Resisting First Nations Stereotypes in banned YA Novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian

Sherman Alexie, (London: Andersen Press, 2008)

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie is a semi-autobiographical novel that takes the liminal space of the reservation border as a starting point for exploring the development of a hybridised Indian identity. Alexie focalises the novel through teenage protagonist Arnold Spirit Jr. offering a doubly liminal perspective as Arnold is caught between childhood dependency and adult independence, and as a Native American carving out an identity amongst white, middle class Americans – what Stephen Evans describes as a ‘bicultural’ existence.[1]

This post will examine the novel in relation to its status as one of the most frequently banned books according to a list compiled annually by the American Library Association (ALA). The ALA campaigns for free access to information and highlights novels that have received challenges or bans from school and public libraries in the USA in order to expose instances of censorship. The organisation defines a challenge as a ‘formal, written complaint’ requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.’ Since the book’s publication in 2007, Part-Time Indian has been ranked in the top five every year since 2010, reaching the top spot in the most recent list (2014). The reasons stated for the challenges include, but are not limited to; anti-family, cultural insensitivity, sexually explicit and depictions of bullying.

Author Sherman Alexie is no stranger to controversy. He is outspoken on many Native issues and the darkness in his earlier novels has led Louis Owens to suggest that they “reinforce all of the stereotypes desired by white readers: his bleakly absurd and aimless Indians are imploding in a passion of self-destructiveness and self-loathing.”[2] It is possible to see how embracing the darker aspects of reservation life, including poverty, drunkenness and violence in a YA novel might attract similar criticism, but Alexie passionately defends the need to write contemporary fiction that Native young people can relate to, saying: “I don’t write to protect them. It’s far too late for that. I write to give them weapons–in the form of words and ideas-that will help them fight their monsters.

The novel tells the story of Arnold Spirit (Junior), a 14-year-old Spokane Indian living on the Wellpinit reservation. After (accidentally) throwing a decades-old geometry textbook at his teacher, Arnold is encouraged to leave the reservation if he wants to be successful in life and enrols at a wealthy white school 22 miles away. What follows is a messy, often humorous attempt to maintain and defend his Native heritage whilst navigating the complicated social and racial rules of a predominantly white high school. Owen’s concern that Alexie reinforces stereotypes is recognisable in the depictions of drunkenness, bullying and references to poverty that seem to consign the Indian to living as a construct of the white imagination: “because you’re Indian you start believing that you’re destined to be poor. It’s an ugly circle…”[3] This statement is included in an emotional reflection as Arnold prepares for his dog to be shot because the family can’t afford to take him to the vet; elsewhere in the novel Alexie uses humour, however dark, to mask the sadness elicited by the events of the narrative.

Kevin Talbert observes the way in which Alexie “seamlessly layers class and racial identities on top of…more familiar adolescent struggles” ensuring that the novel can reach beyond the well-worn tropes of indigenous stereotype.[4] This is played out in the novel through the use of cartoon drawing, which Arnold explains as a desire for inclusivity and clarity: “I draw because words are too unpredictable. I draw because words are too limited…when you draw a picture, everyone can understand it.”[5] There is a mistrust of words that can be too easily misinterpreted, a nod to the abuse of treaties that Alexie writes about in his poetry collection First Indian on the Moon.[6] The need to be understood can also be read as the key to expanding the figurative territory in which an Indian is expected to operate: “Almost all of the rich and famous brown people are artists…So I draw because I feel like it might be my only real chance to escape the reservation.”[7] This is one instance of an autobiographical moment; elsewhere Alexie says: “Politically, I want all those folks, Indian and not, who celebrate me to realize that they are also celebrating the fact that I left the rez. All of my books and movies exist because I left.”[8] Arnold’s role models beyond the reservation are all artists, and he too uses art to tell his story. Whilst scholars and authors such as Owens criticise Alexie for reinforcing stereotypes, in this instance one could argue that the ‘cultural insensitivity’ that the novel is accused of exposes the ‘white desire’ for the constructed Indian as either romantic or tragic. In the novel, Arnold’s decision to transfer schools is a refusal to be defined by his circumstances or by expectations. His teacher describes how everyone has given up hope apart from Arnold: “You’ve been fighting since you were born’ he said…’You kept your hope. And now, you have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope.’”[9] Crucially, Arnold does not leave the reservation permanently, and his experiences away from the reservation transform his relationships within it, and develop a renewed understanding of what it means to be Indian.

