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Sherman Alexie: "Crow Testament" Essay



26 April 2017

Sherman Alexie’s “Crow Testament”

Sherman Alexie’s “Crow Testament” uses a lot of symbolism and dark humor to testify Native American trials. He uses bible references to describe hardships of Native American’s, and is a primary witness to the life of Native American’s.

Alexie grew up on a reservation in Wellpinit, Washington. He is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Native. As a child, he was sick. At 6 months, Alexie had surgery, and suffered from epilepsy as a child. His childhood was mostly spent reading due to his illness (Casey). Though Alexie was not expected to make it, he went on in life. He studied at Spokane’s Jesuit Gonzaga University where he developed a problem with alcohol. Alexie transferred to Washington State university where he took up writing poetry and fiction. Alexie was published in 1990 in Hanging Loose magazine. Publication of his work made Alexie decide to quit drinking (Casey).

Key characteristics of Alexie’s writing include irony and dark humor. Alexie writes about the troubles of Native American’s on the reservation. His work provokes feelings of compassion and respect from readers. Alexie writes of the despair, poverty, and alcoholism of people on the reservation. His characters are depicted in helpless situations involving crime, drugs, and alcohol. These characters are often struggling to survive the reoccurring struggles of mind, body, and spirit due to white American society. These characters feel self-hatred and feel they are powerless (Casey). Living on a reservation and having a problem with alcohol himself gives Alexie an advantage with writing his characters. In his poem. “Crow’s Testament,” Alexie’s dark humor is present. Understanding a bit about Alexie’s tribe also helps readers understand his work.

The Coeur d’Alene tribe was not a nomadic tribe. Traveling was only necessary for research, but it was also a “coming of age” activity. Coeur d’Alene tribe was known as the “Great traders of the world.” A mining incident ruined much of the lake that the tribe relied on. The lake was heavily polluted with metal. The lake was a huge part of their land and the pollution took a huge toll on the tribe (The Coeur D’Alene Tribe). Not only did this tribe suffer because of lake pollution, but the Allotment Act downsized the land considerably. All of this happened at a time when the tribe was rich and ahead in resources (McNeel). These resources were now owned and controlled by complete strangers. It is obvious that this tribe struggled.

In the first lines of “Crow Testament,” Alexie writes:

“Cain lifts Crow, that heavy black bird and strikes down Abel.

Damn, says Crow, I guess this is just the beginning” (Alexie, p 1647-1648).

Crow is the main character in the poem and represents the Native American(s). The story of Cain and Abel from the bible tells the story of Cain killing his brother, Abel, because Abel’s offering was favored by God. Abel offered the first born of his lambs, while Cain offered up the best of his cultivating (Ashliman). Like Cain, The Coeur d’Alene tribe were cultivators of the land too. In the end, Cain is punished and the land will no longer produce for him. The Qu’ran version of the story includes God sending a crow down to scratch the ground, showing Cain how to hide his shame, which means his brother’s body (Ashliman). Palestine’s version of the story reveals that Lucifer told Cain he could kill his brother by crushing the head of a bird between two stones. Allah showed Cain to bury the body by the example of a raven. Poland has a story called “The First Grave.” Cain killed his brother out of jealousy. Adam and Eve observed a bird burying its young and followed in example by burying Able (Ashliman). These stories represent the first murder and the first body to be buried. Alexie calls it correctly in the line, “I guess this is just the beginning.” Not only does this symbolize the first of many struggles for Native American’s, but also the fact that the crow was the first teacher and was followed by example. Just one of many things that will be taken from the Native American’s. Comparing Crow to Cain, we see that both are cultivators. Cain’s punishment of no longer being able to use the land foreshadows that the Crow will suffer too because of Cain’s actions. The land was taken from The Coeur d’Alene tribe, further evidence of suffering punishment. Cain represents white society.

The next lines of the poem:

“The white man, disguised

as a falcon, swoops in

and yet again steals a salmon

from Crow's talons.

Damn, says Crow, if I could swim

I would have fled this country years ago” (Alexie, p. 1647-1648).

As mentioned before, the Alexie’s tribe was not nomadic. Rarely did the people travel expect for hunting. Dark humor is present in the last lines. Though the reader may question why Crow does not fly away instead, with the knowledge that Coeur d’Alene tribe was not nomadic could mean that the Crow wishes it had been born into a more nomadic tribe. As it is, Crow is stationary and cannot swim away like the fish (The Coeur D’Alene Tribe). In the bible, Job chapter 28 speaks of wisdom and understanding. Job specifically mention that there are treasures that “no falcon’s eye observe” (Job 28:7) Salmon is a symbol of wisdom and knowledge. In another work of Alexie’s called “Powwow at the End of the World,” the salmon teaches the people at the powwow (Sherman Alexie Poetry). The Falcon is the white man in disguise, stealing the salmon, or wisdom, from the Crow, or the Native Americans. This represents how the white man only takes from the Native American’s. All the hard work they put into the land was stolen from them. Not only can the reader interpret that the Falcon steals what it cannot have, but also that the white man steals the resources from Native American’s. If taken literally, the white man has taken food from the Native’s. The Coeur d’Alene tribe lake that suffered from the metal pollution was a reliable resource of salmon for its people until the lake was taken and polluted for the sake of mining material (The Coeur d’Alene Tribe). Being that Alexie is from this tribe, readers can also interpret that Alexie was speaking of the lake that provided so much for them.

