Between the Rock (aka Alcatraz) and a Hard Place

Alcatraz, Photograph by Jon Sullivan; Source: Wikimedia Commons

In late November 1969, a group of San Francisco Bay Area Indians seized Alcatraz Island after the San Francisco Indian Center burned down.  Then, in February 1970, they drafted a grant proposal to convert the island into a cultural-education center. [1] Ironically, shortly before, Alcatraz was one of the nation’s most prominent high-security prisons.  However, these Indians wanted Alcatraz to be “focused on the Indian people” and “a place of our own.  Somewhere that is geographically unfeasible for everybody to come and interfere with what we would like to do with our lives.” [2] Author Sherman Alexie, himself a Spokane Indian, tells a similar story of liberation and struggle in his semi-autobiographical novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Focused around the teenage boy Arnold Spirit, Jr., Alexie superbly blends the adversity and hopelessness of reservation life with Arnold’s strong desire to attain a better future beyond the “rez.”  Just as the Bay Area Indians were fighting for an island of their own, Arnold is searching for a place in the world where he can find both acceptance and success.  You could say that Arnold is searching for his own Alcatraz Island.

American Indian Reservation; Source:newsfornatives.com

Arnold’s journey begins with his transfer from Winnipit Reservation High School to the well-regarded and nearly all-white Reardon High School off the reservation.  However, this decision is not solely self-motivated.  Arnold, angered over the outdated resources of his reservation school, throws a book at his teacher and is suspended.  Much to his surprise the teacher comes to him to confess the pain he, as a white reservation teacher, has seen and caused on the reservation.  He warns Arnold, “if you stay on this rez they’re going to kill you.  I’m going to kill you. We’re all going to kill you.” [3] Inspired to escape the vicious circle of reservation life, Arnold decides his only choice is to do the previously unthinkable, break from his tribe.

This break is only the first, and possibly easiest, part of Arnold’s journey.  Leaving Winnipit causes him to lose his best friend, Rowdy, while his acclamation to Reardon is anything but smooth.  As “half Indian in one place and half white in the other,” Arnold feels like a stranger in both worlds. [4] Though he wants to embrace Reardon with all its opportunity and hope, he finds the rejection on the rez hard to stomach.  The reservation, with its alcoholism and low education, is often not a pleasant place.  He remarks, “Reservations were meant to be prisons, you know?  Indians were supposed to move onto reservations and die.” [216]. But unfortunately for Arnold, this prison also contains many of the people he loves most.

Yet, at Reardon Arnold becomes highly successful.  He dates the popular and lovely Penelope and becomes a star basketball player.  And it is through basketball that his conflict comes to a head.  The Spokane Indians’ mentality in Winnipit towards their Reardon rivals is much like it is with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, you are either with them or against them.  Following a less than pleasant reception at the first game between Reardon at Winnipit, Arnold prepares for a rematch at Reardon’s gym.  In a blaze of glory, Arnold shuts down Rowdy, his former best friend and Winnipit’s best player, to lead Reardon to victory.  Caught up in the moment Arnold thinks, “We had defeated the enemy!…We were David who’d thrown a stone into the brain of Goliath.” [195] But then the realization comes to him- the Indians are still the losers, they are David.  As said by the Bay Area Indians, “while we were physically away, we still had our families and people in our hearts and on our minds.” [6] With a heavy heart, Arnold is surprised to find shame and confliction in a moment which he believed would be full of glory.

At Alcatraz the Bay Area Indians faced uncertainty and resistance, just as Arnold faced unsuspected challenges and pain.  But as the Bay Area Indians eventually failed in their attempt to gain Alcatraz, Arnold begins to build his own “island” in the world.  In a touching reunion ending the novel, Rowdy tells Arnold that he is the “nomadic” Indian in a world where nomadic Indians have almost disappeared.  Arnold travels from place to place to sustain himself in a world with sparse resources.  We are left with the feeling that Arnold will be one to succeed and go out into the world proclaiming, “We are a proud people!  We are Indians!” [7]

[1] “Planning Grant Proposal to Develop an All-Indian University and Cultural Complex on Indian Land, Alcatraz,” in Great Documents in American Indian Histor, ed. Wayne Moquin (Da Capo, 1995), 374.

[2] Ibid, 375-6.

[3] Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2007), 43.

[4] Ibid, 118.

[5] Ibid, 195.

[6] “Planning Grant Proposal,” 377.

[7] Ibid, 375.

12 thoughts on “Between the Rock (aka Alcatraz) and a Hard Place

  1. One of the things that surprised me the most about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian was the unflinching look it takes towards the reality of life on Indian reservations. Because it is a young adult book, I expected issues like alcoholism, poverty, and suicide to be alluded to, but not directly confronted. Boy was I wrong. The book is a searing testament to the devastation that alcoholism has wrought in the Native American community. I hope that it represents a call to action among younger generations of Native Americans to break the cycle of alcoholism.

