In the first grade, Junior Polatkin, who narrates this story, is bullied, beat up, and called names: Junior Falls Down, Junior Bloody Nose, Junior Cries-Like-a-White-Boy. One day, though, Junior fights back; the “little warrior” inside of him comes to life, and he chants “‘It’s a good day to die’ all the way down to the principal’s office.”
Junior is subjected to physical and emotional violence at the hands of his classmates, and eventually reaches his breaking point. He calls upon his inner “warrior,” who represents fearlessness, strength, and initiative.
In second grade, Junior is subjected to hatred and cruelty at the hands of Betty Towle, a white missionary teacher who forces Junior to skip recess, to apologize for “everything” though he’s done nothing wrong, and to hold heavy books in his outstretched arms. She gives Junior more difficult spelling tests and, when he passes them, she forces him to eat the paper. She repeatedly calls Junior “Indian” in a pejorative way—“without capitalization”—and Junior replies, “Yes, I am. I am Indian. Indian, I am.”
Junior here encounters a very different type of cruelty from that of his grade-school classmates; he learns firsthand the debilitating, painful experience of being discriminated against because of his race and his heritage. Junior learns, though, to declare himself an Indian with pride, and to defy the cruel Betty and her attempts to isolate and wound him.
In the third grade, Junior is caught drawing a “stick Indian taking a piss,” and the art is confiscated. He is sent to stand alone in the corner, and he “faces the wall and [waits] for the punishment to end.” Junior notes, in the present, that he is “still waiting.”
The “punishment” Junior is eternally waiting out might be cultural pain, isolation, or discrimination—or a combination of all three.
One of Junior’s fourth-grade teachers tells him he should be a doctor, “so [he] can heal people.” Junior recalls that fourth grade was “the year [his] father drank a gallon of vodka a day and the same year [his] mother started two hundred quilts but never finished any.” Junior returns home after school and hears his parents crying in separate rooms. He imagines himself as a doctor and plays in the mirror alone.
The opportunities that Junior’s teachers encourage him to pursue seem impossibly far away; nonetheless, he engages with his imagination, creating a vision of his future in which others’ hopes for him are possible.
In fifth grade, Junior plays basketball “for the first time.” He misses his first shot, but the ball in his hands feels “beautiful” and full of “possibilities.” Meanwhile, Junior’s cousin “sniff[s] rubber cement from a paper bag.” Junior, in the present, ruminates on the “sweet, almost innocent choices Indian boys [are] forced to make.”
In the sixth grade, a new Indian kid from a white neighborhood comes to school. His name is Randy and, within an hour of walking into the reservation school, he gets in a fight and breaks another kid’s nose. Junior says that Randy was his “soon-to-be first and best friend,” who taught him “the most valuable lesson about living in the white world: ‘Always throw the first punch.’”
As we’ll later see, Junior’s forays into the world beyond the reservation prove difficult and trying. Here, we see him reflecting upon an important piece of knowledge about life off the reservation, one that he learned early on—and one that he may or may not have put to good use.
In seventh grade, Junior kisses a white girl, and feels he is saying “good-byes to [his] entire tribe.” When he opens his eyes, he says, he experiences a vision in which “she was gone from the reservation, and I was gone from the reservation, living in a farm town where a beautiful white girl asked [my] name.” He answers her, and “after that, no one spoke to [him] for another five hundred years.”
Again, the pull Junior feels toward a life away from the reservation rears its head much more clearly in his memories. He experiences feelings—premonitions and recollections alike—of isolation and separation from his community in the name of love, escape, and pursuit of a brand-new future.
In eighth grade, Junior transfers to a junior high school in a white farm town. From the boys’ bathroom, he can hear white girls forcing themselves to vomit in the girls’ bathroom next door. The sound, Junior says, is familiar “after years of listening to [his] father’s hangovers.” On the reservation, Junior stands in line for food with his mother, “happy to have food even the dogs wouldn’t eat.” Junior notes that “there is more than one way to starve.”
The problems Junior’s classmates face in his “white farm town” school are very different problems than the dire issues of poverty, loss, and pain that his family and friends on the reservation face. Here Junior struggles to reconcile the validity of both struggles, and both kinds of “starving.”
In ninth grade, Junior plays a long, tiring basketball game in an overheated gym. Later that night, there is a dance held in that same gym, and Junior passes out at it. His friends “revive” him, and he reveals that later that night “doctors would diagnose [him with] diabetes.” Meanwhile, though, a Chicano teacher approaches Junior and asks him what he’s been drinking. “Indian kids,” the teacher says, “start drinking real young.” Junior learns that “sharing dark skin doesn’t make two men brothers.”
Again, Junior faces racism, emotional violence, and isolation at the hands of a figure who is supposed to be supporting and looking out for him. Junior, having hoped for a sense of community with this teacher, instead experiences profound isolation and disappointment.
In tenth grade, Junior gets his driver’s license on the same day that one of his neighbors commits suicide by driving his car into a tree. “Everything looks like a noose if you stare at it long enough,” Junior says.
Junior views this coincidence as a reminder that the things that once seemed to provide freedom can eventually prove isolating or entrapping.
The morning after losing a basketball game for his eleventh-grade team, the Indians, Junior reads the sports page of the local newspaper: “INDIANS LOSE AGAIN,” it says.
Loss calibrates Junior’s life, and the life of so many on the reservation. Indians, in Alexie’s portrayal, are perpetually “losing again.”
Junior graduates from twelfth grade as valedictorian of his “farm town high school,” and has trouble fitting his graduation cap over his hair, which is “longer than it’s ever been.” While people take photographs of him he looks toward the future. Back on the reservation, Junior imagines his former classmates’ graduation: he imagines them “look[ing] back toward tradition.” The tribal newspaper “runs [his] photograph and the photograph of [his] former classmates side by side.”
Bearing witness and imagination are both key in this passage. Junior is able to look toward the future because of his decision to isolate himself from his community; however, the reservation community remains, in its way, isolated and stagnant. Both paths, in Alexie’s estimation, are fraught in their own way.