The poem “Evolution” by Sherman Alexie is about the business ventures of a man called Buffalo Bill who does business with the Native Americans on a reservation, opening first a pawn shop where they pawn all that can be given away. Buffalo Bill then turns his shop into a museum and charges those same Indians to visit the remains of their identity. By analyzing this poem and examining its moods and the many meanings that can be gauged from it, a careful reader can discern Alexie’s sense that Native American tradition has been transformed into signs of cultural loss and material profit.
Alexie’s narration begins quite simply, as though told from the point of a view of neutral observer. A man named “Buffalo Bill opens a pawn shop on the reservation/ right across the border from the liquor store/ and he stays open 24 hours a day,7 days a week…” In response to the appearance of a pawn shop, “…the Indians come running in with jewelry/ television sets, a VCR, a full-length beaded buckskin outfit/ it took Inez Muse 12 years to finish…”. This is a crucial point in the poem, as it begins to sew a different mood into the formerly calm, casual fabric of the poem’s tone. From the description of their desperation, the Indians of the reservation are desperate for survival, enough so that they trade not just Western goods and electronics but also time-precious ancestral treasures and heirlooms. Could this mean their situation had deteriorated to such a state that heritage and old tribal traditions had long since vanished from their consciousness?Quite possible considering they have been relocated to a barren wasteland of cacti, sand, and rocky mountains full of coyotes and wildcats instead of their ancestral grounds in the forested, deer and bear inhabited lands far to the north and east.
In response to this flow of business from the area, “…Buffalo Bill/ takes everything the Indians have to offer, keeps it/ all catalogues and filed in a storage room…”. Buffalo Bill is planning to use these acquired items for a reason. The choice of location and business venture seems to all be included in this plan. We get the idea he’s well-versed and talented in drawing money from an opportunity. The Indians, however, don’t seem to stop at just their possessions. They “…pawn their hands, saving the thumbs for last, they pawn/ their skeletons, falling endlessly from the skin / and when the last Indian has pawned everything/ but his heart, Buffalo Bill takes that for twenty bucks…”. The impoverished, displaced, desperate Indians slowly begin to lose themselves, their identity, as they are plunged into a daily struggle to survive, pawning everything valuable; their bodies and their hearts. And, when all is pawned off and they’ve nothing left to give up of themselves, Buffalo Bill “…closes up the pawn shop, paints a new sign over the old/ calls his venture THE MUSEUM OF NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURES/ charges the Indians five bucks a head to enter.” This ending is an ironic one, an ending that really ties the idea of the poem together. Buffalo Bill uses all that the Indians have pawned to set up a museum, putting their culture and identity in a place of bygone wonders. And, for another cruel twist, he charges the very owners of those items money to come and see the remnants of their heritage. Quite spectacularly, this poem sums up in such a powerful but collected way the relationship between the conquered and the conqueror. The tone is mournful, splendidly conveying and filling the reader with the rich medley of various emotions that the poem communicates; grief, pain, anger, reluctant acceptance, and wonder. And the imagery and figurative language communicates a clear but unique angle to the story being told.
Buffalo Bill, who appears to represent the invasion of colonists and invaders from the European countries, comes onto the reservation (the Indian’s last foothold of existence) and preys on their need to survive by creating a pawn shop. They exchange their possessions and their identities (let’s keep in mind they’ll already been relocated and have adopted a good number of white man customs) and bodies for the paper money of the white man to buy white men’s food to put into their stomachs, solely concerned with living another day. And, after there is nothing left to give away, Buffalo Bill, probably under the guise of supposedly respecting and paying homage to the “previously” oppressed, puts up a museum in which the very owners of the items on display are charged to enter and see what remains of their past, shoved into the olden times along with other fallen peoples who make up little colors in the grand portrait of the modern world.