Reservation Blues

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A Spokane Indian and the (somewhat inept) drummer in Coyote Springs. Victor Joseph is his best friend, and the two stick close to one another to find meaning in the face of their difficult pasts. Junior is a handsome man who tries hard to be good, but is often led astray by Victor and haunted by the death of his parents in a drunk-driving accident. Before joining the band, he drives the water truck on the reservation—a model, relative to Victor at least, of stability and dependability. He went to college, briefly, in Oregon, but returned to the reservation after his white girlfriend, Lynn, decided to abort their child. Haunted by this and other defeats in his life, Junior commits suicide in the final chapter of the novel. This final defeat is a clear result of the patterns of suffering that haunt the reservation, and a blow to the community; Junior is a character who (as others recognize) ought to be doing better than he is, but who is constantly pulled back into destructive patterns.

Junior Polatkin Quotes in Reservation Blues

The Reservation Blues quotes below are all either spoken by Junior Polatkin or refer to Junior Polatkin. 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 2 Quotes

They did go home with Junior and Victor one night, and everybody on the reservation knew about it. Little Indian boys crept around the house and tried to peek in the windows. All of them swore they saw the white women naked, then bragged it wasn’t the first time they’d seen a naked white woman. None of them had seen a naked Indian woman, let alone a white woman. But the numbers of naked white women who had visited the Spokane Indian Reservation rapidly grew in the boys’ imaginations, as if the size of their lies proved they were warriors.

Related Characters: Junior Polatkin, Victor Joseph, Betty, Veronica
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Alexie discusses the reservation community’s reaction to Betty and Veronica’s fling with Junior and Victor. The boys of the town are entranced by the white women, who serve as a means of affirming their own macho identities - they all lie, shamelessly, to claim an easy familiarity with the sexual prize of the white woman. The fact that these young boys, who are without exception sexually inexperienced, believe that these claims bolster their image in the community, shows that interracial relationships are driven by a set of machismo politics instilled at a very young age.

Victor and Junior are heroes according to this logic, at the peak of the macho pyramid. In reality, though, neither has a very successful night with the visiting women, since their blindness to the women themselves, outside of their role as status-boosting trophies, has meant that neither has grown much in their understanding of romantic love since they themselves were young boys. The boys’ need for a macho reputation is driven, Alexie suggest, by their desire to be seen as “warriors,” striving to conform to an identity that the narratives governing their lives, both White and Native, associate with a glorious and brave past.

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Chapter 4 Quotes

Junior and Victor shrugged their shoulders, walked into Thomas’s house, and looked for somewhere to sleep. Decorated veterans of that war between fathers and sons, Junior and Victor knew the best defense was sleep. They saw too many drunks littering the grass of the reservation; they rolled the drunks over and stole their money.

Related Characters: Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Junior Polatkin, Victor Joseph, Samuel Builds-the-Fire
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Junior and Victor react - or, rather, don’t react - to the sight of Thomas’ drunken father, Samuel Builds-the-Fire, passed out on Thomas’s front lawn. Their shared indifference to the appearance of the drunken Samuel is a product of their extensive experience in the “war between fathers and sons” of which they are “decorated veterans,” since alcohol destroyed both of their families as well. This experience has hardened them against suffering, making alcoholism the expected, normal state for fathers. They respond pragmatically to this abundance of alcoholism now, callously stealing whatever they can from the passed out members of the reservation when they come across them. The key component of this philosophy is despair; there is nothing else to be done but sleep, no hope for changing the habits of the reservation or escaping the pattern of suffering embedded in their culture. Thomas holds on to hope in some ways, but must also therefore continue to confront the sadness of an unchanging reality, since he refuses to escape into sleep or drink like Victor and Joseph. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

“I mean, I think they’re all using each other as trophies. Junior and Victor get to have beautiful white women on their arms, and Betty and Veronica get to have Indian men… Look at them. They got more Indian jewelry and junk on them than any dozen Indians. The spotlights hit the crystals on their necks and nearly blinded me once. All they talk about is Coyote this and Coyote that, sweatlodge this and sweatlodge that. They think Indians got all the answers.”

