American Indian Literature and Cultures

English 558


Week Five: The Great Basin in Washington

Reed College, Portland OR
Professor Laura Arnold


Readings: Sherman Alexie, Reservation Blues

Artwork: Coyote Images (on-line and in article)

Folklore: Coyote Story (on-line)

Music: Reservation Blues, John T. (Blues Article), Indian Jazz (in class and on-line)

History: Duane Champagne, Portrait of the Peoples pp. 273-300

Article: Ken Lincoln, "Old Tricks, New Twists" (Indi'n Humor 120-70)


Writing Assignment: please bring a one to two page reader response of Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues to class (your last one page paper!). You should do a close reading of a VERY SHORT passage (either a prose passage or part of a blues poem).


Focus: This week we will be looking at the construction of inter-ethnic alliances and the use of humor for as a response to genocide and oppression. We will be looking at the influence of both the African American oral tradition (the Blues) and trickster tales upon Alexie's work.


1. What are the Blues?

The title, structure, and themes of Sherman Alexie's novel Reservation Blues all point to the influence of blues music for his work. What are the blues and what the associations behind this form? The blues are a type of African American music derived from sorrow songs--folk songs (often religious) sung by African American s during slavery.[1] Structurally they are characterized by either three line stanzas ("12 bar blues"--sometimes the lines are broken in two and form 6 line stanzas) or two line stanzas ("8 bar blues"--again sometimes the lines are broken in two forming four line stanzas); in either case, there is often repetition either of rhymes , phrases, or lines. Below are some of the most common forms of repetition.


SAMPLE STANZA                                    FORM          EXPLANATION                
"Dink's Blues" Some folks say dat de worry       8 Bar  AB2    sound repetition:  "bad"   
blues ain' bad, It's de wors' ol' feelin I       A line  B     rhymes with "had"          
ever had.                                        line                                     
"Go Way F'om Mah Window"  (From Carl             8 Bar AB w.   sound repetition:  "do'"   
Sandburg's American Songbag) Go way f'om mah     repetition    rhymes with "mo'" also     
window, Go way f'om mah do' Go way f'om mah      A line B      repetition of  phrase      
bedside, Don' you tease me no mo'                line          "go away f'om mah"         
"Dink's Song"  Ef I had wings like Norah's       12 Bar  AB      notice in addition to    
[Noah's] dove, I'd fly up the river to the man   refrain A     the refrain at the end     
I love. Fare thee well, O Honey, fare thee       line B line   of each stanza that        
well  Ise got a man, an' he's long and tall,     refrain  A    lines A ("dove" and B      
Moves his body like a cannon ball, Fare thee     line B line   ("love") rhyme             
well, O Honey, fare thee well.                   refrain                                  
Untitled Goin' down to de railroad, Lay ma       12 Bar AAB     notice that "track" and   
head on de track. I'm goin' down to de           A line A      "back" rhyme               
railroad, Lay ma head on de track-- But if I     line B line                              
see de train a-comin' I'm gonna jerk it back!                                             

You might want to look at the blues poems in Alexie's novel and decide what form he prefers. Are they two or four line stanzas? If so they are 8 bar blues. Are they three or six line stanzas? If so, they are twelve bar blues. What kind of repetition does he usually favor?


2. What does it Mean to Use the Blues?

Anytime a poet (or novelist!) chooses a form there are certain stock associations that go along with it. In African American poetic traditions, the use of the blues has been associated with an emphasis on African (rather than Anglo-American) poetic and aesthetic traditions. It has been used to assert Black pride. One of the things you should consider as you read Alexie's novel is what it means for an American Indian to invoke the blues.


In addition to these general associations, there are certain stock subjects that are often discussed in the blues (I have indicated some of the metaphors that are commonly used for these subjects in parentheses):

1. Relationships/Love ("Feminine Blues"); Interpersonal Relationships

2. Poverty, economic hardship, joblessness (wear off bottom of shoes)

3. Politics (Redness)

4. Pie-in-the-sky Dreams (hope & despair; Sun: rising and setting)

5. Striving for upward mobility or freedom in white dominated society (Trains, Rivers)

6. Violence & Death (Suicide)

7. Sex (the unrepentant woman; euphemisms: dancing, food, animals, music)

8. Alcohol (excess, escape)

9. Nature of the blues & blues singers

10. Skin color as a social and economic determinant (social stratification)

11. Harsh city (want relief from) vs. rural pastoral past (lost).

12. Humor (slapstick, wry, sardonic, touching, understated, painful recognition.)[3]

Which of these subjects or tropes does Alexie invoke in his book? What do these parallels mean?


A third aspect of the blues that is worth elaborating upon is the call and response (the relationship between the "A" and "B" lines). The relationship between the lines that differ (and the ones that repeat) is complex in the blues. We have discussed some uses of repetition in American Indian rituals, but it's worth adding some other possibilities to our list. In the blues, the juxtaposition between lines can be used to

1. expand upon first line

2. illuminate or explain the first line

3. justify earlier assertions

4. contradict earlier ideas

5. present a paradox

6. affirm the previous line[4]

This begs a structural question about Alexie's novel. What is the relationship between chapters in Alexie's book? What would be the point of presenting a paradox or contradicting an earlier idea rather than merely affirming it or building upon it?


