Reservation Blues

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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.
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon

In Alexie’s novel, overtones of magical realism create a heightened sense of myth and an awareness of history that seems native to life on the reservation—and especially to life as it is experienced by Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the protagonist. Although the novel is narrated from a third-person perspective, it most consistently follows Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who is infamous for his storytelling. His stories are said to creep relentlessly into the dreams of everyone who lives on the reservation, giving them a sort of spiritual power. This storyteller’s lens leads the reader to accept moments of fantasy, or of reclaimed history in which major rock stars are imagined to have found their true talent under the instruction of Big Mom.

History and the spiritual are linked in the life of the reservation, both within the Catholic Church and as a part of native beliefs and rituals. Big Mom is a magical figure, whose power comes in equal parts from the “powerful medicine” of the supernatural and from her role as a living archive of tribal history, the history of invasion, and even the history of music in America. The other home of spiritualism in the novel, the reservation’s Catholic Church, is also tied—at least in Thomas’s mind—to the bloody history of Catholicism’s role in the early exploration and settlement of America, which came at the expense of Native American lives. Father Arnold—the face of Catholicism on the reservation—is a sympathetic and relatable character, however, whose influence on the community seems positive—he plays basketball, feels the temptation to love, and takes pride in the performance of his sermons in a way that is similar to the onstage thrill experienced by Coyote Springs in concert. This dissonance connects to the common theme of a past full of suffering that invades a present that contains hope, but is often pulled back by the patterns of the past.

These patterns are represented using moments of fantasy, as when Sheridan, one of the white record label executives named after a historical U.S. general who participated in slaughters of Native Americans, invades Coyote Springs’ hotel room in New York to “apologize” to Checkers, and ends up drifting back in history and remembering the rape of an Indian woman. Alexie’s fantastical story-telling choices become a means of exploring the ways that history remains alive and vivid, and of showing how past oppression echoes into and explains present suffering.

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Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual ThemeTracker

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

Below you will find the important quotes in Reservation Blues related to the theme of Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual.
Chapter 1 Quotes

“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.

Related Characters: Thomas Builds-the-Fire (speaker), Robert Johnson (speaker)
Page Number: 7
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Thomas reflects on all the suffering embedded in the reservation, both historical and contemporary, and is left unable to adequately respond to Robert Johnson’s praise of the landscape. It is, in fact, a beautiful place, at face value - but there are also years of built-up pain and despair that haunt the reservation, psychological and physical violence perpetuated against its inhabitants by the government that now builds their flimsy houses as meager recompense for their actions. The ghosts of these painful events, victims of the Indian War and the years of patterned suffering that have followed, lie in wait, hoping to break through and erode away the government-built houses. Just as prominent in Thomas’ mind as the actual bodies are the murdered dreams, the hopeful fantasies that have each been extinguished, without fail, by circumstance; to be a Native American, Alexie implies, is to struggle forever with despair. Thomas takes on this struggle when he dares to hope that his little blues band can achieve success, but this dream too risks being murdered along with all of the others.  


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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.  

Thomas repeated stories constantly. All the other Indians on the reservation heard those stories so often that the words crept into dreams. An Indian telling his friends about a dream he had was halfway through the telling before everyone realized it was actually one of Thomas’s stealth stories.

Related Characters: Thomas Builds-the-Fire
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Alexie begins to characterize Thomas as a born storyteller, and to set up the narrative’s universe as one that is full of magical realist elements. Here, he introduces Thomas’ role as the tribe’s common story-teller, while also making it clear that this role is not one that endears him to his community; Thomas is an oddball, an outsider on the reservation to some degree. Still, his power is such that he can influence the dreams of those around him, suggesting that stories have a sort of magic here.

As the reader learns more about Thomas’ stories, it becomes clear that his favorite topic is the land around him, the beautiful and bitter place he calls home and all of the creatures and people that inhabit or have inhabited this reservation. Thomas serves as a voice for the spirits of this place, and the utility of that voice is shown in the way that Alexie himself, as a spirit of this reservation, makes use of Thomas’s voice to introduce fantastical elements into the novel.

