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Humor bridges a gap (04/15/2007)
By Janet Lewis Burns

"So, okay, in the end, maybe I am proud to be an Indian. But I don't want to wear a T-shirt with my tribal enrollment number printed on the front and a photograph of Sitting Bull ironed on the back." - Sherman Alexie, from "Ten Little Indians."

Since I've been put out to pasture, I can't tell you how many books I've read! As a rule, I don't pick up fiction, but when I read a magazine blurb about an acclaimed young Native American writer whose stories are receiving rave reviews, I sought out Sherman Alexis's bold and playful "Reservation Blues. Since then I've discovered his "Ten Little Indians." He is also the author of "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven." Alexie portrays bad-boy images through outrageous narratives, reminding the reader of the unpredictable young. Gee, I forgot how entertaining and irresponsible it can be to read something just for the fun of it!

"To this day, I rarely look in the mirror and think, I'm an Indian. I don't necessarily know what an Indian is supposed to be. After all, I don't speak my tribal language, and I'm allergic to the earth. If it grows, it makes me sneeze." "If I spend too much time outside, I get a nasty rash. I doubt Crazy Horse needed talcum powder to get through a hot summer day. Can you imagine Sacajawea sniffling her way across the Continental Divide? I'm hardly the poster boy for aboriginal pride. I don't even think about my tribal heritage until some white person reminds me of it." -Sherman Alexie, "Ten Little Indians"

Kathleen Norris' "Dakota - A Spiritual Geography" is a treasure of transfixing territorial information, both geographical and sublime, keeping the reader intensely interested.

Norris' interspersing experiences with the ranchers of the Dakotas' desolate plains, local Trappist monks, and Native Americans also contain light and humorous moments. Norris often visits the small Benedictine abbeys on the Great Plains where she manages her grandparents' ranch near Lemmon, South Dakota. She debunks the myth that monks are merely stuffy, silent and somber.

She tells stories about the monks' lighthearted nature. "Once I was enjoying the silence before vespers," Norris writes, "when a monk in the row of choir stalls behind me leaned over and whispered, ‘Could you keep it down?' "

The residents of the abbey have Halloween costume parties and are very hospitable to their guests. She watched with delight as a pillow fight went on for half an hour. A monk once handed a full offering bowl to another and whispered, "Don't spend it all in one place." Their games require a straight face.

Norris once remarked that her stereotypes had been shattered, expecting these solitary men would hate women. A monk replied, "You came at the right time. We had one like that, but he died."

Noting monastic fidelity to the liturgy, celebrated four or five times a day, Norris muses, ""¦somewhere, as I write this, as you read it, people are singing Psalms and praying for us all." One member of the monastic community Norris has visited had served in Vietnam. Another was a farmer, one an electrical engineer. "My parents brought me to be baptized, " another comments, "and forgot to take me home."

Laughter is a language all people can share. Sherman Alexie's satire lightheartedly brings out similarities of the races. He introduces characters such as Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the Pink Elephant Car Wash, Lester Falls Apart, Chief Walks Along, and the- man-who-was-probably-Lakota.

I feel like I'm getting buried in words, amidst scattered books and sheets of notes. Like digging one hole to fill another, as long as you keep on digging you'll never be empty. Between shovels full, what could it hurt to share a peace-pipe and have a few laughs?

Janet Burns has lived in this neck of the woods all of her life. She loves to hear from readers. She can be reached at patandjanburns@earthlink.net 


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