The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

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Identity, Belonging, and Coming-of-Age Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Identity, Belonging, and Coming-of-Age Theme Icon
Overlapping Opposites Theme Icon
Racism, Poverty, and Alcoholism Theme Icon
Confessions, Revenge, and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Hope, Dreams, and Loss Theme Icon
Drawing, Writing, and Junior’s Cartoons Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Identity, Belonging, and Coming-of-Age Theme Icon

Junior is hyper-conscious of his place within any social group. In addition to his awareness of what it means to be white versus what it means to be Indian, he worries about how to be a man (when men can cry, when boys have to stop holding hands with their friends) and how to fit in as a “freak” who is bullied by his peers and even by some adults. Beginning his story “I was born with water on the brain” (a reference to his own disability of hydrocephalus) and identifying his tough, hot-tempered best friend Rowdy as being “born mad,” Junior puts an emphasis on how people’s traits at birth define their characters, suggesting the he initially holds a slightly reductive vision of identity that doesn’t change much over time. However, by the time he gets to know Penelope, a girl at the Reardan high school who becomes Junior’s “almost-girlfriend,” he’s begun to see this kind of thinking as childish, finding it a bit melodramatic when she claims she was “born with a suitcase” ready to leave her hometown. A big part of his coming of age is trying to figure out the extent to which people are defined by their birth or their origins, as opposed to by their own choices.

For Junior, this dilemma is most clearly laid out in terms of his choice to leave the reservation where he was born. This decision, which some Indians on rez see as a choice to become white, calls his identity into question and leaves him with two names: on the reservation, he’s Junior, but when he goes to school in Reardan, people start calling him Arnold. At one point Penelope calls him “the boy who can’t figure out his own name.” Metaphorically, figuring out his own name—who he is, what his goals are, the kind of man he will become—is the goal of Junior’s decision to go to school in Reardan, and one of the driving forces in this coming-of-age novel. By the end, he realizes that his identity is really composed of allegiances to many tribes—“the tribe of basketball players … the tribe of cartoonists … and the tribe of boys who really missed their best friends,” to name a few—and that the fact of belonging to so many different communities, even the community of lonely people, means that he is going to be okay.

Identity, Belonging, and Coming-of-Age ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Identity, Belonging, and Coming-of-Age appears in each chapter of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Identity, Belonging, and Coming-of-Age Quotes in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Below you will find the important quotes in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian related to the theme of Identity, Belonging, and Coming-of-Age.
Chapter 1 Quotes

My brain was drowning in grease.
But that makes the whole thing sound weirdo and funny, like my brain was a giant French fry, so it seems more serious and poetic and accurate to say, “I was born with water on the brain.”

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker)
Page Number: 2
Explanation and Analysis:

Junior introduces himself to readers as someone who is up against many obstacles to success. Before even touching on race and poverty, he lets us know that he has a birth defect that affected his brain. However, his command of language and his humor let us know that this is something he seems to have mostly overcome, despite its lingering effects on his appearance.

From this opening passage we know that Junior is someone who considers an important characteristic of himself that he is different from others – weird, even – and also that he understands himself to be someone who is able to overcome hardship, even against great odds. From this passage we also learn that Junior has a sense of humor, even in the face of difficulty, and he's a careful observer of the world. It makes sense that Junior is a good student and a dedicated cartoonist, because his precision with words shows that he is someone who wants to communicate his experiences to others. 


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Chapter 2 Quotes

It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker)
Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

Something that Junior wants readers to understand is that poverty is not only cyclical, but it is inseparable from race. Together, racism and poverty form a vicious knot that deflates self-esteem and makes it difficult to see a way towards a better life. Junior illustrates this by walking readers through the thoughts he has when he is feeling bad about himself. We see that he conflates poverty with being Indian and being stupid and ugly.

