The Grim Reaper on the Rez

spokane Spokane Reservation schoolchildren pose with shovels and potatoes sacks from University of Washington Digital Collection at

Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian chronicles the struggles of Junior Spirit, a Native American adolescent, as he struggles to find a life for himself outside of the confines of the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington.  Through witty, yet thought-provoking narration, Alexie uses his Junior Spirit character to illuminate the present-day atrocities that occur on American Indian reservations within the United States of America.  The author’s work reflects Alexie’s lived experiences from coming of age on a reservation, and his quest to survive, despite the odds.  Through Junior’s determined attempts to escape his doomed destiny on the rez, Alexie portrays the internal conflicts of the young boy as he must make a decision to leave the reservation and attend an all-white public high school in order to avoid an untimely literal and figurative death.

Sherman Alexie situates Junior’s decision to leave the Spokane Indian Reservation as a matter of life or death.  After throwing a book at one of his white teachers at his reservation school, Junior has a moment of revelation in which  he realizes that he will never amount to anything if he remains on the reservation.  Mr. P., the teacher whom Junior aimed the book at, helps Junior to better see his fate, as he says,

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.  You can’t fight us forever…You fought off all the drunks and drug addicts.  You kept your hope.  And now, you have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope…You’re going to find more and more hope the farther and farther you walk away from this sad, sad, sad reservation [1].

This passage exemplifies the heavy theme of death that appears throughout Alexie’s work.  While it is uncertain whether Mr. P. was speaking of death in a literal or figurative sense during this poignant moment, Alexie portrays the rez as an establishment that has the ability to kill Junior’s body and soul if he does not act quickly.

In a symbolic sense, Alexie’s Junior character demonstrates the power of the reservation’s ability to kill the spirits of its Native American inhabitants.  Throughout the novel, Junior articulates the immense amount of apathy that he witnesses within the attitudes and actions of his family and fellow community members.  Such apathy, Junior attributes to the utterly hopeless lives Native people lead on the reservation due to mass social inequality and neglect:

…we 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… It sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor…because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor.  It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it [2].

Such a debilitating cycle of oppression is what Junior must escape in order to avoid a spiritual death.

Along with the overarching theme of the symbolic death of the soul, Sherman Alexie plagues The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian with normalized instances of physical death caused by extreme health disparities and substance abuse.  A history of  diabetes and cancer runs through Junior’s family.  And,  in the beginning of the novel, Junior tells the reader about not only his battles with hydrocephalus, but also, the Indian Health Service and the lack of health care and resources on the Spokane reservation.  An example of such is when Junior must suffer through having his teeth pulled with inadequate amounts of anesthesia.  Through these story-lines, it is evident that existence on a reservation automatically amounts to a lifetime of health concerns due to systems of oppression.

Junior’s recollections about health disparities on the Spokane Indian Reservation are in accordance with statistics from the 2010 American Psychiatric Association Office of Minority and National Affairs Mental Health Disparities: American Indians and Alaska Natives fact sheet.  According to such statistics, the life expectancy among Native peoples is six years lower than the United States average; Native Americans die at significantly higher rates from tuberculosis, diabetes, and unintentional injuries and die from alcohol-related causes six times more often than the national average; and three times as many Native Americans lack health insurance as whites-33% compared to 11% of whites [3].  Such statistics indicate the gross health disparities that Native Americans must face, and explain the omnipresence of untimely death in Junior’s life.

At a young age, Junior must make an adult decision to actively choose survival.  He must escape the rez.  But how can we, as a society, remove the Grim Reaper from the Reservation?

Works Cited:

[1] Alexie, Sherman, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (New York: Little, Brown and Company. 2007), 42-43.

[2] Alexie, 13.

[3] APA Fact Sheet, “Mental Health Disparities: American Indians and Alaska Natives”, American Psychiatric Association Office of Minority and National Affairs, 2010.

8 thoughts on “The Grim Reaper on the Rez

  1. You pose an interesting question, especially as we continue to struggle with our own health care system. How can we make health easy and accessible to all? I’m afraid I don’t know the answer. Does anyone?

  2. The answer to you question: “how can we, as a society, remove the Grim Reaper from the Reservation?” is to large to answer. Perhaps it should be thought of in smaller pieces. For instance: How are do we increase the number of students graduating? How do we support our students who want to go on to college? These two questions deal with education, but it should extended into other areas. Health care, economic growth and employment, cultural preservation and rehabilitation, to name just a few. Everything is interconnected which adds to the difficulty tribes may have in finding solutions.

    1. A big part of the problem seems to be poverty and the undermining belief that “because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor.” Perhaps one of the first steps is empowerment? More books (movies, television…) like Alexie’s that call out problems with the system and show people succeeding in different ways? Of course there then needs to be greater support in terms of education, health care, cultural preservation, as Naomi points out, and I’m afraid I’m back at the question of how to provide those things on reservations (especially when we’re struggling with those questions outside the reservations as well).

  3. Both Naomi and Meghan touch on the important topic of providing services (educational and medical). These services are essential to “removing the Grim Reaper,” yet the rural nature of many reservations must make it very difficult for non-profits or tribal/US government organizations to provide high quality services at affordable costs. And, this is assuming there is an interest from outside the reservations to make such an effort. I’m afraid I’m writing the third comment of the day that ends with no solution and only more questions.

  4. Abbie’s comment about interest from outside the reservation is interesting. Alexie hits on a topic that I think veil people’s perception of life on reservations: casinos. People see the success of casinos in places like Las Vegas and Atlantic City and equate those same levels of success to reservation-based casinos. In the Northeast, reservation-run casinos appear to be incredibly successful and lucrative. Coupled with beliefs that there is already a large amount of financial support to reservations and/or a lack of understanding of the relationship between reservations, some people believe that reservations do not need help. A real educational campaign would be needed to help people to understand the disparity that exists in some reservations. I do not speak as an authority on the topic; I am willing to admit I do not know as much as I should. This book and these discussions have brought new questions to mind.

  5. I think the question of how to provide and improve services on reservations is particularly problematic when you consider that outsiders… don’t exactly have a good track record for improving the lives of American Indians (now there’s the understatement of the year). So many awful, stupid, destructive, sad things the US government, nonprofits, and other (largely white) interested parties have done on reservations over the centuries had good intent. Even those interested in reforms today often go about providing services with a paternalistic bent (the Teach for America model comes to mind). The question becomes not only what can we do, but also how can we do it without screwing things up even more than we already have?

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