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All in all, it is evident that both Zitkala-Sa and Sherman Alexie, through
different aspects of identity, such as religion and ethnicity, bring into
consciousness the importance and fragility of the Indian identity, and the
struggle to preserve it in the white-dominated society. Being an American
Indian usually implies a constant self-assertion and a difficult life. If the
Indian identity ever perishes, it will still remain immortal in the works of
American Indian writers.

The climax of the story takes place at an Indian dive bar, where Edgar
goes out for a drink, and to reconnect with his people. However, he does not
receive a warm welcome when he gets there. He does not fit in because he is
dressed “like a white person”, looking like a Gap advertisement. To defend his
dignity, Edgar soon puts up a fight with an Indian called Junior, who irritated
Edgar by saying he is sick of urban Indians. Edgar is a sell-out in his eyes
(Miles 43). Junior’s character alludes to the fact that other non-urban American
Indians do not accept those Indians who advanced on the social ladder. They are
envious of people like Edgar because they do not have the same opportunities,
therefore Edgar’s desire to fight Junior can be interpreted as his willingness
to prove he is still Indian. In the fight, Junior cuts off one of Edgar’s braids,
which marks Edgar’s final defeat and alienation from his people. Edgar does not
understand what American Indians go through to survive and what hardships they
face every day. He realizes the hard way he should be thankful for the life he
has. In the end, when he goes back to his wife, he fully embraces his
non-affiliation to Indian culture and his place among the white people.

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After Edgar finds out Susan is cheating on him, he, in turn, starts
sleeping with prostitutes. Since he has never had intercourse with an Indian
woman, he orders an Indian prostitute over the phone, but it turns out she is,
in fact, a white woman dressed up as an Indian. She wears a black wig and “a
conservative tan suit and a string of fake pearls. Dream-catcher earrings,
turquoise rings, a stainless-steel eagle pinned to her lapel” (Alexie 590).
Here the identity is being reduced solely to clothes and accessories, making
Indian appearance look like a Halloween mask, which is another sign of identity
loss. As Miles points out, the prostitute “is symbolic of Edgar’s inability to
identify with his Indian heritage” (42).

When Edgar and the woman from the party, Susan, decide to get married,
Susan’s family does not show up at the wedding because they cannot accept that
Edgar is dark-skinned. This represents the author’s view of white people being
intolerant of American Indians, how they look down on them, but it also
displays that American Indians can never fully assimilate – they will always
stand out. Unlike Susan’s family, Edgar’s mother Velma is thrilled that Edgar
is marrying a white woman. She embodies a complete renouncing of the Indian
identity, since her great wish has been that Edgar marries a white woman, so
they can “beget half-breed children who would marry white people who would
beget quarter-bloods, and so on and so on” (Alexie 587) in order to eradicate
the “Indian blood”. Furthermore, she would always hide her ethnic identity when
white people asked her about it, saying “she was Spanish, not Mexican, not
Hispanic, not Chicana, and certainly not Spokane Indian with a little bit of
Aztec thrown in for spice, even though she was all of these things” (Alexie
587). She wants to run away from her origin, probably because she has had
enough of being oppressed and mistreated by white people, so she wants the
Indian genes to disappear in her family, thus deconstructing the Indian
identity.

An essential aspect of identity is also one’s name, and the protagonist
does not miss a chance to comment on the potential names of women in the room.
He tries to guess the name of the woman he is talking to and considers names
like Erin, Becky, or Wendy, “or monosyllabic nicknames that lacked any
adornment” (Alexie 586). This showcases how stereotypical white women’s names
are in the eyes of an American Indian. However, although the protagonist’s
driving license reads Edgar Joseph, his Indian name is Edgar Eagle Runner. This
alludes to the fact that he had to give up on his Indian name on official
documents in order to assimilate into the white American society, which is
another example of losing his identity.

Another important aspect of the Indian identity comes into view when the
woman says she likes Edgar’s hair, more specifically, his black braids. This is
when the reader finds out the protagonist is a lawyer, and that the braids
annoyed people in the courtroom. “His braids represent for him the Indian identity
that he has lost in the process of raising his socioeconomic status” (Miles
40). In other words, the fact he has been growing the braids can be interpreted
as a reminder to him and other people around him that he is of American Indian
origin, although he cut his ties with his Spokane tribe. By means of growing them,
he wants to preserve even the slight trace of ‘Indianness’ in him. 