Related Characters: Thomas Builds-the-Fire (speaker), Junior Polatkin, Victor Joseph, Betty, Veronica
Page Number: 158
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Thomas speaks to the radio interviewer after Coyote Springs wins a battle of the bands in Seattle, answering a question about the relationship between Junior and Victor, and Betty and Veronica, two groupies who have joined the band as back-up singers. Thomas takes a dim view of these couplings, seeing both the Native men and the white women as being fascinated more with the fact of one another’s race than with one another's actual person. Each is a trophy to the other - Betty and Veronica are in search of the exotic, seeing in Native Americans a stereotypical, mystic and new age identity to be explored, while for Junior and Victor, the act of landing a white woman proves their masculine power and, as they discuss later, serves as a sort of revenge against the white power structures that hold them down in patterns of suffering.

Chapter 10 Quotes

Chess looked around the graveyard, at all the graves of Indians killed by white people’s cars, alcohol, uranium. All those Indians who had killed themselves. She saw the pine trees that surrounded the graveyard and the road that led back to the rest of the reservation. That road was dirt and gravel, had been a trail for a few centuries before. A few years from now it would be paved, paid for by one more government grant. She looked down the road and thought she saw a car, a mirage shimmering in the distance, a blonde woman and a child standing beside the car, both dressed in black.

Related Characters: Junior Polatkin, Chess (Eunice) Warm Water , Lynn
Page Number: 282
Explanation and Analysis:

Chess takes a moment to look over the reservation cemetery at the end of Junior’s funeral, and she sees a mirage of the white woman Junior loved in college, and their unborn child. Surveying the rows of graves, Chess sees the race-driven violence behind each of the dead Natives, the patterns of suffering - alcoholism, cancer caused by uranium mining, and car accidents - that she believes are enforced by the racist policies of mainstream white America. She is nearly overwhelmed by the magnitude of this destruction, and by the many suicides who gave in to despair. The trees and the gravel road that “had been a trail for a few centuries before,” are a piece of the old reservation, before the advent of white settlers, repositories of the history of Native Americans in this place that go beyond the graveyard. The trail will be paved over soon, erased by the government’s money, a bandaid applied to the wrong wound. In the distance, the blond woman is a vision of what might have been for Junior, a happy family with a child that Victor lied about, who was in fact aborted. If the racism that separated Junior from his college girlfriend, Lynn, had not existed, this family might.

WalksAlong didn’t respond, and Victor left the office, feeling something slip inside him. He stole five dollars from WalksAlong’s secretary’s purse and bought a six-pack of cheap beer at the Trading Post.
“Fuck it, I can do it, too,” Victor whispered to himself and opened the first can. That little explosion of the beer can opening sounded exactly like a smaller, slower version of the explosion that Junior’s rifle made on the water tower.

Related Characters: Victor Joseph (speaker), Junior Polatkin, David WalksAlong
Page Number: 292
Explanation and Analysis:

Victor is rejected by David WalksAlong after making his final desperate attempt to escape the pattern of suffering and despair that has guided his life so far, and that has claimed that of his best friend, Junior. WalksAlong, an elected leader of the tribe, chooses personal vengeance over his responsibility to Victor as a member of the community, mocking the poorly written resume that Victor had brought in search of a job.

This final blow is too much, and Victor, who had previously resolved to give up drinking after being visited by the ghost of Junior, turns immediately to the only relief he has ever known from the suffering that holds him back from success: alcohol. He is too poor to afford it on his own, stealing from WalksAlong’s secretary in a small act of revenge that will only foster further discord in the community. The echo of Junior’s rifle heard in the opening of the beer can is a not-so-subtle sign that this decision is an equivalent surrender to despair, a slower form of suicide that plays into the same pattern.  

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Junior Polatkin Character Timeline in Reservation Blues

