Identity Development: An Inside Job

A story is not just a story when it is literature because it is filled with themes that connect it to a much broader world and utilizes elements that each fulfill a specific purpose, which ultimately conveys messages that reach beyond its pages. This neither means that stories cannot be enjoyable to read, nor that they should always be read to discover the larger social context from which it derives and or it suggests; it implies that there are often deeper meanings than simply what is contained in the sum of the words on the pages. For example, the title of Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is ironic because truth is relative and three pages into the story the protagonist Junior admits that, “I am not even writing down this story the way I actually talk, because I’d have to fill it with stutters and lisps, and then you’d be wondering why you’re reading a story written by such a retard” (3-4). It seems that Alexie desired to leave room for ambiguity and interpretation and for the audience to reach through the words to discover the crux of the messages contained within the novel. One such message is the dichotomous yet blending identity of poverty for Spokane Indians and the affluence of White-American-Culture through the eyes of Junior, who challenges the stratification of race and class, and confronts racism and resignation by going to a rich-white school to get a white education. Junior’s struggle to find belonging amidst the competing demands of tradition and education that are stressed further by racial discrimination and feelings of betrayal, ultimately suggests that belonging is not necessarily determined extrinsically, but rather must be determined intrinsically by confronting the either/or thinking that has predominated the perception of Indians, if he is to discover his identity and find his both/and belonging.

Junior’s identity is initially derived from his family, who are in a larger context members of the Spokane Tribe, and on an even larger context are Indians who share the identity of being colonized and forced into poverty. In the beginning of the story when Junior is describing his family and the life of Indians on the Spokane Reservation, he reveals the ugly cycle of poverty and identity determination:

It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you’re poor because you’re stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you’re stupid and ugly because you’re Indian. And because you’re Indian you start believing you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly cycle and there’s nothing you can do about it. (Alexie 11)

For Junior it is not pleasant to be impoverished because the poverty itself is the initiator of the self-loathing, which perpetuates a cycle of powerlessness wherein he associates his—and by association all Indians’—position in society as his fault because he is an Indian. Junior claims that his mother would have been a psychology professor and his father would have been a great jazz musician, if it were not for the phenomenon that, “we reservation Indians don’t get to realize our dreams” (Alexie 12), saturating the deterministic cycle. Junior’s identity was shaped by these convoluted, paralyzing and interdependent beliefs based on the extrinsic reality of Postcolonial Indians, which have culled into a tradition largely based on the fundamental feeling of despair; wherein to be an Indian is to be poor, without hope and guilty for the situation.

Junior later discovers that his identity and the identity of Indians are not just determined by familial and tribal connections and tradition, but by what the editor of Spider Woman’s Granddaughters, Paula Gunn Allen termed “educational warfare” (15). Junior’s discovery begins with an observation about his school and the instructors: “you can’t work at our school if you don’t live in the compound. It was like some kind of prison-work farm for our liberal, white vegetarian do-gooders and conservative, white missionary saviors” (Alexie 28). A compound is an enclosure for prisoners and in this sense it is also a metaphor for how Junior sees the school on the reservation, and the Indians are the prisoners who need to be saved from being Indian by the white missionaries—the teachers. Allen argues that for this warfare to be effective, “you have to have your enemy in captivity” and that the “Indian School System” boiled down to not much “more than concentration camps for young people” where they “are taught to view the world only through Protestant-derived, purist, Anglo-American eyes” (Allen 15). Alexie shows this after Junior threw his book at Mr. P, his geometry teacher, when Mr. P reveals to Junior the truth about the reservation school system and the missionaries’ objective: “We were supposed to make you give up being Indian. Your songs and stories and language and dancing. Everything. We weren’t trying to kill Indian people. We were trying to kill Indian culture” (Alexie 33). Thus, it is revealed to Junior that his and ultimately Indian identity was being determined through postcolonial-cultural-genocide, which was occurring on the reservations, in their neighborhoods, at their schools and by people whom they perceived as saviors.

Junior, because of where he was born automatically belonged to this group of people whose identity was being determined by nationality, tribal associations, family ties and cultural genocide, but when he questioned that system with the decision to attend Reardan, a high school in a “rich, white farm town” (Alexie 43), he violated what Beverly Daniel Tatum termed “oppositional social identity” (Tatum 60). The missionary, Mr. P, during the conversation when he reveals the truth about the reservation also shifts his position when he tells Junior, “you’re a bright and shining star…[y]ou’re the smartest kid in the school. And I don’t want you to fail. I don’t want you to fade away. You deserve better” (Alexie 39). Continuing, Mr. P says, “[i]f you stay on this rez, they’re going to kill you. I’m going to kill you. We’re all going to kill you. You can’t fight us forever” (Alexie 41). In that conversation with Mr. P, Junior discovered that he was not destined to be poor, that he deserved more, and that it wasn’t because he was Indian, but rather because of oppression that he felt stupid. But, Junior was an Indian from the rez, who was expected even by his own people to continue this “ugly cycle”—to be Indian was to be poor, stupid and ugly together—anything else was betrayal and a choice not to belong. Tatum asserts that this oppositional identity stems from “anger and resentment that adolescents feel in response to their growing awareness of the systemic exclusion of [subordinate] people from full participation in U.S. society” and that the “stance both protects one’s identity from the psychological assault of racism and keeps the dominant group at a distance” (Tatum 60). Alexie’s novel reveals this when Junior informs his best friend Rowdy that he will be leaving the reservation school to attend Reardan and Rowdy lambasts him: “I HATE you! You SUCK! You WHITE LOVER!” (Alexie 51). For Junior, like many other subordinate and subjugated people(s) who are not of the dominant class, taking part in the “elite” culture’s practices, such as education, and not resigning oneself to stupidity and poverty is to not belong—as Junior noted: “my best friend had become my worst enemy” (Alexie 51)—to the tribe any longer.

