Sherman Alexie is American poet who uses his Native American background as inspiration for his poetry. His poetry focuses on the lives of the Native American people, those who live on and off reservations. The poem “Evolution” by Sherman Alexie captures the systematic humiliation, degradation, and mortification of Native Americans. “Evolution” explores the devastating cultural destruction and exploitation of American Indians at the hands of white society.
With Alexie’s characteristic dark humor, the poem examines the exploitation of indigenous Americans. It features a modernized version of the famous frontiersman Buffalo Bill (a.k.a. William F. Cody), whose 19th-century roadshow “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” sensationalized life on the frontier and battles with American Indians for entertainment and profit. The poem is a kind of retelling of the story of Buffalo Bill, whose popular 19th- century roadshow “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” repurposed indigenous traditions and trauma for the entertainment of white audiences. This time, Bill opens up a pawn shop on a reservation where the local “Indians” go to sell their possessions. After they’ve pawned off everything they have, Bill opens up a “Museum of Native American Cultures”—selling a hollow experience of the same traditions and identities that he essentially destroyed. The poem works as an extended metaphor for the continued devastation and exploitation of native peoples.
The poem is about the relationship between the Native Americans (Indians) and the Americans (Whites). The location of the shop is an important symbol because it’s located right across the border from the liquor store and is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This symbolizes the drug abuse that Indians have. Another important symbol is Buffalo Bill. Buffalo Bill symbolizes the power that the Whites have against the Indians. Alexie is showing how those who are plotting against the Native Americans don’t take a break, they seek to gain profit in any way they could at any time of the day.
The poem’s tragedy, of course, doesn’t start with this Buffalo Bill; the fact that the native peoples in this poem live on a reservation nods to the lasting effects of settler colonialism and Westward expansionism. Some historical context is important here: the U.S. government engineered a wide- reaching land grab throughout the 18th and 19th centuries that, whether through treaty or outright force, pushed indigenous peoples into specific areas under often punishing restrictions. This process amounted to the wholesale loss of many traditional ways of life. And in the hundreds of years since, reservations have become frequent sites of despair and poverty, with high levels of alcoholism that many link to immense generational trauma.
Buffalo Bill thus arrives on the scene sensing an opportunity: his pawn shop is just the next “evolution” of exploitation. He’s not simply offering a loan service, but rather contributing to the cultural erosion that, historical context implies, created this situation in the first place. Exploitation, poverty, and cultural destruction are linked in a vicious cycle.
The Indians start by selling VCRs and TVs. In the same breath, the speaker notes that they then pawn traditional items like a “buckskin outfit / it took Inez Muse 12 years to finish.” The juxtaposition between these things—mass-produced electronics and an intricate, handmade outfit—suggests how desperate the Indians are. And the loss of this traditional item of clothing more specifically represents the loss of traditional ways of life. Once all material goods are gone, the Indians begin to sell their own bodies—from their hands, to their “their skeletons,” to their “heart[s]” (for a mere twenty bucks!). These can be taken as representing the loss of their identity, community, and spirit. Heart,” here can be read as a core of the Native American identity. The fact that Buffalo Bill put a monetary value on the “heart” of Native Americans show the lack of respect the American Government had for Native Americans as a people. To the American Government the identity of Native Americans was an item that they sought to profit from. Bill then “catalogue[s] and file[s]” everything he acquires, imposing a cold, pseudoscientific approach on an entire culture. Equally, the Native Americans lost their autonomy. Alexie illustrates the trickery that was used by the European Settlers to take land and everything that belonged to the Native Americans away. He shows how the White Americans, coupled with the American government, treated people that were different from them. Throughout the poem, Alexie captures how race played a significant role during the colonial era. Equally, the oppression was mastered by the American government during the postcolonial period.
Using the Native Americans’ pawned possessions, Buffalo Bill then opens a “MUSEUM OF NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES,” selling back to them a gaudy and false version of their own history and identity. The museum continues to exploit indigenous identity by pretending to document and celebrate it; in reality, the museum is just the latest stage in cultural destruction. The “Evolution” here, then, really amounts to devastation under the pretense of civilization, the Native Americans forced to pay an admission fee to wander, like ghosts, through their own ruined world.
“Evolution” is a commentary on years of systemic oppression and cultural appropriation that white people meted out to Native people. The fact that Bill continues taking everything he can get his hands on of the Indigenous people and pays a pittance for them shows that his sole aim is to selfishly gain and plunder as much as possible – which is an extended metaphor for white settlers’ atrocities and plundering of Native people.
The ending is extremely dark and ironic – the very person who is responsible for the poverty and marginalization of native people is the one who now opens up a museum in their name and portrays himself as the protector and promoter of “Native American cultures.” A more profound irony is that the cultures of native individuals have been commodified, and they are so separate and lost so much that these individuals have to pay money to see their own cultural remnants put on display in a gross exhibitionistic fashion.
Although this poem is written in a historical light, what occurred in the Native American community is still affecting them to this day. Indeed the Native American people are still suffering from the Buffalo Bills of today, also known as the American government, its oppressing laws and people. Native Americans are in a current oppressed state because they have had their land, their culture /traditions, and most importantly their sense of self (identity) systematically taken away from them. The Native American themed festivals and ceremonies that are run by whites in an effort to show “appreciation” and gain an “understanding” of the Native American culture when in reality this is nothing but an insult to the Native American culture.