    The other issue that the book deals with, although in much less detail, is the reality of reservation-based casinos that are sponsored by specific tribes. As the book demonstrates, such casinos rarely support the entire tribe and often lose money. In Rhode Island, the Narragansett Indians have fought for years for the right to open their own casino. When the issue was put to a vote, those against the proposal argued that casinos are not an economic boon to an area and only generate low-wage, low-skill jobs. The state’s voters soundly defeated the proposal. Although I will avoid going into the complex politics that drove that vote, I think the voters recognized what Sherman Alexie was alluding to in the book. Although casinos may benefit a few stakeholders, they prey on the economically vulnerable and do not improve the financial situation of those who live near them or work for them.

    1. Your point about the failure of casinos to bring in money is interesting. I was browsing the Spokane Tribe’s website and came across a new program of theirs, called STEP: Spokane Tribe Economic Project. This project involves the real estate development of 145 acres of tribal trust lands to build “a tribal cultural center, casino with five restaurants, a food court, a convention and banquet center, a 300-room hotel, an entertainment center, an indoor pool and spa, a lifestyle retail center featuring shopping and dining, major tenant retail space, a fire and police station, and a commercial development” (see video at http://www.spokanetribe.com/step). The STEP video estimates that it will create 1,200 construction jobs, 1,000 permanent hospitality jobs, 1,000 permanent retail jobs, and 700 “indirect and induced jobs.” The program aims not only to reduce unemployment in the Spokane Tribe and strengthen the local economy, but also seeks to provide “an opportunity for the Spokane Tribe to become self-sufficient.”

      As outsiders whose view might be colored by Absolutely True Diary, how should perceive this project? Is this an opportunity to go beyond the casino and create a sustainable solution to poverty, unemployment, and other woes? Or is the tribe overestimating the project’s impact?

      1. I’m really glad you found that project on their website. It sounds a lot like a wanna-be Mohegan Sun. To decode the job breakdown:

        1,200 construction jobs: These jobs are temporary and there is no guarantee that they will go to Native American workers. The large construction companies who bid for the job will likely argue that there are not enough trained Native Americans to fill the jobs and bring in non-Native American construction teams.

        1,000 permanent hospitality jobs: These jobs will be low wage, low skill positions with iffy benefits and little room to move up

        1,000 permanent retail jobs: See above.

        700 indirect jobs: That’s a gamble. I’m sure some off-site jobs will be created, but 700 sounds like a stab in the dark.

        I think that young adults like Arnold Spirit deserve better than a life of waiting tables, ringing cash registers and dealing blackjack. I also think that the tribe is overestimating the project’s impact. It will take years to recoup the investment put into the project and there is no guarantee that the money will reach the people who actually need it.

    2. I found the depth and power of this young adult book to be astounding as well. It is a great read for young adults and adults alike. I was disappointed to see that a Missouri school district has banned the book because of content. While it certainly presents difficult material, I think it has a great message and touches on many pertinent topics for young adults.

      As for the casinos, I agree that they do not create the meaningful jobs that reservations so desperately need. While they can bring a small amount of capital, it is a minor fix that benefits far too few people and creates few, if any, long-term fruitful careers.

  2. There are so many things to say about Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. He touches on issues of identity, race, class- they were all there and I really resonated with Arnold Spirit, Jr.’s dilemmas of feeling displaced at both Reardon and the rez. It was both galling but inevitable that he would have to go to Reardon and have to leave his community in order to achieve success. I wanted to rebel against that reality in the book. I want to fast forward in Arnold’s life and find out if he comes back to his rez at some point after visiting The Great Wall of China and the world and does something to change his community for the better. I know that within African-American communities (especially poor communities) there is a desire for those that succeed outside of their community to “give back” to their community through monetary means, volunteering or building community centers. Something that helps others and shows your love and support for the community and people you left behind and to help those back home achieve and share in your success. This happens a lot with basketball players and actors and musicians, but its often not expressed publicly. I saw a similar story with Arnold and want him to come back and and help his community, or at least the younger generation. I think his going to Reardon was important, but I felt it was bitter sweet success that I hope he alleviates for future generations of his tribe.

  3. There are so many things to say about Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. He touches on issues of identity, race, class- they were all there and I really resonated with Arnold Spirit, Jr.’s dilemmas of feeling displaced at both Reardon and the rez. It was both galling but inevitable that he would have to go to Reardon and have to leave his community in order to achieve success. I wanted to rebel against that reality in the book. I want to fast forward in Arnold’s life and find out if he comes back to his rez at some point after visiting The Great Wall of China and the world and does something to change his community for the better. I know that within African-American communities (especially poor communities) there is a desire for those that succeed outside of their community to “give back” to their community through monetary means, volunteering or building community centers. Something that helps others and shows your love and support for the community and people you left behind and to help those back home achieve and share in your success. This happens a lot with basketball players and actors and musicians, but its often not expressed publicly. I saw a similar story with Arnold and want him to come back and and help his community, or at least the younger generation. I think his going to Reardon was important, but I felt it was bitter sweet success that I hope he alleviates for future generations of his tribe.

