okay, i'm done now :P so I thought i'd be nice and post my last essay ever along with some pics... I know that Spokane writer/director/poet/awesome guy Sherman Alexie is kinda a big deal so maybe he'll happen upon my essay by accident and who knows what could happen! *thinks about it* hmm.. maybe he'll post a comment! or maybe he'll sue me for putting words in his mouth... Naw it'll be fine!! Anyway, I'm going to post it just as I submitted it to my prof.. Ι warn you now, there are some typographical errors, a 3 in the middle of a word somewhere and a few repeat words or missing words but hey, if you even read it through that far then message me to send you an edited copy cuz you'd deserve it!! So don't judge me and just enjoy.. ;)
Womanhood, Women and Female Gender Identity in Sherman Alexie’s Ten Little Indians
In the short story “The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above” from one of his more recent works, Ten Little Indians, specific attention is paid to the representation and presentation of the modern Native woman, female-ness, womanhood and understanding of feminine gender identity. Estelle is presented to Alexie’s readers through her son’s descriptions and documenting, and she allows us [the Canadian university student] an understanding of who the “new” Native woman is in modern [non-rez] society. The young Native college student Corliss from “Search Engine” also provides examples for another type of portrayal of “new Native womanhood” which Alexie is presenting to his readers in comparison and in contrast to Estelle and to Sherman Alexie’s different understandings of “woman”. To support my argument I will be discussing the following terms: womanhood, gender-identity, racial and gender stereotyping, the “gaze” and the “other”/ “exotic” which I will define using the following three cultural studies texts: Edgar and Sedgwick’s Cultural Theory The Key Concepts, O’Brien and Szeman’s Popular Culture A User’s Guide and Sturken and Cartwright’s Practices of Looking: an introduction to visual culture. This essay will both consider and answer the following questions: How does Alexie present the women who are both traditional and modern and how does he define these two understandings of woman in his works? Furthermore, in understanding that Alexie gives his readers the “life and times” of Estelle through a male gaze and voice, it is important to consider whether or not he is continuing to fuel the patriarchal system and history of colonialism that has and continues to place Native women on the margins. Also, taking into consideration that the Spokane tribe, of which Alexie is a part, holds a Matriarchal social system, how might a female reader interpret the constant portrayal of women through “men’s eyes” or through the masculine perspective? Also, what is the effect of providing women and men as binary opposites, for Alexie; how might this be viewed as problematic for the reader? This essay seeks therefore, to discuss Native women and female gender identity in Sherman Alexie’s works.
Estelle Walks Above is described to the reader through her son and in relation to their connection as mother and son. In the first 2 pages of this short story, the son recounts that Estelle “was super smart […] born smart on the Spokane Indian Reservation and studied her way into the University of Washington during a time when she was pretty much the only Indian on campus” (Alexie 126). He establishes that his mother was “heroic” and self-sufficient; “she did it all by herself, with one hand holding a textbook and the other hand holding a squealing baby to her breast” (126). In these few sentences, Alexie has provided an understanding of who the woman Estelle is both in society and the home, and in the eyes of her son. Slowly, Sherman Alexie works to create an identity for Estelle through her Son’s perspective which gives his readers an understanding of the Native woman off of the reservation. It is important therefore to discuss the work that Alexie is doing to provide us with an understanding of Native women, their identity and issues surrounding Western gender norms. As such, it is relevant to discuss the following definition of “gender” in Cultural Theory Key Concepts:
“the concept of ‘gender’ is placed in opposition to the concept of ‘sex’ [female/male] and […] may be taken therefore to refer to learned patterns of behaviour and action, as opposed to that which is biologically determined. [Therefore] the precise ways in which women express their femininity and men express their masculinity varies from culture to culture. Thus, qualities that are stereotypically attributed to women and men in contemporary Western culture (such as greater emotional expression in women; greater tendencies to violence and aggression in men) are seen as gender.” (Edgar and Sedgwick 139)
Through this working definition, the reader will be able to understand that Alexie is pushing for construction of femininity or female gender norms in Estelle to be beyond or counter to traditional norms which include: passivity, a connection to nature, sensibility and subjective positions of power (Edgar and Sedgwick 103). Rather, through the son, Alexie gives us Estelle’s counter-normative gender identity wherein he refers to her as “fierce and protective, open and permissive” (130). Through this idea of womanhood or assertive female identity, Alexie is showing his readers that even the most historically and colonially marginalized subject- the Native woman- can embody a sense of self and power which places her [perhaps] above white and Native identity altogether but places her “above”.
