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 underlying message is Alexie conveying in "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven"?

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The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a collection of short stories and poems with many of the same characters. There is Victor Jospeh, who is usually narrating the story to us; Thomas Builds-the-Fire, who is a storyteller at heart who struggles to find a willing audience; Junior; and Crazy Horse. The story tells of a community on the Spokane Indian Reservation that is wrestling with small town drama, survival, and the effects of historical trauma.

The story that is most famous in the collection also happens to highlight the ways Alexie uses storytelling as a method of exploring genocide and survival. In the story, Victor is trying to travel to Phoenix, AZ to collect his father’s ashes. He does not have the funds to cover his cost, and Thomas Builds-the-Fire offers to pay for the cost of both of them to go. They take a Greyhound bus from the Spokane Indian Reservation all the way to the desert. Victor finds Thomas Builds-the-Fire to be annoying and tiresome. He is always standing around town telling outlandish stories to bored audiences. However, over the course of their travels the two become friends with a deeper understanding of one another. We come to find out that Thomas has close memories of Victor’s father and cared personally about their trip to retrieve his ashes. Victor begins to see Thomas as an integral part of the community. Thomas is a storyteller at heart. Though his stories seem frivolous and don’t always make sense we learn that there is purpose behind them. Storytelling is, in fact, a gift that Thomas possesses. Furthermore, it is through stories that Thomas and Victor come to understand and connect with one another. They both come from the same community and have similar struggles with family, alcoholism, and feelings of isolation. They come together and build community through the opportunity to reminisce and share tales. This story inspired the film Smoke Signals.

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There are a number of minor themes that thread throughout the short stories in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Some of these themes include poverty, alcoholism, externalized and internalized racism, acceptance or rejection of culture, and isolation. While no one of these themes is the sole primary message of the collection, they combine to paint an overall picture of Native American life on the reservation in the 20th Century.

Sherman Alexie's primary goal, then, seems to be to illustrate the various hardships faced by the modern (20th Century) Native American. In doing so, he is giving the reader a lens to a segment of the American population that tends to be underserved and underexplored in American culture. By giving the reader characters to sympathize with and understand in each story, and having those characters deal with -- and sometimes succumb to -- the very real problems that many Native Americans on reservations struggle with on a daily basis, Alexie helps to connect disconnected contemporary Americans with a group of people they may not know much about.

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