Prologue: With astonishing impunity, the National Football League includes a team called “The Washington Redskins.” Their name is an undeniable racial slur. No player on the team is red, and the mascot is not a potato. I can’t imagine a comparable, so obviously pejorative “nickname” of any other racial or ethnic group being used in a similar way.
A little while ago, I participated in an exercise with a group of teachers. We were asked to construct a timeline – from 1492 until the present – of the most important events and legislation that formed the foundation of America’s current racial landscape. We weren’t given any advance preparation for this; we each had to rely only on the information we had stored in our individual memories.
After we’d filled in the timeline to the best of our abilities, we were asked to look for any observable patterns. Sadly, it was notable that, with only a few exceptions, our knowledge of the past was largely limited to our own lifetimes. It was equally clear that while some of us were able to fill in information about a few racial groups, most of us knew almost nothing about the history of this hemisphere’s indigenous people. This is not surprising . . . To borrow a phrase I heard on a recent TV show – “What happened to Native Americans is not a part of the lingua franca of American History.”
Although mainstream American history loosely acknowledges the European theft of land from the people already living here, the grueling full account of Native American genocide, forced migration, and restriction to reservations has largely been written out of the story.
Today, nearly one quarter of all Native Americans within the United States live on reservations. Few of us outside of those spaces have any knowledge about, or feeling for, what their lives are like.
It is a daunting job to convey the complexity and poignancy of those hidden “reservation lives.” Even more daunting is the task of translating such complex material into a written form that even the average high school student willingly and eagerly will read. Fortunately, there is a great author who has written a marvelous book that fits the bill.
Sherman Alexie, multiple award winning novelist and occasional comedian, has crafted The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. It is an astonishingly insightful insider’s tale of Indian life told from the point of view of a fictional 14 year old boy named Arnold Spirit, Jr.
Arnold is a budding artist and pretty good basketball player who lives with his Mother, Father, and Older Sister on the Wellpinit (Spokane) Indian reservation. Arnold was born with hydrocephalus, and at just six months of age, had to undergo an operation from which he wasn’t expected to recover. For the first half of his life, he was plagued by seizures, a lisp, and a stutter. He also got beat up a lot. But he began to draw cartoons that acted as what he calls his “little life boats”.
Although it’s labeled a work of fiction, the book closely parallels the author’s real life. Like the character in the book, Alexie grew up on the Spokane reservation. He too was born with hydrocephalus. He too underwent a life-threatening operation. His father was an alcoholic. And, like the character in the book, he made a critical decision to leave the reservation to attend the all-White, and relatively affluent High School (where the only other Indian is the school mascot) in the nearby town of Reardan.
Through Arnold, readers of Alexie’s book become acquainted with the conditions of his life, and by extension, with the duality of living on “the rez”: On the one hand, we have the alcoholism, the crushing poverty, the fist fights and depression and sense of hopelessness . . . And, on the other, there’s the close feeling of home and family in which everybody “lived and died together” in the midst of a “green, and golden, and perfect” world.
On top of it all, we gain insight into the pain Arnold feels at being torn between his culture of nurture and his culture of escape.
The diary comes complete with a series of drawings (by professional illustrator Ellen Forney) that help to add authenticity to the account.
At the end of the book there are study questions to provide a springboard for further discussion.
I’ll be frank. I think this is one of the best books I’ve ever read. “It’ll make you laugh, and it’ll make you cry.” It’ll also teach you a host of lessons, and if you’re serious about pursuing the questions at the end, it’ll let you become involved in the collective process of unraveling its deeper social meaning, so that you can teach others.
Review by La’Ron Williams.
LaRon Williams is a nationally acclaimed, award-winning storyteller who has toured extensively presenting programs and workshops. His music-ﬁlled, highly participatory performances present a dynamic blend of original and traditional tales crafted to help improve literacy, encourage community, foster cooperation, promote peaceful conﬂict resolution, build self-esteem, and deepen the historical understanding of the American ideal of democratic inclusion.