THE TOUGHEST INDIAN IN THE WORLD
by SHERMAN ALEXIE

Being a Spokane Indian, I only pick up Indian hitchhikers. I learned this particular ceremony from my father, a Coeur d’Alêne, who always stopped for those twentieth-century aboriginal nomads who refused to believe the salmon were gone. I don’t know what they believed in exactly, but they wore hope like a bright shirt. My father never taught me about hope. From an early age, I was told that our salmon would never come back, and though such lessons may seem cruel, I learned to cover my heart in a crowd of white people.

“They’ll kill you if they get the chance,” my father said. “Love you or hate you, white people will shoot you in the heart. Even after all these years, they’ll still smell the salmon on you, the dead salmon, and that will make white people dangerous.”

All of us, Indian and white, are haunted by salmon.

When I was a boy, I leaned over the edge of one dam or another—perhaps Long Lake or Little Falls or the great gray dragon known as the Grand Coulee—and watched the ghosts of salmon rise from the water to the sky and become constellations. Believe me, for most Indians stars are nothing more than white tombstones scattered across a dark graveyard.

But the Indian hitchhikers my father picked up refused to admit the existence of sky, let alone the possibility that salmon might be stars. They were common people who believed only in the thumb and the foot. My father envied those simple Indian hitchhikers. He wanted to change their minds about salmon; he wanted to break open their hearts and see the future in their blood, because he loved them.

Driving along one highway or another, my father would point out a hitchhiker standing beside the road a mile or two in the distance.

“Indian,” he would say, and he was never wrong, though I could never tell if the distant figure was male or female, let alone Indian or not.

If that distant figure happened to be white, my father would drive by without comment. That was how I learned to be silent in the presence of white people. The silence is not about hate or pain or fear. Indians just like to believe that white people will vanish, perhaps explode into smoke, if they are ignored enough times. Perhaps a thousand white families are still waiting for their sons and daughters to return home, and can’t recognize them when they float back as morning fog.

“Indian,” my father would say again as we approached one of those dream-filled hitchhikers. Hell, those hitchhikers’ faces grew red and puffy with the weight of their dreams.

“We better stop,” my mother would say from the passenger seat. She was one of those Spokane women who always wore a purple bandanna tied tightly around their heads. These days, her bandanna is usually red. There are reasons, motives, traditions behind the choice of color, but my mother keeps them secret.

“Make room,” my father would say to my siblings and me as we sat on the floor in the cavernous passenger area of our blue van. We sat on carpet samples because my father had torn out the seats in a sober rage not long after he bought the van from a crazy white man.

I have three brothers and three sisters now. Back then, I had four of each. I missed one of the funerals and cried myself sick during the other one.

“Make room,” my father would say again—he said everything twice—and only then would we scramble to make space for the Indian hitchhiker.

Of course, it was easy enough to make room for one hitchhiker, but Indians usually travel in packs. Once or twice, we picked up entire all-Indian basketball teams, along with their coaches, girlfriends, and cousins. Fifteen, twenty Indian strangers squeezed into the back of a blue van with nine wide-eyed Indian kids.

Back in those days, I loved the smell of Indians, and of Indian hitchhikers in particular. They were usually in some stage of drunkenness, often in need of soap and towel, and always ready to sing.

Oh, the songs! Indian blues bellowed at the highest volumes. We called them “49s,” those cross-cultural songs that combined Indian lyrics and rhythms with country-and-Western and blues melodies. It seemed that every Indian knew all the lyrics to every Hank Williams song ever recorded. Hank was our Jesus, Patsy Cline was our Madonna, and Freddy Fender, George Jones, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Charley Pride, Ronnie Milsap, Tanya Tucker, Marty Robbins, Johnny Horton, Donna Fargo, and Charlie Rich were our disciples.

We all know that nostalgia is dangerous, but I remember those days with a clear conscience. We live in different days now, and there aren’t as many Indian hitchhikers as there used to be.


