Awkward Understanding

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I was an exceptionally awkward teenager. I typically had few, if any friends. I conversed more easily with adults twenty to thirty years my senior than I ever did with my compatriots. The only place I really felt like I belonged was on the football team, but even then, my tendency to read books in excess of 1,000 pages before, after, and sometimes during practice set me apart from my teammates. I rarely dated, though that trend continued even into my adulthood. I became used to being described as weird. And, while my experience was unique in its details, it is a completely normal experience for any teenager in America to feel like he or she doesn’t fit with the in crowd (even if you happen to be in the in crowd).

All of this served to make reading The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie all the more easy for me. While Mr. Alexie specifically wrote the non-fictional fiction for young adult audiences, his use of the awkward and lonely experience of Arnold Spirit, Jr. in his first year at high school made his story immediately accessible to me, though I have been out of high school for ten years. I can imagine that this was, of course, Mr. Alexie’s goal: to write a book that exposes non-Native youth to an experience that is at once intimate and unfamiliar, the life of a Native American teenager on a reservation.

Having lived in a city that is partially ensconced within the largest reservation in Michigan, I was more familiar with the topics of domestic violence, poverty, substance abuse, and low expectations than I think Mr. Alexie’s intended audience is in general. I also held a job at an institution owned and operated by the economic development corporation run by the tribe, and interacted with many of the archetypical characters found within Mr. Alexie’s novel. I met Arnold’s family, who dealt with substance abuse and poverty on a daily basis. I conversed with his Grandmother and Uncle Eugene. I even met many people who took the brave steps that Arnold did to break free of the cycle of poverty, and who probably had many of the same questions and trials as Arnold in trying to find their own identity.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This is the strength of Mr. Alexie’s novel. He uses the teenage quest for identity that we all experience to discuss issues that represent an epidemic of poverty among a part of America that the general public never really tries to understand. If they did, then no one would wear hats with the Cleveland Indians logo, or jackets that say “Redskins” in red and gold, Land O’ Lakes butter wouldn’t be on the shelves, and there wouldn’t be a concrete Tepee east of Cherry Valley on U.S. Route 20 in New York (where no tribes ever built tepees). But remedying these surface issues is only the start. If poverty and racism are going to end, then education and skill-building amongst all populations in the United States are necessary.

7 thoughts on “Awkward Understanding

  1. I completely agree with your post Keith. I have never had to deal with issues of poverty or substance abuse, but I can relate to Arnold Spirit’s Jr. story of trying to make something of himself, to break out of the norm, and the trials he faced of never completely fitting in (not at home on the reservation and not in the all white school district he chose to join). I think finding these similarities while reading made me more susceptible to the other themes in the book of poverty, substance abuse, and others that I would not have been able to grasp if I had not been able to relate to the rest of Arnold’s experiences.

  2. I found your comment towards the end about the commodification of Native Americans in our country’s advertisements to be particularly fascinating. I am puzzled by the use of stereotypical “Indian” forms such as the Indian warrior, the Indian maiden/princess, and the native as one with the “earth and spirits”. We see these forms in our grocery store shelves and on our television sets and yet there seems to be little being done about it!

    1. Cate, your comment reminds me of an article that we read in Cindy Falk’s AMCII class about the image of Aunt Jemima on pancake mix and syrup. We examined the stereotypical image of the African American slave woman, and how over time, people began to think of Aunt Jemima as a real person, and that the image WAS the female black slave experience. The image was immortalized on grocery store shelves, and still persists despite the blatant racial stereotype.

  3. I just went to Turning Stone Casino and stayed in their “Lodge” Hotel. The casino is on the Oneida Reservation. I found myself walking around this beautiful resort with its waterfalls and Native American art wondering if this was really the manifestation of the Oneida people or if it was an accommodation to the white man’s perception of Native Americans (cause they’re all the same no matter what tribe they’re from). I decided that it was definitely the white man’s perception of the American Indian that graced the halls of “The Lodge.” So my question is, is the exploitation of one’s culture for profit ok since it’s one’s own culture? And how do we break free from that cycle if someone’s own culture is perpetuating the stereotype?

  4. I also found the same exact same connection Keith had to Alexie’s characters. Having come from a state like New Mexico that has multiple large reservations, I was struck by the honesty Alexie brought to the the table about native life through the book. The educational aspect that this book brings to a wide audience because of character accesibility is of great value to people of all ages. This access point allows him to discuss more serious points and really project the native experience in current culture.

  5. This was an extremely powerful book for me too – I really appreciated the “voice” of the novel – how approachable all of these extremely tough topics were presented and in such an honest way. Stereotypes can be such a hard social battle to fight – one side doesn’t see how hurtful it can be and the other only sees the hurt, but that doesn’t mean we should stop striving for higher, less hurtful ground. A couple weeks ago we were talking about how oral histories can serve as a bridge of understanding – this book is like a good oral history in that sense – maybe a good place to at least start is by sharing stories like this one.

  6. I think that one of the strengths of the book is that even if you didn’t grow up having the same experiences as the characters, you can still find something to relate with. I think we all remember feeling awkward in high school, like we didn’t quite fit. That makes it a more accessible story than it might be otherwise.

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