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 | Themes

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Race and Assimilation

The Native Americans in Wellpinit embrace their cultural traditions and associate almost exclusively with one another. They're keenly aware of the damage white people have done, and continue to do, to their people through the reservation system, the lasting effects of colonization, and racism. Junior knows pride keeps his Indian community strong, but he also wonders whether they'd gain from branching out and giving others a chance as he does, rather than traveling or running away as Mary does.

Junior, and others on the reservation, associate whiteness with privilege, hope, and opportunity. They also think that privilege is unfairly given, not earned. Many on Junior's reservation think he's abandoning his heritage by aspiring to a traditionally white version of success. As Junior says, "Some Indians think that you become white if you try to make your life better." Junior works to challenge this assumption by straddling both worlds. His quest is to find out whether hope and success are truly available to all, regardless of race.

Family and Community

Family shapes Junior's growth significantly. Throughout Junior's tumultuous first year of high school, his family serves as an anchor. Even after two family members pass away, he feels a connection to them that goes beyond life and death. This connection gives him strength during pivotal life moments, such as his basketball game against Wellpinit.

However, Junior also expands his definition of family beyond his nuclear family to include his friend Rowdy, his dog Oscar, and everyone in the Spokane tribe, "We lived and died together," he says of his fellow Native Americans. They're united not just by tribe but by race—Native Americans of many different tribes attend Grandmother's funeral. The feeling of belonging is significant to Junior, as he counts his many "tribes" toward the novel's end. Sherman Alexie demonstrates that family can be defined in terms of love, so tribe can be defined in terms of community.

Violence and Masculinity

The Wellpinit reservation is shaped by physical violence; at Reardan, Junior contends with verbal and psychological violence. Vengeance is coupled with violence and competition. Getting revenge on someone who's wronged them, or wronged someone close to them, motivates Junior, Rowdy, and other characters. Junior thrives on being called "brave" and "a warrior" by role models in his life, particularly male role models. He wants to prove himself as a warrior in traditional ways, such as physical combat and fighting to preserve family. Yet, as Junior grows toward manhood, he is able to observe the men around him and adopt different expressions of masculinity. Thus, he succeeds in other manifestations of masculinity, too, such as overcoming obstacles and supporting his loved ones through grief.

Games, which substitute for violence, are played for high stakes in Junior's world. Junior realizes before his rematch with Wellpinit that, "Every choice I make is important." The drive to win keeps Junior motivated in school and sports and helps to define his masculinity. He's also deeply affected by losses—his own and others'. During his final basketball game with Rowdy, they don't keep score, suggesting they've moved beyond a traditional win-and-loss scoreboard into a more sophisticated understanding of manhood.

Poverty

Poverty has a crushing impact on Junior's life, affecting many of the choices he makes. Though he doesn't want to be defined by his limitations, he knows he needs to accept reality. A lingering question in the novel is whether Junior's family and the other Wellpinit Native Americans deserve their poverty, as some feel they do, or if they're unfairly victimized. Junior recognizes that the white world assumes Native Americans deserve their poverty. Yet, while Junior occasionally internalizes this assumption, he does not actually believe it.

Poverty later contrasts with wealth, as Junior meets Reardan students who don't live under the same constraints he does. Though he still thinks their money improves their life situations, he realizes rich kids have problems, too. Junior's also aware poverty can be mitigated by other positive influences, such as family support and community aid. As he sees friends without these influences, he realizes there are degrees of poverty.

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