The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

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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.
Racism, Poverty, and Alcoholism Theme Icon

“I’m fourteen years old and I’ve been to forty-two funerals,” says Junior after losing three loved ones in alcohol-related accidents. “That’s really the biggest difference between Indians and white people.” For Junior, to be Indian and to live on the reservation means dealing not only with overt racism—going to a dentist who believes Indians only need half as much novocaine as white people do, or facing racist insults from his white classmates in Reardan—but also with the inherited disadvantages and forms of structural oppression that have held his community back for generations. There’s the vicious cycle of poverty, in which “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.” There’s the reservation school system, originally designed to “kill Indian culture” and now so poorly funded that students must use their parents’ used and outdated textbooks. And there’s “the fricking booze”: the reason, according to Junior, that all Indian families are unhappy, with too many people dying young. Most of the adults in Junior’s life, including his father and his father’s friend Eugene, turn to alcohol as a way of dealing with the sense of despair and defeat brought on by poverty and a racist system that doesn’t “pay attention to their dreams”—and become even further embedded in that system as a result. Alcohol has also been incorporated into Indian traditions such as powwows and wakes, so that ironically, even celebrating the lives of people who have died as a result of alcohol abuse can lead to further heartbreak.

All of these elements contribute to what Junior portrays, and his teacher Mr. P. describes, as a culture of depression, defeat, and hopelessness on the reservation, and they are what Junior tries to escape when he leaves for Reardan. Importantly, while these obstacles shape Junior’s life and circumstances, they aren’t treated as opportunities for character-building—after all, “poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.” Rather, they are presented as the simple and brutal realities of Junior’s life, and the lives of all the Indians around him.

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Racism, Poverty, and Alcoholism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Racism, Poverty, and Alcoholism 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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Racism, Poverty, and Alcoholism 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 Racism, Poverty, and Alcoholism.
Chapter 1 Quotes

I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker)
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

This poetic metaphor that Junior chooses to represent the world illustrates a lot about his personality. First of all, Junior clearly sees the world as a place of hardship and even despair, since he calls it a place of "broken dams and floods." We get the sense that Junior has been through a lot, particularly for how young he is, and that he has been deeply affected by living in an environment full of hopelessness and suffering.

However, Junior has developed a strategy for keeping himself from being consumed by his environment: making cartoons. When he compares his cartoons to lifeboats, he indicates that they have the potential to save him from the despair around him, and even from the fates of his family and peers. He says that his cartoons could get him off the rez by making him famous, but it's clear that they also save him in more everyday ways by giving him an outlet for his emotions and a source of hope. 


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Chapter 2 Quotes

My parents came from poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people.
Adam and Eve covered their privates with fig leaves; the first Indians covered their privates with their tiny hands.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker)
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

One of the central themes of the novel is the cyclical nature of poverty and how difficult it is to escape from it. Here, Junior is explaining that it's not his parents' fault that their family is poor; they didn't make stupid decisions about money, they just never had any to begin with. Junior ties this poverty in with race, too. As Indians, his family has, for generations, not had the same opportunities as white families, and that has meant that nobody could escape from poverty and thereby create better opportunities for future generations.

Junior tends to make jokes about the things that are most painful to him, so he quips that even as far back as Adam and Eve there were class disparities, since Adam and Eve had fig leaves to cover their privates and the Indians only had their hands. From this passage, we get a sense of the extent of the hopelessness on the rez. If a family has been stuck in poverty for that many generations, then there is both very little opportunity to escape and, therefore, very little reason for anyone to hope for a better life. 

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.

Poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.

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

Throughout the book, Junior attempts to dispel what he sees as pervasive myths about being poor. Part of the mythology of the American dream is the notion that anyone, with sufficient hard work, can work their way out of poverty, and that lessons learned through living with poverty (hard work, perseverance) will lead to success later on. Junior clearly does not believe this, and thinks that such beliefs are both ridiculous and dangerous in that they perpetuate the idea that poverty is anything other than an affliction.

Instead, Junior gives a frank assessment of the world around him, saying that he only sees poverty teaching people to be poor. By this, Junior refers to the fact that poverty prevents social mobility rather than bolsters it (as the American dream would have you believe). Poor people are cut off from the resources that foster social mobility (like education, healthcare, loans, etc.) and often lack role models and mentors who themselves got out of poverty. This is apparent in Junior's community; people don't seem to have realistic ideas about how to get out of poverty, and not many young people are being steered towards achievable goals that might better their lives. 

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. 

And let me tell you, that old, old, old, decrepit geometry book hit my heart with the force of a nuclear bomb. My hopes and dreams floated up in a mushroom cloud. What do you do when the world has declared nuclear war on you?

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker)
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

This is a pivotal moment in the book because finding the geometry book that once belonged to his mother is a concrete example for Junior of the ways in which he, as a poor Indian, is being denied opportunities that he would have had were he white. His education is demonstrably substandard if the math books in his school haven't been upgraded since his mom was in school thirty years before, and education is one of the most effective ways to escape poverty.

