Volume X, Number 2, Fall 2014

"More Than a Game: Basketball as a Medium of History in Three Early Works of Sherman Alexie" by Józef Jaskulski

Jozef Jaskulski is a Ph.D. Student at the Institute of English Studies, University of Warsaw, Poland. Email:

Referring to 1890 as a watershed in the US history sounds like a worn out cliché these days, one which inescapably evokes the grim correspondence between the triumphant closure of the Frontier and the suppression of the last nomad tribes of the Great Plains; the imminent specter of Turnerism and the haunting apparition of Spotted Elk’s body stiffened in the blizzard at Wounded Knee. A more obscure and intriguing parallel was drawn in that regard by Spokane/Coeur d’Alene writer Sherman Alexie in his The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, where one of the protagonists rhetorically asks the narrator (and the reader) if they think “it’s any coincidence that basketball was invented just one year after the Ghost Dancers fell at Wounded Knee?” (147), suggesting it was no accident that the year following the ultimate removal of America’s indigenous population to reservations also saw the invention of basketball. Easily the most popularly read Native American author at present, Alexie is also known as an ardent advocate of the cultural significance of the game to reservation communities in the Indian Country, ranging from its role as a metaphor of tensions between tribal traditions and social contingencies of the present (Goldstein 77) through its function as a transformative ritual for Alexie’s “reservation” and “urban” protagonists alike (Grassian 189). This essay expounds on how basketball is utilized in three among the author’s early works of the author, i.e. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993) – hence LRT ‒ , Reservation Blues (1995) ‒ hence RB ‒ and Smoke Signals (1998) ‒ hence SS ‒ as a medium of indigenous historiography. Within the presented compositions, basketball-related stories subvert the dominant narrative of Anglo-American expansion in which Native Americans “are the villains of the scenario when we are mentioned at all. We are absent from much of white history except when we are calmly, rationally, succinctly, and systematically dehumanized” (Gunn Allen 49).

The discussed works oppose such notorious relegation of America’s indigenous population to a mere historical reference. This resistance is coupled with a reiterated affirmation of Alexie’s protagonists as agents in the modern-day American culture (in this case expressed by adding to and transforming the popular perception of basketball). Anchoring the identity of his protagonists in the remembrance of genocide, Alexie ironically transcribes history into the present, often blurring the two as if to imply that closure would potentially underscore the finality of colonization, while in actuality its tensions remain largely unresolved. In Alexie’s reservation fiction, historical trauma interweaves with the present sense of loss, mirroring the ongoing exclusion of reservation communities from, and their distortion in the mainstream discourse as epitomized at the time by NBC’s biased reporting in its two-part series tellingly titled Tragedy at Pine Ridge (Staurowsky 201). In my ruminations below I will address three ways in which the author filters history through the lens of basketball: the first, a teasing revision of Eurocentric historiography which traditionally treated the Indian other as a noble victim of Manifest Destiny; the second, a critique of historical reification of Native American culture (and its reclamation combined with reverse appropriation of a chunk of Euramerican tradition exemplified by basketball); and third, a mode of storytelling in which tribal and personal narratives interlace, sparking social reconnection despite economic and cultural deprivation.

Ball Don’t Lie. Historical Revisionism in Smoke Signals

In her analysis of the prematurely deceased Lakota ballplayer SuAnne Big Crow, Ellen J. Staurowsky contemplates the differences between the role of the athlete in Anglo- and Native American communities. Underscoring the importance of Indian values in the process of one’s athletic development, she cites the opposition between inside and outside world as distinctly characteristic of the way in which reservation sportspeople perceive basketball (197). She notices how within this perception the game is mythicized, and players ascribed the status of modern-day “warriors,” whose engagement in the game asserts their individual and collective identities. When playing against other teams, Staurowsky contends, “the Indian athlete warrior symbolically engages in acts of resistance directed toward (…) the non-Indian world” (197). Throughout his early works, Alexie – a passionate ballplayer himself – deploys the indigenous interpretation of basketball to proffer revisionist, basketball-centered narratives whose protagonists metaphorically engage in a teasing struggle to undo the grand historical narrative imposed on them by colonizers. Treating the game as a metaphor of historiographic dispute, he continuously wrestles the ideas which fortify the dominant history and legitimize its attendant institutions, thus invalidating the notions which can no longer be taken for granted, to paraphrase Dipesh Chakrabarty (344). The employment of intratribal basketball lore in alternative readings of American history in Alexie’s early fiction does indeed transcend a simplistic, revisionist recalcitrance by offering an unorthodox narrative medium that nullifies the ready-made historical notions and revealing the ways in which homogenous history afflicts the country’s indigenous population.

