Meet John Smith
People live day to day simply because they are in a world where they strive for happiness amongst society. By being alone a person on earth would have nothing to live for; they would be lonely, depressed, detached from reality, ultimately: unhappy. This is precisely the case of John Smith in the novel, Indian Killer, by Sherman Alexie. John is a pure Indian who was adopted as a child into a white family. White parents raise him as a Catholic Indian in a white environment, leading him to become deprived of his own culture. To further John’s problem, the white community does not embrace him because of his Indian appearance. Due to John’s lack of heritage he feels, that he is not an Indian, in addition to not being accepted as a white, so he is left alone in the world with a sense of no identity prohibiting him from leading a normal life. This sense of loneliness depresses John leading him to unexplainable behavior by society’s norms. The longer John is presents himself to society as an outsider, the more his perceptions of himself and others changes as he becomes more detached and set apart.
John first begins experiencing his difficulties when he realizes how distant he actually is from being an Indian. John has learned about Indians through books his parents buy him and other articles. By being an Indian with decent grades, John can be admitted into nearly any public university in the college but he would rather be “working on a skyscraper” because of “an article about a group of Mohawk Indian steel workers who helped build the World Trade Center buildings in New York City” he read as a freshman. (Alexie 22) He has learned about Indians superficially, accounting for his distance with Indian culture. John’s lack of direct contact with Indians becomes apparent when he goes to an all-Indian basketball tournament. John is simply shocked when he sees “the crowd laugh[ing] and roll[ing] all over the bleachers, pounding each other on each others backs, hugging each other tightly so much laughter that the refs called an official timeout,” so appalled at what he had seen “John felt like crying. He did not recognize these Indians. They were nothing like the Indians he had read about. John felt betrayed.” (Alexie 22) As John grows older he continues to cling to his identity, an identity he observes, not experiences. While working construction “John always had the urge to carry a pair of scissors and snip off those ponytails at every opportunity. He hated those ponytails, but he did not let them distract him” (Alexie 23) This quote illustrates John’s mounting frustration at who he is and who he is becoming, but he continues to suppress his problems. White men having ponytails is a white man’s attempt to be Indian, something he is trying to attempt. He does “not let them distract him” however, because he does not want to experience further difficulties as a result of his lack of racial identity. (Alexie 23)
In High School, John blends in adequately enough to have friends, girlfriends and even be part of the basketball team, but he is different. While in High School, John was the only Indian at his school, one of only four non-whites leaving him conscious of his differences. During a round of joking amongst tainted teenage boys, John becomes extremely angry at the suggestion that he is different. The boy tapers with John by encouraging him to have sex with his mother, “Don’t Indians always want to fuck white woman?” (Alexie 77) John amazed at the comment attacks the boy and there is a fight. When he arrives at the principals office he is told that he “should just ignore him” even though John knows that “he could not walk away from any of it” (Alexie 78) John’s life is full of these unnecessary burdens simply because of his identity. John’s frustrations grow as he grows older, finding himself lost and incapable of “walking away” because John has no one to walk to, no one to relate to.
John’s lack of identity begins to preoccupy him causing him to act out of the ordinary. When John is working at the construction site the foreman sees him eating lunch after lunch is over. He tells John that he should get back to work and John is humiliated. He feels lost and overreacts. He thinks that “if he were a real Indian” he would be able to put the foreman in his place but that his mistake is instead caused by his confusion over who he is. (Alexie 24) When John stumbles upon a protest powwow, John soon becomes overwhelmed by his culture deficiency when he sees “so much happiness close to him, but [can't] touch it” (Alexie 38) John becomes blind and can only see the thing that he does not have, the identity of an Indian. He sees other Indians “able to laugh, to sing” and wonders, “where they found the strength to do such things” (Alexie 144) John’s manner of dealing with his problem shifts to the idealization of Indians as he grows older.
In another attempt by John to be another Indian in the crowd, he visits an Indian bar from time to time, but even amongst people that look like him and don’t know him, he feels like an outcast. He views the other Indians differently and continues to question himself: “[John] had no idea what kind of Indian he was. These Indian men, these warriors, would know how to be Indian” (Alexie 280) John clearly has issues trying to deal with his conflict with identity. Even amongst his “own people” John views himself as the outsider. He is quiet and good-looking, just as an Indian man is supposed to be, however he still doesn’t fit in. John’s stereotype of the perfect Indian alters his outlook on all people. He worships other Indians for having an identity and being allowed to be normal. John’s ideal model of an Indian could be considered Marie Polatkin, the Indian woman who did not have as much physical beauty as she did Indian beauty. John views Marie in high regard for her strength. Marie had “been fighting so hard for her survival that she didn’t know if she could stop” (Alexie 61). Even when confronted by the approachable Marie, John feels inadequate and inferior. He lies telling her he is Navajo simply because that is what other Indians want him to be. The margin of John’s distance from society continues to grow and he grows more awkward in dealing with it everyday.
