Indian Killer, a novel by Sherman Alexie, is a mystery thriller in which the Seattle area is terrorized by an unknown murderer. Because of the killer’s calling card – scalping the victims – and due to the fact that all of the victims are white men, many people in the area suspect that the killer is Indian. Fears and racial tensions further escalate when a six-year boy is kidnapped right from his family home. Attacks on Indians by white people lead to retaliatory attacks, and before long the situation is out of control.
Matters are further exacerbated by the ramblings of a conservative talk show host from the mold of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck – the one gives the killer the name “Indian Killer”. It is a strange moniker for its ambiguity, able to be interpreted as a killer who is an Indian, or one who kills Indians. And indeed, the situation taken as a whole, beyond just the actions of the killer, encompasses both interpretations.
Alexie writes the story in the tradition of all good mysteries, leaving the reader suspecting just about anyone and everyone as a possible suspect, giving them motive and opportunity. Yet the end gives the reader no conclusive evidence as to the killer’s identity, and it is even suggested, with elements of magical realism, that the killer is something other than human.
Yet the identity of the killer is not even the point. More than a thriller, the book is a social commentary, one pointing at the bubbling racial tensions in ostensibly liberal and harmonious Seattle, such that a single event could unravel the social order.
As Alexie has been known to do in his other work, he points a finger at the self-satisfying ramblings of white liberals, who for all they may understand intellectually, lack any real personal understanding of the Indian condition, or of the fact that there may not even be any such monolithic condition.
One such character, a college professor named Dr. Mather, who has studied Indians in depth, and even lived on a reservation for three months, makes the following assessment about the Indian Killer:
“The Indian Killer,” began Dr. Mather, “is an inevitable creation of capitalism. A capitalistic society will necessarily create an underclass of powerless workers and an overclass of powerful elite. As the economic and social distance between the worker and elite increases, the possibility of an underclass revolution increases proportionally. The Indian Killer is, in fact, a revolutionary construct.” [p. 245]
His assessment draws the ire of student Marie Polatkin, who already takes issue with white men presuming to know so much about Indians for all they’ve read about them in books – books, she points out, mostly written by other white men.
While the professor does well to cite the classic Marxist argument regarding the relationship between a generic and hypothetical proletariat and bourgeoisie, he does not take into consideration the specifics of individual or group experiences.
While such revolutions have occurred, and broadly speaking, for the reasons suggested, there are countless micro-dynamics that unfold within the greater conflict. To look only at the surface, at the seemingly universal aspects of revolution, is to ignore the specific factors leading up to it. In the case of the Indians, it also ignores history, as for the most part, for the unprecedented devastation visited upon them by European colonists, they did not and have not responded in accordance to the Marxist framework.
The professor’s windy exposition also fails to consider one obvious fact: that the killer is an individual, one who could be killing for any reason at all, such as mental illness or revenge. Most importantly, the professor’s assessment – and it resonates with the presumptions of the white population of Seattle at large – is contingent upon the killer being Indian at all.
This presumption is entirely racist, not only for fingering an Indian as the killer without any evidence, but in suggesting that for the mere fact of the killer’s ethnicity that he/she should behave in a certain manner. Furthermore, even if he could otherwise confirm that the killer was Indian, he cannot with any certainty say that he or she would be motivated by forces conceived of within a European social context.
For me this brings back to mind the ambiguity of the book’s title. Are we supposed to be following the story of a killer who is allegedly Indian, or the wider circumstances that continue to “kill” Indians?
Perhaps the real Indian Killer is not the man or woman scalping random white men, but the society that, as the novel’s blurb reads: “colonizes and marginalizes a group of people while failing to value or understand it”.