Leaving the Indian Reservation in Pursuit of a Hopeful Future
In reading a plethora of Native American Literature, a glaring light has shined forth, exposing the Indian reservations as a place without advantages, without hope, and without resources. All of the tribes place such value on heritage and community, yet, the reservations, put into place to keep the Indians in their supposed place and out of the way of the Eurocentric whites devoted to completing Manifest Destiny, claiming all land as theirs from coast to coast, have become a status quo that Indians cling to. Unfortunately, clinging to culture and community has taken people once rich with national resources and turned them into dependents eager for the government’s scraps. Life on the reservation has become a situation where poverty, addictions, hopelessness, a lack of support networks, and a strong emphasis on community have become a way of life further keeping the Indians in bondage to a status quo that they cannot escape. In looking at the authors whom we have studied, it seems the greatest advantage has been seeking an education and getting off the reservation to find success. The purpose of this research is to show the disadvantages of reservation life in an effort to support the rationale for taking the Indian off of the reservation and into the world.
Poverty is a major issue on today’s Indian reservations. Schwartz illuminates her readers that “a staggering number of residents on Native American reservations live in abject, incomprehensible conditions rivaling, or even surpassing, that of many Third World countries.” In her focus on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the Sioux Indians reside (Zitkala-Ŝa’s tribe), she states that the average annual income is between $2,600 and $3,500 with unemployment at 83-85% and 97% of the population living below Federal poverty levels. “There is little industry, technology, or commercial infrastructure on the Reservation to provide employment” (Schwartz).
In Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the main character, Junior, is from a poor family that has lived in a cycle of poverty for many generations. Within the Spokane tribe, 34.9% of its members are living below poverty levels (City Data). Born with health problems and hydro encephalitis and with no health insurance, Junior’s trips to the doctor and dentist can only be funded annually by the Indian Health Service. There is minimal health care for most Indians, which Schwartz attributes to locations of clinics that are under-funded, under-staffed and have either no medical equipment or outdated equipment. Government subsidized health care is difficult to access and inconvenient. People who are unemployed cannot afford health insurance, and living under the national levels of poverty make health insurance a moot expenditure.
Junior describes himself as a “poor-ass reservation kid living with his poor-ass family on the poor-ass Spokane reservation” (Alexie, 7), and describes the trials of poverty referencing missed meals, having ten teeth pulled at once with half the Novocain because the white doctors believed “Indians only felt half as much pain as white people” (Alexie, 2), but shares that the worst part about poverty is having a sick pet and knowing there is no money to take their dog, Oscar, to the veterinarian, and a two cent bullet is a cheaper treatment than the vet’s office. Poverty puts Junior’s dog to sleep.
His first day of high school on the reservation school, while sitting in a math class, Junior sees his mother’s name in the front cover of the textbook and realizes his school, also, is poor and doesn’t have the money or inclination to provide new up-to-date texts to their students. The Bureau of Indian Affairs gave information that within the Pine Ridge Reservation, schools “are in the bottom 10% of school funding by the U.S. Department of Education” (Schwartz). Junior at a school on a different reservation is also experiencing the effects of a school with minimal funding. “My school and my tribe are so poor and sad that we have to study from the same dang books our parents studied from. That is absolutely the saddest thing in the world” (Alexie, 31). This injustice sparks the rage that leads Junior to throw his book across the room, accidentally striking the teacher, Mr. P. who becomes the catalyst encouraging Junior to transfer to the all-white school.
Upon entering the rich, all-white high school, Reardan, Junior’s parents, although not fully supportive, do give him the pocket change to ensure that he can maintain a front that he is not poor. After a school dance and a trip to Denny’s where he realizes he cannot pay, Junior confesses to a roommate that he is poor. A game against his former teammates strikes Junior with the realization that at the white school, he and his team were the Goliath and they had all the advantages whereas, many of his former teammates had not “eaten breakfast that morning” (Alexie, 195).
