Week 1: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Due Monday February 1 at 5 PM 

part-time-indian

Please post your 150-200 word response, which can be a meditation on a specific part of the text, a series of questions that you try to answer, or something you found particularly complicated and compelling and why. You can post by clicking the “Leave a Comment” button at the bottom of this post. Be sure to write in your name! You will be able to view other comments after 5 PM on Mondays.

 

14 thoughts on “Week 1: The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

  1. “Reservations were meant to be prisons, you know? Indians were supposed to move onto reservations and die. We were supposed to disappear. But somehow or another, Indians have forgotten that reservations were meant to be death camps. I wept because I was the only one who was brave and crazy enough to leave the rez. I was the only one with enough arrogance.”

    Does it always take arrogance to leave a place behind? To leave family? To seek a different home? And why is it considered arrogant to have hope or pursue a dream? What does it cost to escape the cycle of poverty? What causes the tremendous amount of guilt Junior feels? His inability to save Oscar (“the only living thing he can depend on”). Rowdy blaming him for Mary’s death (and why does Junior so quickly accept the blame?). Leaving his parents. The frequent and numerous deaths of his friends and family members. The pursuit of a different life is seen as an ultimate rejection of his home, family and past. Is it possible to have a different future without leaving people and things behind? The people he loves the most are the very people who plant in him his need to leave the reservation. Could only an outcast like Junior, bullied, isolated and uncomfortable on the reservation, have the idea and then “arrogance” to leave?

    *I enjoyed experiencing this story from Junior’s perspective and seeing the reservation through a 14-year-old’s observations, questions and emotions. I find I often learn more than anticipated from works written for young adults.

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  2. I think a lot of the humor in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian comes from a triangular pattern: someone is humiliated, someone humiliates, and someone else watches and probably laughs. During the powwow, the Andruss triplets humiliate Junior, and then Junior invites us to laugh at him with a shift in perspective, a kind of punch-line: “Oh, by the way, did I mention that the Andruss Triplets are thirty years old?” (21). The narrator frequently makes comedy by showing people on and off the reservation mocking him, and topping that humiliation by mocking himself.
    I’m interested both in the way this kind of humor makes the reader feel implicit in junior’s humiliation, and in how junior may be internalizing the task of mocking himself, becoming both humiliator and humiliated. When he describes the rules of reservation fisticuffs, the narrator of claims that he is “the only Indian in the history of the world who ever lost a fight with himself ”: he continually beats himself up both psychologically and through the narrative’s jokes (63). I think it would be interesting to trace Junior’s development by looking at how this pattern develops. In the later parts of the book, sometimes a friendly character will save Junior from the most humiliating consequences of a situation (Roger and Penelope at the Winter Formal) and white people become more frequent targets of humiliation (Ted the random rich guy who shows up at Grandma Spirit’s funeral).
    –Jack Dwyer

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  3. The whole idea of “unofficial and unwritten…rules” (61) for a group fascinates me. There are rules that we have in society that we don’t even realize, and there are also rules for when we meet certain people in certain cultures. Whether it’s a like-culture or an opposing culture. What are the rules we have in place for each other that we don’t even realize? What are the rules that reinforce white dominance that we don’t realize? Perhaps that’s related to… “The guy who wrote the article says people care more about beautiful white girls than they do about everybody else on the planet. White girls are privileged. They’re damsels in distress…I think it means you’re just a racist asshole like everybody else.” (116) How people of “other” cultures are supposed to be weathered, able to deal with prejudice and distress. And calling out for help becomes stigmatized.

    “I love Indians. I love your songs, your dances, and your souls. And I love your art. I collect Indian art.” (163) Indians (Alexie purports) hate being fetishized like this. But aren’t all groups either admired or hated by other groups? Or not paid attention to. And isn’t the ignoring just as bad? What is the “right” way to think about or treat another culture?
    …perhaps it’s related to…
    “The world is only broken into two tribes: the people who are assholes and the people who are not” (176)

