Alcohol is presented as a normal, ever-present, and inescapable part of life on the reservation—a symptom of the poverty and sense of despair that surround Native American life after years of oppression and broken promises from the American government.
Alcoholism is a thread that weaves its way across life on the reservation, and directly affects the lives of each of Coyote Springs’ members. At various points in the novel they are confronted, individually or collectively, with the painful memories of alcohol abuse that broke up each of their families, in a way that was simultaneously predictable and seemingly impossible to stop. Chess and Checkers’ father, Luke Warm Water, became an alcoholic after his infant son died of a preventable illness when no medical help was available. Luke’s drinking tore their family apart, leading to their mother’s suicide, and both sisters are haunted by memories of their father’s alcoholism. Thomas’ father, Samuel Builds-the-Fire, was once a basketball-playing hero of the tribe, but after the death of his wife he became an alcoholic as well. The only special skill he has now is one that Thomas jokes belongs to all Native American fathers – the ability to show up drunk on their children’s doorsteps, no matter where or how far they have gone away in an attempt to escape. Junior’s parents were both killed in a drunk driving accident, and Junior himself has now fallen into the same pattern of drinking he had hoped to avoid, binging with Victor whenever the opportunity presents itself. Junior, too, is haunted by dreams of his parents. Victor’s drinking is in turn a reaction to another pattern of suffering—his nightmares reveal that he was sexually abused by a priest while still a young boy. Now, he is persistently verbally and physically abusive to those around him, and the most recklessly alcoholic member of the band.
The prevalence of alcohol’s destructive influence in the past and present of each of these characters is a reflection of the general patterns of suffering that pervade life on the reservation. The origin of these patterns is, more often than, not, oppression handed down from the government. This pattern of government oppression is exemplified by the three white executives of Cavalry Records, who finally defeat the unlikely “underdog” hope of Coyote Springs after first rekindling that hope with a worthless string of promises and contracts. To drive his point home, Alexie names these executives Sheridan, Wright, and Armstrong, after famous U.S. Army Officers implicated in the slaughter of Native Americans. Philip Sheridan (1831-1888) was a general who pioneered scorch earth tactics during the Civil War, and then oversaw the Indian Wars on the Great Plains. George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876) also fought in the Indian Wars and, significantly for Alexie’s novel, once ordered his men to shoot 875 captured Indian horses. George Wright (1803-1865) commanded troops during the Battle of Spokane Plains near modern-day Wellpinit, and hanged Chief Owhi and his son Qualchan in bad faith after inviting them to negotiate.
The reservation’s patterns of suffering are held in the memory of Big Mom and the stories of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, and transformed into the music played by Coyote Springs. Big Mom’s memory of the murder of Native horses and her transcription of their song of mourning and pain makes these ghostly horses a symbol of the suffering of Native Americans at the hands of the government. The novel in some ways chronicles the band members’ desperate attempt to escape from the patterns of suffering that destroyed their respective parents—and it is this desire to escape that finally drives Thomas and Chess to move off the reservation.
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering ThemeTracker
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering Quotes in Reservation Blues
“This is a beautiful place,” Johnson said.
“But you haven’t seen everything,” Thomas said.
“What else is there?”
Thomas thought about all the dreams that were murdered here, and the bones buried quickly just inches below the surface, all waiting to break through the foundations of those government houses built by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
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.
As he slept in the Warm Waters’ house, Thomas dreamed about television and hunger. In his dream, he sat, all hungry and lonely, in his house and wanted more. He turned on his little black-and-white television to watch white people live. White people owned everything: food, houses, clothes, children. Television constantly reminded Thomas of all he never owned.
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.
Once outside, Thomas cried. Not because he needed to be alone; not because he was afraid to cry in front of women. He just wanted his tears to be individual, not tribal. Those tribal tears collected and fermented in huge BIA barrels. Then the BIA poured those tears into beer and Pepsi cans and distributed them back onto the reservation. Thomas wanted his tears to be selfish and fresh.
“Those white women are always perfect, you know? When I was little and we’d go to shop in Missoula, I’d see perfect little white girls all the time. They were always so pretty and clean. I’d come to town in my muddy dress. It never mattered how clean it was when we left Arlee. By the time we got to Missoula, it was always a mess.”
“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.”
“There was a part of every Indian bleeding in the snow. All those soldiers killed us in the name of God, enit? They shouted ‘Jesus Christ’ as they ran swords through our bellies. Can you feel the pain still, late at night, when you’re trying to sleep, when you’re praying to a God whose name was used to justify the slaughter?”
“You know,” he said, “I’ve always had a theory that you ain’t really Indian unless, at some point in your life, you didn’t want to be Indian.”
“Good theory,” Chess said. “I’m the one who told you that.”
Then the music stopped. The reservation exhaled. Those blues created memories for the Spokanes, but they refused to claim them. Those blues lit up a new road, but the Spokanes pulled out their old maps. Those blues churned up generations of anger and pain: car wrecks, suicides, murders. Those blues were ancient, aboriginal, indigenous.
“You want the good stuff of being Indian without all the bad stuff, enit? Well, a concussion is just as traditional as a sweatlodge… What did you New Agers expect? You think magic is so easy to explain? You come running to the reservations, to all these places you’ve decided are sacred. Jeez, don’t you know every place is sacred? You want your sacred lands in warm places with pretty views. You want the sacred places to be near malls and 7-Elevens, too.”
“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.”
The old Indian women dipped wooden spoons into stews and stirred and stirred. The stews made of random vegetables and commodity food, of failed dreams and predictable tears. That was the only way to measure time, to wait. Those spoons moved in slow circles. Stir, stir. The reservation waited for Coyote Springs to fall into pieces, so they could be dropped into the old women’s stews.
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.
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.
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.