Indian Education by Sherman Alexie is his short autobiographical work that provides a peek into the author’s school life as a Native American, providing many valuable insights into the systemic and institutional struggles faced by his people. The text reframes the meaning and purpose of education as it narrates the many instances of racism, prejudice, violence, and discrimination as it narrates the story. It is divided into thirteen segments of which is a postscript and the rest covers a major incident that happened in his school life arranged chronologically.
Sherman Alexie is a native American writer and filmmaker who through his many poems and fictional pieces explores Native American life in its varied and various dimensions.
Indian Education | Summary
First grade: This segment covers how the author’s early school life was laced with harassment and bullying from his fellow Native American schoolmates who used to throw his spectacles around and often even suffocate him by pushing his face into the snow. This name-calling and harassment continued uninterrupted until he retaliated and attacked his assailants. Alexie then told us how retaliating got him in trouble and was taken to the principal’s office.
Second grade: Building off of the first one, this section covers how he was harrases by his teachers, giving the example of Betty Towle, a prejudiced missionary teacher filled with hate, who used to harass her Native American Students. We are told of how she made him eat his answer sheet for doing well in his exam and forcing him to cut his braids, which is a matter of his identity and culture.
Third grade: Narrates how his stick figure of a urinating man was confiscated and he was punished for drawing it.
Fourth grade: Narrates the first positive interaction with another person shown in the text. Mr. Schluter, the husband of the teacher who harasses him, motivates the author to be a doctor and help his tribe. This incident touches the young Alexie very deeply, during a hard time for his family, with his father turning into an alcoholic and his mother unable to finish the quilts she started.
Fifth grade: Shows his Cousin and himself having fun in the park, Depicting the author starting to fall in love with basketball. This segment ends with a sarcastic question
“..do you remember those sweet, almost innocent choices that the
Indian boys were forced to make?”
Sixth grade: Depicts the author meeting Randy, his future best friend, for the first time, bogged in a situation where the author has found himself several times, being bullied. After a bout of name-calling, his bullies taunt him to fight, after repeatedly being taunted Randy lashes out with his fist and puts an end to the fight. The author muses how it was Randy who taught him that in a white man’s world, one must not be afraid to throw the first punch.
Seventh grade: This begins with him kissing a white girl, who later gets raped by her own father. Predictably, though the news is reported the fact that he was a white man gets swept under the rug. The author reminds us how if it were a man from an ethnic minority the news would have been tied to their race, leading to the populace associating crimes with people of color. He also explores his fear of alienation and fears isolation after he kisses a white girl, feeling that he has let down all the Native American women he has liked.
Eighth grade: Alexie tells the reader how some of the white girls in his class used to force themselves to throw up the lunch they had eaten to maintain their idea of an ideal body. This distresses Alexie a lot, as he remembers how his family used to stand in line to get low-quality food and be happy that they have something to eat. He remembers telling one of the girls to give him their food if they were planning to vomit it all out anyway.
Ninth grade: Narrates how once when he fainted during a basketball game and his white friends carried him to the emergency room and one of his Chicano teachers asked what he was drinking commenting “I know all about these Indian kids. They start drinking real young.” when in fact Alexie had diabetes, which was diagnosed later.
Tenth grade: Explores the suicide of a friend and the consequent investigation where a white officer was questioning them about it is confused why a well-earning man with a family would do that, whereas everyone from Alexie’s community knew it was the result of government policies and colonialism.
Eleventh grade: This section explores another instance of biased journalism after the writer’s basketball team nicknamed Indians, due to their mascot, loses a game against the best team in the state by a narrow margin, the news only said “INDIANS LOSE AGAIN.” even though he was the only native American in the team.
Twelfth grade: Begins with a description of the author walking down the aisle as a valedictorian and posing for the photographs. He adds how most of his classmates weren’t so fortunate, some of them even unable to read properly frightened for their future.
Post Script: The text ends with the words of his friend Victor who said their class would not need a reunion as all the classmates meet each other regularly at the tavern anyway.
Indian Education | Analysis
The text is an excerpt from “Indian Education” by Sherman Alexie, which details the experiences of a young Native American boy as he navigates through the American education system. The story is told through a series of vignettes, each describing a different grade level and the unique challenges the protagonist faces at each stage of his education.
Throughout the text, the protagonist is subjected to a variety of forms of discrimination and mistreatment. In the first grade, he is bullied by other Indian boys and given derogatory nicknames. In the second grade, his white teacher, Betty Towle, punishes him excessively and tells him that he will “learn respect.” In the third grade, he is censured for creating a piece of art that is deemed inappropriate. In the fourth grade, a teacher suggests that he become a doctor so that he can “come back and help the tribe.”
The narrator also struggles with the lack of cultural representation and validation in the education system. In the first grade, the Indian boys have never seen a white boy cry and have no understanding of the significance of the name “Cries-Like-a-White-Boy.” In the third grade, his traditional Native American art is confiscated and deemed inappropriate. In the fourth grade, a teacher suggests that he become a doctor, despite the fact that he has no interest in medicine and is already dealing with the trauma of his father’s alcoholism.
The text also highlights the internal conflicts that the protagonist faces as a result of the discrimination and mistreatment he experiences. In the first grade, he is pushed around and bullied by other Indian boys, but in the second grade, he fights back against Frenchy SiJohn. In the fourth grade, he is torn between wanting to help his community and wanting to escape the reservation. He is also forced to make difficult choices, such as whether or not to throw the first punch in a fight in the sixth grade.
Overall, the text paints a powerful and nuanced picture of the challenges that Native American students face in the American education system. It illustrates the ways in which discrimination and mistreatment can have a long-term impact on a person’s mental and emotional well-being, and the ways in which cultural representation and validation are essential for students’ self-esteem and academic success. The text also highlights the resilience of the protagonist and the ways in which he continues to find ways to survive and thrive despite the obstacles he faces.