An Indian Post Mortem

by Jillian Skerry

The poem, “Evolution,” by Sherman Alexie exposes its readers to the agonizing reality of being a Native American in modern Anglo-American society. Sherman Alexie, an award-winning Native American author born on the Spokane Indian Reservation, relays the tragic downfall of a group of Indians after the arrival of a foreigner named Buffalo Bill. In this piece, Alexie takes full advantage of free-verse poetry, using run-on sentences and enjambments to rush the poem’s rhythm. He places the readers in similar states of mind as the story’s Native American people, whisking them through the unfolding of events so quickly they do not recognize Buffalo Bill’s predatory ways until their fates are sealed. Alexie writes this piece to make a deeper comment on the Anglo-American treatment of American Indians: while the extinction of vital pieces of Native American culture can be almost exclusively attributed to the materialistic self-interests of many white settlers, the Indians played implicit roles in their own incapacitation and eventual self-destruction.

Alexie’s lack of punctuation and use of enjambment are calculated moves meant to invoke a sense of urgent desperation in the reader. The poem’s five stanzas are composed of only three sentences, two of which are “run-on” statements. Without any punctuation to guide the audience, one quickly gets entangled trying to decipher the words and their meanings. The last line of each stanza ends in the middle of a thought, thrusting the reader to dash to the next verse, leaving zero time to digest the passage. The audience experiences the events in real time, like the Indians. Initially, when Buffalo Bill enters the reservation nonchalantly at the end of the first stanza, the speaker reports, “and he stays open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week/ and the Indians come running in with jewelry/ television sets, a VCR, a full length beaded buckskin outfit/ it took Inez Muse 12 years to finish. Buffalo Bill” (3-6). Alexie could have added a period at the end of the third line; however, using “and” without a comma rushes the reader down the page. This hastening effect is enhanced when the speaker continues to recite the list of items the Indians sell. The speaker slyly slips in that someone relinquishes a “full length beaded buckskin outfit it took Inez Muse 12 years to finish,” and without an ounce of hesitation ends the line with the beginning of the next sentence, using enjambment to push the reader surreptitiously to the following stanza. A living being with a name, Inez Muse, dedicated twelve years of her breathing existence to crafting the outfit stitch by stitch. Rather than standing out as the precious object it is, the piece melts in with the other junk listed. The speaker simply lumps in, giving up a priceless family heirloom with selling a plastic television. He disregards the artifact’s cultural significance. Alexie hurries the poem’s pace in order to disorient and overwhelm the reader so that, like the American Indians, they are unaware of the destruction taking place until it is too late.

The poem’s antagonist, Buffalo Bill, represents Anglo Americans’ crucial roles in the breakdown of Native American independence. Buffalo Bill is the stage name of a real actor in American history. William Frederick Cody, nicknamed “Buffalo Bill,” was a well-known chief scout for the US army who fought many battles in the Western Plains during the mid 1800s. However, his name is often associated with his entrepreneurial success as the founder of “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.” His traveling outdoor exhibitions presented a depiction of the Western frontier to curious minds across the world. According to the Buffalo Bill Museum, while Cody treated his Native American actors with respect and paid them the same wages as his other performers, “they were stereotyped as mounted, war-bonneted warriors, the last impediment to civilization. Thus, they had to fight a losing war every night; their hollow victory in the Little Big Horn enactments demonstrated over and over to their audiences the justification for American conquest” (Fees). Buffalo Bill may not have directly injured Native Americans, but his show’s one-sided portrayal of an entire civilization bolstered white superiority. His classic “American” capitalist scheme further hurt Native Americans’ reputations. In the views of audience members, it characterized Native Americans as primitive and validated treating Native Americans as sub-human. Alexie employs the name Buffalo Bill to connect the events of the poem with historical patterns of white settlers stunting Native American communities’ growth and exploiting the Indians to line their pockets with dollar bills. 

In the poem, Buffalo Bill purposely masterminds the Indians’ collapse in order to turn a profit. The simplest sentence in the entire passage that lies at both the symbolic and physical core of this piece is the second one. The speaker emphasizes, “Buffalo Bill/ takes everything the Indians have to offer, keeps it/ all catalogued and filed in a storage room” (6-8). The manner in which he collects their items is sterile and emotionless. His procedure is systematic and detached from the utter hopelessness that drives his customers to his doorway. Despondent, the natives feel their only option for survival is to sacrifice their prized possessions for money. Bill merely records what each unit’s monetary value, or at least what he perceives it to be, preying on the Indian’s suffering. He stations his pawnshop “right across the border from the liquor store” (2). He strategically opens his business in a spot where he can lure in men at their most vulnerable moments. The liquor store’s proximity allows him to profit from men’s addictions. In this compulsive state, men will sacrifice anything for a drop of alcohol to dull the senses, even Inez Muse’s masterpiece. Buffalo Bill understands the power of alcohol and channels the Indians’ anguish into revenue. His actions, while perfectly legal, are ruthless. His capitalistic greed overrides his human empathy. The speaker reveals, “and when the last Indian has pawned everything/ but his heart, Buffalo Bill takes that for twenty bucks” (11-12). Buffalo Bill’s character illustrates how white settlers plundered the Native Americans of everything they held dearly solely for financial gain. Nothing was considered sacred, not even the blood pumping flesh that kept the community alive.

