When I fall in love with an author – which I do with some regularity – it is passionately, deeply, obsessively. I set out immediately to devour every literary morsel he or she has ever written. Typically I cannot contain my enthusiasm and extol the author’s virtues to everybody I know, and not a few that I don’t know, as if I had personally discovered this rare talent and was responsible for his success. This can be embarrassing, as I have been known to “discover” brilliant writers long after their demise.
Fortunately such was not the case with my most recent enthusiasm, as Sherman Alexie is a relatively young man. I have been madly in love with him ever since seeing the award-winning Indie film, Smoke Signals, for which he wrote the script. That was 1998. It won a clutch of awards, including the Sundance Film Festival, and launched the careers of two brilliant Native American artists (Chris Eyre produced and directed).
Since then I’ve seen other Chris Eyre films (Edge of America, produced by Showtime in 2004) plus the first three episodes of We Shall Remain, part of PBS’s acclaimed American Experience history series (2008).
But Sherman Alexie’s impressive published output had somehow escaped my attention, and I’m currently making up for lost time, after discovering an entire shelf of his books last summer in an Idaho bookstore. People in the great Northwest are justifiably proud of Sherman Alexie. He too has won an impressive list of awards including the 2007 National Book Award for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
He writes mostly about his own Spokane Indian Reservation, but the stories are universal – and very funny – even though the underlying message can be achingly sad. But it’s not just the stories that are mesmerizing. His style is highly original and his ear for colloquialisms is uncanny. Enit.
OK, if you’re a non-Indian, you probably won’t get that, but that’s how reservation Indians talk. It might be compared to the Canadian “Eh?” which can be a question but is usually rhetorical. The amazing thing about “enit” is that it is used by Indians no matter where they live! As my multi-cultural education has progressed over several decades, and I have met people from many different tribes and reservations, I came to recognize that despite 566 federally-recognized tribes in this country, with perhaps 175 different languages still spoken, there is only one reservation accent! Think about it. That’s statistically impossible, and I have yet to figure out how that happened. But I swear it is true.
It is what drew me to Smoke Signals in the first place. These guys were from the Pacific Northwest. Their physical features differed from those of the Indians around here, but if you listened to the dialog with your eyes closed you would have sworn they were Oglala! How cool is that? Do you think maybe there is some secret bond between these ancestral enemies that is expressed in this universal reservation patois? (Since there is little chance that the Spokane and the Sioux ever met historically, I guess they couldn’t be enemies so my descriptive might be a bit of a stretch, but you get my point.)
I would very much like to get to the bottom of this. But not being a linguist, or a genealogist, or any other kind of -ist, I don’t have the credentials or resources to do so. The entire extent of my research has been asking a lot of people about it (Indians and non) and while generally agreeing with me, nobody seems to think this is as astonishing as I do. Surely there is some reasonable explanation for it. But what?
In any case, Sherman Alexie has figured out a way to convey that argot to a non-Indian audience, and I applaud him for it. Not just the lingo, but the insight behind the personal interactions, their universal thoughts and aspirations expressed in a singularly different lifestyle than many of us could ever imagine.
I highly recommend him.
If you’d like to learn more about Sherman Alexie, he appeared on Bill Moyers a year and a half ago, and I was impressed all over again by his insight into the human condition. Here’s the link.