The United States of America has always been the land of conquerors, discoverers and patriots. However, it has also been the land of multiple cultures, races and religions. The latter is a fruitful soil for conflicts and clashes that, in turn, lead to racial discrimination and marginalization of certain groups. Historically (and unfortunately), the indigenous tribes of the American Natives became the target of numerous acts of discrimination ranging from exterminating wars to seclusion to segregations. Nowadays, they are the subjects of keen interest and are actively studied within the mainstream culture, education and social life. Sherman Alexie’s poem “Go, Ghost, Go” is a quintessence of the current interracial relations between the Americans and the Natives that shows how the inability to understand is linked to the impossibility to accept.
In general, the relationships between the “British” Americans and the Native Americans have been complicated and tense throughout the whole history of interaction and coexistence. The last couple of decades have become the time of the ultimate peace pact that presupposes a major conservation effort on behalf of the U.S. government, as well as social acceptance, incorporation and recognition of the Native culture on behalf of the so-called mainstream society. At least, it is the official version of the current status of the interracial relations of the two peoples. In reality, the conflict is not yet settled. The tension remains. It is vivid in the sphere of social interactions, in educational institutions, and cultural existence, overall. Most interestingly, while one may expect the remains of racial non-acceptance from the “white” population of America, the counterstand may come from the natives themselves.
The culture of the American Indians contains the historical evidence of the stark opposition between the “white” people and the “red” people. The Natives tend to feel that the mainstream society does not fully understand their rites and their national essence. Consequently, the “whites” are viewed as alienated beings who will never cognize and comprehend the Indian identity, not to mention uniting or merging with it. Indeed, the Native philosophy of being and their attitude towards life and nature are cardinally different from those of a “civilized” man. As a result, even when the average Americans try to learn about the Indian culture, they are often met with the wall of skepticism and bias, this time on behalf of the Natives. One of the brightest instances of such a phenomenon can be seen in Sherman Alexie’s poem “Go, Ghost, Go” from the book War Dances. It depicts a dialogue between an overly enthusiastic professor who misinterprets the Indian culture and legacy and a student boy (evidently, Sherman himself) who meets his enthusiasm with indignation and hostility. A dialogue that should have been a peaceful communication of ideas and cultural exchange turns into a heated debate on the verge of a twisted racial clash.
The first verse of the poem “Go, Ghost, Go” sets the scene for the further dialogue between the professor and the student, as well as the resulting mental quest of the latter. The story unfolds in one of the American universities. Allegedly, the professor is white whereas the student is “red”. Alexie’s depiction of the professor is colorful though to a great extent critical from the first lines. The man is shown as “a tenured professor” who is “strangely thrilled” to learn and teach about the indigenous culture. There is mocking in the way Sherman assesses how the professor lists the “all of the oppressors — / Past, present, and future — who have killed. / Are killing, and will kill the indigenous”. The future tense is ostentatious. Evidently, no one can know or see the future. The fact that the professor pretends to know (or Sherman exaggerates that he does) implies that the white man is a know-all and a show-off. At least, it is the impression that the lecturer creates in the young man. The impression may be subjective, but it turns to be defining for Sherman.
Though the professor knows the history of discrimination and wars against the Natives, he does not win respect or admiration in Sherman. On the contrary, the student does not want to accept the historical facts as provided by the lecture because they are laid by a white man and, seemingly, in a “white” manner. Assumedly, the protagonist feels that a white man is not worthy of retelling the Indian history the way he does, even though the professor may admit the “white nation’s” mistakes:
O, he names the standard suspects –
Rich, white, and unjust –
And I, a red man, think he’s correct,
But why does he have to be so humorless? (Alexie 21)
Perhaps, the student thinks that the professor has no right to abstract himself from “Rich, white, and unjust” and from the history overall, since he is by no means better than the colonists, confederates or government that perpetrated the unjust and discriminative policies. Indeed, the professor seems to elevate himself above the racial crimes that Americans have been committing against the indigenous peoples. The man may have a reason to behave abstractedly from history because he did not commit all those crimes. He poses as a person who wants to learn the history and its lessons. Regardless, Sherman disapproves. “And how can he, a white man, fondly speak / Of the Ghost Dance…”.
The subsequent lines make it clear that Sherman’s attitude towards the professor may not be as unreasonable as the reader might think in the beginning. The lecturer says:
From all brown tribes
Will burn skyscrapers and steeples.
Sherman, can’t you see that immigration
Is the new and improved Ghost Dance? (Alexie 21)
At this point, the reader sees the professor the way Sherman sees him – a man with imagination who cannot distinguish fact from bias and, most importantly, can singlehandedly transform historical truths into an apocalyptic parable. Furthermore, the professor’s monologue expresses the traits of fear towards the Natives and their power. Evidently, the professor fears the retribution that the Indian rituals may bring on the “white” man. Thus, the reader may get an impression that the white professor tries to redeem himself and the nation under the pretense of the assumed vengeance warfare and immigration, “the new and improved Ghost Dance”. In this case, the misunderstanding of the Native’s rituals and intentions is offensive, biased and unfair, for Sherman as well as the poem’s reader. Here, misunderstanding equals ignorance, and ignorance is even worse than ignoring.
In the final part of the poem, Sherman marvels upon the illusions that the professor has regarding the American Indians. “I wonder how he can believe / In a ceremony that requires his death” (Alexie 22). The conclusion to which the protagonist comes brings the religious edge to the otherwise race-centered discussion:
I think that he thinks he’s the new Jesus.
He’s eager to get on that cross
And pay the ultimate cost
Because he’s addicted to the indigenous. (Alexie 22)
Thus, the professor tends to pose as a future martyr in the alleged expansion of the “brown people”. The latter speaks of his egomania rather than of his interest in the restoring of the historical justice.
Undoubtedly, the recent history shows many occasions when the “white” side shows interest in and expresses a desire to learn about the Native American culture, while the “red” side’s view is often clouded by the prejudged attitude regarding its capability to do so. However, there are cases when the “white” side proves incapable of understanding the indigenous and ends up speculating and fantasizing instead of learning and teaching. Either way, an attempt at cultural exchange is treated as another instance of intrusion. The former is shaped by the newly gained interest in the indigenous, while the latter is formed by centuries of cultural ignorance and discriminative policies. In other words, each side has its own vision of the truth.
In conclusion, Alexie’s poem is a unique source of information on the status and the very possibility of a dialogue between the peoples that have been archenemies for centuries, from the moment when the first colonist laid foot on the Natives’ lands. In fact, art – be it visual or verbal – is always the best litmus of social change, the most veracious mirror of all processes that occur in social and political life. According to Alexie, thus, the dialogue is impossible and the interest in the Native culture is nothing but a decade’s fashion for individual enthusiasts with distorted vision of truth. For Sherman – possibly, both the protagonist and the author of the poem – a white man is and will remain a stranger with an odd urge to learn a culture that he will never understand.