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Mythes et mémoires

The City as a Site of Trauma and Transformation: Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer and Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen

Hans Bak
p. 397-408


Cet article s’intéresse au sort des Indiens d’Amérique dans la ville, tel qu’il est reflété dans deux romans d’écrivains amérindiens, des Premières Nations : Indian Killer, de Sherman Alexie (1996) et Kiss of the Fur Queen, de Tomson Highway (1998). Alexie offre un traitement brutalement réaliste de la vie urbaine et recourt à une écriture plate et sans fioritures, visant à la confrontation et au malaise, à la résistance et à l’indignation, et ne laissant aucune place à la rédemption ou au salut. Au contraire, le roman dense, riche en métaphores de Highway s’oriente vers la possibilité d’une rencontre entre des cultures incompatibles, irréconciliables, et s’adonne à un art amphibie, rassemblant une culture traditionnelle tribale et un modernisme européen et américain—un art incitant à réunir, de manière responsable, une identité interculturelle et une mémoire tribale et devenant ainsi, essentiellement, un "art de la ville".

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  • 1 Sherman Alexie, Indian Kilter, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996, 409. All subsequent referenc (...)

1Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer (1996), set in the Seattle of the 1990s, allows us a rare glimpse into the world of urban Indians. Alexie, of Spokane-Coeur D’Alene descent, offers us a brutally realistic treatment of urban life in flat, no-nonsense prose which aims at confrontation and discomfort, resistance and indignation. Alexie’s Seattle is a city rife with ethnic strife and racial resentment, of fierce whitist hatred of Indians and equally fierce Indian hatred of whites (racially marked by "blue eyes"). As Reggie Polatkin, a mixed-blood Indian with blue eyes, who flees Seattle at the end of the novel, puts it: no matter to what new city he would turn, "he knew that every city was a city of white men".1 Alexie offers us a dystopian vision of the city as an apocalyptic underworld, a place of terror, darkness, random racist violence. Seattle is stalked by a serial killer who randomly selects his white victims, and leaves them scalped and horribly mutilated, their remains marked by two owl feathers, the signature of his Indian identity—though we are never unambiguously sure that the Indian killer may not be a non-Indian in disguise. Alexie hints that the killings might be a mode of historical retribution: the gruesome revenge for over five centuries of historical pain, murder and injustice suffered by Indians at the hands of whites: "The word spread quickly. Within a few hours, nearly every Indian in Seattle knew about the scalping. Most Indians believed it was all just racist paranoia, but a few felt a strange combination of relief and fear, as if an apocalyptic prophecy was just beginning to come true" (185). The Indian Killer sets in motion a spiral of racist violence raging through downtown Seattle: groups of all-American white boys, wearing ski-masks and armed with baseball bats, brutally bash defenseless homeless Indians, while groups of Indian men retaliate by brutalizing and terrorizing randomly picked white males, and re-enacting historical massacres in the streets of downtown Seattle—making tape-recordings of their cross-examinations of their white victims before gauging out their blue eyes, an ironic travesty of the white anthropologists’ recordings of oral tribal culture.

2In much recent Native American literature the city is the place Indians shy away from as the site of historical exile and alienation, the place where cultural dispossession is felt most bitterly and traumatically: salvation, if any, is to be found in a return to the reservation and the rediscovery of sustaining tribal roots, beliefs and ceremonies. For Alexie’s urban Indians the route back to tribalism seems definitely cut off—even a long-distance phone call to the reservation ironically miscarries. Like James Welch’s contemporary Indians, who (in novels like Winter in the Blood or The Death of Jim Loney) mostly find themselves in a dazed state of alienation, drenched in drugs or alcoholism and incapable of breaking out of immobility, Alexie’s urban Indians find little in the way of redemption or consolation. The tragic hopelessness of their condition is represented by the novel’s protagonist, an Indian of unidentified tribal affiliation who, immediately on his birth, is violently snatched away from his 14-year-old teenage Indian mother and adopted by a white couple who—what more ironic or unlikely name for an Indian—name him John Smith. John grows up a gentle boy, who would not even hurt a spider, and becomes a silent and withdrawn construction worker on "the last skyscraper in Seattle", but the trauma of dispossession from his Indian heritage and identity seals John’s fate: as the novel goes on, he can find no outlet for the "voices" and the "music" in his head which gradually assume hallucinatory proportions and mark his behavior as increasingly erratic and suspect: John cannot shed the thought that he must kill the white man responsible for his fate. Alexie’s point seems clear: John’s trauma of "exile" from his Native roots might well have made him (as indeed many a contemporary urban Indian) into an "Indian Killer". A daredevil construction worker, John has twisted dreams of dangling his blue-eyed foreman over the edge of the fortieth floor of Seattler’s last skyscraper, and is convinced his safety harness, designed as it is by white men, "would only save white men. The leather, metal, and rope could tell the difference between white skin and Indian skin" (76). By the end of the novel John takes his predestined leap off the last skyscraper in Seattle to merge with the city pavement.

