“A Beautiful and Ugly Thing”: Moving Beyond Stereotypes

What do you think of when you hear the words “Native American?” Do you imagine a noble warrior with a feathered headdress? A homeless man begging for change and carrying a bottle of cheap whiskey? A spiritual shaman dispensing ancient words of wisdom? A cartoonish sports team mascot? All of the these portrayals are common stereotypes of Native Americans, but none of them tell the entire truth. In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, author Sherman Alexie moves beyond these stereotypes to present a more complex picture of contemporary Native American life.

Author Sherman Alexie.
Author Sherman Alexie.

Fourteen-year-old Junior describes himself as “a poor-ass reservation kid living with his poor-ass family on the poor-ass Spokane Indian Reservation.”[1] Poverty is a major force in Junior’s life; when he chooses to attend the off-reservation high school, he often hitchhikes because his parents have no gas money. One morning he drinks a gallon of orange fruit drink mix for breakfast because there is no other food in the house. Poverty affects all the families on the reservation; there are few jobs available and the tribal casino is not profitable. Junior feels embarrassed about being poor and tries to hide it from his white classmates, making up stories about losing his wallet.

Another important element of Junior’s life is the prevalence of alcohol. Junior explains how he only knows five Indians in his tribe who have never drunk alcohol, and 90 percent of deaths on the reservation are alcohol-related, including his grandmother, sister, and father’s best friend. Even those who don’t drink are still affected; Junior’s grandmother never drank, but was killed by a drunk driver. Junior describes his father as a drunk and his mother as an ex-drunk, and his best friend’s father is both alcoholic and physically abusive.

Junior traces the origins of his tribe’s poverty and alcoholism back to the lost of their culture: “We Indians have LOST EVERYTHING. We lost our native land, we lost our languages, we lost our songs and dances. We lost each other. We only know how to lose and be lost.”[2] Having lost so much, many Native Americans turned to alcohol to numb the pain. This is a concept known as historical trauma: the cumulative emotional and psychological wounding over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma. [3]

Junior's conception of himself at school and home.
Junior’s conception of himself at school and home.

Junior deals with a wide variety of issues, but there are also very positive factors in his life. A constant theme is his family’s love. He describes his family as “sticking together like Gorilla Glue, the strongest adhesive in the world….for good or bad, we don’t leave each other.”[4] His parents support Junior’s decision to attend the off-reservation school, and manage to scrape together enough money for gas and new clothes. Even though his father often disappears on alcohol binges, he never misses Junior’s basketball games, while his white friends’ parents rarely come to school events. Junior recognizes that his mother and father have problems, but still believes they’re good parents, because they talk to and listen to him.

One event exemplifies Junior’s relationship with his father; when his family has no money for Christmas presents, his dad ran away to get drunk. When he came back, he gave his last five dollars to Junior. As Junior describes it, “He could have spent that five bucks and stayed drunk for another day or two. But he saved it for me. It was a beautiful and ugly thing.” In the end, his father “may not have loved me perfectly, but he loved me as well as he could.” [5]

Junior also has close relationships with his grandmother, best friend, and community. He attends traditional powwows, rides his dad’s best friend’s motorcycle, plays basketball, reads comic books, climbs trees, and draws cartoons. Although Junior’s life is difficult, he manages to have fun and enjoy the positive elements of his situation. As he comments at his grandmother’s funeral, “sure, Indians were drunk and sad and displaced and crazy and mean, but dang, we knew how to laugh.” [6]

In depicting both positive and negative aspects of Junior’s life on the reservation, Sherman Alexie reminds the reader that stereotypes of Native Americans are not accurate. The common images of the noble savage, wise shaman, or pitiful alcoholic do not tell the full story of contemporary Native American life. As aspiring museum professionals, we have a duty to not promote stereotypes, to truly listen to those whose stories we seek to tell, and to focus on the positive as well as the negative. In doing so, we can contribute to a greater understanding between people of diverse backgrounds.

Notes:

[1] Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (Little, Brown, 2009), 7.

[2] Ibid., 173.

[3] “Takini’s Historical Trauma,” accessed April 10, 2015, http://www.historicaltrauma.com

[4] Alexie, Part-Time Indian, 89.

[5] Ibid., 151, 153.

[6] Ibid., 166.

14 thoughts on ““A Beautiful and Ugly Thing”: Moving Beyond Stereotypes

  1. Great post, Emily! I really enjoyed your look into both the positive and negative things Alexie highlighted in his book. I feel like relations with Native Americans are still very strained in the United States today. From my perspective they are very underrepresented as a culture, making it easy for people to push them into stereotypes because we don’t understand their culture. I loved the book overall, and I loved that your post really put it on us as museum professionals to not let this continue. We need to find ways to give voice to Native Americans and ensure their story is told.

    1. You are absolutely right that Native Americans are underrepresented in today’s society, and when they are portrayed, it’s usually as the stereotypical “brave” or as an alcoholic. I believe the only way to move beyond those stereotypes is to actually listen to Native American voices and portray their stories in all their complexity; that’s our job as museum professionals.

