Reservation Blues

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Reservation Blues Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
This chapter begins with a song for a father, and the story continues with the headlights of the blue van illuminating an old Indian man passed out on Thomas’s lawn. Victor asks Junior which of their dads it is, and Junior replies that it can’t be either, since both are dead. They roll him over, and discover that it is Samuel, Thomas’s father. Thomas has lost count of the number of times he has saved his drunken father. Victor and Junior, too, are jaded to this sight, and they go inside. Chess and Checkers help Thomas lift his father into the house and lay him on the kitchen table. They tell him that their own father Luke is “gone” like so much of the reservation, which is just a shell of its former self.
The family backgrounds of the members of Coyote Springs are all similarly tragic—and alcohol played a major part in their painful pasts. Victor and Junior’s casual approach to death and Thomas’s drunk father illustrates to what extent these tragedies seem normal, since they are so common. Alcoholism and its consequences have created a pattern of suffering that is no longer surprising to any of them. This, then, is the hidden sadness of the reservation and its community, invisible to outsiders.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Thomas tells the story of his father, Samuel. He used to be a binge drinker only, and was sober most of the time. Before that he was the Washington State High School Basketball Player of the Year in 1956. He was small and awkward, but an amazing player—interviewed once by Walter Cronkite. He became a hero on the reservation, which expected too much, wanting him to “change a can of sardines into a river of salmon.” His father earned these expectations, but after basketball was over, he had nothing left to be good at. Now, looking at him on the table, Chess and Checkers are surprised he ever played: he is dirty and overweight. Checkers says that sometimes she hates being Indian, and Chess remarks that you aren’t a real Indian unless at some point you don’t want to be.
Samuel Builds-the-Fire has an underdog story himself, as a small, awkward teen who nevertheless became a hero on the reservation by virtue of his incredible basketball skills. He was a symbol of hope, but as with many of the “warrior-figures” on the reservation, when he failed to do the impossible and live up to an unrealistic ideal, he turned to alcohol. Chess’s remark highlights the extent to which self-loathing and discomfort with one’s heritage is a persistent part of Native American identity.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Checkers thinks of the Indian beggars who have asked her for money, calling her sister or cousin. She has always been afraid of the Indian beggar men who wandered the streets, drunk: she calls them zombies. They sat on street corners wrapped in quilts, quiet like Samuel is now, and held out their hand for money. Once she saw a white man spit into a zombie’s open palm. He wiped the spit away and offered his hand again, and the white man spat once more. After the white man left, Checkers ran up and gave the Indian beggar her last piece of candy. He smiled.
These beggars are tied together into a sort of family by their shared culture, and their shared experience of the patterns of suffering that the culture has inherited. These drunk “zombies” have been beaten down and literally spat on by a racist society that mistreats them, until they give in to despair—or cling to alcohol as a release from pain. They are a reminder to the young Checkers of the trials that await her as a Native American.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Thomas pours them all a glass of commodity grape juice, and Chess remarks that their cousins drink this mixed with rubbing alcohol. They fall silent, and then Chess and Checkers sing a Flathead song of mourning, for a wake, and Thomas sings with them, as he knows the song from the reservation jukebox. Then he leaves them in the kitchen, goes outside, and cries. He wants his tears to be individual, not tribal, since tribal tears are collected by the BIA and poured into beer and Pepsi cans. He says hello to the sky, he says help to the ground. He wants to make his guitar sound like a waterfall, “like a spear striking salmon,” but it only sounds like a guitar. Thomas wants the songs, the stories, “to save everybody.”
Even grape juice reminds Thomas, Checkers, and Chess, who all purposefully avoid drinking alcohol, of the alcoholism that is rampant in their community. Music becomes a means of transforming suffering into hope, or at least community. Thomas, in his individual suffering, turns to spiritualism and storytelling, grounded in nature and the past, for an answer, but his music fails to provide the imaginative hope that it normally does. He feels bitter resentment toward the government and the painful patterns it contributes to.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
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A flashback shows Samuel picking up Lester FallsApart in his Chevy. Lester slaps him on the back in congratulations for having a child on the way, and Samuel swerves, causing Tribal Police Officer Wilson, a white cop on the reservation, to appear. He asks if they’ve been drinking, and Lester says he’s been drinking since he was five: kindergarten is hard. They trade insults, and Wilson challenges them to a game of two-on-two—but Samuel says that they will take on all six of the policeman at once. They head to the courts. David WalksAlong, future Tribal Chairman, is the chief of police, and point guard. Samuel steals the ball from him and scores first.