3Paramount in the novel is the question of authentic Indian identity, a question riddled with ironic and even tragic ambiguities, precisely because, in a city like Seattle, Indianness turns out to be very much in vogue and in demand: the city teems with (mostly white) people seeking to embrace and even claiming Indian identity, and Alexie is mercilessly ironic about "wannabee" Indians like Dr Clarence Mather, instructor of Native American literature at the University of Washington, or Tony Hillerman-like author of Indian detectives, Jack Wilson, who claims to be a "real Indian" (but isn’t) and is at work on a novel in progress called Indian Killer. By contrast, those who are "real Indians" have often been waging a lifelong battle to suppress their Indian identity: in order to gain a mode of social acceptance and cultural survival they have had to force themselves into "invisibility". Urban Indians mostly have been erased from public record or history; the murder of a homeless Indian woman, Beautiful Mary, found smashed to smithereens behind a dumpster, not only goes uninvestigated but remains unrecorded in the police precinct. John, too, mostly works in silence and invisibility, but no restoration of voice or other mode of salvation is granted him: the victim of a racist world, his tragic fate relentlessly fulfills itself. The only way out of invisibility, the implication seems to be, is to go the way of the Indian Killer, who perpetrates his gruesome acts "silently singing an invisibility song" (152).

4Perhaps the most compelling dimension of Indian Killer is the poignant portrait it offers of downtown Seattle’s large contingent of homeless urban Indians, habitually gathered beneath the Alaskan Way Viaduct, or in the old historic Pioneer Park. Alexie takes us into their midst through the figure of Marie Polatkin, a radical Indian activist and a sharply tongued student at the University of Washington, and one of the most successful character creations in the book. Marie’s acts arc fueled by anger and resentment against white society, but she is also capable of compassion and grace: she knows that beneath political ideology lies the bottom line of hunger ("nothing good happens to a person on an empty stomach") and, as a volunteer worker at a shelter for the homeless, she habitually parcels out food in a battered white van: a welcome and familiar sight to the homeless, she is known to them as the Sandwich Lady, a figure of grace and consolation, who offers them "proof they were not invisible". For Marie, Indians are the archetypal homeless, and vice versa: "The homeless were like an Indian tribe, nomadic and powerless, just filled with more than any tribe’s share of crazy people and cripples. So, a homeless Indian belonged to two tribes, and was the lowest form of life in the city" (146).

5By taking us down into their world of hopelessness and hunger, of malnutrition, disease and mental illness, of sleepless nights spent in "cardboard condominiums" or over heating vents outside city hall, of habitual brutalization and arrest, Alexie offers us a gallery of fully humanized and individualized characters, restoring to them names and faces and personal histories, giving them voice and visibility. At most, Alexie errs on the side of benevolence: hardly any of his homeless Indians consume alcohol or use drugs, and some of them have the gift of articulating ironic truths that may help them to survive: as one of them, an old woman named Carlotta Lott, puts it:

"All these white people think I’m homeless. But I ain’t homeless. I’m Duwamish Indian. You see all this land around here.... All of this, the city, the water, the mountains, it’s all Duwamish land. Has been for thousands of years. I belong here, cousin. I’m the landlady. And all these white people, even the rich ones living up in those penthouses, they’re the real homeless ones. Those long people are a long way from home, don’t you think? Long way from E-u-r-o-p-e". (251-52)

6Police officer Peone, too, though not overly given to tenderness, is touched by John’s erratic behavior (he has found him kneeled on the streets singing Latin church songs) and ponders the plight of the homeless, so many of whom arc plagued by mental problems:

Officer Peone looked at John and wondered which mental illness he had. The Seattle streets were filled with the mostly crazy, half-crazy, nearly crazy, and soon-to-be-crazy. Indian, white, Chicano, Asian, men, women, children. The social workers did not have anywhere near enough money, training, or time to help them. The city government hated the crazies because they were a threat to the public image of the urban core. Private citizens ignored them at all times of the year except for the few charitable days leading up to and following Christmas. In the end, the police had to do most of the work. Police did crisis counseling, transporting them howling to detox, the dangerous to jail, racing the sick to the hospitals, to a safer place. At the academy, Officer Peone figured he would be fighting bad guys. He did not imagine he would spend most of his time taking care of the refuse of the world. Peone found it easier when the refuse were all nuts or dumb-ass drunks, harder when they were just regular folks struggling to find their way off the streets. (362-63)

