Tuesday, April 11, 2017

A Native American Tourist Takes in Dachau

The a death train on the rail siding at Dachau on camp liberation day, 1949.  According to Sherman Alexie the Germans made sure those trains ran on time.

So what happens when your average Native American tourist includes a day trip to Dachau on his European vacation?  The descendant of one genocide meets the ghosts of another.
Sherman Alexie  was born in Seattle on October 6, 1966 but grew up on the Spokane Reservation across the state in eastern Washington.  His father, Sherman Joseph Alexie, Sr. was a member of the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene tribe, and his mother, Lillian Agnes Cox, had Colville, Choctaw, Spokane and European American ancestry.  To add to the stew one of his paternal great-grandfathers was of Russian descent, not uncommon in the Pacific Northwest where Russian fur traders once claimed the coast from Alaska all the way to San Francisco Bay.
Even by the harsh and poverty stricken standards of reservation life, young Alexie had an unusually hard childhood.  He was born with hydrocephalus, an often fatal condition that occurs when an abnormally large amount of cerebral fluid in the builds up in the cranial cavity. He survived risky brain surgery  at six months old, and was at high risk mental disabilities if he survived.  Luckily surgery was successful and he suffered no mental damage but was left with an unusually large head that led to teasing and bullying in his elementary school.  His generally weakened health prevented him from participating in most physical activities and the rights of passage of other tribal children.  He was an outsider from the beginning.
Alexie’s father was an alcoholic who frequently disappeared for weeks at a time.  His mother made quilts for sale to tourists and worked part time at the Wellpinit Trading Post to support him and his five siblings.
To cope with the isolation and loneliness he turned to reading anything he could lay his hands on and that often meant things like auto repair manuals.  But it ignited a thirst for learning and a yearning to explore the wider world.  It also made him a star student and opened new possibilities.

The Indian in the Indians jersey--Sherman Alexie as high school basketball star.
He grabbed the chance to attend High School at Reardan, Washington  22 miles from the Reservation where he was the only Native American student.  Alexie not only thrived with the fresh start, but he bloomed.  As the star of the basketball team ironically nicknamed the Indians and a debater he was popular enough to be elected  class president.  The experience was the beginning of a sense of being caught between two worlds that would become a reoccurring theme of much of his fiction and poetry.
His good grades earned him a ticket to Gonzaga University, a prestigious Jesuit institution in Spokane.  His health issues led him to enroll as a pre-med student but he found himself to squeamish during the dissections required in anatomy classes and switched to pre-law.  That was not a good fit either.  Feeling lost and under enormous pressure to live up to his own expectations and the need to be the perfect Native American achiever, Alexie began drinking heavily and dropped out of school in 1987.
He enrolled, at first without much hope, at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington.  It was there his life was changed when he took a class in  a creative writing course from Alex Kuo, a respected Chinese-American poet who became a mentor.  Inspired Alexie published his first collection, The Business of Fancydancing: Stories and Poems in 1992 which was met with critical acclaim.  He stopped drinking and dropped out of school just three credits short of graduation to dedicate himself to writing.  Just three years later Washington State awarded him a bachelor’s degree.
Alexie as a young writer.
Fancydancing and another early collection, I Would Steal Horses let to early recognition—a Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship and the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship.  Since then he has published eight more collection of poetry including The First Indian on the Moon, The Summer of the Black Widows, and most recently Face.
Alexie has also had a parallel and highly acclaimed career as a fiction writer starting with his semi-autobiographical short stories in 1993’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and its novel sequel following the first book’s Reservation adolescents into mid-thirties adults, Reservation Blues in 1995.  The first book won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Book of Fiction and the second garnered the American Book Award of the Before Columbus Foundation.
Alexei adapted his own material for Smoke Signals, a film made by an all Native American cast and crew.
1997 Alexie turned characters from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven  into the first major American film written, directed, and staring Native Americans, Smoke Signals. The film took top honors at the Sundance Film Festival.  In 2002 Alexie not only wrote but directed The Business of Fancydancing and made history and headlines by hiring an all-female production team.
In 2007 he published a young adult coming of age novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian based on his own experiences.  It won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature and has become high school reading list favorite—but not an uncontroversial one.  In 2012 the Arizona legislature, dominated by extreme right wing Republicans passed a law removing the book, along with several books by notable Mexican-American writers from school curriculums.  Alexie responded:
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Mexican immigration is an oxymoron. Mexicans are indigenous. So, in a strange way, I’m pleased that the racist folks of Arizona have officially declared, in banning me alongside Urrea, Baca, and Castillo, that their anti-immigration laws are also anti-Indian. I'm also strangely pleased that the folks of Arizona have officially announced their fear of an educated underclass. You give those brown kids some books about brown folks and what happens? Those brown kids change the world. In the effort to vanish our books, Arizona has actually given them enormous power. Arizona has made our books sacred documents now.”
Alexie's National Book Award winning young adult novel.

