The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian | Study Guide

Sherman Alexie

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian | Chapter 20 : Reindeer Games | Summary



Junior's considering skipping the Reardan basketball team tryouts. He fears he won't be good enough. His dad encourages Junior by talking about when he met his mother—he was a small child, and Junior's mother was a teenager. It was an improbable match, but it worked.

Junior signs up for the team. He's intimidated by the skill of the upperclassmen and by the authoritative Coach, who plans to cut 16 players that day. The players do several drills and then full-court one-on-one. Junior's shocked. One-on-one during tryouts? Tired and sweaty, he goes up against Roger. When Roger makes a shot, Coach goes up to Junior and says he knows him from the reservation team. In the next one-on-one round, Junior scores a shot against Roger. A newly confident Junior is picked for the varsity team.

Two weeks later he learns the team's first game will be against Wellpinit High School—a coincidence that Junior says "was like something out of Shakespeare." Despite his fear, he joins the team for their game at Wellpinit, where the Native Americans immediately express contempt. Small kids throw rocks at the team bus, and reservation fans chant "Arnold sucks," using Junior's Reardan name. Only the presence of his family keeps Junior in the stadium.

As Junior enters, each member of the reservation turns their back. He laughs at this unusual show of organization from his community. Then he sees Rowdy, who hasn't turned his back but instead is angry and ready to play. Coach encourages Junior to use his anger on the court. He doesn't get much chance at first, since a quarter thrown by an audience member gashes his head. Eugene, an EMT, fixes the cut. Eugene tells Junior he doesn't hate him and wants to see him play. As soon as Junior returns to the game, Rowdy, who's been playing more aggressively than usual, slams his elbow into Junior's head. Junior is taken by ambulance to the hospital. Meanwhile, the Wellpinit team wins by 30 points, aided by two frightened white referees.

Junior suffers a mild concussion, but the doctor says he'll be fine despite his brain condition. Later that night, Coach comes to visit him. Coach regrets having him play at all and says winning isn't the most important thing. Junior disagrees, thinking "Every game is important." Coach admires his commitment. The two talk late into the night. Junior doesn't share what they talked about, saying that night is between him and his coach.


Coach has high expectations of Junior—not expecting him to give any less because he's short or a freshman or Native American or carrying water in the brain. By promising to treat each player with respect and dignity, Coach sets another challenge for Junior. Does Junior believe he deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, encouraged to test the limits of his skill, or does he still believe "Indians don't deserve shit"? It turns out that even before Junior transferred to Reardan, he'd already made an impression on Coach.

The sketch of Junior as a basketball warrior in headdress and loincloth is a tongue-in-cheek reference to stereotypes of the "savage." More seriously, Junior notices the tribal cops' presence at the game and points out later that these cops protected the white kids from the Native Americans. The referees are "terrified of the wild Indians in the crowd." No matter how much Junior achieves, he'll still have to deal with assumptions about his people.

But the immediate danger is Rowdy, who's crossed a line by causing Junior deliberate physical harm—Rowdy knows about his birth defect. This violence, along with the coordination of Native Americans turning their backs on Junior, shows how deeply he's hurt his community. Is the alienation worth it to become the individual he's striving to be? The support of Junior's family and Eugene makes it seem so.

Junior, meanwhile, wants to be as tough and masculine as possible. He tells Eugene to go ahead and leave a scar if necessary. He laughs openly on the court at the surprise of a planned display of contempt by disorganized Wellpinit—laughs as if he's transcended the pain, which of course he hasn't. But he's on the right track. The quote Coach shares about "commitment to excellence" reminds him the journey toward the goal matters as much as the goal itself.

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