illustrated portrait of American Indian author Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie

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What is the purpose of Sherman Alexie's short story "Indian Education"?

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In “Indian Education,” Alexie presents the hypocrisy of education on reservations in the United States. The story is told through the eyes of Victor, a Native youth who attends school on the reservation but switches to a white school before high school. By contrasting Victor’s experiences at his new school with those at home, Alexie shows the stark reality of life on the reservation.

Therefore, the purpose of the text is to expose the reader to the enormous challenge that Native children face getting an education on reservations. Not only is their education hampered by people who dislike them, but the white, Christian teachers often want to destroy their Native heritage. Despite not being a native boarding school, the schools on the reservation that Alexie describes still seem to abide by the old Indian boarding school saying, “Kill the Indian, Save the child.”

One of Victor’s teachers tells him that “her God would never forgive [him] for that,” and later we're told, “She sent a letter home with me that told my parents to either cut my braids or keep me home from class.” Despite what she might have seen as an act of charity to teach the Native children, she acted like a colonizer with her religion and her culture. Not only that, but when Victor can do spelling at a junior high level in 2nd grade, she destroys the test because he needs to “learn respect.”

The image of these terrible classes in elementary school is contrasted with the education that Victor receives at the white high school. There are still issues at the “farm school,” but they are not the same—the girls there grow skinny because they make themselves throw up, while Victor is skinny because they only receive food from the government. Victor goes on to play basketball for the school he attends, and he becomes valedictorian—something that Alexie contrasts with his old classmates who can “barely read” or were given “attendance diplomas.”

Alexie uses the success of Victor to show the damage that reservation life has done to American Indians. While he succeeds because he escapes, many of his friends and family members are trapped and cope by drinking, huffing glue, or killing themselves. Victor’s success shows the reader just how unbearably tragic life on the reservation has become for Indians, and he links the poverty on the reservation with the sub-par education they receive.

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In the short story "Indian Education," Sherman Alexie offers summaries of the first 12 years of school (from elementary school through high school) for Victor, the protagonist. He doesn't try to describe everything that happens; instead, he focuses on a few vignettes that succinctly depict what Victor is going through emotionally at each stage of his education. His purpose is to show how difficult it is for a Native American to be raised and educated in the United States' public school system.

To illustrate the difficulties that Indians face in the school system, Alexie uses a number of themes. One is the discrimination that they face, not only from teachers, but also from other students. Another is the living situations that Indians face on reservations. Alexie brings this up when he contrasts the white schoolgirls vomiting to keep themselves slim while Indians remain slim because they don't have enough to eat. He also brings out problems with alcoholism, glue-sniffing, rape, suicide, and the need for students to defend themselves against bullies.

Despite so many negative experiences, Alexie also brings out a lesson about the ability to overcome adversity and excel: even though Victor goes through all these problems, somehow in twelfth grade he manages to become class valedictorian and win awards and scholarships.

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In "Indian Education," Sherman Alexie presents a chronological description of Victor, a young Native American living on a reservation in Washington. The story describes Victor's schooling from first grade through his high school graduation. Because he attended a tribal school on the Spokane reservation through the seventh grade, and then went to an off-reservation all-white high school, he juxtaposes the experiences to show the positive and negative experiences he had in each setting. Alexie’s wit and his blunt narrative style tell of the social and cultural pressures children face at school, from peer pressure to bullying. He is also able to subtly educate his audience about the realities of the harsh life on the reservation.

The juxtaposition is most clearly drawn in the final paragraph of the story. Alexie describes Victor's graduation as the valedictorian of the all-white farm town high school he attends. Victor says his “cap doesn't fit because I've grown my hair longer than it's ever been.” With his long hair he is retaining his Spokane identity even as he graduates from the farm school. However, Alexie immediately juxtaposes that image with one of Victor's counterparts on the reservation where his “former classmates graduate: a few can't read, one or two are just given attendance diplomas, most look forward to the parties.”

These vastly different images reveal that the purpose is not solely to describe what an Indian education might look like. Alexie is able to paint the picture of a child, coming of age as he straddles two cultures. This dichotomy will require the child to forge a new identity for himself after high school since he is not completely in tune with either the Spokane or Anglo worlds he inhabits.

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