Thursday, March 16, 2017

An Analysis of Sherman Alexie's "A Drug Called Tradition"

Sherman Alexie’s short story entitled A Drug Called Tradition (Brown & Ling, 387-394) offers a very interesting portrait of actual Native spirituality and customs even as it propagates the myth of the shaman Indian A. Robert Lee speaks of in his chapter on Native American fiction. (Lee, 90-119)

Alexie’s story opens with “the second-largest party in reservation history” which has come about as a result of Thomas-Builds-The-Fire winning a lawsuit against Washington Water Power over the placing of ten power poles on Thomas’ land. The narrator claims that anytime an Indian wins a lot of money from corporations like this, “we can all hear our ancestors laughing in the trees.”(Brown & Ling, 387)

This quote sets the stage in that the concept of all the Indians being able to hear ghostly laughter from trees lends itself to Lee’s observation that fiction tends to add to the myth of Indians as shamans; a myth which Lee seems a little contradictory on. Lee seems convinced that many people have gained this view from fictions created by primarily white authors (Lee, 101-103) and yet when discussing Native spirituality and shamanic symbolism, Lee acknowledges this as a continuation of Native culture and oral tradition. (109-111). This disparity makes interpretation of such images and scenes difficult to analyze without a deeper knowledge of Native spirituality and customs.

As the title of Alexie’s tale indicates this story is primarily about a Native tradition, in this case a Spokane tradition involving ritual drug use. While the story with its reference to “Washington Water Power” indicates that the Spokane tribe is located in the Northwestern United States, the traditional use of natural hallucinogenic plants for Native rituals extends far beyond a single tribe or region and includes more than one variety of plant. Weston La Barre, a James B. Duke Professor of Anthropology Emeritus in Duke University who researched peyote usage by Native Americans from the 1930’s through the 1980’s, covers the use of the peyote cactus for religious purposes across much of the United States Southwest and further south into Mexico in his book entitled The Peyote Cult. The exact drug used in Alexie’s story is not labeled but is probably from a similar substance.

La Barre lists the symptoms of peyote intoxication as follows: First a sense of exhilaration often expressed by dancing which leads into a depression state in which dreams and visions occur. This secondary state may also include feelings of brotherhood and the desire to learn something new. The entire effect can take up to twelve hours to run its full course. (La Barre, 17-22). In A Drug Called Tradition the narrator, Victor, describes himself as dancing first in a vision, then around his companion, Junior, and Junior’s car. (Brown & Ling 390-391) This reaction is in keeping with the use of a traditional hallucinogen. these images take on other, more cultural meanings.

The images that Victor sees during his hallucination are images from his tribal past in which the past enfolds him as a participant. These images progress from powerful, in the theft of a horse, to depressing, in the images of a tribe wiped out by blankets deliberately tainted with smallpox, through a more modern day image of seeing his companion entertaining tourists with a guitar and singing a song in which the Indians have won against the whites. (389-391). To an extent this is simply a series of hallucinations that follow the natural progress of the drug’s effect however, when viewed in terms similar to those expressed by Gloria Anzaldua in Erika Aigner-Varoz’s Metaphors of a Mestiza Consciousness: Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera

Aigner-Varoz quotes Anzaldua in her critical essay as saying:

“Through the centuries a culture touches and influences another, passing on its metaphors and its gods before it dies. Metaphors are gods. The new culture adopts, modifies, and enriches these images, and it, in turn, passes them on changed. The process is repeated until the original meanings of images are pushed into the unconscious” (Aigner-Varoz, 1)

The newer cultural influences on Native American metaphors are barely two centuries old thus the older less altered metaphors still exist in the subconscious allowing the boys in A Drug Called Tradition to access images of cultural significance less changed than these images would be from a day-to-day conscious thought process.

