The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven deals primarily with the Native American quest for identity. The characters in the stories constantly run up against what it means to be an American and an Indian, with the twentieth century cultural icons of soft drinks, television, and convenience stores played off against the Native American values of family, community, and tradition.
In the story “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” Victor lives with a white woman in Seattle, and the story chronicles the inevitable failure of the relationship as well as the suspicion he faces and the dislocation he feels in the city. In “Crazy Horse Dreams,” the question becomes one of trying to live up to the model of an ideal Indian. Victor’s relationship with an unnamed Indian woman fails because she wants the ideal. She is “waiting for Crazy Horse,” while Victor finds that he must tread the steeper path of being “just another Indian.” The broader issue of the Native American quest for a cultural identity is also a major theme of these stories. The Indian society portrayed here is caught between two worlds. On one hand, Indians desire the modern America of fancy cars and cable television, even though they realize that this is a world in which they will never feel at home. At the same time, they feel a mixed nostalgia and embarrassment toward the pull of their Native American heritage and the ingrained values and traditions of thousands of years. This double ambivalence stops the characters in their tracks at every turn.
Alexie pulls these complex emotions together in simple symbolic sentences. For example, in “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” Thomas, the storyteller who annoys the people with his incessant historical or mystical tales and is thus the symbol of traditional culture, gets in a fight with Victor when both are fifteen years old. Alexie writes, “That is, Victor was really drunk and beat Thomas up for no reason at all.” Under the influence of the white cultural symbol of alcohol, Victor, the young Indian everyman, attacks the symbol of thousands of years of Native American tradition. Indeed, alcohol nearly becomes another character throughout the stories. Characters in one story measure their lives by whether events happened before or after they had their first taste of alcohol. Alcoholism is accepted fatalistically: It is simply part of life, an irresistible temptation. In a subtle but powerful scene in “All I Wanted to Do Was Dance,” Victor has recently been paid and is standing in front of the beer cooler in a store. A bystander comments that it seems that Victor has been standing there his whole life; another says that he thinks it has been five hundred years. The Native American culture has been corrupted with money and alcohol since the arrival of the first Europeans, almost exactly five hundred years before the writing of the story.
In spite of all of this, Alexie opens the door for rays of hope. At the end of several stories, characters are left wanting, or intending, to change the world. Other stories close with the family together in love, even if drunk or in tears, waiting for the future.