The Toughest Indian In the World

Sherman Alexie’s The Toughest Indian in the World is a collection of short stories, which seek to construct the image of the modern Native American.  Alexie’s narrators are often adults who have awakened to the unhappy reality of middle-aged dissatisfaction.

  This is not simply the equivalent of the mid-life crisis popularized by mainstream America; we do not encounter an older man who feels the need to relive his youth by purchasing a new Ferrari or by engaging in elicit affairs with women decades younger. 

Instead, the mid-life and sometimes quarter-life crises experienced by the protagonists in The Toughest Indian in the World involve the acknowledgement of a profound emptiness that has been brewing beneath the surface for years.  Many equate the emptiness to a cultural void and assess the need to fill the cultural void via a cultural experience.

 One of the notable short stories, “South By Southwest,” offers humorous yet complex insights on the interactions between Indians and Whites during the mutual quest for indigenous perspectives.  The short story suggests the depth of colonization on the indigenous mentality.  On the other hand, “One Good Man” offers genuine representations of Native American struggles. 

Rather than fantastical, we are faced with very real issues of child-parent relationships, divorce, and the concept of home.  The protagonist seeks to fill his void by attending to the people, events, and things closest and most familiar to him.  Caring for an ailing parent and returning to the comforts of home (the “rez”) become significant acts.  By restoring value in everyday actions, Alexie argues that cultural fulfillment can come from accomplishing seemingly ordinary duties rather than seeking extraordinary experiences.  In the two short stories addressed, the characters seek cultural experiences to regain an ambiguous intangible part of themselves that they feel they have lost or never had to begin with. 

Alexie suggests that the protagonists are not really seeking cultural fulfillment; rather culture is the mechanism to regain a sense of self.  While the characters purport to search for external love, they are really searching for self-love to feel whole.  Alexie argues that self-love for the modern Native American cannot be achieved simply through an “authentic” Indian experience. 

Rather, self-love comes from exploring the duality of the Native American identity in the context of modern America, and in forging a sense of personal agency.  Through The Toughest Indian in the World, Alexie offers a complex exploration of identity formation.  Definitely worth a read!

Post Submitted By: Layhannara Tep