Chapter 3 Quotes

Coyote Springs created a tribal music that scared and excited the white people in the audience. That music might have chased away the pilgrims five hundred years ago… The audience reached for Coyote Springs with brown and white hands that begged for more music, hope, and joy. Coyote Springs felt powerful, fell in love with the power, and courted it.

Page Number: 79-80
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote, Alexie describes the atmosphere at Coyote Springs’ second live concert in Montana, a return to the same stage with the addition now of the Warm Water sisters to the band. The true, powerful potential of the band is on display here, as their music begins to come together for the first time with the live energy of the audience, harnessing their collective experience of despair to inspire hope and passion. The power of this collective hope is almost religious in character, as later demonstrated by Father Arnold’s admission that he used to play in a band, and feels a similar sense of power as a preacher to what he felt onstage.

This moment of togetherness unites the oppressed tribe members by giving them the hope of a common culture, just as the Blues functioned in African American communities. The presence of this new, collective pride in their identity, with its "tribal" undertones, scares the white audience members, who are now the outsider, confronted by a culture that also excites them because it is exotic and other. The power of that music, of that collective hope, might have united the tribes of America against the pilgrims if it had existed when they arrived, suggests Alexie, in another collapsing of history (a common device throughout the novel).

Chapter 4 Quotes

“You never told us who won that game between your father and the Tribal Cops.”
“Who do you think?” Thomas asked. “Who do you think won that game?”

Related Characters: Thomas Builds-the-Fire (speaker), Chess (Eunice) Warm Water (speaker), Samuel Builds-the-Fire
Page Number: 129
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Alexie reveals the ending to the pick-up basketball game from years before when Thomas’s father, Samuel Builds-the-Fire, took on the Tribal Cops in the ultimate underdog contest. There was no happy ending to the story - Samuel and his team lost. This cycle of impossible hope, driven, the Warm Water sisters would suggest, by the macho drive of would-be warriors in the tribe, leads inevitably to defeat and despair - such that Thomas does not even have to say outright that his father lost, because it is the obvious outcome to such a common story. Thomas' repeated question is tinged with defeatism and anger that this cycle is a part of his identity - the Tribal Cops, representatives on the reservation of the power of White America, have always won, and always will win against the marginalized Natives who dare to speak up or struggle against injustice, as Thomas’ father did in his own way.

The story that Thomas tells is a powerful one, illustrating the history of struggle against the governmental powers that perpetuate a cycle of hopelessness. Thomas uses his gift as a storyteller to bring to life his father’s effort once again, even as Samuel lies prone on the table in the present. If anything, this tale serves to underline the tragedy of his father’s fall from glory to this moment, and to bristle against the seeming inevitability of that fall.

Chapter 5 Quotes

“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?”

Related Characters: Thomas Builds-the-Fire (speaker), Chess (Eunice) Warm Water
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:

Thomas is speaking to Chess about the role of religion in her life, as she tries to convince him to come to church with her. For Thomas, it is impossible to separate the historical injustice and violence perpetrated by the Christian Church from any of its present-day spiritual teachings. These teachings were used to justify the slaughter of thousands of his own race, and so must be corrupt and evil, as far as he is concerned. He feels a real bond to every Native who was killed, a bond made stronger perhaps by his role as a storyteller, who listens to the voices of the reservation’s many ghosts.

The fact that Catholicism still has such a strong hold on the reservation is, in Thomas’ mind, only further proof that the white Christian desire to oppress the Natives, weeding out their traditional spiritual practices, has not left. Rather, according to Thomas’s perspective, their continued presence serves to reinforce patterns of guilt and fear that isolate, rather than build community. Like alcohol, religion is another means by which those in power aim to pacify the just anger of the oppressed, giving them a false sense of happiness or hope while removing their will to change their current circumstances for the better by rising up against the structures that restrict them.

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.