This is a telling set of thoughts because it illuminates some of the less concrete ways (not related directly to his housing or access to medicine, for instance) that being an Indian living in poverty affects Junior. For example, Junior's thought that Indians are ugly shows the ways in which the standards of beauty centered on whiteness, which are ubiquitous in the American media, harm minorities. Junior doesn't seem to have an image in his mind of Indian beauty – he thinks of white people as being the ones who are attractive, and because of that he cannot imagine himself as being anything but ugly. This self-deprecation feeds into his despair about the cycle of poverty his family is caught in, because, just as he doesn't have an image of Indian beauty, he doesn't have many role models of Indians who aren't poor. Here, racism and poverty are presented as psychological obstacles in addition to being material ones. The combination makes it hard to imagine and work towards a better life.

Chapter 3 Quotes

“It’s not like anybody’s going to notice if you go away,” he said. “So you might as well gut it out.”

Related Characters: Rowdy (speaker), Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.)
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a moment that encapsulates the dynamic of Rowdy and Junior's friendship. Junior is remembering when his beloved dog died and his grief led him to want to go away from everyone. Rowdy didn't comfort Junior or tell him it would be okay; he gave him a tough-love response that acknowledged that Junior leaving wouldn't accomplish anything and nobody would notice so it made sense for him to just stay where he was.

Rowdy's advice is helpful in that it keeps Junior from doing anything rash and regrettable, and it also shows that the two know each other very well and care for each other. This also points to the fact that Rowdy seems to have internalized the tough environment of the rez more than Junior. Rowdy can be mean and he's opposed to any dreams about the future because they seem, to him, unrealistic (and, therefore, indulging in such dreams would make you vulnerable to them inevitably not coming true). Junior, on the other hand, is a more openly compassionate friend, and he's prone to more eccentric dreams and impulses, like escaping the rez. 

Chapter 4 Quotes

After high school, my sister just froze. Didn’t go to college, didn’t get a job. Didn’t do anything. Kind of sad, I guess.
But she is also beautiful and strong and funny. She is the prettiest and strongest and funniest person who ever spent twenty-three hours a day alone in a basement.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker), Mary Runs Away
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

For Junior, Mary is a sort of cautionary tale for the future. Junior looks up to Mary and believes that she is smart and capable enough to do something important with her life. However, Mary "froze" after high school and moved into their parents' basement, refusing to pursue her dreams. This underscores Junior's sense that the Indians living in poverty have few ways to make a better life. He sees his sister as having the personal qualities (smart, pretty, strong, funny) that might allow her to escape the reservation, but she doesn't.

Since he can't chalk this "failure" up to Mary's personal failings, Junior finds it emblematic of a social reality in which Indians don't have the kinds of opportunities that white kids take for granted. And this feeling of Junior's is substantiated by the realities he sees around him: other kids on the rez, including Mary, get substandard educations and don't go to college; don't get jobs and, in fact, often can't find good jobs because there aren't many ways to make an income on the rez.

There's a sense throughout the book that Junior feels that the world is sending him the message that he doesn't have a future to look forward to as he grows up, and Junior is rebelling by having hope and making radically different choices than his community to see if they result in a different outcome. 

Chapter 5 Quotes

“You’ve been fighting since you were born,” he said. “You fought off that brain surgery. You fought off those seizures. You fought off all the drunks and drug addicts. You kept your hope. And now, you have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope.”

Related Characters: Mr. P (speaker), Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.)
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

Once Junior has been suspended from school for throwing the geometry book at his teacher, Mr. P comes to see him and gives him, perhaps, the best gifts possible: forgiveness, and an outlet for the hope that had been crushed by finding the geometry book. Mr. P reminds Junior that he has already struggled through and overcome tremendous obstacles and that if he wants to live a better life he needs to take matters into his own hands and get himself off the rez to a world that might be able to offer him the resources and hope that could carry him out of poverty.