  2. I loved your break-down of this book and Junior’s experiences both positive and negative. I was also really struck by the positive moments in his story. I had definitely prepared myself for the trauma and the alcoholism and the poverty, but not for the extremely supportive family or laughter. My experience reading this book as well as your post really made me take a step back and look at my own perceptions and assumptions, which was a valuable lesson when thinking about “a cultural experience.” Even traumatic experiences are multifaceted.

  3. Your post has highlighted one of the most important aspects of the book for me – the depiction of real life. Alexie doesn’t bend to the stereotypical view of Native Americans, nor does he try to portray everything in a positive light. He just captures Junior’s real experience as a Native American, a basketball player, a friend, son, and teenage boy. This is a contemporary Native American story that seemed real to me. You’ve tied this nicely into our museum field as well.

  4. Just as you and the others have commented, the beauty of this book is that it provides a rich, well-rounded depiction of a Native American boy. In this book, the reader sees Junior as a real person and not as a stereotype of a culture. I like that this book in YA-I think it’s powerful that kids and teens of all backgrounds can read this book and potentially dispel any stereotypes they might have had before reading.

  5. What really struck me in this book was Junior’s declaration that the problems his family faces- alcoholism and poverty- were the result of the government and country taking away their culture. Like Meghan stated, you really highlighted the good and bad of Junior’s situation. What really inspired me was that Junior never stopped wanting an education and never thought that he didn’t deserve it.

    1. I didn’t go into it in detail in my post, but the alcoholism and poverty, as well as other problems, goes back to the concept of historical trauma. What happened to Native Americans generations ago is still affecting them today; that’s what Junior is starting to realize.. One of my mother’s co-workers, Rose Dominick, has done a lot of work with healing from historical trauma; she works with Alaska Native communities to talk about the bad things that happened in the past, because talking about it is the first step to healing.

  6. Emily, I like how you emphasize in your post that Junior had such a strong family connection. Junior struggled with difficulties that many teens face: feeling awkward and out of place, distant from people who were once best friends, and navigating the dating world. On top of average teen stressors Junior had the added difficulty of the disadvantages and racism placed on him and his community by centuries of Americans. Through it all, Junior’s family was always there to be on his side and to tell him that they loved and supported him. I was particularly touched by how the whole community came together to celebrate the life of his grandmother. I think that this is an incredible book for beginning the process of disbanding stereotypes of Native Americans, and as Emily noted, perhaps it is an example we museum professionals can follow in our future work.

  7. Emily, the strongest element of the entire book is the love for family and being there for each. You highlight beautifully. Probably one of the strength of this book is that Junior overcame a lot through the strength of himself and his family. The book highlights when the white community used his Native American identity (Penelope for her racist father) and his tribe hating him for going to the white school. Yet, he blends them and he grows. I think that his friend Rowdy grew as well though he didn’t experience that shift in identity like Junior. We definitely need more books like this.

  8. Emily, your post really explains a lot of the issues and stereotypes about Native Americans in a powerful and insightful way. I agree that family and community plays an important role in shaping Junior’s life experiences and struggles. Junior doesn’t blame his family or community for thinking he is a traitor or for the obstacles to his education. He realizes that his people have been oppressed for centuries and this has strong negative impact on their lives and outlook. It is extremely difficult to escape poverty and oppression when society says that your group is insignificant and is ignored. Sherman Alexis biographies Flight and this book relate true events that are close to him. He is courageous in writing about these experiences when society would prefer to forget about his people and the horrendous ways that we treated them throughout our nation’s history. Stories like these need to be told so we can grow and work towards creating a more just world where Native Americans have opportunities to escape poverty, fight alcoholism, and recover their culture. And Emily, you are right all of us, museum professionals, teachers, and individuals in society all have a duty to help them get their stories out so we can stop this cycle of repeating the mistreatment of Native Americans.

  9. Emily, thank you for pointing out the power in well-rounded narratives about underrepresented people. For many readers of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, this might be the first experience they have reading about Native issues at all. When Native voices are amplified and Native characters are portrayed as whole, complex humans, that’s when stereotypes begin to break down. This discussion reminds me of an amazing blog called Native Appropriations (http://nativeappropriations.com/) about the portrayal of Native people in the media and/or the appropriation of Native cultures. This post about the possibility of a Native Bechdel Test is particularly interesting: http://nativeappropriations.com/2014/10/is-it-time-for-a-native-bechdel-test.html

    1. Miranda, I also really loved Emily’s points about well-rounded narratives of Native American people. Representation of Native characters and voices is so important, especially with many Native Americans facing so many complex issues in contemporary America. The many issues he was dealing with, as well as the diverse group of characters made this an excellent read.

  10. Emily, it is so great to hear your insights as always. You closed in saying it is our duty as museum professionals not to promote such stereotyping. I challenge that we must take it a step further. Not only must we not promote this rhetoric, we should actively be putting the kibosh on it! It is our duty to tell such stories with accuracy, using fact and narrative, combining them into something valuable and digestible to the public, just as Sherman Alexie did in this book.

  11. Lovely post, Emily. What I liked about this book was all the complex relationships: the good and bad of both schools, his friend group in each location, his family and their decisions, etc. I think that in this novel Alexie showcases “real life,” and allows all audiences to find an aspect to connect to. It also, like my classmates have said, breaks down stereotypes by incorporating complex relationships.

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