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.
Here Alexie discusses the reservation community’s reaction to Betty and Veronica’s fling with Junior and Victor. The boys of the town are entranced by the white women, who serve as a means of affirming their own macho identities - they all lie, shamelessly, to claim an easy familiarity with the sexual prize of the white woman. The fact that these young boys, who are without exception sexually inexperienced, believe that these claims bolster their image in the community, shows that interracial relationships are driven by a set of machismo politics instilled at a very young age.
Victor and Junior are heroes according to this logic, at the peak of the macho pyramid. In reality, though, neither has a very successful night with the visiting women, since their blindness to the women themselves, outside of their role as status-boosting trophies, has meant that neither has grown much in their understanding of romantic love since they themselves were young boys. The boys’ need for a macho reputation is driven, Alexie suggest, by their desire to be seen as “warriors,” striving to conform to an identity that the narratives governing their lives, both White and Native, associate with a glorious and brave past.
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.
In this quote, the broke and hungry Thomas dreams that he is sitting alone in front of the the television. Dreams are an important storytelling technique in Alexie’s novel, and this one demonstrates that even in his dreams Thomas is confronted with the dreary injustice of a world in which the odds are stacked against him because of his race. He only has a small black-and-white television, because even in a dream he cannot escape the reality of his poor existence. On that television, he sees only the narratives of mainstream white America, reminding him that he is an outsider, the "other." The easy success of the people on TV only makes his own poverty harder to bear, confirming the power of art and storytelling to reinforce either positive or negative structures of inequality. Growing up on the reservation, Thomas was never offered a realistic vision of Native American success, either from within his community or from the television. He did not have even this fiction to help him escape his hunger, only mainstream America’s cheerful reminders that he was alone in that poverty because of his race.
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.
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).
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.
In this quote, Junior and Victor react - or, rather, don’t react - to the sight of Thomas’ drunken father, Samuel Builds-the-Fire, passed out on Thomas’s front lawn. Their shared indifference to the appearance of the drunken Samuel is a product of their extensive experience in the “war between fathers and sons” of which they are “decorated veterans,” since alcohol destroyed both of their families as well. This experience has hardened them against suffering, making alcoholism the expected, normal state for fathers. They respond pragmatically to this abundance of alcoholism now, callously stealing whatever they can from the passed out members of the reservation when they come across them. The key component of this philosophy is despair; there is nothing else to be done but sleep, no hope for changing the habits of the reservation or escaping the pattern of suffering embedded in their culture. Thomas holds on to hope in some ways, but must also therefore continue to confront the sadness of an unchanging reality, since he refuses to escape into sleep or drink like Victor and Joseph.
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.
Thomas’s frustration and sadness at the sorry state of his drunken father overflows, as Samuel Builds-the-Fire lies prone on his kitchen table, tended to by the Warm Water sisters. Thomas is very particular about showing his suffering to no one else - not because, as Junior or Victor would have been with their macho ethic, he is afraid to cry in front of the Warm Water sisters, but because he wants his tears to be “individual, not tribal.” Thomas does not want to add to the stock of suffering built up in his culture, the patterns that have led to this moment. He has a clear sense that these patterns are encouraged and perpetuated by the BIA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a governmental organization that holds the reservation back even as it provides aid, by only offering a bare minimum to survive, and promoting dependence on alcohol or Pepsi, the two continual drinks of the tribe.
The sinister, fantastical image of tears collected into barrels and fermented into beer reinforces the sense that everything in the tribe members’ lives is used against them by the unjust government with whom they are still, in some sense, at war. Tragedy leads to despair, which leads to alcohol and further tragedy. By keeping his tears to himself, and ensuring that they are “fresh,” Thomas is trying to break free from this pattern of suffering by rejecting the recycled despair of his race, imposed by outsiders.
“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?”
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.
“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.”
Checkers here confesses her childhood pain to Father Arnold as a way of explaining her current feelings of anger toward the interloping Betty and Veronica. In her story, we see the young Checkers confronting her outsider identity, and feeling intensely jealous of the clean white girls that she saw in town, whose beauty was celebrated and idealized by the society they all lived in.
The white girls' beauty, which Checkers felt was unattainable for her, is tied both to their whiteness and their cleanliness - a proxy for their wealth. Checkers and Chess, who likely only own one or two dresses apiece, have to contend with the mud flung up by their horse-drawn carriage on the long ride into town, since they cannot afford a car and live in isolation on the reservation. They cannot access the wealth that provides these white girls with their clean dresses, and Checkers especially feels this lack as a fault in herself, a frustrating cycle that she cannot escape and over which she has no power. The mud, therefore, represents both the girls’ poverty and their darker skin, neither of which can be easily washed away. Checkers’ fascination with white ideals of beauty is also held up by religion in her life, since, as she tells Father Thomas, she always sees Jesus painted as a white man.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.