7At the end of the novel John Smith is saved from brutalization by three white boys by Marie, the Sandwich Lady, helped by six homeless Indians, men and women, who somehow miraculously find the courage to go on fighting and who still find sustenance in the precarious thread of Indianness which holds them together. None such salvation is granted the tragically exiled urban Indian John, who remains without language, voice or grace, "just a husk drifting into a desert wind".


  • 2 Gerald Vizenor, Manifest Manners: Post Indian Warriors of Survivance, Hanover, NH: Wesleyan Univers (...)

8In Tomson Highway’s exquisitely poetic and beautifully sculpted novel Kiss of the Fur Queen (1998) the city looms large as a treacherous, amphibian site of cultural hybridity, where tribal memory collides with the alienating realities of modern urban life. It is the site where urban Indians fight out the bitter trauma of enforced dislocation and seek to find a mode of "survivance" as what Gerald Vizenor has called "post-Indian warriors".2 Highway’s metaphorically rich and dense novel, drenched in a mode of Cree humor by turns obscene and blasphemous, feels its way towards a mode of transformation and uneasy reconciliation, the precarious possibility of bringing together unbridgeable, irreconcilable cultures through an amphibian art which yokes together tribal cultural tradition and Euro-American high modernism—an empowering art of performing intercultural identity and tribal memory that becomes, in essence, an "art of the city".

  • 3 Tomson Highway, Kiss of the Fur Queen, Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1998, 299-300. All subsequent ref (...)

9The novel tells the story of two Cree brothers, Champion and Ooneemeetoo Okimasis, whose talents for music and dance are apparent from their early youth, spent on the reservation of Eemanapiteepitat, Manitoba, under the tutelage of their Cree parents: caribou hunter and 1951 dogsled world-champion Abraham Okimasis and his wife Mariesis Okimasis, convinced Roman Catholics devoutly obedient to the Christian teachings of Father Bouchard. Their tribal universe (and the imaginary world of the novel) is presided over by the stories and legends of Cree mythology as much as by the Bible: in Highway’s amphibian fictional territory Christian and tribal spiritual realities interact, as the Christian God and Devil vie with the trickster figure central to Cree mythology, "Weesageechak" (or Nanabush in Ojibway), whose gender neutrality or ambivalence—neither male nor female, or both simultaneously—lies at the heart of the novel’s thematic concerns. Following Father Bouchard’s prescriptions, the two brothers are removed from Cree reservation life and culture at an early age to attend Birch Like Residential School, where they are humiliatingly shorn of their long hair, divested of their tribal cultural garb, forced to exchange their richly humorous tribal Cree for a flat and alien English, and renamed Jeremiah and Gabriel as markers of their new Christianized identities. Most traumatically, both are subjected to sexual abuse by Father Lafleur, an experience to which they respond in diametrically opposite but equally disfiguring ways: whereas Jeremiah will suppress the memory and pursue a rigorous but self-defeating course of assimilation and acculturation, of sexual denial and emotional blockage, Gabriel will forever associate the veneration of suffering embodied by the bleeding Christ with the sexual gratification he derives from being "eaten" by Father Lafleur, whose black-cassocked figure merges recurrently in his mind with that of the Weetigo, the tribal evil spirit that devours human flesh.3 The experience will launch Gabriel on a city life of homosexual cruising and promiscuity, encompassing a radical rejection of the "sick propaganda" (208) of Christianity and an embrace of tribal custom and identity, as well as a restless and addictive search for grace and gratification which leads to his death in the Aids crisis of the 1980s.