The concept of stealing a horse and learning its secret name which in this case is Flight offers an image from the tribal past and the idea of the horse, which obviously runs faster than a man, offers the concept of freedom or escape. (Brown & Ling 389)

In Lee’s arguments regarding the fictions that seem harmful to the Natives the idea of using a drug to see visions as well as the idea of stealing a horse are both adding to the stockpile of already confusing and degrading myths of the drunken Indian or the criminal Indian as well as the childlike Indian who thinks drugs lead to enlightenment rather than the scientific facts involving the chemical effect on the brain. (Lee, 109) However, Lee’s arguments in his writings for the presence of Native spirituality indicate that the inclusion of such images works toward maintaining and preserving the Native culture and religious practices. (97-98) This seemingly contradictory approach to the idea of shamanic or nature based religious experience in literature and film makes Lee’s assessment of the Native fictions a little hard to follow.

It would almost appear that Lee finds the shamanic myth in fictions involving Indians but written by whites (109) while he identifies Native beliefs, culture, and practices as acceptable in fictions written by Native Americans. (98) The romantic view seems to be the actual issue as Lee’s writings indicate that whites have romanticized the Indian as a shamanic figure while the Native American themselves include the shamanic or religious scenes as simply a part of daily living.

In the case of A Drug Called Tradition the use of a hallucinogenic substance for a vision is labeled by Thomas-Builds-The-Fire who says “Although it is the twentieth century and planes are passing overhead, the Indian boys have decided to be real Indians tonight. They all want to have their vision, to receive their true names, their adult names.” (Brown & Ling 392) This statement places the action of taking a drug for the purpose of this vision into the category of a tribal rite of passage which is simply a cultural ritual that is being carried out despite the changes over time that have altered the tribe’s way of life.

In essence this is a way to preserve tradition as the title of the tale implies.

Thomas-Builds-The-Fire also holds a very cultural place in this tale as he fills the role of storyteller and continues the oral tradition common to many indigenous peoples as Mary Pat Fisher indicates in her book Living Religions. Her text labels the position of storyteller as a spiritual specialty among indigenous religions and states, “Because the traditions are oral rather than written, these people must memorize long and complex stories and songs so that the group’s sacred traditions can be remembered and taught, generation after generation.”(Fisher, 59-60) Thomas-Builds-The-Fire is in essence the actual shaman of the tale in that he is acting in the role of teacher and guide to the boys as they undergo this rite of passage; a role that is in itself a tradition. Thomas also takes the time to tell the boys a story about themselves undergoing the ritual. This action may also be a way for Thomas, as tribal storyteller, to commit the action to memory so the tale can be added to his repertoire for the generations to come.

Lee indicates on pages 113 through 114 that Thomas-Builds-The-Fire features in other tales by Alexie, which may in fact be Alexie’s way of creating a fictional tribal storyteller to carry on the tradition through the written word rather than relying on oral traditions more difficult to continue in modern society. This may be a very creative way to preserve the old way of the oral storyteller through the new way of the written storyteller.

If so, this would be a very clever, creative approach on Alexie’s part as well as an effective transitional method for shifting tribal sacred traditions from the oral to the written, in essence from the fading no longer reliable methods of the past to a more viable and potentially necessary modern approach. The old ways are gone and cannot literally be restored, just like the tribe wiped out by smallpox in Victor’s vision, and so a new way must be embraced in order to insure that the past and the identity it offers to the tribe is not lost entirely. (Brown & Ling 390)

The metaphor of Junior and his guitar entertaining tourists along with the song that speaks of Indians triumphing over whites can be viewed in multiple ways. (391-392) The initial reaction is to view this image as wishful thinking or a desire for what might have been, but if Alexie’s intention is to create a method through his tales for preserving tribal culture and sacred tradition through Thomas-Builds-The-Fire then the metaphor becomes less wishful and much more a reality as Alexie makes use of the white man’s pen to preserve the Indian’s inheritance thus using the very written word and education of the white’s that altered the tribe’s way of life in the first place as a method to salvage the past right under the conqueror’s nose.

This type of approach would be very much in keeping with the initial idea of the “ancestral laughing ghosts” in the beginning as Victor comments that no one is certain just who the ghosts are laughing at, the Indians or the Whites, and he thinks they are laughing at everyone.(387) It is quite possible that this is a metaphor for Alexie himself, who approaches the story A Drug Called Tradition as if he was discussing a college fraternity party or relating the story to an outsider who is certain to find the tale amusing rather than seeing the tale in truth.

