Life on the Spokane Indian Reservation is filled with shattered dreams and lost Indian souls drowning the sorrows of their people in alcohol. Reservation Blues, a novel by Sherman Alexie, depicts the story of an unlikely group of Indians coming together to chase their dreams with the help of a magic guitar, Big Mom, and their Indian blood as they struggle with the realities of being Indian in a white world. The protagonist Thomas is the lead singer for their band, Coyote Springs, and a reservation outsider.
Victor, Junior, Chess and Checkers are the other band members, each of them as unlikely to be in a band as Thomas. Reservation Blues sheds light on the afflicted life of a modern Spokane Indian, while also bringing attention to the way whites tend treat minorities in America. Alexie uses a combination of cultural and psychological issues, in conjunction with his language in the book to convey the hardships modern Indians face. The alcoholism, loss of culture, and racism drives the Indians into the ground, as it is nearly impossible for them to truly feel as though they belong anywhere.
Most of the cultural issues are coped with in the form of alcoholism on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Their ancestors were pushed onto the reservation and faced so much heartache during that time period that the entire Indian population today still mourns those losses. Thomas shows a very blunt example of how him and his people were treated when he wrote “The Indian 10 Commandments” in his diary. The most significant of the commandments are number five and number eight; “Honor your Indian father and Indian mother because I have stripped them of their land, language, and hearts, and they need your compassion, which is a commodity I do not supply . . . You shall not steal back what I have already stolen from you” (Alexie, 154-155). They’ve had their basic human rights stripped for generations because of their race.
Their land has been stolen and they have been put on reservations that are designed to make the Indians more “white”, as if there was something wrong with the way they lived. Indians grieve the losses of their ancestors as a tribe. Every Indian has the blood of those ancestors running through their veins, banding them together like brothers. They all know the hardships their people went through and will have that in common until the day they die. Violence, alcoholism, and heartache are the outward result of the people mourning who have nobody to mourn with them.
Psychologically the Indians are very unsound. Whites have time and time again proved how racist they are against non-whites, and the Indians are no exception. Native Americans have been dehumanized and treated like animals mostly because of the inaccurate representation of their culture in popular media. For example, when Coyote Springs was trying to sign on with a record company in Seattle, they witnessed first hand exactly how misinformed the companies were about Indians. On one occasion, after being informed of their race, the man on the other end of the telephone simply said “Indians? You mean like drums and stuff? That howling kind of singing? We can’t afford to make a record that ain’t going to sell. Sorry.” with no further inquisition about the band (Alexie, 187).
This type of discrimination against minorities, in this case Indians, is a disturbingly common occurrence in our society. It makes the Indians feel ashamed of their background. As Checkers so eloquently puts it, “You ain’t really Indian unless, at some point in your life, you didn’t want to be” in reference to some white women claiming anyone could be Indian if they wanted to (Alexie, 97). Being Indian isn’t an exclusive club, it’s not some higher more enlightened life. The good cannot come without the bad in order to really be Indian. The family, the culture, the traditions all come along with the pain, the sadness, and the cumulative problems your people face.
Alexie’s writing has a way of getting you into the actual lives of Indians on the Spokane Reservation. The way he writes casually implants in your head
the slang, the humor and the day to day lives of these people. He teaches terms like “Ya-hey” as a greeting and “enit” as a way to agree (Alexie, 12). These little things cause us to really make a connection with the story and get lost in the culture every time the book is opened. It is so important to get this type of exposure out to more people because once they have been exposed to another culture, they become more likely to develop a sort of respect for the people who live it. After reading this book, a much better understanding of the underlying issues behind problems on the reservation is reached.
A phrase that is constantly repeated in the book to keep everything in perspective is “the horses were screaming”, which references a story from the beginning of the novel. In this story, Big Mom listens to her children, the horses, as they were all brutally murdered by white men coming to rid the Native Americans from the land they wanted. The phrase represents the way whites have taken from the Indians, so every time one of the characters does or is subject to something that takes away from their culture, it is brought to the readers attention by this phrase. It’s a creative and powerful way to guide the reader’s thoughts throughout the novel towards the authorial intent.
Reservation Blues really provides solid information that discredits the false semblance regarding Native Americans and the way they live. It brings awareness of the difficulties Indian cultures face in light of the urbanization of the Western world. The importance of this novel is immeasurable because even if the reader doesn’t love the story itself, it still piques their interest and brings important issues to the table. Racism is real and can often be disguised as something else, but this unique perspective makes it all plain as day. The way Alexie writes makes the characters relatable and the story real enough to get in to, yet contain enough fantasy that there’s a certain mystery to the real Native American experience.