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Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie

Updated December 27, 2021
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Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie essay

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Vreeland, in her book Luncheon of the Boating Party, describes the plight of those who lack connections with others, a culture or a community when she writes, “Where there is no human connection, there is no compassion. Without compassion, then community, commitment, loving-kindness, human understanding, and peace all shrivel. Individuals become isolated, the isolated turn cruel, and the tragic hovers in the forms of domestic and civil violence.” To expand on Vreeland’s astute understanding of the human condition, those that have no connection with others have great difficulty establishing a sense of self.

Such is the case with three of the main characters in Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie. Through the fixation on violence by the main characters in Indian Killer, Sherman Alexie suggests that anger and cruelty towards others stems from the extreme struggle that Native Americans encounter in finding their own identity, because without a strong sense of self, they are likely to lash out at others whom they perceive to be at fault for their particular circumstance. Ultimately, however, the internal conflict and outward attacks only lead to a total self-destruction.

Although the characters John, Marie and Reggie in Indian Killer all have Native American heritage, they have a difficult time identifying with that culture due to a separation caused by family circumstance, distance and time. Whereas race is genetic, culture is acquired through life’s experiences and the surrounding customs that exist. Reggie is Americanized by his father, Bird, from a very young age. Bird tells him, “I don’t want you to end up like all the other Indians…I want you to love your country. I want you to know your history” (Alexie 94). Bird’s repetition of what “I want” symbolizes the assumed hierarchy of white men over Indian men. Bird continually reminds Reggie that “his” history is the white man’s history so much so that, “Reggie had come to believe that he was successful because of his father’s white blood, and that his Indian mother’s blood was to blame for his failure” (94).

The strong, forceful tone with which Bird speaks further emphasizes the hierarchical relationship, which he then asserts through his actual words, associating whites with success and Indians with failure. Reggie’s strict, white upbringing by Bird prevents him from identifying with Native American culture. John is also born to an Indian mother but is immediately helicoptered off for adoption by Daniel and Olivia Smith, a privileged white couple living in Seattle. John is instantly “airlifted” from his Native American culture by men dressed in all white removing him from his mother’s arms. Alexie creates this image to clearly show the Indian culture being taken away by white men.

Growing up with the Smiths, John ends up attending a Catholic school as the “token” minority student. His only slight connection to his Native American roots is through the stories and books that Olivia reads to him. While attending an Indian basketball tournament with Daniel, however, “John felt like crying. He did not recognize these Indians. They were nothing like the Indians he had read about. John felt betrayed” (22). The emotion behind the “betrayal” and “crying” leaves the reader feeling John’s total emptiness due to a lack connection to anyone or anything. John and Reggie are victims of circumstance which results in the complete separation from their Indian heritage.

Unlike John and Reggie, Marie chooses her own circumstance that results in the detachment from her Indian culture. Marie grows up on the Spokane Indian Reservation but chooses to focus on her education at an early age rather than tribal customs. Because many of her peers focus on their culture rather than schooling, “Marie felt more and more isolated” (33). By describing Marie’s isolation as a child, Alexie is foreshadowing Marie’s future isolated condition in all aspects of her life. While her parents prepare Marie for the outside world, she drifts further and further from Spokane culture and “because she did not dance or sing traditionally, and because she could not speak Spokane, Marie was often thought of as being less than Indian” (33).

Alexie describes her feeling and being thought of as “less than Indian” to show that it is her insecurity about her own heritage that drives her anger and hatred toward those like Wilson and Dr. Mather that claim to be Indian. She cannot stand the thought of being “less” Indian than white men. Alexie depicts the upbringings of John, Reggie and Marie to show that their connection to Native American culture is strained by their circumstances, whether chosen or forced upon them.

Alexie sums up their situation well when describing Marie’s troubles with others as he writes, “Indians were always placing one another on an identity spectrum, with the more traditional to the left and the less traditional to the right” (39). Because their Indian identity depends on how connected to, and knowledgeable of, their traditional tribes they are, the three characters find themselves very distant from any sense of Indian belonging.

Disconnected from their tribal roots, John, Marie, and Reggie also fail to assimilate into the white culture that they are thrust into, causing them to struggle to develop any firm sense of identity. John realizes at a young age that he is very different from his white parents. As he walks into his parents room unexpectedly seeing them naked, he quickly “understood he was not only darker without clothes, but he was different shades of darkness” (306). In an attempt to connect with his family heritage, John “rubbed at his face, wanting to wipe the brown away” (306).

The repetition of “dark” and wanting to get rid of the “brown” suggests a desire to escape from a perceived wrong. As John ages, he becomes stuck in a void between two cultures, one that he tries to escape from and one that he cannot assimilate into, leaving him feeling disconnected from both. When he gets into a scuffle with Reggie, Ty and Harley, John becomes speechless as “he had no idea what kind of Indian he was…John was lost, trying to sign, twisting his hands into shapes that approximated words” (280).