    -Tyler

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  4. This novel brought up a lot of questions for me. In this book, especially towards the end, Junior faces many extreme hardships, including regular aggression inflicted upon him, alcoholism, and three violent, concurrent deaths of loved ones. Part of me thought perhaps this was an extreme example of the young adult genre, exhibiting a teenager facing hard realities of life and overcoming them; I found myself unable to comprehend that these situations could exist simultaneously in one boy’s life. So my question is this: is this a realistic representation of life on a Native American reservation? How prevalent is violence and alcoholism on a reservation, and to what extent? Have most 14 year olds experienced 42 funerals? Building off this, I would like to know a more detailed history about the formation and evolution of Indian reservations. I know a rough outline of how they came to be, but I would like to fill in the historical gaps between the late 19th century and now. I found the passage where Junior refers to reservations as “death camps” particularly enlightening, if not disturbing. What exactly was the goal of Native American reservations upon their formation? Were Native Americans supposed to be forgotten, or eliminated?
    -Meghan Leathers

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  5. I was surprised by how Sherman Alexie’s novel about a Native American boy growing up on a reservation was so relatable to my own life. I found that the specificity of the storytelling aided in conveying the universality of Junior’s struggles. My empathy with and for Junior led me to question my personal relationship to stories about historically underrepresented and/or oppressed groups. Do I as a gay man from the conservative South have a unique perspective on minority struggles even though my skin is white? Like Junior, I have felt like the underdog, undeserving of coexisting with the heteronormative majority. Junior’s aspirations to move beyond his homeland while still retaining his identify (and owning the negative aspects of it) is also a struggle that has defined my life. I felt guilt knowing that Junior’s “way out” was to move to the “rich white” school, as though “rich white” is the path to success. I appreciated that Junior’s leap into the unknown did not uphold this race-based fantasy. Instead, Junior and the white students unearthed the nuances of each other’s respective humanity. In a sense, this equalizes them on a spiritual and interpersonal level, but what of the political and social realms? I can identify with a young Native American man with aspirations to rise above his given circumstances (i.e. alcoholism in the family, small-town ignorance), but what else can I do to attain an appropriate awareness of our cultural differences? How much history should I learn? Is it problematic to only connect with other cultures based on our similarities? How do we find unity through cultural differences?

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  6. One of the moments that stuck out to me the most was the comment on how 90% of the funerals Junior had visited were in some way related to alcohol. My curiosity stems from the fact that one of the first stereotypes I heard about native peoples was a common addiction to alcohol.
    Of course, people drink for many reasons: drinking to forget, drinking to feel, drinking to NOT feel, etc. etc., and indeed alcohol is one of the leading causes of death in America. However, Junior reports (and I’ll say it again) that 90% of his funeral visits are alcohol related. Alcohol is number eight in a recent study by the World Health Organization at 6% of overall preventable deaths. These statistics are grossly off-balance (of course the fact they exist at all is saddening) and demand further introspection/examination and action.

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  7. I really enjoyed this book. It took me back to my adolescence in terms of writing style. Reading it was fun, attention grabbing, and also very alarming and thought provoking. The issues that Native Americans face (living on a Rez or not) are those that I find very prevalent throughout minority groups in this Country. While living in New Mexico I had a friend who lived on the Sandia Reservation, and everyone thought he was rich because there is a casino on the land. Really dumb, but these student categorized based off of biased and self created facts from an outward appearance instead of getting to know him and doing some research about how some of these reservations are poorly funded by the government, or not funded at all. My friend shared with a few students about his life growing up and how everyone he knew struggled with the same issues Arnold struggled with in the book; not having enough money, constantly being beat up, alcoholism and the desire or dare I say the infatuation with lighter skin. Poverty is everywhere and just because we don’t talk about it, does not mean it doesn’t exist, even in majority groups. It just sucks… our society is rooted in a system that was created for certain groups to preserve their advancement. Just a few thoughts…

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  8. I was interested in how white culture had become pervasive on the reservation in both subtle and profound ways: The wide spread alcoholism, Mr. P’s apology for taking part in destroying Indian culture through education, lack of acceptance of the different or weird, and even Junior’s choice to leave the rez in search of success through “whiteness”.
    Sherman’s choice to make Junior “born with water on the brain” helped show how even on the reservation, people were narrow-minded and cruel, particularly with the 30 year old triplet assholes.
    Another point was when Junior realized in winning the basketball game that he was the “Goliath” and not the “David” in the situation.
    This was contrasted nicely with Grandma’s tolerance. Perhaps, the only true, unpolluted Indian in the novel. The fact she never touched alcohol, wanting to experience life with all her senses fully intact, and her acceptance of homosexuals (the blending of male and female; the “warrior” and “caregiver”) and the different.

