An Analysis of the Modern Native American Identity in Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie

In Reservation Blues, Sherman Alexie conveys an understanding of modern Native American identity that reflects the struggles, frustrations, and epidemics many indigenous people currently endure. He brings the reader into a new understanding of the “authentic” Indian that emphasizes the complexities of native people as well as the historical events that shape their cultural consciousness. The novel tells the story of Coyote Springs, a fictional band formed by young American Indians on a Spokane Reservation in Washington. The themes of alcoholism, poverty, stereotypes, violence, abuse, and colonialism, among other social issues create a backdrop in which the characters struggle to find a sense of self-worth and connection to their cultural roots.

Alexie creates a representation of Native Americans as a diverse and complex group by describing a variety of multifaceted characters on the reservation. Big Mom, the-man-who-was probably-Lakota, David Walksalong, and Lester FallsApart all portray different aspects of the native community. The reservation is seen as an authentic cross-section of humanity that encompasses a variety of individuals, implying the folly of generalizations and oversimplifications.

Thomas Builds-the-fire, Victor, Junior, Chess, and Checkers additionally substantiate this fact as the readers are exposed to their unique thoughts, emotions, and personal histories.

The reader gets a strong sense of the historical and personal conflicts that shape the behaviors of the characters and define many of the hardships faced on the reservation. Alexie depicts the Native American as engaged in a constant struggle with the past, whether on a personal or collective front. Thomas’ relationship with his alcoholic father, Victors’ sexual abuse in his childhood, and the loneliness felt by Chess and Checkers are some of the past experiences that shape the characters’ decisions and personalities.

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On a cultural level, deep-rooted pains stemming from a history of colonialism, exploitation, and oppression contribute to the social issues endemic to the reservation. The “authentic” Indian is understood as one struggling with the conflicts of their own histories as well as those historical tragedies responsible for the subjugation of their culture.

Betty and Veronica, two white females who temporarily joined the band, help clarify the understanding of the authentic Native American by demonstrating what it is clearly not. These two embody the stereotypical “Indian” image that can be profited from despite the lack of any deeper connection to Native American heritage or tradition. This superficial “Indian” perception provides a contrast that helps clarify true native identity. Native Americans are understood as complex individuals who do not necessarily manifest the stereotypical attributes that appeal to the public. In fact, the reality of addictions, impoverishment and fear on the reservation provides a grim reality that contradicts these simplified perceptions. Thomas accordingly claims, “You ain’t really Indian unless, at some point in your life, you didn’t want to be Indian” (169). Battling stereotypes is understood to be an experience that Native Americans in the late twentieth century had to endure.

The loss of connection to the past is an issue that motivates characters in the novel to seek alternative sources of significance and meaning. Victors’ questioning of Big Mom’s authority reflects a distrust of traditional Native American mysticism. When Thomas offers Victor an eagle feather for protection, he responds by saying, “Get that Indian bullshit away from me” (218); this demonstrates his suspicion towards native traditions. Chess and Checker’s relationship with Catholicism is reflective of the tense interaction between Christianity and native beliefs. Thomas uses the tradition of oral storytelling to stay connected with his culture. These are all means of placing oneself in a broader cultural, social, and spiritual context and affirming ones place in the world. Dysfunction on the reservation motivates this search for meaning and recovery of traditional culture. Music is explored as a means to give the characters power, hope, and inner strength. Confronting the increased dissociation from native traditions and beliefs and finding ways to uphold them is depicted as one hardship that the Native American encounters in late twentieth century America.

A deep fear and distrust of the white world is understood to be a pervasive feeling among contemporary Native Americans in Reservation Blues. David Walksalong’s concerns about Coyote Spring’s representation of the Spokane Tribe and involvement with white women is indicative of the anxieties native people feel toward white America. The Reservation’s Ten Commandments from Thomas’ journal humorously reveals such suspicions, with commandments such as “You shall not steal back what I have already stolen from you” (155). The historical exploitation of Native Americans is most personified by Wright and Sheridan, the two record producers who attempt to misuse Coyote Springs’ “Indian” image for profit. Hostility, fear, and distrust towards white American society is depicted as an impression that remains in the consciousness of authentic contemporary Native Americans, and provides a contrast which magnifies the social environment of reservation life.

In Reservation Blues, Sherman Alexie portrays an understanding of the authentic Native American that reveals many problems faced in modern times. Struggles with old problems from an arduous history of oppression continue to define life for the Native American in the late twentieth century. This harsh social atmosphere stands in stark contrast to “Indian” stereotypes, which Native Americans constantly battle with. Oversimplified representations of Indians fail to encompass the less desirable but equally real and influential experiences of Native American past. Addictions, vices, and self-destruction are some unfortunate responses to this grim reality. Alexie writes, “The word gone echoed all over the reservation. The reservation was gone itself, just a shell of its former self, just a fragment of the whole. But the reservation still possessed power and rage, magic and loss, joys, and jealousy”. Despite the tragedies endured by indigenous people, Native Americans are represented as engaged in a struggle to overcome these experiences and find a meaningful connection with their cultural roots.

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An Analysis of the Modern Native American Identity in Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie. (2021, Dec 23). Retrieved from https://paperap.com/an-analysis-of-the-modern-native-american-identity-in-reservation-blues-by-sherman-alexie/

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