Alexie chooses the word “lost” to describe John’s state because of his total inability to know who he really is. Similarly, Marie lives caught between her Spokane heritage and the urban Indian community around Seattle without a real solid attachment to either. When she first meets John at a protest on campus, “she felt his confusion and loss…He was a stranger here, and Marie understood that isolation” (38). Again, Alexie uses the word “loss” to emphasize the core feeling of confusion and uncertainty the characters have about their identity.

Reggie’s lack of personal identity emerges at the end of high school when he realizes he is not really accepted by the white community he lives among. After his girlfriend makes a disparaging remark about Indians, Reggie spends a week having angry sex with her as “he’d wanted her to give birth to a brown baby. He’d wanted to dilute his Indian blood. He’d wanted some kind of revenge. He’d wanted some place to spill his pain” (183). Alexie’s use of aggressive phrases like “angry sex”, “revenge”, and “spill his pain” all serve to stress the hostility that is boiled up inside of Reggie ready to explode out. Being outcast by the white community leads Reggie to being ashamed of being Indian, which ultimately lands him in a place where he does not even really know who he is. A cultural disconnect leaves all three characters internally lost as they navigate their lives without a sense of identity.

Lacking cultural connectedness and identity, John, Marie and Reggie, in their own ways, project their internal strife outwards toward others whom they blame for causing their pain. In the end, however, the end result of their actions is that they destroy themselves. Marie lashes out vocally at whites who she believes fraudulently claim Indian ancestry. Marie is incensed by people who presume to know what it means to be Indian when she does not even really understand herself. In an attempt to navigate through her lost world, “She needed conflict and, in those situations where conflict was absent, she would do her best to create it” (61).

By describing Marie as needing conflict so badly that “she would do her best to create it”, Alexie once again depicts the insecurity about her own identity that forces her to project anger and attacks toward others. Her ire manifests itself further when pushed to the edge by the “Indian,” Dr. Mather. Unable to control her thoughts, “She wanted every white man to disappear. She wanted to burn them all down to ash and feast on their smoke. Hateful, powerful thoughts. She wondered what those hateful, powerful thoughts could create” (85).

Extreme rage is shown in her barbaric thought of “feasting on their smoke” and the repetition of “hateful, powerful thoughts.” Ultimately, all of Marie’s public outrage and contentious interactions wind up sabotaging the caring, homeless-feeding person she is trying to create herself to be, leaving her simply known as a person of interest by the police who seems to know a bit too much about all of the suspects and events surrounding the Indian Killer.

Whereas Marie lashes out verbally, John’s and Reggie’s internal fury leads them to physical violence toward whites, and even other Indians, in an attempt to find a sense of purpose, even if it is negative and evil. John’s confusion causes him to fear everyone and find refuge in his imagination before he, too, finally snaps and resorts to violent thoughts and actions. John transitions from his delusional, imaginative thoughts on the last skyscraper in Seattle where he feels he “needed to kill a white man” to “knowing” the only way to save himself from all of his internal anguish is to kill Wilson (25). John knows he “needed to be saved and John knew exactly which white man had to die for him” (380).

Alexie shows how John comes full circle from knowing he has to kill a white man to knowing exactly which one he has to kill. John proceeds to cut a permanent mark into Wilson’s face with a knife as he whispers, “Let me, let us have our own pain” (411). The only thing John really knows is anger, violence and pain from a lack of self and connectedness, which ultimately causes John to “fall” into a dream state forever by stepping off the last skyscraper in Seattle. He ends the search for his identity by plunging to his physical death. Finally, Reggie’s reaction to his internal conflict results in pure hatred and violence toward others. He literally beats a young white man unconscious and presses his eyes out of their sockets as “Reggie dug into his eyes, searching for whatever existed behind them.”

Reggie’s savage action metaphorically mirrors his long, internal “search” for who he is behind his own eyes. Reggie attempts to cling to a connection with his Indian roots by acting as if his violence toward whites and Indians will help him to define himself. After bullying Wilson, John and even his best friends, Reggie ends up running away from Seattle to anywhere in hopes of defining himself as an Indian who never gives in to whites. His actions result in a destiny of wandering aimlessly using outward violence that serves only to kill his inner being. The total internal confusion and lack of identity that exists, leads the three characters to harassment and violent actions toward others but, in the end, simply results in their own self-destruction.

Sherman Alexie clearly shows the direct correlation between a lack of identity and hostility, and even violence, toward others as he details the lives of John, Marie and Reggie. By not connecting with neither their Indian culture nor the predominant white culture, the three characters lash out at others and, ultimately, head down a path of self-destruction that leads them no closer to finding their identity. The struggle to understand one’s own identity is magnified by the lack of cultural heritage. Caught between two worlds, Indians are susceptible to the confusion, anger and hopelessness that is created by the void of an identity. Alexie sums it up perfectly through Marie as she states profoundly, “John Smith was screwed up. He was hurting. He didn’t know up from down. He got screwed at birth. He had no chance. I don’t care how nice his white parents were. John was dead from the start” (417).

Works Cited

  1. Alexie, Sherman. Indian Killer. New York: Grove Atlantic, 1996. Print
  2. Vreeland, Susan. Luncheon of the Boating Party: Penguin Books, 2008. Print
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