’d wonder which powwow they were going to,” signed Ty.


“Seriously. I don’t have a child. I don’t know.”

“I’d kill her,” signed Reggie. “I understand what John Wayne is feeling. How would you feel if some white people kidnapped an Indian kid? I’d cut them all into pieces.” (320)

What immediately strikes the reader is that Reggie, rather than sympathizing with the Indians, totally identifies with the Wayne character. He even goes so far as to argue that he would not only punish the kidnappers, but the kidnapped herself, presumably because he, too, like Ethan Edwards, believes she has been “polluted” by her prolonged contact with the enemy. Now, Reggie’s response has its own logic, and it would seem to exemplify the splitting of the self experienced by many an Indian spectator of a Western movie. As Jennifer Gillan has incisively put it, “while the western narrative encourages them to identify with the hero, [the Indian spectators] also recognize themselves in the Indian villains” (102). Reggie identifies with the white hero even though, as anyone who has carefully watched the movie knows, he is more of a negative rather than a positive hero. Then, as if to compensate for his identification with a man who viscerally hates Indians, he overturns the filmic situation by conjuring up an inverted scenario in which the kidnappers are white and the stolen child is Indian.

This scene, however, is also important in terms of Indian Killer ‘s plot. Reggie is a mixed-blood who feels Indian and not white, but who can hardly forget a childhood marked by the beatings and the psychological tortures of “that brutal stranger who pretended to be Reggie’s father” (320) and who wanted to make of him a “non hostile Indian.” It is no accident that immediately after stating that he would have killed both kidnappers and kidnapped, “Reggie wondered if he’d been stolen away from his real family” (320). This cannot strike the reader as anything but an unlikely possibility. His mixed-blood status is emphasized by the blue eyes he shares with the movie star he sympathizes with. But his reflections are significant because they unveil a specific psychological and cultural problem. To the extent that Reggie identifies with both the ruthless avenger and the kidnapped child, the violence that should provide him with a solution to his impasse finally turns against himself. By fantasizing that he, too, would kill Debbie, while all along thinking of himself as a child stolen from a full-blood Indian family, Reggie stands out as an exasperated version of the Indian who looks at himself through the eyes of the colonizer. He is a victim of what W. E. B. Du Bois famously described as “double consciousness.” The violence that Reggie imagines would heal his soul has absolutely nothing emancipatory about it. On the contrary, his violent fantasy is ultimately not only homicidal, but suicidal. Reggie is described as the agent as well as the target of his own violent impulses.

Even though Reggie is not a major character in the novel, his social and psychological situation reverberates in important ways in the plot of Indian Killer. One of the narrative archetypes behind Alexie’s novel as well as John Ford’s The Searchers is obviously the captivity narrative. In Alexie’s case, as in some other recent American Indian novels, this archetype is overturned as the main protagonist is not a white abducted by the Indians but, vice versa, an Indian abducted by whites. [3]In Indian Killer the abducted Indian is John Smith, adopted at childbirth by a liberal, well-meaning but in several ways pathetic white couple. As in The Searchers, the dividing line between kidnapping and adoption is extremely thin. In the movie, Debbie is first kidnapped but later adopted and perfectly integrated within the Comanche tribe. This circumstance reflects a historical fact: since the first “Indian wars” of colonial times, in a great number of cases Whites (both male and female) taken prisoners by the Indians refused to go back to “civilization” when they were given the opportunity to do so (see Axtell). It is thus not surprising that, in a cultural context marked—at least since the late nineteenth-century—by the white fantasy of “going Indian,” several white Americans would desire to be adopted by an Indian tribe. [4]This very peculiar “American dream” is mercilessly attacked by Alexie at several points in his novel, and nowhere more explicitly than in his vitriolic portraits of Native American Studies professor Clarence Mather—a man who flaunts his having been adopted into a Lakota family—and of detective-story writer as well as former cop Jack Wilson, who insists he is a descendant of the (fictional) Shilshomish tribe.