However, Junior discovers that he also does not belong to the Reardan tribe because his identity does not match their expectations either because Indians were either thought in the classical sense as savages or in the modern sense as stupid, ugly and poor Indians from the reservation. One of the first things that Junior notices as he enters Reardan is how he is perceived: “Those white kids could not believe their eyes. They stared at me like I was Bigfoot or a UFO. What was I doing at Reardan, whose mascot was an Indian, thereby making me the only other Indian in town?” (Alexie 53). Alexie reveals the propensity of society to be comfortable as long as everything stays in its place, as long as there is not a mixing of the cultures, of the ideas, of identities, but once that has occurred confusion emerges and social pressure is applied to the outsider to reinforce conformity. This of course is identity being determined by factors external of Junior, but that does not change the way he feels inside: “Reardan was the opposite of the rez. It was the opposite of my family. It was the opposite of me. I didn’t deserve to be there. I knew it; all those kids knew it. Indians don’t deserve shit” (Alexie 55). Junior could not belong at the rich white school until he was renamed, which is one of the primary conditions that Allen asserted in the discussion of compulsory Indian education, Junior became Arnold to assimilate into the white culture at Reardan. Thus, Junior/Arnold discovered a dichotomous identity as he sought to discover himself: “I woke up on the reservation as an Indian and somewhere on the road to Reardan, I became something less than Indian. And once I arrived at Reardan, I became something less than less than Indian” (Alexie 80). Because his identity was being determined by external factors he either had to be Junior on the reservation, or Arnold at Reardan, but not both.
Yet, because of Junior’s resilience not to give in to the social pressure to conform to the conventional perceptions and confronting the either/or thinking that has predominated the perception of Indians, he is able to make friends and discover belonging at Reardan. Chimamanda Adichie, the author of Half of a Yellow Sun, in an speech given on Ted Talks argued that the “Danger of a Single Story” is not that stereotypes are inaccurate, it is that they are only part of the truth. The stereotypes that Junior/Arnold faced and subsequently all Indians in America is the idea that Indians are stupid, ugly and poor and belong on the reservation. However, when Junior confronts his science teacher Mr. Dodge, and asserts that he knows more about “petrified wood” (Alexie 81), he challenges the perception that Indians are stupid. When Junior/Arnold starts dating Penelope, one of the most attractive girls at Reardan, he challenges the perception that Indians are ugly. And when Junior/Arnold makes the varsity squad on the Reardan basketball team and leads them against the reservation team, he establishes that he is not worthless. All three of these things combined assert that Junior/Arnold does not only belong on the reservation. In effect, what Alexie reveals through Junior/Arnold’s resistance and by inserting a subordinate people’s personality into white culture, is a direct challenge to the omission of postcolonial-conquered people in literature that Edward W. Said argued in the essay “Narrative and Social Space”. By challenging the stereotypes and the “single story,” Junior/Arnold effectively replaces the omission with stories of his own. The perception of Indians both for the dominant culture—White America—and the Indians of America was changed because now as the result of Junior/Arnold’s perseverance, a multi-layered story exists to contradict the stereotypes.

The “Part-Time Indian,” Junior on the rez and Arnold at Reardan was a dichotomy forged in essentialism, but the protagonist in Alexie’s novel, belonged in both places, with both peoples and at the same time neither individually. He was both Indian and intelligent. He also was both poor and deserved more, and this did not fit into any rubric they had in either place. Ultimately, Junior’s identity was determined from within himself and not from exterior factors. This of course is antagonistic of what Paula Gunn Allen wrote in the introduction to the anthology Spider Woman’s Granddaughter, concerning mixing: “This rigid need for impermeable classificatory boundaries is reflected in turn in the existence of numerous institutional, psychological, and social barriers designed to prevent mixture from occurring” (3). Alexie challenged this perception with Junior’s both/and position of the reservation and Reardan. Perhaps the best example of this is when Junior and his family are at the graveyard to clean the graves of his grandmother, Eugene, and Mary when he comes to the realization that he did not only belong to one tribe:

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 player. And to the tribe of bookworms…And the tribe of boys who really missed their best friends. It was a huge realization. (Alexie 210-211)

Through the struggles of loss; feeling like, being called and treated like a traitor; and self-discovery, Junior at last saw himself in a much broader context of belonging that was more than what the exterior could convey, it was an inside job. His identity—his sense of belonging was shaped by what he valued and what he enjoyed doing, by the struggles he shared with others, by loss, and by choice. It was not until Junior got to know himself that he truly felt he deserved to belong, and this is one of the many messages that Sherman Alexie conveyed in the novel, though albeit said, beyond just the words on the pages of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
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Alexie, Sherman and Ellen Forney. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. New
York: Little Brown and Company: Hachette Book Group, 2007. Kindle File.

Allen, Paula Gunn. Introduction to Spider Woman’s Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and
Comtemporary Writing by Native American Women. New York: Random House Publishing Group , 1989. Print.

Said, Edward W. Narrative and Social Spaces. From Critical Theory:A Reader for Literary and
Cultural Studies. Edited by Robert Dale Parker New York: Oxford University Press. Print.

Tatum, Beverly Daniel. Identity Development in Adolescence. From Why are all the Black Kids
Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? New York: Basic Books, 1997. 52-74.

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