Thursday, February 22, 2007

Ambiguity and Rezervation

What is striking about Sherman Alexie's Assimilation is the subtle ambiguity as to the race of the main character Mary Lynn. She is identified as an "Indian" early on in the story, but with the overuse of the supposedly politically correct "Native American" distinction in a particularly American culture, one is almost immediately drawn to assume Mary Lynn's familial lineage stretches to India. The initial images and details of womanhood and sexual frustration, and all therein that is wrapped up in self-identity, quite easily overpower the references to Sitting Bull and Crow Fair, etc. Moreover, the common lay-reader would likely struggle with the term "Cour d'Alene" and perhaps at least recognizing the French roots, would likely miss the historical context of the French Jesuits and fur traders that engaged with early native peoples, notably the Huron, in the Upper Midwest Americas and Canada.
What is more, is that we dismiss the word "indigenous", when Mary describes her sought lover, as meaning someone born in India - indigenous to India, and from this we interpret either, first, that Mary Lynn is not a "full-blood" Indian, or that she has ethnically mixed parents. Also we may tend to think the name Mary Lynn as being quite American, fitting of choice for a family immigrating to America or for a first child born in America (despite the present trend of reviving ethnically-identifying names). It seems reasonable that, judging from the title and implied time period based on Mary's apparent age, that her parents would choose a name for her that would help with her ethnic acclamation, especially if we again infer that she is light-skinned because of her parents' different ethnicities. It is our American-cowboys-and-savages mindset that assumes that if Mary were a squaw her name would be something more like Mary Gentle Pheasant.
It is not until Mary explicitly begins talking about growing up on the "rez" and listening to powwow CD's that we realize, Oh she's that kind of Indian. However, we're still not sure, because we're immediately confronted with the image of the man she is vying for working in a local coffee shop. Now we've got ourselves thinking, first about sex, then whether or not this guy owns the shop, and sooner or later we're on to wondering about all the 711's in Montana, and why we're so racist. It is racist, but I've had hundreds of cups of coffee all over the U.S. and I've never seen a Native American behind the counter. Also, I've been to a lot of different counters all over the U.S. and I've seen, met, and personally know a fair number of Indian's and Pakistani's who work behind them. (Essentially, I am as racist as my previous experiences allow.)
The things is, all people learn about Sitting Bull in eighth grade history. A bunch of people have read Zane Grey and like his stories about the rugged west whether or not they understand the implications of manifest destiny on indigenous peoples. We also don't know how long it took her to find the first Indian man "she could find." I don't know how hard it is to find a Native American in Montana as compared to finding a person from the country of India. The location itself adds to the ambiguity. If the story was set in a major metropolitan city for instance, one can assume that it would have been harder to find a Native American than and Indian or someone you could confuse with an Indian as is common with generalities.
All in all, the story is meant to highlight the distinctions of race at certain intervals, it is not a glaring racial expose and not meant to be. It's a story of the struggle between love, sex, family and success set against a racial backdrop, and Alexie does well to keep the reader unsure, while focussing on the consequences and conflicts of, and inherit in, Mary Lynn's racial identity from the outset.

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