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.
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.” 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.” 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. 
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.” 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.” 
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.” 
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.
 Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian (Little, Brown, 2009), 7.
 Ibid., 173.
 “Takini’s Historical Trauma,” accessed April 10, 2015, http://www.historicaltrauma.com
 Alexie, Part-Time Indian, 89.
 Ibid., 151, 153.
 Ibid., 166.