The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Themes
The main themes in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are identity, racism and poverty, and hope and growing up.
- Identity: Junior navigates several issues around his identity, including the conflict between his identity as a Spokane Indian and his identity as a Reardan student.
- Racism and poverty: The linked issues of racism and poverty are constants in Junior’s life as a young man growing up on a reservation.
- Hope and growing up: The novel is at its heart a coming-of-age story, over the course of which Junior finds hope in kinship with different sets of people.
Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1397
The question of identity is extremely important in the book, with its title including the phrase “part-time Indian.” The phrase indicates Junior’s conflict between his identity as a Spokane Indian on the reservation and as a student in a white-dominated school. The conflict arises because the two identities have a complex relationship with each other. Further, Junior also feels torn between his identity as an individualistic person interested in art and the pressure to adopt a tough-guy persona. He considers himself an outsider even within the reservation because of his physical condition. Thus, Junior navigates several issues around his identity.
As a Spokane Indian on a reservation (rez), cultural and racial identity preoccupies Junior greatly. He is aware of the great historical injustices meted out to Indigenous people by white people, yet he knows he lives in a majority-white country. While other people like Rowdy believe Indigenous people should confine themselves to the reservation in order to resist white culture, Junior wants to venture out to explore different opportunities. This casts him as a traitor and an “apple,” as he tells Gordy: someone who is “red on the outside and white on the inside.” Leaving the rez school alienates Junior from Rowdy as well. However, when he enters the world of Reardan, he experiences another question of identity. Symbols of racism are all around him: the school’s mascot is a stereotyped image of an Indigenous man, and students call him racist epithets. Further, his nickname, “Junior,” draws sniggers, and the revelation that his real name is Arnold Spirit makes his classmates think he is lying. They simply do not understand the tradition of nicknames that is common on the rez. Junior is torn between his Junior persona and his Arnold persona.
Although Junior is aware that many problems on the reservation—such as poverty and alcoholism—are a direct result of Indigenous people being dispossessed and subjugated, he does tend to look down upon life on the rez. As the narrative progresses, Junior begins to see the vast gulf between opportunities available to his white classmates and his Indigenous friends. While the former are all set for an expensive college education, his Indigenous friends study from decades-old textbooks. At the beginning of the novel, Junior believes that white culture represents hope. However, at the end he realizes that there is great hope, too, in the Indigenous way of dealing with life with humor and celebration. The lack of hope is not an intrinsic function of rez life, but something imposed upon it by racism and lack of opportunities.
Junior now begins to see that the reservation is beautiful. At the same time, he has the epiphany that no person belongs to just one tribe. Every person has multiple identities. The identities do not always need to overlap or fit with each other, and one shouldn’t be ashamed of their affiliations. As his friend Gordy tells him, “life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community.” Junior learns to balance his individuality and his various communities.
Racism and Poverty
Racism is a constant in Junior’s life: early in the novel he notes that a white dentist gave him less pain medication for a procedure since he believed Indigenous people only need half as much Novocain as white people. The procedure was a multiple tooth extraction: Junior had ten teeth removed on one day, since “Indian Health Service funded major dental work only once a year.” Thus, racist attitudes and a broken welfare system work together to ensure Junior receives half the pain medication for a...
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single tooth extraction to manage the pain of a ten-tooth procedure. While Junior narrates the incident with bleak humor, the humor only highlights the fact that such incidents are a daily reality for Junior. Later, Mr. P, the well-intentioned white geometry teacher, tells Junior that their teacher training instructed them to “kill the Indian to save the child,” a metaphor justifying corporal punishment toward rez students. Mr. P is adamant that Junior leave the rez because he knows the system is designed to confine students to the reservation and make them miss wider opportunities. While racist injustices against Indigenous people may seem a matter of history, racial discrimination is all-pervasive and omnipresent.
At Reardan, Junior notes that even though he is scrawny, bullies are afraid to hit him because he is Indigenous and thus, in their eyes, a potential killer. Because the wider world displays such racist attitudes, many Indigenous people believe they are safer on the rez. However, the system does not provide many opportunities for economic betterment within the rez. These two factors lock the people on Junior’s reservation in a vicious cycle of poverty. Junior notes that his parents are poor not because of their choices but because they came from “poor people who came from poor people who came from poor people, all the way back to the very first poor people.” What Junior doesn’t say outright is that the very first poor people of his tribe were made poor by white colonizers who robbed them of their lands and systematically attempted to degrade their culture.
Junior does not romanticize poverty. He states that “poverty doesn’t give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor.” Poverty means a lack of opportunities; the more the intergenerational lack of opportunities, the harder it is to escape the cycle of poverty. Linked with poverty is the motif of alcoholism. Junior’s grandmother is killed by a drunk Indigenous driver; his father’s friend Eugene is shot in a fight over a sip of wine; and his sister, Mary, can’t escape a fatal fire because of being unconscious from heavy drinking. Alcohol is conflated with death and is omnipresent. Junior’s parents both drink, as does Rowdy’s cruel father. Junior realizes that alcoholism is rampant on the rez because people want to dull the emotional pain of poverty and dispossession. Junior’s observations take on a greater potency when viewed in historical context: it was colonizers who introduced Indigenous people to alcohol. Therefore, it is not a matter of simple choice or willpower to escape the cycle of racism and poverty.
Hope and Growing Up
The novel is at its heart a coming-of-age story, or a bildungsroman. Typical of a bildungsroman, the protagonist—in this case, Junior—has to grow up and attain some measure of peace after facing great turmoil. In Junior’s case, that turmoil is even more complex because he is an economically disadvantaged Indigenous young man. As Junior notes after a basketball game, while his white classmates do have their own problems, unlike the students on the rez, they do not have to fight to survive every day. Most of them do not have to deal with pervasive hunger, poverty, and alcohol-related deaths in the family. Thus, for Junior, the process of growing up involves not just finding his individual identity, but also accepting and reconciling harsh truths. As the novel ends, Junior realizes that he will have to leave the rez, much as he loves it. His guilt at leaving the rez will be permanent, just like his grief at losing Mary. He will have to live with the burden of racism and historical injustice while attempting to be fruitful and productive.
One of the key lessons Junior learns is that he has multiple identities, which he can use to forge bonds with other people. He notes that “sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms . . . And the tribe of poverty . . . It was a huge realization. And that’s when I knew that I was going to be okay.” Junior finds hope in kinship with different sets of people, whether it is his family, his peers on the rez, or his Reardan classmates. This differs from his early notion of hope, which was linked with whiteness. In the initial sections of the narrative, Junior jokes that only white people have hope. In this context, hope is code for opportunities. However, as Junior grows up, he begins to understand that hope comes in many shapes and forms.