The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and the Problems with Reservations

“Reservations were meant to be prisons, you know? Indians were supposed to move on to reservations and die. We were supposed to disappear.” [1]

Sherman Alexie’s funny and heartbreaking novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, is the story of a teenage boy trying to figure out his identity, but it is also a biting indictment of American Indian Reservations as isolating, other-ing, and smothering.

Junior Spirit spends the whole novel pursuing a future beyond his poverty-stricken and booze-soaked reservation while still holding on to his identity as a Spokane Indian. In the novel, Alexie is critical of reservations, which are the creations of white people determined to destroy Indian culture, but he also emphasizes the value and importance of tribe and culture for many Indians. The trouble for Junior is that many in his community seem to equate the tribe with the reservation. So when Junior follows his teacher’s advice to get out of the reservation by transferring to the rich white Reardan high school thirty miles away, his tribe treats him like a traitor.

He feels trapped in the reservation because of its debilitating cycles of poverty and neglect. When Junior describes his parents, he goes on about how his mom could have been a college professor and his dad could have been the fifth best saxophone player west of the Mississippi if only someone had paid attention to their dreams. “But,” Junior explains, “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.” [2]The reservation, as Junior sees it, is full of wasted potential and crushed dreams.

When Junior arrives at Reardan High, where he hopes he will have a better chance to achieve his dreams, he is an outsider and faces racism and name-calling (chief, Tonto, redskin, squaw boy) because he is from the reservation. He feels like his identity is torn in half – at school he is half Indian and on the reservation his “betrayal” makes him half white. [3] Still, Junior has hope, and is eventually able to find friends and acceptance at his new high school and reconciles leaving the reservation with being a Spokane Indian. Nothing, however, changes for the rest of the reservation; the three deaths right in a row of Junior’s Grandmother, his dad’s best friend, and his sister (all three deaths attributable to alcohol) seem to prove the toxicity of reservation life.

As he is mourning his sister’s death, Junior comments that “I was crying 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.” [4] Junior comes to the sad realization that even though knows that he will be okay, he knows many others, like his best friend whose father hits him and who is so angry at everything, will not be, and he does not know how to help them.

And yet the novel ends on a positive, even hopeful note, hopeful that it is possible for Junior to move beyond the reservation and still retain his sense of belonging to the Spokane tribe. Alexie writes a powerful commentary on the sad state of life for many people who live on reservations, and his critique is damning. Because it is not that kind of book, Part-Time Indian does not offer any sweeping solutions to the problems with reservations [5] but it does offer very real, positive portrayal of modern Indians which is very empowering, especially for kids growing up on reservations like the one in the book.

Empowering Native Youth is something that Sherman Alexie cares deeply about. He is a founding board member of Longhouse Media, whose mission “is the catalyze indigenous people and communities to use media as a tool for self-expression, cultural preservation, and social change.” [6]

[1] Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian 216

[2] 13

[3] 118

[4] 216

[5] Such as… p. 31 “…I was staring at a geometry book that was at least thirty years older than I was… My school and tribe are so poor and sad that we have to study from the same dang books our parents studied from. And that is absolutely the saddest thing in the world.”

[6] Longhouse Media mission statement

9 thoughts on “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and the Problems with Reservations

  1. It is interesting to note that Sherman Alexie did not intend for this novel to offer some sort of “sweeping solution to the problems with reservations”. But at the same time, it seems important to take action and think of ways that the extreme poverty that we have seen in this book can be mitigated. Though it is good that Junior was able to escape from his negative home environment, it is still disheartening to think that in order to do so, he had to leave his community. Though not to the same severity, I had a similar experience to Alexie. In order to receive a better education, I left my Philadelphia community to go to school in the rich, white suburbs. As a result, I felt much internal conflict in terms of abandoning my people in order to go to a white school. Though there is clearly not one grand solution to combatting gross racial and socio-economic inequality, it is important, for me, to nevertheless dedicate my life to helping those who have fallen victim to oppression find ways to uplift themselves and their neighborhoods, so that eventually children, like Alexie, will no longer feel that they must escape their communities in order to survive.

  2. I related to the struggle of Junior to find his identity and become the person he wants to be. Its hard to leave home, the family you love who in turn are struggle. It can seem very selfish, but in the end it is your life. We deserve the things we want if we have the courage to seek them out.

  3. I agree with the concluding statement lindsey made about Sherman Alexie’s care for empowering Native youth and I think that this book carries that message. I believe this goal is intentional. Perhaps he did not start out writing the book for that goal, but I certainly think he wanted to write a story that a Native American child on a reservation could relate to. I think he hoped that if any children on reservations did read this book then he hoped they wouldn’t feel as alone as he did.

  4. At the very end I was glad to see that Junior and Rowdy were able to be re-united following the end of the school year. But it saddened me to think about how this was just one year out of a lifetime of hurdles and struggles for both of these guys. I wonder where the other people in Alexie’s life have ended up. He may have been able to crawl out of the cycle, but how many people from his childhood are still trapped in the cycle?

  5. Naomi, I also wondered what happened after. We can read what “actually” happened to Alexie, but I want to know how the author envisions Junior’s future. What would the world look like after Junior graduates? Does he go to college? Does he come home for holidays, year after year finding a growing divide between himself and the people back home? When finally given the choice, does Junior settle back onto the reservation and raise children there, or run as far as he can? I’d love to know how Alexie envisions Junior’s future.

  6. In many ways the books seems like the typical story of an awkward teenager who struggles with his identity, but it’s also a lot more complicated than that. Growing up on a reservation where he is surrounded by poverty, hopelessness, and alcoholism he has to confront so many additional problems that I cannot even imagine. And then when he try’s to escape it all, he becomes a traitor or an “apple” and must struggle with that.

    The basketball game at the end is interesting because Junior realizes that while his classmates at the white high school will probably go on to college and successful careers, the players from the reservation might not have any kind of a future. For them it might have been there last moment to shine. It really shows just how torn he is between the two worlds.

  7. I was struck by the comment Sherman Alexie made about community. Despite the troubles on the reservation, everyone knows everyone and there is a sense of community. The only sense of community you see in Reardon is the one that is formed around sporting events, the only time everyone gets together. His comment about white dads disappearing without leaving the living room reminded me of the compartmentalization that has occurred as households become increasingly more isolated – while social media has become popular, social interaction has not. The communication that happens not only between members of the reservation and but between Junior and his parents exists where it does not in Reardon.

  8. There was a great tweet that Sherman Alexie posted a little while ago that plays directly into this idea of home, community, and duel identities that really struck me, and that I kept thinking about when reading Part-Time Indian. Essentially, it said that he wishes he could go home to Spokane, but he also knows that Spokane is an extremely white, conservative, and racist place where he does not belong. The statement is personal, yes, but it also encompasses the problem of his entire community – the place that is supposed to be home has been re-invented by white people, for white people. Even “the rez” was created for the sake of white people, not the Indians who live there. And yet it is still home for Junior, and Alexie, and the many other people who live there, something Part Time Indian doesn’t allow us to forget, even as Junior makes the decision to escape.

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