This lecture sticks with Junior and leads him to his decision to transfer to a white high school where he will have more opportunities. This part of the book shows how important it is to have mentors who can remind you to believe in yourself and give you advice about how to move forward. That this mentorship comes only in an extreme situation, and that the community's reaction to Junior's decision is so severe, suggests that the kids on the rez are not generally being told that they have access to these choices and resources. This is an example of the way poverty keeps people down, of how hopelessness can create a kind of cycle where those without hope actively work against those within a community who still have hope, and would have kept Junior down had Mr. P not intervened.

At the same time, it's important to note that Mr. P, a white person, is telling Junior that his only hope is to escape from his own people. Mr. P may be right, but it is an indictment of the world that has made the rez such a hopeless place that Junior is forced to choose between himself and his community if he wants to find a more hopeful future.

Chapter 7 Quotes

“You always thought you were better than me,” he yelled.
“No, no, I don’t think I’m better than anybody. I think I’m worse than everybody else.”
“Why are you leaving?”
“I have to go. I’m going to die if I don’t leave.”

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker), Rowdy (speaker)
Page Number: 42
Explanation and Analysis:

Rowdy's friendship with Junior is one of the primary plot arcs of the book, and this is the moment in which it begins to fray. When Junior tells Rowdy he is changing schools, Rowdy takes it personally, suggesting that Junior's choice is an implicit judgment of everyone else and a rejection of Rowdy. Junior tries to explain that this is a choice not made out of superiority or arrogance, but one made because he feels desperate – he doesn't think he can make it, doesn't think he'll survive, if he stays on the rez.

Junior's assertion that he will die if he doesn't leave is a dramatic one, but the book proves its truth. So many people in Junior's life die over the course of the book, and most of them are senseless deaths due to conditions on the reservation. This drives home just how dire the poverty that Junior lives in is; it could literally kill him if he doesn't go to another school, so he has to make a choice that alienates his best and only friend in order to take a chance that he might find a better life elsewhere.

Chapter 8 Quotes

“My name is Junior,” I said. “And my name is Arnold. I’m Junior and Arnold. I’m both.”
I felt like two different people inside of one body.
No, I felt like a magician slicing myself in half, with Junior living on the north side of the Spokane River and Arnold living on the south.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker), Penelope
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

When Junior gets to the high school Reardan, filled mostly with white students, he begins to experience a phenomenon that feels like splitting himself in half. He feels like he has to be a different person around white people than he is around Indians, and he feels like his true self doesn't fit quite right in either world. The difficulty with his name is emblematic of this feeling. The Indians in his community have always called him Junior, but his official name is Arnold, and the white students want to call him Arnold. Junior has to explain that both names are his – both are equally true – but it doesn't seem that anyone else can see everything about him that these two names encompass.

This shows the ways in which stereotypes and social norms constrict Junior's ability to be himself, and it also shows the tangible differences between his background and the backgrounds of the white students. While the white students are suspicious of his two names, Junior is delighted that white students can have names like "Penelope," which is a name that he would never find on the rez.

I felt brave all of a sudden. Yeah, maybe it was just a stupid and immature school yard fight. Or maybe it was the most important moment of my life. Maybe I was telling the world that I was no longer a human target.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker), Roger
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage comes when Junior has just defended his honor by punching Roger after Roger told a racist joke. This is a moment of huge growth for Junior, who has been bullied all his life and has relied on Rowdy to protect him. Without Rowdy nearby, Junior can finally come into his own and protect his own values and dignity, which is important to his coming of age.

This moment also shows that Junior is committed to protecting and defending his identity as an Indian, even though he is attending the white school and his tribe thinks he is a traitor. He could have chosen to ignore Roger's casual racism and try to fit in with the white students by not standing out, but instead he asserted himself as who he is: an Indian who won't be messed with. This proves to be a good choice for Junior, as it is asserting his real identity that allows him to eventually be accepted socially.

Chapter 11 Quotes

“Hey buddy,” I would have said. “How do I make a beautiful white girl fall in love with me?”
“Well, buddy,” he would have said. “The first thing you have to do is change the way you look, the way you talk, and the way you walk. And then she’ll think you’re her fricking Prince Charming.”

