single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

In his short story “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” published in the 1993 collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie uses irony to explore the conditions and culture of modern Indigenous American life. His work is an exploration of the way in which modern Indigenous individuals try to connect to their past and survive in a world that has deprived them of their land and many of their traditions.

For example, at the beginning of the story, Alexie poses the question of whether anyone on a reservation has money—save the people who sell cigarettes and fireworks. His protagonist, Victor, is broke, and Alexie writes about the poverty of the residents of Washington state’s Spokane Indian Reservation in a darkly ironic way; it is ironic that Indigenous people are selling fireworks to white people in order to make money. It is also ironic that the Tribal Council, the elders who are in charge on the reservation, can only afford to give Victor a hundred dollars to pay for his trip to claim his father’s body in Phoenix, Arizona. They are supposed to provide for their tribe, but they can offer little help.

Alexie uses a number of symbols in his story. When Victor and his friend Thomas Builds-the-Fire are going to a fireworks display as boys, Thomas comments that they shouldn’t be celebrating the Fourth of July because the American Revolution wasn't fought for the independence of Indigenous people. The fireworks display is also very small—another symbol of the way in which American independence isn’t meant for them.

Dreams are also a major theme of the story, and Alexie uses different symbols to represent them. When Thomas was young, he leapt off of the schoolhouse roof and “flew” for a short time before crashing and breaking his arm in two places. This incident is symbolic of the way in which Thomas tries to achieve something greater—something that will bear him aloft—but is ultimately only injured by his attempts. Nevertheless, he continues to embrace the significance of dreams and visions, acting as the reservation’s storyteller. By telling Victor stories throughout their journey to Phoenix and back, Thomas offers Victor a form of healing and the ability to accept both the good and the bad aspects of his absentee father.

At the end of the story, Thomas decides to put some of the ashes of Victor’s father’s body in Spokane Falls, where Thomas once traveled after having a vision. At the falls, he encountered Victor’s father, who took him to Denny’s and drove him home. Thomas concluded from this experience that his vision was attempting to show him the importance of caring for one another. He tells Victor that, in being placed into the waterfall, Victor’s father will rise again. This is a symbol of spiritual rebirth and regeneration, as the dead man’s ashes will rise in the falls, like a salmon swimming upriver. The story ends with the hopeful image of the sun rising, and it is implied that Victor, too, will rise again from the ashes of his grief and suffering.

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