Community plays a huge role in life on the reservation, since each of the individuals living there is bound together by the shared sense of identity that comes from their race—its past and present, as outlined above.
Community can be a force for good, as exemplified by the small acts of kindness and support displayed by many of those on the reservation, and the camaraderie that comes from being part of a shared struggle. Alexie demonstrates the way in which the community can also exert a harmful force, though. The reservation community tries to banish Coyote Springs after they don’t live up to expectations, its structure helps to perpetuate the cycle of alcoholism and suffering that pains its members, and it often rewards corruption and hierarchy on the tribal council. When Chess and Thomas decide to leave the reservation, Big Mom convinces them to take up a collection at the tribal gathering, and this event yields a mix of these positive and negative elements. A sizeable sum is collected, but Alexie makes it clear that while some donate out of love and support, just as many do so out of spite and a desire to see the band leave for good.
Within the often-heartbreaking life of the reservation, personal bonds also become an important way to find meaning and a reason for survival. As a model of male friendship on the reservation, Junior’s (arguably toxic) friendship with Victor is a constant feature of the novel from the moment of their first introduction to the reader. This friendship seems to be what gives each of them the strength to overcome their difficult pasts, even as it also draws both of them toward alcoholism. When the friendship breaks, so does Victor’s will to continue struggling. Broken friendships—and more generally, broken hearts—are also a consistent theme of the Blues tradition.
Romantic love is another bond used by members of the band to survive the loneliness of reservation life. Checkers searches for meaning and stability in love, preferring older men for this reason. She falls in love with Father Arnold, and Chess’s unsurprised reaction to this makes it clear that it’s a pattern in her sister’s life. There is hope in love, though—if any hope is left at the end of the book, it is all given to Chess and Thomas, who are leaving the reservation and planning to have a child. Love becomes a means of preserving identity and hoping for a better future, of fighting back against oppression and despair.
Community, Friendship, and Love ThemeTracker
Community, Friendship, and Love Quotes in Reservation Blues
“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.
“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.
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.
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.