However, while Ford—notwithstanding his film’s many contradictions—imagines that a white woman may become perfectly assimilated into Comanche society—Alexie would seem to suggest that no successful social and cultural hybridization between whites and Indians can take place. [5] Alexie has been in general celebrated as an author who cultivates no hope of ever recuperating some kind of pristine and pure Indianness, and who sees the Indians’ identity as inescapably intertwined with a larger American identity. One would be inclined to conclude that, with Indian Killer, he has repudiated his previous convictions. Moreover, the book’s narrative is punctuated by the two brutal murders committed by the titular “Indian killer” and his novel ends with the killer (whose identity is never disclosed) dancing in an Indian cemetery, soon joined by other unidentified Indians (or ghosts of Indians). It should then come as no surprise that many readers are perplexed or outright shocked by the novel. In particular, as I have already noted, Arnold Krupat is deeply disturbed by what he sees as Indian Killer’s support of a violent and indiscriminate anti-white sentiment.

I would like to tackle this problem by first returning to the novel’s passage with which I started. Though in some ways logical, there is something uncanny in the fact that Reggie’s rage leads him to “understand” the behavior of one of the most ferocious Indian-haters of classic Western cinema. If Alexie wanted to grant some sort of legitimacy to the killer’s “homicidal fury,” it is rather strange that in The Searchers scene he equates the anti-Indian hatred of Ethan Edwards with the anti-white one of Reggie Polatkin. If his intent is to provide emotional and ideological support for an American Indian version of Fanon’s and Sartre’s “anti-racist racism,” here Alexie would appear to undermine his own narrative project. [6] If anything, the insistence on the equivalence of racially opposite violent impulses mirrors Ford’s filmic plot, before the latter more or less falls apart in the movie’s final fifteen minutes. Just as Ford constructs the Comanche chief Scar as Ethan’s double, Alexie suggests that Reggie’s hatred, besides being self-destructive, ends up making him idealize a racist figure he should in fact detest. Moreover, in order to avenge the assaults on some urban Indians organized by a white gang led by yet another double of Reggie’s—Aaron Rogers, whose brother is killed on an Indian reservation by two white delinquents—Reggie sets up with Ty and Harley his own American Indian counter-gang. The outcome is that just like Aaron and his buddies savagely attack some innocent homeless Indians, Reggie and his friends beat, torture, and nearly blind a poor white vagrant.

The symmetrical construction of these episodes is surely significant, and it is also analogous to the symmetry pursued by Ford for most of his movie. Each act of violence on the part of one of the two groups, or which is imagined as caused by one of the two groups, is inexorably matched by an equivalent violence perpetrated by the enemy, and so on in an endless cycle. Even though Alexie, unlike Ford, is not ambiguous regarding which group is historically responsible for the greater violence, there can be no doubt that—in a way that exactly parallels Ford’s—Alexie foregrounds the mimetic nature of violence and revenge. Even though he always describes the reasons behind the rage of his characters (whether Indian, or not), thus constantly widening the number of candidates for the role of the mysterious killer, Alexie also insists that there is no violence which is not always the mirror of a previous violence. [7]Finally, if on his part Ford makes of Ethan a character with whom, notwithstanding John Wayne’s charisma, the spectator has trouble identifying, Alexie makes it simply impossible for his readers to identify with the killer since the latter’s identity is never disclosed. Of his (or her?) personal history, what he or she believes in, what reasons he or she has for murdering people at random, we know virtually nothing. Yes, of course we know he or she hates whites for what they have done to Indians, but unlike the avengers with which so often literature or cinema ask us to sympathize with, the killer does not choose as his/her targets evil individuals who are responsible for heinous crimes. In his depiction of the killer’s murders, Alexie carefully avoids the narrative strategies usually employed to make violence, if not palatable, at least justifiable. If the goal of the novel is to provide a rationale for, or indeed to promote, American Indian terrorism, then one must conclude that Alexie goes about his task in an eminently contradictory and awkward way.

