Sherman Alexei and the Brown Indians of America

When Americans refer to people like me as "East Indian," we sometimes resent the historical silliness that has resulted in someone calling us that. "We're not East Indian, we're just Indian," we think.

And yet, American Indians have far more reason to feel pissed off at how accidents of history (aided by superior firepower) have ended up not only in making them live in reservations inside their own country, but in making them think of themselves as "Indian."

What surprised me on reading my first Sherman Alexie book (just 80 pages through, a startlingly good book, "The Toughest Indian in the World"--wise, complex, funny) is that Native Americans also think of themselves as brown (Indians--some Indians--think of themselves as brown, because, though India is a mixture of many races and a rainbow hue of colors, a majority of us do indeed have skin that is neither very pale or red nor very dark or ebony, but somewhere between wheat and coffee with milk). But Sherman Alexie's Indian characters think that; and, if they are married to white people (which they often are), are often in search of a taste of brown (very naughty, and yet how human, how secretly true). To think that, when I was a child in India, and in fact until I was 30, I thought of Native Americans as "Red Indians"--a label I had probably acquired from American comic books.

Sherman Alexie is a first-rate writer. If you live in America, or if you read American writers, not to have read Sherman Alexie is to have missed an important piece of the whole.

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