Significance of the Title “Evolution”, a Poem by Sherman Alexie

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Evolution by Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie’s Evolution

‘Evolution’ is about describing displacement of Native Americans. ‘Evolution’ is a part of the
collection called The Business of Fancy Dancing (1992). The title is meant to point towards the
social Darwinism of the American capitalist society and how it continues to decimate the Native Americans. Alexie highlights the systematic racism and how it confines the indigenous people into a life of deprivation. It also uses the figure of ‘Buffalo Bill’, based on the figure of William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody (1846-1917), and recasts him as a twenty-first-century businessman. This fictional ‘Buffalo Bill’, just like the historical ‘Buffalo bill’, builds his life on
the foundation of exploitation of the natives and thrives while the natives continue to lose their belongings and heritage and are pushed further and further into a state of desperation and despair.
The poem ends on an ironical note that shows how the indigenous populations are reduced to a museum piece at the cost of the living members of the community.

In the poem “Evolution,” Sherman Alexie talks about how white Americans exploit Native American people and their cultures. Though the central character appears to be Buffalo Bill, he is the antagonist who represents “white” settlers and symbolizes a cultural erasure of Indigenous communities. He opens a pawn shop in an Indian reservation (areas designated for federally recognized Indigenous tribes to live, while their own native lands were forcibly/deceptively taken away by white colonialists) where he offers loans to Native Americans in exchange for various “goods” that they bring to pawn.

However, the system is highly exploitative, and Bill wants to trick the native people – he collects whatever they bring in and offers them measly prices for their belongings. They keep pawning their valuables, including a “beaded-buckskin outfit” that took one “Inez Muse” twelve long years to make.

In the end, Bill takes everything the people own and opens up “THE MUSEUM OF NATIVE
AMERICAN CULTURES,” in an ironic twist. The darkly humorous ending depicts the extent to
which white oppressors would go in order to advance their own selfish gains and harm native
individuals – Bill now charges Native Americans five dollars per head to enter the museum, which ironically comprises of items belonging to them in the first place.

The fact that Buffalo Bill builds this “Museum” through exploitation and erasure is what the title justifies. The “de-evolution” displayed by Buffalo Bill’s museum omits the systemic violence and deception to gain the items which are now on display. Rather than being a depiction of Native American cultures, the “museum” symbolizes the whitewashing and appropriation of indigenous cultures.

Gradually the Native Americans begin to lose all they had. A dynamic shift can be seen in what the Native American people begin to pawn to Buffalo Bill. They start off with pawning material goods such as jewelry and electronics. This is symbolizing the land that was given to the America Government. But then we begin to see how artifacts of their culture are pawned away. Once all of the material belongings have been given away, Alexie shows the Native Americans pawning their “pawn their hands, saving the thumbs for last …their skeletons, falling endlessly from the skin”.
The Native American people begin to sell their body parts, but it doesn’t stop there. When
everything, including their physical bodies have been lost “the last Indian pawns everything but his heart and Buffalo Bill takes that for twenty bucks”. This is showing how after the Native Americans lost everything to the American government they ended up giving up their “hearts”.
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.

Sherman Alexie uses the title “Evolution” to heighten the irony of the poem and speak of the
history of oppression and cultural appropriation that indigenous people have to suffer. Buffalo Bill sets up “THE MUSEUM OF NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES” comprising of the things
he obtained from the indigenous people in the reservation itself. The title plays on the idea of the “evolution” and origin of the museum – people are rarely aware of the cultural appropriation and history of marginalization behind the things displayed in museums.

Alexie tries to point out how the things that are oft-glorified and marveled at usually have a
painful history and an evolutionary plot. A person who visits Buffalo Bill’s museum will only
marvel at the exhibition of Native American cultures. Still, they will never understand the
whitewashed narrative and injustice that the people of those cultures have undergone, only to have themselves humiliatingly misrepresented. Thus, Alexie focuses on the “devolution” of
indigenous cultures, with the ironical story of the museum’s “evolution.” The title, evolution, fits this poem because it shows how much the worth Indians put on their culture has evolutionised.

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