One of the concerns cited by the ALA is that the novel is anti-family. However, this is inconsistent with the value placed on family throughout the text and the novel exhibits ‘pro-family’ values on a number of occasions. One example is after the death of Arnold’s grandmother. Described as an old-time Indian whose greatest gift was tolerance, Arnold’s grandmother symbolises both nostalgia for a time when ‘weird people were celebrated’ and the possibility for forgiveness and tribal unity: “My grandmother’s last act on earth was a call for forgiveness, love and tolerance…Even dead, my grandmother was a better person than us.”[10] She was killed by a drunk driver as she returned from a mini pow-wow (a traditional ceremony). Alexie takes a situation caused by drunkenness, explores the reaction of her family, but gives the final word to the grandmother’s values of tolerance and forgiveness. The funeral and wake further demonstrates the unity of family and community, describing a white billionaire ‘collector’ who mistakenly tries to return a pow-wow outfit to the family and the laughter that ensues: “And so, laughing and crying, we said good-bye to my grandmother. And when we said good-bye to one grandmother, we said good-bye to all of them.”[11] The collective laughter unifies the tribe, but it is also a reminder of the legacy of colonization and the Indian as spectacle. By ridiculing the incorrect Indian collector, Alexie reverses the white gaze and so disarms it.

Alexie embraces the stereotype in order to move beyond it in an act of reclaiming, as Arnold realises that he is more than the binary of white/Indian but rather, belongs to multiple tribes of people around the world: “I realised that sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms.”[12] Furthermore Alexie reminds readers that reservations were designed to make Indians invisible, and that by moving beyond its boundary Arnold is more like an ‘old-time nomad’: “’I was reading this book about old-time Indians, about how we used to be nomadic’…’I’m not nomadic’ Rowdy said. ‘Hardly anybody on this rez is nomadic. Except for you.’”[13] By situating Arnold’s identity as one of many tribes, and attributing his act of leaving to an act of traditional Indian movement in search of better land, Alexie creates the possibility for a truly hybrid identity, one that is part of white culture without capitulating to it, and one which recognises and honours traditional tribal practice.

The novel’s position as one of the most frequently challenged books is at odds with its critical acclaim, and as I have shown here, embraces many of the negative associations with reservation life in a way that some might find uncomfortable. Nevertheless, it is ultimately a novel about hope in which Alexie charts a path beyond the reductive binaries of wealth and race to emphasise the value of family and community both on and off the reservation.

Footnotes

[1] Stephen F. Evans, ‘Open Containers’: Sherman Alexie’s Drunken Indians American Indian Quarterly 25.1 (2001) pp. 46-72, p.46

[2] Louis Owens, Mixedblood Messages p.79

[3] Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian (London: Andersen Press, 2008) p.13

[4] Kevin Talbert, ‘Using The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to Teach About Racial Formation’ Journal of Curriculum Theorising 28.1 (2012) pp.266-271 p.267 Accessed at [http://journal.jctonline.org/index.php/jct/article/viewFile/34/22talbert.pdf] on 25.11.15

[5] Alexie, p.5

[6] See Chadwick Allen, ‘Postcolonial Theory and the Discourse of Treaties’ American Quarterly 52.1 (2000), pp.59-89, p.74

[7] Alexie, p.6

[8] Nancy J. Peterson, ed. Conversations with Sherman Alexie. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009) p.189

[9] True Diary, p.43

[10] True Diary, p.157

[11] True Diary, p.166

[12] Alexie, p.217

[13] Alexie, p.229

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About Angela Sparks

Angela is a part-time PhD candidate at the University of Hertfordshire working on the children’s fiction of Louise Erdrich. She is particularly interested in the representation of indigenous identities in texts for children. Angela also teaches undergraduate seminars and is a former school librarian.
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