Culture when broadly applied is a term that can be used to describe virtually all avenues and aspects of human life. In his textbook Cultural Anthropology, Richley H. Crapo defines it as “a learned system of beliefs, feelings, and rules for living around which a group of people organize their lives; a way of life of particular society” (Crapo, 2013). Perhaps that most astounding thing about humankind’s way of life is the vast diversity in culture that emerges in different groups of people. The differences in culture come from a variety of factors and one of the most important is geography. American culture is broadly defined as a melting pot or a salad bowl. America, more so than other cultures consists of many cultures, and so the easy shorthand is to call America a “melting pot’ while getting an actual handle on American society involves a much more rigorous endeavor of understanding. However, by looking at the literary tradition of all people in the US, one sees that there are other narratives splintering from the narrative of American culture being a melting pot where-everyone assimilates into one culture. Native Americans, for the most part, were not given a choice of whether or not to assimilate. Sherman Alexie and Joy Harjo are both Native Americans and through their stories and poetry explore how American relates to them. Both have distinct voice. Alexie employs humor and irony, while Harjo in her poetry establishes a confessionally emotive tone and employs metaphor and symbolism. The results of these different approaches is that Harjo invokes the assimilation of Native Americans in abstract terms while Alexie’s story’s gives a believable face to the aftermath of colonization and assimilation.
Harjo in her poem She Had Some Horses, uses repetition, repeating after every stanza, “She had some horses” in invoke a powerful symbol that is the point where gain and loss both begin for Native Americans. European colonizers brought horses to the new world. These were eagerly assimilated into Native America life as a useful tool for hunting, transpiration and warfare (McNeil, 1). But this was a double edged sword. Even though Europeans brought new technologies, manufactured goods, superior weapons and new animals, they also brought disease, displacement, and in the worst cases genocide. In the end it led to a loss of sovereignty forced assimilation into a new culture that not just differed greatly from Native American culture and society, but also failed to recognize native people as equal and deserving of the same rights as European settlers and their descendants.
Harjo writes, “She and horses who were maps drawn of blood / She had horses who were skins of ocean water . . . She had horses who were splintered red cliff” (Harjo, 2, 3 and 8). The poem continues in this fashion, developing stark contrasts in poetic language and metaphor. In makes allusions the many specific things as in “She had horses that licked razor blades.” This seems a reference to iron, and other metal technologies that did not exist before. Here she creates powerful imagery, with the wincing turn of phrase “who licked razor blades.” This is an apt metaphor for Harjo’s poetry, which often takes a wounded tone. She is nostalgic for a world that can and will not come back. As a result, here poetry is removed and distant, because it is invoking a past which has succumbed to the present.
In contrast, Sherman Alexie’s fiction is informed by the events of the past, but it is too busy re-telling happenings of the present or recent past to focus on the past. In his eponymous story from the collection of the same name, “The Long Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heave” it is a story of daily struggle of Victor, who while he is aware that he is caught in an undesirable cycle, does not have a clear path of how to escape it. His frustration is from his inability to unite two very distinct worlds. At one point in Victor’s life, he married a white girl and the two worlds collided so to speak. He is living in an age when it is necessary for a modern Native American to travel through both his Indian Heritage culture and American heritage, but finds it difficult to do so. The title is telling as The Lone Ranger was a popular America myth. The Lone Ranger was a superhero type figure of the American West who had a “trusty sidekick” Tonto who was a Native American.
The Indian Country Media Network has written that the real problem with the recent Hollywood movie of “The Long Ranger” and the myth itself should maybe no longer be retold do to them representing a painful reality. They suggested in the review of the movie that “maybe we just don’t need to tell this story anymore” since there are unfortunate aspects of the message related by it. (ICTMN, 1).
Without even looking behind the title, there is a rather explicit tone of Racism that highlights the conflict at the heart of most of Alexie’s stories. Tonto is a Spanish word that means dumb, and invokes the image of a dunce. Whereas “The Long Ranger” contains a nod American myth as told by popular culture. “Lone” invokes the mainstream culture of American self-reliance. This is also the American myth as told from the dominant class, the colonizers.
Alexie is able to personalize this shared past through believable characters. He writes, ““Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you. Maybe you don't wear a watch, but your skeletons do, and they always know what time it is. (Alexie, 58). At the heart of whether or not to wear a watch is whether or not to accept the good and forget all the wounds that most of American mainstream seems to have forgotten or never been aware of. Harjo is speaking of this when she writes, “She had some horses she loved. / She had some horses she hated. / they were the same horses.”
Alexie horse’s are real people and their daily struggles. Harjo’s is the abstract grief of wounds that the community carries together. Both are valid and offer us a different vantage point for understanding the plight of native Americans, good and bad, that was delivered to them when their old, and known world was called a new world by European explorers and claimed as their own forcing those who already called it home to redefine that concept in subsequent generations.
Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto fist fight in heaven. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994. Print.
Harjo. "poems out loud." Joy Harjo reads She Had Some Horses / Poems Out Loud. N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2013. <http://poemsoutloud.net/audio/archive/harj
McNeil, J. R. . "The Columbian Exchange."The Columbian Exchange. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Dec. 2013. <http://www.learnnc.org/lp/pages/1866>.
Crapo, R. H. (2012). Cultural anthropology: understanding ourselves & others (5th ed.). Guilford, Conn.: Dushkin Pub. Group.