In the face of a ravaged cultural landscape, Alexie stresses in nearly each story the importance of four vital acts to the Native American community of his youth: remembering, witnessing, telling stories, and imagining the future. Many stories take place within characters’ memories, and are constructed so that the characters the reader encounters are not actually present within the action of the narrative but only as memories or distant figures. The tension between action and memory demonstrates the erosion of Native American culture, and the idea that the gatekeepers of so much of that culture exist now only in memory. Memories are kept close, and their presence is often a difficult one; one character keeps the memory of a violent car crash “so close that she [has] nightmares for a year.” In “Flight,” Alexie’s narrator refers to memory as “a coin trick, dropping out of sight, then out of existence” and “an abandoned car, rusting and forgotten though it sits in plain view for decades.” Memory is vital in this community, but its importance is a double-edged sword; though important to the preservation of cultural life and the learning of lessons, most memories experienced by Alexie’s characters are rife with pain and trauma.
Bearing witness is one of the text’s most potent themes not only on a narrative level, but also on a meta-narrative level. Alexie’s work as a writer is centered around making visible both a cultural perspective and a world that are often deliberately made invisible through oppression, shame, or neglect. In “Every Little Hurricane,” as Victor’s uncles beat one another, the narrator refers to the party guests as “Witnesses…Witnesses and nothing more. For hundreds of years, Indians were witnesses to crimes of an epic scale. This little kind of hurricane was generic. It didn’t even deserve a name.” During Thomas Builds-the-Fire’s trial, he serves as his own witness, and ultimately indicts himself through his grand storytelling, which references events hundreds of years gone by; events that may or may not have actually happened. In “Witnesses, Secret and Not,” an unnamed 13-year-old narrator—possibly Victor—accompanies his father to a Spokane police station after he’s called upon to provide information about a disappearance that took place ten years ago. Though the narrator’s father tells the officer that he’s been questioned several times and cannot remember any new details, his position as a witness—whether he is a reliable one or not—is a synecdoche (a part of a thing that stands in for its larger whole) for the larger problem of being a “witness and nothing more” that Alexie explores throughout these stories.
“Imagine a story that puts wood in the fireplace,” the narrator commands the reader in the final lines of “Imagining the Reservation.” We’re asked to imagine a world in which storytelling—such a crucial aspect of Native life—is enough. “I know the story because every Indian knows the story,” Victor’s father tells him on the way to the Spokane police station in “Witnesses, Secret and Not.” Storytelling is another theme that works as a meta-narrative device—Alexie himself is telling several stories that are delivered to the reader out of order, and require a readjustment with each new tale. Many of his characters, similarly though in a more exaggerated way, are almost possessed by the stories they have to tell, and use stories alternately as currency, as punishment, and as a kind of salve.
In “A Drug Called Tradition,” Victor, Thomas, and their friend Junior drive out to a nearby lake in order to take drugs. “It’ll be very fucking Indian. Spiritual shit, you know?” Victor tells Thomas in order to convince him to come along. The boys “all want to have their vision,” and, after they take the drugs, they do. The experience is a rite of passage, but one that the boys have claimed for themselves in a way very different from their ancestors.
In “Distances,” Alexie creates a vision of the future inspired by a quote—or a vision—from Wovoka, the Paiute Ghost Dance Messiah. Wovoka was the leader of a religious movement which began in the late 1800s and which predicts a time when the Great Spirit will arrive to bring back “game of every kind” and “all [the] dead Indians.” Visions of the future—and of the past—are vital to Alexie’s characters; they press on in the face of dire circumstances powered by their hopes for a better life for themselves and for future generations.
Memory, Bearing Witness, Storytelling, and Imagination ThemeTracker
Memory, Bearing Witness, Storytelling, and Imagination Quotes in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
Victor could see his uncles slugging each other with such force that they had to be in love. Strangers would never want to hurt each other that badly.
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.”
