City Paper is not for tourists
In his essay “Out of Chaos,” Native American critic Vine Deloria Jr. argues that “Indians are the popular American minority group and the white majority deeply believes that Indians already have the secret mysteries which will produce a wise and happy life.” But this is only half of the modern stereotype. Native Americans are either romantically portrayed as possessing these “secret mysteries” or negatively depicted as drunk, welfare-supported reservation dwellers. Adrian C. Louis’ Wild Indians & Other Creatures satirizes the first myth by humorously detailing real problems on the reservation, and attempts to subvert the second by endowing his characters with the ability to overcome their troubles.
Like such modern Native authors as Louise Erdrich and Leslie Marmon Silko, Louis employs traditional mythology to confront current issues. He makes light of such un-funny problems as incest, rape, prostitution, alcoholism, spousal abuse, and bestiality, all in the hope of conveying deep truths to “red wetbrains who refuse to come in out of the rain” (the group to whom he unsentimentally dedicates this collection). Louis creates a realm of anthropomorphic animal tricksters who serve as bridges between nature and human tribes; he also intends these comic figures to link the present-day Indian and white worlds.
According to Northwest Native oral myths, Raven once stole daylight, but helped save the earth after a great flood. In several of Wild Indians’ tales, Raven maintains his old-fashioned attributes while interacting with 20th-century characters. “Raven in the Eye of the Storm,” for instance, describes Raven’s marriage to a Sioux woman, Alicia. Raven’s verbal abuse of Alicia exemplifies the way in which Louis deromanticizes Native reservation lives.
Despite the ugliness that takes place in this unhappy marriage, Louis encourages readers to laugh—albeit uncomfortably—at the matter-of-fact description of a giant black bird living with an Indian woman. Raven cannot understand why Alicia can’t take care of him: “This is all any American man or bird really wants to hear,” he says. “Jesus, why can’t women sense that men just want to be mothered?”
Louis stays true to classic Native myths by killing the scoundrel Raven and reincarnating him as a hero to his people. Back from the dead in “Raven and the Valentine,” the character decides to write an excellent letter of recommendation for the first human he ever kissed; he rejects the advice of Coyote (a traditional trickster himself) to avoid the woman because she has become obese from drinking. Raven’s act of kindness enables the woman to obtain a job and stop drinking—and demonstrates his own growth from his destructive marriage toward a sort of community activism. As in traditional myths, he teaches a value system through his own fall and redemption.
Louis illuminates the tragedies on the “rez” for both Native Americans and other ethnic groups. Ultimately, however, Wild Indians’ success depends on public acceptance of its iconoclastic humor. The darkly comic tales of Native writer Sherman Alexie have won popular acclaim, and Louis’ risqué jokes can take the edge off disturbing scenarios. Yet such stories as “Why Coyote Knotted His Whanger” could alienate the very audience that Louis is addressing. CP