10The novel is amphibian in form and language as much as in theme. Its six parts are named after movements in classical music: allegro ma non troppo, andante cantabile, allegretto grazioso, molto agitato, adagio espressivo, presto con fuoco. Language, culture and identity are inextricably intertwined, as the brothers struggle to reconcile their Cree identity, heritage and memory with their efforts to eke out new lives and identities in an Anglophone-Canadian urban ambience. A cultural abyss, indeed, separates both languages: "on matters sensual, sexual, and therefore fun, a chasm as unbridgeable as hell separates Cree from English" (190). While Jeremiah’s English "ran out like a white boy’s" (160), Gabriel’s sense of self is intimately bound up with Cree myth and language: not only is Cree a "language of reindeer moss and fireweed and humour so blasphemous it terrified white people" (194), it is also a language which knows "no gender, so that, in a sense, we are all he/shes, as is God..." (Highway’s note, 310), a sentiment echoed by Gabriel on his deathbed: "if Native languages have no gender, then why should we? And why... should God?" 298). Cree may have no words for "ballet slipper" or "concert pianist" or even "university" (Gabriel suggests "semen-airy" 191), it is only when he speaks in Cree that Gabriel appears to have the glamour and "lustre" (240) that lift him above ordinary mortals, allowing him to become a Cree Adonis (121), a Cree Nijinsky (250), a Cree Dionysus (284). Later, Gabriel realizes the redemptive and therapeutic power of the tribal language: "Jeremiah’s spiritual crisis would be quelled only by as dash of virtuosic Cree" (242). Just as the brothers’ dreams and imaginations (and later their art) arc haunted by memories of their tribal youths in caribou-hunting, dog-sledding Mistik Lake territory, so Highway’s English is perpetually infused with images drawn from Cree myth and memory to become a truly amphibian language:

Like a bear with a honeypot, Jeremiah sat hunched at a typewriter, glaring at the page in its steel-trap jaw. (273)

[He scraped] Abraham’s battered old accordion across the floor like a frozen thigh of caribou. (224)

As through the glow of stained-glass windows, the bronze Cree angel fluttered, the whirr of his downy wings like rustling taffeta, sending out redolence of campfire smoke, pine needles, of reindeer moss after rain. (166)

In one breathtaking glissando, a solo oboe soared above the orchestra and wailed a series of wavering semitones, like the keening of old Cree women at a wake.... The arms [of the dancers] were a sea of moving antlers. (144-145)

Abraham [charged] through his wife’s protestations like a moose in mating season. (135)

11As with Alexie, a return to reservation life and its traditional repertoire of ceremonies and customs is no longer available as a source of sustenance and survival. The traumatizing experience of sexual abuse at residential school makes for an unbridgeable chasm between the brothers’ world and that of their parents, for whom the authority of the church is infallible: "The Catholic church saved our people", father Abraham tells his sons. "Without it, we wouldn’t be here today" (109). Though Jeremiah may momentarily dream of striding across his tribal village in a black cassock (190-191), the brothers find the way back to tribalism effectively blocked. As their father realizes, "visit by visit, word by word, [his] sons were splintering from their subarctic roots, their Cree beginnings" (193). Highway represents the reservation as in decline: the advance of modernization—new plywood houses, an airport runway, microwaves and television—signals not progress but deterioration. The arrival of modern technology and "civilization" fosters the self-destructive tendencies in the village: "Ever since they opened up that little airport,... the booze has been flowing in like blood from slaughtered caribou, as Dad puts it" (137). Indeed, for all the good cheer and wild abandon at tribal partying (depicted with a postmodern touch of irony and caricature), alcoholism is rampant, addictive gambling on the rise, and violence mounting. Kookoos Cook’s irresponsible drinking and midnight shoot-outs cause havoc, the eldest brother William gets shot by a roving bullet, and white exploiters are mining the reservation lands for uranium and natural gas (141). And television may well be "the Weetigo finally arrived to devour, digest, and shit out the soul of Eemanapiteepitat" (187). In the end, the reservation is a place "volatile", "unpredictable", "insane" (249)—anything but safe and sustaining.

12After residential school, the boys attend high-school in the "southern" city of Winnipeg. For Jeremiah it is the site of loss and alienation. His mind haunted by "marionette images" of tribal life up North (101), he drifts through the city, an aimless wanderer, riding buses with no destination, rooted in solitude. In this urban space Indians are relegated to the rows of derelict bars on North Main Street, "Indian Skid Row". Jeremiah is recurrently haunted by the gruesome images of what appears to be the fate of Indians in the city: victimized young Indian women, reduced to streetwalking, gang-raped by drunken white cruisers wearing baseball caps, and left as garbage on the streets, human disasters unworthy of notice by police authorities: "the naked body of Evelyn Rose McRae—long-lost daughter of Mistik Lake—had been found in a ditch on the city’s outskirts, a shattered beer bottle lying gently, like a rose, deep inside her crimson-soaked sex" (107). And on the back page of the Winnipeg Tribune: "a photograph of Madeline Jeanette Lavoix, erstwhile daughter of Mistik Lake, her naked body found in a North Main alleyway..., a red-handled screwdriver lying gently, like a rose, deep within the folds of her blood-soaked sex" (132).