Today, I drive my own car, a 1998 Toyota Camry, the bestselling automobile in the United States, and therefore the one most often stolen. Consumer Reports has named it the most reliable family sedan for sixteen years running, and I believe them.

With my Camry I pick up three or four Indian hitchhikers a week. Mostly men. They’re usually headed home, back to their reservations or somewhere close to their reservations. Indians hardly ever travel in a straight line, so a Crow Indian might hitchhike west when his reservation is back east in Montana. He has some people to see in Seattle, he might explain if I ever asked him. But I never ask Indians their reasons for hitchhiking. They were Indian, walking, raising a thumb, and I was there to pick them up.

At the newspaper where I work, my fellow-reporters think I’m crazy to pick up hitchhikers. They’re all white and never stop to pick up anybody, let alone an Indian. After all, we’re the ones who write the stories and headlines: “hitchhiker kills husband and wife,” “missing girl’s body found,” “rapist strikes again.” If I really tried, maybe I could explain to them why I pick up any Indian, but who wants to try? Instead, if they ask I just give them a smile and turn back to my computer. My coworkers smile back and laugh loudly. They’re always laughing loudly at me, at one another, at themselves, at goofy typos in the newspaper, at the idea of hitchhikers.

I dated one of them for a few months. Cindy. She covered the local courts: speeding tickets and divorces, drunk driving and embezzlement. Cindy firmly believed in the who-what-where-when-why-and-how of journalism. In daily conversation, she talked like she was writing the lead of her latest story. Hell, she talked like that in bed.

“How does that feel?” I would ask, quite possibly becoming the only Indian man who has ever asked that question.

“I love it when you touch me there,” she would answer. “But it would help if you rubbed it about thirty per cent lighter and with your thumb instead of your middle finger. And could you maybe turn the radio to a different station? KYZY would be good. I feel like soft jazz will work better for me right now. A minor chord, a C or G-flat, or something like that. O.K., honey?”

During lovemaking, I would get so exhausted by the size of her vocabulary that I would fall asleep before my orgasm, continue pumping away as if I were awake, and then regain consciousness with a sudden start when I finally did come, more out of reflex than passion.

Don’t get me wrong. Cindy was a good one, cute and smart, funny as hell, a good catch no matter how you define it, but she was also one of those white women who only date brown-skinned guys. Indians like me, black dudes, Mexicans, even a few Iranians. I started to feel like a trophy, or like one of those entries in a personal ad. I asked Cindy why she never dated pale boys.

“White guys bore me,” she said. “All they want to talk about is their fathers.”

“What do brown guys talk about?” I asked her.

“Their mothers,” she said and laughed, then promptly left me for a public defender who was half Japanese and half African—a combination that left Cindy dizzy with the interracial possibilities.

Since Cindy, I haven’t dated anyone. I live in my studio apartment with the ghosts of two dogs, Felix and Oscar, and a laptop computer stuffed with bad poems, the aborted halves of three novels, and some three-paragraph personality pieces I wrote for the newspaper.

I’m a features writer, and an Indian at that, so I get all the shit jobs. Not the dangerous shit jobs or the monotonous shit jobs. No. I get to write the articles designed to please the eye, ear, and heart. And there is no journalism more soul-endangering to write than journalism that aims to please.

So it was with reluctance that I hopped into my car last week and headed down Highway 2 to write some damn pleasant story about some damn pleasant people. Then I saw the Indian hitchhiker standing beside the road. He looked the way Indian hitchhikers usually look. Long, straggly black hair. Brown eyes and skin. Missing a couple of teeth. Bad complexion. Crooked nose that had been broken more than once. Big, misshapen ears. A few whiskers masquerading as a mustache. Even before he climbed into my car, I could tell he was tough. He had some serious muscles that threatened to rip through his bluejeans and denim jacket. When he was in the car, I could see his hands up close and they told the whole story. His fingers were twisted into weird shapes, and his knuckles were covered with layers of scar tissue.

