Expressing Rage. The Use of Violence in Sherman Alexie’s Novel "Indian Killer"

Essay, 2016
11 Pages, Grade: 1.5


The use of violence in Sherman Alexie’s novel Indian Killer (1996) underlines the importance of the message that violence only for violence’s sake will never change the world for the better. Moreover, the justification of brute forces highlights the suppressed anger of Native Americans against their past and the importance of hybridisation. The main theme of Indian Killer seems to be expressing rage through violent acts. In general, violence is depicted as inevitable for both cultures to pursue their beliefs and as an expression of their feelings. It comes from a racist thinking not only from whites against Indians but also inverse racism from Indians against whites. Racism is not only treating someone different because of another skin colour but also preferring the ones from the same race to others. Violence, however, is not only seen as physical abuse but can also be seen in hurting one’s privacy and in mental cruelty. The different nuances of violence differ not only in terms of expression but also in terms of justification and reason. White people and Native Americans both beat up the other race out of vengeance and frustration. Whites have had it enough that Indians would always get special treatment over them because of what happened in their past and Native Americans use violence as a means of making up for the crimes against their people. The media inflames those beatings by inciting the inhabitants to stand up against Indians. Moreover, characters like Mathers and Wilson hurt the rights of Native Americans. They both send the message that everyone could be Indian by just learning a lot about this specific culture. Although both cultures differ sharply, their reasons and their motivation behind being cruel to each other come from the same roots. Justification for cruelty coming from a collective can be found easily. Racism being mostly the reason for all the crimes in the novel though can never be vindication for violent acts. However, justification for the crimes of the killer, whose identity the author does not reveal, is nearly impossible to find. It follows that the killer has other function for the novel than showing reasonable vindication for violence. Looking into the different degrees of violence throughout the novel it is obvious that the more violence there is on the one side, the more it develops on the other side. Still, violence does not help neither Indians nor whites get what they want and achieve what they believe in. The aim of this paper is to look into the use of violence in this novel from the different perspectives of whites, Indians and the killer and to analyse the different dimensions of violent acts. Further to this it is highly important to show why violence is depicted as inevitable.

The novel written by Sherman Alexie, who is a Spokane-Coeur d’Alene and therefore commiserates with the Indian community, has often been criticised for it’s strikingly violent content. However, the message the novel sends can be different according to how one reads the novel. For some the novel sends the message that violence is inevitable to pursue one’s beliefs and that the novel advocates terrorism. For others the novel only highlights the importance of frustration and anger coming from racism through the use of vi olence.

There have already been several theories as of why there is so much violence in the novel. Skow calls the destroying anger and despair in the book "septic with ... [an] unappeasable fury" (88). His oftenc cited opinion suggests that Alexie, as a member of the Indian community, forms his own suppressed rage into a narrative. Hence, Alexie’s own heritage is the reason for the novel’s immense amount of cruelty. In Skow’s opinion, the use of violence in the novel comes from the author’s own feelings towards his ancestry and therefore justifies the crimes of the Indians against the whites. As for the brutality of white people against innocent Native Americans, Skow suggests, that it would only highlight Alexie’s own point of view. The reader would rather sympathize with the Indians than with the whites although both are equally brutal in pursuing their beliefs. On the other hand, another criticiser of the novel, Arnold Krupat, suggests a kind of ruthless and aggressive “Red Nationalism”.

