Reservation Blues

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A heavily mythologized woman who lives on Wellpinit Mountain, watching over the Spokane tribe. According to tribal lore, she has the power to walk on water and read dreams, and can speak to animals. She is also an incredible musician, and, according to Alexie’s telling of history, she has taught many of the greatest artists of the last century, including Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin. Coyote Springs spends one week with Big Mom before they fly to New York to audition for Cavalry Records, learning chords that she has adapted from the screams of dying horses during the Indian Wars. She is the champion fry bread cook on the reservation and a symbol of traditional Indian mysticism, mixed at every step with pragmatism and humor.

Big Mom Quotes in Reservation Blues

The Reservation Blues quotes below are all either spoken by Big Mom or refer to Big Mom. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Grove Press edition of Reservation Blues published in 1995.
Chapter 1 Quotes

The colt shivered as the officer put his pistol between its eyes and pulled the trigger. That colt fell to the grass of the clearing, to the sidewalk outside a reservation tavern, to the cold, hard coroner’s table in a Veterans Hospital.

Related Characters: Big Mom
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Big Mom, the mystical matriarch of the Spokane who has just been introduced, reflects on the vivid image of a dying colt, killed by a U.S. officer during the Indian Wars. Horses become a symbol for the Native American spirit in Alexie’s novel, and Big Mom is the guardian of the tribe’s collective memories, chronicling the patterns of suffering that have beset the reservation throughout its history.

Here, Alexie offers a poetic representation of that suffering. He collapses time by connecting this moment of cruelty directed toward a Native American horse more than a hundred years ago with the consequences of this brutal slaughter on the spirit of the reservation today: the alcoholism that causes many Spokane to fall “to the sidewalk outside a reservation tavern,” and the many other common causes of death - chief among them suicide, disease and car crashes - that might lead to the coroner’s table. These consequences are the secondary, indirect violence that results from the initial - now historical - violence of war. The weapons of that war, between "mainstream" America and the "outsider: Native Americans, have changed over the years, but the psychological damage inflicted by the patterns of alcoholism, poverty, and suicide has a heavy casualty rate all the same, trapping the reservation and its culture in a dangerous cycle of despair.  

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Chapter 7 Quotes

“Michael,” Big Mom said, “you run around playing like you’re a warrior. You’re the first to tell an Indian he’s not being Indian enough. How do you know what that means? You need to take care of your people. Smashing your guitar over the head of a white man is just violence. And the white man has always been better at violence anyway. They’ll always be better than you at violence.”

Related Characters: Big Mom (speaker), Michael White Hawk
Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Big Mom remembers a speech she gave to a young Michael White Hawk, before he went to prison for attacking a white cashier. He had been her student, and she hoped to head off his angry tendencies before they got out of hand - but she was unsuccessful.

In her attempt to convince White Hawk to choose a different path, Big Mom implies that the best way to beat the white man, since they will always be better at violence, is through means like art and music. As the living memory of the Spokane tribe, she speaks with the historical perspective of someone who has seen many like Michael fail in their foolish attempts to fight violence with violence. She berates White Hawk, who has no such perspective, for claiming the authority to decide what is “Indian” and what is not, equating Native identity with his misguided quest to be a warrior. Rather than judging and condemning his fellow Natives, Big Mom tells White Hawk to embrace and take care of them, building community, and escaping the patterns of violence that she has witnessed destroy so many macho young men with their wild hopes that give way to despair.  

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Big Mom Character Timeline in Reservation Blues

The timeline below shows where the character Big Mom appears in Reservation Blues. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
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
Thomas tells Johnson that Big Mom , who lives on top of the beautiful and mystical Wellpinit Mountain, may be the... (full context)
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
In the memory of Big Mom , 134 years earlier, the Indian horses scream. She thinks at first that they are... (full context)
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
...and that a woman can be heard crying there. Victor, Junior, and Thomas once saw Big Mom walk across the water, singing all the way, but Victor and Junior pretend they didn’t... (full context)
Chapter 2
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Thomas thinks of fry bread, a traditional Spokane food. Big Mom has won the fry bread-cooking contest for the past 37 years, descending from her mountain... (full context)
Chapter 6
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
...starts this chapter is about an independent Indian woman, and the story picks up on Big Mom ’s front porch with Robert Johnson. Johnson remembers his time with the guitar, how he... (full context)
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Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
...stock of beer for Junior and Victor. The next day, Thomas receives a letter from Big Mom , telling him that without her help, they will have no chance of landing a... (full context)
Chapter 7
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
This chapter begins with a song about Big Mom . Coyote Springs is headed up Wellpinit mountain toward her house with all of their... (full context)
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
Rumors about Big Mom include that she taught Elvis Presley—and many other famous musicians—everything they know, and that you... (full context)
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
“Ya-hey,” says the towering figure of Big Mom when they reach her blue house. She tells Thomas that Robert Johnson is gone looking... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
In Checkers’ journal, she writes that it felt like Big Mom could read inside her head. They all sang together in the steam, and came out... (full context)
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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
Victor doesn’t understand how Big Mom can help them play, since she’s “just some old Indian woman.” At that moment, from... (full context)
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Big Mom listens to the band’s last rehearsal. Their whole set is original now, and she pronounces... (full context)
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
In a letter, Junior thanks Big Mom for the drumsticks, and tries to apologize for Victor. He explains that Victor has always... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Big Mom watches them walk down the mountain, not sure what will happen next. She had told... (full context)
Chapter 9
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
...powdered milk for breakfast, hating it. The day before this decision, Robert Johnson sits on Big Mom ’s porch and watches the reservation. The two discuss the tragedy of White Hawk, who... (full context)
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
...than anybody ever. Now, watching Victor’s dreams, Johnson feels guilty about passing on the guitar. Big Mom keeps carving the wood, which turns into a harmonica. (full context)
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
...rises and comforts him as he weeps, remembering the horses screaming in the field while Big Mom watched. (full context)
Chapter 10
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Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
The dogs howl, and Big Mom hears them as she cries on her porch. Another of her students has died, and... (full context)
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Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
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They bury Junior in the Spokane Tribal cemetery, near his mother and father. Big Mom and Father Arnold take turns leading the service, while Checkers, Chess, Victor, and Thomas watch.... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
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Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
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...for Spokane, and that she found a job as a phone operator. At this moment, Big Mom enters with Father Arnold, who wants to speak to Checkers. (full context)
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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
Big Mom lights sage, and Chess, Checkers, and Thomas get ready to pray, for everybody, as Big... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
...away, and Thomas feels a tightness in his chest. Down the road, they come across Big Mom , who hitches a ride to a community feast at the Longhouse and then convinces... (full context)
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
The group sits waiting for food for a long time, until Big Mom walks into the kitchen and discovers there is not enough fry bread. She tells the... (full context)
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
...that the people might need his music. As Chess, Checkers, and Thomas start to leave, Big Mom takes up a collection for them from the tribe. Some, like David WalksAlong, donate out... (full context)
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
...to touch them, hot and wet. In a dream, the three of them sit with Big Mom at the powwow while she teaches the Spokane Indians a new song, the shadow horses’... (full context)