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.
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual ThemeTracker
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual 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.
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.
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.
“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?”
“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?”
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.
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.
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.