“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.”

Related Characters: Chess (Eunice) Warm Water (speaker), Betty, Veronica
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

Chess yells at Betty and Veronica when they decide to leave the reservation after Victor and Junior fight with White Hawk and are taken to the hospital. Chess’s mounting frustration at the invasion of these white women comes to the fore here, as she berates the two outsiders for their limited, ultimately racist view of what it is to be Native American.

Betty and Veronica, argues Chess, are interested in Junior and Victor only as a means of touching the exotic, engaging with a culture they see as holding a special, spiritual power. They misunderstand this power, says Chess, because they believe they can control it and make selective use of it, taking only the good without the bad and keeping all the conveniences and advantages of their white identities at the same time. The sacred is everywhere, in everything, and they are blind to it because it doesn’t suit their exotic fantasy of what magic is. In fact, Chess goes on, the pain of violence driven by alcoholism, as exemplified by this recent fight, is an equal part of what it means to be a Native American, trapped within patterns of suffering that Betty and Veronica cannot begin to understand.  

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 8 Quotes

“I remember once,” he said, “when I killed this Indian woman. I don’t even know what tribe she was. It was back in ’72. I rode up on her and ran my saber right through her heart. I thought that was it. But she jumped up and pulled me off my mount. I couldn’t believe it. I was so angry that I threw her to the ground and stomped her to death. It was then I noticed she was pregnant. We couldn’t have that. Nits make lice, you know? So I cut her belly open and pulled that fetus out. Then that baby bit me. Can you believe that.”

Related Characters: Phil Sheridan (speaker), Checkers (Gladys) Warm Water
Page Number: 237
Explanation and Analysis:

Phil Sheridan, who is a record executive and, somehow, also an infamous Army officer from the Indian War, speaks to Checkers alone in her New York hotel room, where he has shown up unannounced. He describes in graphic detail a scene from a battle in 1872, when he killed a pregnant Native woman who fought back with remarkable ferocity before succumbing to his violent attack. Then he describes his cruel decision to kill her unborn child, since “nits make lice,” a horribly callous justification for an unjustifiable act of cruelty that equates Native people to insects. At the same time, this decision shows Sheridan’s awareness that violence and a desire for revenge are passed down through generations, a truth that has been borne out today, since the members of Coyote Springs are all still embroiled in the same suffering that was begun by this historical trauma. 

By collapsing time in an act of magical realism, and bringing this historically real Army officer into contemporary New York to attack Checkers, Alexie makes the continued consequences of that racial violence abundantly clear. Sheridan is still in a position of power over Checkers, although his methods of violence have changed; he wields the power of capitalism as a record executive who killed their contract after trying to appropriate their culture, and now he has the power of a potential sexual aggressor. 

Wright looked at Coyote Springs. He saw their Indian faces. He saw the faces of millions of Indians, beaten, scarred by smallpox and frostbite, split open by bayonets and bullets. He looked at his own white hands and saw the blood stains there.

Related Characters: George Wright
Page Number: 244
Explanation and Analysis:

George Wright, who is another record executive/historical army officer, finally confronts his guilt for the horrific events of the Indian War. Wright showcases the ways that violence and oppression can also have negative consequences for the oppressor. The fact that Wright looks at the members of Coyote Springs and sees the entire violent and tragic history of their race reinforces the notion that this history continues to have effects today, since the tribe has been caught in cycles of violence and suffering ever since.

That Wright can see this history of the whole race in each of them, also raises the question: does every member of mainstream white American also carry a share of the guilt for their suffering? Wright’s hands are figuratively stained with blood, because he was, somehow, present during the Indian Wars 150 years before or more, but do all white hands continue to share this guilt, at least until proper reparations have been made? There is, perhaps, an implicit argument that until the cycle of suffering and racism has been broken, all Native Americans will have this oppression as an unshakeable part of their identity - and all white Americans might have an equivalent guilt as a part of theirs, unless they work to undo the wrongs embedded in society’s structure.

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.

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.