Sherman Alexie's "Diary" Spurs Community Conversations

Junior’s story is causing a stir.

Arnold Spirit, Jr. – better known as Junior – is a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian reservation and the protagonist of the 2011-2012 Campus Community Book Project selection, Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

The book chronicles Junior’s adolescence and his decision to leave the reservation to attend an all-white school in the neighboring town where the only other Indian is the school mascot. With characteristic humor, Alexie confronts serious, often painful topics such as racism, poverty, and the role of cultural tradition in the lives of young people. As the centerpiece of this year’s Campus Community Book Project, Alexie’s book is spurring conversations on the UC Davis campus and beyond.

This fall, humanities faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates are contributing to the constellation of events surrounding the book project, including lectures, films, paper presentations, panel discussions and art exhibits, and some are incorporating the text into their courses. The coming week alone will see three related events addressing issues of Native American education and environmental justice.

On Tuesday, November 15, Traci Brynne Voyles, Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor of History will present “Nine Legged Frogs and National Sacrifice: Tracking Environmental Injustice in Native America.” The talk will explore issues of environmental injustice on and near tribal land throughout the US, looking to the ways in which Native land is consistently targeted for environmentally destructive practices, ranging from hazardous waste incinerators to uranium mines. Voyles will discuss the emergence of a powerful Native environmental justice movement, which has allied with indigenous sovereignty and environmentalist organizations across the globe. (12:10-1:00pm, 126 Voorhies)

On Wednesday, November 16, a panel discussion titled “Jack Forbes – Native Voices: A Panel Discussion on His Influence and Contributions to Indian Education” will focus on the work of Professor Emeritus Jack Forbes, acclaimed author, activist and one of the founders of Native American Studies at UC Davis. (12:10-1:30pm, Art Lounge, Memorial Union)

On Thursday, November 17, Native American students will present their perspectives and experiences in a panel discussion titled  “The Absolutely True Diary of a College Indian–Student Perspectives” (12:10-1:30pm, 126 Voorhies)

These are exactly the kinds of events that the book project was designed to foster, according to Mikael Villalobos, Administrator of Diversity Education with the Office of Campus Community Relations, which coordinates the project.

The book project was established after September 11, 2001 to promote dialogue and build community by encouraging members of the campus and local communities to read the same book and attend related events and discussions. “The books serve as vehicles to encourage conversations that would not happen otherwise,” said Mikael Villalobos, “The book project brings people together. Events and reading groups happen not only on campus but also across surrounding communities.”

Later events include discussions of community-based health projects, the annual UC Davis Native American cultural days and powwow, and a student-produced documentary film examining the history of studying and collecting indigenous human remains at UC Davis. This year’s events will culminate in April 2012 with a visit by Sherman Alexie. For a full list of events, see the book project website.

The book project committee tries to choose texts that appeal to multidisciplinary audiences as well as encourage conversations about important issues. Villalobos noted that Alexie’s book “provides a point of departure for many different discussions. Our whole campus community should be aware of the issues it raises about Native American experiences.”

Native American Studies instructor and PhD student Cutcha Risling Baldy (Hupa, Yurok, Karuk) has assigned Alexie’s book to students in her Introduction to Native American Literatures course. She encourages her students to participate in book project events in addition to reading the text with the class. “The book project brings the author to life and provides a way for students to interact with literature off its pedestal, outside the classroom,” said Risling Baldy.

While some teachers have found that the difficult situations in the book are too tragic to allow for laughter, Risling Baldy contends that humor is a key factor in Native American survival of such difficulties. With all of the problems facing indigenous communities, she says, it would be possible to give up and live in despair. “As Vine Deloria has said, humor is how Indian people survived centuries of genocidal policies. Humor provides a source of strength and a way to come together as a people.”

Above all, Risling Baldy hopes Alexie’s accessible, engaging book will help her students to see that humor and to realize that “new generations of Indian people are still alive and still creating.”