Krupat supports his critical reading of the novel by quoting the views of various characters, and in particular those of the young Spokane woman Marie, as if they were a direct expression of the author’s own thoughts. Others, however, have noted—rightly, to my mind—that not a single one of the novel’s characters is constructed in such a way as to elicit the reader’s unconditional sympathy. Though there may be a few similarities between views Alexie has expressed either in interviews or in other works, and some of the ideas that Marie entertains, that is by no means enough to conclude that everything she says reflects Alexie’s own views (see Chen 164). Consistently with a narrative project pivoting around the idea that many of the novel’s protagonists would have a motive for turning to violence, but no one can be conclusively identified as the killer, Alexie draws up a gallery of characters all marked by more or less serious flaws, without making of any one of them the perspective or moral center of the novel. Marie herself is constructed as a deeply ambivalent character. In the novel’s ending she defends John Smith from the charge of being the killer, but at the same time she tries to morally justify his deeds (“if some Indian is killing white guys, then it’s a credit to us that it took over five hundred years for it to happen” [418]). Moreover, earlier on she had argued that the killer could very well not be an Indian, but someone who “is just trying to make people think an Indian guy did it” (333)—an idea that not only is inconsistent with any moral condoning of the killer’s behavior, but one which realizes the political danger the killer objectively poses to the Indian cause. Marie’s contradictory reasoning is further underlined by the words with which she confronts the detestable professor Mather: “I mean, calling him the Indian killer doesn’t make any sense, does it? If it was an Indian doing the killing, then wouldn’t he be called the Killer Indian? I mean, Custer was an Indian killer, not a killer Indian” (247). Whether consciously or not, here Marie anticipates the point highlighted later on in the novel, when Reggie identifies with John Wayne. Hatred is hatred, and in the end it is difficult to trace a moral line between a celebrated Indian killer like Ford’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers and a (presumably) aspiring “killer Indian” like Reggie.

A further proof that, like Ford’s movie, Alexie’s novel resists what appears to be its surface meaning, lies with the key confrontation between the character of John Smith and that of “wannabe Indian” Jack Wilson. At a first glance the novel would seem to encourage readers to sympathize with Smith, the adopted/abducted Indian whose familial and cultural roots have been violently cut, and who has no concrete hope of finding the communitarian and tribal identity he so desperately longs for. Implicitly and explicitly contrasted with John, Jack Wilson, who profits as a writer from his invented identity, stands out as the fake Indian the reader is asked to dislike. That would seem to be all the more the case since he is described by Alexie as the author of a novel in progress entitled Indian Killer. Even though Alexie does not go into great detail concerning the nature of this text-within-the-text, we do know that its world-view is strikingly different from Alexie’s own Indian Killer (more on this in my concluding remarks). It does not take long, however, to realize that Wilson is nothing but Smith’s white doppelganger. [8]Both are de facto orphans who never manage to be happy in the families that have adopted them. Both wish to be not only biologically but also culturally Indian and they end up inventing a tribal identity (Navajo for Smith, Shilshomish for Wilson). For different reasons, both hang out with the homeless without ever managing to truly belong to this “urban tribe.” Both also have a name that ironically underlines their inescapably hybrid nature. Smith is named after the famous English explorer who was the first white made captive by the Indians, only to be rescued by the legendary “princess” Pocahontas. Jack Wilson, instead, is the Anglo name taken by Wovoka, the Piute Messiah leader of the Ghost Dance, the late nineteenth-century religious-political movement repeatedly mentioned in the novel. Finally, both Wilson and Smith are afflicted with a kind of monomania. The former believes to be writing “the book that would finally reveal to the world what it truly meant to be Indian” (338, my emphasis), while the latter is convinced that it is possible to identify the one individual responsible for his sufferings, whom he first identifies with the “overall man” who took him away from his mother at birth, and later with Jack Wilson himself: “You’re the one who’s responsible!” (404). [9]

