"Being an Indian is a tough job," Sherman Alexie told a UNCP crowd of about 600. "We don't really know what it is to be Indian any more. We've been making it up since you (Europeans) first arrived."
"It's all about story telling .. it's all stories," he said.
A Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, Alexie demonstrated why he is a rising star in the story-telling business. No topic was sacred for the poet, novelist, screenwriter and stand-up comic. He kept an appreciative audience laughing for 90 minutes.
After showing the crowd his "Indian guy walk" and describing himself as a 6-foot 2, 200-pound, "Banana Republic kind-of Indian," he had some fun with the local community.
"This is like being in another country .. Locklear country. I really don't know anything about the Lumbees," he confessed. "All I know is .. you have Southern accents and really sweet tea."
The crowd, consisting of mostly young people, loved it.
Alexie, who has written numerous books of poetry and prose and the screenplay to the critically acclaimed movie "Smoke Signals," responded to a request to make a movie about Lumbees by encouraging them to tell their own story.
"Why don't you do it," he said. "You know more about this place than I do. You can get a digital camera cheap these days."
Alexie was the final speaker in the 2001-2002 Distinguished Speaker Series that also included Maya Angelou and Ralph Nader. His humor was loaded with political messages, and he ripped into a variety of targets, including the resurgent patriotism following September 11.
"As an ambiguously ethnic person, I get pulled over for the full search (in airports) 80 percent of the time, but I understand," he said. "I stand back from people 100 feet for every square-foot of American flag they're waving. Some guy in a big four-wheeler drove by and yelled at me, 'Go back to your own country!'"
Alexie called that incident "a crime of irony" for a Native American.
"Our leaders tell us stories to make us react the way they want," he said. "It started immediately after September 11th, and it's all stories."
"Americans have an amazing ability to believe they are right and forget," Alexie said. "We need to ask, 'What if I am wrong?' If you do, you'll be the only sober person at a drunk party."
"The loss of a couple thousand people on September 11 was terrible, but wasn't the biggest thing that happened that day in the world. 32,000 children starve to death on any day," he said. "Where's the outrage?"
People from as far away as Raleigh and Maryland traveled to hear Alexie speak, and they were thoroughly entertained. During a question and answer session at end of the evening, he recited two of his poems.
His latest movie project is "The Business of Fancy Dancing," which he is distributing himself.
Alexie brought an end to the Distinguished Speaker Series, and next year promises to just as impressive. Lined up are Lynn Russell, a former CNN anchor, and actors Henry Winkler, James Earl Jones and Rita Moreno.
The university also hopes to bring 1978 graduate and Oklahoma University basketball coach Kelvin Sampson, said Abdul Ghaffar, director of Student Activities.
This report was compiled with the assistance of Gavin Wyse, a senior journalism major.