Junior ends the first chapter of the book with the line, "I think the world is a series of broken dams and floods, and my cartoons are tiny little lifeboats." A quick glance at this metaphor seems to reveal that drawing cartoons is Junior's escape from reality.
Looking at the literal, we find a broken dam leading to a flood which can cause destruction, and if there is a series of broken dams, it means the water and devastation continues to happen. But if there is a lifeboat, it means we can be saved and escape the disaster. Junior uses this metaphor to illuminate the importance of drawing.
Junior was born with too much cerebral spinal fluid which resulted in physical deformities. His ailments not only caused him physical pain but led to a childhood of bullying and hatred from his peers. Thi s bullying is part of the continuous flood. The chapter is titled "The-Black-Eye-of-the-Month-Club," which reinforces his daily battles of getting beaten up.
But by the end of the chapter, the tone changes, and Junior reveals his respite—drawing. He says he draws because "words are too limited," and when you draw, no matter the language, "everybody can understand it." It seems even though Junior tries to hide from the world and escape the bullies, he craves a connection to others that drawing can provide. He even states he draws because he "wants to talk to the world, and he "wants the world to pay attention to [him]."
This is how his cartoons become the lifeboat. Drawing gives Junior a way to escape his reality on the reservation and find solace from the "broken dams and floods" that seem to keep tearing down his world. We will see Junior use drawing as a coping mechanism as the floods begin to come at him with intense speed throughout the course of the novel.