From what I have said so far, it would be possible to draw the conclusion that, even though he looks at the world from an Indian point of view, like Ford in The Searchers, Alexie insists on the perverse and mutually destructive nature of any violent confrontation between Indians and Whites. The hatred gleaming from Reggies’ blue eyes is mirrored by Ethan Edwards’ blue eyes just as the latter are in turn mirrored by those of Ford’s (presumably mixed) Comanche chief Scar. Similarly, the radio conductor Truck Schultz is animated by a racism that finds its counterpart in John Smith’s desire to see “fear in blue eyes” (25)—a wish that evidently ignores how contemporary Indians too may have blue eyes. It is thus not surprising that Jack Wilson and John Smith, no matter how different they may at first appear to be, are in fact constructed as two halves of one whole. Let me be clear here. Alexie is obviously careful to distinguish between oppressors and oppressed, the colonizer and the colonized, and he is far from arguing that those who have profited and those who have suffered from the invasion of the Americas should be put on the same plane. As far as this historical question is concerned, Alexie completely overturns the outlook of a John Ford who was finally incapable of letting go of the desire to celebrate the “winning of the West.” And yet it is to my mind impossible to deny that, however contradictorily and perhaps reluctantly, both Alexie and Ford de facto undermine the possibility of pitting Indians and Whites against each other in a Manichaean way. Both Alexie and Ford show that violence always generates a dynamic in which, ultimately, the two enemy camps behave in more or less the same way, no matter how different the reasons that sustain their cause. It is no sheer coincidence, therefore, that Alexie has to face in the final pages of his novel a narrative problem not unlike the one Ford confronted in the final section of The Searchers. The mysterious Indian killer is in fact rather similar to Ford’s Ethan Edwards. His violence is sustained by a racial hatred equal and opposite to Ethan’s and, like the latter, the killer shies away from all social connections in order to pursue his insatiable desire for revenge. Unlike Ethan, however, the killer does not have a specific mission, nor does he finally perform as generous a gesture as Ethan’s, who in the end can’t bring himself to kill Debbie. It is no accident that in the novel the killer’s humanitarian act of returning unharmed to the Jones family the child he has kidnapped, is soon followed by another gratuitous murder. As the narrative draws to a close, the killer’s homicidal fury is not spent, and the novel does little or nothing to make the reader if not sympathize, at least understand, the killer’s reasons. If therefore Ford must find a way to exorcise the specter of racial violence he has conjured up, also Alexie must struggle with the problem of finding a narrative slot for the killer’s homicidal impulses that would be consistent with the novel as a whole.

I think one must admit that the ending of Indian Killer is unsatisfactory but, as is the case with The Searchers, what does not work on a narrative level is simply the symptom of a deeper and insoluble historical and political contradiction. [10]In the novel’s last chapter, entitled “A Creation Story,” the killer is not represented as an isolated and pathological figure. Whether the one we see in the final pages of the book is the killer, or his/her ghost, the figure dancing among the graves of an Indian cemetery is joined by other Indian dancers, as a nearby tree “grows heavy with owls” (420). What is evoked on the last page is no longer an individual, but a collective, indeed trans- or pan-tribal American Indian subject that would seem to finally rule out any ambiguity concerning the killer’s ethnic identity. Marie twice suggests that the killer may well not be an Indian. The last chapter appears to deny this possibility. Moreover, being linked to a collectivity, the killer is no longer presented as a crazy terrorist. Indeed, as Krupat laments, it would seem that Alexie is suggesting that the killer’s violence, or more generally, American Indian violence, must be considered as a “creative” tool—perhaps the tool necessary to forge a truly independent pan-Indian “nation” capable of confronting head-on the racism of white America. Krupat himself admits that, to the extent that the book’s final chapter has mostly a “ceremonial” rather than historical-realistic function, it may be more charitably interpreted as fantasy in which ultimately the image of the owls as “birds of prey” is transcended by that of the owls as “birds of prayer” (121). Yet , there is no denying that the novel’s last chapter does not offer any explicit repudiation of violence, nor expresses any regret for the two innocent and scalped white victims.

