The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in HeavenIntroduction
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, published in 1993 by Atlantic Monthly Press, was Sherman Alexie's breakthrough book. Comprised of twenty-two interconnected stories with recurring characters, the work is often described by critics as a short-story collection, though some argue that it has novel-like features similar to Louis Erdich's Love Medicine. The book's central characters, Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, are two young Native-American men living on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and the stories describe their relationships, desires, and histories with family members and others who live on the reservation. Alexie fuses surreal imagery, flashbacks, dream sequences, diary entries, and extended poetic passages with his storytelling to create tales that resemble prose poems more than conventional narratives.
The book's title is derived from one of the collection's stories, which details the experience of a Native American who leaves the reservation to live in Seattle with his white girlfriend and then moves back. The Lone Ranger and Tonto are symbols for white and Native-American identity, respectively. The names are taken from a popular radio and television show of the 1950s in which a white man, the Lone Ranger, teams up with an Indian, Tonto, to battle evil in the old west. Alexie, who claims the title came to him from a dream, studs his stories with other references to popular culture to underscore the ways in which representations of Native Americans have played a part in
constructing the image they, and others, now have of them. The book's popularity, in part, stems from James Kincaid's effusive praise of Alexie's collection of poetry and stories, The Business of Fancy-dancing (1992), in The New York Times Book Review. With Kincaid's review, Alexie, who had published with small presses, was thrust into the national spotlight. He deftly depicts the struggles of Native Americans to survive in a world that remains hostile to their very survival, and he does so in an honest and artful manner. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven won a PEN-Hemingway nomination for best first book of fiction and was adapted into a feature film, Smoke Signals in 1998, for which Alexie wrote the screenplay.
Poet, novelist, and screenwriter, Sherman Alexie has helped to reshape conventional images of Native Americans through his lyrical, yet blunt portrayals of life on the reservation. Born Sherman Joseph Alexie, Jr. October 7, 1966, in the tiny town of Wellpinit on the Spokane Reservation in eastern Washington, to Sherman Joseph, a Coeur d'Alene Indian, and Lillian Agnes Cox, a Spokane Indian, Alexie almost did not make it out of childhood. At six months old, he was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, which required surgery. Although doctors were not hopeful of his recovery, Alexie did recover, though he suffered from seizures during childhood. Alexie credits his difficult childhood with helping him to develop his imagination. He became a voracious reader and excelled at math. Later, and like many of his friends, he also developed a problem with alcohol. However, after a series of increasingly self-destructive episodes, Alexie quit drinking at age twenty-three.
Although he initially planned to pursue a career in medicine, Alexie changed his mind after taking a poetry workshop with Alex Kuo at Washington State University. With Kuo's encouragement, he began writing in earnest, and in 1991 when he graduated from WSU with a bachelor's degree in American Studies, he received a Washington State Arts Commission Poetry Fellowship. In 1992, he was awarded a National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship and published two collections of poems, I Would Steal Horses and The Business of Fancy-dancing: Stories and Poems. The latter was favorably reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, and Alexie's reputation as a fresh and vital voice in literature was established. His first book of prose, a collection of linked stories titled The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, published in 1993, was highly praised and won Alexie a wide audience. Alexie adapted the book into a feature-length film called Smoke Signals in 1998, which won awards from the Sundance Film Festival. Alexie received a Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Writers' Award and a Washington State Governor's Writers Award for the book, and it was also a PEN/Hemingway Best First Book of Fiction Citation Winner. Alexie is a prolific writer who also works hard at marketing his work; his recent projects include the novels Reservation Blues (1995), which received the Before Columbus Foundation: American Book Award for 1996 and the Murray Morgan Prize, and Indian Killer (1996), which was a New York Times Notable Book; his short-story collection, The Toughest Indian in the World (2000), was awarded the 2001 PEN/Malamud Award. Alexie lives in Seattle, Washington, with his wife, Diane, and their son, Joseph.
Every Little Hurricane
This first story of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven introduces Victor, his parents, and his uncles, Arnold and Adolph, who are quarreling during a New Year's Eve party when Victor is nine years old in 1976. The weather forecast is for a hurricane, and the narrator surveys the bizarre behavior of many of the Indians on the reservation, many of them drunk and angry, recalling some wrong that had been done to them. The story also contains a flashback to when Victor was five years old and his parents could not afford to buy him anything for Christmas. Alexie introduces the themes he will develop throughout the book such as the relationship between the real and the imaginary, reservation poverty, and the idea of memory as an index of social and individual identity. Victor is a fictionalized version of Alexie, as the author has admitted.
A Drug Called Tradition
In this story, Thomas Builds-the-Fire is hosting the "second-largest party in reservation history." The first was the New Year's Eve party in the first story. Thomas, Junior, and Victor take a ride to Benjamin Lake, where they ingest an unspecified drug and proceed to have visions during which they earn their adult Indian names by stealing horses. Events from the past frequently bleed into the present during this story, illustrating Victor's claim that "Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you."
Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play "The Star Spangled Banner" at Woodstock
In this story, Victor recounts memories of his father coming home drunk during the 1960s and listening to Jimi Hendrix play "The Star Spangled Banner." As a child, Victor would share in his father's drunken ritual, putting the song on the stereo as he walked in the house, and then curling up and sleeping at his feet after he passed out. Jimi Hendrix, part Cherokee Indian, was a Seattle-born rock and roll star who gained fame for his masterful guitar playing. He died in 1970 at 27, choking on his own vomit while being taken to the hospital, purportedly due to drug abuse. Victor recounts that his father's love of Hendrix played a role in the breakup of his parents' marriage, as did his alcoholism and desire to be alone.
Crazy Horse Dreams
In this very short story, Victor relates an experience he had with a woman at a powwow. He draws on the image of Crazy Horse, a famous Sioux warrior, to show how contemporary Indian men cannot measure up to the ideal of Crazy Horse. The woman Victor meets at a fry bread stand and seduces wants him to be something he is not. "His hands were small. Somehow she was still waiting for Crazy Horse."
The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Don't Flash Red Anymore
In this story, Victor and Adrian, reformed alcoholics, sit on their front porch, drink Pepsi, and discuss basketball and the reservation's rising star, Julius Windmaker, who, like Victor and other rising stars before him, eventually succumbs to alcoholism. The story ends with the two having a similar conversation about a talented young Indian girl named Lucy. Adrian and Victor hope that she can develop her talents and not begin drinking.
In this story, Sadie and Victor play a prank on an old drunk Indian called Dirty Joe, putting him on a carnival ride when he passes out. A security guard chases Victor, who runs into the Fun House and sees his image distorted in "crazy mirrors."
- Directed by Chris Eyre and winner of two Sun-dance Film Festival awards, Smoke Signals (1998) is adapted from stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. It is available at most video stores and many libraries.
This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona
This is one of the stories adapted for the film Smoke Signals. After learning that his father has died in Phoenix, Arizona, Victor decides to retrieve his belongings and his ashes. Thomas Builds-the-Fire offers to give Victor the money to make the trip if he can go with him. The two retrieve Victor's father's ashes, a photo album, and his father's pick-up truck. Along the way, the two reminisce about Victor's father and reach an understanding of one another. At the end of the story, Victor offers Thomas some of his father's ashes.
