Faculty Panel Kicks Off Discussions of ‘Reservation Blues’

Andy Monserud

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Among the chaos of move-in and the preparation for classes, Whitman hosted its annual summer reading panel in Cordiner Hall on Aug. 31. Professors Laura Ferguson, Nick Bader and Christopher Leise of the History, Geology and English departments, respectively, discussed their takes on Sherman Alexie’s 1995 novel “Reservation Blues.” A performance by Crow rapper Supaman and a dinner featuring Native American foods followed the panel the next day.

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Photo by Marra Clay

President George Bridges chose Reservation Blues as this year’s summer reading late last school year. The book takes place primarily on Washington’s Spokane Indian Reservation, particularly in Alexie’s hometown of Wellpinit. It follows the exploits of the rock band Coyote Springs, particularly those of lead singer Thomas Builds-the-Fire. The band’s travels across the United States expose a shifting boundary between modern Native American culture and the world outside the reservation.

The panelists, chosen by the president and dean of faculty, discussed the book from a variety of angles. Bader used his time to discuss environmental trends impacting Native Americans in eastern Washington, including the diminishing supplies of salmon in nearby rivers, while Ferguson discussed the book’s many comparisons between its narrative and the histories of the Spokane and other tribes. Leise approached the book through a literary lens and from various angles, particularly focusing upon connections between the book and the ideals of a liberal-arts education.

The panel, like the book, was mandatory for first-year students, and as such was catered heavily toward first-years. Director of Conferences, Events and Scheduling Katie DePonty sees this chance to make a first impression on first-years as a draw for faculty.

“It’s a pretty exciting honor to speak in front of the first year students –– they’re some of the first faculty that they get to see in that kind of capacity before the school year starts,” said DePonty.

Bader sees the panel as a way to welcome new students to college academics.

“The way I see our job as faculty panelists is to think about things in the book that resonate with our field,” said Bader email. “The exact content of our discussion is less important than giving the students a snapshot about how we think about issues.”

First year Kendall Dunovant particularly enjoyed hearing the various takes the panelists provided on the book.

“I liked getting the perspectives from different departments,” she said. “I really liked the historical perspective, because I thought the part about Sheridan and Wright was really interesting –– looking at the book in comparison to actual history.”

Other members of the Whitman and Walla Walla community also attended the event. Walla Walla resident Martie Schilling came to the panel with a group of friends, as she does every year.

“I found it interesting to come and hear what the faculty have to say,” Schilling said. “Having the freshmen read a book, having something to talk about to bring them all together is a great idea.”

The performance and dinner following the panel represented a change from previous years. DePonty cites a desire to engage students with Native American people and culture beyond “Reservation Blues.” 

The performance and dinner served to “make it more of a celebration and really learning about the culture and people,” she said.

Associate Dean of Students Barbara Maxwell and Assistant Director of Student Activities Katharine Curles sought input from the former American Indian Association (AIA), now the Indigenous People’s Education and Cultural Club (IPECC), in the decision to bring a performer to campus to accompany the discussion. Club president Brenna Two Bears and her predecessor Blythe Monoian suggested Supaman, born Christian Parrish Takes The Gun, to the administration, and Two Bears delivered Supaman’s introduction at his performance. Supaman’s performance combined rapping, dancing both traditional and freeform, and elements of stand-up comedy.

“It was really nice to meet him,” said Two Bears. “There are some things that you understand when you grew up on the rez, and other people just don’t understand them. For instance, his humor.”

The panel, dinner and performance serve as a precursor to author Alexie’s visit to campus in October. Alexie is now based in Seattle and has written several books centered on the Spokane people and the reservation. He last visited Whitman in 2010 as part of the Visiting Writers Series. His speech will cater to a much wider audience, including members of the nearby Umatilla tribe who the administration has invited to attend.

“There’s just been a tremendous response from the greater community…to [Alexie] being here,” said DePonty. “He’s an inspiring writer and person, and we’re excited to have him back on campus.”

First-year Taylor Wilke, who saw Alexie speak when he visited her high school, looks forward to seeing him again.

“He’s really funny, really eloquent,” she said. “I like him a lot.”

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Photo by Marra Clay