Thomas Builds-the-Fire, after having gone on a modern-day “vision quest” to the nearby Benjamin Lake with Victor and Junior—despite not having been initially invited due to his burgeoning status as an eccentric and an outcast—shouts out to his two peers to warn them “not to slow dance with [their] skeletons.” The boys are unable to discern his meaning, but Thomas’s narrative voice then immediately takes over the story. Thomas explains, in his meandering but meaningful storyteller’s voice, that the past and the future are “skeletons.” The personification of the past and the future as bony, stripped-down, uncanny, and frightening figures gives them a leering, looming quality. Thomas explains how to handle the skeletons: “Keep moving, keep walking, in step with your skeletons,” he says. He then delves into an explanation of “Indian time,” and of the idea that Indians are “trapped in the now,” caught between their two skeleton companions. Native people, the victims of unfathomable violence on an unfathomable scale, bear the wounds of that violence in every aspect of their lives. Thomas acknowledges this, and argues that the tension between a battered past and a bleak future forces Indians to remain caught in a present that can never escape the dual pull of both what is behind and what lies ahead.
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.
Your honor, if I may continue, there is much more I need to say. There are so many more stories to tell.
Thomas Builds-the-Fire, after twenty years of silence, begins speaking again right before the start of this story. To call it speaking, actually, might be overstating it—he makes “noises,” one of which is so pure and profound it inspires the wife of one of the tribal council leaders to leave her husband. Thomas is brought to trial for this offense, and the tribal council creates trumped-up felony charges to use against Thomas. However, in his own trial, Thomas begins telling stories—visions of the violent past of his people, in which he describes himself as many different incarnations of what might be the same soul, and admits to enacting violence in retribution against white oppressors. Thomas, admitting to the murders of at least two men through his insistence that his stories are true, and that he was present at the time of their unfolding, indicts himself. These stories he “need[s]” to tell are more valuable to him than his own freedom, and though they cost him two concurrent life sentences, Thomas is compelled by his visionary gift. Thomas seems overwhelmed by the stories that come to him, that have come to him all his life—nevertheless, he appoints himself as a witness (both to the stories and at his own trial) and shoulders the isolating burden of telling the stories that need to be told and saying the things that need to be said.
Last night I dreamed about television. I woke up crying.
Television is a recurring symbol throughout the book. Its presence denotes a desire for escape, and it functions as a portal of sorts between the reservation, which is insular and often isolating, and the rest of the world. In “Distances,” Thomas tells a story—in which he is a character—about a future in which a cataclysmic event has wiped out every population in America except for the Native population. A new society forms, one that seeks to destroy all artifacts and remembrances of white culture. The absence of television as a way to escape this new order—one that is not as utopian as it hopes to be, one that divides and disregards its own people—weighs heavily on the Thomas of the future, and he “dreams” of television. He wakes up crying, unable to find an escape from his situation, plagued by remembrances of his life before.
It is warm, soon to be cold, but that’s in the future, maybe tomorrow, probably the next day and all the days after that. Today, now, I drink what I have, will eat what is left in the cupboard, while my mother finishes her quilt, piece by piece. Believe me, there is just barely enough goodness in all of this.
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.
I picked up a basketball for the first time and made my first shot. No. I missed my first shot, missed the basket completely, and the ball landed in the dirt and sawdust, sat there just like I had sat there only minutes before. But it felt good, that ball in my hands, all those possibilities and angles. It was mathematics, geometry. It was beautiful.
In fifth grade, Junior Polatkin finds basketball. Readers then watch as he becomes a talented young basketball star, and hopes to use that currency or capital to “make it.” Basketball is a strong symbol throughout the text and, like television, represents escape or even a portal to a world beyond the reservation. In “Indian Education,” Junior details his time in school from the first grade through twelfth grade, describing the successes, slights, discrimination, and “beautiful” moments of “possibility” that define his education, both in school and out of it. His first encounter with basketball lifts him out of the “dirt and sawdust” he’d been sitting in, and opens up a world of imagination, possibility, and opportunity. Though readers will see the rise and fall of his high school basketball career, and will later follow Junior off the reservation to college, at this moment all readers have—and all Junior has—is a moment of potential and a vision of the future, suspended in excitement and longing.