The Fun House
In this character sketch of his Aunt Nezzy, Victor recounts an episode during which a mouse crawls up his aunt's leg, and her son and uncle mock her. Nezzy becomes fed up with her son and her husband's ingratitude, and leaves the house to swim naked in Tshimikain Creek, refusing to leave even when her husband and Victor plead with her. At sundown, she leaves the creek, but she also knows that her life will be changed as a result of the day.
All I Wanted to Do Was Dance
Victor recounts a number of drunken episodes from his life and how drinking destroyed his relationships and led to an all-consuming despair. He ends the story by describing the day he decided to stop drinking.
The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire
In this fabulous story, Thomas Builds-the-Fire is put on trial for unspecified crimes, after he begins speaking following twenty years of silence. A man from the Bureau of Indian Affairs describes Thomas's behavior: "A storytelling fetish accompanied by an extreme need to tell the truth. Dangerous." The story contains passages from the court transcripts in which Thomas tells stories of white injustices to Indians from the nineteenth century, including an incident in 1858 in which Colonel George Wright steals 800 horses from the Spokane chief Til-coax. In this story, Thomas speaks as if channeling the voice of one of the ponies. In other stories, he speaks in the voice of those involved in the ensuing battle between the settlers and the Indians. Thomas Builds-the-Fire was sentenced to two concurrent life terms for his "crime."
In a collage of scenes, Victor describes the differences between "Urbans," Indians who left the reservation to live in the city, and "Skins," Indians who stayed on the reservation. He also describes burning down houses because white people had inhabited them, dancing with Tremble Dancer, an Urban, and assorted dreams about Indians from the past.
Jesus Christ's Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation
Containing elements of parable and allegory, this story covers the years 1966–1974 and chronicles the relationship between the narrator and an orphaned baby he adopts who takes on Christ-like characteristics. The baby's mother is Rosemary Morning Dove, who claimed she was a virgin when the baby was born, around Christmas. After a fire kills her and her lover, Frank Many Horses, the narrator adopts the baby, named James. A heavy drinker, the narrator quits in 1971 in order to keep James. The last three years of the story detail his life as a sober man and his growing relationship with James, whom he hopes will take care of him when he grows old.
A Train Is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result
On his birthday, Samuel Builds-the-Fire, grandfather to Thomas Builds-the-Fire, is laid off from his job cleaning rooms at a motel. Although he has never had an alcoholic drink his entire life, Samuel Builds-the-Fire drinks this day. He drinks so much he passes out on railroad tracks as a train approaches.
A Good Story
Quilts are used as a metaphor for the story's structure. Junior's mother, who is making a quilt, tells him all of his stories are sad, so Junior tries to tell one that is not. He relates a tale about Uncle Moses, and his nephew, Arnold, which ends with Uncle Moses beginning the very tale that Junior just told. This self-reflexive story underscores how storytelling helps to ensure the continuity of Indian identity.
The First All-Indian Horseshoe Pitch and Barbecue
This densely poetic story, the most upbeat in the entire collection, describes the event of its title. There are hot dogs, Pepsi, Kool-Aid, a horseshoe pitch competition, and talk of making basketball the new tribal religion.
Imagining the Reservation
Alexie explores the ways in which Indians use their imaginations to battle their culturally and physically impoverished lives on the reservation. His symbolic descriptions dart between "what if" fantasies of the past, memories of an impoverished childhood, and the reality of the present. As in other stories in the collection, Alexie peppers this one with allusions to popular culture such as television shows and rock and roll music. Addressing Adrian and writing, "I am in the 7-11 of my dreams, surrounded by five hundred years of convenient lies," the narrator underscores his belief that "imagination is the only weapon on the reservation."
The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor
The narrator, Jimmy Many Horses, who has cancer, describes his on-again, off-again relationship with his wife, Norma. She leaves him because he cannot stop joking about the terminal illness, saying that it is the size of a basketball, and that in an X-ray he could see the stitches on it. His wife returns to live with him at the end of the story because the person she was living with was "too serious."
This story is structured as a series of short descriptive vignettes, each depicting a grade in Victor's education, from first grade through twelfth. Recounting representative incidents from each grade that illustrate his life on the reservation, battles against discrimination, and hopes for the future, Victor describes himself as intelligent, athletic, and despairing.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
In this title story, Victor leaves the reservation to live in Seattle with his white girlfriend, who plays out the role of the Lone Ranger to Victor's Tonto. When the relationship sours, Victor returns to the reservation, stops drinking and finds a job answering phones for a high school exchange program.
This story describes Junior's family members and their propensity for storytelling. It bears a remarkable similarity to the story Alexie tells about his own life. Alexie structures the story by "translating" what people say into what he heard. Superficially, he blames the sound from the alwayson television as distorting words. However, the television itself acts as a metaphor for how popular culture and European ways have ruined Indian traditions.
Somebody Kept Saying Powwow
In this story, Junior, an alter ego of Victor and Alexie, describes his experiences with Norma Many Horses. For Junior, she is a role model who epitomizes the right way to live. She neither drinks nor smokes, is honest to a fault, is confident of her Indian identity, and acts as a caretaker for other Indians on the reservation, who respectfully call her "grandmother." She calls Junior "Pete Rose," comparing Junior with the baseball player who is remembered more for his gambling than he is for his record-setting career.
Witnesses, Secret and Not
Victor is thirteen in this story, and he and his father are driving to the police station so that the police can ask his father questions about a missing Indian, Jerry Vincent, who was supposedly killed ten years earlier. His father narrowly escapes crashing the car, after skidding on the icy road. At the police station, Victor's father repeats what he has told the police numerous times before: he knows nothing about Jerry Vincent other than what he has already told them. The father admits to Victor on the drive home that he was involved in a car accident once in which a white man was killed, but he was never arrested because the white man had been drinking. The story ends when the two return home and Victor's father cries into his food.
Adrian appears in a few stories but figures prominently in "The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Don't Flash Red Anymore." In this story, he and Victor sit on their front porch and discuss how drinking has ruined so many members of the reservation and cut short the dreams of many Indian teenagers, like Victor, who aspired to play basketball.
Samuel Builds-the-Fire is the grandfather of Thomas Builds-the-Fire and the main character in the story, "A Train Is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result." In this story, Samuel loses his job on his birthday and begins drinking alcohol, something he has avoided his entire life. Like his son and his grandson, he is a storyteller, but younger tribal members on the reservation have tired of him and do not have time to listen to his stories, and his children have all moved away. Samuel leaves the reservation to live in the city and takes a job cleaning motel rooms. Alexie illustrates the idea that the Spokane Indians are becoming more like Americans in abandoning their elders, and he suggests they are losing touch with their tradition of storytelling. The final image in the story is of Samuel passed out drunk on the railroad tracks.
Thomas Builds-the-Fire is a visionary and compulsive storyteller whom most people on the reservation ignore. He is a central figure in "A Drug Called Tradition," "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona," and "The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire." In the latter story, readers learn he once held the postmaster hostage with the idea of a gun. He is being tried for speaking the truth, after remaining silent for twenty years. During the trial he speaks in the "voice" of a young pony that survived a horse massacre in 1858, in the voice of the warrior Qualchan, who was hanged, and in the voice of sixteen-year-old warrior Wild Coyote at the Battle of Steptoe. Thomas Builds-the-Fire represents the Spokane Indian's link to the past and the traditions they are losing.
