Sending Smoke Signals

Sherman Alexie is a poet, filmmaker, and novelist, and a member of the Spokane Tribe. CBS News Sunday Morning visited him on the reservation in eastern Washington state where he grew up and has set many of his stories. The report from Correspondent Thalia Assuras follows.

On stage, you may hear him say: "Nobody is ambivalent about Indians. They either love 'em or hate 'em. It's either 'those casino-grubbing, tax-selling, cigarette-smoking, fireworks-blasting, welfare-living, treaty-signing jerks,' or 'I love your hair'!"

He makes people laugh. That, claims 32-year-old Sherman Alexie, is his greatest accomplishment. But he is not a standup comic. He is a poet, novelist and, most recently, a filmmaker.

His is the often lonely voice of a modern American Indian who fled the reservation where he grew up to live in the city, in Alexie's case, Seattle. His writing is both a humorous celebration of modern Indian life and a fierce indictment of the treatment of native Americans.

"You're talking about a people who are the victims of a 500-year planned genocide, so there's bound to be a little bit of pain involved," he explains.

Yet his humor comes jumping through. "That's the only way people will listen to me and not run away screaming, or not get angry or not turn off because they don't want to hear what I'm saying, is if I'm funny. People listen to anything if you're funny."

But they also listen to his poetry. At the 17th annual Poetry Circus in Taos, New Mexico, he was declared the new "Heavyweight Poetry Champion of the World." His victory came in the final round when he had just 30 seconds to compose a poem from one word. The word was "chaos":

"All I dreamed about was leaving the reservation, about being somebody else, about being anything else. I dreamed of a full refrigerator. I dreamed of a full cupboard. I dreamed of a car with gas in its tank. I dreamed - and everything was chaos."

To him, Alexie explains, everything begins as a poem: "It's the way I think. Everything starts as a poem. Every screenplay, every novel, every short story starts as a poem first and then gets bigger."

He has written 8 books of poetry, and 3 of prose. His most recent novel is Indian Killer, a mystery set in Seattle about a mysterious figure, presumably an Indian, who kills and scalps white men.

Alexie, reading from Indian Killer: "Now as John walked through downtown Seattle, as white people walked wide circles around him, as they crossed busy streets to avoid him, as they pointed and whispered behind their hands, he began to see them as they truly were: white flames."

Alexie is now adapting Indian Killer to the screen and will direct the film, something new for him. Some scenes will be shot beneath Seattle's Alaskan Way viadct where the city's homeless gather. Many of them are Indians.

Thalia Assuras: "Is this a sad and scary place for you?"

Alexie: "No."

Assuras: "Why not?"

Alexie: "I guess I'm so used to seeing Indians hurting that I really look to the people rather than their condition. I guess I don't get so much depressed as trying to figure out ways for that not to happen to other people."

Assuras: "Were you worried that you might end up here?"

Assuras: "Oh yeah. My whole life has been a flight away from poverty. Even from a young age I thought, I don't want this to ever happen to me. I want to get away from this. So, it's always been a fear. It's still a fear."

It's a fear, he says, that comes from growing up poor in a family with a history of alcoholism, in a culture with crippling social problems, living on the Spokane Indian reservation in Washington state. Its idyllic hills and forests belie the tribe's sad stories, present and past.

Alexie, reading from Reservation Blues: "One hundred and thirty-four years ago, the Indian horses screamed...Big Mom ran to the rise above the clearing where the horses gathered. There, she saw the future and the past, the white soldiers in blue uniforms with black rifles and pistols. She saw the Indian horses shot and fallen like tattered sheets."

The slaughter of Spokane horses by Colonel George Wright in 1858 is a central image in Alexie's first novel, Reservation Blues. The character "Big Mom" is based on his late grandmother.

Alexie explains: "It's really a love song to her about who she was. She was the spiritual leader of the Spokane tribe... I wanted to memorialize her in some way. One way to do that was to make her this Greek-like goddess character in my book."

Many of Alexies's other characters occupy hopeless, alcohol-reduced lives. His portrayals have caused hard feelings on the reservation.

"I write about social problems," Alexie explains, adding, "Many people don't want that dirty laundry to be aired. Sometimes in focussing on the bad parts about what I write about, they neglect to see that there's a lot of love and humor and joy in the books as well."

Alexie's favorite work is The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, a collection of stories which he developed into his first screenplay and first movie. Renamed Smoke Signals, it is also the first American film to be written, directed, and acted by Indians.

Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven

Here's an exchange in Smoke Signals, between two characters on a bus, seted side-by-side:

Victor: "You got to look mean or people won't respect you. White people will run all over you if you don't look mean. You got to look like a warrior. You got to look like you just got back from killing a buffalo."

Thomas: "But our tribe never hunted buffalo. We were fishermen."

Victor: "What? You want to look like you just came back from catching fish? It ain't 'Dances With Salmon,' you know. Man, you think a fisherman is tough? Thomas, you got to look like a warrior."

Alexie explains, "I want to portray Indians as human beings, complicated human beings. I mean, one of the things about the movie Smoke Signals, the reaction to it that really disturbed me was people going on and on about how universal it was. Which meant white people understand it. Or which means, 'Oh, Indians - Indians laugh! Indians ride a bus!' You know? 'Indians speak English!' It was really condescending."

But Alexie does not let himself or his own people off the hook, revealing deep, still festering wounds.

Again, from Smoke Signals:

"Victor, who's your favorite Indian?"

"Nobody, nobody, nobody."

The Spokane Indian reservation is not a place most people leave. In his books, those who do either come back or fail on the outside.

Sherman Alexie seems to be an exception. His past is very much part of his future. But he says he won't come back to live here. And he will not raise his own children here.

At least, Alexie says, "not until the educational system is improved greatly. Because I have a son now and I simply do not want him to have to jump hurdles like I did even to catch up with other kids."

His personal observations are getting him national attention. This summer he participated in the president's panel on race relations.

President Clinton asked him, "What do you think the most important thing is for Americans to know about American Indians?"

Alexie replied: "I think the primary thing that people need to know about Indians is that our identity is much less cultural now and much more political, that we really do exist as political entities in sovereign political nations. And that's the most important thing for people to understand is that we are separate politically and economically and should be."

Alexie says he intends to foster authentic images of his contemporaries in every medium open to him. He begins from his own experience.

Alexie, (reading from Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven): "Survival equals anger times imagination. Imagination is the only weapon on the reservation. Imagination is the politics of dreams. Imagine a spring with water that mends broken bones. Imagine a drum which wraps itself around your heart. Imagine a story that puts wood in the fireplace."

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