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 Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” follows Victor, now living off the reservation in Spokane, as he, unable to sleep, journeys out into the night to the local 7-11 in search of a Creamsicle. Throughout his walk, Victor reminisces about a failed relationship he had with a white woman years ago, when he lived in Seattle. Trapped in his memories and suffering from insomnia, Victor recounts the decline of their emotionally—and almost physically—violent relationship. At the end of the night, Victor is still unable to sleep, but tells readers that his insomnia doesn’t matter to him—he knows how “all” his dreams will end. The failure of his relationship traps him in a cycle of fear of failure in general, and Victor is similarly haunted by his past. His desire to live near the Spokane falls “where ghosts of salmon jump” calls back to Thomas’s vision of Victor’s father’s spirit as a jumping salmon there, and even Victor’s former job at 7-11, where he was mugged, represents a familiarity, though it’s not a pleasant one. This is the last moment readers see Victor in the “present” in the collection, and they are left with a bleak portrait of where he’s landed. Knowing how his dreams end represents an inability, or a lack of desire, to journey anymore into the realms of imagination or storytelling. Victor is firmly entrenched in the past, unwilling or afraid to engage with his future, dreams, or inner world.
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.
The unnamed narrator of this story recalls a time when he was thirteen and he and his father were on their way into town, so that the narrator’s father could be questioned at the police station regarding the long-ago disappearance of an Indian man named Jerry Vincent. On their way into town, their car hit a patch of ice and spun out of control. The car eventually straightened out without incident, and the narrator and his father “don’t talk about” the near-accident at the time of its occurrence or at any point in the future. The near-accident, though, haunts the narrator into his present; he is “always,” he says, wondering about the nature of being adjacent to an accident, or being its “neighbor.” The narrator’s question mirrors his father’s reluctance to discuss the specifics of what he knows—or does not know—about Jerry Vincent’s death. His father may or may not have information that the authorities have been hunting down for years, and the narrator wonders to this day if his father’s proximity to Jerry Vincent’s murder implicates him in it. Questions of bearing witness and the responsibility of an individual who finds him or herself in the role of a witness are asked again and again throughout the collection, but never are they in such sharp relief as in this story.
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.
Junior Polatkin reappears as the subject of the book’s final story, in which Junior is in college at a small Jesuit school in Spokane, where he is the only Indian student. Obsessed with movies and frequently visited by dreams of Wild-West-style shootouts, Junior has a brief affair with a woman named Lynn. The affair results in a pregnancy and Lynn, who is Irish Catholic, elects to keep the baby. Junior is not permitted to be involved in the child’s life except through intermittent phone calls, and Lynn’s parents deny the child—who is given the name Sean Casey—any recognition of his Indian heritage. Junior drops out of school, though Lynn implores him not to, and plans to return to the reservation. In the last lines of the story—and the entire book—we watch as Junior travels a long and lonely road back to the reservation, where he knows deep down that each “reservation drive-in” he encounters will only feature a “new and painful” vision of his present and future.
The filmic motif that recurs throughout this story mirrors the symbolic importance of television, but also incorporates a dreamlike, visionary weight. Junior’s decision to abandon his studies and return home to the reservation is isolating, difficult, and painful, and despite knowing all these things, he marches on into a future that really represents a cyclical, ritualistic return to the past. This moment recalls Thomas Builds-the-Fire’s speech about the “skeletons” of the past and the future that follow every Indian throughout his or her life: the tension between the awareness of a cyclical, inescapable past rife with repetition, violence, and loss, and an unsteady, idealized, often unattainable ideal of the future.