In the above context, it may seem reasonable then to decipher the authorial use of basketball as a metaphor of history in Alexie’s reservation stories in the light of Gerald Vizenor’s concept of “narrative chance.” In his conversations with Robert A. Lee, the Anishinaabe scholar explicates the term as an ingenious, creative language undermining what the dominant historical narratives take as given. Uninhibited in its capacity to deconstruct these givens by toying with “time, people, places, and seasons,” indigenous writers “create a new bundle of metaphors in stories” (82). In the screenplay for Chris Eyre’s movie Smoke Signals, loosely based on Alexie’s first book of fiction The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, the author provides a significant example of narrative chance when he dissects the archetype of first encounter, fundamental to justifying the subjugation of American Indians in the Anglo-American frontier epics. Late one night, Arnold Joseph [Gary Farmer], father of the picture’s main character, recalls a game of basketball he played with his son Victor [Adam Beach] against two Jesuit priests [Todd Danielson & Scott M. Rosenfelt]:

I remember this time, me and my son, Victor, we was playing this two-on-two basketball game against these Jesuits. These Jesuits had on their white collars and their black robes, and they was pretty damn good. By the way they were playing, I coulda sworn they had at least seven of the twelve apostles on their side, ‘cause every time I tried to shoot the ball, there was a storm of locusts flying in and blinding me. I was shooting in the dark, in the dark, I tell you! But my boy, Victor, he was magical. He couldn’t miss. Those Jesuits didn’t have a prayer of stopping him fair and square. Victor was only twelve years old and kinda small, so those Jesuits were beating up on him pretty good. They were beating up on him and chanting at him like he was possessed or something. And maybe Victor was possessed, by the spirit of Jim Thorpe, because he had this look in his eye and he was mean. "Come on, Victor," I shouted. “Come on, Victor. We’re up against the Son and the Father here, and these two are going to need the Holy Ghost to beat us!" I mean, the score was all tied up and the next basket wins, you know? So, the Jesuits had the ball, and this great big redheaded Jesuit came driving in and knocked my boy over, you know? But my boy, Victor, he took it to the hoop and he flew, man, he flew, right over that Jesuit. Twelve years old and he was like some kind of indigenous angel or something. Except maybe his wings were made out of TV dinner trays! Ha! But my boy, Victor, he was the man that day. He took that shot and he won that game. It was the Indians versus the Christians that day and for at least one day, the Indians won." (SS)

In the quoted excerpt, Alexie both challenges the dominant mode of (hi)story-telling by re-inscribing the national myth within a sporting event, and shifts the point of view to its indigenous narrator, thus empowering the Indian as the chronicler of history. On the basketball court the archetypal “Black Robes” and “Injuns” re-play the cultural encounter, yet in squaring them off against one another Alexie divests the archetype of its solemnity. The stubborn resistance of the two Indians to the Jesuits at the reservation gym teases the self-subjugation of Indians in the American literary and cultural canon, with the weighty discourse of racialism replaced by the casual poetry of Arnold’s story and the images of cassock-clad priests chasing a pesky little Indian boy around the court. Alexie also desists from the temptation of redressing history within a simplistic framework of revisionist vengeance in which the score of the past is symbolically settled, for we quickly learn from Victor that he actually missed his shot and the Jesuits ultimately won the game. The author thus undermines the notion of the vanishing Indian as impersonated by such literary figures as Cooper’s Tamenund, Child’s Hobomok or – most significantly in this case – Longfellow’s Hiawatha. The elegiac tone and the singsong trochee are superseded by ironic “countersimulations,” i.e. self-referential representations of the other substituting for their real presence, to use Vizenor’s terminology (83). The match-up between the Arnolds and the Jesuits presents itself metaphorically as a chance to fight back against the oppressive missionary system and the cultural impositions it sanctions. In a parodic devaluation, the two Jesuits are reduced to mere signifiers of colonial ideology, “usurping the role of God and imposing their definitions of reality onto this continent” (Baldridge 528). Playing the game therefore exceeds the notion of an innocent pastime and acquires a new status as a medium of a competing collective memory.

