Associations held by the majority of Americans regarding Indians (that is, Native Americans) reflect the instability of the culture and the fact that much of this culture has been lost and continues to be lost. However, these associations don’t particularly view this fragility as a hindrance to the success of these people. After all, is American success not defined by the ideals of our founding fathers and leaders (politicians, celebrities, millionaires) rather than those of Indians? The fact is that a culture which teaches a dependence on the past must maintain this element, yet is thus unable to deal with the constantly changing, and vastly different system which is American society. Nowhere is this more apparent in our modern studies than in Sherman Alexie’s semi-autobiographical compilation of heart-wrenching, though occasionally uplifting, short stories: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Throughout The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Alexie’s characters face an immense dilemma regarding success and its relevance as they realize that, though success offers them escape from the suffering of their heritage and perhaps has the potential to help save it, it forces them to abandon this culture which is still a great part of their identity, and is often un-reclaimable.
In “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”, Thomas Builds-the-Fire tells Victor a story about bravery that summarizes the expectations of Indian society and the reason these are in conflict with those of “success.” This story further describes the fragility of these Indian expectations and their unsustainability. This story was told when both characters were both ten years old, but is presented in the context of a present issue that Victor faces: he needs to travel to Phoenix, Arizona, to collect his recently deceased father’s belongings, but is unable to afford the transportation. At the Trading Post, Victor spots Thomas. “Victor was embarrassed, but he thought that Thomas might be able to help him” (62), even though “nobody talked to Thomas anymore… Victor felt a sudden need for tradition” (62). To Victor, Thomas signifies tradition because the Indian culture that he knows has been built off of storytelling, a device used primarily by Thomas in the lifetime of the characters in this book. Furthermore, many of his stories discuss the history of Indians and the values which are supposed to be engrained in Indian culture yet now the issue of inapplicability to modern life. However, beyond representing tradition, Thomas also displays a further, less fortunate fact about his relationship with the rest of the Spokane Indians. He, like tradition, has become something which is not consistently trusted or considered reliable by Indians. In opposition to such things as drugs and alcohol which offer true escape from reality, the repetitiveness and hopelessness of tradition and Thomas’ stories don’t seem so appealing. This skew is reflected in another way by Thomas’ story:
“There were these two Indian boys who wanted to be warriors. But it was too late to be warriors in the old way. All the horses were gone. So the two Indian boys stole a car and drove to the city. They parked the stolen car in front of the police station and then hitchhiked back home to the reservation. When they got back, all their friends cheered and their parents’ eyes shone with pride. You were very brave, everybody said to the two Indian boys. Very brave” (63).
As is apparent here, and throughout not only Alexie’s writing, but any writing about Indian culture, an integral part of the Indian warrior identity is bravery. Of course, in a society that has evolved to the point where the traditional conception of bravery is impossible to replicate, maintaining this image of the ideal Indian is difficult. Thus, this conception must be redefined in terms of the modern enemy, which is the same as in the past: the oppressors of the Indians: the white men. Unfortunately, in the society that existed at the time of the formation of reservations, success was aligned with this idea of bravery, an alignment which no longer exists. Thus, the only effort that can be made by the present generation of Indians towards success in the eyes of their people leads to a lack of success in terms of common definition: access to necessary resources is still so limited that life, even beyond this “brave” lifestyle, is unsustainable, and thus, too, can be considered very fragile.
The limited access to necessary resources that results in a lack of concern for the preservation of culture is reflected many times throughout Alexie’s book, but especially in “Every Little Hurricane” and “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore.” The narrator introduces the poverty of Victor’s family by stating that, on Christmas, “There were no gifts. Not one” (4). However, the truly destructive part of this situation is the description of Victor’s father’s reaction. “The man opened his wallet and shook his head. Empty… Victor watched his father repeat this ceremony again and again, as if the repetition itself could guarantee change. But it was always empty” (5). In a place where there is so little potential that a single situation of being driven to humiliation by poverty can lead to relative insanity, as demonstrated here, there is no optimism in the thinking of its residents. The narrator of “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore” confirms this when he says “It’s hard to be optimistic on the reservation. When a glass sits on a table here, people don’t wonder if it’s half filled or half empty. They just hope it’s good beer” (49). The implication of this combination of pessimism and apathy is an indifference towards the survival of culture, which inherently leads to the frailty of said culture, and discourages attempts towards salvation.