The theme of alcoholism continues, as we see Lester FallsApart admit to drinking since kindergarten. Officer Wilson is a figure of white authority, out of place on the reservation, and angry to be stuck there. Samuel’s bravado leads to this macho challenge, setting up the ultimate underdog situation that pits Samuel’s blindly hopeful heroics against the six hulking cops, headed by a young David WalksAlong—who is still, in the present, a sign of the ways that authority can be corrupted and misused, and represents how some oppressed people are tempted to collude with their oppressors to hurt their own people in exchange for personal power.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Chess and Checkers wait for Thomas in the kitchen, jealously watching Samuel sleep. Checkers tells Chess she knows Chess is falling in love with Thomas, and they reminisce about an ex-boyfriend of Checkers’ named Barney, who was so old he had false teeth that once bit her from his shirt pocket while they were dancing. They remember Barney’s three pairs of cowboy boots, and look at Samuel’s ragged tennis shoes, remarking that if Indians took better care of their feet they would be a lot better off. They begin to brush Samuel’s hair, singing old hymns they learned at the Catholic Church on the Flathead reservation. At the church they used to compete over who would sing the lead part, and would joke with the sleeping body of their drunk father on their way out Sunday mornings. Chess was in love with God, and Checkers was in love with the priest, Father James.
The sisters’ discussion shows how each turns to bonds of love as a means to escape the kind of instability and suffering epitomized by the drunken Samuel. Barney, the comically old Indian man, represents the stability of relative wealth, while Thomas is stable insofar as he never drinks. Samuel’s ragged shoes are an example of how poverty affects all parts of one’s life. Chess and Checkers have been coping with this poverty and alcoholism for years, turning to laughter, singing, religion, and one another to keep hope alive. Checkers’ crush on Father James is a hint of what is to come with Father Arnold.
Themes
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
In the basketball game from the past, Samuel scores a thirty-foot jumper, saying, “For Crazy Horse.” He tells WalksAlong that the only way he’ll stop him is with a pistol. Victor, meanwhile, dreams of his stepfather, Harold, throwing his mother, Matilda into the trunk of his car along with the body of his real father, Emery. Victor had sworn never to say their names again, but in the dream he cannot escape. He asks Harold where they are all going, but Harold says Victor can’t come—he doesn’t want an Indian kid hanging around. Victor runs into the house to find his suitcase, and chases the leaving car down the road.
Samuel is a heroic figure of hope, fighting for the pride of his culture against unjust authority. Victor’s white stepfather is one such unjust authority, taking Victor’s mother away from him—a rejection that helps explain Victor’s perpetually rude behavior now. This nightmare is an example of the ways in which past tragedies invade the present moment for each of the band members, forming their personalities.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Suddenly (still in the dream) Victor’s head is shaved, and a huge white man in a black robe leads him down many stairs, carrying him on his shoulders even though Victor tells him not to. The “black robe” shows Victor his favorite painting, a battle scene showing two armies. Victor rubs his head and feels blood. The black robe dabs Victor’s head with a handkerchief, and then swallows the bloody cloth. Then he leads Victor to a room where other black robed men are shoveling long black hair into the fire. Victor runs until he collapses, and he tries to dig down into the earth to where his father, Emery, and his mother, Matilda, are waiting “on a better reservation at the center of the world.”
Victor’s memory slides further into nightmare logic now, growing more disturbing and less directly comprehensible. The “black robe” has a sinister tone, and a definite religious association. Victor’s shaved head, and the black hair being burned, recall the idea of scalping ones enemies, mixed with an image of burning that almost recalls the Holocaust. Black hair is a key part of Native American identity. Victor tries in vain to escape his dream, and to rejoin his parents in death—or in the afterlife he hopes he will find.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Meanwhile in the past basketball game, Samuel scores another basket, dedicating it to the poor Indians who get traffic tickets from these cops. Officer Wilson throws an elbow and breaks Lester’s nose, then scores an easy basket. WalksAlong calls no foul. Back in the present Junior, who is across the house from Victor, dreams he is in the backseat of his parents’ car outside Powwow Tavern. He is sharing a sleeping bag with his four siblings, but cannot remember their names. They beg him to turn the heat on, but he knows they have to save gas to get home. Their parents emerge, bringing Pepsi and potato chips, and then half-dance back to the bar. Junior remarks that they love each other, and he distributes the food evenly. Then he starts to cry, as his siblings run away from the car on all fours, running to other reservations never to return.
Samuel continues his heroic, hopeful crusade against the authorities, but they begin to strike back—as we know they will, inevitably. History continues to intertwine with the present as Junior takes his own journey into the past, dreaming of looking after his younger siblings in a Tavern parking lot. Their poverty is evident, as is the presence of alcoholism as a major force in their lives. Junior looks up to his parents’ love, but it is a selfish, dangerous one love that drives his siblings away, literally (in the dream) turning them into animals focused only on their hunger and pain.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Junior’s nameless parents return, and then they drive off in search of their children, crying, blaming Junior in the backseat, drinking beer, and going faster and faster until the car goes out of control and rolls twenty times. Junior drags their bodies across the grass into a strange house and lays them down on the bed. This process takes years (in the dream). He kneels to pray, but cannot speak. He turns up the music from the radio as loud as it will go, and his parents dance wildly in the bed, pulling each other.
