At the core of Alexie’s novel is an intense exploration of what it means to be a Native American living in America today. By writing a novel about Native Americans who form a blues and rock and roll band (naming themselves “Coyote Springs”), Alexie is able to portray the complicated relationship between Native Americans and the country that surrounds them. As Americans, they are connected to the unique culture that produced the Blues. At the same time, the band is also implicitly connected to the Black Americans who originally created the blues—Black Americans who were (and are) systematically oppressed just like Native Americans. As a band seeking its fortune, Coyote Springs is furthermore embracing the hope of fame and wealth that is a part of the “American Dream,” but also exposing themselves to the capitalist forces (in the form of Cavalry Records) that will seek to callously exploit them and the authentic cultural history that they bring to their music.
This complex situation then brings up the ideas of “cultural appropriation” and “cultural exchange.” Cultural appropriation is when an oppressive culture borrows elements of an oppressed culture and uses them for its own benefit. This is often seen as something akin to theft or exploitation—using cultural elements and traditions while continuing to deny the value or humanity of the people who created that culture. A classic example of this is when white rock and roll artists (like Elvis Presley) appropriated black music (the blues, and early rock and roll) as their own, making it popular with white audiences and gaining enormous wealth and fame in the process. Cultural exchange, then, is a similar use of another culture’s elements, but without the element of oppression or dehumanization. Alexie portrays Coyote Springs as a kind of cultural exchange—a Native-American blues band—that is a way for two historically oppressed groups (Native Americans and Black Americans) to draw strength and creativity from each other.
Later in the novel, however, the evils of cultural appropriation appear through Cavalry Records—representatives of the power-wielding white majority. The record executives recruit the white women Betty and Veronica to sell Native American music, and this misuse of Native American identity feels like a mockery of the Spokane group and their culture, rather than a productive celebration of shared history. The oppression and abuse of Native Americans at the hands of the white majority, exemplified by Cavalry Records, is ever-present in the band’s casually racist encounters with the outside world. These encounters give the reader a darkly humorous picture of the outside world’s caricatured image of Native Americans.
Alexie further investigates the ways that the Native American minority interacts with the white majority through interracial relationships. Checkers struggles to accept the pairing of Victor and Junior with the white outsiders, Betty and Veronica, arguing that an Indian man needs an Indian woman. Meanwhile, Junior and Victor’s reasons for being drawn to Betty and Veronica are not based on simple personal attraction or love. Rather, the attraction is based in large part because of the girls’ whiteness—sleeping with a white woman is like a badge of honor, and maybe, Junior reflects, even an attempt at revenge against the “White Man.” Likewise, Betty and Veronica are drawn to Victor and Junior by their own problematic love for the exotic, and the spiritualism that they assume is present in any Native American. Junior’s history with interracial relationships is even more complex, though, than it seems at first—we learn that, while at college in Oregon, he dated a white student named Lynn, who became pregnant and then aborted their child. Lynn told Junior that she couldn’t marry him because he was Indian, and her parents refused to even talk to him. The haunting memory of this rejection, not of Junior per se but of his entire race, is what drives him to despair and suicide at the book’s conclusion. This investigation of interracial relationships, and each character’s interaction with them, is also a reflection on their conflicted feelings toward their own cultural identity. To live as a Native American in America, Alexie makes clear, is to inherit a massive amount of cultural baggage that must be grappled with in forming one’s identity.
Race, Culture, and Identity ThemeTracker
Race, Culture, and Identity Quotes in Reservation Blues
“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.
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.
They did go home with Junior and Victor one night, and everybody on the reservation knew about it. Little Indian boys crept around the house and tried to peek in the windows. All of them swore they saw the white women naked, then bragged it wasn’t the first time they’d seen a naked white woman. None of them had seen a naked Indian woman, let alone a white woman. But the numbers of naked white women who had visited the Spokane Indian Reservation rapidly grew in the boys’ imaginations, as if the size of their lies proved they were warriors.
As he slept in the Warm Waters’ house, Thomas dreamed about television and hunger. In his dream, he sat, all hungry and lonely, in his house and wanted more. He turned on his little black-and-white television to watch white people live. White people owned everything: food, houses, clothes, children. Television constantly reminded Thomas of all he never owned.
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.
Junior and Victor shrugged their shoulders, walked into Thomas’s house, and looked for somewhere to sleep. Decorated veterans of that war between fathers and sons, Junior and Victor knew the best defense was sleep. They saw too many drunks littering the grass of the reservation; they rolled the drunks over and stole their money.
Once outside, Thomas cried. Not because he needed to be alone; not because he was afraid to cry in front of women. He just wanted his tears to be individual, not tribal. Those tribal tears collected and fermented in huge BIA barrels. Then the BIA poured those tears into beer and Pepsi cans and distributed them back onto the reservation. Thomas wanted his tears to be selfish and fresh.
“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?”
“Those white women are always perfect, you know? When I was little and we’d go to shop in Missoula, I’d see perfect little white girls all the time. They were always so pretty and clean. I’d come to town in my muddy dress. It never mattered how clean it was when we left Arlee. By the time we got to Missoula, it was always a mess.”
“I mean, I think they’re all using each other as trophies. Junior and Victor get to have beautiful white women on their arms, and Betty and Veronica get to have Indian men… Look at them. They got more Indian jewelry and junk on them than any dozen Indians. The spotlights hit the crystals on their necks and nearly blinded me once. All they talk about is Coyote this and Coyote that, sweatlodge this and sweatlodge that. They think Indians got all the answers.”
“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?”
“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.
“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.”
“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.
“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.”
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.
“These women have got the Indian experience down. They really understand what it means to be Indian. They’ve been there.”
“Can’t you see the possibilities? We dress them up a little. Get them into the tanning booth. Darken them up a bit. Maybe a little plastic surgery on those cheekbones. Get them a little higher, you know? Dye their hair black. Then we’d have Indians. People want to hear Indians.”
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.