Along with Estelle, Alexie gives his readers the story “Search Engine” in which he presents the character Corliss and through her a sense of another type of womanhood- the Native female college student. Through her, Alexie is able to another Native woman succeed against the baggage she is forced to carry as smart, Native, and a women. In Estelle’s short story, the son cites that “it’s tough to be a smart girl anywhere but it’s way tough on the rez” and like Estelle, Corliss too must face this issue which unfortunately leads of her off of the reservation (Alexie 126). In the short story, Corliss describes herself as “a poor kid, and a middle-class Indian, […] destined for a minimum-wage life […] but she wanted a maximum life, an original aboriginal life, so she had fought her way out of her underfunded public high school into an underfunded public college” (Alexie 5). Through her, the university student reader finds that Alexie is promoting strength, intelligence and self propelled work skills in 21st century womanhood for young Native women in the US and allowing a more positive perspective of women for themselves and the future. At the same time however, Alexie reminds his readers of the challenging colonial- therefore racial and stereotypical- history that Native women are still subjected to with the young man in the coffee shop. His perspective of Corliss is displayed purposefully and works to circulate the idea of “exoticism” and “sexualized other” that is involved with the territory of the historical colonial subjectivity of Native women in regards to white/ European men.
To continue in this direction, it is important to consider [briefly] the definitions of the following terms: “colonialism”, “the gaze”, “exoticism” and “other”. The term “Colonialism” as Edgar and Sedgwick provide, comes to exclusively signify “the forcible invasion, occupation and administration of non-Western cultures and nations by European and North American forces” (50). Furthermore, O’Brien and Szeman cite that “Colonialism was not just an economic and political undertaking in which European nations compete3d for dominance through the exploitation and settlement of overseas colonies [but] was also a cultural project, in which these nations sought to extend […] the concept of civilization” (239). As a result, the “colonial vision of universality” failed its intended purpose due to the increasing popularity of “live performances by colonials […] poetry readings by Aboriginal Canadian Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake) [and] sideshow displays of nude or partially clothed African women [ie.] Saarti Bartman (nicknamed “Hottentot Venus”), [functioning] to some extent as performances of stereotypical otherness, the colonials offering audiences ‘primitive’ (savage and/or innocent) reflections of their ‘civilized’ European selves (O’Brien and Szeman 239). In relation, colonial discourse in its production of knowledge and ways of talking about “the other” has secured the identity of the imperial “self” (O’Brien and Szeman 240). Therefore, there is a differentiation of non-western cultures and peoples from Western and/or European people which then renders them as “other”. This understanding led Western culture into an obsession with “otherness”, creating an eroticisation of that which is deemed “other”, labelling it as “exotic”. Sturken and Cartwright provide an understanding of this obsession with “the other” by looking at Laura Mulvey’s concept of “the gaze”; “the act of looking is commonly thought as awarding more power to the person who is looking than to the person who is the object of the look [thus] representing codes of dominance and subjugation, difference and otherness” (100). Laura Mulvey explains that “the activity of looking, it its contradictory narcissistic and voyeuristic aspects, is coded male, while woman, connoting ‘to-be-looked-at-ness,’ is consigned to the role of object of the gaze” (O’Brien and Szeman 91). Through the understanding of these concepts, we can see the importance of “Search Engine” character Corliss as a model for a type of “new Native womanhood”. Alexie gives his reader Corliss as she is seen by the white male “gaze” or viewpoint which works to address her in racialized sexualized language thus objectifying her: “he studied her. She was very short, a few inches under five feet, maybe thirty pounds overweight, and plain-featured. But her skin was clear and dark brown (like good coffee!), and her long black hair hung down past her waist. And she wore red cowboy boots, and her breasts were large, and she knew about Auden, and she was confident enough to approach strangers, so maybe her beauty was eccentric, even exotic. And exoticism was hard to find in Pullman, Washington”. (4)
Although he attributes Corliss as the younger more assertive and self-sufficient [though identity crisis-ed] Native woman, Ten Little Indians has characters embracing their stereotypes to gain power from fulfilling social and cultural expectations. Corliss embraces her Native identity, using her “otherness” or “exotic identity” as a means to both shield and reveal herself in the light of society. She is therefore placed both in comparison and contrast to Estelle in Alexie’s hunt for defining or redefining “Native womanhood”.
Alexie provides the important understanding of “new Native womanhood” through Estelle Walks Above when the character decides to become a “progressive and whole woman” (131). Though her son admits to supporting her decision, he reflects that it would have been less challenging for him as “a reflexive and cracked teenage boy […] if Estelle had pursued her wholeness by herself” (131). This mother and son are made, by Alexie, to become best friends but that places their relationship as uncommon in Western society. Their ability to have open discussions about sex and sexuality only works to promote what I feel Alexie is aiming for, the concept of a “progressive and whole” womanhood; “the whole woman embraces and celebrates her sexuality” (132). While this is a positive image for Alexie to send to both his female and male readers, it is necessary to understand that life, in relation to sexuality has been problematic for Native women since Colonization. In her book entitled Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide, author Andrea Smith provides the direct reality that Native women in the US face daily in regards to a dysfunctional Western patriarchal social system. Judith K. Witherow, in her review of Smith’s book provides that the book highlights “truths which are related to the subject of “conquest”, to the process of deconstructive peoples, and deconstructing Native women to be of less stature and value then others” (Witherow 47). Furthermore, Witherow cites that “as a Native woman, you can always count on someone ‘little ladying’ you, or treating you like a novelty [therefore] there is no way to build a real movement for justice and peace, whether between people, or between peoples and the land, without challenging the violence of historical and contemporary colonialism” (47). Andrea Smith writes about “sexual violence as a tool for genocide, boarding school abuse, rape of the land, the colonization of Native women’s reproductive health, medical experimentation, spiritual appropriation as sexual violence, and anti-colonial responses to gender violence which will fill in the gaps omitted in other works” (Witherow 49). Judith Witherow therefore presents the argument that, through Smith, all has not be forgotten or altered as of yet for Native women and sexuality, and so perhaps it is incorrect to simply read Estelle and think that Alexie is showing readers a current state or type of women who is positively enabled and not hindered in her sexuality or status as a woman within society.
