Spokane Reservation schoolchildren pose with shovels and potatoes sacks from University of Washington Digital Collection at http://content.lib.washington.edu/cdm4/item_viewer.php?CISOROOT=/loc&CISOPTR=238
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 .
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 .
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 . 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?
 Alexie, Sherman, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (New York: Little, Brown and Company. 2007), 42-43.
 Alexie, 13.
 APA Fact Sheet, “Mental Health Disparities: American Indians and Alaska Natives”, American Psychiatric Association Office of Minority and National Affairs, 2010.