The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

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The Role of Storytelling in Alexie's Stories

(Novels for Students)

In oral cultures, storytelling is the primary means by which history and tradition are passed from generation to generation. Alexie foregrounds the role of storytelling in his writing, however, not only as a means by which Native Americans can keep their collective memories alive, but also as a way that individuals can survive the daily assaults of Eurocentric culture on their imaginations and sensibilities. More often than not, rather than presenting a chronological narrative of events as one expects in conventional stories, Alexie's "stories" evoke states of mind and grapple with the numerous and conflicting representations vying for attention in the contemporary mind.

In her review of the collection in American Indian Quarterly, Denise Low writes, "Sherman Alexie's short stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven could not have been written during any other period of history." Low is alluding not only to the numerous references Alexie makes to popular culture such as 7-11 stores, television shows, and baseball celebrities such as Pete Rose, but also to the peculiar condition in which Native Americans find themselves in the late twentieth century, having to constantly renegotiate their identity among the welter of conflicting signs that saturate their lives.

These signs are everywhere, in the image of Indians on television shows such as The Lone Ranger, in history books and in popular movies like Dances With Wolves, that attempt to portray "real" Indians, and they exist in the tribal lore that inhabits the imagination of Native Americans themselves. Living on the reservation, segregated from white American culture at large, but vulnerable to its relentless sign system and its (mis)representations of Indians, Alexie's characters battle to achieve some sense of authenticity in a world where that very notion has become suspect. The fractured narratives and stories inside stories emphasize the desperation and urgency that drive these characters in their search for meaning.

One way his characters cultivate meaning is by mythologizing the reservation and its inhabitants. In "The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Don't Flash Red Anymore," Victor and Adrian practice this brand of storytelling in their discussions of basketball talent on the reservation. They focus on Julius Windmaker, "the latest thing in a long line of reservation basketball heroes," who "had that gift, that grace, those fingers like a goddam medicine man." In his study of Alexie in Contemporary American Literature, Kenneth Millard writes that this story "establishes the reservation in terms of a community of shared hardship where stories of survival help to protect Indians from erosion and disappearance." Erosion comes from within and without. As more and more Indians leave the reservation, ties to community and family are broken, and those who remain must battle alcohol, a crippling sense of stagnation, and an increasing isolation from the "outside" world. Adrian and Victor retain hope for life on the reservation by building myths around gifted individuals. Seemingly insignificant events such as a few minutes of a high school basketball game take on epic proportions each time Julius's story is retold. By creating contemporary myths around living Indians, the two keep alive the hope that conditions can change and that individuals can transcend their bleak circumstances.

Mythologizing takes on other forms as well. In "Jesus Christ's Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation," the narrator adopts a baby, James, after its parents have died in a fire. The baby does not walk or talk until the Christmas of his seventh year. When he finally speaks, he speaks with the wisdom of an elder:

He says so many things and the only thing that matters is that he says he and I don't have the right to die for each other and that we should be living for each other instead. He says the world hurts. He says the first thing he wanted after he was born was a...

(The entire section is 5,503 words.)