At the start of the story, religious identity is brought up with the
following line: “She wanted to know if I was Catholic” (Alexie 584). Here the
protagonist is at a house party, and a white woman asks him the unpleasant
question about his religious views. Since he has a skin tone darker than the
people at the party, he likely attracted attention, which makes him
uncomfortable, so he tries to avoid answering the white woman’s question.
Despite that, the woman is persistent, and eventually, he admits he is
“baptized, but not confirmed” (Alexie 585). Furthermore, he is very observant
of people at the party, as he tries to determine the dominant denomination in
the room. This again serves as a proof that religion is considered by the
author to be an integral part of one’s identity; it is what defines a person. The
woman wants to know his religious beliefs because with this information she can
assign certain attributes to him, and see whether he fits into the world of
white people and their religion. In other words, he would be accepted only if
he was Catholic.

On the other hand, Sherman Alexie’s Class
is a modern take on the issue of identity, which is the main theme of this
short story. Published in 2000 and set in the contemporary world, the story
depicts the struggle of an urban American Indian to preserve authentic
identity, i.e. the sense of belonging to the American Indian culture, in the American
society dominated by white people. The story touches upon different aspects of
identity as it follows the main character, Edgar Joseph, firstly attending a
party where he meets his future wife, and as the story progresses, his coping
with marital problems and tragedies, including cheating and loss of a child.

However, Zitkala-Sa rejects Christianity and puts emphasis on the pantheistic
view of nature, typical to Native American cultures, in which nature is
considered a divine figure, and where everyone is equal. In relation to that,
nature is worshipped and celebrated, since by means of admiring nature one is
connected to the “Great Spirit”. Zitkala-Sa finishes the essay by proclaiming
she opts for the religion of her people, saying “I prefer to their dogma my
excursions into the natural gardens where the voice of the Great Spirit is
heard in twittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet
breathing of flowers. If this is Paganism, then at present, at least, I am a
Pagan” (Zitkala-Sa 2). These sentences are crucial because she implicitly makes
an important statement – religion is part of one’s identity. The religion of
her people makes her who she is, and she is proud of it; it is an important
aspect of her identity, and she is well aware of that. She has enough courage
to stay true to her roots, and she will not accept the religion being imposed
on her, even if that means that she will be judged by other converted Indians. In
other words, Zitkala-Sa suggests that losing one’s own religion is equal to
losing identity. If she gives up on her religious beliefs, she will lose
herself. Moreover, losing religion showcases disrespect and denial of tradition.
This is why it is important to preserve religion and tradition because they
represent the authenticity of the Native American culture, i.e. identity,
according to Zitkala-Sa.

            Why I Am a Pagan is a short essay from 1902 in which Zitkala-Sa touches upon her
religious beliefs, the significance of religion in the Native American society,
and the role it plays in identity construction. The essay serves as a criticism
of Native Americans who converted to Christianity, who fell under the sway of
Christian missionaries and turned their back on their native religion. Zitkala-Sa
refers to all converted Indians as “distorted shadow” (Zitkala-Sa 2), and they
are represented by the “native preacher” who is disappointed in Zitkala-Sa
because she does not practice the Christian faith. Here her opinion on
Christianity becomes clear. She greets the “native preacher” compassionately
and listens to him “with respect for God’s creature, though he mouth most
strangely the jangling phrases of a bigoted creed” (Zitkala-Sa 2). On the other
hand, the “native preacher” speaks admiringly about the missionaries, who
taught him to respect the Bible, and he goes on to say: “These godly men taught
me also the folly of our old beliefs” (Zitkala-Sa 2). He then starts to talk
about the concepts of heaven and hell, and that all those who practice these
“old beliefs” will end up in hell.

Zitkala-Sa (1876-1938),
whose real name was Gertrude Bonnin Simmons, was an essayist, poet, and
performer who fought for political, social and educational opportunities, as
well as recognition and preservation of Native American cultures. She was one
of the first to collect and publish oral traditions of her people, and her
works mostly deal with the life on reservations and embracing white people’s
customs and values. Sherman Alexie, born in 1966 in Spokane Indian Reservation
in Washington, U.S., is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian poet, novelist, short story
writer and screenwriter, whose works primarily concern the lives of American
Indians in modern times and their place in the American society. Growing up on
the reservation, a place of disease, alcoholism, and poverty (Cline 197), had a
great impact on his writing which reflects these issues. The aim of this essay
is to account for the notion of Indian identity among the white people in
Zitkala-Sa’s essay Why I Am a Pagan
and Sherman Alexie’s short story Class,
which is a theme present in both of these works.

European colonization of
America left a great mark on American Indians which they feel even today. Back
in the 1800s, European invaders took their lands, forced them to live on
reservations, and began the assimilation process of Native Americans into the American
way of life. This oppression caused a fair share of hardship, which eventually
resulted in destabilization of American Indian culture and identity. Their
struggle to survive in a white-dominated society is a recurring theme in works of
many American Indian writers, among whom two of the best-known authors are
Zitkala-Sa and Sherman Alexie.

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