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker), Rowdy (speaker), Penelope
Related Symbols: White
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

Junior realizes he has a crush on Penelope and, while he doesn't know how Penelope feels about him, she is being nice to him which gives him hope that they could end up together. He thinks about emailing Rowdy to ask advice since Rowdy is his best friend (even though they are fighting), but he thinks better of it, perhaps because Rowdy's tough love approach has begun to seem pessimistic rather than realistic.

Junior imagines Rowdy telling him that the only way for a white girl to fall in love with him would be if he were white, too, and essentially a different person. While that would seem to be the racist reality that he and Rowdy grew up with, being at Reardan has changed what seems possible for Junior (which is, in part, why he transferred there in the first place). This is both a moment of hope, in which Junior is beginning to see possibilities that were unthinkable before, but also a moment of sadness in which Junior is still reckoning with a racist reality that could keep him from the things he most wants. And both of those things – hope and reality – continue to be embodied in Junior's suddenly difficult friendship with Rowdy.

Chapter 17 Quotes

Traveling between Reardan and Wellpinit, between the little white town and the reservation, I always felt like a stranger.
I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other.
It was like being Indian was my job, but it was only a part-time job. And it didn’t pay well at all.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Travel
Page Number: 118
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout Junior's time at Reardan, he feels caught between worlds. At school, he is expected to act like a white kid (and, as will become relevant soon, he is expected to have money like white kids do). At home, he is expected to act like an Indian. He feels like a stranger in both places because he doesn't feel that he embodies either identity completely.

It's interesting that he says being Indian is "like a job." This indicates that his Indian-ness is something he feels that he has to work to put on or perform for others, but he doesn't necessarily feel Indian when he is unobserved. A big part of Junior's growth in the story is about learning to negotiate this tension inside himself; he has to come to terms with the fact that he'll never be the "stereotypical" Indian or white kid, but that he can be himself and exist in both worlds without needing to conform to other people's expectations.

Chapter 23 Quotes

Two thousand Indians laughed at the same time. … It was the most glorious noise I’d ever heard.
And I realized that, sure, Indians were drunk and sad and displaced and crazy and mean, but dang, we knew how to laugh.
When it comes to death, we know that laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker)
Page Number: 166
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the book, Junior has leaned heavily on humor to deal with tragedy and hardship. Before this moment, we have only seen this in his drawings and narration, but this scene (when a billionaire embarrasses himself at Junior's grandma's wake) shows that this quality might be common to the entire community on the rez. Junior clarifies that laughing at the wake is not disrespectful, but rather another form of mourning; "laughter and tears are pretty much the same thing," he says.

This scene is a moment of unity on the rez when Junior doesn't feel outside of his community, and it suggests that Junior might have more in common with them than he thinks. This moment also points out the tremendous strain that Indians are under. There are so many tragedies and hardships that laughter has become a common response in the face of grief or the casual racism of whites. It seems that, for Junior and his community, learning to laugh at pain and suffering is one of the only ways they can move forward.

Chapter 24 Quotes

“I used to think the world was broken down by tribes,” I said. “By black and white. By Indian and white. But I know that isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: The people who are assholes and the people who are not.”

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker), Mrs. Jeremy
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

When Junior's teacher tries to shame him for missing school, Junior's classmates walk out to defend him. This shows that he is finally part of the community at Reardan, though the fact that they leave him behind to speak with his teacher may also signify that for the other students their defense of Junior has an aspect of show to it, a self-conscious attempt to "defend the Indian" rather than support for Junior himself. 

Regardless, Junior then gives this speech to his teacher, which shows his growing maturity and his changing understanding of the world. When Roger made the racist joke, Junior punched him to stand up for himself, and even earlier in the novel Junior threw his schoolbook at his teacher when he was frustrated with his education. Now, though, Junior defends himself not physically, but verbally through an eloquent speech. He is learning to be part of a community and to communicate with others, strongly but without violence.

