Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448

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Often an outspoken advocate for Native Americans, Alexie explores in “The Toughest Indian in the World” a typical theme of Native American writers—the yearning of the assimilated professional to make some sort of contact with his primal native heritage. The protagonist’s continuation of his father’s “ceremony” of picking up only Native American hitchhikers reflects his sense of connection with those twentieth century “aboriginal nomads” who refuse to believe that the salmon are gone. Much as the buffalo was a destroyed mainstay of Plains Indians, the salmon is a symbol of the lost hope of the Spokane Indians. Everyone in the Northwest—Indian and white—is haunted by the salmon, the narrator says. The mythic power of the salmon is also suggested by the narrator’s recalling how, as a boy, he leaned over the edge of a dam and watched the ghosts of the salmon rise from the water up to the sky to become constellations.

When the narrator picks up the Native American fighter, he wants him to know that he grew up on the reservation, “with every Indian in the world,” so he uses Native American slang and shares the hitchhiker’s jerky with him. Having moved off the reservation twelve years before to work in the city as a feature writer on a newspaper, the narrator takes pleasure in driving down the road chewing on jerky, talking to an indigenous fighter, feeling “as Indian as Indian gets.”

This narrator’s admiration for the hitchhiker is further emphasized when the fighter tells the narrator about his fight with a young Native American billed as “the toughest Indian in the world,” who refused to go down no matter how many times he hit him. When the narrator tells the hitchhiker he could have been a warrior in the old days both for his power as a fighter and for his honoring his opponent by sitting down and letting him win the fight, he is excited, wanting to let the fighter know how highly he thinks of him.

The narrator’s yearning to identify with the world of the warrior establishes a basis for his willingness to have sex with the hitchhiker, even though he is not homosexual. He sees the fighter as beautiful and scarred, a true warrior. In the world of the warrior of the old times, he senses there were no false gender boundaries. The mythic nature of the sex act between the two men is reflected by the narrator’s saying that afterward he smelled like salmon. He searches his body for any changes, wondering if he is a warrior now and if he was a warrior in a previous incarnation.