The timeline below shows where the character Junior Polatkin 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
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...microwave burrito at the Trading Post. Then Victor Joseph, who is tattered and angry, and Junior Polatkin, a “tall, good-looking buck with hair like Indians in the movies,” interrupts his curbside... (full context)
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...song, he can go free—if not, Victor will beat him up and take the guitar. Junior remarks that the song can’t be worse than Thomas’s stories, which creep about and get... (full context)
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...guitar against the sidewalk, and then gives it to Thomas to play. Thomas, knowing that Junior and Victor are “fragile as eggs, despite their warrior disguises,” carefully plays the song about... (full context)
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Junior is driving the water truck to the West End, avoiding potholes, with Victor asleep beside... (full context)
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...a drink, but all he has is Pepsi and coffee, and Victor wants a beer. Junior says he has to finish his work first, and shrugs his shoulders in response to... (full context)
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...The guitar plays him a sad song, the same song for hours, and Victor and Junior hear it too, passed out drunk in the water truck. The guitar tells Thomas the... (full context)
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Junior and Victor are passed out in the water truck. Junior dreams of his two brothers,... (full context)
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The sound of the guitar’s song washes over the reservation like rain, waking Victor and Junior, who, angry and hung over, drive toward Thomas to stop the music. The guitar tells... (full context)
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Victor and Junior arrive, and Thomas invites them to join a band, offering Victor the guitar, which burns... (full context)
Chapter 2
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...trust that is broken in romantic heartbreak, and the heartbreak of a broken treaty. Thomas, Junior, and Victor are rehearsing in an abandoned grocery store called Irene’s. The electric bass and... (full context)
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Betty and Veronica go home one night with Junior and Victor, and little Indian boys swear they see the women them naked, as if... (full context)
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...says “Fuck Coyote,” lightning strikes the reservation, starting a small fire by the Uranium mine. Junior subsequently loses his job when his truck is transported inside an abandoned dance hall, and... (full context)
Chapter 3
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...kind of cute. Chess and Checkers dance, even as the music deteriorates since Victor and Junior get drunk on free booze. The band takes a break, and Thomas discusses the Warm... (full context)
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Victor confuses Thomas and Junior by talking about seeing white women, when there are none in the bar. He is... (full context)
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Victor’s guitar pulls him back on stage with Junior and Thomas, and Thomas announces that the next song is for Chess. He points at... (full context)
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...“made up in pure volume what it lacked in talent,” and noting that Victor and Junior were “drunk as skunks.” The night of the show, Chess and Checkers helped Thomas pack... (full context)
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...with their parents, but Checkers tells him their parents are gone. They leave Victor and Junior to sleep in the car, and Checkers goes to bed, so Chess and Thomas are... (full context)
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...that the Sioux ride off in a panic. This reminds Thomas of the summer that Junior and Victor killed snakes by draping them over an electric fence, forcing Thomas to watch.... (full context)
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The dream continues: now Thomas, Victor, and Junior are practicing, and Thomas says he hopes they don’t make it big, because it might... (full context)
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...tells Chess that the band is better than they sounded last night, blaming Victor and Junior being drunk. He tells her he does not drink, and she smiles: this is a... (full context)
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...unwilling to leave home. Victor objects to the idea, but when Thomas suggests they vote, Junior unexpectedly votes with Thomas. The sisters are still unconvinced, so they begin to play music.... (full context)
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...more “music, hope, and joy.” After the show, Chess, Checkers, and Thomas find Victor and Junior naked and drunk in the back of the van with an equally naked Betty and... (full context)
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...Chess and Thomas sit on a bench and talk. Chess tells Thomas that Victor and Junior hanging out with white women feels like a betrayal. The race needs to be preserved,... (full context)
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...them. He asks them where they’re from, and goes to make a call. Victor and Junior discuss “taking him out,” but when he returns, the cop tells them his cousin is... (full context)
Chapter 4
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...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... (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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Junior’s nameless parents return, and then they drive off in search of their children, crying, blaming... (full context)
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...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. (full context)
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...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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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...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.... (full context)
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Victor and Junior drink coffee while Thomas and Chess discuss Seattle—how it’s named after an Indian Chief, but... (full context)
Chapter 5
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...sights, amazed by the sheer number of white people. “No wonder the Indians lost,” says Junior. They debate how many rooms to get, deciding that the club that invited them, Backboard,... (full context)
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Checkers begins to tell Father Arnold about Junior and Victor having sex with Betty and Veronica. She explains that this makes her hate... (full context)
