Alexie Brings Wit and Wisdom to Colgate

Colgate students and faculty gathered in the Hall of Presidents on Wednesday night for an evening of humor, politics, and inspiration. Sherman Alexie, who is famous for his contributions as a Native American author, poet and filmmaker, captivated the audience with hilarious anecdotes and powerful thoughts on life as a Native American in America. Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, was born and raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. He made few comments on his childhood, except to say that he “grew up in the basement of the skyscraper called poverty.” And now, some 40 years later, Alexie can describe his life as “the outhouse to the penthouse.” He is now the self-described Brad Pitt of the book world, with 16 published books to date and more in the works. He has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, served on prestigious independent film industry boards and he is currently giving lectures all across the country. Most members of the Colgate community present at Alexie’s lecture probably expected him to discuss those achievements and childhood hardships. Instead, Alexie focused on current issues and their relation to life as a Native American in today’s American society. The lecture centered around the story of his trip to appear on Oprah, at which time he’d been surprised to receive his grandfather’s war medals, something he had only dreamt of having in his possession. This story was rather simple, but Alexie took every opportunity to sidetrack into a fascinating, often humorous, anecdote. The topics of these anecdotes ranged from the presidential election, Catholicism, and terrorism to fraternities, vegans and extreme sports. Throughout each story, Alexie described an instance in which his ethnic background made his experience different than that of a white American. For instance, when recounting the trip to Chicago to tape Oprah, Alexie explained with a rare combination of vulgarity and poignancy the process of boarding an airplane in our post-September 11 world, in which his minority status is often seen as a threat. Because he is often seen by members of racial majorities as “ambiguously ethnic,” Alexie is searched by airport security guards nearly every time he travels. (This then progressed into another tangent: this time a detailed description of his superior packing skills that have resulted from this continually having his luggage searched.) And after bringing the audience to hysterics after physically portraying young travelers carrying excessively large backpacks as they walked down the aisle of the airplane, he described his own experience boarding a plane. Stereotyped as an Indian similar to those we see in Pocahontas, Alexie feels that his fellow passengers are shocked by the absence of beaded garments and music coming from a traditional Native American hand drum. The fact that Alexie was pantomiming this entire escapade added humor to the otherwise touchy subject of racism and stereotypes. Mixed in with the humor and storytelling were bits of inspiration and wisdom that proved the depth Sherman Alexie carries within his rather flamboyant exterior. “How can any of us think we’re better than anybody else?” asked Alexie. He didn’t stop at just the question but went on to prove his belief in equality, about which he feels great passion. The recent presidential election was the perfect starting point at which to show the Colgate community that everyone is equal. Sure, supporters of Bush were relieved with the outcome of the election and were content as they listened to Alexie’s lecture, but he pointed out to them that perhaps the war in Iraq needs some further consideration. Alexie asked them to ponder how they would feel if the pictures on television were of masses of dead Iraqi children, killed because of the war. Then, Alexie turned to his fellow Kerry supporters. He asked them to think about how different the world would be if the terrorists of the Arab world weren’t under pressure from America. In the wake of the election, these thoughts were so fresh in our minds that the Hall of Presidents became silent as students and faculty from both sides of the argument contemplated his words. To conclude his lecture, Sherman Alexie asked the audience to, for one day, “live your life as though you could be wrong.” With the humility to say that he has “no answers” and the power to immediately silence the crowd that several moments before he had had rolling with hysterical laughter, Alexie left the Colgate audience pondering his enigmatic final words: “live your life with one more question mark per day.”