The Cultural and Historical Influences on ‘The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven’

Sherman Alexie’s 1993 novel The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a collection of interrelated stories focused on the happenings on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington state. Centering mainly around a Native American man named Victor, the collection depicts candid accounts of life for the Spokane peoples, both the joys and overwhelming difficulties they’ve continually faced for centuries. Alexie expertly weaves cultural and historical details into a compelling, educational narrative to ultimately illustrate the nature of life on the reservation.

Located in the eastern segment of Washington, around the unincorporated community of Wellpinit, the Spokane Indian Reservation consists of approximately 159,000 acres. In 1881, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed an executive order to forcibly place the Spokane-area tribes in the relatively small area they now inhabit today, compared to the three million acres once lived upon by the Spokane tribes. The population currently stands at 2,085. Historically, the Spokane people were semi-nomadic for the majority of the year and established winter villages for three months each year. In the 1950s, uranium deposits were found on the reservation and mined from 1956 through 1982. Currently, the inactive list remains designated as a Superfund cleaning site, meaning it exposes the local population to harmful contaminants.

Above: A map outlining the ancestral geographic territory of the Spokane tribes, with the current reservation labeled in white.

One of the most prominent Spokane religions was known as the Dreamer Cult and emerged from colonization pressures during the latter half of the 1800s. The Dreamer Cult combined traditional native spirituality with Christianity. However, despite the Christian influence, the Dreamer Cult leaders aimed to abandon the culture and beliefs of European colonizers and encourage a return to traditional lifestyles. For example, the Dreamer Cult advocated a return to spiritual dances such as the Prophet Dance and the Spirt Dance, visions, and feasts. Alexie includes multiple references to dancing in the text, notably so in the story “A Drug Called Tradition.” In it, Victor narrates, “We dance in circles growing larger and larger until we are standing on the shore, watching all the ships returning to Europe. All the white hands are waving good-bye and we continued to dance, dance until the ships fall of the horizon, dance until we are so tall and strong that the sun is nearly jealous” (17). Clearly, Alexie incorporates the Spokane tradition of dancing into the story and associates newfound devotion to indigenous Spokane culture and the natural world with the departure of European colonizers.

Above: A Spokane man dances in a traditional ceremonial outfit at a 2015 festival.

Similarly, Alexie contextualizes life on the reservation by including eye-opening descriptions of the rampant poverty among the Spokane community. According to the American government, the unemployment rate stands at 25.84% and the poverty rate at 32.57%. Over one third of the children born in the Spokane Indian Reservation live in extreme poverty by national standards. In the first story of the collection, “Every Little Hurricane,” Victor watches his father repeatedly open his wallet in the hope that money will appear. When it doesn’t, and the family needs food to eat, “Victor’s mother […] would pull air down from empty cupboards and make fry breads. She would shake thick blankets free from old bandanas. She would comb Victor’s braids into dreams” (5). The absence of full cupboards, consistent food, and blankets reveals the degree of hardship felt by Victor’s family as well as native families all over the country. Victor comments that often there was no money for Christmas gifts.

Finally, Alexie underscores the devastating impact of alcohol on the Spokane communities in multiple stories. Victor frequently describes his parents’ and extended family’s alcohol abuse. Julius, a star basketball player on the reservation, destroys his athletic talent when he succumbs to the consumption of alcohol. Victor’s father would “come home after a long night of drinking [and] feel so guilty that he would tell me stories as a means of apology” (26). In “Every Little Hurricane,” Victor’s uncles engage in a drunken brawl at a New Year’s Eve party. Victor’s father’s alcoholism is the most detailed, as Alexie purposefully writes to indicate the catastrophic emotional ramifications this type of addiction can have on a family unit. These issues aren’t unique to the Spokane tribes; rather, they are widespread and plague native communities throughout North America. A 2008 study by the CDC found that over 1 in 10 Native American deaths are related to alcohol abuse compared to the national average of 3.3%. Additionally, alcohol can have a particularly large influence among Native American communities during adolescent development, leading to a substantially greater risk of addiction and dropping out of school compared to the non-native population.