Reflection 3: “Lone Ranger and Tanto Fist-Fight in Heaven”

          Consequences of forced intervention and assimilation can be seen throughout history in many examples, ranging from captured foreigners, to previously native people. One of the most dramatic illustrations of this can be seen during the 18th and 19th centuries, right here in the United States. Previously spanning over three million acres from Washington to Idaho, the Spokane Indian territory used to be home to 2,500 of its people, providing them with bountiful resources and general peace of mind.However, throughout history much of what was once previously belonging to the Spokane Indians was seized, including its culture.  Exposure to exploring populations in the early 1800’s introduced the tribe to copious amounts of alcohol, and left their population combating new and foreign diseases. In 1881 legislation was passed dividing the territory into much smaller reservations, without the consent of the native inhabitants. This new sector was labeled as the Spokane Reservation. English was now mandated to be the exclusive language on all American Indian Reservations. The natives were treated as if they were beasts rather than human, being stripped of much of their culture and ancestral way of life, and being forced into boarding schools at an attempt to “civilize” them. It wasn’t until 1990 that the Native American Languages Act allowed the regular practice of Native American languages. The 20th century aftermath of such involuntary transitions towards the white man’s liking is described in Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which depicts the upbringing of a Spokane Indian named Victor. In this collection of interrelated short stories, Alexie describes many of the struggles of reservation life. In these, he applied what he personally saw and experienced as a Spokane Indian on the reservation.

          In many of the stories, Alexie’s portrayal of Native American life is filled with poverty and loss. Victor’s interactions with other members of his reservation paint a picture of destitution. An example of this is present in the story “This is what it means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”. Here, Victor is informed his father has died and he struggles with raising enough money to travel to bring his possessions home. A friend of his, Thomas Builds-The-Fire pays for the plane ticket but also travels with him. Upon reaching his late father’s house, a rechid odor greets them. Because of his father’s social class, he was not connected with many people, and seen as an outcast. His body was therefore left for days without anyone noticing. The loss of Victor’s father goes beyond his own sadness, as it displays the social view that others have towards Native Americans. His disconnection to the ‘white’ world underlines the lack of empathy that non-Native Americans have toward them. Taking a step back from the story, the differences between whites and Native Americans access to health care are somewhat alluded to. A major problem of the overall health of Native Americans is the lack of resources on their reservations. Throughout the past, groups were migrated and placed into areas in which the government officials thought would be least beneficial for them to lose; in other words, the more desolate lands were given to them while their fruitful territories were seized.  In a 2004 report by the University of Maryland, Native American Health Care Disparities Briefing, the physical inaccessibility of health facilities are touched on. For the majority, Native Americans living on reservations and other inhospitable climates “the roads are often impassable, and where transportation is scarce, health care facilities are far from accessible.” Almost 80 percent of the roads are unpaved, leaving its residents stuck in the reservation.

          A central and reoccuring theme displayed throughout the stories was alcoholism and its devastating impact on those living on the reservation. Not excluded from the influence of alcohol himself, Alexie dealt with an alcoholic father and hardworking mother who worked multiple jobs in an attempt to support her six children. Victor provides the readers with numerous examples of how alcohol has ruined the lives of his people and cast a shadow of depression over the morose group. It is illustrated as being the downfall of any promising possibility. Specifically, Victor’s acquaintance had the opportunity to use basketball as his ticket to leaving the reservation, but fell victim to the bottle. From stories like this, one can easily apply the common stigma of which many Native Americans are depressed and alcoholics. However, the health initiative organization Recovery states that the issue goes beyond simply drinking in excess. In an article written by Recovery author Emily Guarnotta, Native Americans and Alcoholism, the high rates of alcoholism can be attributed to a range of factors. Stemming from a history of abuse, many Native Americans had lost most of their original culture and traditions. Because of their past, they were labeled as inferior to whites, Guarnotta explains, which besmirched the view of Native Americans. On top of this severely depressing environment, they have much higher rates of unemployment, which can be attributed to fact that most had a degrading mentality towards them. Consequently, Native Americans faced harsh, unwelcoming environments where their values were cast aside and there was little, if any, opportunity for employment. Alexie speaks about this insufficient availability of work, saying that the major occupations on the reservation were involved with cigarettes and fireworks.

          The compilation of interconnected short stories written by Sherman Alexie includes numerous examples of the struggles and oppression that Native Americans have had, and continue, to deal with. Inequalities resulting in massive poverty and a descending spiral of depression leading into alcoholism is a major influencer of the stories in his work. The vast majority, if not all, of the problems that Native Americans currently face can be attributed to their persistent history of unjust treatment.


Native Americans and Alcoholism

A Debt Unpaid