In “The Life and Times of Estelle Walks Above”, an important moment occurs for both Alexie and the reader when the son describes his mother physically and then admits that his mother’s importance or relevance to society is attributed to living in the city. Therein, he maintains that women on the reservation are unable to do what his mother has done in transforming herself into a “progressive and whole woman” (Alexie 131-133). It can be viewed that Alexie is therefore providing a critic of life both on and off the “rez” and the space for women to change themselves in both societies. The son tells the readers that “if we lived on the reservation, we’d be only two more Indians […] but we lived in the city, so naturally, we had a lot of white friends” and this allows his mother to spend time with white women who “as women, they’d been ‘saved’ by other women, and now they were preaching and witnessing: ‘Hear me road, I am woman!’”(Alexie 133-134). Here, Alexie reminds his readers of the importance of solidarity between women that goes beyond racial markers but maintains the traits of cultural stereotyping and “othering” that occurs there as well. Estelle changes her real last name from Miller to Walks Above because, as her son states, “my mother’s whole white friends loved how Indian we were, and my mother became more Indian in their presence” (Alexie 135). Through Estelle, Alexie provides an understanding of how life is or could be for a Native woman in the city versus “on the rez, [where] she was that smart and strange girl who was always preparing to leave, and was loved by many and respected by most, but [who] became a wise woman in the presence of her white friends” (136). Estelle’s relationship with her “white disciples” becomes problematized by the pain and memory of the colonised history, the violence and abuse of her people and ethnocentric eroticisation of Native people by modern way white people (Alexie 136). The son recounts that “despite my mother’s sarcasm and racism, most of her friends are liberal white women! And most of my friends are liberal white men! My mother I are the hostages of colonial contradictions” (140). Alexie reminds his readers that the Native womanhood of Estelle, much like that of Corliss, places her in a strangely dislocated space in literature, society and culture; she has no choice but to transcend the stereotype by accepting or embracing it, and must carry her painful history as cumbersome baggage on her back while holding the hands of the future but Walk[ing] Above the Native and the Western identity, culture and life.
Sherman Alexie’s Ten Little Indians allows him the space in which to work through the challenges of Native womanhood and female identity. He allows the following depictions of Native womanhood: the younger generation’s college Native woman, struggling with identity and cultural/social conflicts in Corliss along with Agnus from The Business of Fancy Dancing and Marie Polatkin in Indian Killer. Through them Alexie is working to develop his own feelings in relation to the “modern educated Native woman”, while comparatively and in contrast to the type of womanhood that he gives within Estelle Walks Above. While he is aware of the double marginality of Native women in society, he works to give them a voice as much as possible through “romantic” “dreamer”, hopefully figures of the mother, the college student and the traditional grandmother, moving away from the “romantic victim” but rather showing how one should handle one’s self in [a] community (whichever that may be). As previously discussed in relation to Corliss, the female characters throughout Ten Little Indians embrace their stereotypes and gain power from fulfilling the expectations placed on them culturally. As a result however, Alexie pushes the reader back towards exoticism and remembers the woman as the [or an] object for exoticisation and colonisation with the women depicted as mothers, poor, marginalized, as housewives and as sexual beings, healers and teachers. Sherman Alexie works to break the stereotypes and have his female characters be like anyone and everyone else, and to fit them into the general category, away from the sole category of “Indian”.
Alexie, Sherman. Ten Little Indians. New York, NY: Grove Press. 2003. Print.
Edgar, Andrew and Peter Sedgwick. Cultural Theory The Key Concepts. New York, NY:
Routledge. 2008. Print.
O’Brien, Susie and Imre Szeman. Popular Culture A User’s Guide. Toronto, ON: Nelson. 2010
Sturken, Marita and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking an introduction to Visual Culture.
NewYork US: Oxford UP. 2003. Print.
Witherow, Judith K. Review: “Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide” by
Andrea Smith. Off Our Backs. 35.11/12 (2005) : 46-49. JSTOR. Web. 7 April 2012.
Thanks again Sherman Alexie... you're the greatest! <3