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The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

by Sherman Alexie

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What is the significance of the title "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven"?

Quick answer:

The title, "War Dances," is a metaphor for the continuing conflict between whites and Native Americans.

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Alexie's collection of stories portrays American Indian culture in such a way that it is simultaneously a response to the centuries-long marginalization of the indigenous people by the whites and, as well, a picture of the long-term effects upon Native Americans of what has amounted to cultural (and actual) genocide. The title alludes to the popular radio and television series The Lone Ranger of the 1940s and 1950s, in which the title character is accompanied by his faithful Indian companion Tonto. The last thing that would ever have occurred on the actual series is a fistfight between these two. Tonto's devotion to the Ranger is absolute, an unfortunate symbol of the Indian's subservient position with regard to the Anglo. Though the Ranger never mistreats Tonto, and every indication is that their companionship is genuine, the white man is clearly the leader if not the master. Looked at from the perspective of what actually transpired between whites and Native peoples over the centuries, the TV show is an uncomfortable portrayal of a dysfunctional dynamic, though sugar-coated to make it look normal and benign. So in his title Alexie is overturning this stereotyping and celebration of the white man's victory and dominance over the Indian by imagining a fight between them.

This is not to say that most of his stories portray open conflict between the two groups. Alexie's focus is primarily upon his own people in situations that are microcosms often of the overall tragedy of American Indian history. At least one story in the collection, however, is especially important to discuss in the context of your question about the title. "Distances" is a brief dystopian tale in which the white culture has been destroyed in a cataclysm, a fulfillment of Wovoka's prophecy. Wovoka, the late nineteenth-century leader also known as Jack Wilson, believed that the Ghost Dance was a means by which Native Americans could enact a rebirth of their people and would restore their former glory. In Alexie's story a Tribal Council decrees that any remnant of the culture of the whites must be destroyed. Indians themselves are divided into two groups known as the Skins and the Urbans; the latter, those who had lived in the cities, are thought to carry an illness and are discriminated against by the rural Skins. Altogether, however, the story is a post-apocalyptic tale of a world in which the whites' victory over and subjugation of the Indians have been reversed.

Yet the message of this bleak dystopia shows, if anything, that vengeance against the whites unremarkably fails to achieve a solution to the fate of the American Indian. The title of Alexie's collection of stories is a metaphor of the conflict being a continuing one, ambiguous in meaning like so much in history and in the human imaginings of the future. No one can say which of the two will win this fistfight, and the implication is that both are losers in the long run.

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The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie is a collection of interconnected short stories with recurrent characters. In the title story, one of the main characters, Victor Joseph, describes his deep-seated frustration as a Native American when he goes to Seattle to live with a white girlfriend and then returns to the Spokane Indian Reservation. The entire collection deals with the Native American experience both on the reservation as they deal with relatives and friends and outside the reservation in their interactions with the white man's world.

The Lone Ranger was originally a radio show and later a popular television program. Its main title character was a masked white hero who rode around the Old West fighting outlaws. He was accompanied by a Native American companion named Tonto who was always faithful and obedient and spoke only a few words of a sort of pidgin English. Many people, including many Native Americans, feel that the character of Tonto is racist and derisive. In effect, the Lone Ranger is presented as the master and Tonto as the servant.

In using the title The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie seeks to level out reader perceptions and give the two characters equality, at least in the afterlife. The idea is that though Tonto is subservient on Earth because he has no choice, in heaven he would assert himself and fight it out with the Lone Ranger, a symbol of white superiority. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Alexie once said that he hates the character of Tonto. Although as a child he would often imagine himself as the heroic Native Americans that he saw in films, he never wanted to be Tonto. He says at the end of the interview, though, that the reason he always hated Tonto is that Tonto reminded him of himself. In heaven, at least, imagines Alexie, Tonto will have the confidence to punch it out with the Lone Ranger.

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The title refers to a cultural reference.  In the 1950's and 1960's the Lone Ranger Show was very popular on television.  Many children grew up watching the Lone Ranger and his silent but faithful Indian friend Tonto.  The character of the silent and faithful Indian is ironic especially if you are Indian.  So Sherman Alexie names the books this to comment on the role of the Indian in white American society.  While on TV and in real society, the Indian is not allowed to fight with the Lone Ranger or disagree with him, Alexie allows this to happen in the title of the book.  In heaven, the Lone Ranger and Tonto fist fight.  Only in the realm of  other worldliness can this occur. It also represents the will to fight but yet the Indian's sometimes own inability to do this.  Many of his stories center on failed people, people who are suffering from alcoholism or are in other ways incapacitated due to their own actions.  Therefore the title mirrors the longing to fight but the inability to do so in this world.  

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