Crazy Horse was a mid-nineteenth-century Lakota Indian known for his courage in battle and for his fierce resistance to white encroachment on Lakota lands. He appears in "Crazy Horse Dreams" as a symbol of what male Indians had once been.
Lester Falls Apart
Lester Falls Apart is a comical figure who appears in a number of stories.
Named after two famous Nez Perce chiefs, Victor Joseph narrates a number of stories in Alexie's collection and is a primary character in others. Along with Junior Polatkin and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, he is an alter ego of Alexie, who often uses events from his own life as a basis for Victor's stories. Readers first meet him in "Every Little Hurricane," when he is nine years old and waiting for a hurricane to descend upon the reservation on New Year's Eve. The subjects he presents in this story—drunken tribe members fighting, poverty, unemployment, and humiliation—recur throughout the collection. He was once a basketball star on the reservation, drives a garbage truck for the BIA, and like other characters, he drinks to excess. However, he quits drinking after realizing the damage it has done to himself and others.
James Many Horses
James Many Horses is the central character in "The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor." In this story, he is dying of cancer but cannot stop telling jokes about it. As a result, his wife, Norma Many Horses, leaves him, only to return later because the next man she is with was "too serious." Like most of Alexie's characters, James is sarcastic, self aware, and fatalistic, joking with his doctor about his impending death.
Norma Many Horses
Norma Many Horses is a primary character in "Somebody Kept Saying Powwow" and "The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor." She is married to James Many Horses, does not drink, and loves to dance. For Victor, she is a kind of ideal Indian woman, who is deeply committed to her people and undaunted by the problems they face. People refer to her as "grandmother" out of respect.
Aunt Nezzy, a middle-aged cousin of the narrator who sews buckskin dresses, appears in "The Fun House." After her son, Albert, and husband laugh at her when a mouse crawls up her leg, she leaves the house in disgust to go swimming naked in a local creek. She is disgusted by the way her family has taken her for granted, and is taking steps to change her life. At the end of the story she tries on a beaded dress that is too heavy and buckles from its weight. Refusing help, she rises. The dress is a symbol of salvation. At the beginning of the story, Nezzy says about the dress: "When a woman comes along who can carry the weight of this dress on her back, then we'll have found the one who will save us all."
Junior Polatkin, named after a Spokane chief from the nineteenth century, is another of Alexie's alter egos, and readers first meet him in the story, "A Drug Called Tradition," when he, Victor, and Thomas (all of Alexie's alter egos in one story) take a drug and experience a number of visions during which they steal horses to win their Indian names.
In "Amusements," Sadie helps Victor put Dirty Joe on an amusement ride when he is passed out drunk.
Victor's father appears in a number of important stories in the collection including, "Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play 'The Star-Spangled Banner,'" "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona," and "Witnesses, Secret and Not." He is a hard-drinking, and at times emotionally distant man who nonetheless loves his family, and is idolized by his son. After he dies in "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona," Victor flies to Phoenix with Thomas Builds-the-Fire to retrieve his father's ashes.
Julius Windmaker appears in "The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Don't Flash Red Anymore." A rising fifteen-year-old basketball star, he begins drinking and loses interest in the game. His character is symbolic of how other reservation Indians have ruined their lives and dreams with alcohol.
Topics for Further Study
- Read Leslie Marmon Silko's "The Storyteller," and then compare and contrast it with stories from Alexie's collection. Describe how each of them describes the value of storytelling as a tradition and a survival skill. Provide specific examples from the respective texts.
- Research the relationship between the Coeur d'Alene Indians and the Spokane Indians and present your findings to your class.
- Alexie's characters often respond to the way in which Native Americans have been stereotyped in popular culture. Research films and novels for illustrations of these stereotypes and list them on the board. Next, construct a list of the ways in which Alexie's stories respond to these stereotypes. Discuss as a class.
- Alexie frequently describes how the Bureau of Indian Affairs has humiliated Native Americans. Research the BIA, and write a short essay about the ways it has changed in the last twenty years.
- Argue for or against the idea that The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven can be considered a memoir.
- The idea of the "authentic Indian" appears frequently in Alexie's stories. What does this term mean, and how is Alexie using it? Discuss as a class.
- Analyze the films Dancing with Wolves and The Last of the Mohicans in terms of how they do or do not perpetuate stereotypes of Native Americans. Discuss as a class.
- Research the Native-American ritual of the Ghostdance, and write a short essay about how it functions as a symbol in Alexie's stories.
- Compare The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven with its film adaptation, Smoke Signals. Discuss what is left out and what is included in the film and the possible reasons behind these decisions.
Postcolonial literature seeks to describe the interactions between European nations and the peoples they colonized. Alexie's stories focus on this type of interactions, showing, for example, the United States government's attempt to control Native Americans by occupying their land, and then placing them on reservations that are run with the "help" of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Alexie's stories illustrate the emotional complexities of living in a community torn apart by alcoholism, stripped of its larger social purpose, yet unwilling to assimilate the values and purposes of a culture that has oppressed its people for centuries. Characters such as Junior, Victor, and Thomas Buildsthe-Fire are frequently humiliated during their interactions with whites, especially the police, and often respond with anger and black humor. In the allegorical and Kafka esque story "The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire," Alexie illustrates the absurdity of his tribe's, and all Native Americans', situation as Thomas is sent to jail for life for a "murder" that occurred more than one hundred and forty years earlier. Alexie underscores the continued victimization of Native Americans in this story by symbolizing the unfairness of the American system of justice.
Alexie uses colloquial dialogue, paradox, and zeugma to effect an ironic, though realistic voice. He studs the speech of his characters with "enit," which means, "ain't it," and "eh," and other colloquialisms to illustrate how Indians speak on the Spokane Reservation. Alexie's use of paradox to show the contradictions of reservation life is evident in statements such as this one about Norma Many Horses: "Norma, she was always afraid; she wasn't afraid." Zeugma, the yoking together of two or more words in a grammatical construction to achieve a surprising effect, appears throughout the stories, and Alexie uses it for dazzling poetic effect. One example occurs when Victor says: "I walked back in the house to feed myself and my illusions." In this instance, he is using "feed" literally to suggest food, and figuratively to mean, "sustain his self-deception."
Psychological Abuse of Native Americans
Alexie details the various kinds of abuse Native Americans have endured living under the United States government. Not only have Native Americans had their lands taken from them, but they have also been forced to live in reservations and to give up their entire way of life. By forcing them to live on government handouts and labor at jobs that have little meaning to them, the federal government, in effect, has ensured that Native Americans will continue to live impoverished lives—emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically. Victor's numerous and ironic references throughout the stories to "five hundred years," alludes to the length of time that Europeans have occupied Native-American lands and reshaped how Native Americans see themselves and their relationship to others. Alexie especially focuses on the damage done to Native-American males who, because of their compromised traditions and the loss of their fathers to alcoholism, have no good role models. Many of the males in Alexie's stories are proud, but desperate. The bitterly ironic story, "Indian Education" illustrates how the educational system on the reservation, run by the BIA and missionaries, tries to strip young Native-American children of their identity by forcing them to cut their braids and punishing them for not knowing their place. Alexie also sprinkles his stories with anecdotes of racial discrimination against Native Americans outside the reservation.
