illustration of main character, Junior, holding a basketball and looking over his shoulder

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

by Sherman Alexie

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What lessons does Junior learn about poverty in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian?

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One of the lessons that Junior learns about poverty is that it's closely related to his ethnicity. Living on a reservation with other Native Americans teaches him early on that people like him are at the bottom of society, with a chronic lack of educational and employment opportunities.

In keeping with their lowly status in society, Native-Americans are palmed off with second-rate public services. Junior discovers this when he has to go to the dentist. He has ten extra teeth which would normally be removed over the course of several appointments. However, because Indian Health Services only does major dental work once a year Junior has to have all his extra teeth pulled out in one particularly painful session.

As well as substandard health care, Junior also experiences poor-quality education. The school that Junior attends is chronically underfunded and lacks facilities that schools outside the reservation take for granted. Worse still, Junior and his classmates are expected to work with old, outdated textbooks that their parents used when they were at school. Junior is so angry to discover his mother's name written inside an old geometry textbook that he throws it straight at his teacher, Mr. P.

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What does the Junior learn about poverty?

In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Junior learns about poverty through his experiences living on the reservation and attending school in town. While he is growing up amidst others who are largely in the same situation as his family, Junior understands that they are all poor. The lived experience of poverty means that the Native American families have low incomes and often work at poorly paid jobs. Not only can they not afford luxuries, they often struggle just to buy necessities. But because being poor is not uncommon and Junior has no basis of comparison, he does not understand the full weight of “poverty.”

In high school, based on the advice of a teacher, Junior transfers to a different school, with a predominantly white student body and located in a predominantly white neighborhood of the town that the reservation borders. Here he experiences racism to a previously unknown degree, but he also finds acceptance through his creativity and sports skills. However, the income gap is vast and the other students’ concept of needs versus wants is very far from his own. He cannot afford to buy a suit, for example, to attend a formal dance. At Halloween, he tries to collect money for “the homeless” like a white girl is doing, infuriating the reservation residents who think he is mocking them for their poverty. From his new vantage point, Junior sees that his people are far more disadvantaged than he had even dreamed.

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