Such a critical involvement with the dominant versions of history is often seen by some Native American critics as representative of a larger anti-colonial practice incorporating continuous efforts aimed at overturning cultural dominance which help the indigenous populations shed the skin of passive victims of Euramerican progress (Vizenor 83). Vizenor argues that Native American intellectuals today remain bound by the cultural heritage of colonial ideology (84), and that the reinstatement of pre-colonial cultures remains beyond retrieval. Instead, he insists that contemporary indigenous art create characters which “outwit, reverse, and overturn the wiles of dominance, and contradict the simulations of natives” (79), thus overcoming the flaws of reductionist discourses of resentment. Vizenor’s claims bring to mind Chakrabarty’s appeal for a resignation from a backlash, reactionary history in favor of one that is self-aware and “deliberately makes visible, within the very structure of its narrative forms, its own repressive strategies and practices” (344). Examining the problems of self-representation in India, the prototypical postcolonial country, Chakrabarty calls for a history which would account for its own artifice and the ironies accompanying any revisionist projects, including the realization of the impossibility of simplified epistemological reshuffling of the margins and the center, even if the latter apparently cannot hold, since “knowledge protocols will always take us back to the terrain where all contours follow that of my hyperreal Europe” (344). Hence, from a naively revisionist standpoint, Arnold and Victor Joseph are bound to fall to the Jesuits. However, Victor’s bitter “Yeah, well, I missed the shot. I lost the game” (SS) contributes a counterpoint to inverted, knee-jerk narratives, exposing the shortcomings of both modes of production of historical knowledge, a point which Alexie seems to reiterate more vividly in Distances, a shot story in which the retrograde vision of Paiute Ghost Dance Messiah, Wovoka, ironically informs the life of the narrator whose present identity is doubly marred by continuous acculturation and futile attempts of the reservation elders to radically reinstate the tribe’s ancient lifeways (LRT 104).

Acknowledging the colonial past and ongoing marginalization of reservation communities on the one hand, and the inadequacy of historical projects based on nostalgic longings on the other, Alexie’s basketball historicism instead engages in continuous negotiations with the impact of colonialism on the indigenous cultures (Murphy 200). A conversation between two Coeur d’Alene youths in Smoke Signals is a case in point:

[Victor]: Oh, I took the ball to the hoop and what did I see? Oh, I took the ball to the hoop and what did I see? General George Armstrong Custer was a-guardin’ me, a-guardin’ me.
[Junior]: Hey, Victor, who do you think is the greatest basketball player ever?
[Victor]: That’s easy: Geronimo.
[Junior]: Geronimo? He couldn’t play basketball, man. He was Apache, man. Those suckers are ‘bout 3 feet tall!
[Victor]: It’s Geronimo, man! He was lean, mean and bloody. Would’ve dunked on your flat Indian ass and cut it off.
[Junior]: Yeah, some days, it’s a good day to die, some days it’s a good day to play basketball. (SS)

As illustrated in the excerpt, the reservation community elevates on-court competition to a compelling historical metaphor, within which the past blends with and never ceases to influence the present. In a recollection of the Battle of Little Bighorn, Victor and Junior [Michael Greyeyes] pick up on the trail of resistance to colonization and its myths. Promulgated as a sacrificial founding figure of the late 19th century version of the Frontier myth, in Alexie’s screenplay Gen. Custer assumes the role of a metaphorical shot-blocker, guarding the paint of Eurocentric history and waiting to deny the indigenous revisionists driving to the basket. Pounding the ball against the parquet floor accompanies the creation of a makeshift war song, ceremoniously chanted by the players and concluded by a Lakota battle whoop which invests the game with an aura of a struggle for survival. For reservation youngsters forced into economic and cultural deprivation, basketball thus becomes a substitute ritual, a carrier of collective memory (“A ball bouncing on hardwood sounds like a drum. (…) An all-star jacket makes you one of the Shirt Wearers” (LRT 147)). The poetics of basketball devised by Alexie warrants a redefinition of tribal and individual identities within the framework of mainstream culture into which the generation of his peers was inescapably thrust. The blending of sports and historical discourses in turn allows Victor and Junior to validate themselves as heirs to the warrior culture (here typified by Geronimo) through re-enactments of historical triumphs, themselves by now incorporated into popular pan-tribal mythology.