“Jeez,” I said. “You’re a fighter, enit?”

The hitchhiker looked down at his hands, flexed them into fists. I could tell it hurt him to do that.

“Yeah,” he said.

I pulled back onto the highway, looking over my shoulder to check my blind spot.

“What tribe are you?” I asked him.

“Lummi,” he said. “What about you?”

“Spokane.”

“I know some Spokanes. Haven’t seen them in a long time.”

He clutched his backpack in his lap like he didn’t want to let it go for nothing. He reached inside a pocket and pulled out a piece of deer jerky. I recognized it by the smell.

“Want some?” he asked.

“Sure.”

It had been a long time since I’d eaten jerky. The salt, the gamy taste. I felt as Indian as Indian gets, driving down the road in a fast car, chewing on jerky, talking to an indigenous fighter.

“Where you headed?” I asked.

“Home. Back to the rez.”

I nodded my head as I passed a big truck. The driver gave us a smile as we went by. I tooted the horn.

“Big truck,” said the fighter.


I haven’tlived on my reservation for years. But I live in Spokane, which is only an hour’s drive from the rez. Still, I hardly ever go there. I don’t know why not. I don’t think about it much, I guess, but my mom and dad still live in the same house where I grew up. My brothers and sisters, too. The ghosts of my two dead siblings share an apartment in the converted high school. Believe me. It’s just a local call from Spokane to the rez, so I talk to all of them once or twice a week. Smoke signals courtesy of the U.S. West Communications. Sometimes they call me up to talk about the stories they’ve seen that I write for the newspaper. Pet pigs and support groups and science fairs. Once in a while, I used to fill in for the obituaries writer when she was sick. Then she died, and I had to write her obituary.

“How far you going?” asked the fighter, meaning how much closer was he going to get to his reservation than he was now.

“Up to Wenatchee,” I said. “I’ve got some people to interview there.”

“Interview? What for?”

“I’m a reporter. I work for the newspaper.”

“No,” said the fighter, looking at me like I was stupid for thinking he was stupid. “I mean, what’s the story about?”

“Oh, not much. There’s two sets of twins who work for the fire department. Human-interest stuff, you know?”

“Two sets of twins, enit? That’s weird.”

He offered me more deer jerky, but I was too thirsty from the salty meat, so I offered him a Pepsi instead. It’s a little-known fact that Indians can be broken up into two distinct groups: Pepsi tribes and Coke tribes.

“Don’t mind if I do,” he said. He was obviously a member of a Pepsi tribe.

“They’re in a cooler on the back seat,” I said. “Grab me one, too.”

He maneuvered his backpack carefully and found room enough to reach into the back seat for the soda pop. He opened my can first and handed it to me. I took a big mouthful and hiccupped loudly.

“That always happens to me when I drink cold things,” he said.

We sipped slowly after that. I kept my eyes on the road while he stared out his window into the wheat fields. We were quiet for many miles.

“Who do you fight?” I asked as we passed through another anonymous small town.

“Mostly Indians,” he said. “Money fights, you know? I go from rez to rez, fighting the best they have. Winner takes all.”

“Jeez, I never heard of that.”

“Yeah, I guess it’s illegal.”

He rubbed his hands together. I could see fresh wounds.

“Man,” I said. “Those fights must be rough.”

The fighter stared out the window. I watched him for a little too long and almost drove off the road. Car horns sounded all around us.

“Jeez,” the fighter said. “Close one, enit?”

“Close enough,” I said.

He pulled his backpack closer to him, using it as a barrier between his chest and the dashboard. An Indian hitchhiker’s version of a passenger-side air bag.

“Who’d you fight last?” I asked, trying to concentrate on the road.

“Some Flathead kid,” he said. “In Arlee. He was supposed to be the toughest Indian in the world.”

“Was he?”