This political and moral problem is made manifest in the novel first and foremost as an aesthetic failure, given that the ambivalent attitude displayed in the novel’s ending objectively clashes with the narrative strategy Alexie adopts for the rest of his novel. As I have insisted, very much like Ford’s The Searchers, Alexie’s Indian Killer emphasizes how violence, whatever its reasons and justifications, has a perverse logic of its own that ends up undermining the very objectives it claims to pursue. Alexie does not simply show how every act of violence may always be reconstructed as an answer to a previous real or imagined aggression. Indian Killer also makes any identification with the killer problematic not only on an individual but on a symbolical level as well. A metaphorical reading of the killer as an embodiment of a century-old Indian resentment would seem all-too obvious, and yet in the novel, albeit from different viewpoints, this interpretation is advanced by two unsympathetic characters like Truck and Mather. The former argues that “The Indian Killer is merely the distillation of their rage” (346), whereas the latter explains in one of his lessons that the Indian killer is a “revolutionary construct … Indian people have had their culture, their children, metaphorically stolen by European-American colonization. And now, this Indian Killer has physically and metaphorically stolen a European-American child” (246). Even the idea that the final dance in the cemetery—a sort of fusion between the Ghost Dance and the Owl Dance—must be seen as a prelude to the return of the vanquished Indians on the American continent and the disappearance of the Whites, stands opposed to the episode in which Smith meets an old Indian woman. This woman tells Smith she has a “time machine” capable of taking him back to the moment in which Columbus landed on that fateful Caribbean beach. Smith’s task at that point would be to hide among the vegetation and, as the opportunity arises, stab Columbus with his knife and thus change the course of world history. It is certainly no accident that the woman is called Carlotta Lott—like the wife of the Biblical Lott, who turns into a pillar of salt as she turns back to look at the past, Carlotta is the ironic symbol of the impossible desire of going back to the past. The episode underscores the untenability of any millenarian perspective akin to that of the Ghost Dance, which is nonetheless ambiguously evoked in the novel’s final chapter.

One can therefore legitimately argue that the ending of Indian Killer is unsatisfactory from both a structural and an aesthetic point of view. Structurally, the ending is scarcely consistent with much of what goes on elsewhere in the novel, and especially with the novel’s insistence on the fearful symmetries of racial violence. Aesthetically, the text seems to lack a clear moral outlook, as it both critiques and condones the killer’s murderous rage. But if we must call attention to the antinomies of Alexie’s imagination, we need also stress that its flaws mediate and translate an insoluble historical and political tension that can by no means be imputed to Alexie himself. What Krupat calls “the rage stage” embodied in this novel cannot be understood, as Krupat suggests, as the expression of a “Red Nationalism” in some way comparable to the Black Nationalism of the 1960’s. Nationalisms of all stripes always have always resorted to a lesser or greater degree to the use of violence, but they have done so to promote specific political objectives, not simply out of frustration. Anticolonialist intellectuals like Franz Fanon and others supported and argued for the use of revolutionary violence on the part of colonized peoples, just as Malcolm X and the Black Panthers believed in the right to armed self-defense. Even terrorism—as Gillo Pontecorvo showed in his classic film The Battle of Algiers—played a role in anti-colonial struggles, and yet, for all its morally and ethically disturbing implications, it usually grew out of a specific national space whose control was claimed and, ultimately, gained. Violence for violence’s sake was never the goal of national liberation movements. Alexie’s “Indian killer” can hardly be described as a supporter of any “nationalism,” either “red” or of some other kind. As Shari Huhndorf has argued, nationalist criticism is not always relevant to today’s Indian Country because “it neglects indigenous communities that fall outside the legal category of ‘nation’—those without treaties, for example, or urban communities whose histories render “restoration” and political autonomy irrelevant” (Mapping 11). Now, the Indian community represented in Indian Killer is precisely an “urban tribe” made of individual Indians who are “outcasts from their tribes” (38 ), and who are inescapably caught up in “global social dynamics” (Mapping 11) that exceed any nationalist paradigm. The city of Seattle, where the novel takes place, is a transnational site where older nationalist narratives have little intellectual or political purchase. It is certainly no accident that, in what I think is one of the novel’s crucial passages, Alexie makes it a point, to reimagine the protagonists of three important American Indians novels (Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn [1968], Leslie Silko’s Ceremony [1977], James Welch’s The Death of Jim Loney [1979]) as homeless Natives who have ended up joining Seattle’s urban tribe (Indian Killer 220). The three novels in question are usually considered as “return narratives” in which the main characters manage, after overcoming a number of obstacles, to regain at least some sense of their tribal identity[10]. Correctly identified by Krupat as “realist legitimations of nationalism” (quoted in Huhndorf, Mapping 9) ), these narratives are allegorically singled out by Alexie as no longer adequate in an urban context where the social, cultural, and political problems faced by American Indians cannot be solved at any simple “nationalist” or tribal level. To the extent that the Indian killer’s rage may be indeed be seen as an expression or a metaphor of something larger than an individual’s pathological condition, it seems to embody more the desperation, frustration, and lack of direction of an uprooted and alienated urban community with no “national” space to win back or liberate, than any “politics” proper, nationalist or otherwise.

