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Native American Identity as a Result of Colonialism
One of the most profound results of colonialism is the creation of distinctly separate spaces physically and figuratively, that leads to the development of distinct identities rooted on each side. In Sherman Alexie’s novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the challenges of transcending racial, social, and cultural barriers faced by 14 year old Junior as he leaves his Indian reservation to attend an all white school reflect the complex internal and external perceptions of modern Spokane indigeneity. Alexie uses first person narration and inner dialogue to portray Junior’s exploration and comparison of the white and Indian worlds that lead to his discovery of individual identity amidst two homogenous cultures. Joelle Fraser’s interview of Sherman Alexie further reveals inherent discrepancies in the way modern Native American culture is rendered by “colonial” authors in contemporary literature and the barriers of entry faced by Native American authors. By portraying “white” and “Indian” as mutually exclusive identities and profiling individuals at the intersection of these two worlds, both texts challenge the socially imposed perceptions of Native American identity that exist as peripheral colonial constructs.
In the beginning of Alexie’s novel, Junior lives on the Wellpinit reservation and identifies entirely as Spokane Indian. He accepts the seemingly inescapable role given to him on the reservation as “the biggest retard in the world”(4) considering his staggering health problems, lisp, odd body proportions, and sensitive, quirky demeanor. His self portrait in the first chapter of the novel depicts a gangly teenage boy seizing and lisping with the satirical caption “ME in all my GLORY”. Although he aspires to embody a sense of hope towards the future, Junior possesses the self-deprecating attitude projected by everyone surrounding him on the reservation, “I wish I were magical, but I am really just a poor-ass reservation kid living with his poor-ass family on the poor-ass Spokane Indian Reservation”(7). Junior is conditioned to think that because he lives on a reservation, is poor, and Indian, he is confined to these roles and a limited scope of society.
Once Junior decides to transfer to Reardan, the off reservation all white school, a majority of Indians on the reservation scorn and harass him, calling him names like “white-lover”, explicitly stating that he is a traitor and disgrace to the tribe. At the same time, Junior is having a surprisingly smooth transition into school at Reardan. The brutal shunning from other Indians at home contrasts greatly with the meaningful relationships being forged with white characters such as his classmates Penelope, Gordy, and his basketball coach. On top of that, Junior’s decision to transfer schools inspires his sister, Mary-Runs-Away, to spontaneously get married and move to another reservation in Montana. Junior’s inner dialogue reveals his shock at the influence he has had on his family and others on the reservation, “Ever since the Spokane Indian Reservation was founded back in 1881, nobody in my family has ever lived anywhere else. We are absolutely tribal. For good or for bad, we don’t leave one another”(89). Guilt and confusion arise as Junior realizes his choice to leave not only signifies the birth of new opportunities for him, but the partial death of his indigenous tribe. He now interprets his departure as a rejection of his indigeneity, and fears that he has caused irrevocable changes in his family and social dynamics.
Juniors identity is directly challenged on his very first day at Reardan when he is confronted about his name, “‘My name is Junior,’ I said. ‘And my name is Arnold. It’s Junior and Arnold. I’m both.’”(60 Alexie). At Reardan, he must renounce his cultural reservation nickname and go by his official first name, “Arnold”. Junior’s dramatic split-identity complex is amplified on the basketball court. On one hand, he is a hero: the underdog who escaped the dead end reservation and is going to create a brighter future for himself. On the other, he is a traitor. One who abandoned his dying tribe for his own self interest. This is portrayed in yet another cartoon of Junior on the basketball court scoring for Reardan against his old Wellpinit reservation team. On one side he draws himself as a devil being scorned by Indians, and on the other an angel being praised by whites. In each portrait, his facial expression is one of confusion and anxiety.
Finally, Junior has a revelation, “I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms. And the tribe of cartoonists. And the tribe of chronic masturbators. And the tribe of teenage boys. And the tribe of small-town kids…”(217 Alexie). Junior’s perceptions of identity are shattered as he realizes that identity exists in multiplicity rather than binary. He does not have to choose to identify as either Spokane or white, the reality is that he embodies a complex identity that encompasses all of his unique characteristics, experiences, and idiosyncrasies. He does not exist only in the socially imposed context of “the rez” but in a far larger tribe that stretches throughout a global society.
In an interview by Joelle Fraser, Alexie further comments on the one dimensional nature of Native American identity imposed by colonialism. He points to clear examples of inaccurate portrayal of Native Americans through literature, “…what I really want to say is that we should be talking about these books, written about Indians by non-Indians, honestly and accurately. They’re colonial books. I mean, they’re outsider books…These are books by members of the privileged, of the powerful, writing about a culture of the colonized”(60). When most literature about Native Americans is written by non-Natives during colonial periods, the depiction of Native American culture and identity are dangerously put in the hands of the “colonizers”, who have the power to widely distribute their perceptions throughout society which, although brought about by good intentions, is ultimately a fabricated fantasy and contributes to the ideas of a binary racial identity.
Alexie argues that too many stereotypes and impressions have been artfully curated by colonial writers, “You throw in a couple of birds and four directions and corn pollen and it’s Native American literature, when it has nothing to do with the day-to-day lives of Indians. I want my literature to concern the daily lives of Indians”(63). Moreover, he points out that Native American writers themselves begin to feel obligated to occupy the stereotypes in literature in order to satisfy white audiences, “I think most native american literature is concerned with place because they tell us to be. That’s the myth…it’s detrimental.”(63). He admits that even his literature does not always reach Native Americans, “Tonight I’ll look up from the reading and 95% of the people in the crowd will be white. There’s something wrong with my not reaching Indians”(60). Ultimately, Alexie is challenging the level of accessibility minority authors and audiences have within the literary world due to the impositions and stereotypes previously established by colonial literature.
Both texts look at the existence of Native American and white communities in mutually exclusive social and cultural contexts. Alexie directly comments on the inaccuracy of the “Native American identity” portrayed in contemporary literature and uses the character of Junior in his novel to showcase the complex processes of internal reflection and external expression experienced by minorities who straddle these two worlds. By highlighting socioeconomic and cultural friction in the lives of marginalized characters, both texts reflect inherent inequalities between white and Native American communities and argue for the dismantling of socially imposed and binary identities. Only when individuals from Native American and other minority communities are recognized and embraced for their unique and complex identities will we be able to transcend the negative effects of colonialism and create a more equitable and just society.