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Watch This: Native American Author Sherman Alexie
Originally published on Mon October 8, 2012 4:35 am
Author and poet Sherman Alexie grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation and won a National Book Award for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. His new story collection is called Blasphemy.
Alexie spoke with Steve Inskeep about the movies, TV shows and YouTube videos that he thinks everyone should see. Alexie is the latest guest in Morning Edition's series Watch This.
Billy Mills' 10,000-meter win at the 1964 Olympics
Alexie described this race as "probably the greatest upset surprise in Olympic history." And it would be no wonder if it was, since, coming into the 1964 Olympic Games, an American had never won the men's 10,000-meter race.
"Billy Mills, a Sioux Indian who was really lightly regarded, came out of nowhere to win the race and to win the gold medal," Alexie says. Australia's Ron Clarke, with a qualifying time almost a minute faster than Mills', had been favored to win.
"That burst of speed that Billy Mills puts out is like Usain Bolt. He just goes flying past — and this is a 10,000-meter race," Alexie says.
The race is so surprising that Alexie almost sees something divine in it. "In the Indian world, there's all sorts of stories about, you know, God reaching down and deciding that this Indian guy was going to do it. And that's what it looks like, regardless of how you feel about God — it certainly looks like some other force grabbed him and pushed him."
Vince Carter's 2000 Olympic slam dunk
"This is the Holy Grail for basketball fans and the Olympics," Alexie says.
At the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, the American men's basketball team faced off against France in a preliminary game. At one point, 6-foot-6 American Vince Carter practically jumped over 7-foot-2 Frenchman Frederic Weis for a slam dunk.
Alexie believed the move was stunning, saying, "It is — remains — the single most athletic move of all time."
Alexie wasn't the only one spellbound by Carter's feat.
"If you look into the crowd, you see people stunned — I mean, far fewer people are standing and cheering than you'd expect, because I don't think they believe what they just saw," Alexie says.
The U.S. team won the game and, perhaps unsurprisingly, won the gold when they faced France in the finals.
The British comedy The Inbetweeners, which aired for three seasons and spawned a full-length movie in 2011, is a favorite of Alexie's because of its honesty in portraying the adolescent condition.
"It's the tale of these four public-school young men who are, as all young men are all around the world, most vitally interested in the opposite sex," Alexie explains. "It's the story of their adventures in trying to get a girlfriend and going to parties and trying to fit in and trying to be cool, but it is profane in that glorious British way."
Alexie truly appreciates the brashness in the writing.
"It tries to portray teenagers for the fully complicated and crass human beings that they are," he says. But the other thing he celebrates is "that there is a country where this kind of honest depiction is available in prime time."
An American adaptation of the show premiered on MTV in August.
The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
"There's nobody who loves Westerns more than Indians," Alexie says. "The Outlaw Josey Wales is an amazing movie, and the amazing part for me now, watching it as an adult and thinking about it, is the hero is a Southern Confederate soldier."
That Confederate solider, the titular Josey Wales, is played by Clint Eastwood. This film follows Wales as he goes on the run from the Union soldiers who murdered his family.
"So here's a movie where you're actually rooting for and identifying with a Confederate soldier," Alexie says.
The film also had an interesting back story.
"The book was written by Forrest Carter, which was the pen name of Asa Carter, who was actually a former KKK bigwig and was the chief speech writer for George Wallace. And he wrote this novel which was turned into this movie," Alexie says.
Alexie's favorite part of the movie has to do with its appeal to his Native American heritage.
"The thing that really appealed to me was [that this was] the first movie I saw that humanized Indians, that they weren't cartoons or caricatures."
Roger Patterson's Sasquatch video
"It's the most famous visual record of Sasquatch — Bigfoot," Alexie says of the footage.
The film, which is only about a minute long, has inspired multiple documentaries questioning its authenticity. It was purportedly shot in Northern California in 1967 by Roger Patterson, a rodeo star and Yakima Indian, a fact that Alexie was quick to add.
