Competing Identities in Conflicting Spaces

Identity is a combination of many factors, such as family, culture, economic status, and community.   Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian showcases the strong relationship between identity and place; each affect each other and help to shape Junior and his path in life.

Junior lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington with his parents, sister, and grandmother. Junior’s parents and grandmother have lived on the reservation for most or all of their lives, as have many of the reservation members. Junior’s sense of identity at the beginning of the novel is strongly tied to his place on the reservation and his relationship to others in his community. He knows who he is on the reservation and what his place is. This all changes when he leaves to attend Reardan High School, an unfamiliar place both physically and culturally.

Junior is nervous about leaving the reservation and what lies ahead for hmim.
Junior is nervous about leaving the reservation and what lies ahead for him.

Junior must navigate a new identity after he enters this new space. He is the only Native American besides the mascot; most of the other students come from rich families; the teachers and students alternately stare and him and ignore him.  His struggle with identity can be seen in something as simple as his name. On the reservation, he has always gone by Junior. In contrast, his teachers and the other students at Reardan call him Arthur. He tries to explain to his classmates that “‘My name is Junior…and my name is Arnold. It’s Junior and Arnold. I’m both.’” [1] His different names, used in different situations, represent the dichotomy he feels; he is a different person on and off the reservation.

Junior’s place on his peers’ social ladder also changes when he transfers schools. On the reservation, he is often picked on and bullied, even by adults. When he first attends Reardan, he is both picked on and ignored. However, becoming friends with the most popular girl in school results in Junior also becoming popular. This is something that wouldn’t have happened to him on the reservation. His new classmates see him in a different way that the Wellpinit students he grew up with never could; he explains that Reardan students like him because he “looked and talked and dreamed and walked differently than everybody else. I was new.” [2] This new status gives him more confidence as he expands his friend group and becomes somewhat more comfortable at Reardan.

Junior's best friend reacts to him leaving the reservation to attend Reardan.
Junior’s best friend reacts to him leaving the reservation to attend Reardan.

Central to Junior’s feeling of changing identity is how his reservation community perceives and treats him. They see him as a traitor for leaving the reservation school to attend an all-white school; Junior explains to his friend that “They call me an apple because they think I’m red on the outside and white on the inside.” [3]. This sentiment is easily seen in Reardan’s first basketball game of the season against Wellpinit. As the Rearden team walks into the gym, all the tribal members stop chanting “Arnold sucks!” and collectively turn their back on Junior. Junior’s former best friend, Rowdy, gives Junior a concussion, and his cousins are among a group of children that throw snowballs filled with rocks at the Reardan players. However, even though they see him as a traitor, the others wave a white flag the day of his grandmother’s funeral and cease teasing and taunting him. Junior realizes the significance of this, and explains that “no matter that else happened between my tribe and me, I would always love them for giving me peace” on that day”. [4] They recognize that Junior is still part of the reservation life, and still Native American even though he attends an all-white school.

Throughout the novel Junior struggles with who he is based on where he is. He agonizes that, “Traveling between Reardan, between the little white town and the reservation, I always felt like a stranger. I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other.” [5] Place is central to his both his own construction of identity and how others perceive him. His two identities often clash with each other, but Junior strives to reconcile these two sides and simply be himself wherever he is, an endeavor he ultimately accomplishes.

[1] Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009), 61

[2] Ibid., 110

[3] Ibid., 130

[4] Ibid., 160

[5] Ibid., 118

12 thoughts on “Competing Identities in Conflicting Spaces

  1. Great post, Meghan! I really enjoyed this book and it gave me a really good look into how difficult it can be to essentially live in two worlds. It makes me wonder if I would have the strength he had to do what he did. Having your friends, and some of your family, literally turn their backs on you is a difficult thing to go through and I am not sure that I would have been able to show the same resilience he did. I’m not sure I like this about myself, but this book, and the others readings we do in class, really make me reflect on these types of questions.

