Sherman Alexie on His New Film, the Redskins, and Why It's OK to Laugh at His Work
Forgotten, but not gone—such is the plight of Native Americans in the modern U.S.
Debates about immigration, profiling Muslims, or police brutality ensure that the causes of many minority groups see their time in the spotlight.
The same cannot be said for today’s Native Americans, the descendants of those who had their land taken from them in one of our country’s two original sins (the other being slavery). Issues confronting the community, both on and off the reservation, are rarely found on the evening news or on the front page of major papers.
On August 20, a film adaptation opened of the late James Welch’s iconic novel Winter in the Blood, directed by Alex and Andrew Smith and produced by Native American author Sherman Alexie.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Alexie opens up about how much Welch meant to him, the issue of addiction in the Native American community, and what he honestly feels about the Redskins mascot.
How did you get involved in the project?
Well, I’ve known the Smith brothers for years. I’ve known them since they were volunteer crew at Sundance Institute, so it’s been 15, 20 years now. We became friends, and then we were actually at the Institute together when they worked on The Slaughter Rule. So we’ve been personally and professionally together for 20 years.
A few years back, maybe 10 years ago now, we had a tribute festival to James Welch here in Seattle, and along with readings and panels, I curated a short film festival based on his work. I asked the Smith brothers to do an adaptation and they did an adaptation of The Death of Jim Loney, another book by Jim Welch. I think that’s where the original seed for this project got going.
How much did James Welch’s work, in particular the original Winter in the Blood, affect your work?
It’s one of the primary reasons I write. I loved his blend of Native American realism with just a touch of surrealism. It wasn’t the typical Native American spiritual mythology, but a sort of personal, eccentric, magical realism that really appealed to me. The idea, certainly in Winter in the Blood, of this Indian dude having a very 20th century vision where you can’t tell whether they’re alcohol-fueled, or soul-fueled, or nature-fueled—that ambiguity, I think I’m still trying to replicate that.
When you were working on this film, what did you most want to convey from the original book?
That sense of mystery, of not exactly knowing where you are in time, in place, and in reality. I was very interested in seeing that the ambiguity of the novel was replicated in the movie.
When you were doing casting for the film, did you know whom you wanted to play certain roles?
I know Rene Haynes, the casting director, and I hooked up Alex and Andrew with Rene. Rene is the premier casting agent for Native American actors. The Smith brothers worked with her to find the actors. I know one of the big things for them was finding new actors, people who hadn’t been in film before. Through open casting calls they found a few people—the kids, and Lily Gladstone. So it was a combination of a Hollywood agent and open casting calls on Indian country.
Obviously, historically, the film industry hasn’t always been the best in terms of depicting Native Americans. It seems to me they’re either in cowboy-western schlock, or not at all. Have things changed?
It’s pretty much about being ignored. Every once in a while there’s that project with the Indian in it. On TV now it’s Longmire. There’s usually one show, one movie allowed at a time. There’s sort of a subconscious quota, I imagine. There’s always the perception that a movie about Native Americans, or a TV show about Native Americans, isn’t going to find an audience. It always ends up being a very capitalistic decision.
So, you talk about being ignored. Back in June, President Obama made his first visit to an Indian reservation, and he was just the third sitting president to do so. Has the U.S. population by and large ignored or forgotten about Native Americans?
The weird thing is, we’re everywhere in pop culture. Right now, I bet if I turned on the TV, I’d find 25 images of Native Americans in some capacity or other. We’re in sports, with the mascots, some more horribly racist than others. We as images, as symbols, we’re always around. As human beings, not necessarily so.
Talking about Obama’s visit, it’s actually really worse. In visiting a reservation, Obama, once again, confirmed the myth that Native Americans are mostly reservation-based, that that’s the focus of our community. In fact about 70 percent of us live off the reservation. In addition, there’s a lot of movement between the reservation and off-reservation communities. Much like in Winter in the Blood where the lead is moving back and forth between his home on the reservation and the border town, crossing borders. Native Americans are always doing that, whereas movies have historically played us as remaining in one place. The movement in Winter in the Blood, the geographical, spiritual movement, is something new in cinema.
I’m based here in Washington, D.C., and you brought up mascots, so I have to get your take on the Redskins debate…
It’s horribly racist. It’s a racist mascot, created in a racist time, by a racist owner. The only thing that keeps it going is that sports fans end up treating their teams like church. The support of a mascot has confused Christianity and sports.
The discussion of reparations for descendants of slaves saw some chatter this year after a piece in The Atlantic. One thing that simmers beneath the surface of the movie is that sense of loss for Native Americans. Does that sense of loss still resonate for current generations of Native Americans?
I think it’s absolutely a part of our culture. I think loss is in our DNA by now—every song, every feeling, every story is infused with that. Even though we live on reservations often, they’re often in places where we never actually lived. Most were shuttled off into places that were a far distance from traditional grounds. We’re a colonized people, and we continue to be a colonized people, and we continue to try and find our way.
Having watched the movie, I myself felt hungover from all the drinking. While the story may have taken place decades ago, alcohol consumption is still an issue in the Native American community. Is it purely socioeconomic or is there something else?
Addiction is a human problem, and this is the Native American version of it. What you’re going to find worldwide when you go into colonized communities, whether in Africa or Australia or the former Soviet Republics, you’re going to find massive, massive amounts of addiction. When people are colonized, when their choices are taken or lessened, addiction is an easy thing to turn to. Winter in the Blood shows the Native American version of a human problem.
What do you think people who see the movie should keep in mind?
The movie has a very sly sense of humor, and I think people might miss that. I know in my career that sometimes people need to be given permission to laugh at something that is also tragic. This movie and the novel are a beautiful blend of pathos and comedy.