In "Imagining the Reservation," Alexie writes, "Survival equals Anger X Imagination. Imagination is the only weapon on the reservation." What he means by that is that Native Americans have to be emotionally and psychologically resourceful to keep their sense of humor and their traditions alive in conditions hostile to their existence. Much of the imagination in his stories comes in the form of dark humor, a response to desperate straits in which many of his characters find themselves. Alexie himself demonstrates imagination and resourcefulness in the very way he has constructed the book as a kind of fictional memoir of his own life on the reservation. In an interview with John and Carl Bellante in Bloomsbury Review, Alexie refers to the characters Victor Joseph, Junior Polatkin, and Thomas Builds-the-Fire as " the holy trinity of me." And indeed, the stories are peppered with details and events from Alexie's life. For example, 1966, the year of Alexie's birth, is also the year of Victor's birth and of another of his narrators.
Alexie employs postmodern practices of writing to tell his stories. Some of these practices include weaving historical figures and figures from popular culture with characters created by Alexie. For example, in "Crazy Horse Dreams" he uses the Sioux warrior Crazy Horse as a symbolic presence to explore how the imagination effects ways in which people in the present respond to one another. In other stories, he uses Jesus Christ, Jimi Hendrix, the Lone Ranger, and Pete Rose as cultural icons that serve as touchstones of personal meaning. Alexie also challenges readers' ideas as to what makes a story by cobbling together diary entries, dream sequences, aphorisms, faux newspaper stories, multiple narrators and stories within stories to tell his tales. One of the most obvious examples of this occurs in the story, "The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire," in which Thomas takes on the persona of a number of historical figures, human and animal, to relate events occurring more than a century earlier.
In postmodern writing such as Alexie's, the lines between fiction and fantasy, reality and dream are erased, and the storyline—if there is one—is often blurred. Alexie also mixes tones, moving from comedy in one sentence to tragedy in the next. Such rapid shifts of tone create a playful linguistic surface that at times mocks the very story he is telling. Alexie mocks whites and Native Americans alike. For example, in "Indian Education," Victor parodies the Spokane Indian tradition of naming children, writing, "I was always falling down; my Indian name was Junior Falls Down. Sometimes it was Bloody Nose or Steal-His-Lunch. Once, it was Cries-Likea-White-Boy, even though none of us had seen a white boy cry." This ironic stance towards tradition, genre, and self permeates the collection.
The narrator is the person through whose eyes the story is told. Sometimes that person is a character in the story and sometimes not. Alexie uses a number of narrators in this collection including Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Jimmy Many Horses, Victor Joseph, and Junior. Though he primarily uses the latter two, by varying narrators, and using both first and third-person point of view, Alexie creates a complex portrait of Native-American life as filtered through multiple sensibilities.
Setting refers to the place, time, and culture in which the characters live and the story occurs. Alexie's primary setting is the world of the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, though he occasionally sets part of a story in Spokane or Seattle. He represents the reservation as a seedy and poverty-stricken place where despairing inhabitants spend their days drinking and playing basketball. If characters work, they use their hands, driving trucks, sewing quilts, or clerking. Their diet consists of commodity beef and cheese supplied by the federal government, beer, and fry bread, a traditional Indian food, and they live in houses built by HUD (Housing and Urban Development). Most of the stories take place in the 1960s and 1970s, when reservation life was particularly bleak, but also when many tribes began to assert their rights and lobby for more self-governance and compensation for lands taken from them. Characters both work for and loathe the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the arm of the federal government responsible for administering reservation life.
History and Culture of the Spokane Indians
As an enrolled Spokane Coeur d'Alene Indian, Alexie draws on his experience on the reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, to craft his stories. Approximately 1,100 Spokane tribal members live on the Spokane Indian Reservation located about 50 miles northwest of Spokane, which includes a school and offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The Spokane Indians belong to the Interior Salish group, who had made their home in northeastern Washington, northern Idaho and western Montana. "Spokane" means "Sun People." White settlers who moved into the Spokane's territories in the middle of the nineteenth century often skirmished with the Indians, and many from both sides were killed. In 1881, the Spokane Reservation was established by executive order of President Rutherford B. Hayes, and in 1906 land allotments were made to the inhabitants. In 1940, by an act of Congress, the United States acquired tribal land along the Spokane River for the construction of Grand Coulee Dam, affecting both the Spokane Indians' and the Coeur d'Alene Indians' ability to fish for salmon. The tribes had few avenues through which to challenge the government until 1946, when the Indian Claims Commission was created to settle claims filed by Indian tribes against the United States. The Spokane tribe filed a claim arguing that the government under-compensated them for land in an 1887 cession of land agreement. In 1967, the tribe was awarded a $6,700,000 settlement. Currently, the tribe owns 104,003 acres of land.
Many of the stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven take place in the 1960s and 1970s. These decades were rife with conflict between the federal government and Native Americans. Alexie refers to abuses by the BIA numerous times in his stories, including "Indian Education," in which he describes the blatant attempts by government teachers to humiliate him and strip him of his Indian appearance. Although Native Americans were, and remain, among the poorest people in the United States, their population doubled between 1945 and 1975, from 500,000 to more than one million. A number of activist groups emerged during this period demanding autonomy from the federal government and redress for past injustices. In 1969, a group of militant Native-American activists occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay for eighteen months, calling for the creation of a Native-American educational center. In 1972, thousands of Native Americans participated in the "Trail of Broken Treaties" march to Washington, D.C.,
where they occupied the offices of the BIA. In 1973, the American Indian Movement (AIM), a group founded to help tribes assert their rights to their heritage and lands, seized the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where United States troops slaughtered more than 300 Sioux in 1890. Arguing that the Oglala Sioux tribal government had been corrupted by its association with the BIA and that the Sioux had been cheated in the 1868 Sioux treaty of the Black Hills, AIM took hostages and demanded the United States reopen treaty negotiations. AIM leaders Russell Means and Dennis Banks pressed the United States to give back 1.3 million acres in the Black Hills the government had taken from the Sioux. They also argued that 371 treaties between the Native Nations and the Federal Government had been broken by the United States, and demanded an investigation. The occupation ended after 71 days, after a violent confrontation between AIM and United States Armed Forces who had surrounded the Pine Ridge Indian reservation. A few AIM members were killed and the government arrested 1,200 people. During the next few years, the Pine Ridge reservation became a hotbed of unrest and violence, as the BIA and the Federal Bureau of Investigation sought to root out "instigators" and quell Indian activism.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is Alexie's first full-length collection of prose and has been universally praised, both by reviewers and by academic critics. Reviewing the collection for Whole Earth Review, Gramyo Tokuyama describes the book as "twenty-two masterfully crafted stories of the human potential to pull oneself up from dark humiliating circumstances." Sybil S. Steinberg, of Publishers Weekly, claims "Alexie writes with simplicity and forthrightness, allowing the power in his stories to creep up slowly on the reader." Steinberg notes the inter-relatedness of the stories, and praises Alexie's ability to depict the rich complexities of modern Native-American life. Of Alexie's unblinking representation of life on the reservation, Steinberg writes, "He captures the reservation's strong sense of community and attitude of hope tinged with realism as its inhabitants determine to persevere despite the odds."