So Junior isn't being melodramatic when he feels that the world has "declared nuclear war" on him – from where Junior is sitting, it seems that the world, in fact, is conspiring to keep him down. This is especially poignant because Junior is so consumed by his hopes and dreams, which we see from his dedication to his cartoons.

When he sees his mother's name in the book, Junior feels that his precious hopes are being crushed, which explains the violence of his reaction. Alexie is demonstrating here that the anger many minorities feel about the obstacles they face is not disproportionate to the unfair reality in which they live.

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 15 Quotes

There are all kinds of addicts, I guess. We all have pain. And we all look for ways to make the pain go away.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker), Dad, Penelope
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:

A big part of Junior's growth when he goes to Reardan is his growing understanding of and empathy for the white students he's in class with. Before going to Reardan, Junior had associated whiteness with perfection, possibility, and beauty, but he is beginning to see that the white students experience pain and difficulty that aren't totally dissimilar from his own. In this passage, he has just heard Penelope throwing up in the bathroom and when he confronts her about her eating disorder she says something reminiscent of the way Junior's dad talks about his alcoholism.

This is a moment of revelation for Junior in that he realizes that Penelope has pain that she is dealing with in a way that is parallel to his own father's coping mechanisms for pain, and it opens up a way for him to empathize with her. Certainly, Junior's peers at Reardan have more opportunities than the kids on the rez, but it's important for Junior to understand that this doesn't mean their lives are completely different. 

Chapter 22 Quotes

I mean, the thing is, plenty of Indians have died because they were drunk. And plenty of drunken Indians have killed other drunken Indians.
But my grandmother had never drunk alcohol in her life. Not one drop. That’s the rarest kind of Indian in the world.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker), Grandmother Spirit
Page Number: 158
Explanation and Analysis:

At this point in the book, Junior's grandmother has died because she was run over by a drunk driver. He was close to his grandmother, who (like Junior) was a bit of an outlier among Indians. His grandmother didn't drink, which set her apart, and she was beloved for her open mind and her kindness. Her death is a particular cruelty for Junior because his grandmother avoided drinking – the vice that so often gets Indians in his community killed – and yet she was still killed by alcohol.

His grandmother's senseless death leads Junior to a new hopelessness, as he sees that even with a good faith effort to separate herself from the violence of the rez, his grandmother could not save herself. At the same time, her death galvanizes Junior's anger at the situation on the rez and his desperation to escape it. His grandmother's death suggests that even if he were to have stayed at his school on the rez and made good choices and tried his best, he still could have been consumed by the cycle of poverty and violence that destroys Indian lives. 

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 25 Quotes

We had defeated the enemy! We had defeated the champions! We were David who’d thrown a stone into the brain of Goliath!
And then I realized something.
I realized that my team, the Reardan Indians, was Goliath.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Basketball
Page Number: 195
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the book, Junior has taken refuge in basketball as an area in which he can excel despite his being Indian. He views basketball as transcending race and class, and therefore being a fairer mode of competition than, say, classroom performance. Because of this, Junior has felt justified in wanting to crush the Wellpinit team (though of course he also wants to win because Rowdy, who has hurt him, is the best player on the other team), and he thought that achieving this goal would make him feel unambiguously good.

However, once he has done it he realizes that his team does still have unfair advantages over Wellpinit. The people on the Reardan team have stable families, nice things, and general security in the present and in their futures. The Indian players who do not have those luxuries don't leave their problems off the court; how could it not affect their playing if they are grieving a loved one or if they're hungry, for example? This is a humbling realization for Junior, because it is a moment in which he realizes that he has to be careful with the advantages he has been given and he has to prioritize empathy and kindness. Otherwise, he might become one of the people who are making Indian lives harder, and he can't bear to do that.  

Chapter 27 Quotes

Gordy gave me this book by a Russian dude named Tolstoy, who wrote: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Well, I hate to argue with a Russian genius, but Tolstoy didn’t know Indians. And he didn’t know that all Indian families are unhappy for the same exact reason: the fricking booze.

Related Characters: Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) (speaker), Gordy
Page Number: 200
Explanation and Analysis:

Throughout the book, Junior has experienced unbelievable hardship due to the rampant alcohol abuse in his community. This passage comes right before Junior reveals one more tragedy, the alcohol-related death of his sister. While Gordy looks to Tolstoy for illumination on the things that make families unhappy, Junior has firsthand experience that leads him to a different conclusion.

His statement that alcohol is what makes all families unhappy shows how pervasive this problem is on the rez, which is especially heartbreaking because alcoholism is a much more tangible and preventable problem than, say, general marital malaise, which might be Gordy's experience of unhappiness in families. This passage fits with Junior's insistence on being very concrete about goals and problems, and very frank about the state of the world. Junior has no patience for euphemism, and, just as he doesn't respect goals that are so vague and lofty as to be unachievable, he doesn't respect vague assessments of a problem that he considers, in reality, to be very specific. 

There is also a sense in which one can read Tolstoy's assertion as racist or classist. Junior is suggesting that all unhappy families can be unhappy in their own ways when those families are privileged (such as the rich Russian families that Tolstoy was writing about). Families mired in poverty and despair can't afford, or manage, to be unhappy except in the same way: because of the misery exacted by poverty and racism.