Identity Crisis: Leaving Home to Find a Home

Self-identity can be a difficult issue to decode. Minority groups in the Untied States are frequently not afforded the same resources and opportunities given to their white counterparts, especially in regards to housing and education. This results in many individuals becoming torn between upward mobility and opportunities in society, and staying near their families and true to their unique cultural identities. Finding a balance between the traditions of one’s cultural roots and a desire to do better for the future is not an easy task.

In Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, we hear the story of Arnold Spirit Jr., or Junior, and his struggles with leaving the Spokane Indian Reservation for a better path in life. Although he faces many trails and tribulations, Arnold holds strong to his desire to attend the “white people” high school, Reardan, on the edge of the Reservation in order to receive a better education. His family supports his efforts, but he is considered a traitor by the rest of his tribe, and especially his best friend Rowdy. Arnold struggles to adapt to the cultural norms of his new high school, but eventually creates friendships with his new peers. Although he was looked down upon back at Wellpinit, the Reservation’s high school, due to some speech disabilities and his unusual intellectual interests, he finds strength to be himself at Reardan. Junior becomes a basketball star and finds a love interest, proving to himself that he is worth more than the people on the Reservation thought of him.

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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, from The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

One of the most impactful events of this work that speaks to the issue of self-identity was when Reardan hosted Wellpinit for their second basketball match-up of the year. Arnold’s ex-best friend Rowdy was the leading scorer for the undefeated Wellpinit team, and they had crushed Reardan and harmed Arnold in the first game they faced each other. Arnold set out to prove himself to his former teammates, and guarded Rowdy the entire game. Reardan went on to crush the Wellpinit team by over 40 points, and Arnold was considered the reason they were so successful. While his teammates were celebrating on the court after their victory, Arnold noticed the sadness of the Wellpinit team.

We had defeated the enemy! We had defeated the champions! We were David who’d thrown a stone into the brain of Goliath! And then I realized something. I realized my team, the Reardan Indians, was Goliath… all of our seniors on our team were going to college… But I looked over at the Wellpinit Redskins, at Rowdy. I knew that two or three of those Indians might not have eaten breakfast this morning. No food in the house… I knew that none of them were going to college. Not one of them. [1]

The guilt Arnold felt after the game showed that he still cared deeply for his people and his home, even though he had been wronged by them his entire life. The roots of his origins run deep in his conscience. He knew there was nothing left at the reservation that would help him achieve his goals in life, but he still was compassionate towards the struggles of his people. Arnold realized that this basketball season would be the highlight of many of the Wellpinit player’s lives, and he felt that his new “privilege” and new white teammates stripped them of that happiness. This duality can be seen throughout his battles with self-identity. Although Arnold did not realize it at first, he was proud to be a Spokane Indian. He did not want to abandon his family, but he also knew he needed to break the perpetual cycle of life on the reservation. The fact that he hitchhiked and walked over twenty miles to school each day, shows his commitment to bettering himself. Change is never easy, but dedication to a cause can speak volumes to the character of a person. Arnold may have struggled at first, but in time he found the balance of tradition and progression he was working towards.

Sources:

[1] Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. (195)

6 thoughts on “Identity Crisis: Leaving Home to Find a Home

  1. You make a good point about Arnold/Junior’s struggle between wanting to leave the reservation to improve his future and wanting to remain loyal to his tribe. I think this is why I found the ending of the book to be satisfying. Rowdy points out that Junior is nomadic, as the Spokane Indians used to be. At this point, Junior finally realizes that he can leave the reservation and go wherever life takes him and that this doesn’t mean he’s abandoning his heritage. He realizes that these two parts of his identity can coexist.

  2. Experiences such as this need to be discussed more. They provide context to struggles that are far more complex than the stereotypes would suggest. The focus on an adolescent adds power to the narrative as well. The fears and concerns coming from a child produce an empathy that would not be available if it was from the perspective of an adult.

  3. I like how you highlighted the basketball game and Arnold’s place in it. It really shows the inequality between white people and Native Americans. For the Reardan students, their victory is exciting, but unimportant compared to the bright future they have waiting for them in college and beyond. For the Wellpinit team, winning games that season is much more meaningful, because they do not have the same opportunities as the white students to look forward to. It is interesting that only Arnold realizes this. The rest of the Reardan team thinks they have beaten the champions because all they see is the Wellpinit team’s basketball record, but Arnold can see the wider context of the game.

  4. This moment was fascinating exactly because of what you said. He had always been able to recognize privilege when he saw it – he knew Reardon kids were privileged in all kinds of ways. But then he was on the flip of the coin, seeing his former lack of privilege, and that of his friends, from a place of privilege. That would be a very stark moment for him. No wonder it was so powerful, and the one you chose to highlight.

  5. I think that the basketball game is a great example of Junior’s inner struggle to gain acceptance at his new school, which can provide him with great opportunities, while staying loyal to his old school, which connects him to his heritage. Throughout the book, he is being put in situations where he must leave behind his culture in order to succeed, not because his culture is a problem, but because outside dominant influences have decided that it is a problem.

  6. This story was a unique yet, completely relatable one. The struggle to find yourself and still feel you are remaining loyal to the place you came from is something that many people have experienced. I like that you pointed out that though Junior didn’t realize it at first, in the end he realized his pride in his roots. Sometimes it takes having a different and new experience to realize what you do appreciate from your original situation.

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