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  9. Pursuing education as race treason? This hits so close to home for me. Certain subcultures have conflated race pride and ignorance. If a whole group admits one person is capable and willing, it implies a lot about the group itself… Is hope a “white” idea? Why? Is being smart a “white” ideal? Junior is a victim of both the oppressor and his own people. Both strip him of hope. How can this kid fight his own body, his own people, AND the whole world?

    On a completely different note: what sardonic humor! Junior’s cartoons possess the type of dark humor only the truly wretched can produce. His specificity and wit relieve him of carrying the man-at-the-bottom burden. His drawings give him access to the world that is and the world that could be. After Junior leaves the Rez, his superhero cartoon provides comfort to Rowdy and reminds him of the friendship they both relied on. Juniors art changes people.

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  10. I really enjoyed this book and the character of Junior – although I was thoroughly depressed by the number of hardships this young boy had to go through (and beginning with the dog was heart wrenching). I also found myself really interested in his interest in drawing cartoons (this reminded me of a super cool Ted talk I once saw about doodling) – I flagged the page that said, “I draw because words are too unpredictable. I draw because words are too limited.” Another quote that stood out to me – unrelated to junior and his cartooning – was when his basketball coach said, “The quality of man’s life is in direct proportion to his commitment to excellence, regardless of his chosen field of endeavor.” Now that time has passed since finishing the novel, I keep coming back to this same thought of what it means to break free from circumstances you were born into. I’m wondering about my classmates and their parents/ancestors and the stories that come with their journeys to “take hope and go somewhere”.

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  11. I was taken aback how the general story of Junior reflected so much of my own school experiences . I always felt like I was in between worlds even though for me those worlds are closer to each other . The worlds being both white European and Cuban heritage from the canarie and Baliric islands. However I only became aware of this two world struggle when I was older and realized that my struggle was that of trying to prove to the world that I was American enough which looking back on it the standard of correct Americanness was white American or being in Miami being white American passing. Having no accent . Having not lilt . And learning dryness and American sarcasm were tools that needed to be learned for the sake of safety. What do mixed children in America sacrifice in their early search of self for the sake of safety, acceptance and seen as a human first rather than as something American. Such as native-American, Cuban-American or Afro-American. Do these prefixes make us left American ?

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  12. I am fascinated by violence in this world. The rules of violence. When is violence is justified? Is it necessary? The fear of violence hangs over Juniors head. It follows him like a dark cloud. It seems every step he takes on the reservation could result in physical violence against his body.

    Then worlds collide. Juniors brings these “rez politics” to his new school. He responds to taunting with violence not because he wants to, but because he believes that’s what’s expected of him. Cultures collide like fists to faces. How does this perpetuate stereotypes about Native violence? Is violence deserved? Does it heal wounds?
    In the book it actually closed the divide. What does that say about how Americans get intimate with one another?

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  13. Tragic accidents are epidemic in Junior’s family. Junior’s grandmother, Mary, and family friend Eugene all die suddenly in statistically improbable ways. Respectively, a drunk driver hit his grandmother, his sister’s trailer burned down while she was heavily intoxicated inside it, and Eugene’s friend—in a stupor—shot him in the face. Thus, alcohol interconnects these seemingly unrelated freak accidents. However, blame in relation to alcohol nuances the substance’s pervasive appearance throughout the novel. While Junior’s grandmother is solely a victim, his sister and Eugene are catalysts of their own demise to varying degrees. If conscious, Junior’s sister could have escaped from a burning trailer, and to a lesser extent if Eugene did not physically engage his friend, he would have avoided escalated violence. Interestingly, not a single one of these deaths involve one of the major causes (81.44% in 2013 according to niaaa.nih.gov) of alcohol related death, cirrhosis of the liver. An obvious answer is that the characters seem unlikely to survive long enough to develop that disorder. However, I believe something deeper lurks in this carefully constructed relationship. These observations lead me to a question: what is the metaphorical significance of Alexie’s correlation of alcohol to freak accidents more so than diagnostic (or wholly self inflicted) alcohol related death?

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