Also, the content of this speech shows that Junior is moving away from dividing the world into the stark categories he once did. He is no longer as committed to thinking about people in terms of whether they are Indian or white, but rather he is trying to look beyond race to see people's character. This is a worldview that will be more hospitable to Junior's own struggles with his identity, since thinking of people as assholes or not assholes doesn't force him to pigeonhole himself into a single identity based on race.

Chapter 28 Quotes

I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms.
And to the tribe of cartoonists.
And to the tribe of chronic masturbators.
And the tribe of teenage boys.
And the tribe of small-town kids.
And the tribe of Pacific Northwesterners.
And the tribe of tortilla-chips-and-salsa lovers.
And the tribe of poverty.
And the tribe of funeral-goers.
And the tribe of beloved sons.
And the tribe of boys who really missed their best friends.
It was a huge realization.
And that’s when I knew that I was going to be okay.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker)
Page Number: 217
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a watershed moment for Junior in which he can finally let go of his tendency to relentlessly divide the world into Indian and white. He has been so perturbed by his inability to decide whether he is more white or more Indian, or which side of himself he should bring out in a particular context. Here, he is finally realizing that his identity (and the identities of others) cannot be reduced along a single axis. Junior has many interests and qualities that connect him to others and those are sufficient connections to transcend race and class.

Junior knows at this moment that he has the power to define himself and his choices. Junior understands, too, that this revelation does not apply to everyone; just because Junior has broken free of a worldview limited by the racism directed towards Indians does not mean that his Indian friends will be able to do the same. Junior recognizes that his success means he will have to leave some people and realities behind, so even as it is empowering there is also an element of sadness. Junior knows that he is going to be okay, but as part of that "okay-ness" he is going to have to leave behind things that he loved.

Chapter 29 Quotes

“You’re an old-time nomad,” Rowdy said. “You’re going to keep moving all over the world in search of food and water and grazing land. That’s pretty cool.”

Related Characters: Rowdy (speaker), Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.)
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

In this moment, Junior and Rowdy have finally made up. Rowdy has come to terms with Junior's decision to leave the rez, and Junior has accepted that Rowdy is not choosing the same path. Over a game of basketball, the two of them settle into a new dynamic in their friendship in which they can enjoy each other's company without being possessive or co-dependent. Their personalities can evolve independently, in other words, which shows that they've both grown up tremendously.

In this passage, Rowdy is offering Junior a kind observation, that Junior's choices remind him of nomadic Indians of pre-reservation times. Throughout the book, Junior has had a hard time reconciling his choices with his community. His need to leave the rez has made him feel not Indian enough, but Rowdy has now given him a way to think about his choices that connects him deeply to Indian history. This is the ultimate form of acceptance that Rowdy could give Junior.

I would always love Rowdy. And I would always miss him, too. Just as I would always love and miss my grandmother, my big sister, and Eugene.
Just as I would always love and miss my reservation and my tribe.
I hoped and prayed that they would someday forgive me for leaving them.
I hoped and prayed that I would someday forgive myself for leaving them.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker), Rowdy, Mary Runs Away , Grandmother Spirit , Eugene
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

This book refuses to give readers easy answers to complex problems, and its conclusion is no exception. Junior has grown and matured and he has made brave and difficult decisions that have put him on a path to achieving his dreams. However, Alexie does not pretend that this comes without cost or that Junior's problems are all solved.

Even though Junior has come to deep realizations about the complexity of his identity and his ability to connect to others, he is still not immune from feeling guilty about the choices he has made to separate himself from his community, and Alexie's placement of this statement at the end of the book indicates that Junior likely never will. Junior's ability, though, to sit with his ambivalence and declare that both things are true at once is a tremendous evolution from the Junior at the beginning of the book who could only see the world divided into separate categories.