No food on the table was a common theme in D’Arcy McNickle’s The Surrounded. On the reservation, the Salish people were no strangers to poverty. The merchant George Moser came to the mission town with the hopes of getting rich off of the Indians, however, “the fur trade was gone when he arrived and the Salish Indians were a starving lot once their game was killed off” (McNickle, 29). The government’s money rarely aided the Indians and the Indians rarely saw a penny, just getting poorer and poorer. Moser extends store credit to them and each year, when they can’t pay, he is forced to reduce their balances (McNickle, 30), turning him poor, as well. Currently, those living on the Salish reservation make an average of $6,400 a year, putting them well below the national level for poverty and making them susceptible to the many symptoms within the poverty condition with four to eight out of ten people being unemployed. (American Indian Relief Council).
This poverty leading to starvation is also mentioned by Max and Parker. Max, reflecting after Father Grepilloux’s funeral, curses that “people are starving! They’re freezing to death in those shacks by the church” (McNickle, 147). As he attempts to sleep, he is haunted by the thought of “Indians perishing from hunger and disease” (McNickle, 148). The Indian Agent, Parker, says that “few had barns, fewer had any affairs at home. Indeed, few had enough food at home to feed their bellies” (McNickle, 153).
In Ruby Payne’s A Framework for Understanding Poverty, the author discusses the various languages and mindsets of poverty. Poverty, becoming its own culture, sinks into a person’s perspective, into the community’s perspective, and colors the way people look at the world. Within her book, she brings up the suspicion that the poor culture has of their fellow poor when someone has a success with money or education. Two ways that the poor culture looks at money is that it is a community commodity meant to be shared amongst everyone and there is so little money, it is impossible to save. Living paycheck to paycheck with each paycheck as inadequate coverage for basic necessities makes savings accounts a foreign language within the poor culture.
When the reader is introduced to Archilde in The Surrounded, he has been living away from home for a while, earning his own money, and achieving a modicum of contentment and success. Leaving the poor community makes someone anathema to their culture, so it is understandable why Archilde’s mother would find him a confusing son and his father would view him with suspicion. Returning home, his father Max assumes that Archilde is looking for a handout, finding it hard to believe that his Indian son would have earned any money or saved any money. Archilde’s nephews, Mike and Narcisse, assume he has stolen the money, finding honest work a ridiculous idea for their uncle. This mindset on behalf of both the Spanish father and the Indian nephews shows a distinct viewpoint on an Indian’s ability to make honest wages and save them. The boys’ experience has been what they have seen on the reservation and their own uncle Louis who would rather steal horses than spend a day working. They also know their uncle Louis will return home to harass his mother when food and money run out.
The Indians’ poverty is further shown in other scenes. The Indian reservation is described as being made up of “sway-backed cabins, rag-stuffed windows, refuse strewn about” (McNickle, 35). There is no money for extra frills like taking care of the property, landscaping, fixing windows, making their “hovels” structurally sound, or painting their homes. Schwartz’s article describes the homes as “old cabins or dilapidated mobile homes and trailers” with 33% having no water, sewage systems, or electricity and 60% of homes infested with Black Mold.
Max sees the “country [as] dead broke” and asks, “what about the Indians?...we killed off their game so they can’t live in the old way. They don’t know how to work and maybe never will” (McNickle, 146), and any government assistance is spent on alcohol and frivolous items that won’t stave off hunger. The Indian wakes up hung-over with no food in the pantry. For some people, the situation is so desolate that they must resort to eating the cast offs from the slaughterhouse, like the woman Archilde encounters on the road. She is blind and deaf, dressed in “rags and filth” (McNickle, 234) pulling along a child’s wagon filled with the byproducts of the slaughtered animals. Her “failing senses were only part of the desolation into which she had wandered in her old age. She had to live without decency, like an animal, with nothing to live for” (McNickle, 234). Poverty shades the world in colors of hopelessness and opens the door to addictions and illness.