The fact that Junior’s parents have no names may be a suggestion that their behavior is representative of many unfortunate Native families destroyed by alcohol. Junior witnesses their death, and is still driven to do good—to take care of them, to pray, etc. He finally, despairingly, turns to music as a distraction, and his parents’ dance is then a sign of the patterns that have destroyed them, and the potential harm of unhealthy relationships.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Meanwhile the score of the basketball game is 5-3, with the Tribal Cops on top. WalksAlong suggests that Samuel sing “I Fought the Law and the Law Won” after the game. Samuel says he doesn’t know it, but can try “I Shot the Sherriff.” The cops score again. Back in the present, in the kitchen, Thomas asks Chess if she ever drank, and she and Checkers reply that they never did—they were too scared. They think of Samuel, and of their father, Luke. Checkers thinks of the “Super Indian” men, “pseudo-warriors” who chased big hats, big boots, big belt buckles, who chased her, and then cried to her in the morning when their big things were lost and stolen. Thomas says that he hates his father.
The tide has begun to turn in favor of the authorities, but Samuel maintains his macho bravado in this exchange with WalksAlong, refusing to give an inch. Thomas, Chess, and Checkers have all avoided alcohol because they watched their fathers being destroyed by it. Their fathers, and the other “Super Indians” like them, suffer from the same sense of foiled hope, of being too large for the small, poverty-stricken reservation with its many limits to hold them back. This deluded, macho hope is dangerous, as we will see.
Themes
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Chess and Thomas remember an argument they witnessed a few days earlier in Spokane—a drunk white couple whose near-violence had transported them to all the drunken arguments of their own pasts. They knew that pain was universal, and watched as the couple made up, holding each other on the brink of violence. Thomas had wept in the parking lot afterward. Chess tries to tell Thomas that he doesn’t really hate Samuel. She tries to hold up a mirror and show him they are nothing alike, and that Thomas has beautiful hands. Thomas is beyond comfort, though, angry at the suffering more than at his father.
Alcohol is a common factor in the pasts of these characters, creating patterns of suffering that are universal, both on the reservation and outside of it, as this white couple demonstrates. It is linked, also, to domestic violence, which never really leaves those who experience it. Thomas’s anger has morphed, not directed at his father, but at the systems of suffering that seem to drag everyone on the reservation down toward despair.
Themes
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
In the past, Samuel scores twice, but the cops respond with two baskets of their own. From there the game becomes “a real war,” with hard fouls and fresh wounds. WalksAlong refuses to call fouls, so Samuel runs over him. The cops score again, and now it is 9-5: game point. Samuel responds with a huge two-handed dunk, “for every one of you Indians like you Tribal Cops… for all those Indian scouts who helped the U.S. Cavalry... for both the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X… and for Jimi Hendrix.” Lester then scores his first and last basket: 9-7.
Sport becomes a place of battle, recalling the war-like representations of Native Americans that dominate in popular culture. Samuel’s heroism is a sort of blind hope that campaigns on behalf of the underdog, and those who have suffered past and present injustices. Again, Alexie draws a parallel between the struggle of black minorities and Native Americans by invoking Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Jimi Hendrix.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Thomas, Chess, and Checkers talk about Thomas’s mother, who died of cancer. Thomas tells them that she drank, too, but quit completely after a bad New Year’s Eve party, when Samuel took all the furniture out on the front lawn and burned it. His mom drove Thomas up to her sister’s in Colville, but she wasn’t home. They sat at an all-night diner until the sun came up, and then drove home, and she never drank again. She kicked Samuel out of the house and went to work for the Tribe, driving the Senior Citizens’ van and going traditional with all of the powwows she took them to. Thomas remembers that a pair of Indians played blues at the New Year’s party. Junior’s parents died in a drunk driving accident on the way home from that party.
The painful pasts of these characters are linked by alcohol, but also by real experiences and overlapping tragedies. This revelation that Junior’s parents died after a party at Thomas’s house underlines the small community of the reservation, where everyone is closely acquainted with everyone else’s tragedies. Thomas’s mother’s reaction to this tragedy and to Samuel’s crazy antics represent an attempt to take refuge in the positive side of that community: the history and tradition carried forward by its elders.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Chess remembers that her father Luke used to rave about being a radioman in World War II, one of the Navajo code talkers. He said that he killed Hitler. Thomas laughs, remembering that Samuel always said he was the one who killed Hitler, imagining that they must have been on the same mission. He tries to remember the music the Indian blues players played, but cannot. Back in the flashback, Samuel aches, but he defiantly closes his eyes and drives blindly to the basket, scoring. Lester says the shot was vain, and Samuel replies that it “was the best story [he] ever told.” 9-8.
