Book Review: The Toughest Indian in the World by Sherman Alexie

The Toughest Indian in the World
Sherman Alexie
Grove Press, 2001
ISBN 0802138004
Trade Paperback

“Are you an Indian?” he asked me.

Of course I was. (Jesus, my black hair hung down past my ass and I was dark as a pecan!) I’d grown up on my reservation with my tribe. I understood most of the Spokane language, though I’d always spoken it like a Jesuit priest. Hell, I’d been in three car wrecks! And most important, every member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians could tell you the exact place and time where I’d lost my virginity. Why? Because I’d told each and every one of them. I mean, I knew the real names, nicknames, and secret names of every dog that had lived on my reservation during the last twenty years.

“Yeah, I’m Indian,” I said.

—   from “One Good Man”

The Toughest Indian in the World is a collection of short stories by acclaimed author Sherman Alexie. A Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, Alexie writes almost exclusively about Indians (Indians, not Native Americans), particularly those who are also all or part Spokane or Coeur d’Alene.

The stories in The Toughest Indian in the World are about identity and how it informs and guides relationships: about what it means to be an Indian, a man, a woman, a person, a Coeur d’Alene, a Spokane, a wife, a husband, a lover, a son, and many other labels people either find themselves tagged with or claim for themselves. “Assimilation,” the story that opens the collection, makes this examination of identity and its role in forming relationships explicit in its opening paragraph:

For the first time in her life, [Mary Lynn] wanted to go to bed with an Indian man only because he was Indian. She was a Coeur d’Alene Indian married to a white man; she was a wife who wanted to have sex with an indigenous stranger. She didn’t care about the stranger’s job or his hobbies…. She didn’t care if he was handsome or ugly, mostly because she wasn’t sure exactly what those terms meant anymore and how much relevance they truly had when it came to choosing sexual partners.

The narrator of the title story informs the reader that, because he is a Spokane Indian, he only picks up Indian hitchhikers, a habit he acquired from his father. “Dear John Wayne” records an interview between a white anthropologist and an elderly Indian woman who claims to have had an affair with John Wayne during filming of “The Searchers.” When the interviewer attempts to assert his erudition and authority she retorts:

For the last one hundred and eighteen years, I have lived in your world, your white world. In order to survive, to thrive, I have to be white for fifty-seven minutes of every hour.

Q: How about the other three minutes?

A: That, sir, is when I get to be Indian, and you have no idea, no concept, no possible way of knowing what happens in those three minutes.

Q: Then tell me. That’s what I’m here for.

A: Oh, no, no, no. Those three minutes belong to us. They are very secret. You’ve colonized Indian land but I am not about to let you colonize my heart and mind.

Continue reading