The Importance of Story: Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto... - Part Two
Author's Note: This is the second installment of a two-part series in which I analyze Sherman Alexie's remarkable short story collection. Part One focused on Alexie's depiction of the social, economic, and psychological issues in modern Reservation life. This section examines on the more positive aspects of modern Native American culture presented by Alexie, and the vital role of storytelling, both within the book and within life in general.
Read Part One
“’Builds-the-Fire has a history of this kind of behavior,’ a man in a BIA suit said to the others. ‘A storytelling fetish accompanied by an extreme need to tell the truth. Dangerous’." So begins Sherman Alexie’s short story “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire.” What the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) men view as dangerous is the idea that story can exist as more than pure entertainment.
In our understanding of the American West, story has existed as an exaggeration of reality, as a reflection of society and culture, and as a means of cultural translation of the West’s original inhabitants, the Native Americans. Alexie’s collection of short stories The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven serves on the one hand as a wonderful exercise in storytelling, a hallmark of recent Western Literature, but also paints a vital picture of modern Reservation life scarred by an unjust and unfair history that still resounds today.
Enhanced by an “extreme need to tell the truth,” the book utilize the power of story to create a testament to the very real struggles, heartbreak, happiness, and ultimate survival of the Native Americans of the American West.
Preserving Tradition in a Changing World
Despite the heavy issues visited in the book, and the heartbreaking rendition of what can be at times a difficult life, Alexie places a great emphasis on the positives. Just as the story serves as testament to the tears of the Native Americans, so too does it seek to preserve tradition, identity and survival.
With the increasing modernization of reservation life and culture, the stories explore the issue of the role of tradition in a changing world. For Alexie, just as issues of alcoholism and poverty are interspersed with the lives of his characters, so are traditional aspects of culture. His stories are salted with Indian dancing and tribal ceremonies, visions, dreams, and oral culture, creating a rich and vivid tapestry of words in which heartache is often held at bay through a mosaic of uniquely Indian celebration, joy, and hope.
Thomas Builds-the-Fire is a recurring character among the stories, taking the role of the traditional storyteller in a disappearing oral culture. Thomas serves as a link to times past, as holder of the tribal vision and teller of the old stories, he plays a vital role. Unfortunately, as a young man he is often considered strange by the other boys, who have more of an interest in playing basketball than in listening to old stories and visions.
Yet even with Thomas’ sometimes exclusion from the group of youths at-large, he manages to crop up again and again with bits of wisdom and insight. Though at times ignored, Thomas is not going away, it is as if Alexie is making the point that though tradition may not be at the forefront of modern life, it cannot disappear entirely. It is at the critical moments when Thomas’ wisdom and traditional tribal lore shines through, when his visions provide hope, solace and answers to the problems of modern-day life.
The Movie Based on the Book
The Importance of Story
Alexie uses the running theme that imagination is the key to finding ways of retaining tradition in modern life, really the only weapon available to a disempowered people who are even losing their traditional language. With imagination it is possible to keep this idea of tradition, even as the world around the Native Americans is changing rapidly.
Alexie speaks of survival; on a basic level it is survival of starvation and poverty, a struggle to stay alive. Yet on another level there is the notion of survival of culture. Alexie muses at one point that perhaps the Pueblo people disappeared because no one thought of them anymore.
For Alexie, without memory there is no survival, in order for culture to stay alive it must exist in the hearts and minds of its people. This means memory of both the beauty of the Native American culture, as well as the tragedy of their history. In the first story of the book, “Every Little Hurricane,” Alexie states, “they were all witness and nothing more. For hundreds of years Indians had been witnesses to crimes of an epic scale."
Just as the disenfranchisement of the Indians has relegated them to the role of proverbial witness, so too is the idea of witness also a necessary one, preserving the memory, the history, the lives and the culture of a people. This is the role of Alexie’s stories, to provide witness, and memory to his people, real and imaginary. There is witness to crimes and injustice, hurts large and small, and this can be a powerless role. Conversely there is also an innate power in providing witness, and this is the importance of keeping alive the memories both good and bad of a people, thus ensuring survival.
Alexie presents a world in which with a bit of clever imagination both tradition and modernization coexist. Through the imaginative power of story, there is not only room for both, but the two compliment one another in an essential way, creating a story that allows room to recognize the scars that injustice has left on the reservation and its people, but also allowing room for tradition and culture to be woven into the fabric of the lives of the characters as they make their way through the world, considering personal questions of growth and identity.
The stories are as much a question of what it means to be Indian in a modern age, as a question of how one is to make one’s way in the world, dealing with issues of community, family, and the choices we make. Alexie keep a uniquely Native American flavor, but also consider universal human dramas like the bonds between parent and child, siblings, and spouses.
The end result are stories that capture the end effects of a traumatizing history, discussing the shameful legacy of the treatment of Native Americans, yet at the same time creating a very personal depiction of what this means on an individual level. What makes the stories in The Lone Ranger... the wonderful reads that they are is that each author manages to bear in mind the function of the story to address the larger issues, without losing sight of the small.
The story here thus becomes a means of providing witness to injustice, both past and present, an expression of the emotion that results, a means of apology and forgiveness, a preservation of culture, and ultimately a journey of self-discovery and growth in a West that has been both cruel and unforgiving, but still retains a sense of love, hope and joy.