13At first the city appears to offer a redemptive counter-image: at the Jubilee Concert Hall he encounters the poster of "an exotic olive-complexioned man in a black tuxedo, a grand piano at his fingertips"—the Russian pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy, about to perform Chopin’s Piano Concerto in Ε minor. Significantly, Jeremiah sees reflected in the glassed-over poster the image of the young Indian woman in soiled white polyester to be violated that same evening, a searing reminder of the city’s contrastive realities: the salvation of high-cultural beauty versus the fate of sexual brutalization. The ambition to be a successful concert pianist becomes the one straw to hold on to "in this metropolis of half a million souls where he seemed to be the only Indian person", (100) and Jeremiah will pursue a relentless regime of piano lessons as the backbone to his otherwise anchorless urban life.

  • 4 Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to th (...)

14For Jeremiah the city becomes a site of trauma, transformation and denial—as well as personal and artistic redemption. During two years of lonely city life, he works hard at "transforming himself into a perfect little 'transplanted European'—anything to survive" (124). He effectively denies his Indian identity, "[giving] up his native tongue to the roar of traffic"—when Gabriel joins his brother in the city, he wonders: "Cree a crime here too?" (113) Later, Amanda Clear Sky, "dusky Indian maiden of eighteen years", will confront Jeremiah with his embrace of a false identity—"What use is there pretending to be what you are not?" (149)—but it will take Jeremiah a long time of pain and crisis before he sees the pertinence of her remarks. When she dares him to attend a powwow at the Winnipeg Indian Friendship Center, he recoils in disgust from the image of a fancy dancer dressed in full ceremonial garb, "two luxuriant sprays of feathers radia[ting] sunlike from the man’s back"—"There was something so... pagan about the image, primitive—the word made his eyes sting—Satanic" (162). At the powwow, he responds with disgust and condescension to what appear to be Indian reincarnations of commercialized white stereotypes: "Had he just walked into a Buffalo Bill Wild West extravaganza? A John Wayne movie?" (171) In anger he dismisses the spectacle as "pointless" and "downright perverse": "Who did these people think they were, attempting to revive dead customs in the middle of a city, on the cusp of the twentieth-first century?" (172) Jeremiah can only sneer at these "Disney Indians... Hollywood Indians" (173) and recoil in hatred from "these cheap goings-on, this conquered race of people" (174). Jeremiah has effectively internalized the repertoire of what Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr. has called "the white man’s Indian".4 Haunted by the image of a Madonna-like pregnant Indian girl predestined for sexual violation (175, cf. 138), he embraces the consolation of classical music, "the antidote to the suicide-inducing loneliness of city Saturdays".

  • 5 For a fuller analysis of the intercultural ambiguities involved in Highway’s strategy of yoking Chr (...)

15Once reunited, the two Indian brothers, now self-defined as "city boys", indulge in "the rituals of urban life"—an exhilarating extravaganza of sumptuous consumption in the Winnipeg mall. Highway images their spree of indulgence in the sensuous delights of clothing and food both as a ritualistic mode of capitulation to the garb and diet of Euro-American culture and as a descent "into the entrails of the beast", complexly intertwining hints of Gabriel’s erotic transformation into an irresistible "cool beauty", a "Cree Adonis" (120-21), with the memories of a Cree tribal story (the weasel crawling up the Weetigo’s bumhole to emerge with his white fur soiled with excrement). Highway’s condemnation of the corruptive powers of an urban culture of consumption is articulated in his final image of the boys exiting the mall: "Grey and soulless, the mall loomed behind them, the rear end of a beast that, having gorged itself, expels its detritus" (121).5

16Freely, irreverently and audaciously mixing registers of tribal and Catholic cultural reference, Highway dramatizes the city as a slippery amphibian realm, where both brothers struggle to retain a foothold on intercultural, inter-lingual, and inter-sexual soil. Whereas Jeremiah seeks to find his redemption in classical music, the beatific Gabriel soon discovers dancing as his "newfound language" (153), the antidote to his sense of not-belonging. Attending his first classical ballet at a performance of Ludislav Buchinski’s Prism, Mirror, Lens, Gabriel finds himself mesmerized and "seduced". On the pretense of bodybuilding, he takes ballet lessons, and before long the two talented Indian brothers find themselves playing in a musical, The Gondoliers, "the pianist in the orchestra... as Indian as Sitting Bull,... one of the gondoliers-cum-princes... white as nougat, the other brown as cocoa" (155).

