Sherman Alexie

Indian Killer

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Indian Killer Summary

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Indian Killer is a racially charged novel published by Atlantic Monthly Press in 1996. The author, Sherman Alexie, is a Native American who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State. He commonly evokes the subject matter of bigotry and genocide within Native American past and present in the United States and Canada. This novel is darker than his usual work, describing it himself as “a feel-good novel about interracial murder.”

The plot of Indian Killer is structured as a novel within a novel, the story told through a novel written by the character Jack Wilson. Wilson is a white cop who grew up without parents and identified so strongly with Indians that he fantasizes one of his relatives was part of the Shilshomish tribe. His novel is about a famed Indian killer named John Smith.

The story of John Smith, told by an omniscient third-person narrator, shows the feelings and thoughts of many characters, building suspense in this “Who done it?” thriller.
John Smith is an Indian adopted by a white family. His adopted parents are very loving and kind, but they can’t fill the loss of John’s Native American heritage. He does not feel connected to the white society to in which he lives. He feels empty not knowing his mother or true details about his roots. This feeling worsens when he becomes a teenager and wants to become romantically involved with girls. He sees the effect the color of his skin has on the parents of these girls and realizes that he needs to find a community closer to other Native Americans.

Instead of going to college, he finds work in Seattle as a construction worker on skyscrapers because he heard that other Native Americans would be doing this kind of work. However, as he disappointingly finds that most of his co-workers are white, he becomes even more alienated. He ignores his parents who are trying desperately to get in touch with him, sensing his growing isolation and unhappiness. He has awful dreams and hallucinations, hearing drums and ancient music as if being called from ancestral spirits. He experiences symptoms throughout the novel that are common in schizophrenics.

Alone, without friends or family, John Smith becomes enraged by all the wrongs done to the Native American community and decides that killing a white man will bring him closer to his heritage. Killing one man is so satisfying that it leads to others, and he becomes a serial killer, leaving two owl feathers at the scene of each crime. The owl feathers are used to symbolize the Native American spirit and also because the owl is a bird of prey.

The novel jumps back and forth from John’s point of view to those of his victims and the other characters he comes into contact with, such as Marie, a young activist concerned with Native American human rights issues. She is a moral character, becoming outraged by white people who oversimplify the plight of Indians.

John feels conflicted by his romantic feelings for Marie: she represents the community to which, if he had a healthier mind, he could belong to. Instead, he continues his murders.
After killing many victims, John focuses his attention on the mystery writer Jack Wilson who thinks he is of Native American descent even though he is white. He tries unsuccessfully to kill Jack with a knife. As John’s mental state deteriorates further, he falls to his death from a high floor of one of the skyscrapers at his construction site. The novel implies that John has committed suicide.

It becomes clear to the people of Seattle and to all the characters that John Smith was the notorious Indian killer, thus solving the murder mystery. However, the novel does not state definitively that this is the case since the point of view is often from the victims’ point of view during the killings— not from John Smith’s.

Alexie is considered one of the most important writers of the twenty-first century by magazines such as The New Yorker. The gritty details of his work describe the life on Indian reservations and the struggle with violence, alcoholism, and mental illness that often plague Native American communities. His work combines popular culture and Indian spirituality, along with descriptions of the general poverty and desperation suffered by many Indians living on reservations in North America.

His work spans across genres, from poetry to young adult fiction. In 2007, he won the National Book Award for the young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. He has openly called the book semi-autobiographical. He also wrote a screenplay for his famed short story collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven that became a film called Smoke Signals in 1998.