The prolific writer’s 2010 collection of stories, poems, and other short pieces, War Dances won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Today at the age of 50 Alexie is one of the most admired writers in America.  His memoir poem of visiting Dachau is ample evidence why.

Sherman Alexie in maturity.
Hey, Look, the Abyss!
Years ago, in Germany, my wife and I waited
For a train to visit Dachau. So morbid, so strange
To be a tourist of genocide, especially as descendants
Of the Native American genocide. So morbid,

So strange to take a fucking train to Dachau, as if
It were part of the show. And, damn, how I laughed
And laughed when the train, due to arrive at 11:25 a.m.,
Arrived at exactly 11:25 a.m. “In Germany,” I said

To my wife, “the trains should never arrive on time.”
I have previously written a poem about being a tourist
Of genocide—about visiting Dachau—but I wonder
How the experience has changed. I imagine the tourists

Now take solemn selfies in Dachau. Though a few idiots
Must take smiling snapshots, too, as in, “Look at me!
I think genocide is an amusement park!” Hell, maybe
Genocide, dripping with objectification and commerce, is

An amusement park. And now I have to again laugh
At the oxymoronic concept of “German amusement.
Talk about a tough crowd. I spent a week in Munich
And Berlin failing to make Germans laugh. I know

There are funny people in Germany but I never met
Any of them. In a theatre with 300 Germans, I joked
About my fear of prompt trains to Dachau and nobody
Laughed, though one man stood and said, “Geronimo

And his Apache people were put on terrible trains
In Arizona and many died on the long journey
To Florida.” And I said, “Yes, but it’s the United States,
So I know those genocide trains were running late.”

Nobody laughed! And, okay, maybe the joke isn’t funny.
Maybe it’s too morbid and strange. Maybe Germany takes
Genocide, and the fear of genocide happening again,
So seriously that it is impossible to laugh. Okay, okay,

I understand that, but didn.t the Germans genocide
The funniest people on the planet? And now, maybe,
Some of you are thinking, “Sherman, you are trading
In racial stereotypes. Not all Jewish people are funny.”

And to that, I say, “Milton Fucking Berle.” I say, “Joan
Fucking Rivers.” I say, “I think it might be permissible
To accuse Jewish people of inventing funny.” And now
I remember Billy Crystal emceeing a fundraiser

For the Museum of Tolerance, and advising the crowd
To “never ask a Jew to be part of a pyramid scheme.”
We all laughed. Billy Crystal laughed at his own joke.
“Sorry,” he said. “That was new. I mean, the pyramids

Are old. But the joke is new.” Funny, funny. I know
There are scientific reasons why humans laugh in the face
Of tragedy. But science isn’t funny! Funny isn’t reasonable!
Funny takes a shit on your welcome mat! So now I think

Of the German comedian, Jan Bohmermaan, who mocked
the President of Turkey on German television with a funny poem
About “repressing minorities, kicking Kurds, and slapping
Christians.” First of all, you’re thinking, “German comedian?

