Sherman Alexie begins his chapter “A Train is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result” with an excerpt of a poem by a Native American poet named Ray Young Bear. This poem serves as an enlightening backdrop for the chapter, as many parts of the poem relate to the experiences of Samuel Builds-the-Fire. The poem, titled “one chip of human bone,” reads as follows:
one chip of human bone
it is almost fitting
to die on the railroad tracks
i can easily understand
how they felt on their long staggered walks back
grinning to the stars.
there is something about trains, drinking, and
being an indian with nothing to lose.
The title of the poem, “one chip of human bone,” emphasizes the graphic nature of Samuel’s implied death at the end of the chapter. At the end of the chapter, Samuel is passed out and face down on the railroad tracks as a train approaches. Samuel’s body is likely obliterated by the force of the train, and chips of his bones are likely spread about. Samuel has now become reduced to simply “one chip of human bone” to any passersby. Additionally, the connection between the poem and the chapter is further strengthened by the statement that the railroad tracks “rattled like bones in a stick game” as the train approached(Alexie 138).
The lines of the poem containing the phrase “it is almost fitting / to die on the railroad tracks” underscore how Samuel’s death on the railroad tracks could be interpreted as “fitting.” Samuel’s death follows his devastating firing from his job as a maid at a motel. After being fired from his job, Samuel goes to the bar and drinks for the first time, which is especially significant because “all his life he had watched his brother and sisters, most of his tribe, fall into alcoholism and surrendered dreams” (133). Up until this point, Samuel had resisted the temptation to drink, but losing his job has driven him to finally consume alcohol. Samuel spends a long time at the bar and becomes very drunk, and he eventually collapses on the railroad tracks. Samuel’s death on the railroad tracks could be construed as “fitting” because the tracks symbolize the path to a successful life. By securing a job as a maid, Samuel was on the path to a more successful life, but his boss firing him was the train that eventually killed him.
The following lines of the poem, “i can easily understand / how they felt on their long staggered walks back / grinning to the stars” emphasize how Samuel must have felt as he drunkenly left the bar. Samuel definitely had a long, staggered walk, as Alexie writes, “He staggered from locked door to locked door, believing that any open door meant he was home (Alexie 137). In these lines of the poem, Young Bear is referring to drunk Native Americans who could be contemplating suicide. Young Bear describes the disillusioned natives as “grinning to the stars” to imply that the suicidal natives, as is Samuel, are happily thinking about the fact that their death will allow them to leave life on earth and the reservation. Additionally, Ray Young Bear can “understand / how they felt” because he himself is a Native American who lives on a reservation, specifically the Meskwaki tribal settlement. Thus, he is likely familiar with stories of depressed, drunk Native Americans similar to Samuel.
The closing lines of the poem highlight the idea that the combination of “trains, drinking, and / being an indian with nothing to lose” can be deadly. The massive train is the ultimate and direct cause of Samuel’s death. Samuel’s drinking exacerbated the depressive emotions he experiences after losing his beloved job. If an indian has nothing to lose, they lose nothing when they die. The “something” to which Young Bear refers is the idea that these three factors can lead to the death of a Native American. Additionally, the fact that the word “indian” is not capitalized underscores the fact that Samuel, like many Native Americans, felt unimportant and neglected. The three factors stated in these final lines prove to be a fatal concoction for Samuel.
Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Grove Press, 2013.
Parker, Robert Dale. “To Be There, No Authority to Anything: Ontological Desire and Poetic Authority in the Poetry of Ray A. Young Bear.” Modern American Poetry, www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/s_z/youngbear/authority.htm.
“Ray A. Young Bear.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/ray-a-young-bear.