Comparing Alexie to other Native-American writers such as Louis Erdich, N. Scott Momaday, and James Welsh, all of whom have written both poetry and novels, Alan Velie writes, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven "establishes him not only as one of the best of the Indian writers but as one of the most promising of the new generation of American writers." In an essay for The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Brian Schneider argues that it is Alexie's voice that holds the stories together as a coherent narrative. Schneider writes: "Alexie's remarkable collection deserves a wide audience because of his original narrative voice, which mixes mythmaking with lyrical prose and captures the nation-within-a-nation status of American Indians and the contradictions such a status produces."
Semansky is an instructor of English literature and composition and writes on literature and culture for several publications. In this essay, Semansky considers the role of storytelling in Alexie's stories.
In oral cultures, storytelling is the primary means by which history and tradition are passed from generation to generation. Alexie foregrounds the role of storytelling in his writing, however, not only as a means by which Native Americans can keep their collective memories alive, but also as a way that individuals can survive the daily assaults of Eurocentric culture on their imaginations and sensibilities. More often than not, rather than presenting a chronological narrative of events as one expects in conventional stories, Alexie's "stories" evoke states of mind and grapple with the numerous and conflicting representations vying for attention in the contemporary mind.
In her review of the collection in American Indian Quarterly, Denise Low writes, "Sherman Alexie's short stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven could not have been written during any other period of history." Low is alluding not only to the numerous references Alexie makes to popular culture such as 7-11 stores, television shows, and baseball celebrities such as Pete Rose, but also to the peculiar condition in which Native Americans find themselves in the late twentieth century, having to constantly renegotiate their identity among the welter of conflicting signs that saturate their lives.
These signs are everywhere, in the image of Indians on television shows such as The Lone Ranger, in history books and in popular movies like Dances With Wolves, that attempt to portray "real" Indians, and they exist in the tribal lore that inhabits the imagination of Native Americans themselves. Living on the reservation, segregated from white American culture at large, but vulnerable to its relentless sign system and its (mis)representations of Indians, Alexie's characters battle to achieve some sense of authenticity in a world where that very notion has become suspect. The fractured narratives and stories inside stories emphasize the desperation and urgency that drive these characters in their search for meaning.
One way his characters cultivate meaning is by mythologizing the reservation and its inhabitants. In "The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Don't Flash Red Anymore," Victor and Adrian practice this brand of storytelling in their discussions of basketball talent on the reservation. They focus on Julius Windmaker, "the latest thing in a long line of reservation basketball heroes," who "had that gift, that grace, those fingers like a goddam medicine man." In his study of Alexie in Contemporary American Literature, Kenneth Millard writes that this story "establishes the reservation in terms of a community of shared hardship where stories of survival help to protect Indians from erosion and disappearance." Erosion comes from within and without. As more and more Indians leave the reservation, ties to community and family are broken, and those who remain must battle alcohol, a crippling sense of stagnation, and an increasing isolation from the "outside" world. Adrian and Victor retain hope for life on the reservation by building myths around gifted individuals. Seemingly insignificant events such as a few minutes of a high school basketball game take on epic proportions each time Julius's story is retold. By creating contemporary myths around living Indians, the two keep alive the hope that conditions can change and that individuals can transcend their bleak circumstances.
Mythologizing takes on other forms as well. In "Jesus Christ's Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation," the narrator adopts a baby, James, after its parents have died in a fire. The baby does not walk or talk until the Christmas of his seventh year. When he finally speaks, he speaks with the wisdom of an elder:
He says so many things and the only thing that matters is that he says he and I don't have the right to die for each other and that we should be living for each other instead. He says the world hurts. He says the first thing he wanted after he was born was a shot of whiskey. He says all that and more. He tells me to get a job and to grow my braids. He says I better learn how to shoot left-handed if I'm going to keep playing basketball. He says to open a fireworks stand.
Full of practical advice that counter ideas often associated with Christianity, James directly responds to the Christian notion that Christ died for the sins of humankind so that human beings may live, by telling the narrator that "we should be living for each other instead." By mythologizing James as someone who is more interested in helping Indians survive this world than he is in saving their souls for the next world, Alexie responds to the Christian missionaries who were so prevalent on reservations and who helped run their schools. It is James who literally saves the narrator from the ravages of alcoholism, as he is forced to give up the bottle if he is to keep custody of the child. Even Alcoholics Anonymous, which the narrator joins, is built upon the act of storytelling, as members meet to tell stories about how alcohol has ruined their lives and how they are going to stop drinking and change their lives. By listening to the stories of others and telling one's own story, members of AA derive the strength to stay sober.
The idea of salvation is at the heart of storytelling in Alexie's stories—salvation from one's own destructive impulses, salvation from the appropriation of Native-American history and traditions by others, salvation from the onslaught of technology that supplants human connectedness and colonizes family life. A year after he quits drinking, the narrator of "Jesus Christ's Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation," says, "Every day I'm trying not to drink and I pray but I don't know who I'm praying to." Storytelling is akin to praying in these stories. The act alone is enough. In "The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire," inspired by Franz Kafka's novel, The Trial, Thomas, after being convicted of absurd charges, finds himself on a bus with convicts heading to prison. After being prodded, he begins to tell his stories, just as he had done at his trial. Thomas is both a tribal visionary and a walking archive of Spokane Indian history, and in Alexie's ironic representations of Indian culture, a parody of the modern Indian who cannot stop talking about his Indian identity and his tribal past. In "Family Portrait," the narrator describes television as a force that eats into his family's emotional life, and something they need to be saved from:
The television was always loud, too loud, until every emotion was measured by the half hour. We hid our faces behind masks that suggested other histories; we touched hands accidentally and our skin sparked like a personal revolution. We stared across the room at each other, waited for the conversation and the conversion, watched wasps and flies battering against the windows. We were children; we were open mouths. Open in hunger, in anger, in laughter, in prayer. Jesus, we all want to survive.
There are so many similarities between the characters in Alexie's stories and Alexie's own life that the collection can also be seen as Alexie's attempt to tell the story of his life by mythologizing it. Such self-mythologizing has become a staple of postmodern writing and can be seen in writers as diverse as John Berryman, Mark Strand, Ann Sexton, Gerald Vizenor, and Mark Leyner. At a time when many consider literary realism to be antiquated and an insufficient way to depict how people live now, creating mythologies around and of oneself has become an effective and provocative way to depict reality.
Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Jacqueline L. McGrath
In the following essay, McGrath examines The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven as both a literary work and as an artistic cultural representation.
In Sherman Alexie's story, "A Drug Called Tradition," from his story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Victor, the narrator, speaks about what he calls the skeletons of the past and the future: "There are things you should learn. Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you … Now, these skeletons are made of memories, dreams, and voices. And they can trap you in the in-between, between touching and becoming. But they're not necessarily evil, unless you let them be. What you have to do is keep moving, keep walking, in step with your skeletons … no matter what they do, keep walking, keep moving …"
This idea about skeletons, or the hauntings and the remnants of tradition, and the bones absent of flesh, but animate and manifest, is metonymic of the larger ideas and questions Alexie grapples with in this work: that is, how can a member or a performer of a tradition negotiate the seemingly incompatible drives of that tradition—the desire to perpetuate, to conserve, to maintain an idiom and its meaning, but at the same time, to accommodate the need to innovate, to create, and to move forward in a tradition, and explode and shape its word power? How can a participant in a tradition walk with the skeletons and traditions, but walk and innovate at a pace that avoids being trapped by their embrace?
