Mid-Week Motivation: Sherman Alexie’s "On the Amtrak from Boston to NYC"

In activist fatigue, identity, mid-week motivation, poetry, sherman alexie by Adrienne K.6 Comments

On the Amtrak from Boston to New York City

The white woman across the aisle from me says ‘Look,
look at all the history, that house
on the hill there is over two hundred years old, ‘
as she points out the window past me

into what she has been taught. I have learned
little more about American history during my few days
back East than what I expected and far less
of what we should all know of the tribal stories

whose architecture is 15,000 years older
than the corners of the house that sits
museumed on the hill. ‘Walden Pond, ‘
the woman on the train asks, ‘Did you see Walden Pond? ‘

and I don’t have a cruel enough heart to break
her own by telling her there are five Walden Ponds
on my little reservation out West
and at least a hundred more surrounding Spokane,

the city I pretended to call my home. ‘Listen, ‘
I could have told her. ‘I don’t give a shit
about Walden. I know the Indians were living stories
around that pond before Walden’s grandparents were born

and before his grandparents’ grandparents were born.
I’m tired of hearing about Don-fucking-Henley saving it, too,
because that’s redundant. If Don Henley’s brothers and sisters
and mothers and father hadn’t come here in the first place

then nothing would need to be saved.’
But I didn’t say a word to the woman about Walden
Pond because she smiled so much and seemed delighted
that I thought to bring her an orange juice

back from the food car. I respect elders
of every color. All I really did was eat
my tasteless sandwich, drink my Diet Pepsi
and nod my head whenever the woman pointed out

another little piece of her country’s history
while I, as all Indians have done
since this war began, made plans
for what I would do and say the next time

somebody from the enemy thought I was one of their own.

 –Sherman Alexie

(Poem found here)

AK thoughts: Bree posted this in the comments on my post yesterday on activist fatigue and daily interactions, and I was so taken aback by the relevance and power. Especially since I live in Boston, and I deal with the “there is so much history here!” comments constantly. I do have mixed feelings about Sherman Alexie sometimes, but then there are moments of clarity and realness in his work, like this poem, that remind me why I loved his pieces in the first place. So, I found strength in knowing that even the arguably best know Native author out there struggles and deals with these feelings, just like me.

(Thanks so much Bree!)
  • Hi, I’ve been reading this site for a while, but never commented before. I was curious about your comment about having mixed feelings about Sherman Alexie.What do those entail? Just to be clear, I don’t want to argue with you, I have no strong feelings on the matter. Feel free to email me if you have too many words or don’t want to publicly address. my email is w.f.reading@gmail.com

  • this poem makes me feel not quite so alone, too

  • Having recently moved from southern Massachusetts to Seattle WA, I frequently talk with people who ask, ‘wasn’t living on the east coast great, all that history…’ I think the usage is the same as the question, ‘do you believe in god?’ The dominant culture always already presumes ownership of the language and all terms therein.

    (In a random and side note, I bumped into Sherman Alexie at a store yesterday. Small world.)

  • Before I comment on this poem, let me say that Sherman Alexie is one of my favorite writers, and until I moved to Spokane, he was my #1. This poem, eh…it’s not very good. He’s written on this subject hundreds of times, whether in essay, poem or fiction form, and I can think of half a dozen where he’s done it better than this poem. I also have mixed feelings about him now. There isn’t anything new or imaginative in this poem. But I guess…at least he’s still writing about it, and probably in The New Yorker.

  • Hi! I’ve just found your blog through a link of a friend on fb. I’m intrigued as I flip through the pages, and I think it’s pretty cool, overall.

    However, I’m actually mildly offended by this poem. While it’s true (as mentioned in a comment above) that those who dominate in the end write the history books and “presume ownership,” and it’s sad that older histories that aren’t as visible are thus underappreciated or widely unknown, I feel like the poet is missing the point on the appreciation of history–of the people who were here before all of us as individuals in the 20th and 21st centuries–who worked society into what it is now, for better or for worse. If the poet wants to separate himself from the rest of American culture, and speak as if none of it pertains to him (or maybe the woman was just friendly and wanted to talk about history to someone who she assumed wasn’t from Boston?), that’s fine. But when I visit any other culture (hell, even when I visit the small communities in my own state), I always have an eye for the history in that area, and I respect that past. Why shouldn’t he hold the same standard?

    I’m sorry, I just find it a bit rich to imply that everyone on this continent should know the tribal stories (at least, that’s what I took him to mean with his “we”) without promoting cross-cultural understanding (which is really what America lacks, from many perspectives).

  • I’ll add my personal experience/perspective as a postscript. I’m in my early twenties now, but as a child I was one of those kids who was fascinated with Native American culture. I do mean that in earnest, too, because although I was surely perpetuating stereotypes, that wasn’t my goal. I wanted to know all about the history, and I actually really wished it was part of my own cultural identity (my family has been in America so long that there are absolutely no unique pieces to my cultural identity. I also really wished I was Irish. There was a Cherokee woman in my direct lineage several generations back, and when I was that age it just killed me that there was no cultural heritage that derived from it. It’s a little messed up, and I admit that freely). As a result, I had a small library of books about “native american stories” and (when I was older) I learned more about the oppression of native cultures. And then . . . I got to a point in my life where I felt I had to stop taking any interest, because all my actions became offensive somehow. I felt like every tribal story in the books I had was incorrect, and on the rare occasion I met a Native American, I was afraid to ask any questions out of the fear to offend.

    I consider the legacy of the American Indian to be a part of the history of my country, and I don’t want your race/your culture/your identity to face discrimination and disappear. But I ask that maybe instead of having a blog pointing out everything that’s wrong, please try to tell us what’s the RIGHT way to handle things. I support movements like Reconsider Columbus Day, but a lot of what I see on here isn’t necessarily helpful: it’s just complaining.

    For instance, I also took a big interest in this entry about the Hipster Headdress (http://nativeappropriations.blogspot.com/2010/09/nevershoutnever-and-hipster-headdress.html), and I have to say I agree more with some of the comments than I do with the body of the text. You know, I (and many others) are actually aware that most tribes don’t wear headdresses. We also know that people don’t wear them everyday. We know that there are hundreds of tribes that cannot all be generalized into the same identity (though we admit it’s hard for us to understand how this works when I also feel like modern Natives identify together in one unit). I’m pretty sure that–in my ignorance–I’ve said something offensive in the past several paragraphs. But that’s also my point. I don’t KNOW the proper things. I don’t know the political logistics of Reservations; I don’t know if most Natives even consider themselves part of the USA, or how they see themselves and their tribal history among the history of other tribes. I don’t know what of my childhood education about yours and other native cultures are correct. And I’d much rather know that than to be hammered–without real argument–what’s wrong about the majority of images of Indians in American culture today. The cure is often more through promoting the truth than by fighting the symptoms.