As Mariani (2011) already observed, Krupat finds it very troubling and frightening that the novel’s thesis seems to be that “anger, rage and a desire for murderous revenge must be expressed, not repressed or channelled into other possible action” (103). His opinion is that the novel propagates violence as a solution to overcome rage, which it clearly is not. Krupat also suggests that it would seem as Alexie is justifying the American Indian violence by considering it as a “creative tool” and that the novel may be viewed as some sort of négritude meaning that the antic white racism contrasts the dominant antic Indian racism (115). Against these two different opinions from Skow and Krupat, Grassian correctly states “in Reservation Blues, Alexie argues that ethnic hybridity can often be a space of productive creation, but in Indian Killer that same hybridity turns violent and destructive” (104). It follows that Grassian argues for the use of violence to come from the diversity of different races in one place. This diversity mirrors the author’s own opinion that no successful social and cultural hybridization between whites and Indians can ever occur. Grassian’s theory is important for enhancing the justification for all the violent crimes through racism in this essay. My own suggestion is that the novel enhances how violence for violence’s sake will never achieve a greater goal and that anger and rage are not tools that change the world for the better. Although on the one hand it seems that the novel would like to encourage the use of violence as a means of overcoming rage, on the other it constantly reveals that violence does not succeed in changing the circumstances of one’s rage. The outcome of the novel shows that Alexie is clearly aware that violence only ignites violence and those cruel acts only highlight the importance of violence not only being a creative tool, as Krupat suggests. Besides, it is highly important that the use of violence undoubtedly enhances the rage and despair Indian Americans had to feel for centuries and that the temptation to express those feelings through violent acts is hardly questionable. Still, violent actions do not help Native Americans get over the pain of those past crimes and their denied cultural heritage. Neither is violence effective for the whites, which try to overcome that Indians have become a protected community because of their lost heritage and because of them being a symbol of past crimes. Moreover, violence does not help the killer to make up for all the suffering of Indian people. In the end, the novel emphasises the destructive and morally indefensible nature of violence and makes once again aware that violence can never be a solution for changing the world for the better.

The first violent act in the novel starts at the very beginning when John is taken from his birthmother and adopted by white people. Later in the novel, when the kidnapped boy’s mother is interviewed after Mark Jones got taken away from his bed, she asks "... what kind of monster do you think would take somebody’s child?” (169). Even though she does not talk about the first kidnapping in the novel there is a striking connection between the two actions. Mrs. Jones implies that only monsters would take somebody’s child, which leads to the thought that whites must be monsters for taking away baby John. This very unjust and violent act is the beginning of a series of brutal acts. It is the first crime committed by white people. Although for them it seems that they have done the right thing and although his parents do their very best to give John an impression of his heritage they do not realise that they have already killed John on the inside. Without knowing his tribe he will never belong to the Indian community nor will he belong to the white community. By being taken from his birthmother and by not getting to know the roots of where he came from he will always be in-between two cultures, damned to never really belong to any of it. White people have created a deranged Indian who will later on believe that only the death of a white man can make up for all the crimes against his people. Hence, the first violent act is not physically cruel but more mentally brutal resulting in destroying a human being from the beginning. Further to this, more mental pain caused by white people comes from the media inflaming overheated speculations. The vicious invoking of talk-show host Truck Schultz incites the inhabitants of Seattle to stand up against the Indian Killer and to stop treating Indians as something special. Schultz is fully aware of his power and uses it to heat the crowd’s rage against Indians. This leads to vigilantes prowling the streets and beating up innocent Indians. Violent acts are being promoted by racist social media, which are supposed to be neutral and objective. Schultz says “They [Indians] have refused to recognize how well we [whites] have educated them, how well we have fed them, how well we have treated them. To this day, they have responded to our positive efforts in the only way they know: violence” (346). It is obvious that Schultz is very much against Native Americans and has had it with the special treatment they receive. He disregards that Indians have lost their heritage and their identity. He ignores the fact that Native Americans have suffered uncountable years of racist treatment and that their whole culture and their lands were stolen from them. In fact he glorifies white people for bringing them a better life. This is a clearly violent act against the rights of another race because of the denial of their suffering and because of putting one race in front of another. Further to this, violence can also be seen in professor Clarence Mather and author Jack Wilson. Both are living the white fantasy of going Indian by making up an Indian heritage they do, in fact, not have.


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Expressing Rage. The Use of Violence in Sherman Alexie’s Novel "Indian Killer"
University of Bern
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Rage, Violence, Sherman Alexie, Indian Killer, Analysis, Justice, Racism
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Sarah Kunz (Author), 2016, Expressing Rage. The Use of Violence in Sherman Alexie’s Novel "Indian Killer", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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