Perhaps we can begin to unpack the contradictory moral as well as aesthetic contradictions of the novel’s ending if we recall that, by referring to Jack Wilson’s novel by the same title, Alexie is explicitly setting his “anti-detective novel” against the genre of the murder mystery, and in particular against its so-called “American Indian” subgenre. Yet Alexie appears not only eager to satirize the work of Tony Hillerman and his numerous followers. [11]The hero of Wilson’s novels is Aristotle Little Hawk (my emphasis). Alexie wishes to call attention to the crucial cathartic feature of the “classic” detective novel. The literary scholar William Spanos sees in fact the detective novel as a quintessential embodiment of the “Aristotelianism” of Western narrative ideology, with its privileging of a “linear and temporal plot” meant to safeguard logical causality. In Wilson’s Indian Killer the murderer turns out to be John Smith, and the revelation comes with a sort of reassuring and politically correct moral: “Wilson says that Indian children shouldn’t be adopted by white parents. He says that those kids commit suicide way too often” (415). Alexie’s Indian Killer belongs to an entirely different tradition. Instead of providing its readers with a comforting solution, the novel promotes what Spanos identifies as “anti-Aristotelianism”, and it does so by literally “evoking rather than purging pity and terror”(39). Having chosen to write against the grain of the detective novel, Alexie cannot contain the violence he has conjured up within a ready-made narrative strategy. His simultaneous rejection of the aesthetics as well as the politics of the traditional murder mystery prevents him from linking the killer to a specific ideological discourse like that of nationalism.

If anything, the Indian killer’s random attacks may be seen as looking forward to 2001 and its aftermath—to a “global” terror whose aims are hopelessly muddled and, to the extent that they are declared, patently absurd (think of Al Qaida’s evocation of a new caliphate ). What I think is truly dark and depressing about the novel’s ending is not so much its apparent endorsement of a “rage stage” whose pointlessness and ineffectuality are duly highlighted by the overarching narrative, as its pessimistic outlook on the fate of the Indians in the age of transnationalism. Unlike Leslie Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, the mammoth novel that “departs from nationalist novels by positioning transnational alliances as the most powerful of anticolonial endeavors” (Huhndorf, Mapping 171), Indian Killer shows very little faith in Silko’s “tribal internationalism.” Though at some very general level both novels would seem to be ultimately committed to showing that “The Indian Wars have never ended in the Americas” and that Native peoples demand “nothing less than the return of all tribal lands”—as we read in the inside cover of Almanac—Silko’s novel envisions the actual retaking of ancestral lands by a revolutionary pan-tribal and transnational indigenous army, while Alexie’s offers the reader no hopefuls vistas. Silko too shows that there are “Indians flung across the world forever separated from their tribes and from their ancestral lands” (88), but Almanac imagines that such diasporic condition can be eventually remedied. In other words, she sees return narratives as compatible with a globalized, transnational context. To put it somewhat schematically, we might conclude that whereas her novel projects the Utopian potential of transnationalism as a historical juncture in which the violence and injustice of capitalism and imperialism can be finally confronted by a united and international indigenous front, Alexie—at least in Indian Killer—looks at the same period as one where rage and politics have become tragically disconnected. The novel’s ending may indeed be seen as dystopian in that the ghostly figures gathering in the cemetery are utterly unlike the ancestral spirit guiding Silko’s army. The latter have a real world and actual lands to reclaim, the former only a century-old thirst for revenge. And yet, paradoxically, one may well argue that Silko’s novel does not engage the thorny issue of the moral nature of revolutionary violence. There is some hope in Almanac that the revolution might be bloodless, but overall that does not appear as a likely possibility. Indeed, the notion of violence as an indispensable “creative” force is by no means ruled out by Silko’s novel (see, for instance, 739).