In “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show”, the dedication that Junior shows in making it to Gonzaga University is contrasted by the fact that he eventually drops out and returns to the Spokane Indian Reservation. Perhaps the greatest reflection of this conflict that Junior faces is in his response to Lynn’s statement that he shouldn’t quit school and return to the reservation. He says, “’I’m dying at school, too. So I guess it’s a matter of choosing my own grave’” (242). This outlook viewing education, his focus, and his intentions as infirm is something which seems to be drilled into the minds of Indians from a young age. In “Indian Education”, Junior describes his graduation experience, followed by that of his peers who went to school on the Reservation. “Later, I stand as the school board chairman recites my awards, accomplishments, and scholarships… The bright students are shaken, frightened, because they don’t know what comes next” (179-180). This fragility of reputation is something which seems to be heavily influenced by the state of Indian culture itself. These students know that their intelligence has the potential to lead to success in the form of wealth and stability, but this, in the light of the uncertainty in the fluctuations in the history of the heritage that is a major part of their identity, does not seem to be something believable. It is particularly interesting to see this same thing happen to Junior, despite his education off the Reservation. It seems to be an idea deeply embedded in the Indian psyche: that, though it does face uncertainty due to jealousy and selfishness also present in the Indian group mentality, familial and friend ties are the only support that exists, the rest being either absent or too fragile to last. This is emphasized by Victor’s statement at the end of “Indian Education” in which he says “’My graduating class has a reunion every weekend at the Powwow Tavern’” (180). These people know that the support they receive from their friends and family on a consistent basis can never be replicated, and thus they never see any great advantage for their lives in leaving the reservation, an action which bears much too high of an opportunity cost. Nevertheless, this idea seems to thus act as a barrier to assimilation, which would seem to make it a promoter of cultural preservation. However, as previously mentioned, this would seem to be an illegitimate claim, as this is what leads to the cycle of poverty that in turn leads to the pessimism which has been previously proven to hinder the conservation of culture.
Thomas Builds-the-Fire’s Trial and conviction following his confession of killing American soldiers as an Indian warrior in the mid-1800s demonstrate that the American Government has even criminalized the spirituality of Indian society, thus further reducing the survival potential of the culture. The story of Thomas’ trial begins with a statement from a BIA Agent that makes the frailty of Native American culture and tradition in the face of white power apparent. In reference to what charge to randomly accuse Thomas of, the agent says “It has to be a felony charge. We don’t need his kind around here anymore’” (94). Of course, this punishment upon tradition has already existed to a certain degree thus far. With the threat of criminal conviction, Thomas was forced to stop telling his stories by the BIA Agents, who represent the American Government and manifest their efforts to destroy Indian culture. The fact that the tradition that this represented was lost to his fellow members of the Spokane tribe represented the unreliability that Victor recognizes when he suddenly has to depend on this structure. Of course, this dependence shown by Victor also represents the loss that this was for the tribe, but it more importantly demonstrates the fact that this precariousness is caused directly by the enemies of the Indians, the white people. This isn’t to say that this wasn’t already apparent, after all, Thomas stated it plainly and clearly when he said in his story of Wild Coyote, “’You must understand these were days of violence and continual lies from the white man’” (100). This statement is simply to affirm that this oppression is current and continuous, not just a legacy action which has remaining effects. The importance of this tradition is represented by the reaction of the audience to Thomas’ first story in years at the trial: “Thomas opened his eyes and found that most of the Indians in the courtroom wept and wanted to admit defeat” (97). Furthermore, the purpose of this tradition is further represented in Thomas’ statement regarding it following the trial: “’The only appeal I have is for justice,’ Builds-the-Fire reportedly said” (103). While success is most applicably quantified financially or in terms of social class, it can also be defined in terms of justice. While this goal isn’t reached per say by either Thomas or any of the other characters in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, the brief moments of stability of tradition, such as Thomas’ stories prior to this statement, represent clear movements towards it. Thus, it is apparent that the recognition of fragility discourages the fight against injustice for Indians.
Success is an objective term, which to Indians means many different things, many of which are negative in the contexts which are important to them, such as tribal relations. Thus, the characters of Alexie’s book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven face a struggle in determining the role this will have in their lives and how they can deal with this in the context of the frailty of the culture to which they belong and the structures that surround it, including the image of success. A particularly interesting example of this to analyze is the author of the book himself, Sherman Alexie. Should we see him to be most closely represented by his character Junior Polatkin, it would seem that he faced many obstacles on his way to “success” as a well-known writer. So how did he get over these bumps? Well, the answer that I would seem to find is that he was isolated enough from the core of Indian society for long enough, while at a high school off the Reservation and at college, that he was able to escape from the ruts that it represents. Of course, he still manages to write touchingly, and from experience about the Indian experience, but to do this, what culture has he given up? Is he still welcome on the reservation that he writes he grew up on? Does he still have the connections to tradition that he writes about, or does he identify as an American? These are the questions which tear at the Indian identity and represent the fragility that it will continue to face for the few generations further that it lasts.