John’s detachment from his culture soon again turns into infatuation. He finds that all Indians, whether he knows their past or not are real Indians and that he is the inferior one. When John sees the homeless Indians, he would just walk “by those real Indians, who sat in groups of three or four, nodding their heads when John walked past” (Alexie 143) John secretly reveres these men for who they are, simply because they are not like him, they have a sense of belonging. This is the source of John’s discontent with his life, he is so miserable that he gives virtue to the lives of homeless Indians- considered to be the lowest people in the city. However, these Indians do have something John doesn’t, they are always “able to laugh, sing” leaving John to wonder, “how they were able to do such things.” (Alexie 144) These men all have something John doesn’t and it is not because they are “real Indians,” rather, they have a link to the Indian community. John simply views the homeless Indians as stronger than he; John is already having enough troubles with life while not being pestered with poverty. John’s lack of belonging to a community is the cause of these problems. John’s mental weakness even overcomes his great stature and strength. As white boys are beating him, a group of “ragtag homeless warriors in soiled clothes and useless shoes” come to his rescue. “The Indians were weak from malnutrition and various disease, but they kicked, scratched, and slapped with a collective rage. John wondered how those Indians could still fight after all they had been through.” (Alexie 374) The answer is simple; they had confidence of knowing who they are. John on the other hand doesn’t, he has no idea who he is or in turn, what he is capable of. He feels there is a set of binding rules that control him and he must abide by these rules since he is different and would not want to be set out any further. The fear John has of being different has escalated through time and exposure, he has had to deal with it for so long, he simply wants to give up.
It was when John was merely five years old that he “realized his parents were white and he was brown,” but even more significantly he “Understood that the difference in skin color was important” (Alexie 305) John realized that “he did not look like his parents” (Alexie 306) and he knew he was distant, even from his own parents. This distance is minute as a child, but once again as John grows older and experiences more of the world, his lack of identity surfaces. As he matures, he begins attending powwows where he “could pretend to be a real Indian” even though “he felt like a fraud” (Alexie 35) The subtle feeling of being another face in the crowd was enough to grant John temporary comfort, however, as he becomes more exposed he grows obsessed by his lack of culture. When John matures, his lack of a belonging to a community becomes evident. He attends a protest powwow but he feels even more distant from the people. He dances poorly and acts awkwardly in the presence of so many Indians, Marie thinks “John [is] homeless an explanation for his strange behavior at the protest powwow.” (Alexie 145) John does not fit in amongst other Indians, however it is not because he does not have shelter, he is homeless in a different way. John does not have a community, a place he could turn to, a place similar to a home. This homelessness causes John to feel that he stands out and is different than other Indians.
John is convinced that every Indian in the world has something that he doesn’t, that there was something that set him apart from everyone else. He thinks to himself that “there was magic in the world. John [knows] that real Indians [feel] it every day” John knows something goes on in the Indian world that he is excluded from, but he “only had brief glimpses of it tiny wonders while his back was turned. (Alexie 130) This magic can be related to the exclusive Indian culture that even he does not have. He knows other Indians look at him differently and this pains him, his detachment from Indians causes him to suffer because they are the only people he can relate to. The mystery of the Indian culture that eludes John and likewise Mather causes both of them to romanticize it. When Mather records a story told by an Indian elder he also now owned “12 hours worth of magic” (Alexie 138). The magic can be interpreted as all that outsiders do not understand about Indians. The elusive magic is far more difficult for John to bear however as he has no other identifying ties in his life.
John lives a rough life, a near contradiction. He is basically the only thing you can call a white Indian. However, John does not have the same social benefits as the “mixed bloods [who] could choose to be Indian or white, depending on the social or business situation” (Alexie 232) He is robbed of an identity due to the structure of society around him. John feels so lost and hopeless that “there [is] no language in which he could express himself” to the world. (Alexie 377) He is stripped of an identity because of his upbringings and who he is.