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 | Context



Colonialism, in the context of Sherman Alexie's work, is the appropriation or act of taking possession of one culture or people by another. Native American peoples have been colonized by European missionaries and settlers ever since Norse settlers first landed in what is now northern Canada in the 10th and 11th centuries. More extensive—and permanent—colonization began in the late 15th century when Christopher Columbus landed on Hispaniola and "claimed" the land for Spain. Spanish conquistadors followed Columbus to the Americas and used military technology and the perhaps inadvertent spread of disease to conquer Native American communities. They subjected Native Americans to the encomienda system, demanding goods and labor from the enslaved peoples.

By the 1600s, European settlers began colonizing the Americas, initiating a long history of strained relations between settlers and Native Americans. While the Powhattan Confederacy helped the first English settlement at Jamestown (1607) survive its early years, armed conflicts soon began as settlers encroached on Native American land. In addition, some Native American tribes took part in conflicts between European powers, hoping to gain ownership of their lands. The Iroquois League had some success participating in European fur trade and warfare, and some Native Americans joined the French in its fight against the British in the French and Indian War (1756–63). Regardless of these efforts, following the American Revolution (1775–83), Native American land continued to be seized by settlers, despite any treaties that were in place.

With the election of Andrew Jackson to the American presidency in 1828 came the passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which ordered the relocation of eastern Native Americans to federal land located west of the Mississippi River. Despite winning a case in the Supreme Court to block this legislation, the Cherokee and other tribes were forced by Jackson to relocate along a route that came to be known as the Trail of Tears (1838–39). Yet, as settlers continued to push westward to fulfill manifest destiny, the belief that Americans were sanctioned by God to expand to the west coast, conflicts between the settlers and Native Americans living on these newly allocated federal lands continued to rage.

In exchange for forced confinement on federal reservation land, Native Americans were supposed to receive goods, services, and protection from attack. Yet, as the demand for land grew from settlers, reservation boundaries and locations were altered. By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States government decided that reservations should also work to assimilate Native Americans. They paid Christian missionary societies to educate native people on reservations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, a United States government agency, later began to support immersive boarding schools: children were removed from their homes and families, immersed in European culture and language, and instructed in the Christian religion. In most of these schools, children were punished for using their own names and languages and for practicing their own religious and cultural traditions. The reservation system proved to be a largely destructive force in the lives of Native Americans; here, they suffered from poverty, lack of opportunity, disease, alcoholism, and hopelessness.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the U.S. and Canadian governments, as well as the Catholic Church, have acknowledged their mistreatment of the indigenous peoples of North America and have taken steps to officially apologize and work toward reconciliation in the forms of cash settlements, land grants, and tribal recognition.

Native Americans in Literature

To avoid the further marginalization of Native Americans, it is important to understand the literature of the United States as a single body of work that can perhaps be divided into three subgroups: pre-Columbian works, works written by Europeans after 1492, and works written by colonized, enslaved, and immigrant peoples. Given this framework, Alexie operates within the third subgroup to challenge and overthrow stereotypes, such as the noble savage and Native American communion with nature. Yet Alexie recognizes some stereotypes have their roots in truth. For instance, he wants the Native American community to acknowledge alcoholism as a life-threatening problem. In response to a troubling trend of non-Native American writers identifying heavily with Native American culture and ignoring the colonial influence on their popular representation, Alexie said, "My career means, if you're a non-Indian writing about Indians, at least there's one Indian in your rearview mirror."

Other important writers in the Native American pantheon include N. Scott Momaday, whose work House Made of Dawn (1968) explores the conflict between ancient tradition and modern life; Leslie Marmon Silko, whose work Ceremony (1977) addresses reservation poverty; Louise Erdrich, whose works such as Love Medicine (1984) feature Native American characters but are clearly influenced stylistically by the work of William Faulkner; Joy Harjo, whose poetic works such as In Mad Love and War (1990) explore both culture and gender; and Simon J. Ortiz, whose works such as Woven Stone (1992) explore themes including alienation from the environment, the effects of colonization, and a reclamation of place in American history.


In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, characters swear frequently, and the book references masturbation and teenage sexuality. These topics and other mature subject matters have led to the book being banned in several schools and school districts.

In 2014 The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was one of the books readers tried most diligently to remove from library shelves. Idaho schools banned the book citing its "anti-Christian" nature. The American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom noted the most frequently challenged books tend to be by authors of color or about communities of color, including Alexie's.

Whenever a school bans The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Alexie makes a point of sending a box of books to the school's nearest library. In 2011 Alexie wrote a popular article for the Wall Street Journal, "Why the Best Kids' Books are Written in Blood," defending controversial subject matter in young people's literature as character developing and courageous. Alexie argued books should reflect and discuss the serious issues teens address in their lives.

The Illustrations

Ellen Forney created The Absolutely True Diary of a Party-Time Indian's cartoons based on Alexie's writing. She used three different drawing styles to reflect "different situations and moods": the "more scribbled-looking" illustrations suggest immediate thoughts; the more realistic cartoons suggest a deeper thought process; and the penciled sketches convey intimacy and friendship.

Forney notes how Junior's drawings help him "express himself, be understood, to escape, and to survive." For instance, through his drawings Junior approaches the deaths in his family with a cynical humor—such as a burning Mary saying, "Thanks a lot, Junior." Alexie said he's borrowed the humor of his family and "made it darker and more deadly—a weapon of self-defense."

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