Thursday, January 28, 2010

Alexie's "I Hate Tonto (Still Do)"

I have a friend whose favorite question to ask, upon meeting a new person, is "what is your theme song?"  This question usually confuses the heck out of the person he asks, so he continues, "in the movie version of your life, what song would be playing behind you when you enter a room?"

It's a great question, and I've long struggled to decide what my theme song is.  I'd love it to be something edgy and dangerous that makes you want to strut just a little more--Nirvana's "Pennyroyal Tea," for example.  Or perhaps, in my more romantic modes, it could be something heart-rending and full of longing, like Mother Love Bone's "Chloe Dancer."  Or maybe even something peppy, but peppy out of desperation at the madness of the world: "Birdhouse in your Soul" (They Might Be Giants) or "Gone Out the Window" (Violent Femmes) or "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" (The Clash) or "Story of My Life" (Social Distortion) or "Steady as She Goes" (The Racontuers) or any other song that says or implies "This is not my beautiful house; this is not my beautiful wife."

Tonight, reading Alexie, I'm realizing that my long-standing debate over the question reveals the privilege I enjoy because of the culture into which I was born.  For him, that music has already been provided.  He writes, "In the movies, Indians are always accompanied by ominous music. And I've seen so many Indian movies that I feel like I'm constantly accompanied by ominous music. I always feel that something bad is about to happen."

I can't think of a single other American culture who has so consistently been scripted as brutal.  Tonto is one of the few exceptions, yet even though Sherman Alexie doesn't give his reasons for rejecting Tonto, I feel like I already know them.  There's an "Uncle Tom" quality to Tonto that the more savage images of Indians wholly reject--which makes Alexie's identification in the final line all the more painful.

The strange thing is, having grown up with the same stereotypes, I remember as a child how badly I wanted to be "Indian."  One summer I walked barefoot daily on my gravel driveway because I'd convinced myself that Native Americans could do so, and I wanted to be that tough.  I wanted to be able to sneak soundlessly along a ridge and descend on unsuspecting settlers.  Though I never wanted to actually enact any violence, I wanted to be fearsome and ominous.  They were never quite human, were they?  Those soundless beings in the hills--they were more than human, and no degree of violence quite disturbed their silent *power*.  I wonder if part of the reason its so hard to let these stereotypes and prejudices go is that, as abhorrent as they are, we have fallen in love with our own mythologies?

Of course, though, the power is only an illusion of the film.  The reality was a far cry.

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