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
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.
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.
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.