Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Postcards to Columbus - Sherman Alexie

Postcards to Columbus
Sherman Alexie
Beginning at the front door of the White House, travel west
for 500 years, pass through small towns and house fires, ignore
hitchhikers and stranded motorists, until you find yourself
back at the beginning of this journey, this history and country
folded over itself like a Mobius strip. Christopher Columbus
where have you been? Lost between Laramie and San Fransisco
or in the reservation HUD house, building a better mousetrap?
Seymour saw you shooting free throws behind the TribalSchool
in a thunderstorm. Didn't you know lightning strikes the earth
800 times a second? But, Columbus, how could you ever imagine
how often our lives change? Electricity is lightning pretending
to be permanent and when the Indian child pushes the paper clip
into the electrical outlet, it's applied science, insane economics
of supply and demand, the completion of a 20th century circuit.
Christopher Columbus, you are the most successful real estate agent
who ever lived, sold acres and acres of myth, a house built on stilts
above the river salmon travel by genetic memory. Beneath the burden
of 15,000 years my tribe celebrated this country's 200th birthday
by refusing to speak English and we'll honor the 500th anniversary
of your invasion, Columbus, by driving blindfolded cross-country
naming the first tree we destroy America. We'll make the first guardrail
we crash through our national symbol. Our flag will be a white sheet
stained with blood and piss. Columbus, can you hear me over white noise
of your television set? Can you hear the ghost of drums approaching?

Sherman Alexie is a Native American poet & filmmaker. He is also the creator of the film "Smoke Signals", another piece we covered in class. After reading his work and watching the film, I have a greater desire to learn about Native American history and their struggles. The bitterness and resentment that Alexie feels is all over his work. This particular poem is full of sarcasm and derision. As an American child growing up in public education, we are taught that Christopher Columbus is a hero. We are made to believe that he "discovered" this land and made the way for us to be here in this great nation. But from a Native Americans point of view, this is not the case at all. How can he "discover" a land that was already occupied? The Natives were not waiting to be discovered. They were living their lives happily and making use of their resources. 
Throughout this poem, Sherman Alexie mentions well known modern American staples; such as the White House, San Francisco, basketball, and electricity. When I read the first 4 lines, I thought that he was trying to say that Columbus was only concerned for himself. He did not care about the "least of these". (I.e. - "ignore the hitchhikers and stranded motorists") I'm sure that Alexie wishes he had an opportunity to speak to Columbus and tell him how he feels about him. Since he can't, he expresses it sarcastically and in a patronizing way. He wishes that Columbus could come alive after 500 years and see the affects of his "discovery". 
"Christopher Columbus, you are the most successful real estate agent
who ever lived, sold acres and acres of myth, a house built on stilts" - 
This is my favorite line in the poem and one of the most powerful. It encompasses exactly how the Indians feel. They feel cheated. From their perspective, Columbus sold the entire world a huge lie, and they bought it. He sold a house built on stilts. Logically it should not have been able to withstand, but lucky for him, the lie did. 
The anger and hatred that the Indians feel is still very prevalent. 200 years later and they are still feeling it. He vows to honor the 500th year with destruction. His desire to destroy everything that would represent America shows that he is still filled with rage. When I got a bit of a background on Alexie, I discovered that he was an angry man and an alcoholic at one point. Sadly this is not uncommon for Indians. The resentment led some of them to lifestyles of addiction to alcohol and gambling. Regardless of their plight, some of them are still fighting to keep their heritage alive and move forward. Columbus will never know just what he has done. 

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