abstract illustration of several people and items: a woman wading through a river, a Native American man in traditional headdress, bottles of alcohol, a sedan, a basketball, and a pair of eyes

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

by Sherman Alexie

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What is the purpose of the drug in "A Drug Called Tradition" from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven?

Quick answer:

Native Americans on the reservation have a complicated relationship with tradition, and the drug acts as a bridge to their past.

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In “A Drug Called Tradition” by Sherman Alexie, we are told the story of three Native American youth who try a new drug and go on a spiritual journey. The story centers around the main idea of “tradition” and its place in Native American life and spirituality. Many Native Americans have a complicated relationship with the concept of tradition, and it isn’t easy to remember many traditions because of how the US government and white settlers have decimated Native American culture.

The painful history associated with a culture that is mostly lost is why Victor tells Thomas that he is welcome to come along to try the drug so long as, “you don't tell any of your stories until after you've taken the drug.”

The story implies that Thomas is always trying to tell the cultural and historical stories associated with the Spokane—but Victor and Junior, like most Native Americans on the reservation, don’t want to hear them—except when they’re under the influence of the new drug.

The drug, therefore, represents a bridge to the past. While it is destructive, as destructive as alcohol, it allows them to repress the pain and disconnect they feel at the loss of their culture and creates a bridge to who they really are.

The spiritual journeys they go on that night, under the influence of the drug, show the importance of it to their self-discovery. Thomas explains the importance of the situation when he is allowed to tell a story at the end finally,

It is now. Three Indian boys are drinking Diet Pepsi and talking out by Benjamin Lake. They are wearing only loincloths and braids. Although it is the twentieth century and planes are passing overhead, the Indian boys have decided to be real Indians tonight.

They all want to have their vision, to receive their true names, their adult names. That is the problem with Indians these days. They have the same names all their lives. Indians wear their names like a pair of bad shoes.

Thomas tells their story. Of how they have come to find their past through the use of the drugs, and the drugs act as a bridge to find their true names, and to really become Native Americans in the most real sense—not just Indians who live on a reservation, but real Indians that carry on the truth and tradition from their past.

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The purpose of the drug in "A Drug Called Tradition" is to provide Victor, Junior, and Thomas with a connection to the traditions and past of their heritage and give them a deeper identity and spiritual experience.

Victor, Junior, and Thomas leave a party to use a new drug. Victor explains that the drug will be "Indian" and "spiritual." This shows that they are looking for an experience that will connect them with their culture. As they each take some, visions appear that allow the boys to see each other in different situations. A piece of identity is bestowed on each of them as Victor steals a horse, Thomas dances around a fire after small pox has wiped out his tribe, and Junior sings onstage about a man who helped them "win the war against the whites." The visions show them in exciting and culturally significant situations.

Thomas tells a story after the visions. "The boys sit by the fire and breathe, their visions arrive. They are all carried away to the past, to the moment before any of them took their first drink of alcohol." The visions are of each of them in a glorious state where they have done something dangerous, brave, or important.

At the end of the story, Big Mom gives Victor a drum to call her with like a pager. Even after she dies, Victor carries the drum for something to believe in. The visions had given him some belief in spiritual things, especially after Big Mom told him that she had seen the visions that they had seen.

The drug in this story is intended to offer Victor, Thomas, and Junior a deeper identity and some spirituality.

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A major theme in this short story collection is the way that indigenous American culture has been destroyed and annexed, leaving the remaining indigenous Americans culturally divorced from the wealth of their cultural heritage an struggling to find their identity in a world where they are expected to conform to white American values and principles. In "A Drug Called Tradition," the drug that Thomas, Junio and Victor take clearly is meant to restore this cultural heritage and identity to these characters. Note the nature of the visions: they earn their adult Indian names through the initiation test of stealing horses. The drug, therefore is a way of linking the present with the past, and also the future, which is something that is strongly suggested through the very fluid treatment of time that is shown to bleed into the present. This is supported by Victor's assertion about time:

Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you.

The drug therefore allows such a fluid relationship with time to be established, as the present indigenous peoples are able to reach back in time and create a meaningful link with their past cultural heritage that serves to give them identity and purpose in their present.

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