My discussion of Alexie's work challenges the dogmatic and conservative insistence that, while a written, authored work can be considered a folklore text, it is not and cannot be called folklore. This essay is directed toward both scholars entrenched in the study of literary texts and to academic folklorists who insist on conventional and conservative parameters for what constitutes folklore. My aim is to articulate an approach to this particular authored text which would prevent the incorrect and casual identification of folklore in literature, as well as any preemptive dismissal of its presence in this novel. By reading Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven as a literary construction as well as a work born of a particular culture and artistic tradition, I insist on a more complicated understanding of its content, shape, and meanings in a critique of folklore theories which limit and confine our concepts of the power and dimensions of shaped words. I also challenge the popular but simplistic notion that Native American writing is somehow more "oral" than other texts, and I combat in part the increasingly useless distinction between the written and oral manifestation of verbal art by relying on some ideas of Dell Hymes as well as John Miles Foley. Foley, who considers text a medium for representing parts of an oral traditional performance, argues in The Singer of Tales in Performance (1995) that a text (or the material written representation of folklore) cannot be declared something "different in species" from the oral tradition to which it is related, asking instead "how a given text continues the tradition of reception?" We can achieve an understanding of Alexie's text's reception and its place in a tradition, of course, by understanding the written representation on its own terms, by relying on textual indications of performance, and by learning or understanding the "institutionalized meanings" within the register of the tradition. That is, we can examine Alexie's text for its literary practices which represent those signals of performance, and then we can begin to seek a truer understanding of traditional meanings and ideas. Alexie, of course, relies on our readerly knowledge that we inscribe into his text, and then he uses literary devices that are both conventional and which subvert and d disrupt western literary principles. I assert, however, that besides easily dissecting Alexie's story collection and recognizing textual indications of meaning and performance, and beyond identifying keys to performance which indicate how this text might register with people in Alexie's folk group, I also contend that there is a kind of living dimension to the authored, printed word that cannot be summarily discounted unless we are unwilling to examine and enflesh our understanding of word power and a living tradition, and I argue for a more expansive notion of how folklore processes can be exchanged and represented.
Sherman Alexie, a Spokane and Coeur D'Alene American Indian, is an academically trained writer and political activist who wrote and produced the film Smoke Signals, based upon his work The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Born in 1966, Alexie grew up on the Spokane reservation in central Washington, and attended Gonzaga State and Washington State University, where he earned a BA in 1991. Alexie, who cites Adrian C. Louis, Simon Ortiz, Joy Harjo, and Linda Hogan as models, has published thirteen books, including seven collections of poetry. He asserts that his writing is primarily autobiographical: "It's fiction as autobiography, or autobiography as fiction, I'm not sure which one." This self-described life writing, accompanied by a skewering humor and scathing wit, earned Alexie a reputation as an ego-driven and opportunistic writer. In a feature interview on National Public Radio, Liane Hansen quotes a woman who grew up knowing the author: "What people on the reservation feel is that he's making fun of them. It's supposed to be fiction, but we all know whom he's writing about. He has wounded a lot of people." He has also been criticized by other Native American and non-native novelists for his position that only Native Americans can write characters who are Indian, and he is known for vilifying white authors for attempting to do so, particularly Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver insists she resents his attitude because it would "limit the scope" of most authors; presumably she resists confining authors to composing characters of their own ethnic and cultural background. Alexie explains, "I write what I know, and I don't try to mythologize myself, which is what some seem to want, and which some Indian women and men writers are doing, this Earth Mother and Shaman Man thing, trying to create these "authentic, traditional" Indians. We don't live our lives that way." I find myself torn between agreeing with his criticism of writers such as Kingsolver or Tony Hillerman, who capitalize on the popularity of the Native American novel genre and perpetuate romantic stereotypes in their characterizations of Indian people, and my own rejection of the impossibility of non-Natives studying, reading, and writing about Native American people and culture in ways that are not colonizing and destructive. I think, however, that Alexie's own work is important because of its consumption by a variety of audiences, and I attribute the variety of response to his work to the confluence of traditions and multiple registers he taps in the creation of his art.
What Do I Read Next?
- Alexie's novel Reservation Blues (1995) solidified his reputation as one of America's strongest writers. Alexie draws on the Faust legend in telling the story of an Indian blues band called Coyote Springs.
- N. Scott Momaday's Pulitzer Prize–winning first novel, House Made of Dawn (1968), helped pave the way for other Native-American writers such as Alexie. The novel tells the story of a Tano Indian named Abel who returns from World War II army service to his home in New Mexico. Momaday charts Abel's struggles to reaffirm the ways of his people while living in a world often antagonistic towards those ways.
- Megatrends 2000: Ten New Directions for the 1990s (1990), written by John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene, provides a social forecast for the 1990s, describing trends and their contexts, including the emergence of free-market socialism, global lifestyles, and cultural nationalism.
- American Indian Myths and Legends (1985), edited by Alfonso Ortiz and Richard Erdoes, gathers 160 tales from 80 tribal groups to survey the rich Native-American mythic heritage.
- Manners & Customs of the Coeur d'Alene Indians (1975), by Jerome Peltier, is a useful introduction to the customs of Alexie's tribe.
Alexie has earned critical acclaim from the literary establishment, but I find book reviews typically misunderstand the forces at work in his writing. Critics frequently praise his work as lyric, humorous and comic, and, of course, make use of the fabulous catch-all phrase critics use for any phenomena they can't easily categorize, "magical realism." In one review titled, "The Despair and Spirit of American Indians," Lawrence Thornton criticizes Alexie's work without considering its Native culture and political context, dismissing all its phenomena as postmodernism. Another critic, Michael Castro, says, "Plot and character, the classical main elements of fiction and drama, do not stick with us after reading these stories," clearly an example of a critic working from a Western literary aesthetic. Another critic, Gramyo Tokuyama, writes, "Using poignant humor he exposes the cultural demise of a nation steeped in sacred tradition and surrounded by a passionless society." Tokuyama, by identifying this as a central theme of the book, seems to venerate the romantic notion that pure and true Native American cultures would still be gloriously uncorrupted if isolated from the surrounding "passionless" society. Of course, Alexie provides a sharp critique of stultifying and isolationist traditional practices as he simultaneously skewers disconnectedness and apathy, demonstrating how these factions consistently intermingle. In Alexie's books, one society doesn't surround another—rather, societies disintegrate together.
Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko is the only critic who calls The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven a set of interlinked short stories, and examines its folkloric qualities, especially its traditional referentiality; nearly all the other critics treat each stow as a separate piece and judge it using purely literary vocabulary. Silko wrote a review for The Nation in which she explains how traditions of Native American oral narratives demonstrate a legacy of "lengthy fictions of interlinked characters and events" as commonplace. Silko's comment indicates the importance of tradition to the writing of Alexie's work, and she contextualizes his authored literature in relationship to oral tradition and composition, for, as Silko points out, the structure and chronology of Alexie's book does not reflect standard components of Western literature, because Native American literature has traditionally taken a different shape which does not necessarily include features like Castro's "plot and character." Silko also points out that Alexie is, in fact, drawing on a canonical Western tradition as well as a native tradition, and she argues that he uses ghosts sometimes in the same way as Henry James or Shakespeare, as symbols instead of real beings, as well as images from Indian culture. She suggests the way he writes about a small town is within the tradition of communities evoked in literary works like The Scarlet Letter, Babbitt, Sanctuary, and The Last Picture Show. I think the vast majority of critics cannot arrive at the same combination of Western and non-Western literary criticism Silko uses to read this work, as the relies on some aspects of folklore theory as well as her training as a literary critic to review Alexie's novel more responsibly.