Reclaimin’ it in the Park. Reverse Appropriation and Fake Indianness in Reservation Blues

Pervaded by revisionist humor, ferocious trash talk and excessive profanities exchanged between opponents, basketball in the early works of Sherman Alexie presents itself as a platform for the reclamation, reinvention and transposition of the “narrative modalities and practices of a range of Native oral literatures” (Krupat 179). As mentioned above, within such a unique, historically informed framework of reference, the perception of basketball departs from the one instilled by the mainstream culture, its focus shifting from quantitative to qualitative premises, with statistics superseded by stories. This creatively radical translation of the game mirrors what Krupat designates as a large-scale reconfiguration of English by major Native American authors (and, by extension, postcolonial writers in general) which helps translate substantially dissimilar forms of practice to their Euramerican readers (178).

Alexie appropriates the colonizer’s language (in this case, the discourse of sports writing) to benefit his subversive agenda which disestablishes the prevalent history of America, as well as the history of the game itself, mockingly overriding cultural expropriation of the members of the Spokane tribe. His basketball stories may easily be read as bitterly contemplative of the practice famously referred to by Philip J. Deloria as “playing Indian,” i.e. the longstanding policy of drawing power from the indigenous cultures to exercise social, military, economic and political power against them (191). Alexie turns the history of basketball against the discourse of Anglo-American dominance, using this cultural artifact to provide his protagonists with a sense of self-empowerment. In The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore, we learn of Julius Windmaker, “the latest in a long line of reservation basketball heroes, going all the way back to Aristotle Polatkin, who was shooting jump shots exactly one year before James Naismith supposedly invented basketball” (LRT 45). This reinscription is reiterated in Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation, where the narrator confesses, “I see these Indian kids [shooting hoops] and I know that basketball was invented by an Indian long before that Naismith guy ever thought about it” (LRT 127).

In Alexie’s wildly revisionist scenario, it is the Indian that plays the Cowboy and engages in what we may provisionally refer to as reverse appropriation, claiming an important part of non-aboriginal culture to rekindle that of their own. Reverse appropriation takes out a vital building block from the edifice of American popular culture and teases the mode of “invention” of Indians by the European colonizers. By derisively arguing that basketball had been played by aboriginal Americans prior to its actual codification by Dr. Naismith in 1891, Alexie exposes the usurpatory practices of the hegemonic culture which believes “that trees went unidentified until Europeans came to name them (…) and that conservation is a concept introduced by the US Forestry Service” (Baldridge 528). Basketball acts as a crucial cultural stopgap to Alexie’s otherwise largely uprooted protagonists, whose sense of tradition has become a mere commodity for the dominant culture (the narrator of Indian Education attends a predominantly white school, where he plays varsity basketball on a team nicknamed the “Indians,” even though he is “probably the only actual Indian ever to play for a team with such a mascot” (LRT 179)), and who, in their attempts to put together their historically disintegrated identities, turn to popular culture as the most accessible source of self-determination, which often means that “all they know about religion they saw in Dances with Wolves” (RB 145).

In a section of Reservation Blues, Alexie employs a strikingly incongruous mode of storytelling to point out the appropriation of Native American removals by the dominant narrative, which he redresses in the guise of live sports coverage, revealing how the history of genocide tends to be confined to an entertaining commodity. At one point in the novel, young Spokane Indian Junior Polatkin travels back in time, dreaming his way into the thick of the Coeur d’Alene War which effectively severed the tribe’s sovereignty. Alongside other tribal leaders, Junior faces court martial for armed resistance to colonization. His dream is narrated in a manner adequate for a sporting event. “We’re here to witness the execution of Spokane Indian warrior Junior Polatkin for murder. Eighteen murders, to be exact. Quite a total for such a young man. General Sheridan and General Wright are presiding over the hanging” (144). The laid back register in which a traumatic event in the history of Junior’s tribe is portrayed mocks the reductionist perception of Indian Wars as a thrilling episode in the country’s history and a theme subsequently exploited by the entertainment industry. The judges presiding over the trial, both noted as Indian policy hard-liners, are introduced in a manner befitting a presentation of players and officials prior to an NBA game, with the casualties of war reduced to statistics.