  • 6 As Kegney has suggested, the conjunction "seems to place blame for the rape of indigenous cultures, (...)

17Where Jeremiah recoils from anything sexual, Gabriel is irresistibly drawn to the bars on Indian skid row, compulsively seeking the sexual gratification of "warm honey" dripping from some "city-tasting mouth" (132). As he rises to become a famed ballet dancer, after each successful performance he is helpless before his drug-like need to go cruising. Highway connects Gabriel’s fatal need to the sexual abuse he underwent at the hands of Father Lafleur in residential school, which maimed and twisted both boys for life. The pursuit of sexual gratification through self-prostitution in back-alleys or affairs with male admirers (Gregory Newman, Robin Beatty) fills him with a sense of guilt and evil (the image of Gabriel dancing with the Weetigo) as well as the satisfaction of obedience to a perverse command: "Please Father, make me bleed" (the image of Father LaFleur’s silver cross hovering over his lips accompanies each moment of consummation6). It will vengefully make him want to seduce every priest he meets.

18Though he fails to reveal his secret life and sexual identity to his brother, they clash openly on the issue of religion. Where Jeremiah clings to his parents’ Catholic belief and rejects Indian religion as "pagan", Gabriel embraces the latter as "the heartbeat of Mother Earth" and turns against Christianity as a mode of "cannibalism" and sexual perversity—"Christianity asks people to eat the flesh of Christ and drink his blood.... What could be more savage—?... Do you wonder why the world is so filled with blood and war and hate when it has, as its central symbol, an instrument of torture?" When Jeremiah retaliates that the crucifix is an instrument of love, Gabriel reveals how closely interrelated in his vision are sexual gratification and Catholicism: "Sure.... If you’re into whips and chains and pain. Where do you think them priests get their jollies?" (184)

19The discovery of Gabriel’s promiscuous homosexual lifestyle destroys Jeremiah’s illusion that his brother is a creature of "spirit, pure, unsullied" and makes him renounce all physicality: "[he] willed his body dead. It existed no longer; from this day on, he was intellect—pure, undiluted, precise" (205). After a fierce quarrel, the brothers drift apart, Gabriel moving to Toronto and a spectacular international dancing career under the tutelage of his lover Gregory Newman, Jeremiah plunging into preparations for his performance of Rachmaninoff s Preludes at a prestigious piano concourse which is the culmination of a dream. Controversy and prejudice surround his participation—the jury is all-white—but Jeremiah is mostly tormented by his brother’s absence. Ironically, the "animal passion" and astounding virtuosity he displays at the triumphant moment is so effective precisely because it is infused with the pain of his brother’s absence, the memories of a shared tribal past and heritage, and the echo as his father’s winning of the dogsled championship:

Jeremiah played a northern Manitoba shorn of its Gabriel Okimasis, he played the loon cry, the wolves at nightfall, the aurora borealis in Mistik Lake; he played the wind through the pines, the purple of sunsets, the zigzag flight of a thousand white arctic terns, the fields of mauve-hued fireweed rising and falling like an exposed heart.
Straddling the back of Achak, his pet brown eagle, Gabriel curved sadly over the office towers of Winnipeg, the Jubilee Concert Hall a candle-lit basilica, his brother’s octaves the hooves of a thousand caribou surrounding, enveloping him, crying, 'Gabriel, please, please, don’t leave me!'
Jeremiah clung to the ivory until his knuckles equaled them in whiteness. These weren’t keys on a piano but a length of curved, peeled spruce, the handlebar of a sled.... These weren’t dogs pulling at his sled, these were young, naked men, winged like eagles, straining at the harness, panting out whorls of vapour....
Then Jeremiah saw it, or thought he could: the Fur Queen’s cape—the northern lights—the finish line was near! And there she was, the Fur Queen herself, smiling from the great dome of space, holding out the legendary silver chalice. (213-14)

20The moment of triumph plunges Jeremiah in a profound crisis, as he must now acknowledge the defeat of his assimilationism and his inescapable Indianness: "He had tried. Tried to change the meaning of his past, the roots of his hair, the colour of his skin, but he was one of them. What was he to do with Chopin? Open a conservatory on Eemanapiteepitat hill? Whip its residents into the Cree Philharmonic Orchestra?" (215)

21The last two parts of the novel take us into the underworld of urban Indians, as Jeremiah spends the next six years as a social worker bringing relief and rescue to sexually brutalized, drug-infected or drunken Indians reduced to human garbage and seemingly beyond salvation. Driving a van for the Winnipeg Indian Friendship Center, Street Patrol, he roams the apocalyptic city where "steam rose from the sidewalks, the streets, from buildings, enshrouding the slumbering city in a ghostly fog". The Indian humor of his fellow worker Jimmy Roger Buck, now offers a consolation "more potent than Chopin and Bach and Rachmaninoff combined" (219).