Louis Owens, another Native American literary critic who examines the construction of third-wave Native literatures, relates the syncresis of Alexie's work to what he calls the initial problem confronting any Native American author. Owens argues that a Native American writer's art is initially problematized by its complicity with linguistic colonization. Owens writes about the complexity of the task confronting a novelist who would write about Indians and Indian concerns: "every word written in English represents a collaboration of sorts as well as a reorientation (conscious or unconscious) from the … world of oral tradition to the … reality of written language." While seemingly falling into the trap of polarizing the solely written and the solely oral composition of word art, Owens focuses on the political ramifications of negotiating these multiple registers. Indeed, after understanding the implications of incorporating one cultural form of expression—that is, Native American verbal art—with a literary genre that has historically and contemporarily dominated and oppressed it, we can more thoroughly comprehend how Alexie simultaneously disentangles himself from what Owens calls a collaboration with a tool of colonization.
Furthermore, Alexie's writing strives to subvert and critique stereotypes about Indians that are maintained by mainstream culture. At the same time, the artistic features of his work undermine the traditional forms of the novel and traditional character types and themes of literature. Alexie creates art that successfully exposes interrupts, and unsettles Western patriarchal notions about Indians and Indian beliefs. Scott B. Vickers explains this artistic innovation: "The most successful Native American writers have adopted the forms, but not necessarily the traditional motifs, of the Western cannon, and have often brought to these genres the distinctive story-telling traditions of their own culture." Alexie syncretically innovates on myriad traditions to produce work that is revolutionary and transformative, shifting the idiom of his work away from static fiction and toward a tradition of dynamic and audience-altering art. If his work is not conventionally a living performance and communal exchange, its deeply powerful and weighted expressive nature propels his work into an expression that defies containment, definition, and the limitations of existing scholarship to dissect its expressive and affective communicative ability.
Certainly, by relying on current folklore scholarship, we can demonstrate that Alexie's work is undoubtedly a folkloric text. While authored by an individual writer, inked and seemingly fixed, it contains idiomatic and metonymic words, "old-time" stories, themes, and characters, as well as keys to performance, including special codes, figurative language, parallelism, special paralinguistic features, special formulae, and appeals to tradition. We can sort through his work and pick out multiple demonstrations of this text's relationship to the folklores in which the author participates. Furthermore, we can uncover how Alexie percieves his authorial role in relationship to his membership in his American Indian community; Alexie is a master of literary convention, and the confidence he displays in interviews indicates he is in fact comfortable with the primacy of authorship; however, he explains his complicated role as one which depends on more than singular individuality: "I'm a Spokane Indian who just happens to be a writer. I'm proud of who I am, and it defines everything I do. I think all too often, brown people buy into the Western civilization idea of looking at the artist as the individual. That's only part of it. We are also members of tribes. Nothing gets me madder than a brown person who says, 'I just want to be a writer.' It's denying who you are simply because of the pressures white culture puts upon you."
Alexie refuses to extricate his art from its traditional and community context, and repeatedly claims his creative contribution and his tradition's creative contribution are equitable. Indeed, we can examine his content for the hallmarks of Native American literature and traditional narrative themes, including repetition, the "recasting of tribal narratives into modern day story lines, a certain admixture of sacred and profane influences, and the enunciation of tacitly Indian worldviews and personal experiences." These are certainly all elements Alexie incorporates in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and though the end product is a marketable literary work which conforms to canonical values (in that it is shaped like prose, has characters, plot events, a beginning and ending, literary symbolism and metaphor), the actual stories undermine many western literary conventions, in both content and the literary tactics employed.
To outline the work briefly, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is composed of twenty-two short stories; there is no conventional plot connecting them, but they are interlinked, much like Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, a storytelling style some critics characterize, because of the additive development, as inherently oral traditional. This collection is narrated from multiple points of view and replicates traditional pan-Indian myths such as trickster and metamorphosis tales, in addition to many other "old-time" themes and motifs. Alexie, who has also published two novels and one other story collection (Indian Killer 1996, Reservation Blues 1995, and The Toughest Indian In the World 2000), blurs the chronology of the stories and the collection itself does not have a dominant narrative or story frame, causing many critics to label this a collection of short stories (a term Alexie does not use). Two of the characters appearing most frequently, Thomas Builds-the-Fire and Victor Joseph, became the protagonists of the film Smoke Signals. Thomas is a nerdy storyteller who tells stories and seems to serve as a surrogate for Alexie while providing a running commentary on oral tradition in tribal culture. Victor, caught between reservation community and his own individuality, tries to present himself as the stereotypical warrior Indian, and is a habitual persecutor of Thomas and a harsh critic of his stories. However, and despite himself, Victor often enjoys, or is at least fascinated by, Thomas's stories, and on one occasion he wonders whatever happened to "a sense of community."
As for replicating orality in a text, Alexie consistently tries to evoke oral performance by addressing the reader and marking the beginning of a performance with page breaks and snippets of poetry or related traditional narratives. These tactics are Alexie's attempts at ethnopoetics, and change the appearance of the text on the page, dividing the prose into a form that is interrupted and perhaps even conversational. For instance, one performative technique Alexie repeats is addressing commentary or questions toward the reader. In "The First Annual All-Indian Horseshoe Pitch and Barbecue," the story is told in first person, but at the end, a series of questions are posed to the audience by the narrator, a device repeated in several stories: "Can you hear the dreams crackling like a campfire? Can you hear the dreams laughing in the sawdust? Can you hear the dreams shaking just a little bit as the day grows long? Can you hear the dreams putting on a good jacket that smells of fry bread and sweet smoke? Can you hear the dreams stay up late and talk so many stones?"
Alexie addresses the reader throughout the work, informing us: "Now, I'll tell you that I haven't used the thing …"; commanding us: "Believe me, there is just barely enough goodness in all of this …"; questioning us: "Didn't you know?" These questions are intended to elicit my participation in the telling of the story, as I pause and respond, in my mind or out loud. The call for reader response goes far beyond the provincial "dear reader" that Western canonical writing invokes. Alexie also incorporates specialized language that is reflective of current Indian lexicon, but is also recognizable to readers who are outside the tradition, including the formula "enit," a word used to punctuate sentences which has multiple meanings depending on context, including "true," "yes," "alright," among others. But Alexie refuses to define or explain this usage, insisting that we decode it by visiting for a time in the presence of his Indian characters.
