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Social Issues in Modern Reservation Life: Analysis of Sherman Alexie's "The Lone Ranger and Tonto..." - Part One
Author's Note: This is Part One of a two-part series in which I analyze Sherman Alexie's remarkable short story collection, Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fistfight in Heaven. Part One focuses on Alexie's depiction of the social, economic, and psychological issues in modern Reservation life. Part Two focuses on the more positive aspects of culture, the challenges of preserving tradition in a changing world, and the vital role of storytelling, both within the book and within life in general.
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.
Native American Literature as Genre
Alexie’s stories are inspired by his years growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Though some of the events and characters are loosely borrowed from real life, the stories are intended as fiction, and feature a tapestry of interwoven characters, blended with dream, memory, and imagination, that are reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio.
This is something of a departure from previous depictions of Native Americans in earlier Western literature and film that relied upon stereotype and inaccuracy to present only flat caricatures of Native American. Alexie uses as setting the contemporary landscape of the reservation in their books, creating a more realistic portrayal of the modern Native American in an emerging genre of Native American literature, which could be considered a subset of Western Literature as a whole.
The landscape of the modern reservation is one heavily influenced by history, symbol of a multitude of issues faced on the reservations. As a direct result of the U.S. government’s policies, the scene is one of poverty, small land allotments, and disenfranchisement. Alexie brings up the painful topic of forced sterilization, many characters are alcoholics, and tension between neighboring white communities, especially law enforcement, and Indians, appears to be at times unavoidable.
Unemployment, lack of quality healthcare and education, and even suicide, all rear their ugly heads. In addition land rights continue to be an issue as the Reservation continues to dwindle. Unlike in times past, instead of unfair treaties the land is now lost legally through capitalist trade. Alexie references how many poor families become pressured into selling off their land.
Says Alexie “When Indians make lots of money from corporations…we can all hear our ancestors laughing in the trees. But we can never tell whether they’re laughing at the Indians or the whites." Broken treaties may be a thing of the past, yet the greed for land that underlies it is not. “It was a fair trade, and that was all Victor had ever wanted from his whole life,” writes Alexie. To read both of these authors is to come to the realization that the Indians on the reservation are still waiting for justice, for history to be rectified, for a fair trade.
Alexie does not make the social and economic issues so prevalent on the reservations the focus of his stories; rather they exist as part of the fabric of the lives of their characters. This is not a book about poverty and social ills, but rather stories in which these things exist as components of a total understanding of work that is primarily character-based.
Alexie uses the repeating metaphor of scars to portray how a history that may only be briefly mentioned or alluded to has made its mark on the characters nonetheless. As these characters navigate the world and interact with one another, they must deal with the concrete scars of poverty as an everyday part of life, of alcoholism, of HUD homes and commodity cheese.
As important as understanding these scars on the landscape and lives of the characters, what has even greater importance is the awareness that these scars exist internally as well, and this is perhaps where the greatest devastation is to be found. “It’s hard to be optimistic on the reservation,” writes Alexie. “When a glass sits on a table here, people don’t wonder if it’s half filled or half empty. They just hope it’s good beer….it’s almost like Indians can easily survive the big stuff. Mass murder, loss of language and land rights. It’s the small things that hurt the most."
What hurts are the individual acts of discrimination, such as when one of Alexie’s characters is punished by his white teacher for scoring too well on a test, or another is spit on while waiting for a bus. There is the hurt that comes from the notion that “whites always want to fight someone and they always get the dark-skinned people to do the fighting," and the hurt that comes from the infighting amongst the tribe members.
Counterproductive as infighting may appear to an outsider, it is a direct result of living through hardship. In one story, Alexie tells of a group of Indian boys that put a severely intoxicated man from the reservation on a roller coaster, and then laughed about it.
This was one of the parts in the book inspired by real life events, Alexie tells us in the Introduction to the book, and one which he wrote about to try to gain some sort of understanding on the event. “How could one Indian have done such a thing to another Indian."
In some way, Alexie seems, in part, to answer his own question, as he illuminates the notion that “when children grow up in poverty, a bond is formed that is stronger than anything. It is this same bond that causes so much pain." When dealing with so much hurt, sometimes the easiest scapegoat is the one directly adjacent, such as neighbor, friend, or sibling.
Brothers Adolph and Arnold begin Alexie’s book locked in an epic battle of fists. Thus Thomas, in his seminal vision, comes to the conclusion that the great message to be learned is simply for “Indians to take care of each other."
These are the internal scars that manifest themselves in general hopelessness, despair, alcoholism, and suicide. The idea that “one more beer could save the world," the suicide(s) that occur within the book, are poignant and tragic expressions of the gaping wounds caused by such “small things.” “
When we look in the mirror,” writes Alexie in response to a man who has taken his own life, “we see the history of our tribe in our eyes, taste failure in the tap water, and shake with old tears, we understand completely." This understanding is part of the idea of the function of story.
Alexie writes about how his mother criticizes him for not writing enough about the positive aspects of reservation life, and indeed there is much sadness and tragedy, yet the inclusion of these aspects serves as a form of catharsis. If the power of words is strong enough to land Thomas Builds-the-Fire in prison on two consecutive life sentences, just on the basis of his story rather than any real action or crime, then we can interpret the words of both authors as serving to both express and transform the scars that they have documented in words.
The story here, with all its inclusion of negative issues such as alcoholism, suicide, and inter-tribal dispute becomes both a healthy expression of anger and a means of apology and forgiveness.