  2. Fantastic post! I wholeheartedly agree that identity can be very closely tied to place. I know for me, and many of my friends, going away to college or studying abroad made me look at many aspects of my identity that I took for granted (race, nationality, etc.) in a whole new light. I think this rings even truer in the case of Native Americans because the concept of “place” has been so highly contested in their history. Who are you when your home is contested? How do your perceptions of yourself change when your forcibly removed from a “place” you consider a huge part of your identity?

    1. Tori, you mentioned studying abroad, and my time in Morocco was one of the things that came to mind when I read Meghan’s post. Never before had so many things about me – my color, gender, and nationality – stood in such stark relief to the society around me. Part of this shock was the result of my privilege fitting into the mainstream in the US, because I had never before been constantly reminded every single day once I stepped out of the house of who I was and what I looked like. Studying abroad in Morocco definitely widened my perspective in a variety of ways, but interestingly enough, it also solidified many of my feelings and opinions about the world. In a place that was so new, I figured out what made me who I am. I think Junior went through something of the same journey.

    2. Tori, I had a lot of similar thoughts when I moved away to college. Though it was not as drastic as leaving a reservation and going to an all white high school, moving from a (somewhat) liberal, extremely diverse area of New York to conservative, predominately white North Dakota was quite a bit of a culture shock, and made me realize how much of my own identity is determined based on my place or location.

    3. This is really interesting! I think so many people are defined by place. For example, “where are you from?” is a common question, as if the answer is supposed to reveal some deep information about you or create an automatic connection. I think have a “place” you belong to effects how people view you, and so the lack of a place of their own for Native Americans is jarring.

  3. Meghan, you highlight an important relationship between place and identity. Just like Tori, I have also noticed that my identity changes based on where I am. This can be both a burden and a blessing. I think that this is the same for Junior-although in some ways he was conflicted by this change in identity, it also allowed him opportunities to explore a side of himself that he never know before (like how he received the support at Reardan to develop into a great basketball player.)

  4. Honestly, this was a whole layer of the book that I hadn’t fully picked up on as completely as you did Meghan. I was so absorbed in how Junior dealt with oppression, change, and his family struggles that I did not look at how his whole identity was being shaped by his experiences. Thank you for the insight.

  5. It is fascinating to think about how moving to new places and meeting new people can begin to shape and reshape one’s identity. I think one of the biggest points for me about Junior’s story was that both of his parents had lived on the reservation for much of, if not all of their lives. His sister also graduated from highschool and then began living in her parent’s basement. Junior literally breaks the mold at the age of fourteen by traveling to another school and pursuing his goals. It’s not easy to pick yourself up and begin life in an entirely new place all by yourself at any age, but I believe it would be especially difficult for a teenager. This is one of the reasons that Junior is such a strong literary character.

  6. This post reminds me of W.E.B. DuBois’s idea of a double consciousness. DuBois wrote how he struggled to reconcile two sides of himself, and Junior does the same thing. His identity is so strongly tied to where he is, and it’s almost like he’s two different people, as shown by being Junior in one place and Arnold in the other. He even says being Indian is like a part-time job for him. I’d love to know what happens to Junior in the future, and if he’s successful at navigating the two sides of his identity.

    1. I was also seeing some evidence of the veil that DuBois had mentioned. We see some evidence of that with Junior’s family talking about his high school and neighbors. I think we see that especially for billionaire Ted. They were hoping he would be original instead he was one of many “Indian lovers.” They were able to have a good laugh about it since it was something they would expect.

  7. I also found place and identity to be strong themes in the book. Junior had to make a critical decision at such a young age. He had the courage to consider how staying in his home school, community on the reservation would make him lose sight of his dreams and hold him back from making a better life for himself. His teacher explained that if he didn’t leave he would sink further into poverty, alcoholism and the negative influences around him. Sometimes people have to leave their place and deal with racism and their fears head-on to give others hope. I find this to be an experience that many individuals in lower class and marginalized groups have to leave to help others follow their footsteps and make a better life for themselves. It is also something I realized in my own life and rural community.

  8. Meghan, great analysis and a fun and thought provoking read. Like others have said, your insight really helped connect the dots to WEB Du Bois from the beginning of the semester, “….one ever feeling his twoness”. Junior never seemed to get a chance to feel at peace with his identity.

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