Alcoholism and Substance Abuse
Poverty unfortunately affects the way of life for many of the Indians on reservations, leading to alcoholism and other addictions. Poverty and hopelessness are medicated with alcohol, drugs, gambling, or giving up. In McNickle’s book, Archilde’s father Max assumes that Archilde gambles because his view on the Indians is that they “gamble away their horses and their tools” (McNickle, 146). When he finds out that his son does not gamble, he asks “What kind of Indian are you? (McNickle, 6). With eleven children, most of them sons, Max placed his hopes in each son, to have them dashed over and over. He thought Louis would turn out all right, but sharing with Father Grepilloux, he admits that “for five years he has been drinking and going with bad Indians. Now he’s as bad as any (McNickle, 38). Alcoholism is not as extensively discussed in this novel, however, the reader gets a taste of the topic when we are introduced to Chief Modeste’s granddaughter, Elise, the literary bad boy who encourages Archilde to let himself go (McNickle, 225). At a dance, serving up prohibited liquor that she has a talent for finding, she and Archilde get drunk and get involved in a fight that leaves Archilde unaware of how he arrived home. This begins a series of alcohol-laced sexual encounters that are addictive to Archilde. She offers a sense of false hope as he watches his family fall apart. Elise becomes the addiction that leads to Archilde’s downfall.
According to many writers, alcoholism is a very real struggle on the reservation. Schwartz claims that more than half of adults on the Reservations are addicted to alcohol or drugs and that “alcoholism affects eight out of ten families on the Reservation.” She goes on to share that despite the prohibition on the sale and possession of alcohol on the Pine Ridge Reservation (Zitkala-Ŝa’s tribe), the nearest town that has only 14 residents has four liquor stores that sell
over 4,100,000 cans of bear each year resulting in a $3,000,000 annual trade. Unlike other Nebraska communities, Whiteclay exists only to sell liquor and make money. It has no schools, no churches, no civic organizations, no parks, no benches, no public bathrooms, no fire service and no law enforcement. Tribal officials have repeatedly pleaded with the State of Nebraska to close these liquor stores or enforce the State laws regulating liquor stores but have been consistently refused.
This sort of irresponsibility on behalf of those meant to serve and protect those dependent on them is a gross example of keeping the Indian on the reservation, keeping them in slavery to alcohol, and maintaining their status quo of poverty and hopelessness.
Alcoholism is more extensively discussed in Alexie’s book. During Christmas one year, Junior’s family was in a deficit and “Dad did what he always did when we don’t have enough money. He took what little money we did have and ran away to get drunk (Alexie, 150), leaving on Christmas Eve and staying away for a little over a week. Junior’s father deals with poverty by drinking. The reader learns that Junior’s mother is a former alcoholic (Alexie, 46) and that Rowdy, Junior’s best friend is living with his abusive, alcoholic father (Alexie, 16). Junior’s father’s best friend, Eugene, is also a drunk.
In The Seattle Times, Jess Walter stated that Indian reservations have the “highest substance –abuse rate” and speculates that “the loss of land, tradition, language and religion created many holes that many Native Americans tried to fill with alcohol. With a suspected genetic predisposition toward alcoholism, their addictions were passed on like heirlooms.” Furthermore, she states that the death rate of Indians with alcohol problems is 6.5 times greater than any other ethnic group. In The Daily Nebraskan, Sarah Melecki paints a picture of visitors to the reservation “often greeted by the sight of a drunk person passed out on the side of the road, or a few people with beer cans getting into a fight.” Roughly 80% of the 20,000 residents on the Reservation are alcoholics and the liquor store owners “have noticed and taken advantage of the situation” moving two miles away from the reservation to set up shop, making alcohol more accessible.
Giving Up Hope
Aside from alcoholism, gambling is another problem. The “mismanaged and too far from the major highways” casino “was a money-losing business” (Alexie, 119), yet the Indians frequent the casino in hopes of striking it rich. At school, Junior is unsure if he will get a ride home, especially if his dad is distracted by the casino and stops to “play slot machines first” (Alexie, 87). Junior’s sister, Mary, marries an Indian from Montana whose most attractive feature, to her, is his gambling. His gambling makes him exciting and adventurous.
Tragically, Mary and her husband, passed out after a drunken party, are too drunk to wake up when their trailer catches fire, and they die. Junior’s grandmother, on a walk, is killed by a drunk driver “an Indian alcoholic” (Alexie, 157), says Junior. Eugene is another alcohol casualty, drunk and killed by his drunken friend Bobby when they fight “over the last drink in a bottle of wine” (Alexie, 169). Bobby, shattered by actions he cannot remember, hangs himself in jail, while Junior’s dad goes on a “legendary drinking binge” (Alexie, 171) in an attempt to drown his sorrows over the loss of his best friend, Eugene. Schwartz posits that “the death rate from alcohol—related problems on the Reservation is 300% higher than the remaining US population.”
