abstract illustration of several people and items: a woman wading through a river, a Native American man in traditional headdress, bottles of alcohol, a sedan, a basketball, and a pair of eyes

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

by Sherman Alexie

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How does Sherman Alexie use symbolism in "Distances"?

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Sherman Alexie uses symbolism to imply that the Native Americans hope that a flood will cleanse the earth of all white people. He also implies that the white people's technology and way of life has become a poison, killing old tribal members.

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The short story "Distances" reads like a dream narrative, or a Salvador Dali painting. It is packed with symbols, many of them surreal and obscure.

In the opening text, attributed to "Wovoka, the Paiute Ghost Dance Messiah," there is a prediction of a "big flood" which drowns all white people....

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From the perspective of a Native American community, this flood might symbolize retribution, or cleansing. Much like the flood that God sent to cleanse the earth in the biblical story of Noah's Ark, the flood here might symbolize the flood that some of the Native Americans hope will cleanse the earth of the white people who have for so long been their oppressors.

Later in the story, the narrator references "a single plant, a black flower, in the shadow of Little Falls Dam." This flower, solitary and seemingly fragile, could symbolize the fragility of a new hope that the Native Americans have. The symbol is rather pessimistic, given that the flower is in the shadow of the Little Falls Dam, and so is unlikely to get the sun it needs to grow.

The narrator refers to the old people who all suddenly die, and the tribal Council's diagnosis that the old people are poisoned with "the white man's disease in their blood." This "disease" is symbolic of the time that these old people have spent living in a more materialistic, 'white man's world.' They have spent so long living in this other world that it has, metaphorically, got into their blood, and is now a poison that is killing them from the inside. This "disease" is then represented with another symbol, namely "a wristwatch that has fallen between their ribs, slowing, stopping." The wristwatch here is symbolic of the technology and also the artificial construct of time in this other, 'white man's world.' This world (and its artificiality) has lodged itself between the ribs, where the heart should be. The absence of a heart here is itself symbolic of a loss of vitality and essence, and the fact that the watch has stopped ticking, like a heart might stop beating, is a further symbol of this loss, or absence.

Toward the end of the story the narrator has a dream in which he hears "the horses exploding . . . (and) the screams of children who are taken." This dream seems to ominously signal some kind of disaster, or is otherwise a nightmare rooted in the past. Horses symbolize the beauty and nobility of the natural world, which has perhaps, therefore, been destroyed, and children are often used to symbolize innocence, meaning that the screaming of children who are "taken" could symbolize the loss, or taking by force, of the narrator's innocence.

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There is a great deal of symbolism in "Distances" for such a short story.

The radio symbolizes the lost technological civilization. So does television, and the narrator's dream of it (and tears for it) represents the bittersweet relationship Native Americans had with such a culture.

The nakedness as they burn houses is indicated to symbolize them becoming as they used to appear.

The wristwatch also represents white (techno) culture, winding down.

The Skins and the Urbans are symbols of divisions within Native American culture.

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