Summary and Analysis: A Drug Called Tradition
Thomas Builds-the-Fire: a key character in the collection who stands apart from his peers for his wisdom and his talent as a storyteller.
Junior: a wild teenager who plays the role of Victor’s sidekick in this story.
“A Drug Called Tradition” follows an older, presumably adolescent, Victor as he parties with Thomas and Junior one night on the Reservation. The story is told in the first-person from his point of view.
The night begins with a beer party at Thomas’s house and quickly moves to a wild ride in Junior’s car. The change in plans is instigated by Victor, who wants to take drugs and cruise for girls. He convinces Thomas to join in the fun by claiming that the experience will provide a chance to explore their spirituality, and thus, be quintessentially “Indian.” The destination is a lake on the Reservation, where the three experience drug-induced hallucinations, including visions of Victor stealing a horse, Thomas dancing naked by firelight, and Junior singing country-and-western songs.
As the three drive through the night, the action begins to shift between the imagined visions of the boys and the actual joyride through the Reservation. In the first imagined scene, Victor steals a horse under cover of darkness and learns that its name is “Flight.” In the meantime, the three boys continue to take drugs, tease each other, and laugh into the night as they near Benjamin Lake. The action then cuts to the second scene, a vision of Thomas completing a Ghost Dance in order to resurrect his tribe, which has been lost to smallpox. It seems that the dance is successful, for it ends with the return of the white explorers, along with the disease they brought to indigenous peoples, to Europe. The tribe dances “until the ships fall off the horizon.” At this moment, the visionary sequence is interrupted momentarily as the boys stop the car, only to resume again with a performance from Junior. He sings an anthem about Crazy Horse, the warrior “who helped . . . [them] win the war against the whites,” and dedicates it to the President of the United States. He imagines that songs such as these are so powerful that they can make “a thousand promises come true.”
The action winds down as the visions end. In the final scenes, the boys sit by the edge of the lake, and Thomas tells his friends a story. The story places the three boys around a fire, where they fast, dance, and sing in an attempt to inspire visions of their “adult names” and identities. The ritual succeeds, inspiring the boys to throw out their drinks and return to the pure state that existed before the arrival of alcohol, when boys became men by stealing horses rather than by partying.
As the group breaks apart, Victor and Junior tease Thomas about his story. He replies by admonishing them not to “dance with . . . skeletons.” Alexie interrupts the tale again with a clarification. The skeletons are the past and the future, which walk alongside each of us, just one step behind and one step in front of us. Although the skeletons might tempt us with sex, alcohol, and gifts, the trick is to keep on walking: to live only in the present.
At the end of the story, Victor and Junior sit outside the convenience store on the Reservation. They have a mysterious encounter with Big Mom, a woman who has visions and dispenses “good medicine” to the tribe. Big Mom tells the boys that she knows about their visions at the lake and gives Victor a small drum in case he needs to reach her. Victor imagines that tiny drum is the only sign of his “religion.”
This story sustains both the themes and styles of the previous tale. Alexie again explores American Indian identity, the primary theme from the first story, by merging events from both the past and the present into a single storyline. Yet, the atmosphere of this story is even more dream-like and visionary than the first, as the narration shifts repeatedly and suddenly between the...
(The entire section is 1,328 words.)