Junior reflects that “plenty of Indians have died because they were drunk. And plenty of drunken Indians have killed other drunken Indians. But my grandmother had never drunk alcohol in her life. Not one drop. That’s the rarest kind of Indian in the world. I know only, like, five Indians in our whole tribe who have never drunk alcohol” (Alexie, 158). Looking at his former basketball teammates, Junior relates to the reader that “seven or eight of them lived with drunken mothers and fathers. One of those Indians had a father who dealt crack and meth. I knew two of those Indians had fathers in prison” (Alexie, 195). He realizes each day the damning influence of alcohol on his people and cries “because I knew five or ten or fifteen more Spokanes would die during the next year and that most of them would die because of booze” (Alexie, 216). This realization seeps into the sense of hopelessness felt within the members of his tribe and the universal tribe of Indians on reservations.
Poverty and alcoholism are vicious cycles that are both symptoms and propagations of hopelessness. They both cause hopelessness and effect hopelessness. Without money, resources, support networks, and advantages, life on the reservation takes a hopeless turn. Walter’s article states that Native Americans have the highest dropout rate of any racial minority in the country with the highest substance-abuse rate, teenage suicide rate and death rate. A hopeless community is one that doesn’t care about education and sometimes doesn’t care about life.
Schwartz paints a vivid picture of a reservation that progress has forgotten where no banks, discount stores, movie theatres, or libraries can be found. There is a small grocery store and a motel on the reservation, and the banks located in the next towns “have been targeted for investigation of fraudulent or predatory lending practices, with the citizens of the Pine Ridge Reservation as their victims.” The dearth of common luxuries like banks and entertainment and higher learning are key elements of a hopeless place. She further states that the life expectancy is 48-52 years old, which is a far distance from the average 77.5 years for most U.S. citizens. Teen suicide rates are 150% higher than the national average, the school dropout rate is over 70%, infant mortality is 300% higher than the national average, and the teacher turnover rate is 800% higher than the national average. Why is there a reason to have hope? My experience reveals that teachers who don’t care about their students don’t stay long to teach them. The vast number of teachers leaving the reservation school show a population of educators who have given up hope. They have also given up on passing on the keys that could give hope to a struggling group.
Archilde in The Surrounded states the situation in haunting terms showing a people that have given up hope. “In years of abundance no less than in lean years, the Indians sat in their dark doorways with no expectations, looking out upon a world of meaningless coming and going” McNickle, 232). Elise, who symbolizes hope to Archilde, leads to his downfall. His hope throughout the book was to help his family become self sufficient so that he could leave the reservation and his father’s home and return to the big city. The death of his father, mother, Father Grepilloux and the suspicious murder of the game warden punch holes in his plan. He gives up on hope, on leaving the reservation, and follows Elise into the wilderness where he loses himself for a while. He doesn’t even remember how he got to the mountains (McNickle, 285). He realizes it is Elise’s influence and he stops caring about anything. She admits she has helped him break his promise to turn himself in and has helped him escape both his obligations and the authorities. When Quigley, the cop who hunts Indians, arrives, Elise murders him while Mr. Parker and several cops witnessing the event. Archilde, not knowing how to react when she doesn’t assume any responsibility, embraces her. Mr. Parker’s disdain as he enters is apparent has he blames Archilde for “having every chance” (McNickle, 296), but squandering those chances to wallow in hopelessness. Fatalistically, Archilde “extend[s] his hands to be shackled” (McNickle, 297) with no attempt to claim his innocence because he knows essentially that he was always doomed to fail, doomed for jail. This pervading hopelessness drenches the novel throughout its telling.