“Nah, no way. Wasn’t even close. Wasn’t even tougher than me.”

He told me how big the Flathead kid was, way over six feet tall and two hundred and some pounds. Big buck Indian. Had hands as big as this and arms as big as that. Had a chin like a damn buffalo. The fighter told me that he hit the Flathead kid harder than he ever hit anybody before.

“I hit him like he was a white man,” the fighter said. “I hit him like he was two or three white men rolled into one.”

But the Flathead kid would not go down, even though his face swelled up so bad that he looked like the Elephant Man. There were no referees, no judge, no bells to signal the end of the round. The winner was the Indian still standing. Punch after punch, man, and the kid would not go down.

“I was so tired after a while,” said the fighter, “that I just took a step back and watched the kid. He stood there with his arms down, swaying from side to side like some toy, you know? Head bobbing on his neck like there was no bone at all. You couldn’t even see his eyes no more. He was all messed up.”

“What’d you do?” I asked.

“Ah, hell, I couldn’t fight him no more. That kid was planning to die before he ever went down. So I just sat on the ground while they counted me out. Dumb Flathead kid didn’t even know what was happening. I just sat on the ground while they raised his hand. While all the winners collected their money and all the losers cussed me out. I just sat there, man.”

“Jeez,” I said. “What happened next?”

“Not much. I sat there until everybody was gone. Then I stood up and headed for home. I’m tired of this shit. I just want to go home for a while. I got enough money to last me a long time. I’m a rich Indian, you hear? I’m a rich Indian.”

The fighter finished his Pepsi with one last swallow, rolled down his window, and pitched the can out. I almost protested, but decided against it. I kept my empty can wedged between my legs.

“That’s a hell of a story,” I said.

“Ain’t no story,” he said. “It’s what happened.”

“Jeez,” I said. “You would’ve been a warrior in the old days, enit? You would’ve been a killer. You would’ve stolen everybody’s goddam horses. That would’ve been you. You would’ve been it.”

I was excited. I wanted the fighter to know how much I thought of him. He didn’t even look at me.

“A killer,” he said. “Sure.”


We didn’t talk much after that. I pulled into Wenatchee just before sundown, and the fighter seemed happy to be leaving me.

“Thanks for the ride, cousin,” he said as he climbed out. Indians always call each other cousin, especially if they’re strangers.

“Wait,” I said.

He looked at me, waiting impatiently.

I wanted to know if he had a place to sleep that night. It was supposed to get cold. There was a mountain range between Wenatchee and his reservation. Big mountains that used to be volcanoes. Big mountains that were still volcanoes. It could all blow up at any time. We wrote about it once in the newspaper. Things can change so quickly. So many emergencies and disasters that we can barely keep track. I wanted to tell him how much I cared about my job, even if I had to write about small-town firemen. I wanted to tell the fighter that I always picked up every Indian hitchhiker, young and old, men and women. Believe me. I pick them up and get them all a little closer to home, even if I can’t get them all the way. I wanted to tell him that the night sky was a graveyard. I wanted to know if he was the toughest Indian in the world.

“It’s late,” I finally said. “You can crash with me, if you want.”

He studied my face and then looked down the long road toward his reservation.

“O.K.,” he said. “That sounds good.”

We got a room at the Pony Soldier Motel, and both of us laughed at the irony of it all. Inside the room, in a generic watercolor hanging above the bed, the U.S. Cavalry was kicking the crap out of a band of renegade Indians.

“What tribe you think they are?” I asked the fighter.

“All of them,” he said.

The fighter crashed on the floor while I curled up in the uncomfortable bed. I couldn’t sleep for the longest time. I listened to the fighter talk in his sleep. I stared up at the water-stained ceiling. I don’t know what time it was when I finally drifted off, and I don’t know what time it was when the fighter got into bed with me. He was naked and his penis was hard. I could feel it press against my back as he snuggled up close to me, reached inside my underwear, and took my penis in his hand. Neither of us said a word. He just continued to stroke me as he rubbed himself against my back. That went on for a long time. I had never been that close to another man, but the fighter’s callused fingers felt better than I would have imagined if I had ever allowed myself to imagine such things.

