Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Sex and Salmon: Queer Identities in Sherman Alexie's the Toughest Indian in the World

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Sex and Salmon: Queer Identities in Sherman Alexie's the Toughest Indian in the World

Article excerpt

Contemporary queer Native American writing emerged circa 1976 with the publication of two pieces by Mohawk author Maurice Kenny: an essay, "Tinseled Bucks: A Historical Study of Indian Homosexuality," and a poem "Winkte." (1) This beginning was followed in 1981 by Laguna author Paula Gunn Allen's essay, "Beloved Women: Lesbians in American Indian Cultures." During that same year, Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua's landmark anthology This Bridge Called My Back brought two more gay Native voices to print: Hunkpapa writer Barbara Cameron, cofounder of Gay American Indians, and Menominee poet, Chrystos. Two years later, in 1983, Mohawk poet and short fiction writer Beth Brant (Bay of Quinte Mohawk) published A Gathering of Spirit: Writing and Art by North American Indian Women. The first Native-edited collection of American Indian and First Nation writing, Brant's collection included pieces by eleven Native lesbians. It would be five more years until Will Roscoe's Living the Spirit (1988), an anthology devoted entirely to the writing of gay Native people, appeared. (2) While there has been a steady rise in the publication of literary work by and about gay, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual/ transgender, queer (GLBTQ), and Two-Spirit Native peoples since Roscoe's 1988 collection, critical investigations of this important body of literature are just now finding representation in scholarly forums on American Indian literature. (3)

Paralleling the reticence of the larger critical community regarding queer Native voices has been the troubling inclusion of both implicit and explicit homophobia in the work of influential Native writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko and James Welch. Both Silko's 1991 Almanac of the Dead and James Welch's 2000 The Heartsong of Charging Elk contain negative images of queer sexuality: in each text, gay male characters function as the site of seemingly unrelenting evil. (4) Against such a backdrop, the 2000 release of Spokane/Coeur d'Alene writer Sherman Alexie's collection of short stories, The Toughest Indian in the World, represents one of the most positive and explicit depictions of queer sexuality offered in the work of the more canonical contemporary American Indian fiction writers--Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, and Alexie. (5) Alexie's work in The Toughest Indian is representative of his outspoken championship of queer issues. An ally to the GLBTQ/Two-Spirit community, Alexie frequently addresses the problems of homophobia in both his public speaking engagements (which often resemble standup comedy routines) and his numerous interviews. Alexie's 2002 independent film, The Business of Fancydancing, focuses on the fictional (but semi-autobiographic) experiences of a gay Native poet, Seymour Polatkin, as he negotiates the sometimes-difficult relationship between his reservation history and his present urban reality. (6) Given Alexie's prominent position in contemporary anthologies, in current syllabi, and in the eye of the reading public in the United States--Alexie has laughingly called himself the "Indian du jour"--his representations of queer Native identity have the potential for considerable impact.

My analysis here centers on the productive and markedly significant images of queer sexuality found in Alexie's The Toughest Indian in the World (2000). While Alexie's collection has at its heart the examination of human relationships in all their forms, two stories in particular bring queer identity to the fore: the title piece, "The Toughest Indian in the World," which tells the enigmatic story of a Spokane journalist's first sexual experience with a Lummi Indian man; and "Indian Country," which unravels the rambling tale of Low Man Smith's unplanned reunion with his white college friend, Tracy Johnson, who rescues Low Man by getting him out of jail and bringing him to the tumultuous dinner at which she meets her Spokane girlfriend's parents for the first time. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.