Moving on to the next lines of the poem, Alexie writes:

The Crow God as depicted

in all of the reliable Crow bibles

looks exactly like a Crow.

Damn, says Crow, this makes it

so much easier to worship myself (Alexie, p. 1647-1648).

Genesis says, “God created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:27). Self-worship is also related to Cain. Cain was upset that Abel’s offering was not good enough. Cain became so mad that he killed his own brother. By killing his brother, Cain was the only offering that would be received and therefore would surely be the best because there was no competition. This represents how white society is starting to integrate with Native American society. Some of the white culture is weaving into the Native culture, creating issues in the Native belief system. Native’s start to feel entitlement to the land when there was no entitlement before. This can also represent how Natives are beaten down so much that they give in to unfair trades. Violence, crime, and alcohol can also be something that Natives are giving into here because of being “beaten” down by white society.

The next part of the poem discusses the battle of Jericho.

“Among the ashes of Jericho,

Crow sacrifices his firstborn son.

Damn, says Crow, a million nests

are soaked with blood” (Alexie, p. 1647-1648).

In the battle of Jericho, everything was destroyed except for things that were “silver, gold, bronze, or iron” (Joshua 6:17-24). The battle of Jericho can represent the mining done that polluted the lake the Coeur d’Alene relied on so much. Not only the lake, but the land lost can be represented as Jericho also. There was a curse placed on those who tried to rebuild Jericho. Rebuilding the foundation of Jericho would cost the first-born son (Joshua 6:26). The Natives tired hard to rebuild and it cost them dearly. The sacrifice of the first-born son describes major sacrifices made by the Native peoples. Native’s would continue to feel cursed as they tried to rebuild their homes and the future generations to come would be the ones to suffer.

As the reader gets closer to the end of the poem, the symbolization that the end of the world is near for the Natives is obvious. The end means extreme hardships for Natives.

“When Crows fight Crows

the sky fills with beaks and talons.

Damn, says Crow, it's raining feathers” (Alexie, p.1647-1648).

Natives have started fighting amongst themselves; a sign that the end of times is near. Matthew speaks of nation going against nation. “There will be famines and earthquakes in many parts of the world…with more to come” (Matthew 24:7-8). These famines and earthquakes represent the end of times. In 2 Timothy, the last days will be filled with “very difficult times.” Timothy also talks to people who love only themselves, bringing self-worship back into the picture (2 Timothy 3:1-5). By this part of the poem, Natives are facing many trials. They are losing their land, but also losing their culture to white society. Many Natives lost their way, caught in between white society and their own culture. Some turned to alcohol or drug and some to a life of crime. They are struggling to get back to their roots and to help their people, but they are lost.

The last lines of the poem discuss how hard redemption is. Crow is trying to find bottles to make money. This represents how there is not much left of the land anymore or of their culture. Alexie had an issue with drinking himself, so these lines seem more personal, especially since they are not parallel in length to the other stanzas. Natives are trying to make ends meet when they are going through many hardships. In the end, “Crow rides a pale horse into a crowded powwow” (Alexie, p. 1647-1648). No one panics as the pale horse rider comes in. The crow says, “I guess they already live near the end of the world” (Alexie, p.1647-1648). In Revelation, the pale horse rider is Death with Grave as his friend. The two would pour famine and hardship on the world (Revelation 6:8). Famine and hardships were already brought down on the Natives. More hardships meant nothing to them after everything they had been through. The Natives at the powwow expected the end of the world because they were living in hell on earth. The Crow seems to be trying to warn his people of the hardship coming, hardship he may have started, caused, or contributed to, but the others had faced the hardships already or made their own contributions to the hardships. It is obvious that they are not concerned with what more is to come because they have already lost everything.

Natives lost plenty and Alexie’s poem describes the loss along with dark humor. The ending correlates with Alexie’s dark humor. There is always the, “what now?” attitude of the expectant pessimism. Alexie’s symbolism makes this read interesting and makes the reader want to do their own reseach.

Works Cited

Alexie, Sherman. “Crow Testament.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Edited by Nina Bayn and Robert S. Levine, Shorter 8th Edition. Vol. 2, W.W. Norton and Company, 2013, p. 1647-1648.

Ashliman, D.L. “Cain and Abel.” University of Pittsburgh. November 3, 2013, http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/cain.html

“The Coeur D’Alene Tribe.” Coeur d’Alene Tribe HQ. n.d.f. http://www.cdatribe-nsn.gov/cultural/ancestral.aspx

“Sherman Alexie Poetry.” Olli at Illinois. n.p.d.f. http://olli.illinois.edu/downloads/studygroups/Fall%202016%20Study%20Groups/Poetry%20Readings/Sherman%20Alexie%20Poetry%20Readings%20November8.pdf

McNeel, Jack “10 Things You Should Know About Coeur d’Alene Tribe.” Indian Country Media Network. March 19, 2015, https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/news/native-news/10-things-you-should-know-about-coeur-dalene-tribe/

Girls life application study Bible: New Living Translation. 2nd ed. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2007. Print.

Casey, Rob. “Sherman Alexie.” Poetry Foundation. 1996. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/sherman-alexie

© 2020 Esila Waya

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