In another passage, Alexie uses a basketball story to display how aboriginal cultures are exploited on a daily basis by those claiming Native American heritage to draw economic and social benefits upon enrollment in tribal structures. A prolific storyteller and the book’s main protagonist Thomas Builds-the-Fire, whose father Samuel made a name for himself as the reservation’s greatest basketball player, vividly recounts a famous duel Samuel and his basketball no-hoper friend Lester Falls Apart fought against the entire squad of tribal police led by Officer Wilson, a white wannabe Indian who “claimed a little bit of Indian blood and had used it to get the job but seemed to forget that whenever he handcuffed another Indian” (RB 102). Outnumbered six to two, Samuel and Lester face off against the “fake bastards. Full court to ten by ones. Make it. Take it” (102). Throughout the event, the two engage in vigorous trash talk with the police, remolding the game into a transhistorical clash of conflicting discourses, pointing to numerous instances of cultural appropriation and exposing their rivals as frauds. Enunciating the rules and regulations before tip-off, Lester refers to them as a “fucking treaty,” reclaiming agency as a codifier of rules and avenger of past wrongdoings, and casting the policemen as sell-out collaborators. Samuel presents each one of his shots as offerings in the memory of his personal pantheon of heroes, starting with Crazy Horse, to whom he dedicates his first make as a payback for all sorts of tribal authorities’ complicity in the eradication of their own cultures since Charging Bear’s alleged involvement in the murder of the legendary Oglala leader.

Samuel (…) stole the ball, drove down the court, and went in for a two-handed, rattle-the-foundations, ratify-a-treaty, abolish-income-tax, close-the-uranium-mines monster dunk.
“That was for every one of you Indians like you Tribal Cops,” Samuel said. “That was for all those Indian scouts who helped the U.S. Cavalry. That was for Wounded Knee I and II. For Sand Creek. Hell, that was for both the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X.”
“Yeah,” Lester said. “That was for Leonard Peltier, too.”
“And for Marilyn Monroe.”
“And for Jimi Hendrix.” (RB 117)

Alexie presents Samuel’s powerful dunk as an all-embracing metaphor which “rattles the foundations” of Eurocentric history and encompasses a vast range of both blatant and concealed oppression of Native and non-aboriginal Americans, from the 19th century acts of genocide in the Great Plains through the contemporary victims of symbolic violence such as Marilyn Monroe.

Apart from its metaphorical status as a storytelling device (“That shot was the best story I ever told,” admits Samuel commending himself on an otherworldly play ha has just made (121)), playing the game also determines the fate of Alexie’s protagonists. In a dream-like sequence, Samuel lifts off and flies “four feet above the basketball court. (…) He switched the ball from left to right hand and back again” (126). Samuel’s play is highly evocative of Michael Jordan’s legendary mid-air-hand-switch layup against the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1991 NBA Finals, which helped the Chicago Bulls tie the championship series and added to his reputation as unparalleled clutch shooter. Contrary to Jordan, however, Samuel misses the shot, which in consequence costs him and his partner the game. Having lost the bet, Samuel and Lester are taken to the tribal jail, as if bound to follow in Crazy Horse’s footsteps at Fort Robinson. Still, although Thomas’s story reiterates the conviction of impossibility to decisively conquer the haunting heritage of colonialism, the stubborn resistance displayed in the game against cultural appropriation, and the desperate bravado of Samuel’s final play define him as a postmodern warrior, while also serving as a rite of passage for Lester, in whose case the single made basket constitutes the lone highlight of his otherwise sorrowful life.

