"Imagining the Reservation" starts with counterfactual history. What would have happened if Crazy Horse had invented the atomic bomb or, going back even further, Columbus had been drowned as soon as he arrived in the New World? Would the painful, violent history of Native American communities have been substantially different? There is no way to know, all one can do is imagine.
Alexie focuses on the power of imagination in this story because it is the greatest power marginalized people have. A recurring theme in Alexie's stories is the way in which mainstream culture in America colonizes the imagination by using popular entertainment. This is highlighted by the title of the story which gives its name to the collection: "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven." Native Americans have a long tradition of storytelling, but they continue to absorb Hollywood stories in which Native Americans are merely sidekicks to white people.
In "Family Portrait," Alexie shows that all the interactions and aspirations of a family on the reservation have been taken over by television. They take refuge from their lives in shows imagined by others, and even bonding rituals such as the father teaching the son to drive degenerate into discussions about television. Several other stories chronicle the continual mistreatment of the tribal storyteller, Thomas Builds-the-Fire. Instead of occupying an important position within the tribe for his imagination and skill as a storyteller, Thomas is a widely abused outcast, whose stories and visions are treated with suspicion or indifference. Therefore, although imagination is powerful, it is still a contested field in which Native Americans must continue to assert their imaginative power against an all-consuming popular culture.