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
Identity, Belonging, and Coming-of-Age Quotes in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
“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.”
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.