Sherman Alexie, the author of Whitman’s 2014 summer reading book, “Reservation Blues,” came to campus Wednesday, Oct. 1. He delivered a speech to a packed house in Cordiner Hall, which consisted of Whitman and Walla Walla community members as well as members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.
Alexie spent the day of his visit traveling around Walla Walla and the Whitman campus. He visited an Encounters class and the Lincoln Alternative High School, and dined with Native Whitman students, members of the Umatilla tribe and of the Crow’s Shadow Institute of the Arts, a Pendleton-based nonprofit intended to provide artistic opportunities to Native Americans.
When Alexie began his talk, it more closely resembled a stand-up comedy routine than a book lecture. He joked at one point that he had not read “Reservation Blues,” published in 1995,in so long that he had forgotten it.
“It was 19 years ago!” he said. “I have a dim memory of it … and so for two weeks now, I’ve been thinking â€˜I need to read that.'”
Alexie careened throughout the night from stream-of-consciousness comedy to more serious, pointed storytelling, particularly one about a trip around Wisconsin he took last week. The tale ended with a cryptic statement about the story’s purpose.
“You can figure out what that had … to do with â€˜Reservation Blues,'” he said.
Alexie’s lecture lasted nearly an hour and a half. He jokingly attributed its lengthiness to his Native heritage.
“The scariest thing in the Indian world is when an Indian guy gets up to a microphone and says, â€˜I have a few words I would like to say,'” said Alexie. “I figure the longer I talk, the more of you leave, and then I can sign less books later.”
He concluded the talk with an impromptu performance by Umatilla singers and drummers Elijah Bevis, Ian Sampson and Wilbur Latman. Alexie called them onto the stage to accompany a brief scene performed by a Umatilla woman he had met earlier that day who had said she wanted to be an astronaut.
“I’ve been thinking about it ever since I met you earlier this evening, about this Indian woman walking on Mars,” he said.
He went on to describe the scene. After testing several possibilities, he eventually decided that she would ask permission from the red planet before walking onto it and burst into song. At this point, he turned to the Umatilla attendees.
“Who’s the best drum group of the Umatilla? Who’s the best drum group down there? Are you guys here?” he said. “Get up here. I want to hear you.”
Bevis, Sampson and Latman, after some deliberation, sang an unnamed song that Alexie dubbed a “grand entry” while the would-be astronaut walked across the stage.
“We were the only singers around,” said Bevis. “We raised our hands, all of us, and were like, â€˜Oh, might as well go up there.'”
“Ask and you shall receive,” said Sampson.
The song itself was a spur-of-the-moment choice.
“It came to our minds. Whatever song comes to our minds, we sing it,” said Bevis.
President George Bridges, whose chose “Reservation Blues” to be the summer reading book, cites Alexie’s multifaceted style as a major drawing point for the lecture.
“He has a terrific sense of humor, is a powerful storyteller and an engaging lecturer,” said Bridges in an email. “We are honored to have him visit and speak about his work and his life.”
First-year Heather Hamilton has seen Alexie speak before and said that the free-flowing format of the talk didn’t surprise her.
“I enjoyed it. It was interesting and also entertaining,” she said. “It was interesting to me that he didn’t really talk about â€˜Reservation Blues’ very much. And I don’t know if I wish that he had or not.”