The short story The Toughest Indian in the World written by Sherman Alexie was an eye-opening experience for me. I grew up on a reservation on the West Coast of Canada and identify as an Indigenous woman, more specifically Haida. I am a second generation of intergenerational trauma because of residential schools however, I am grateful that I come from a family who speaks of colonialism and the role of these educational and societal systems and how their impact is still affecting communities today. However, sexuality has never been a topic that my parents nor grandparents speak about in terms of it being morphed since colonialism and I believe that the teachings at residential schools are to blame for that. Alexie’s confrontation of the taboos behind the secretive notions of sexuality has allowed me to explore more in depth the internal and external effects of colonial ideals in regards to sexuality. I will bring my subject position knowledge as well as the acquired knowledge that I have gained at university. I have taken Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice classes at UBC and because of that, my background knowledge of sexuality helped form my thoughts on Alexie’s piece, The Toughest Indian in the World. It is evident that Alexie challenges the sexual stigmas within a colonial country and by doing so, begins decolonizing sexuality.
The story reveals the realities of a colonial country as the author continuously makes references to the distinct cultural divides between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. Although there is a divide between the cultures, the non-Indigenous presence within the story is very limited. Therefore, Alexie uses an Indigenous man to represent the level of frustration Indigenous people feel towards settlers on a daily basis. The “Flathead Indian” serves to represent the internalized anger towards colonialism as the warrior fighter mentions that he was hitting him like he was a white man (Alexie 29). The narrator positions himself as an established Indigenous person by describing his job which implies he’s educated and hard-working, unlike the stereotyped Indigenous people in colonial literature. Despite his contributions to both worlds, he is still yearning for a sense of belonging in both the “modern world” and “Indigenous world.” There is the theme of unacceptance that is always being repeated and defined throughout the story. The father says that “love you or hate you, white people will shoot you in the heart. Even after all these years, they’ll still smell the salmon on you” (Alexie 21). This statement reveals the complex issues of discrimination, and no matter how much effort an Indigenous person puts into assimilating to the colonial standards of civilization, they will always be categorized as outcasts because of the Indigenous blood that runs through their veins.
As mentioned above, the narrator in the story is almost entirely integrated into the colonial culture. Although he is absorbed into the dominant way of life, his ethnicity is a constant reminder of how different he is and his ex-girlfriend Cindy plays the defining role to confront this issue. For countless reasons due to colonialism, he still struggles with his identity as a “Spokane Indian” and choosing which world to conform with is a nearly impossible decision to make; the narrator just like many contemporary Indigenous people living in a modern world believes that he needs to give one up. Alexie purposefully uses the foreshadowing technique to bring the narrator’s confusion to the readers attentions by making references to everyday life components such as music and the “cross-cultural songs that combined Indian lyrics and rhythms with country-and-western and blues melodies” (Alexie 23). This idea rewrites the notion of the “dead Indian” and allows the reader to experience a culture that is evolving within the colonial structures that were meant to erase everything about Indigeneity. In order to succeed in a “white man’s world,” the narrator distances himself from his community and states that he hasn’t “lived on [his] reservation in over twelve years” (Alexie 27). He is continuously trying to grapple with the idea that the colonial way of life leads you to wealth and happiness and for this reason, he does not completely throw away his culture. To honor his Indigenous roots, the narrators continues to participate in the ritual of Cour d’Alene that was passed down from his father. While performing this ritual, Alexie makes note that contemporary Indigenous people can switch their communicative techniques when trying to conform to the standards of a colonial country or while speaking to other Indigenous peoples. The narrator changes his vocabulary to make sure the “Lummi Indian”, hitchhiker would know that he was from a reservation and feel comfortable in his car. Acculturation is a survival technique for Indigenous peoples who are expected to give into the dominant culture of the country. The narrator will never be entirely welcomed to the dominant culture, but because he conforms to other aspects of colonial culture in terms of education and economics (contributions to the working world), he will be rejected by his Indigenous culture. This issue of displacement and exclusion is an effect felt widespread by many contemporary Indigenous people.
