Kuska couldn't keep a straight face. She said Alexie was hilarious.
She quoted Alexie in a Facebook post, "All you native kids
running around with the latest iPhones aren't deprived you
(Photo courtesy of Neila Kuska)
Not a soul was left sitting as applause roared through Van Duzer
Theatre on March 5 following Sherman Alexie's two-hour laugh-a-palooza
before a sold-out crowd at Humboldt State University.
The event that billed Alexie as the speaker about "War Dances,"
his book of poems and short stories, quickly turned into a poignant
comedic stand-up touching upon several sensitive issues, and more
than a handful of hilarious anecdotes kept the audience laughing
from start to finish.
A man of mixed Native American and European heritage, Alexie
was born and raised in East Washington state and grew up on the
Spokane Indian Reservation. He was born with hydrocephalus, a condition
occurring when there are excessive amounts of cerebral brain fluid
in the cranial cavity. Despite poor chances, he survived the surgery
with no damage to his brain.
"The first seven years of my life was spent in a hospital around
obsessive-compulsive, Type-A, smart white people: mostly nuns and
nurses," Alexie said. "I never danced, sang, fished, or spoke my
language and the smoke lodge was too f***ing hot."
Though health issues and a disconnect with Native cultural practice
left him feeling like an outcast from an early age, Alexie found
an unexpected niche as a storyteller.
"I watch and listen, I pay attention to human beings and people
from my past," Alexie said. "I love my job. I travel the world telling
stories. How Indian is that?"
Alexie professes deep love and a sense of pride for his people,
while admitting the flaws and difficulties within their own communities.
However, travelling in the 21st century as a mixed-race Native American,
he was most surprised when he didn't stick out of a crowd.
"Like many of you, I am ambiguously ethnic. Nobody ever guesses
that you're Indian," Alexie said. "In the big city I'm like 'damn,
nobody's staring at me with hate in their eyes,' nobody cares what
you are. That's how f***ed up colonialism is, I missed racism completely."
Throughout the evening, Alexie pointed out the inherent cultural
pitfalls of being Native American today and the importance on knowing
"The thing that's bad for us as Natives is when we start thinking
we're inferior, our thoughts, our beliefs, , and dreams are inferior,"
Alexie said. "Me, I'm as rez as it gets. I didn't get running water
in my house until I was seven and indoor plumbing a year later.
But that's not our identity."
Another warning he had for Indians and youth in particular is
to avoid self-loathing. "It's so contradictory, and I know you all
[in Humboldt County] can relate; to be sad in such a beautiful place,
you start to get angry at the beauty," Alexie said.
The crowd was a mosaic of mixed identities, heritages, orientations,
and beliefs. While some people in the audience were initially skeptical
of what had been billed as a "seminar," everyone left with a unique
human experience: sharing and understanding each other's struggle
Ruby Hamilton, 76, has been a fan of Alexie for more than 15
years. Originally from Arizona and now living in Cutten, she brought
to two granddaughters along to see the show.
"I've seen him do other things like readings in New York City,
but this one was really different," Hamilton said. "He's older,
and it's like a whole new side of him."
Kevin Martinez, 21, is a Humboldt State psychology major from
the Los Angeles area who came across free tickets to the show and
decided to check it out. He was impressed by how Alexie managed
to navigate the sensitive topics of cultural and social discourse
"There are couple points that resonated with me, but even though
I'm a person of color, I can't claim to relate entirely to his struggle,"
Martinez said. "It's pretty smart the way he goes about speaking
on things to the average person who doesn't think about it that
Assistant Professor of Social Work professor César Abarca
came to the show at the behest of his wife. Tired and somewhat cranky,
he stood outside afterward and said he was glad that he decided
"Alexie blew my mind. I was laughing all the way," Abarca said.
"There is a real wisdom, I think, in how he was just being real
with who he is and his challenges growing up."
Adrienne Colegrove-Raymond is the director of the Native American
Center for Academic Excellence, a coordinator for the Indian Tribal
Education & Personnel Program (ITEPP) for Humboldt State, and
a Hoopa tribal member. She had never seen or heard Alexie perform,
so she was unsure what to expect at the show.
"I've read all of his novels and it's a real treat to have him
on campus, but I was unsure about attending because some of the
content in his books makes me feel uneasy," Colegrove-Raymond said.
"But I thoroughly enjoyed his message, especially the power of writing
and knowing our value. It makes me proud."
Despite having come a long way from his humble beginnings, Alexie
vividly remembers the trials of an oppressed people. And for that,
he spoke of the merits of storytelling.
"The greatest weapon used against those without power is silencing
them. So tell your damn story," Alexie said.