Archive for the Native American Category

Reservation Blues by Sherman Alexie

Posted in Fiction, Literature, Native American on March 29, 2008 by muerta

I have fallen in love with this author.  While this essay is not edited through all the way, figured I would post it in its crude form, given the entry below it:

Earlier this semester, the class examined the short story “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” by Sherman Alexie.  This short story introduced the characters Thomas Builds-The-Fire and Victor Joseph as the two travel to Phoenix and pick up the ashes of Victor’s deceased father.  In the process, the two reexamine and rediscover themselves, returning to the reservation with hope but also without hope or a future.  The story suggests a strained relationship between the two and hints of deeper roots.  So, already intrigued by the characters and at the suggestion of a classmate, I chose Option #4 and read “Reservation Blues” by Sherman Alexie.


The story starts with the arrival of a great Blues player seeking a woman who appears in his dreams.  Robert Johnson, who faked his death in 1938, came seeking assistance from his curse; he had made a deal with the Devil and needed redemption.  Thomas Builds-The-Fire finds Robert, assumes he is seeking Big Mom, and delivers him.  However, in the process, inherits the cursed guitar which ends up in the hands of Victor Joseph who unknowingly accepts a Devil’s deal, and with their third friend, Junior Polatkin, form the band, Coyote Springs.  And so begins their story as they seek fame and fortune outside the desolate Spokane Reservation.  Joined by two Flathead Indians, Chess and Checkers, and eventually traveling to New York City for a possible record deal, their adventures go beyond self-exploration but delve deep into the issues of spirituality, abandonment, and the frustration and unfufillment of being Native American, poor, and an outcast historically, tribally, family, and psychically. 


Sherman Alexie brings the beauty of life to us through the eyes of Thomas while he shows us the paths of self-destruction through Victor.  Alexie allows us to see how despite all the negativity that has happened to Thomas, he still tries to love and heal those around him.  Victor becomes the angry warrior without a way of counting coupe, or as Big Mom puts it “when are Indians ever going to have heroes that don’t hurt anyone?”  The author shows us how so many on the reservation live between welfare check to welfare check, choosing a path of religion or alcohol, and merely spend each day in limbo as if time did not exist on the reservation and its only the rest of the world that moves forward. 


In Alexie’s short story, “This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” there is mention of a fight that occurs that between Victor and Thomas when they are younger.  In “Reservation Blues,” we find out that Victor and Junior assault Thomas and literally push his face into setting concrete, leaving a permanent impression of Thomas’s face in the cement outside Trading Post.  Thus, Thomas claims the sidewalk as his, and is often found sitting in this area.  While the short story merely alludes to the conflict, it is surprising to discover the brutality of the fight and yet, Thomas is still willing to help Victor go to Phoenix and later form the band.


Big Mom is symbolically Time for the reservation.  Having seen the Army troops slowly slaughter the horses of the tribe to teaching musical greats such as Benny Goodman and Jimi Hendrix, she represents what was the musical start of the reservation—the screams of the horses while they were shot one at a time by the American Military, the Great White Father, and the government for which the current Spokane People rely upon for their commodities, their welfare checks, and their homes.  While Victor and Junior do not believe in Big Mom, Thomas Builds-The-Fire does, and so when the band eventually travels to visit Big Mom for her guidance (as she is a self-declared music teacher), conflict results within the band regarding her guidance.  But through it all is the possessed guitar in Victor’s hands, and he is given the choice of either fame and fortune or self-destruction.  His choice changes the outcome of everyone for better or worse, but one thing is for certain, Coyote Springs can not remain on the reservation any longer.


In the story, these slaughtered Indian horses scream every time life on reservation is confirmed. 


“Thomas,” said Chess, “if you don’t want to be famous and have your stories heard, then why did you start the band up?”


“I heard voices,” Thomas said.  “I guess I heard voices.  I mean, I’m sort of a liar, enit?  I like the attention.  I want strangers to love me.  I don’t even know why.  But I want all kinds of strangers to love me.”


The Indian horses screamed.


Thomas was not seeking strangers loving him, but merely to be loved and accepted by someone, somewhere.  He was seeking his place in a world where there was no place for him.  The Indian horses screamed because as long as he stayed there, Thomas would never find what he so desperately wanted.  But Thomas did not control the possessed guitar, but rather by Victor.  And his darkest wish remains unknown.  As the symbolism of the horses screaming is not present when this wish becomes evident, it merely emphasizes Alexie’s point of the hopelessness of reservation life.


Throughout the story, there are a number of subplots as each character seeks their own path and destiny, and the reader learns how their pasts lead to their present.  The author brilliantly intertwines each of the characters and their pasts, their dreams, their horrors, and even draws upon the Jungian collective unconscious of Spokane Indian history as each member of the Coyote Springs find themselves facing the destruction of the Spokane freedom and applying it to their own life choices.  The ripples of each subplot add to the story in unexpected ways, and bring the reader deeper into the frustration of the forced life of the reservation, and everyone’s longing for freedom.  


Sherman Alexie does not sugarcoat reservation life nor does he make the Indians these mystical modern day carriers of wisdom and gaeaian spirituality, but rather as humans, with human needs and desires, in world where learned helplessness has been forced upon a previously self-sufficient tribe.  However, the story that he tells is an accurate one of anyone seeking to better there life, despite the unfortunate events that hold one back from reaching outward.  The author adds, however, be careful what you wish for because while it may come true, it comes true at the Devil’s price unless you are willing to be responsible for the dream that you desire.