“This isn’t working,” he whispered. “I can’t come.”

Without thinking, I reached around and took the fighter’s penis in my hand. He was surprisingly small.

“No,” he said. “I want to be inside you.”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never done this before.”

“It’s O.K.,” he said. “I’ll be careful. I have rubbers.”

Without waiting for my answer, he released me and got up from the bed. I turned to look at him. He was beautiful and scarred. So much brown skin marked with bruises, badly healed wounds, and tattoos. His long black hair was unbraided and hung down to his thin waist. My slacks and dress shirt were carefully folded and draped over the chair near the window. My shoes were sitting on the table. Blue light filled the room. The fighter bent down to his pack and searched for his condoms. For reasons I could not explain then and cannot explain now, I kicked off my underwear and rolled over on my stomach. I could not see him, but I could hear him breathing heavily as he found the condoms, tore open a package, and rolled one over his penis. He crawled onto the bed, between my legs, and slid a pillow beneath my belly.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

“I’m not gay,” I said.

“Sure,” he said as he pushed himself into me. He was small but it hurt more than I expected, and I knew I would be sore for days afterward. But I wanted him to save me. He didn’t say anything. He just pumped into me for a few minutes, came with a loud sigh, and then pulled out. Believe me. I wanted him to save me. I quickly rolled off the bed and went into the bathroom. I locked the door behind me and stood there in the dark. I smelled like salmon.

“Hey,” the fighter said through the door. “Are you O.K.?”

“Yes,” I said. “I’m fine.”

A long silence.

“Hey,” he said. “Would you mind if I slept in the bed with you?”

I had no answer to that.

“Listen,” I said. “That Flathead boy you fought? You know, the one you really beat up? The one who wouldn’t fall down?”

In my mind, I could see the fighter pummelling that boy. Punch after punch. The boy too beaten to fight back but too strong to fall down.

“Yeah, what about him?” asked the fighter.

“What was his name?”

“His name?”

“Yeah, his name.”

“Elmer something or other.”

“Did he have an Indian name?”

“I have no idea. How the hell would I know that?”

I stood there in the dark for a long time. I was chilled. I wanted to get into bed and fall asleep.

“Hey,” I said. “I think, I think maybe—well, I think you should leave now.”

“Yeah,” the fighter said. He was not surprised. I could hear him softly singing as he dressed and stuffed all of his belongings into his pack. I couldn’t tell what he was singing, but I wanted to know. I opened the bathroom door just as he was opening the door to leave. He stopped, looked back at me, and smiled.

“Hey, tough guy,” he said. “You were good.”

The fighter walked out the door then, leaving it open, and walked away. I stood in the doorway and watched him continue his walk down the highway, past the city limits. I watched him rise from earth to sky and become a new constellation. I closed the door and wondered what was going to happen next. Feeling uncomfortable and cold, I went back into the bathroom. I ran the shower with the hottest water possible. I stared at myself in the mirror. Steam quickly filled the room. I threw a few shadow punches. Feeling stronger, I got in the shower and searched my body for changes. A middle-aged man needs to look for tumors. I dried myself with a towel too small for the job. Then I crawled naked into bed. I wondered if I was a warrior in this life and if I had been a warrior in a previous life. Lonely and laughing, I fell asleep. I didn’t dream at all, not one bit. Or perhaps I did dream, but I can’t remember any of it. Instead, I woke early the next morning, before sunrise, and went out into the world. I walked past my car. I stepped onto the pavement, still warm from the previous day’s sun. I started walking. In bare feet, I travelled upriver toward the place where I was born and will someday die. Believe me. At that moment, if you had broken open my heart you could have looked inside and seen the thin white skeletons of a thousand salmon.