Besides picking out the keys to performance articulated by oral traditional theories, we can locate other evidence that Alexie is pushing toward a kind of "new" tradition. Evidence of innovation on both traditional narratives and the traditions of print journalism is developed by Alexie in newspaper stories throughout the work. First, after the murder trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the text offers us an article describing his conviction, a straight news story in the Spokesman Review, presumably written by a non-Native journalist, with quotes from all parties and conforming to the style and expected uninterpreted content of conventional journalism. Later, we are given another news clipping, this time written by Norma, a reservation Indian, about a basketball game. She reports, "He hit a three thousand foot jumper at the buzzer …" "I think he was Crazy Horse for just a second," said an anonymous and maybe-just-a-little-crazy-themselves source …" Alexie seems to be innovating, through Norma, on both the conventions of print journalism and the traditional hero motif. The contrast between the "straight" news and the more mythic rendering of the Indian-created news suggests the latter is a socially created text which changes between event and transmission, a representation of a dynamism not present in the straight news. Perhaps Alexie recreates a newspaper article in two separate stories to demonstrate the differences between two disparate traditions for recording an event. These two versions indicate that the community news story is a kind of folklore, based on an event and interpreted in a traditional manner by a storyteller who is a member of the oral collective.
The most interesting innovation on a traditional figure is the development of the character Thomas Builds-the-Fire, for as Alexie himself explains in an interview, "Thomas explodes the myth and stereotype about the huge, stoic, warrior Indian. He's the exact opposite of what people have come to expect—the idea of an Indian geek just doesn't happen. He's something of a trickster figure, sort of a coyote figure, and he's mythological in that sense. He's always subverting convention, not only Indian conventions about Indians but white conventions about Indians." Thomas is in many ways very humorous, and the fact that he is a disregarded storyteller who cheerfully tries to maintain the oral tradition of his community, but who frequently offers stories which incorporate new themes, figures, and formula in traditional material, seems to be Alexie's vehicle for commenting on and manifesting the complications of oral tradition. Certainly, the work suggests that Thomas Builds-the-Fire is NOT a valued conduit of tradition; as Victor explains to us, "Thomas was a storyteller that nobody wanted to listen to … Nobody talked to Thomas anymore because he told the same damn stories over and over again."
In his innovative creation of a literary work Alexie has crafted stories which illustrate the tensions within living traditions (both the oral tradition in which he participates, as well as the literary tradition of authored text). Through his "new-time" storyteller, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Alexie complicatedly both rages against and replicates what is static and conservative about an oral tradition and what results from that stasis in his Native American community. Through his treatment of Thomas he suggests that stasis of tradition is part of what continues to oppress and cripple American Indians socially and economically. At the same time, Alexie offers ideas about both the value and the problematic nature of innovation according to tradition—the very innovation needed to overcome the results and effects of stasis is frightening because it is change, and it is new and unrecognizable. This is a fear illustrated in the characters of Norma, an American Indian woman who rejects alcoholism and unemployment, and who fancydances as well as she boogies. The innovation according to tradition in her own life makes her declare, "Every one of our elders who dies takes a piece of our past away … and that hurts more because I don't know how much of a future we have." This fear of the new and its impact is manifest in the character of one unnamed narrator, who hopes for innovation but questions its possibility: "Driving home, I heard the explosion of a house catching fire and thought it was a new stow born…. But…. it's the same old story, whis pered past the same false teeth. How can we imagine a new language … and a new life when a pocketful of quarters weighs our possibilities down?" The question for Alexie often seems to be whether the risk and the imperative of innovation on tradition, and the radical and revolutionary disruption his work can wreak on readers who belong to the dominant culture as well as on American Indians is worth the seeming loss or decay of oral tradition and traditional meaning.
In his article "Custer and Linguistic Anthropology," Dell Hymes declares, "One can believe, I do believe, that about the dry bones of print, words heaped up in paragraphs, something of the original spirit lingers. That spirit need not be lost to comprehension, respect, and appreciation. We are not able to revive by singing, or stepping over a text five times, but by patient surrender to what a text has to say, in the way it has to say it, something of life can again become incarnate." Hymes, of course, is arguing for the value in reading and studying the textual remnants of folk traditions, believing that manuscript forms may retain certain keys to performance which allow us to tap into how a text means.
This same idea can be applied to literary works like Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, but I would venture to say that beyond the embodiment of literature or collected texts with traditional meaning lies the prospect that the revivification of the "dry bones" of words incarnates more than the spirit of a living tradition. Those words, I assert, are more than dry bones, but are important genetic material, if you will—those words contain something of the humanity of the person who commits those words to text. I challenge us to expand—to explode—our ideas about what the word is and how it means. I assert that an electronic medium, or inked, printed text retains some essence or skeleton of the human being who committed the text to fixity. We must wonder if the medium of printed text is as limited as we insist. Native American literary critic Scott B. Vickers explains that, "For Native Americans, writing is an opportunity to re-invoke the poetry of the oral tradition, and thus a whole new cultural ethos, so that oral tradition can once again flourish in a new medium and even change the medium itself." I think, as writers like Sherman Alexie try to innovate on the medium of printed, fixed literature, so too can folklorists innovate on their conventional understanding of the power of text on a page.
Can we argue, then, that when writers like Alexie innovate on both literary conventions and oral traditional narrative conventions, his work becomes caught in "flux," much as, perhaps, our understanding of folklore in literature is? I challenge us to make room for a vision of folklore as a phenomena so powerful and ephemeral that it can transcend the confines of written text in ways we cannot collect and explicitly describe, but the recognition of that possibility, that step over the bones, may open a world of life incarnate that exists too deeply to be seen or touched, but can only be known.
Source: Jacqueline L. McGrath, "'The Same Damn Stories': Exploring a Variation on Tradition in Sherman Alexie's The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," in Southern Folklore, Vol. 57, No. 2, 2000, pp. 94–105.
Alexie, Sherman, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1993.
Bellante, Carl, and John Bellante, "Sherman Alexie, Literary Rebel," in Bloomsbury Review, No. 14, May–June 1994, pp. 14–15, 26.
Low, Denise, Review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 1, Winter 1996, p. 123.
Millard, Kenneth, Contemporary American Fiction, Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 96–103.
Schneider, Brian, Review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 13, No. 3, Fall 1993, pp. 237–38.
Steinberg, Sybil S., Review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 29, July 19, 1993, p. 235.
Tokuyama, Gramyo, Review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, in Whole Earth Review, No. 86, Fall 1995, p. 57.
Velie, Alan R., Review of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, in World Literature Today, Vol. 68, No. 2, Spring 1996, pp. 407–408.
Cline, Lynn, "About Sherman Alexie," in Ploughshares, Vol. 26, Issue 4, Winter 2000, pp. 197–202.
Cline's essay succinctly covers the major developments in Alexie's life and writing career.
Donahue, Peter, "New Warriors, New Legends: Basketball in Three Native American Works of Fiction," in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2, Spring 1997.
Donahue discusses the significance of basketball in Native-American culture in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and Reservation Blues.
Hirschfelder, Arlene, and Martha Kreipe de Montano, The Native American Almanac: A Portrait of Native America Today, Prentice Hall General Reference, 1993.
This useful reference book includes history of Indian and white relations, Native Americans today, treaties, tribal governments, languages, education, religion, games and sports, and Native Americans in film and video.
McFarland, Ron, "Sherman Alexie," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 206: Twentieth-Century American Western Writers, First Series, edited by Richard H. Cracroft, The Gale Group, 1999, pp. 3–10.
McFarland provides a thorough overview of Alexie's writing and life.
Waldman, Carl, Who Was Who in Native American History, Facts on File Publications, 1990.
Alexie occasionally makes references to Native-American heroes from history. This book provides biographies of Indians and non-Indians important in Indian history, from early contact through 1900.