Really?” Secondly, you’re thinking, “Funny poem?
Really?” And, really, I cannot tell you if Bohmermann
Or his poem is funny. But I can tell you that he is now
Being prosecuted in Germany for mocking “a representative

Of a foreign state.” The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel,
Had to give permission for Bohmermann to be prosecuted,
In a German fucking court, for mocking the President
Of Turkey, who was deeply offended by the funny poem.

Can you imagine Obama giving permission for me
To be prosecuted inside the United States for mocking
Angela Merkel and the President of Turkey
Inside this poem? Well, I can imagine Cruz or Trump

Prosecuting me for mocking Cruz or Trump
But I am talking about Germany and Turkey.
I am talking about Angela Merkel,
Who is kissing the ass of the Turkish President

So he might close his borders and stem the flow
Of Syrian refugees into the European Union.
What the fuck can I say about any of this horrific shit?
I’m powerless, as are all of you. But it does remind me

Of my time in Germany, as I kept thinking, “Germany
Is so paranoid about the Holocaust because they know,
Consciously and/or subconsciously, that they would do it
Again. And again. And again. And again. Depending

On the random spin of world events. Depending
On expediency.” And now, here, I must point out
That genocide is always happening somewhere
In this amusement park called Earth. I think

Of Primo Levi. I think of Geronimo. I think
Of Syrians, Tutsi, Bosnians, Croatians, Maori—
Of the indigenous people from everywhere.
Too many victims to fully name and count.

So many, so many. I think of the Armenians
Genocided by the Turks. I think of how Turkey
Officially denies that they genocided Armenians.
Hell, you can be imprisoned in Turkey

For believing that Turkey genocided Armenians,
For stating that belief out loud.
And now I recall my evening
with a white American liberal woman—

The dinner with me was a fundraiser prize
For a local Gay Film Festival. That liberal American
Brought three friends to the dinner. And I also
Brought a friend as potential armor

Against strangers. But it was a lovely evening,
With great food and great company and great politics.
We talked about the continual oppression
Of gay people. And the white liberal woman, a straight ally

Like me, lamented the genocidal history
Of the United States. And I said, “Well, the USA denies
It genocided us Native Americans. In the same way
Turkey denies it genocided the Armenians.”

And the white liberal American woman, suddenly
Enraged, cursed at me for vilifying Turkish people
And canonizing Armenians. She screamed
About the beauty and grace of Turkish people

And Turkish culture. And I said, “I have no doubts
About the beauty and grace of Turkish people.
I’m absolutely positive that Turkish people are
Beautiful and graceful. But I’m also absolutely positive

That, throughout human history, all manner
Of beautiful and graceful people have actively
Or passively participated in the genocide
Of other beautiful and graceful people.”

Of course, that dinner ended soon after
Our argument. But I remained disturbed
For weeks. I couldn’t understand why
A liberal American would defend Turkey

And its human rights history. And then I learned
That white American woman had married
And divorced a Turkish man. It was a good
Divorce. She and her ex-husband happily

Co-parented their half-Turkish children.
And then I understood. She defended Turkey
Because of love. And isn’t that how it goes?
We think genocide happens because of hate.

And I suppose that’s how genocide begins.
But genocide persists because of love.
Because genocidal people are so convinced
Of their own beauty and grace.

Because genocidal people are so tender
To one another that they couldn’t possibly
Be wrong about their cruelty to others.
Because genocidal people have mothers

And fathers who love them. Because
Genocidal people look in the mirror
And see their ordinary faces. Because
The ordinary don’t commit genocide.

Because it’s only the epic monsters
Who commit genocide. But that’s not true.
Who are the monsters? Well, shit, it’s me
And you. And you. And you. And you. And you.

—Sherman Alexie 

No comments:

Post a Comment