Reservation Blues

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Horses Symbol Icon

Horses appear at key moments throughout the text as a reminder of the pain and injustice that American Indians have suffered over generations. Horses are linked to an episode in Big Mom’s memory, when hundreds of Indian horses were captured and slaughtered after a battle. Big Mom takes the bones of the most beautiful horse and makes a flute, on which she plays a song of despair and mourning that she adapts from the horses’ screams. These horses’ screams then haunt George Wright—who is mysteriously both a Cavalry Record executive and the historical general from the Indian Wars—and make him feel remorse for his role in the wars.

Horses also appear at the end of the novel, running in the night alongside the van as Chess, Checkers, and Thomas drive away from the reservation and into an unknown future. Here they represent the powerful spirit and vitality of Native American people, despite all the suffering and oppression they have faced throughout history. The wild horses, like the Native Americans themselves, have almost disappeared from the land that was once theirs, but those horses that remain still retain their fierce spirit and freedom. Their presence helps the tragic novel end on a brief note of hope, as the characters ride forward surrounded by the horses of their people.

Horses Quotes in Reservation Blues

The Reservation Blues quotes below all refer to the symbol of Horses. 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 8 Quotes

Victor roared against his whole life. If he could have been hooked up to a power line, he would have lit up Times Square. He had enough anger inside to guide every salmon over Grand Coulee Dam. He wanted to steal a New York cop’s horse and go on the warpath. He wanted to scalp stockbrokers and kidnap supermodels. He wanted to shoot flaming arrows into the Museum of Modern Art. He wanted to lay siege to Radio City Music Hall. Victor wanted to win. Victor wanted to get drunk.

Related Characters: Victor Joseph
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Victor reacts to the band’s failure in the recording studio, a failure caused by his mystical guitar’s sudden rebellion. Victor “roars,” consumed with anger against the system, the society that has crippled his chances at success. His rage is a distinctly violent one, in the model of the warrior ancestors venerated by his tribe - he wants to enact traditional representations of Native American violence, from bow and arrows to scalping, on every symbol of mainstream American power that surrounds him in New York City: the stockbrokers and supermodels, museums and police.

The image of Victor riding on horseback down the streets of New York is equal parts absurd and tragic, a representation of the extent to which he has been trapped in the past, and is out of place in this modern world, unable to cope. He had dared to hope, dared to leave behind the despair that had dominated his life until this point - he wanted to win, for once, but has only lost once again. And, once again, he will turn to the only relief that many of his tribe have found for this repeated trauma: alcohol. This cycle of disappointment and the desperate search for relief is what has driven so many of his people to alcoholism, and the related suffering of family and community that accompanies that particular sickness.

Chapter 10 Quotes

In the blue van, Thomas, Chess, and Checkers sang together. They were alive; they’d keep living. They sang together with the shadow horses: we are alive, we’ll keep living. Songs were waiting for them up there in the dark. Songs were waiting for them in the city.

Related Characters: Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Chess (Eunice) Warm Water , Checkers (Gladys) Warm Water
Related Symbols: Horses
Page Number: 306
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, which ends the novel, Thomas, Chess, and Checkers cross the borders of the reservation on their way to a new life, accompanied by a herd of shadowy horses. They have finally grown so frustrated with life on the reservation and among its community that they have decided that the only way to keep hope alive and break the pattern of suffering and despair is to build upon the smaller community of love they have created amongst themselves, in a new place. When making this decision, Thomas is sad to leave the stories of the reservation behind - but the shadowy ghost horses that appear to shepherd them across the border are a sign that the spirit and history of their culture will accompany them, and this gives Thomas and his companions hope that songs are “waiting for them in the city.” They sing together now, using the blues as a means of overcoming there despair, and look to the future. There will be new stories, and new songs - and perhaps, this time, they will at long last have new endings.  

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Horses Symbol Timeline in Reservation Blues

The timeline below shows where the symbol Horses 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
In the memory of Big Mom, 134 years earlier, the Indian horses scream. She thinks at first that they are singing, but knows this is unlike any... (full context)
Chapter 2
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
...at night and listens to the faint voices that haunt the reservation, which sound like horses. Thomas opens and closes his empty refrigerator, hoping food will appear in it—an old childhood... (full context)
Chapter 3
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
...where three cowboys confront the Sioux nation. They tell three Indians who dismount from their horses that they “come in friendship,” and then electrocute all three on the telegraph wire they... (full context)
Chapter 4
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
...tells them they should kick Junior and Victor out of the band and leave. The horses scream. (full context)
Chapter 5
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
...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 steamship, and then... (full context)
Chapter 6
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
...white chicks” in Seattle and then come back and pick up “the Indians.” Somewhere, the horses scream. Wright tells Sheridan he has always been a good soldier, as they drink from... (full context)
Chapter 7
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
...she responds that all they can do is “sing songs and tell stories.” The Indian horses scream. (full context)
Chapter 8
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
...make them money. Armstrong arrives, fat and powerful, and the band counts off as, somewhere, horses scream. At first, all is well, and then suddenly Victor’s guitar begins to rebel, bucking... (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
...will trade in exchange for this wish—Johnson remembers his slave ancestors, and responds “Freedom.” The horses scream. Thinking that this was just a mirage, Johnson returns to Robinsville and Son House,... (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
...there speaks to his wife, who rises and comforts him as he weeps, remembering the horses screaming in the field while Big Mom watched. (full context)
Chapter 10
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
...her students has died, and she feels a deep sadness—the bodies, of both musicians and horses, may finally have “been stacked too high inside her.” Robert Johnson tells her that they... (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
...but nothing disastrous happens. Suddenly the shadows beside the van take shape, and becoming running horses. Chess and Checkers roll down the windows and reach out to touch them, hot and... (full context)