Alexie’s “Tiny Treaties”

It’s not unusual for me to prefer later poems in a collection of poetry because many poets, like a good wine, seem to get better with age. That’s certainly true with Sherman Alexie’s First Indian on the Moon. I liked so many poems in the second half of this work that I was hard pressed to limit myself to just one poem.

Still, it seems to me that in many ways “Tiny Treaties,” like the earlier “Influences,” best represents the poems in this half of the book:

Tiny Treaties

What I remember most about loving you
that first year is the December night
I hitchhiked fifteen miles through a blizzard
after my reservation car finally threw a rod
on my way back home from touching

your white skin again. Wearing basketball shoes
and a U.S. Army Surplus jacket
my hair long, unbraided, and magnified
in headlights of passing cars, trucks, two snowplows
that forced me off the road, escaping

into the dormant wheat fields. I laughed
because I was afraid but I wasn’t afraid
of dying, just afraid of dying
in such a stupid manner. All the Skins
would laugh into their fists

at my wake. All the cousins would tell my story
for generations. I would be the perfect reservation metaphor:
a twentieth century Dull Knife
pulling his skinny ass and dreams
down the longest highway in tribal history.

What I imagine now
is the endless succession of white faces
hunched over steering wheels, illuminated
by cigarettes and dashboard lights, white faces
pressed against windows as cars passed by me

without hesitation. I waited seconds into years
for a brake light, that smallest possible treaty
and I made myself so many promises
that have since come true
but I never had the courage to keep

my last promise, whispered
just before I topped a small hill
and saw the 24-hour lights
of the most beautiful 7-11 in the world.
With my lungs aching, my hands and feet

frozen and disappearing, I promised
to ask if you would have stopped
and picked me up if you didn’t know me
a stranger Indian who would have fallen in love
with the warmth of your car, the radio

and the steady rhythm
of windshield wipers over glass, of tires
slicing through ice and snow. I promised
to ask you that question every day
for the rest of our lives

but I won’t ask you even
once. I’ll just remain quiet
when memories of that first year
come roaring through my thin walls
and shake newspapers and skin.

I’ll just wrap myself
in old blankets, build fires
from bald tires and abandoned houses
and I won’t ask you the question
because I don’t want to know the answer.

Although I’ve been terrified when I lost myself and my kids while cross country skiing and had to trudge hours in the dark to avoid freezing to death, thank God I didn’t have to suffer the degradation and frustration of being passed by motorists throughout the whole event. Part of what I enjoyed about this poem, though, is the narrator’s sense of humor, worrying not about dying but about how his friends would laugh at him at his funeral. Perhaps it merely reminds me of the kind of humor we used to survive in Vietnam.

It’s hard to believe that people would actually drive past someone forced to hitchhike in a blizzard but if I were Indian and had suffered the humiliations described throughout the book I might have expected nothing else. Hopefully reading this book would help readers to better understand one of many reasons why Indians find it so difficult to thrive in the White Man’s world.

As a Vietnam Viet, as a divorc”, as a confirmed introvert, and, perhaps, simply, as a modern man, I cannot help but identify with the sense of alienation found in the last four stanzas ” though I doubt I have ever been as alienated as the narrator of the poem has been. It is natural to wonder how much another person really loves us, but seems equally natural to be afraid to ask the questions that would provide an answer for fear of what the answer might be.

Although you can find a lot of material on the web about Alexie, including his own site, my favorite site is at Modern American Poetry.