Junior in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian states that “reservation Indians don’t get to realize our dreams. We don’t get those chances, or choices. We’re just poor. That’s all we are” (Alexie, 13). For a teen on the cusp of entering high school to realize the status of his people on the reservation, their lack of choices and chances is a stark reality that the characters in the books and the people on real life reservations face daily. After Junior’s projectile book hitting Mr. P. causes his suspension, he is visited by the teacher. Mr. P. shares that Junior’s sister, Mary wanted to be an author in high school and she was a “bright and shining star” that “faded year by year until you could barely see her anymore” (Alexie, 40). Mr. P. compares Junior’s qualities to Mary’s and says that Junior “deserves the world” (Alexie, 41); however, Junior already has the fatalistic belief that as an Indian, he deserves nothing. Even when Junior tells Mr. P. that Mary still has the chance to change her life, he realizes that he doesn’t really believe that. “There’s never enough time to change your life. You don’t get to change your life, period” (Alexie, 40).
As the conversation continues, Mr. P. tells Junior that he needs to leave the reservation forever because all he will learn there is how to give up, just like everybody else who has already given up. “’If you stay on this rez,’ Mr. P. said, ‘they’re going to kill you. I’m going to kill you. We’re all going to kill you. You can’t fight us forever’” (Alexie, 43) and he, recognizing the glimmer of hope that hasn’t yet been squelched in Junior, encourages him to “take your hope and go somewhere” (Alexie, 43) because the farther he gets from the reservation, the more hope he’ll find. When Junior asks his parents “who has the most hope?” (Alexie, 45), his parents respond that white people do. In Junior’s case, as challenging as changing schools was to do, the choice was his best chance to learn, grow, and succeed. And with each experience, some heart breaking and others encouraging, Junior’s hope grew; however, he was a fortunate minority amongst a vast number of those without hope. Junior was able to fight against the fatalism with the help of several people who were willing to support him. Many Indians, and people in poverty, generally, do not have access to those supports and do not have the strength to try it alone.
Missing Support Networks and Community
Poverty and hopelessness are fatalistically entwined with a lack of support networks. In looking at my own classroom situations when I taught in the inner-city schools, most of my poor students came from families that had many generations of poverty, some with drug addictions, many with hopelessness, and despite the child’s desire to break free from the cycle, without the support of parents, teachers, the community, and others with similar desires, it is a very difficult journey to undertake on one’s own.
The first network of support most children encounter is within the embrace of their parents and family members. In The Surrounded, Archilde’s parents don’t know him very well, they are unaware of his talents on the fiddle, and they don’t seem interested in what his life away from the reservation has been like nor his dreams to leave again. His sister Agnes is “afraid of her young brother, the first in the family to educate himself (through high school), who was not afraid of the world beyond the mountains (McNickle, 15) and his nephews, while watching him draw, refuse to be impressed with his talent (McNickle, 24), showing not just the scorn of the young, but the fear of having aspirations for something bigger and better. Archilde does not have his family’s support. Even when George Moser admires Archilde to Max, saying he shows promise and is “made of good stuff” (McNickle, 28), Max still sees his son as an unworthy person who won’t help him on the ranch. He believes the worst of him until Archilde tells him the truth about the trip up the mountain and the Indian school. Max realizes that his son is not “deceptive or cruel or dull of spirit [and had not killed] the good things in [him]self” (McNickle, 59). This realization allows Max a measure of support for Archilde to pursue music lessons, although, he still wants Archilde to stay, when Archilde clearly expresses his desire to leave the reservation.
Even looking at other families on the reservation, the reader sees Agnes who is a rather permissive parent and Elise’s father Octave and grandfather Modeste as almost apathetic. Agnes is not too worried if the boys are in or out of school or when the boys run off or don’t do chores. Octave and Modeste are unconcerned about Elise’s running away from school. Each of these adult parent figures, showing no concern for the importance of education and no interest in their children’s dreams are not providing a support network necessary for those children to seek hope.