  4. Thank you for such a great summary of the book, Matt! I had so many thoughts as I read An Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian but I was really reminded of Crossing Ocean Avenue as I read. In particular, I was interested in how Junior “crossed over” and learned to succeed in Reardon. For example, Junior punched Roger, following the rules of the Rez, only to discover that what would have resulted in an escalating feud actually gained him the respect, and eventually friendship, of his tormentor. Junior had to learn the codes of this new society, but almost blindly found his way to success making friends with Gordy, Roger, and Penelope. At times it seemed that most challenges came from Junior’s life on the Rez–the deaths of family members, not speaking to Rowdy, being seen as a traitor by other community members. How was it easier for him to find success in an outside town when his own community presented such challenges?

    1. I also wondered about how it was easier for Junior to succeed away from home as opposed to the community where he grew up–even when talking about his community, Junior makes so many statements about major issues that he seems to brush aside, such as the rampant problem of alcoholism. I think part of the reason he “succeeded” (and I use that term loosely) is because he was able to hide the parts of his identity that he didn’t want. The poor family with the broken-down car, the drunk dad, and the parents who never really got the chance to follow their dreams. By getting off the reservation, if only for 7 hours daily during the school week, Junior could pretend he lived in an alternate universe, where success really was possible, and I believe that’s a major driving force in the book–understanding that moving up in the world is within the realm of possibility.

      1. When Junior starting attending Reardon, I, too, expected more hardships for him in that community opposed to his reservation community. While I believe that Elizabeth is correct in that Junior could assume more of a middle-class identity like his Readon peers, it did not take too long for those closest to him to figure out how his home really was. Despite this, by balancing some of the wisdom ingrained in him and through fear of “dying” in the reservation, he was able to gain respect and then trust.

        I also found it interesting when the community began to accept Junior’s attendance of a white school as interesting. When Grandmother Spirit died, most of the harassment stopped. However, when his sister died, Rowdy’s anger and sadness was never stronger. Death, despite the causes, plays a huge role in this book, and one of the most powerful chapters that showed this sense of community was the end of “Wake” in which Junior states “Each funeral was a funeral for all of us. We lived and died together.”

  5. I want to challenge the connection you draw between the the actions of the Bay Area Indians and the story of Arnold Spirit. I think their motivations and objectives were different. The Bay Area Indians wanted to establish a culturally autonomous space that would be outside the influence of White culture. However, Arnold Spirit actively engaged with White culture because he saw it as a way up and out of the reservation. While Arnold was quite uncomfortable with leaving the reservation and had (some) pride in his Native heritage, he did not have separatist political aims like the Bay Area Indians. His motivations were much more personal. However, I think you are correct to see the Bay Area Indians and Arnold Spirit as both trying to figure out how best to define their Native culture in relation to White culture. I think they just come to different conclusions.

    1. I really appreciate this input Jacob. The difference between the Bay Area Indians’ and Arnold’s reaction with the white community was something I wanted to touch on more and I am glad that you have extended that conversation. The Bay Area Indians aimed for an educational institution “so that they would stop whitewashing Indians.” Arnold joins the white community to a greater degree and begins to stray from the native community. But I did also see his hesitance to completely abandon his family and friends. His breakdown after the defeat of Winnipit and his feeling that his departure caused his sister’s death, displayed a continued emotional connection to his home. The biggest connection that I saw between the two was a struggle for education and hope in a world where little seemed to exist. For the Bay Area Indians this meant a completely autonomous island while for Arnold it was Reardon and neither was a perfect solution. But what I saw in Arnold was his potential for success and his ability to help the cause of Indian education later in his life. In this way I can see a relationship between him and the Bay Area Indians.

  6. It is very telling how Rowdy comes to think of Arnold as embodying the essence of a “true” Indian. Arnold’s act of leaving the reservation to attend school at Reardon was at first seen as the ultimate betrayal of his people. Rowdy, especially, took this as a personal attack and a callous abandonment of what it meant to be Indian. Rowdy retorted by inflicting physical and emotional harm upon Arnold, trying to make Arnold feel some of the pain that he himself felt. Only after the two boys had several encounters and Arnold made several attempts to regain Rowdy’s friendship did Rowdy let his guard down a bit and admit that Arnold, by pursuing his dreams and his place in the world, was more closely aligned to their people than anyone else on the reservation. I think it’s this last step that is the hardest for most people to reach, but attempts at understanding must be made by all community members if individuals are to be able to succeed in the outside world.

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