Alexie strategically uses irony in the poem to emphasize the alterations made to Indian culture by Anglo-American settlers crippled it. Sherman Alexie ironically names this tale of extinction, “evolution.” The word evolution is often associated with the advancing of society, the ways in which humans progressed from primitive beings to complex ones. Alexie proves time and time again Buffalo Bill’s influence only crushes Native Americans’ abilities. Buffalo Bill buys integral pieces of the American Indians’ heritage, like Inez Muse’s treasure, dismembering the culture and ripping off its limbs. The speaker informs, “the Indians/ pawn their hands, saving the thumbs for last” (8-9). Opposable thumbs are the hallmark characteristics that separate humans from the majority of animals; the Indians are dehumanized. These extremities allow men to grasp objects and equal powerful advantages over other species. Through this loss, the Native American people regress. Buffalo Bill’s presence paralyzes their physicals and prevents them from providing for themselves in the future. By stripping Indians of their culture, white settlers have the opposite effect of evolution, destroying their community’s hopes for survival. After acquiring every valuable object the Native Americans own, Buffalo Bill, “closes up the pawn shop, paints a new sign over the old/ calls his venture THE MUSEUM OF NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES” (13-14). Typically, a museum is a place one sees historical artifacts and marvels at the advancement of the current generation. The museum in this poem displays regression rather than progression. The speaker’s use of the word “calls” suggests the new label Buffalo Bill slaps on the pawnshop is misleading. While Buffalo Bill may rename the building, no paint can cover up the true purpose of the space is not to better society or educate it, but to make money. Every “exhibit” acts as a memento of the debilitating losses the Native Americans suffered at the hands of Buffalo Bill. This edifice, which is designed by Buffalo Bill, constantly reminds the Indians of their lost valuables as well as the parts they played in its erection.

Alexie is not discriminatory with his critical words; through this piece, he dusts off the grimy truth that the Native American culture could not have been so effectively fossilized if it had not been for Native Americans’ complicity. It is true; the Indians would not have lost their thumbs or their hearts if Buffalo Bill had never entered the reservation. However, Alexie does not hesitate to shine a critical light on all of the actors in the poem’s tragic events. The poem’s three sentences each begin with a subject performing an action. While Buffalo Bill is the active person in the first two sentences, the majority of the poem, in the final sentence the speaker asserts, “The Indians/ pawn their hands” (8-9). The Indians willingly hand over pieces of themselves to Buffalo Bill. When Buffalo Bill unlocks his business, the Indians “come running in” (4) the pawnshop. Buffalo Bill is not dragging men in by their hair or ransacking personal homes. The Indians are handing out vital pieces of themselves voluntarily. Although one could argue Buffalo Bill is bypassing multiple moral codes, he is not breaking any government laws by accepting the Native Americans’ possessions. Alexie chooses to write about a pawnshop because such a storefront implicitly exploits people’s distress. The customers must willingly part with their goods for the transaction to take place. Both Buffalo Bill and the Indians play roles in injuring the Native American civilization. Sadly, the museum erected in the final stanza is not only a symbol of Buffalo Bill’s avarice, but it is also a reminder of many individuals’ mistaken rashness to part with vital organs of their culture. The trades initially appear innocuous; however, over an extended period, these little bits add up to huge chunks. The Indians begin the slippery slope by hawking unimportant objects such as “television sets” and soon find themselves handing over “their skeletons” (10). Buffalo Bill could not have fractured the structural integrity of the Native American body so successfully if not for their tacit participation. 

Alexie frames his piece in a way that exposes the Indians’ tragic downfall as a consequence of Buffalo Bill and the American Indians themselves. Alexie manipulates grammatical structures and quickens the poem’s rhythm to put the audience in the shoes of the frantic Native Americans. Upon thorough examination, it becomes glaringly obvious Buffalo Bill utilizes this desperation to dismember Native American culture. While Buffalo Bill does most of the heavy lifting, his victory is cemented when many Native Americans implicitly assist his conquest. This poem, like the museum constructed in this piece, painfully symbolizes how Anglo-American greed and Indians’ misguided decisions both contributed to the petrification of Native American traditions.

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. “Evolution.” 1992. PDF File.

Fees, Paul. Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Accessed 26 March 2018. Web.