It shows a Sasquatch — or perhaps a guy in a gorilla suit — walking through the woods.
Though Alexie considers himself a "Sasquatch agnostic," he points to a long tradition of such a creature in the stories, art and culture of Native Americans. The idea of a giant primate roaming the American backwoods isn't new, but Alexie is fascinated by the Bigfoot legend's ties to Native American myth.
"Even if Sasquatch isn't real, as of course is very likely, the powerful American myth of it — we tend not to think of our country in terms of its myth, in terms of its creation stories," he says. "We tend to rely on European influences, and we don't think about American myth. Sasquatch is most definitely an American myth. I love that power of it, that there is something distinctly ours.
"If nothing else, it's the celebration of that other great American tradition — the hoax, the prank."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And now, let's get some movie, TV and even YouTube recommendations. It's a series we call Watch This. Our latest guest is the writer Sherman Alexie. He grew up on the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington state. He won a National Book Award for "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian." And has a new story collection is called "Blasphemy."
Mr. Alexie's picks start with footage of Billy Mills winning the Olympic 10,000-meter race.
SHERMAN ALEXIE: It still remains the, probably the greatest upset surprise in Olympic history, where in the 1964 Olympics, Billy Mills, a Sioux Indian who was really lightly regarded, came out of nowhere to win the race and to win the gold medal.
INSKEEP: Well, can I mention that when I started watching this video, I did not expect to be impressed? It's black and white. It seems a little blurry. The camera is kind of at a distance. But Billy Mills starts running from behind this crowd of runners. And the burst of speed that he puts on at the end of this 10,000-meter race is unbelievable to watch, as he's accelerating there. And the announcer loses his mind almost.
BUD PALMER: He's coming up. He's passing Gammoudi. It's neck and neck.
DICK BANK: Look at Mills. Look at Mills.
PALMER: Mills is coming on. Mills is coming on.
ALEXIE: That burst of speed that Billy Mills puts out is like Usain Bolt. He just goes flying past and this is a 10,000-meter race. So to have that kind of kick? In the Indian world, there's all sorts of stories about, you know, God and reaching down and deciding that this Indian guy was going to do it. And that's what it looks like. Regardless of how you feel about God, it certainly looks like some other force grabbed him and pushed him.
INSKEEP: Now, why did you also send us an amazing video of Vince Carter, the great NBA player with a slam dunk? What drew your eye to that?
ALEXIE: Oh, this is the Holy Grail for basketball fans. In the Olympics, Vince Carter jumping over Frederic Weis, who was a seven-foot tall post player, jumping over him to dunk. It remains the most single athletic move of all time. And if you look into the crowd, you see people stunned. I mean, far fewer people are standing and cheering than you'd expect, because I don't think they believe what they just saw.
INSKEEP: You have also sent us something here that deals with young people that may be less familiar to an American audience, "The Inbetweeners." What's that?
ALEXIE: Oh, it's the tale of these four public-school young men who are, as all young men are all around the world, most vitally interested in the opposite sex. But they're all complete dorks, geeks, losers, I don't know whatever the term is in England. But it's the story of their adventures in trying to get a girlfriend, and going to parties and trying to fit in and trying to be cool.
But it is profane in that glorious British way that at once makes me really happy, in that it actually tries to portray teenagers as the fully complicated and crass human beings that they are. But also that there is a country where this kind of honest depiction is available in prime time.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE INBETWEENERS")
BRETT GELMAN: (as Mr. Cooper) Oh, all right, what's going on in here?
JOE THOMAS: (as Simon Cooper) What the bloody (bleep) do you think you're doing?
SUSAN GALLAGHER: (as Mrs. Cooper) Language.
GELMAN: (as Mr. Cooper) Coming to check up on you.
THOMAS: (as Simon Cooper) Check up on me?
GALLAGHER: (as Mrs. Cooper) Hello, Tara.
HANNAH TOINTON: (as Tara) Hello, Mrs. Cooper.