Adding onto this point of cultural confusion, it is evident that since colonization, sexuality has been morphed into an aspect of discomfort for Indigenous people. Alexie brings to light the struggles of contemporary Indigenous people and how sexual desires that do not conform to the colonial criteria are deemed as shameful. Before colonization, Alexie’s story is suggesting that Indigenous populations were free spirited and sexual taboos did not exist. It is clear that since colonial influence has been present, specific sexual behaviors and desires are labeled as abnormal, such as non-heterosexual relationships. Furthermore, colonial views on sexual activity is an aspect of life that is strictly saved for marriage. Unlike the colonial beliefs of matching sexuality with marriage and marriage with a religion binding, Indigenous sexual encounters were based on lineage. As long as you were not descendants of the same clan, it was okay to pursue. Sexuality for pre-colonial Indigenous people was based on pleasure and freedom rather than the European understandings of reproductivity.
Colonial guidelines continue to conflict with Indigenous understandings of sexuality and become more complex when we analyze female sexuality in a patriarchal, colonial country. Colonization is about labeling who is superior based on an imposed system. Females in a patriarchal society are supposed to represent purity, and their innocence should be sheltered until marriage. Patriarchy outlines the hierarchies within society, and white men in a colonial country have placed themselves above women to claim their masculine titles. This mindset is the polar opposite of Indigenous cultures as most Indigenous peoples kinship orders were based on matrilineal ties. The contradiction of the two sexual cultures; one being about power (patriarchy) and the other about pleasure (Indigenous) were so different that the colonizers worked endlessly to break down the ideas of free sexual acts through institutionalized teachings. Sexuality for men in a patriarchal society is the most defining feature of manhood and homosexuality represents the opposite of masculinity. It is not a coincidence that Alexie uses a physically strong Indigenous man to represent a rebellious act against the patriarchal system of beliefs because strength such as being a fighter ultimately fits the definition of what it means to truly be a man in a patriarchal world. However, I interpreted this scene differently based on my familial connections to these ideas of shame around sexuality. More specifically, what sparked my mind was the learned ideas of shame regarding same-sex sexual encounters because of the perpetuated sexual violence at residential school. A child’s first sexual experience ultimately defines the way they will perceive and feel towards specific acts and this may lead to resentment in regards to “homosexual” encounters. Furthermore, the gendered separation at the residential schools taught children the colonial views of the roles of men and women and therefore, created a normality. These embedded ideas have left Indigenous people confused because their desire of non-heterosexual pursuing’s are “evil.”
Throughout the story, the author Alexie uses symbolism to describe the vanishing culture of Indigenous people. The dead salmon are a symbol of the rich culture that is presumably disappearing or this is at least the goal of colonialism. However, the narrator describes the ancestry of his people and culture using stars to identify this. For me, this was a powerful comparison as Alexie utilizes irony because the stars represent death and they are a constant reminder to “white” people of what has been destroyed and a reminder to Indigenous people of what is deceased. However, the irony is useful because stars shine brightly in the sky and even in the darkness of colonialism, Indigenous cultures beauty seeps through. The narrator is desperate to be saved from the overwhelming lifestyle in a colonial country, and it is evident that while performing his ritual of picking up hitchhikers, he is convinced that Indigenous strength is not dead. The tough Lummi Indian fighter is a symbol of ancestral warriors, and the narrator craved for a savior. By experimenting sexually with the contemporary warrior, the narrator is rebelling against the social construct of sexuality within the colonial structures. Choosing to dismiss the rules of sexuality and not conforming to the binary classification of what is perceived as acceptable and unacceptable, the narrator frees himself from the embedded ideals. Although this was the first “homosexual” encounter for the narrator, he recognizes that is transformation was necessary in order to open the doors to the possibility of returning home to his people and culture. The narrator is outlining his journey as a contemporary Indigenous man, and this spontaneous change allows the readers to believe that all Indigenous people eventually find their way back home.
Alexie successfully revealed the struggles of contemporary Indigenous people in regards to their sexuality in the short story The Toughest Indian in the World. The topic of sexuality was particularly challenging for me articulate as my family is guilty of stigmatizing sexuality and I believe these ideas of right and wrong behavior were fostered through their residential school experiences. Colonialism is undoubtedly the driving force behind the mixed emotions of non-conformative sexual desires. Institutions are guilty of providing contributing factors of confusion around sexual cultures and the constant struggle of Indigenous people striving to not only survive but also yearning for total acceptance. For me, Alexie does an excellent job at breaking down the many barriers of Indigenous sexuality, manhood in a patriarchal country and his narrative has the power to spark conversations with all Indigenous peoples who are currently combatting internal conflicts within a colonial country.
Alexie, Sherman. The Toughest Indian in the World. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000. Print.