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Stop freaking out about what we're supposed to be

By Kim Ukura

Sun Tribune

After skewering nearly all of the demographics in his audience and a huge number of prominent politicians and artists, the message of author Sherman Alexie's keynote speech was unexpectedly touching: question identity, and stop being "freaked out by the mold of what we're supposed to be."

Alexie entertained more than 200 people in Edson Auditorium on Monday night as the keynote speaker in this year's World Touch Cultural Heritage Week celebration.

The running story throughout Alexie's speech centered on his experience being part of a exhibit at the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance featuring the genealogies of a number of famous Americans. Alexie's display at the exhibit - the story of his grandfather in World War II and his own personal quest to get his grandfather's war medals - got him a guest appearance on "Oprah."

Interspersed with the story, Alexie humorously commented on his experiences being an "ambiguously ethnic" person after the 9/11 attacks, stereotypes about the "proper Indian figure," and the strange support given to modern politicians.

While they seemed disjointed, the various experiences and observations came together as Alexie commented on the hypocrisy inherent in the way people take on various identities and force identity on other people.

"We get all wrapped up in ethnic identity, but there are things that are universal," he said. "The world is endless contradictions that we can't handle."

Paraphrasing F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alexie concluded, "The test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two opposing ideas. I suggest you give it a try."

"I'm trying, I fail miserably most days, but I'm trying," he added, "I suggest you start to do the same."

Alexie is both a well-respected and controversial Native American author of many short story collections, two novels, and a number of books of poetry.

When introducing him, CNIA Co-Chair Jacob Croonenberghs said, "I'm quite literally stunned to have someone who is so powerful in our community speaking to us."

Alexie is a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, and grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Wash. Although he originally planned to be a doctor, Alexie fell into poetry after going to a workshop at his second college, Washington State University.

His first books of poetry, "The Business of Fancydancing" and "I Would Steal Horses" were published just after he graduated from college. His most recent projects include the novel "Flight" and a book for young adults, "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian."

Alexie is the first speaker in a series of events to celebrate World Touch Cultural Heritage Week at UMM. The theme of WTCH Week is "Making a Better World for Our Children."

On Tuesday, Native American singer Bill Miller performed and on Wednesday, Harvard professor Brenda J. Verner will give a speech titled "Media Slander of Black Women: Why Black Men Should Protect Black Women."

The 25th Annual CNIA 3K Peace Run is on Thursday at 3 p.m. Later that evening, "Echoes from the New World," a 45-minute play recounting the story of Latin America will be performed in Edson Auditorium.

Friday, students graduating from the Multi-Ethnic Student Program will be recognized at the Invitation Ethnic Dinner. Saturday, the 24th Annual CNIA Pow-Wow will take place in the P.E. Center Gymnasium. Grand entries will begin at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.

The final event of WTCH Week will be next Tuesday when Hmong comedian Tou Ger Xiong will perform at 7:30 in Edson Auditorium.