These two Native fathers shared a common fantasy, of macho heroism on the battlefield—and a common downfall, since both were ultimately defeated by alcoholism. That two men from different reservations shared this “mission” suggests that its cause lies in the patterns of historical suffering shared by all Native Americans. The blues and Samuel’s basketball days—and the fact that he considers his triumph there as a “story”—suggest that music and art are ways to overcome or challenge these patterns.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
At six in the morning the man-who-was-probably-Lakota begins to chant that the end of the world is near, as he always does. Victor and Junior stumble into the kitchen, looking for food, but there is only applesauce. Victor jokes that they should stick an apple in Samuel’s mouth and roast him, and Checkers slaps him. She begins to struggle against him, until Victor throws her down. Then Chess intervenes, and Thomas tackles Victor. The two wrestle, until Junior finally interrupts them. Thomas leaves the house with Chess following him, enraged. She tells them they should kick Junior and Victor out of the band and leave. The horses scream.
That this prediction of the coming apocalypse is the habitual wake-up call for the reservation is darkly comedic. Today, though, the depressing life of the reservation has become too much for Checkers to laugh at, and she takes out her anger on Victor. The band is close to falling apart now, as Thomas joins the fray, his own frustration overwhelming his usually patient, peaceful nature. Chess sees this as giving in to the macho instinct that drove all of the men in their lives to alcoholism.
Themes
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Thomas and Chess return to the house to announce their decision. Junior is under the table with Checkers, while Victor eats all of the applesauce himself. The announcement is interrupted by the crazy Fed Ex guy, who gives Thomas a letter containing an offer to play in Seattle. It says they will be paid 1,000 dollars. Victor and Junior celebrate, but the sisters fight about whether to go or not. They need the money, but Checkers refuses. They vote, and decide that Checkers will still get her share of the money even if she doesn’t go—despite the vote of Junior and Victor. In the basketball game, Samuel flies forward, heroically laying the ball gently over the rim. He misses. Officer Wilson rebounds, and then WalksAlong takes a shot.
Just as the band is again on the brink of disaster, hope is kept alive by this offer to play in Seattle. Because of their poverty, the money this gig offers overwhelms the disagreement—although the sisters will now be split up for the first time. Back in the ever-present past, it seems as though Samuel will, as the underdog is meant to, overcome all odds and defeat the mass of Tribal Cops, earning a victory for Native Americans everywhere. But at the height of this magical moment, even as he flies forward, he is still destined to fail. The system arrayed against him is too strong.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
In the present, the van leaves and Checkers waves goodbye to everyone but Victor. She is planning to go to church, to meet Father Arnold and sing there. In the van, the band members ignore Victor. They drive toward Seattle, stopping at the Indian John Rest Area. In the bathroom, a little white boy stares at Junior and Victor, asking if they are real Indians, and then calling his father to look. Junior prepares to run—this is the white man’s territory, America, where the white man “was legion.” The man asks if they know that the rest stop is named after an Indian, and Victor tells him that they are the grandsons of Indian John himself—Indian Victor and Indian Junior. The white man storms away. His wife asks the man what took them so long, and he responds “Just some Indians.” The little boy repeats the phrase.
The result of Checkers’ meeting with Father Arnold can be predicted based on what Alexie has just revealed about her pattern of falling in love with priests and older men. When Coyote Springs ventures off the reservation, they encounter the racism of mainstream American at this rest stop, where Victor and Junior brush up against the power of the majority in the form of this white man. The child’s curiosity highlights how rare Native Americans are in this country that was once their own, and his repetition of his father’s racist dismissal shows how these prejudices and opinions pass through generations.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Victor and Junior drink coffee while Thomas and Chess discuss Seattle—how it’s named after an Indian Chief, but that they got the name wrong. Chess tells him that the Chief’s granddaughter lived in some old shack downtown before she died, forgotten. Chess asks where Samuel went, since they never saw him leave, and Thomas says he doesn’t know. Then she asks who won the basketball game with the Tribal Cops. “Who do you think won that game?” Thomas responds.
Just like the “Indian John” rest area, Seattle itself is named after a Native American—and misnamed, showing the easy historical disregard of white America for Natives. Samuel’s disappearance seems typical of the parents of all of the band members. Thomas’s revelation about Samuel’s game is expected by now—despair and defeat are part of the pattern.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon