The Business of Fancydancing and Postmodern America

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Sherman Alexie’s Postmodern Aesthetics

From Bruce Goebel, “The Business of Fancydancing and Postmodern America” in Reading Native American Literature: A Teacher’s Guide, NCTE

Studies of multicultural literature often focus on ethnic identity and exclude matters of craft, artistry and aesthetics. We’ll examine Alexie’s work to understand how Alexie uses language for particular effects.

For each of the poems we read, you will write

  1. a response to each piece

  2. observations about such themes and topics as identity, ethnicity, family, gender, and sports

  3. descriptions of style and form

Consider the following questions:

  1. What are your personal responses to the poem? Did you like it? Why or why not? What parts appealed to you the most? How does the piece make you feel? Why: What passage particularly evoked those feelings? That did you find most interesting of puzzling about the piece?

  2. How does Alexie construct Native American identity within the piece? What qualities or characteristics are exhibited by the person or characters? If applicable, how does Alexie make use of stereotype and /or the rhetoric of race in his construction of identity? What does Alexie seem to suggest about the role of sports, family, alcohol, and gender in people’s lives? (Feel free to respond to other themes or topics as you see them emerge.)

  3. How would you describe Alexie’s style? What words of phrases does Alexie repeat? What interesting syntax or word arrangements do you notice? How does Alexie make use of figurative language? How would you describe the formal structure of the piece? How might the style and form contribute to your understanding of the content?

Alexie’s typical stylistic features—“stylistic signature”:

  • Use of nouns as adjectives—“reservation November night”—which gives an original and musical quality to the writing

  • Use of adjective phrases—“three in the morning highway”—which also gives an original and musical quality to he writing
  • Use of aphorism—“Every highway in the world crosses some reservation”—which forces the reader to stop and reflect about what this means in relation to the story or poem as a whole

  • Use of colloquial fillers in dialogue—“you know,” “enit”—which gives the characters a more human feel and the story an oral quality

  • Use of surprise endings to sentences for comic or ironic effect—“or making a treaty”—which catches readers in their own assumptions and forces them to reconsider their normal perceptions

Postmodernism Native American Style

Postmodern era in American and English literature began around the 1960s; although postmodern elements are present in much earlier literature, the degree to which they permeate contemporary art sets this era apart from earlier ones.

Two aspects of postmodernism influence many contemporary writers and artists. The first is a set of themes common to many postmodern texts:

  • The lies of history, the revision of history

  • The complexity of identity and the deconstruction of stereotypes

  • Increasing ethnic heterogeneity

  • Holocaust and apocalypse

  • The cold war

  • The influence of television and pop culture

  • The influence of computers and other technologies

Which of these themes might be of most concern to Native American writers?

Second aspect of Postmodernism is aesthetics, a set of formal and stylistic elements that generally include:

  • Experiments in form

  • Blurring of genres (blending poetry, fiction and nonfiction in the same text, for example)

  • Use of pastiche (a kind of cut-and-paste from other sources, such as other literary texts, songs, advertisements)
  • Contradictory voices in a single text (so that multiple perspectives complicate our search for any simple “truth”)

  • Fragmentation (with the text broken, disordered, and/or incomplete)

  • “Open” forms (that demand that the reader actively work to construct meaning)

  • Playful irony

  • Overtly political intentions

Make note of which of these stylistic elements you see in Alexie’s work.

Theme Studies of Alexie


Sports and Dancing



Crazy Horse and Buffalo Bill


Postmodern Aesthetics

Terms to Know in Reading Alexie

BIA For nearly two centuries the Bureau of Indian Affairs has had a major influence on the lives of Native Americans. As early as 1775, the US government had established department of Indian Affairs and in 1789 those departments were consolidated under the War Department. In 1824 the BIA was established and was responsible for accounts and expenditures related to the “civilizing” of Indians, deciding claims between Indians and whites, and handling Indian correspondence with the War Department. In 1849 the BIA was transferred to the Dept. of the Interior. The BIA then took over more and more responsibilities, including administering food and other supplies to offset the inevitable starvation caused by reservation life. By the 1880s, the BIA was responsible for schools, tribal justice, supplies, allotments, and the management of tribal resources. In effect, the BIA became the tribal government—a government without real representation of the Native peoples themselves. Throughout its history the BIA has been rife with corruption and incompetence. Early government agents stole food and supplies, aided white settlers in “stealing” Indian allotted lands, and allowed the teachers at Indian schools to punish children for speaking their own languages or practicing traditional beliefs. Currently there is a billion dollar lawsuit (“Cobell”) against the BIA currently for mismanagement of funds it was supposed to be collecting for Indians (for leases, etc.). In the 1970s tribal governments gained more control over the administration of their natural resources and the policing of the reservations. Today the BIA is trying to transform itself into an advisory agency.

Blood Quantum This is a term used to designate what percentage of “Indian blood” is required to qualify an individual for tribal membership. While the BIA has traditionally designated one-quarter as the amount necessary for benefits, the individual tribes are the ones who actually set the standard. As a result, the requirement varies widely, from 5/8 to none at all. There is much debate in and out of the Native community about the idea of blood quantum, ranging from its positive role in preserving the integrity of tribal membership to its negative racist roots and its abuse by the federal government in denying tribal membership for whimsical reasons.
Buffalo Bill (William Frederick Cody) (1846-1917) Born in Iowa and raised on the prairies, William Cody was a man of many talents, taking turns as a trapper, gold miner, Pony Express rider, and stagecoach driver and supplier of buffalo meat for Kansas Pacific Railroad (For which he received his nickname). Form 1869 to 1872 he served as a scout during the Indian Wars. He was most famous, however, for his Wild West Show, with “real Cowboys and Indians,” which he began in 1883. The show toured the United States and Europe for thirty years.
Commodity food Surplus food distributed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to low-income people in the United States.

Crazy Horse (Ta-sunko-Uitco) (1842-1877): A visionary leader of the Lakota Sioux, Crazy Horse was a ferocious and brilliant warrior who helped to defeat Fetterman’s brigade at Fort Kearny and Custer at the Little Bighorn. He resisted the enforced reservation life and its attack on Native traditions, fighting the U.S. army until May 1877, when he finally surrendered. A few months later, however, he attempted to leave the reservation to take his sick wife to her parents, and the army, fearing the possibility of another uprising, had him arrested. During his arrest, while one soldier had Crazy Horse’s arm pinned behind his back, another soldier killed him by running him through with a bayonet. Today Crazy Horse is often seen as a symbol of Native American resistance and spiritual strength.

Fancydancing One of many dances performed at a powwow. The fancy dance, invented in the 1950s, differs from most traditional dances in its fast pace, intricate moves, and sheer athleticism. Dancers in elaborate, colorful outfits compete for pride and prizes.
HUD The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is responsible for helping low-income families find adequate housing and offers special mortgage packages for qualified buyers. Native Americans are one of many groups serve by HUD.

Powwow A Native American dance festival that includes dancing, singing, socializing, contests, giveaways, food, and vendors. The powwows serve as times of tribal and intertribal communal gathering, with family members often returning year after year.

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