The parents in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are also guilty of a disregard for what may be ultimately the best for their kids. Aside from the knowledge the reader has of several children like Rowdy and former teammates being abused at home, Junior’s parents show a non-abusive, but distinct lackadaisical approach to raising him. As Junior reflects on his parents, he says “seriously, I know my mother and father had their dreams when they were kids. They dreamed about being something other than poor, but they never got the chance to be anything because nobody paid attention to their dreams” (Alexie, 11). No one in his parents’ world praised them for their talents and so no one in Junior’s world praises him when he excels academically. In looking at his sister, Mary, Junior and his parents had no idea that she was a talented writer who wanted to write novels, showing a lack of concern in her own growth and development. When Junior discusses going to Reardan, his parents ask him several times if he is certain he wants to go there and tell him he can always wait until next semester or next year. They are not directly unsupportive, but they are also not 100% enthusiastic for their son to leave. Junior says that their love for him is what presses them to allow him to transfer schools, although, the parents do bring up the difficulties of the move: It will be difficult to physically get to the school as it is 22 miles away, his dad states, while his mother says he will be the first one to leave the reservation for an all-white school and “the Indians around here will be angry with you” (Alexie, 47). In brief moments, Junior’s dad encourages him by calling him a brave warrior and telling him that he loves him. Despite this love, he really doesn’t want Junior to go. Most families off of the reservation seemingly want their children to leave the nest, move out of the house, get a job, have a family; yet the Indians in both books want to keep their children home. This is also shown in Zitkala-Ŝa’s stories as her mother does not want her to seek an education.
Junior’s parents are correct about the anger the Indians will feel over his leaving the reservation as his best friend Rowdy is angered by Junior’s apparent defection and his classmates, too, feel the betrayal. Throughout the novel, we see none of Junior’s Indian friends urging him to further his education. The same is true for The Surrounded. Archilde has very few moments where his friendships are demonstrated; however, looking at his relationship with Elise, her primary goal is seeking fun and shirking responsibility. Insight on Louis shows him running with the wrong crowd and becoming a horse thief. Friends can influence us for better or worse. Friends can be a valuable commodity in helping us achieve our dreams, and yet, the friendships amongst Indians we see in both books show a desire to keep each other close to the extent that dreams cannot be realized. It is almost a mentality that says I’m miserable, let’s be miserable together.
Despite the importance of community within Indian tribes, there are very few people within each book who encourage the young learners to venture out into the world, to get educated, and to get off of the reservation. No one congratulates the students when they do well or compliments them on specific gifts. Archilde is not praised for completing high school, nor is Junior for academic thirst. Praise is not given from teachers, nor parents, nor friends. The leaders of the tribe would rather preserve the old ways and make the youth listen to stories from the past then encourage them to make something of themselves. The teachers, in both books, don’t care. Even Mr. P., who sees something special in Junior and encourages him to leave the reservation, is aware that if Junior stays, he, Mr. P., won’t be the role model necessary to goad Junior on to reaching his goals. Mr. P.’s momentary involvement makes a difference, but he is cognizant that he can’t really be the teacher who makes the year a meaningful one for Junior or any of his other students. Mr. P. has given up, just like the Indians have.
Archilde, on reflecting on his experiences at the Indian school, remembers a place where the teachers were more interested in keeping the students in line, maintaining order, and converting the Indians to Christianity. The teachers did not set themselves up as mentors or motivators, role models or coaches. Mr. Duffield, the music teacher is an anomaly who takes enough interest in Archilde to teach him the violin, but he does nothing to stop Mr. Snodgrass from beating the students. He gives few words of wisdom other than “always take an interest in your work. No matter how much you dislike a job, or how unimportant it seems to you, if it is your job, do it with a will and to the best of your ability. That is the way to make yourself valuable and to win success” (McNickle, 93-94). The violin allows Archilde to find steady work off of the reservation. Mr. Duffield’s advice allows Archilde to work diligently on his father’s ranch, without complaint, making himself valuable to his father. Unfortunately, a strong work ethic and steady work don’t guarantee hope for Archilde, as his support networks are not encouraging him in useful ways.
Within the Indian community, there are glimmers of support from Junior’s dad’s best friend, Eugene, who tells Junior that what he is doing is “pretty cool” (Alexie, 71), and several of the grandmothers who think Junior “was a brave little dude for going to a white school” (Alexie, 79), and his own grandmother, who offers nothing but support and love. Archilde’s community, though, is not a strong support network. At Catharine’s feast, the elder tribe members show no support of Archilde’s success off of the reservation and instead choose to share stories and parables of the old days.