THOMAS: (as Simon Cooper) We're just studying.
GALLAGHER: (as Mrs. Cooper) We'd like you to stick to what we agreed, Simon. We don't mind you having girls up here but you've got leave the door open.
GELMAN: (as Mr. Cooper) Yes, so that we don't miss any of the good stuff. Only kidding, Tara. But seriously, you do have to keep the door open.
THOMAS: (as Simon Cooper) Fine.
INSKEEP: You know, thinking about you growing up on the reservation and thinking about the fact that there must be ways that being a teenager on an Indian reservation is exactly like being a teenager anywhere else in America, anywhere in the world, but certain ways that it might be a little unique.
ALEXIE: Well, now, you know, it's an interesting question 'cause of the Internet, certainly in the United States, it's really difficult to feel culturally separate, 'cause all you have to do is open your phone. You know, I'm on the res. I look around, there's kids - every kid walking around with a flip-phone with a screen on it. So - but we really didn't have that connection. Movies and TV were the only possible lifeline.
INSKEEP: Wow. You know, I do want to mention though, when you talk about growing up in the '70s and the '80s and being in a world that seemed like fairly isolated from the outside, central Indiana growing in the '70s and the '80s pretty much the same thing.
ALEXIE: Well, that's one of the things you learn, too, when you leave the reservation is that everybody grew up on their own reservation.
ALEXIE: And the quality of your life depends on how willing you are to get the hell away from your reservation.
INSKEEP: Was it on the reservation then that you first saw the movie "The Outlaw Josey Wales," which you have also included on...
ALEXIE: Oh. Oh, yeah. There's nobody who loves Westerns more than Indians.
ALEXIE: "The Outlaw Josey Wales" is an amazing movie. And the amazing part for me now, as watching it as an adult and thinking about it, is that the hero is a Southern Confederate soldier. And...
INSKEEP: Clint Eastwood.
ALEXIE: Yes. So, you know, here's a movie where you're actually rooting for and identify with a Confederate soldier. And also, the book was written - it's based on a book and the book was written by Forrest Carter, which was the pen name of Asa Carter, who was actually a former KKK bigwig and was the chief speechwriter for George Wallace. And he wrote this novel which was turned into this movie.
The thing that really appealed to me, it was the first movie I saw that humanized Indians, that they weren't cartoons or caricatures.
INSKEEP: And you have pointed out a particular scene, which you title "The Civilized Man." What's happening here?
ALEXIE: Aha. A rogue Indian, played by Chief Dan George, is trying to get Outlaw Josey Wales, you know, who has a bounty on his head. But Josey Wales, of course, sneaks up on the Indian and they engage in this really funny banter, and really identify with each other. Which is interesting, the idea that this Confederate soldier fighting the United States and this Indian also fighting the United States, are not necessarily natural allies but have ally-like tendencies.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES")
CHIEF DAN GEORGE: (as Lone Watie) I thought you might be someone who would sneak up behind me with a gun.
CLINT EASTWOOD: (as Josey Wales) Where'd you ever get an idea like that? 'Sides, it ain't supposed to be easy to sneak up behind an Indian.
GEORGE: (as Lone Watie) I'm an Indian, all right. But here in the nation, they call us a civilized tribe. They call us civilized because we're easy to sneak up on.
ALEXIE: Chief Dan George says, you know, the white man, he always tells me to: Endeavor to persevere. I do not know what he means when he says that.
INSKEEP: And basically what the white man is saying: I've taken your land and I want to say something sounds good, so I'm going to give you this load of hokum. That's basically what the white man is saying.
ALEXIE: Exactly, so that's an inside joke among my family when one of us is complaining about something. You know, Oh, you must endeavor to persevere. The other person will say: I do not know what you mean.
INSKEEP: Sherman Alexie, thanks very much.
ALEXIE: Thank you. It was fun.
INSKEEP: Endeavor to persevere to our website, where you can find all of Sherman Alexie's picks. That's npr.org.
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.