Alexie’s writing has the flavor of being cleverly downplayed in a deliberate effort to sort those who know and understand from those who have no idea. In essence he laughs with those who see the truth and laughs at those who see only what the outsider is bound to see; a trio of Indians doing drugs, getting high and acting like the drunken Indian they expected to see. This comes to light in the references Alexie uses through out the story.

The story starts out with a large party including beer and the reader is told that Victor has a drug he intends to invite at least one other person to share with him. (387) Victor makes the comment, “It’ll be very fucking Indian. Spiritual shit, you know?” (388) Alexie writes of the boys as sitting in Junior’s car trying “to look like horsepowered warriors” (388) and has Junior take “a screaming corner” and labels it “just another Indian boy engaged in some rough play.”(389) The outsider sees a teenage party, but as the quote from Victor indicates the boys do know this is “spiritual shit”. (388) The boys know exactly what they are doing, what the ritual is indicative of, and what is supposed to happen. It is the outsider who sees this for less than it is, which is exactly what Alexie seems to intend.

The multiple levels of this story and the metaphors included in it are complex enough to show the creativity and cleverness of Alexie’s storytelling ability. The story seems almost banal on the surface level as it simply speaks of a trio of Indian boys getting stoned after a party, but the reality of the story gives it much greater depth.

The primary purpose, a secondary level, is to show a continuation of a tribal sacred tradition into modern times. This tradition carries with it a sense of shamanism in the ability to hear ancestral spirits in trees and understand the language of a horse. It also brings in the ritual use of a drug and the effects of that drug within a sacred rite of passage. The metaphors that emerge thereafter offer insights into the past as well as the present, albeit with a twist and in this twist is evidence of a tertiary level.

This time it is a level at which the author becomes a part of the story through the methods in which it has been written and the usage of scenarios and language that separate the insider from the outsider and laughs at those who see only the surface. Alexie laughs too at those who have tried to crush these traditions and failed by giving the author the very tools needed to preserve the sacred stories despite separation, relocation, reeducation, and suppression. This tale becomes not the story of three Indian boys getting stoned after a party, but a multi-leveled tale involving at least three separate topics and traditions all at once. Even the idea of someone, particularly high school or college age who wins a large lawsuit, throwing a beer party is something of a tradition if one ascribes to the American adolescent stereotype.

Sherman Alexie’s A Drug Called Tradition is a perfect example of how a member of a suppressed race inside a more dominant culture can approach the preservation of traditional sacred rites as well as cultural and religious teachings despite the efforts of the dominant culture to eradicate them. This story offers a great deal of depth and irony as well as preserving a sacred ritual along with a sacred occupation. Alexie has found a way to bring his tribe into the modern world without losing touch with his ancestral heritage at the same time. This is no easy task, but A Drug Called Tradition is indeed the “one drum that can fit in my hand, but if I think if I played it a little, it might fill up the whole world.” (394)


Works Cited

Brown, W. & Ling. A. Imagining America: Stories From The Promised Land. Persea Books, Inc. New York. 2002. Pgs. 387-394.

Lee, A. Robert. Multicultural American Literature: Comparative Black, Native, Latino/a, and Asian American Fictions. Edinburgh University Press, Ltd. Edinburgh. United States Publication by University Press of Mississippi. 2003. Pgs. 90-119.

La Barre, Weston. The Peyote Cult. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman Oklahoma. 1989. Pgs. 10-22.

Aigner-Varoz, Erika. Metaphors of a Mestiza Consciousness: Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera – Critical Essay. Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnics Literature of the United States 2000. The Gale Group 2001. Retrieved from the World Wide Web from BNET Research Center 14 December 2007. Pg. 1.

Fisher, Mary Pat. Living Religions. University of Phoenix. Prentice Hall, Inc. Upper Saddle River, NJ 1999. Pgs. 59-60.

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