In Indian Killer, instead, while it is true that—as Krupat maintains—the killer’s murderous rage is not transcended or channeled into something less destructive, the brutality of violence, revolutionary or not, is frankly displayed. In fact, it is precisely because there is no politics proper to screen it or claim its necessity that we can see it for what it is: the brutal injuring of another human being’s body. In my reading, Alexie’s novel is an important one not in spite, but because of its inconsistencies. While the narrative suggests time and again that violence is not a tool through which the world can be changed for the better, it also insists in making the reader aware of the rage many indigenous people undoubtedly feel. Alexie is obviously aware that violence ignites violence, though he also knows that, however morally objectionable, the temptation to resort to violent means on the part of a people who has been oppressed, colonized, and decimated should be hardly surprising. This is what ultimately makes Alexie’s novel different from Ford’s film. The Searchers tries with its ending to hide the violence which the rest of the movie highlights—and to an extent— critiques, as if it were enough to exile Ethan in order to save the ethics of American civilization. Indian Killer , instead, does not hide the fact that, even though the impulse to embrace violence may be deeply unethical and politically self-defeating, it is in a sense at least emotionally justifiable given what Indian peoples have had to endure for centuries. However, to me there can be no doubt that while the final chapter flirts with the notion of violence as a “creative” force, the narrative as a whole moves in an opposite direction by emphasizing the essentially destructive and morally indefensible nature of violence. Unlike John Ford, who tries to sublimate the violence of colonization, Alexie prefers to be inconsistent and to contradict himself (like his favorite American poet, Walt Whitman) by reminding us that the temptation to embrace violence is always there and if we wish to overcome it, we surely cannot pretend it does not exist. Of course it was not too difficult for Ford to get rid of his Indian hater—after all, once Scar, the object of his hatred, has disappeared, Ethan’s presence is no longer necessary to the community. Alexie, on his part, may only dream of seeing white America go away. The scar left by white imperialism on the Indians is one that cannot heal easily. And yet, Indian Killer shows that if they were to resort to murderous violence—or, to use the novel’s language, if they were to pursue the dream of seeing fear in blue eyes—American Indians would seriously run the risk of seeing the world through the icy eyes of America’s super “cowboy” John Wayne [12].


[1]The relevance of transnationalism to Native American Studies has been called into question by some critics. Robert Warrior, for example, argues that “many Native people, including Native scholars, rely on the language of nationalism, the language in which the political struggle for their actual social world is being waged” (807) and thus remain wary towards an idea like transnationality, whose critical use, however, Warrior does not discount. On the other hand, Shari Huhndorf has explicitly argued in favor of a transnational perspective, noting, among other things, that “[a]lthough nationalism is an essential anti-colonial strategy in indigenous setting, nationalist scholarship neglects the historical forces (such as imperialism) that increasingly draw indigenous communities into global contexts” (Mapping 3). back to text
[2]The piece is entitled “My Heroes Have Never Been Cow-boys.” back to text
[3]See, for example, Leslie Silko’s Gardens in the Dunes as well as James Welch’s The Heartsong of Charging Elk. For some observations on Welch’s novel, see Mariani, “Rewriting.” back to text
[4]On this white fantasy see the excellent studies by Huhndorf (Going Native) and Philip Deloria. back to text
[5] Ford’s movie is commonly considered one of the greatest American movies ever made and has been the object of numerous critical studies. For some recent contributions see Eckstein and Lehman; Pippin; Sharrett. I have chosen not to analyze in detail Ford’s movie, as I assume most readers would be familiar with it. back to text
[6] Krupat (115) suggests that the violence evoked by Alexie in his novel may be considered as a sort of American Indian version of the politics of négritude: a politics of rougetude whose resistant anti-white “racism” is meant to contrast the dominant anti-Indian racism. back to text
[7]For a reading of Indian Killer as an “anti-detective” novel, see Mariani, La penna 139-54. back to text
[8]Alexie has resorted to the use of doubles also elsewhere in his fiction. See Jorgensen. back to text
[9]The connection between the two characters is further emphasized by a dream Wilson has, in which first he sees Smith knifing his victims, and later he is the one who is brandishing the knife and stabbing one white after another. It may also be worth recalling that the name Wilson cannot but bring to mind one of the most famous “doubles” of American literature: Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson. back to text
[10]Here I am echoing the well-known formula for ideological critique illustrated at length by Fredric Jameson in several of his works and in particular in The Political Unconscious. back to text
[11] I put the words “American Indian” in quotation marks because, with a few exceptions, most of these mysteries are written by non-Native writers like Tony Hillerman, Margaret Coel, Thomas Perry, Jack Page, Laura Baker, etc. This is not to say that these novels are ipso facto to be condemned, but the ethical issue of culture appropriation (or, as some would put it, exploitation) cannot be outright discounted. For a good overview of this subgenre see Browne. On the “anti-detective story” see both Spanos and Tani. In Tanti’s words, the anti-detective novel “frustrates the expectations of the reader … and substitutes for the detective as central and ordering character the decentering and chaotic admission of mystery, of nonsolution” (40). back to text
[12]I would like to thank Masturah Alatas and the two anonymous readers of an earlier version of this essay for their helpful and enlightening comments. back to text

