single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie
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In This Is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona, how does Victor see the reservation Indians? How does he feel outsiders see them?

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The two main characters, Victor and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, in "This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona" by Sherman Alexie, illustrate the plight of the present day Indian. Victor views the reservation Indians in two conflicting ways. First of all, he feels trapped by reservation life. There is never enough money and little hope of advancement. At the opening of the story, Victor has lost his job and asks the tribal council for money to get to Phoenix to retrieve his father's remains. The situation appears hopeless, just as reservation life. However, Victor also realizes the "need for tradition." Thomas Builds-the-Fire represents the tribal ties, the need for the Indians to "take care of each other." This view highlights the necessity of the Indians to remember their stories and their heritage.

There are also two conflicting outsiders' views on the Indians. As Victor laments that no one has money except the "cigarette and fireworks salespeople," he realizes the naivete of the Indians, for as poor as they are, they still will spend the little money they have on frivolous commodities provided by outsiders. However, when the two meet Cathy the gymnast on the plane, a bond is formed between Cathy and the Indians as the gymnast and the Indians have both been "screwed" by the government. Cathy, as an outsider, shows respect and understanding of the Indian's situation.

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This story is narrated in the third person but some of the narrator's comments seem to suggest Victor's own thoughts. Victor has just lost his job at the BIA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He only manages to get $100 from his reservation's Tribal Council. A young man, he is frustrated with the general plight of Indians on reservations and having just lost his job, he is probably also frustrated with the United States government. 

Early in the story, he bemoans that fact that no one on the reservation has any money, except "cigarette and firework salespeople." So, the Council has little money to give. No one on the reservation has money (except Thomas). Victor understands that his people have been oppressed for generations, so he is still frustrated that his people are still so poor and helpless. He commiserates with them but is also annoyed. 

That being said, he does have some yearning to connect with them and to connect with their traditions. When he meets Thomas at the trading post, the narrator adds, "Victor felt a sudden need for tradition." This story presents the reservation Indians in a truthfully, complex way. Victor is frustrated by their lack of progress (at least financially) as a people, but he also still has a need for connecting to traditional ways. He is embarrassed by Thomas' traditional story-telling ways but he sees how Thomas can connect to people: Indians and outsiders. Note how he befriends Cathy on the airplane. 

The only indication about how outsiders see Indians is indirectly noted in the scene with Cathy. She complains that the United States government boycotted the 1980 Olympics and Thomas adds that she has a lot in common with Indians. No one laughs at this, so it is hard to divine what Cathy thinks. But given how friendly she was, her silence might have been a sad agreement that both she and Indians were/are "screwed" by the United States government. In fact, her silence might also indicate that the felt bad complaining since the plight of Indians is much worse than her own. Therefore, she would feel sympathetic towards them. 

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