  • 7 For an exploration of the parallelisms between the tribal story of the Son and Ayash and Jeremiah’s (...)

22The two brothers meet again at their father’s deathbed, where they are unable to reveal the horrors of their boarding school experiences, but imbibe the father’s deathbed advice, as he willfully counters the priest’s Latin prayers with the tribal story of the Son of Ayash, a last act of affirmation and loyalty to his tribal culture and religion—"With these magic weapons, make a new world" (227).7

23After a visitation by the trickster Fur Queen, Jeremiah musters the courage to try and get his life back on the rails and seeks out Gabriel for help, hoping to put an end to their "cold war of thirteen years". By now a habitual drunk, a "sewer rat" (239), Jeremiah is taken by Gabriel on a camping trip to Manitoulin Island, Ontario, where—"as by providence" (241)—a grand powwow is being staged. Though powwows still make Jeremiah feel "like a German tourist" (242), he reluctantly participates, hoping to overcome his city-induced estrangement. The monotonous drone of the powwow drums brings the brothers in a state of "dream-like euphoria" and restores to them "the act of dreaming" (245). Their regained belief in "good dream power" (247) is reinforced when they learn the true story of the last shaman woman Chachagathoo, whose name had been anathema in their Christianized youth. Still, Jeremiah not only fails to rescue his brother from a group of drunken homophobes, he also fails to conquer his sexual impotence with Amanda Clear Sky: "his groin had turned to ice.... His sex was dead. The very thought made him sick, as with cancer" (260). It is a measure of the depth of his traumatized state that he can only perversely find relief in thoughts of misogynistic violence. Nonetheless, he acknowledges his predicament: "Ever thought you were born on the wrong planet?... Into the wrong... era? The wrong... race?... I mean, what the fuck are Indians doing playing... Chopin?" (257)

24Yet Highway resolves his novel in a way that suggests the restorative, reconciliatory and empowering agency of art. Not only do the brothers reconcile despite Jeremiah’s act of betrayal, more importantly they now work together on a combined piece of music and dance"—a sonata in four contrastive movements, scored, phrased, liberally fermataed"—composed by Jeremiah, in which they obey their father’s deathbed command to put the "magic weapons" of their special talents at the service of creating a new world. Rooted in Western classical musical traditions, the piece goes back in spirit and technique to tribal cultural forms:

Like a thunderclap, silence struck. Jeremiah lept from his bench, and with a beaded drumstick pounded at the bass strings of his instrument. The quintet of encircling dancers launched into a pentatonic chant, "Ateek, ateek, astum, astum, yoah, hoho!" [their father’s huntsman’s cry]. And suddenly, the piano was a powwow drum propelling a Cree Round Dance with the clangour and dissonance of the twentieth century. (267)

25Jeremiah now has become fully committed to the cause of Indian cultural preservation in the city: he has become a Cree-language revivalist, working at the Muskoosis Club of Ontario (in Toronto), providing urban Indian children, most of them from broken homes, with REC (recreation, education, culture), teaching them to perform in a play based on the story of the Son of Ayash (as told by his father on his deathbed), and trying to protect them from the ongoing realities of sexual abuse.

26More importantly, transforming himself (much like Highway in real life) from a pianist into a playwright, Jeremiah redefines and re-empowers himself through the art of drama, a mode of performative storytelling in which he can both recuperate the significance of his tribal cultural past and put it to empowering educational use for Native children. The play he produces—"Barcarolle Ulysses Thunderchild"—is, much like Highway’s novel, an amphibian yoking together of a story rooted in tribal memory and tradition with the register of European modernism. As he explains to his brother: "Son of Ayash. Closest thing the Cree have to their own Ulysses.... if James Joyce can do 'one day in the life of an Irishman in Dublin, 1903', why can’t I do 'one day in the life of a Cree man in Toronto, 1984'?" (277)

