Cultural pain and personal pain, in Alexie’s estimation, are inextricably linked. The personal pain his characters experience is, of course, often born of strife between family members, friends, and partners, but Alexie renders his characters’ pain in such a way that highlights its connection to an inherited cultural or generational pain that comes from loss of land, tradition, and agency.
“When children grow up together in poverty, a bond is formed that causes so much pain.” This quote, from “Every Little Hurricane,” ties together themes of love, poverty, loss, and pain both cultural and personal. The pain that many of Alexie’s characters have experienced is a result of a cultural void that comes from the oppression and decimation of Native cultural life. This creates a bond on the personal level, though it is one that is heavy with pain, loss, and even, for some characters, deep resentment.
Alexie describes a “genetic pain” in one of his stories—and though he doesn’t use the term repeatedly, its effects are felt deeply and resonate throughout the collection as his characters navigate that specific and difficult kind of pain. A pain that’s inherited from one’s parents or ancestors carries with it the weight of oppression, loss, and expectations that that pain will somehow, in some way, be soothed—but the institutional restrictions on Native people coupled with personal pain make it difficult to escape from the vortex of deep, inherited cultural suffering.
“There is just barely enough goodness in all this,” says Victor of reservation life. The pain and suffering that have permeated nearly every aspect of his childhood, and even his adult life, are nearly insurmountable. Small moments of “goodness” or happiness are “barely enough” to make a dent in the experience of that suffering, though they’re present. The inability to fully inhabit moments of goodness is another result of the personal pain that haunts most all of Alexie’s many characters.
Cultural Pain vs. Personal Pain ThemeTracker
Cultural Pain vs. Personal Pain Quotes in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you... Indians never need to wear a watch because your skeletons will always remind you about the time. See, it is always now. That’s what Indian time is. The past, the future, all of it is wrapped up in the now. That’s how it is. We are trapped in the now.”
It’s almost like Indians can easily survive the big stuff. Mass murder, loss of language and land and rights. It’s the small things that hurt the most. The white waitress who wouldn’t take an order, Tonto, the Washington Redskins. And, just like everybody else, Indians need heroes to help them learn how to survive. But what happens when our heroes don’t even know how to pay their bills?
The fireworks were small, hardly more than a few bottle rockets and a fountain. But it was enough for two Indian boys. Years later, they would need much more.
“Wait,” Thomas yelled from his porch. “I just got to ask one favor.”
Victor stopped the pickup, leaned out the window, and shouted back. “What do you want?”
“Just one time when I’m telling a story somewhere, why don’t you stop and listen?” Thomas asked.
Victor waved his arms to let Thomas know that the deal was good. It was a fair trade, and that was all Victor had ever wanted from his whole life.
He counted his coins. Enough for a bottle of wine in the Trading Post. He walked down the hill and into the store, grabbed the bottle, paid for it with nickels and pennies, and walked into the parking lot. Victor pulled the wine from its paper bag, cracked the seal, and twisted the cap off. Jesus, he wanted to drink so much his blood could make the entire tribe numb.
Survival = Anger x Imagination. Imagination is the only weapon on the reservation.
Imagine Crazy Horse invented the atom bomb in 1876 and detonated it over Washington, D.C.; imagine Columbus landed in 1492 and some tribe or another drowned him in the ocean… Imagine every day is Independence Day. Imagine that your own shadow on the wall is a perfect door. Imagine a song stronger than penicillin. Imagine a spring with water that mends broken bones. Imagine a drum which wraps itself around your heart. Imagine a story that puts wood in the fireplace.
These days, living alone in Spokane, I wish I lived closer to the river, to the falls where ghosts of salmon jump. I wish I could sleep. I put down my paper or book and turn off the lights, lie quietly in the dark. It may take hours, even years, for me to sleep again. There’s nothing surprising or disappointing in that. I know how all my dreams end anyway.
The television was always loud, too loud, until every emotion was measured by the half hour. We hid our faces behind masks that suggested other histories; we touched hands accidentally and our skin sparked like a personal revolution. We stared across the room at each other. We were children; we were open mouths. Open in hunger, in anger, in laughter, in prayer. Jesus, we all want to survive.
I’m always asking myself if a near-accident is an accident, if standing right next to a disaster makes you part of the disaster or just a neighbor.
Junior hung up the phone and walked down the highway toward the reservation. He wanted to imagine that he was walking off into the sunset, into a happy ending. But he knew that all along the road he traveled, there were reservation drive-ins, each showing a new and painful sequel to the first act of his life.