Sherman Alexie's Challenge to the Academy's Teaching of Native American Literature, NonNative Writers, and Critics

Patrice E.M. Hollrah, University of Nevada, Las Vegas


Writing in the mystery genre, Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene) offers a critique of the academy in Indian Killer through the character of a Spokane Indian, Marie Polatkin, who is a political activist and a University of Washington college student. In chapter seven, "Introduction to Native American Literature," Marie questions the syllabus for a course taught by Dr. Clarence Mather, a white male anthropologist and Wannabe Indian who "wear[s] a turquoise bolo tie, and his gray hair tied back in a ponytail" (58). As Susan B. Brill notes, "Dr. Mather's syllabus, lectures, and interpretations of Indian literature demonstrate his erroneous and disturbingly romanticized misconceptions about Indians and their cultures and literatures" (10). During the first class, Marie engages Dr. Mather in a debate about the reading list he has chosen for the course, making an argument for the kinds of texts and authors that should be taught in a course titled Native American literature. As an example of a contemporary female warrior, Marie feels empowered "to harass a white professor who [thinks] he [knows] what it [means] to be Indian" (Indian 61). Also, through the issues that Marie raises, she offers an opportunity to explore what Alexie proposes beyond his critique of Dr. Mather's reading assignments, texts which Marie believes are neither authentic nor the most appropriate examples of Native American literature.