Sherman Alexie, a Native American Testament

** Everything is on page 1677-8, so I decided to only make note of the lines.

While reading through Sherman Alexie’s poetry, one piece in particular really stuck out to me above the others.  As I read Crow Testament, I was struck with a solemn, mingling desire to laugh and feel guilty at the same time. Alexie brings to light the suffering and trials of the Native American people at the hands of European settlers- He uses irony as a major mechanism in presenting his points (The title itself presents the contradictory theme of the poem).  Each line describes how Crow, the Native American trickster character, is tricked himself, and slowly transformed by the culture and religion of European settlers.

The work is riddled with biblical references, the first line staring with “Cain lifts Crow, that heavy black bird and strikes down Abel” (Lines 1-2). It was hard to find any good criticism on Alexie, but it sounds to me here like he is referencing the French and Indian War, and how the French used Native American alliances as a tool to fight the British over territory. He brings to light the sadness of the situation by using Christianity, the religion of both nations, and having crow exclaim “Damn . . . I guess this is just the beginning” (Line 12). He couldn’t have picked a better example to explain the irony of the situation in my opinion, because the Indians were involved in a white man’s war, fought over land that should have belonged to them in the first place, and in the end, wound up recieving nothing for their sacrifices except to be driven away from the land they had fought for.

Alexie furthers his biblical example in part 3. He speaks of the “Crow God” who “looks just like a Crow” (Lines 11-13) Here I believe he is speaking of the Christianization of the Natives by Missionaries and Settlers. A sense of sarcasm shines through with his use of the word “reliable” (Line 12), followed by his feelings of sadness for something great lost as Crow accepts this false faith as his own because it “makes it so much easier to worship [himself]” (Lines 14-15). He continues to explain the suffering this new religion causes his people within part 4 of Crow Testament. As “Crow sacrafices his firstborn son . . . a million nests are soaked with blood” (Lines 17-18). It is clear how Alexie feels about the spread of Christianity among his people; their homes are now stained with the spread of the foreign religion which robbed them of their own.

The parts of his work which do not utilize biblical references focus on the effects that European religion has had upon the Native American people. Part 2 describes the “white man” as he “swoops in disguised as a falcon and yet again steals a salmon from Crow’s talons” (Lines 5-8). The imagery here is one of two birds- one white and pure- the other black and savage. The falcon is symbolic of the benevolent nature and good intentions which the white man claims to have come, only to steal from Crow.  Part 5 of the work speaks of “Crows fight[ing] with Crows” (Line20). Crow’s statement, “Damn, it’s raining feathers” (Line 22). Speaks to the extent of the damage caused by the inner fighting and alcoholism introduced to the Native American culture- once again, the crows are the ones who are losing feathers- there is no further mention of the white falcon.

Alexie ties up his poem in parts 6 and 7 as he pains the sad picture of Crow flying around the reservation picking up empty beer bottles. At his point, I think Crow has realized the full extent of the perversion of his dying culture and ways. When he talks about the beer bottles, he says “they are so heavy” (Line 25) showing just how heavily alcoholism and the various other effects of white settlement have had upon the Native American culture. His statement that he “gets only five cents a bottle” (Line 28) followed by “Damn, redemption is not easy” (Lines 29-30) sounds to me as though Alexie is trying to express how hard (or even impossible) it is to bring his culture back to the way it was before the coming of the white man. Crow is trying, but it is too little too late. Like squeezing toothpaste from the tube, you can only get so much back in. The final biblical reference of the work is one of Crow riding “a pale horse into a crowded powwow” (Lines 31-32). For those of you who may not be familiar with it, the “pale horse” is taken from the book of revelations within the Bible- “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him…” Revelation 6:8. This verse is written about the apocalypse, the end of times for all of mankind.  Yet when Crow enters the powwow on his pale horse, “none of the Indians panic” (Line 33). In this, Alexie eloquently sums up his point- Crow’s final exclamation is “Damn . . . I guess they already live near the end of the world” (Lines 34-35) His culture is dying- and they do not even know it because they have already come so far from their roots and heritage that they do not remember who they once were.

            Overall, I found his ironic use of a Native American character in a Christian context to be a very effective means of explaining the downfall of his culture, and the pain that came with it. When I stop to consider it, the idea of an entire culture and religion being swallowed up by another is an entirely unsettling thought. My great grandmother was a Cherokee Indian- and even though I share 1/8th of her blood, I am nothing like her, and there is nothing left of my Cherokee heritage in me. On the bright side, that heritage does give me a tie to the land which I live on and have sworn to defend. Even though I’m 3/4ths Irish, I’m no more Irish than my Cherokee great-grandmother was. But I suppose that’s all part of being an American, and that’s who I am.

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