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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

by Sherman Alexie

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What are the artifacts in Arnold's life on the reservation and off the reservation in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian?

The setting of this novel is on a Native American reservation in the Pacific Northwest. The characters include Arnold Spirit, Rowdy Papperman, Mr. Papperman, Grandpa and Grandma, Junior Peacock, and others.

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An artifact is an object that carries cultural value or interest. There are several in the novel.

For Arnold, the diary itself is the most important artifact. In it, he makes keen observations both about reservation life and "white life." It is through this journal that he can process the thoughts he has about each and come to important decisions about his future trajectory. In it he describes important cultural rituals, and this allows him to reflect on these. It is also an artifact of his coming-of-age and the struggles he experiences growing up with the extreme limitations that he and his family experience.

The textbook is an important artifact that is on the reservation. When Arnold receives the same obviously outdated textbook that his own mother used at the same reservation school, it represents the sad state of reservation education and is an impetus (among other things) for him to leave and go to Reardon (the "white school").

Turtle Lake, although not technically an artifact by definition, is another thing that carries cultural and historical importance on the reservation. It reflects a story of his people, but it takes on new meaning for Arnold and Rowdy, as this is where they find common ground and rekindle their friendship.

Other possible artifacts include Arnold's glasses and the polyester suit. Consider what these could mean in a cultural or historical context.

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The artifacts of Arnold's life on the reservation include thick, ugly, black glasses provided by the Indian Health Service, an empty refrigerator, occasional buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, his father's rifle (used to kill his sick mutt, Oscar), a polyester suit that belonged to his father, an old geometry book that belonged to his mother, and, according to him, a singsong accent. Another artifact of his life on the reservation is feeling hopeless.

In Reardan, off the reservation, Arnold has a school library filled with books (including plays by Euripides, which Arnold's friend, Gordy, gives him), a computer room at school filled with computers, forty dollars (the amount of money the football player Roger gives him), a homemade valentine he makes for his girlfriend Penelope, and a really good report card. Off the reservation, he feels surrounded by people with hope. 

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What are the artifacts in Arnold's life on the reservation and off the reservation in the novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian? Thanks to the brilliance of author Sherman Alexie, there are many artifacts. One starts with the protagonist's name. On the reservation, he is Junior, like so many other Indian children. In Reardan, he is called Arnold Spirit. As Junior relates his life to A Tale of Two Cities, the reservation is “the worst of times” and Reardan is “the best of times.” On the reservation, Junior’s best friend is Rowdy, whose name reflects his violent tendencies. In Reardan, he managed to become friends with Gordy, a boy as intelligent as Arnold.

The two worlds are diametrically opposed. The reservation is characterized by:

  • Hopelessness.
  • Abject poverty.
  • Alcoholism that often leads to deaths.
  • Hunger occasionally punctuated by a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
  • Powwows.
  • Poor education with school books that belonged to students’ parents.
  • Generous and rare gifts of $5, which usually mean a parent has forfeited getting drunk.
  • Hitching rides or walking to and from school.

Reardan represents hope, the driving force that leads Junior to make the momentous decision to leave the reservation to pursue a better education. His white girlfriend, Penelope, has bulimia, an addiction similar to his father’s alcoholism. Money and cars fly around freely, while white fathers blend into the background.

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