3. Pan-ethnic Identities: African- Indian Relations

There is a fair amount of scholarly debate about whether Africans and Native Americans met before the voyage of Columbus; however, it is clear that from the colonial period onwards, there has been a reasonable amount of intermarriage and cultural exchange between African Americans and American Indians.[5] This is not to say that such relations were always as easy and filled with "brotherly love" as movies such as the 1993 film Posse would have us believe. (For example the Mohegans didn't allow those with African blood to own tribal lands, and the Cherokees kept African slaves. Similarly African Americans such as Briton Hammon and cowboy Nat Love clearly attempt to distance themselves from "wild" and "barbaric" Indians in their autobiographical accounts of frontier life. ) What is the relationship between African Americans and American Indians in Reservation Blues? Upon what ground is an inter-ethnic bond forged?


4. Tricksters & Coyote

In addition to using the African American oral tradition (particularly the blues), Alexie relies on American Indian oral tradition as well, particularly trickster stories about Coyote. In the epilogue to Paul Radin's book The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology,6 Karl Kerényi argues that one might sum up the "true nature " of the trickster

under a single active principle, the component elements of "phallic," "voracious," "sly," "stupid"--the spirit of disorder, the enemy of boundaries.....the function of his mythology, of the tales told about him, is to add disorder to order and so make a whole, to render possible, within the fixed bounds of what is permitted, an experience of what is not permitted (Radin 185).

In this article Kerényi is relying upon Jung's notion of cultural archetypes to argue that tricksters have the basically the same function in all "archaic" cultures (i.e. including all American Indian cultures). Does Coyote seem to function this way in the Nez Perce story you read for today/ Does Alexie's use coyote function in this way? How does Fonesca's use of Coyote compare to Alexie's?


6. Humor and Genocide

Sherman Alexie is rapidly becoming one of the most important American Indian humorists. For the critical readings for today, I have asked you to read a chapter on Coyote from Ken Lincoln's book Indi'n Humor. This chapter launches you right into the middle of things so let me take a few minutes to provide a preface and context for Lincoln's work.


First, Lincoln is interested in the use of humor as a way of resisting genocide and as a means of survival. In part, he is working off of the findings of psychologists such as Viktor Frankl. In his book Man's Search for Meaning Frankl argues that optimism in the face of tragedy best allows for

(1) turning suffering into a human achievement and accomplishment;

(2) deriving from [survivor's] guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better

(3) deriving from life's transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action (Frankl 162).

As Frankl points out , you cannot force people to be happy or optimistic; rather "if you want anyone to laugh you have to provide him with a reason, e.g. you have to tell him a joke" (Frankl 162-63). Frankl turns to his own experiences in Auschwitz to argue that those who survived found that "develop[ing] a sense of humor and [learning] to see things in a humorous light is some kind of trick learned while mastering the art of living "(Frankl 64). Lincoln is arguing that just as the Jews used humor to survive genocide, so have American Indians. What kinds of jokes are told by those facing genocide, though? As you read Lincoln's chapter and Alexie's novel, you might want to make a list of the jokes told and any themes that bind them together.


One final note of clarification. At the beginning of his chapter Lincoln says "For Europeans, no less than Americans, Caliban reemerged a chthonic shaman shrouded in vines of rhetoric" (121). You might ask, who is Caliban and what is he doing here? Caliban is originally a character in Shakespeare's play The Tempest. In the Tempest, Caliban is the much maligned "native" on an island which has been taken over by the shipwrecked magician Prospero (for notes on a reading of the Tempest as a play about the colonization of the Americas, see; for a discussion of Shakespeare and racism see In the twentieth century Caribbean authors (and other ethnic minorities) have used the figure of Caliban as a means of speaking back to Europe about the colonization of the Americas. Carlos Castaneda is the king of New Age Shamanism; Don Juan (a Yaqui Indian) is the fictional comic character he created as part of an "anthropological" work. For more on Castaneda see either the CRITICAL view of him at OR this POSITIVE (NAIVE?) page sees his work as legitimate


7. American Indian Music and Spokane Culture

Don't forget to check out the web page for this week at "" The web pages includes clips of music from the "Reservation Blues" soundtrack. For a full list of on-line resources for American Indian music see


Bibliography and Resources

DuBois, W.E.B. "The Sorrow Songs,"Souls of Black Folk (


Frankl, Viktor. Man's Search for Meaning. Boston: Beacon Pres, 1984.

Kerényi, Karl, "The Trickster in Relation to Greek Mythology," The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology, Paul Radin. NY: Schocken Books, 1956.

Radin, Paul. The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology. NY: Schocken Books, 1956.

Tracy, Steven C. Langston Hughes & the Blues. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1988. (PS3515.U274 Z8 1988)