Frybread, Earl and Me. Basketball Lore as a Community Chronicle in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Recalling his days on the Reardan High School varsity team, Alexie pointed out the fundamental function of basketball in fostering a sense of communal history, “where whole communities would come, and you could rob any community blind when they were going to an away game, because everybody in that little town was gone, including the sheriff and the deputy” (Reid). Although the observation was originally made with direct reference to a white town just outside of the reservation, Alexie’s early work indicates that the transformative power of the sport is all the more intense among Native American reservation communities plagued by despondent fatalism (Grassian 74), in particular when considering the substantial cultural vacuum created as a result of forced acculturation:

We’re a Salmon people. Our religions, our culture, our dancing, our singing – had everything to do with the salmon. We were devastated by the Grand Coulee Dam. It took away 7,000 miles of salmon spawning beds from the interior Indians in Washington, Idaho and Montana. We’ve had to create a religion for many years. We had fish hatcheries so now our salmon are homegrown. People often ask me, "Why didn’t they build a fish ladder?" I say, "You haven’t seen the Grand Coulee Dam, have you?"(Thomson Highway interview)

For an economically impoverished community deprived of its customary source of sustenance and the rich traditions that accompanied it, and further devastated by the ignorance of the dominant discourse, basketball presents itself as one of the few readily accessible cultural media, all the more so because “it’s the cheapest game. All you need is something resembling a ball and something resembling a goal or a hoop” (Reid). Utilizing this medium, Alexie’s early works serve as a nifty reprisal of the notion of “postindian” condition proposed by Vizenor. Under the circumstances “long past the colonial invention of the Indian” (84), the most efficient way to uphold Native American communities is to engage in the practice of “survivance,” i.e. a merger of survival and resistance, one which rescinds the tragic self-referentiality by mocking the traditional representations of Indians in the Anglo-American mythos (93).

As remarked in the above discussion of Reservation Blues, the basketball court on the reservation functions as a mock-heroic battleground / sweat lodge in which young people earn respect of their peers and commune with history. In this sense, a basketball player may be perceived as a transfiguration of the pre-colonial warrior, while making basketball plays might correspond to valiant acts such as e.g. counting coups. Hence, we may interpret protagonists recalling highlights of major basketball events on the reservation as a modernized archetype of bonfire legends through which its identity is forged. In the microcosm of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, basketball is a mineful of stories, from singular deeds of glory, such as that performed by Silas Sirius “who made one move and scored one basket in his entire basketball career,” yet captured the reservation enough to have “people still talk about it” (47), through consistent displays of brilliance such as those delivered by Julius Windmaker, “the best ballplayer on the reservation these days, maybe the best ever” (46). Games featuring the reservation high school varsity team likewise arouse the collective imagination, sparking similes with ancient inter-tribal warfare, to the point of disrupting the flow of time, “all of us warriors roaring against the air and the nets and the clock that didn’t work and our memories and our dreams and the twentieth-century horses we called our legs. We played some Nez Perce team and they ran like they were still running from the cavalry” (118).

A link between the past and the present, basketball embeds both within a sweeping mythical framework while also serving as a platform for cross-generational bonding. For Alexie’s protagonists, devoted engagement in the game transforms basketball stories into rituals of remembrance within which private and communal stories are enacted. “We sat there in silence and remembered all of our heroes, ballplayers from seven generations, all the way back,” recalls the narrator of The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore (52). Revolving around the game, these peculiar mythopoeic huddles mount up into records of an insider, idiosyncratic tribal timeline delineating the inner history of the community, one which juxtaposes the linear narrative of the outside world. Inclusive and ever-expanding, the catalog of reservation heroes “grows over the years as the stories are told and retold (48), aiding the survival of the community, whose members become agents in accounts of self-empowerment which others subsequently relate to. No accounts are overlooked, even those accounts which would likely be brushed away as insignificant within the scope of the dominant culture whose perception of the sport is oriented towards sustained excellence and prone to dismiss the transience of one-time greatness. White people have the luxury to indulge in forgetting “the names of those guys who dove into that icy river to rescue passengers from that plane wreck a few years back” (48). Alexie seems to argue to the contrary of this practice; on the Spokane Indian Reservation, those names are providently memorized within a project which ironically overcomes the dominant modes of (hi)storytelling.


Works cited

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