Within Archilde’s community, there are two non-Indians who could have served as support networks. Father Grepilloux takes an interest in Archilde and connects him with a music teacher, reminding Archilde that if he ever has a chance to be a mentor to a child that “friendliness [is] the best teacher” (McNickle, 96). However, this interest is too little, too late, and Father Grepilloux cannot break confidentiality to clear Archilde’s name, and his death takes away any future support he could have given Archilde. The Indian agent, Mr. Parker, wants to help, but he has limited resources and doesn’t have the intellect, creativity, or even the determination to make a difference. It only takes a drop of water to start a waterfall, yet Mr. Parker has corked his water droplet, not allowing himself to be a figure of support. After the game warden’s suspicious death, Mr. Parker doesn’t work too diligently to hear Archilde’s story or free the innocent man. In essence, Mr. Parker knew he “was of little use to the Indians” (McNickle, 151). In dying and giving up, these two potential supporters dry up a small well of support that Archilde could have relied on.
Once at the white school, Junior faces a world where he is the only Indian, besides the mascot. He doesn’t find any support there, for a while. He has no friends, doesn’t know the rules of the game, and is somewhat of a curiosity to his classmates; however, in time, he does win over several people like Penelope, Roger, Gordy, the basketball coach, and the basketball team. “Gordy believed in me” (Alexie 94), Junior says of his friend and mentor. He realizes that he has some supports amongst both the white community and the Indian community, unfortunately, he did not have the support of many of his teachers and peers at Reardan or of many of his neighbors on the reservation. At a basketball game where Reardan is playing on the reservation against Junior’s former school, the entire crowd of Indians turns their backs on Junior when he enters the court, showing their disdain for him.
Most of the books I read stressed the importance of community, family, and tribe to the various Indian groups. Junior states that “on the rez, you know every kid’s father, mother, grandparents, dog, cat, and shoe size. I mean, yeah, Indians are screwed up, but we’re really close to each other. We know each other” (Alexie, 153). This closeness causes the sense of betrayal felt by many in the tribe when Junior leaves to attend Reardan High School. Even though Junior was beat up by his peers before he even thought of moving schools, he was still one of them. Junior knows that leaving is a surefire sentence of “my fellow tribe members are going to torture me” (Alexie, 47). His best friend, Rowdy sees Junior’s leaving as an arrogant announcement that Junior thinks he’s superior to everybody else in the tribe. In talking to his dad, Junior realizes there is no changing his mind. “You can’t just betray your tribe and then change your mind ten minutes later,” (Alexie, 55). Even Junior, with his glimmer of hope and his wish for a bright future, sees leaving as a betrayal to his community. Coming back to his community, Junior is beaten up, called names, and his neighbors slam their doors in his face when he visits. His former classmates call him an apple, red on the outside and white on the inside, figuring that his drive to a better education makes him “act white to make [his] life better” (Alexie, 131). His friend Gordy recognizes that “life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community” (Alexie, 132) and talks with Junior about the various communities who have felt confused and threatened by members who were different.
Junior’s community turns their backs on them, en masse, at his first basketball game against his former school. The crowd chants “Arnold sucks!” (Alexie, 143). His new classmates become a support network and he comes to the discovery that community is more than just a tribe. “If you let people into your life a little bit, they can be pretty damn amazing” (Alexie, 129), he says of his new friends. He is touched by their support and after his grandmother’s death, the Indian community ceases their attacks on him. Briefly everyone is able to laugh and cry together at Grandmother Spirit’s funeral, but Junior never fully regains his status of membership in his tribe. In a showdown with his social studies teacher, the woman gets snippy with Junior about his frequent absences. Gordy, the basketball team, and other classmates, cause a disruption and walk out, leaving Junior with the discovery that these white classmates have become his community. He is able to delineate that the distinction between people is not color or ethnicity, but good people and bad people (Alexie, 176). He comes to the realization that “I was important to them….[they] had learned to care about me” (Alexie, 211) and that community encompasses people with common interests and passions.
Unfortunately, other characters are not so blessed with changeable communities. In Archilde’s community, his mother, Catharine sees him as “an Indian boy” who “belonged with his people” (McNickle, 2) and she cannot comprehend why he would want to live away from the Salish people. She is more concerned that her “sons are scattered” (McNickle, 10), then her sons possibly seeking their own happiness and success. Max sees Archilde’s leaving as an abandonment of his responsibility to his family and Agnes, his sister, wants him to stay because Max will eventually die, and if Archilde is there, it will be “like in old times” (McNickle, 15). Archilde’s family wants to preserve a past that is rapidly dying and not with any resources to move forward.
