Reservation Blues

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Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
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
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Reservation Blues, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon

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.

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Community, Friendship, and Love ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Community, Friendship, and Love appears in each chapter of Reservation Blues. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Community, Friendship, and Love Quotes in Reservation Blues

Below you will find the important quotes in Reservation Blues related to the theme of Community, Friendship, and Love.
Chapter 5 Quotes

Thomas smiled.
“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.”

Related Characters: Thomas Builds-the-Fire (speaker), Chess (Eunice) Warm Water (speaker)
Page Number: 169
Explanation and Analysis:

Thomas and Chess speak about the struggle of Native American life, and arrive at the same conclusion: that self-hatred and a desire to escape one’s Native identity is in itself an integral part of what it means to be Native. As she rightly reminds Thomas, it was Chess who came up with this pearl of wisdom first; it seems as though the female characters in the novel are more capable of taking this kind of perspective on their pain, while the male characters are often too trapped within the cycle of suffering to see its cause. That Thomas unconsciously echoes Chess is a sign of their growing love for one another, as they are beginning now to take refuge from all of this suffering by relying on each other.

This sort of lamenting of one’s position in life that both characters describe is a key part of blues songwriting, which is inherently mournful, sometimes with a tinge of anger at the sorry conditions the singer finds him or herself trapped within. They express, and perhaps overcome this despair through song, which builds a community of support, of fellow-sufferers willing to hope for better.


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Chapter 6 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Robert Johnson
Page Number: 174
Explanation and Analysis:

Robert Johnson, famous blues guitarist and singer, sings a short blues song on Big Mom’s porch, where he has been in recovery, hiding from the diabolical Gentleman since he arrived on the reservation. The effects upon the reservation are intense, as this music speaks to its soul, stirring up all of the “anger and pain” bred from generations of suffering and historical oppression. This is a moment of magical realism, as the landscape is personified and given life by the spirit of those who have died there. The tribe members refuse the call of this music, though, stubbornly sticking to their “old maps” instead of letting themselves hear and understand the patterns of suffering that hold them back.

The community rejects this opportunity for growth, comfortable in its own fashion with the status quo, as full of despair as it is. They refuse the memories of suffering that cross cultures, from the African American Johnson to them. This cross-cultural exchange is based in a shared experience of oppression, and Alexie makes it clear that he believes Native Americans have a valid claim to the blues as a genre by calling Johnson’s music “ancient, aboriginal, indigenous,” three adjectives commonly attributed to the Native peoples.

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.  

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.

Page Number: 220
Explanation and Analysis:

The reservation's inhabitants await news about Coyote Springs' fateful trip to New York to play for a group of big time record executives. While most hometown communities might cheer for the potential success of their underdog heroes, the band’s failure is a foregone conclusion in the minds of these waiting old women, so hardened to a lifetime of “failed dreams and predictable tears” that they no longer dare hope that anyone could break free from the pattern of suffering that has shaped their lives.

The old women, survivors of many tragedies on the reservation, are repositories for its memories and spirit, broken to despair by years of disappointment. This bitterness is transferred into the stew that they stir, the food that fuels the entire community, its contents determined by scrounging together the meager available resources. Coyote Springs, in the view of these women and the reservation, will inevitably return broken and defeated, further fuel to add to their bitter stew. The circular, repeated stirring motion of the old women is a sign of this cycle of disappointment, a pattern that is so difficult to escape.

Chapter 10 Quotes

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.  

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.