27The novel moves to closure in several ways. First, though Jeremiah still has trouble finding a balance between writing from the "gut" and from the head, his play strives towards balancing and bridging in art what had seemed irreconcilable cultural registers and traditions in life. Highway suggests that such bridging—the performance of intercultural identity in, appropriately, a play—can only be achieved in an urban ambience, and is by definition an "art of the city". Second, Jeremiah at last manages to confront the memory of his own abuse by Father LaFleur. Highway suggests that it is this ultimate confrontation—as "his memory opened the padlocked doors" (285)—which empowers Jeremiah to speak most lucidly and effectively: his next artistic production "Chachagathoo, the Shaman" becomes the controversial winner of the season’s theater award. As Kegney suggests, Jeremiah (like Flighway in Kiss of the Fur Queen) thus "re-conceptualizes his life in narrative terms of Cree spirituality and traditional orature, made relevant to the contemporary moment through creative adaptation, invention and augmentation" (73). Lastly, the conflict between his obligation to Christianity and his tribal heritage comes to a head at the deathbed of AIDS-infected Gabriel, as Jeremiah musters the courage to stand up against the Catholic priest (brought in at his mother’s insistence but against Gabriel’s express desire) and insists on the right of Indians "to conduct our own religious ceremonies, just like everyone else" (305). But the deathbed scene ends in tragi-comedy as Ann-Adele Ghostrider, lighting a braid of sweetgrass (one of the four sacred herbs—with sage, cedar, tobacco—here placed on a level with the Catholic use of incense), inadvertently sets off the hospital’s fire-alarm, thereby setting in motion a required hospital evacuation. In the ensuing pandemonium, Gabriel is whisked away by the Fur Queen who, in ironic parallel to the scene in which she bestowed a victory kiss upon his father, presses her lips against Gabriel’s left cheek and winks at Jeremiah, in token of forgiveness.

28Highway ends his novel on a note of paradox and postmodern irony. In the final scene, for all Jeremiah’s (and Highway’s) search for balance through an amphibian art synthesizing tribal storytelling and Euro-American modernism, it is tribal ceremony and memory which prevails as the sustaining and empowering force: at Gabriel’s deathbed it is the medicine woman who takes precedence over the "midget priest" (who is effectively locked out), and it is not Jesus but Weesageechak who will wait for Gabriel on the other side, "the clown who bridges God and humanity—a God who laughs, a God who’s here, not for guilt, not for suffering, but for a good time" a trickster God who is "a woman, a goddess in fur" (298). No wonder the novel ends, not with an act of contrition, but with a kiss and a wink.

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Alexie, Sherman, Flight, New York: Black Cat-Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2007.

Alexie, Sherman, Indian Killer, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996.

Berkhofer, Jr., Robert F., The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present, New York: Vintage, 1978.

Highway, Tomson, Kiss of the Fur Queen, Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1998. McKegney, Sam, "Claiming Native Narrative Control: Tomson Highway on Residential Schooling", Culture and the State: Disability Studies & Indigenous Studies, Gifford, James and Gabrielle Zezulka-Mailloux eds., Edmonton, AB: CRC Humanities Studio, 2003, 66-74.

Vizenor, Gerald, Manifest Manners: Post Indian Warriors of Survivance, Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.

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1 Sherman Alexie, Indian Kilter, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1996, 409. All subsequent references will be to this edition and will be given parenthetically in the text.

2 Gerald Vizenor, Manifest Manners: Post Indian Warriors of Survivance, Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1994.

3 Tomson Highway, Kiss of the Fur Queen, Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1998, 299-300. All subsequent references, given parenthetically in the text, arc to this edition.

4 Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present, New York: Vintage, 1978.

5 For a fuller analysis of the intercultural ambiguities involved in Highway’s strategy of yoking Christian and tribal registers together in this scene, see Sam McKegney, "Claiming Native Narrative Control: Tomson Highway on Residential Schooling", Culture and the State: Disability Studies & Indigenous Studies. Gifford, James and Gabrielle Zezulka-Mailloux eds., Edmonton, AB: CRC Humanities Studio, 2003, 71-72.

6 As Kegney has suggested, the conjunction "seems to place blame for the rape of indigenous cultures, symbolic or otherwise, squarely at the feet of evangelical Christianity" (71).

7 For an exploration of the parallelisms between the tribal story of the Son and Ayash and Jeremiah’s subsequent development, see Kegney, 69-74.

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Bibliographical reference

Hans Bak, « The City as a Site of Trauma and Transformation: Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer and Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen », Caliban, 25 | 2009, 397-408.

Electronic reference

Hans Bak, « The City as a Site of Trauma and Transformation: Sherman Alexie’s Indian Killer and Tomson Highway’s Kiss of the Fur Queen », Caliban [Online], 25 | 2009, Online since 13 December 2016, connection on 29 February 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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About the author

Hans Bak

Radboud University, Nijmegen

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Licence Creative Commons
Caliban – French Journal of English Studies est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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