Archilde’s community has had a hand in raising him, just like the adage that a village raises a child. At Catharine’s feast, Archilde states that “Indian relationships, in the old style, were always a bit vague” (McNickle, 60), and reflects that he has learned various skills from different Indians, both related and unrelated by blood. The Indian are a community that supports its own. In the story of Big Paul, the Indians come together to avenge their wronged tribal member just as neighbors come to warn Catharine, Max, and Archilde that Louis is in trouble and is hunted by Quigley. The community is willing to cover for Louis rather than turn in the horse thief. Archilde covers for his mother, too, when she murders the game warden. He’d rather face jail than clear his name and blemish his mother’s.
Within the community, the strong bonds provide shelter to the homeless, food to the hungry, and strength to both the innocent and guilty. Catharine, married a white man, and is upset that a white husband doesn’t want his wife’s Indian relatives to “come to live with him” (McNickle, 172) because white men “wanted his house to himself” (McNickle, 173). She shares that her relatives are unwelcome, and this is in direct violation to her strong bond with her community. As Mr. Parker reflects on the Indians, he says that when food runs out the Indians “went visiting, and their relatives had nothing left, they all came to see the agent” (McNickle, 153). When Catharine dies, there are no tribal members who are untouched by her death. “She was important to these people, she belonged to them almost more than she belonged to [Archilde]” (McNickle, 266). This bond is so strong that despite a small home with minimal food, despite poverty or overcrowding, despite inconvenience, the members in this community will reach out when one of their own is in need. “Even though there is a large homeless population on the Reservation, most families never turn away a relative no matter how distant the blood relation. Consequently, many homes often have large numbers of people living in them” (Schwartz). She estimates that some two to three bedroom homes have an average of 17 people living in them, while larger homes may have up to 30. These strong bonds show a people willing to suffer inconvenience to meet a need of a community member. This strong tie is why when one of the members of the tribe works for the police force and is willing to find one of her criminal sons, Catharine views him as someone who “ought to be ashamed for going against his own people” (McNickle, 162). These strong community ties, for both Archilde and Junior, can prove to be both a blessing as they keep members together and nurture each other, but they can also be a curse as they keep members from leaving to find perhaps a better and brighter future.
Leaving the Rez
A brighter future for today’s Indians involves seeking an education and leaving the reservation. Despite strong family and community ties, the cycles of poverty, addictions, and a lack of support networks make the reservation a place where there is little hope to rise above the challenges and find success. If a study of the authors was performed, I believe we would see a group of people who grasped education for the useful tool it was and used it to their advantage to not only find personal success, but to illuminate the conditions of life on the reservation. Unfortunately, these illuminations do not improve the conditions and an author’s success does not guarantee the success of his or her people. The majority of Indians living on the reservation will remain living in poverty until changes can either be made or until they are willing to be the change. In this case, the change involves embracing education and, in my opinion, leaving the reservation. Education and success cannot be reached while poverty, addictions, hopelessness, poor support networks, and strong community ties are working against the people. It is my belief that hope resides in leaving the reservation.
Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. New York: Little, Brown, & Co., 2009.
American Indian Relief Council. National Relief Charities. Web. 1 Dec. 2011.
City-Data.com. Advameg, Inc. Web. 1 Dec. 2011
McNickle, D’arcy. The Surrounded. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1964.
Melecki, Sarah. “Nebraska must fight alcoholism on Pine Ridge reservation.” The Daily Nebraskan4 February 2009: web ed.
Payne, Ruby. A Framework for Understanding Poverty. Texas: aha! Process, Inc., 1996.
Schwartz, Stephanie. Native Village: Messages from the People. “The Arrogance of Ignorance: Hidden Away, Out of Sight and Out of Mind: Regarding life, conditions, and hope on the Pine Ridge Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Reservation of SD.” October 15, 2006. Web re-print. 1 Dec. 2011.
Walter, Jess. “Programs help Spokane Indians- Native Americans Fighting to end cycles of alcohol abuse and poverty.” Seattle Times 7 June 1993: web ed.
Zitkala-Ŝa. American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings. New York: Penguin, 2003.