single car driving across the desert

This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona

by Sherman Alexie

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What is the theme of "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona"?

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In addition to isolation from each other, another theme of this story is the marginalization of Native Americans by white American society and the United States government.

When Thomas and Victor catch a plane to Phoenix to pick up Victor’s father’s ashes, they are seated next to a “tiny white woman” named Cathy, and they joke together and make friends. The woman complains to the two men that “the government ... screwed the 1980 Olympic team by boycotting.” After Thomas remarks that the team has “got a lot in common with Indians,” the group does not laugh; this indicates that, despite their friendship with the woman, there is still unease surrounding the men’s status as Native Americans.

After they get off the plane and say goodbye the men discuss how it’s “too bad we can’t always be that way.” This incident in the story illustrates that the men face social alienation: the conversation with the white woman was unusual to them because they spoke somewhat freely with her.

Other lines throughout the story refer to the disenfranchisement of Native Americans by the American government—in particular, in the military during World War II and going back to the American War of Independence. When the boys are only ten years old, Thomas comments to Victor that it is “strange” that “Indians celebrate the Fourth of July. It ain’t like it was our independence everybody was fighting for.” Later in the story, when the boys are teens, Thomas again refers to wars fought by Americans and how they affect but do not liberate Native Americans. Thomas’ father died “on Okinawa ... fighting for this country, which had tried to kill him for years.”

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The theme of Sherman Alexie's story is expressed well in the memory that Thomas relates about Victor's father. He tells Victor about a time when his father steered Thomas away from a bad situation. From this experience, Thomas gained a conviction:

Take care of each other.

The theme of building community through individual relationships is central to the story. Victor has felt not just isolated from his father, who lives far away, but alienated from the people around him. Although he receives a small tribal benefit when his father passes, on his own he could not make the journey. Both his reunion with Thomas and the support his old friend provides are links that move him toward the connections, both tangible and emotional, that he was sorely lacking.

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Any number of themes are possible but one of the stronger themes in this Sherman Alexie story is that of family and tribal identity.

Victor's journey to Arizona to retrieve the remains of his deceased father is a personal journey, a family journey, and also a tribal journey. And because of this journey, he grows to know more about himself, his father, Thomas, and his tribe. Victor was always one to run from his past, to run from those elements in his life that caused him grief or uncomfort. This journey forces him to face many of the very things he has avoided all of his life. It is a coming-of-age story, certainly, but it is much more than that; it is a story of transformation of a self-absorbed individual into a reflective, more conscientious member of a family and a tribe.

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