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...by the city. Chess is still awake, though, and she listens to the men’s nightmares. Junior dreams of horses, that he is leading warriors who try in vain to attack a... (full context)
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When Sheridan, a second, larger white man, arrives, he offers Junior his hand, but then realizes his hands are bound and smiles. He charges Junior with... (full context)
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Junior falls back asleep, but Thomas stays up with Chess. They discuss religion. Thomas tells her... (full context)
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...in the street. They see old Indian men, drunks, who kept talking to Victor and Junior like they are in a secret club. One, addressing Victor as “nephew,” turns out to... (full context)
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Victor is drawn to the drunks that frighten Junior and the others. Lester FallsApart, the “most accomplished drunk on the Spokane Reservation,” is a... (full context)
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...Thomas tells the interviewer that he and Chess voted against the two white women, but Junior and Victor voted them in with a coin toss. He says he feels they are... (full context)
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Thomas and Chess take turns driving the victorious band home, with Junior, Victor, Betty, and Veronica in the back seat. Chess asks Thomas if he’ll come with... (full context)
Chapter 6
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...ability to represent the tribe. It takes issue with Betty and Veronica, names Victor and Junior as drunks, calls out Chess and Checkers for being Flathead (not Spokane) Indians, and calls... (full context)
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Victor and Junior are drunkenly working their way through their share of the prize money, as Betty and... (full context)
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White Hawk, Victor, and Junior are taken to Spokane for medical attention. The Indian EMT lies to the doctor, telling... (full context)
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...terms. Chess and Checkers, for example, would attract men with their “exotic animalistic woman thing.” Junior is “ethnically handsome,” making up for Thomas’s goofiness and the fact that Victor looks like... (full context)
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...the week. They spend this on Doritos and Hershey’s, and a stock of beer for Junior and Victor. The next day, Thomas receives a letter from Big Mom, telling him that... (full context)
Chapter 7
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...million stories are told about her, but some refuse to believe that she even exists. Junior and Victor, who are “damn good at denial,” once saw her walk across Benjamin Pond,... (full context)
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...hurt him as a child, and that forgiveness is magic too. She then turns to Junior, laughing at his fear, and hands him two huge drumsticks. She calls Chess and Checkers... (full context)
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In a letter, Junior thanks Big Mom for the drumsticks, and tries to apologize for Victor. He explains that... (full context)
Chapter 8
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...the day before, as well as David WalksAlong’s pessimistic prediction that they are “done for.” Junior says he just wants to be good at something. Back in the studio, Wright and... (full context)
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Chess, Checkers, and Thomas wait in their hotel lobby worrying about Victor and Junior—they want to find them, but there are too many thousands of bars. Chess marshals the... (full context)
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Junior remembers meeting his first white woman, Lynn, in college, in Oregon. They were both stuck... (full context)
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Chess and Thomas enter yet another bar, asking the pretty waitress about Victor and Junior. She says she’s never seen a real Indian before, a “bow-and-arrow Indian”—only Indians from India.... (full context)
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In Junior’s memory, Lynn reveals that she is pregnant a few months into their relationship. In the... (full context)
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In a letter in Junior’s memory, Lynn reveals that she has had an abortion. She tells him that she hummed... (full context)
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...up with her until they returned. Chess goes to check on her, while Thomas and Junior try to look threatening. Wright tells them he came to apologize, and that he wants... (full context)
Chapter 9
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...It is followed by the news that one week after Coyote Springs’ return from Manhattan, Junior stole a rifle from Simon’s pickup truck, climbed up on the empty water tower, looked... (full context)
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...York. On the plane, Thomas and Chess had revealed their plans to leave the reservation. Junior had sat and thought of Lynn, of the plane crashing, and of the thin flute... (full context)
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...be, if he trades what he loves the most—or who he loves the most. Outside, Junior turns, hearing his name spoken in Victor’s voice. (full context)
Chapter 10
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...suicide seem to be passed down through the generations. Few people cared enough to attend Junior’s wake, which took place in Thomas’s house on the kitchen table. A few sent flowers,... (full context)
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...Mom tells him that she is, too. She invites him to come and help mourn Junior, telling him that he can do the Catholic stuff, and she’ll do the traditional Indian... (full context)
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They bury Junior in the Spokane Tribal cemetery, near his mother and father. Big Mom and Father Arnold... (full context)
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...leaving with Chess. Checkers returns a bottle of communion wine that she had stolen before Junior shot himself. Checkers tells Arnold that she isn’t sure she can forgive him yet, and... (full context)
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Victor drives to Turtle Lake and sits in the van. Junior appears to him with a rifle hole in his head and they both scream. Junior... (full context)
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...the way it worked.” He says that he wants to drive the water truck like Junior did, but WalksAlong does not respond. Something seems to break inside of Victor, and he... (full context)