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. First Indian on the Moon. New York: Hanging Loose Press, 1993.

———.Indian Killer. New York: Atlantic, 1996.

Axtell, James. “The White Indians of Colonial America.” The European and the Indian. Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981. 168-206.

Bataille, Gretchen M. and Silet, Charles L. P. ed. The Pretend Indians: Images of Native Americans in the Movies. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1980.

Berkhoefer, Robert F., Jr. The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present. New York: Vintage, 1979.

Bevis, William, “Native American Novels: Homing In.” Recovering the Word. Essays on Native American Literatures. Ed. A. Krupat and B. Swan. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. 580-620.

Browne, Ray B. Murder on the Reservation. American Indian Crime Fiction. Madison: Wisconsin University Press, 2004.

Chen, Tina. “Towards an Ethics of Knowledge.” MELUS 30 (Summer 2005):157-73.

Deloria, Philip Joseph. Playing Indian. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.

Eckstein, Arthur M., and Peter Lehman, ed. The Searchers: Essays and Reflections on John Ford’s Classic Western. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004.

Ford, John, dir. The Searchers. Warner Brothers, 1956. DVD.

Gillan, Jennifer. “Reservation Home Movies: Sherman Alexie’s Poetry.” American Literature 68 (March 1996): 91-110.

Huhndorf, Shari M. Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.

———. Mapping the Americas. The Transnational Politics of Contemporary Native Culture. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2009.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Jorgensen, Karen. “White Shadows: The Use of Doppelgangers in Sherman Alexie’s Reservation Blues.” Studies in American Indian Literatures 9 (Winter 1997): 19-25.

Krupat, Arnold. Red Matters. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002.

Mariani, Giorgio. La penna e il tamburo. La letteratura degli Stati Uniti e gli indiani d’America. Verona: ombre corte, 2003.

———. “Rewriting the Captivity Narrative: James Welch’s The Heartsong of Charging Elk.” In Ambassadors. American Studies in a Changing World. Ed. Massimo Bacigalupo and Gregory Dowling. Proceedings of the XVI Biennial A.I.S.N.A. Conference. Rapallo: Busco Edizioni, 2006: 214-19.

Owens, Louis. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Pippin, Robert B. “What Is a Western? Politics and Self-Knowledge in John Ford’s The Searchers.” Critical Inquiry 35 (Winter 2009): 223-53.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Black Orpheus.” Tr. John MacCombie. In “What is Literature?” and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988. 291-330.

Sharrett, Christopher. “Through a Door Darkly: A Reappraisal of John Ford’s The Searchers.” Cineaste 31.4 (Fall 2006): 4-8.

Spanos, William. “The Detective and the Boundary: Some Notes on the Postmodern Literary Imagination.” In Early Postmodernism: Foundational Essays. Ed. Paul Bové. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995. 17-39.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Gardens in the Dunes. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.

Tani, Stefano. The Doomed Detective. The Contribution of the Detective Novel to Postmodern American and Italian Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1984.

Warrior, Robert. “Native American Critical Responses to Transnational Discourse.” PMLA 122.3 (May 2007): 807-8.

Welch, James. The Heartsong of Charging Elk. New York: Doubleday, 2000.

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