The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a novel by Sherman Alexie that narrates the perspectives of a fourteen-year-old American Indian boy called Arnold Spirit Jr. The novel follows a diary style in which Arnold, also known as Junior, expresses his thoughts as the first narrator. Living with his family on the Spokane Indian Reservation, Junior draws cartoons about his environment and talks about the struggles he has to face due to his identity as a Native American with brain damage. In the novel, Junior exposes his internal struggles as well as his personal experiences as a Native American by following a comparative approach. The comparison Junior makes between the Whites and Indians plays a crucial role in his decision to go to a white school, as he sees the challenges of Indians living on the poor reservation. Junior’s idea that “staying on the rez would have killed” urges him in a sense to leave the reservation, as “reservations were meant to be prisons”. By so doing, Junior not only shows the willingness to escape the poor conditions of the reservation, but he also subverts the stereotypes of Native Americans by proving that success exists for American Indians as well. Cornel Pewewardy argues in “To Be or Not to Be Indigenous: Identity, Race, and Representation in Education” that “while the politics of identity and the life experiences of Indigenous Peoples have been addressed more in recent years by scholars, activists, and novelists, there is little discussion addressing how and why Indigenous Peoples make their identity choices”. Thus, this paper will also focus on the reasons of why Junior decides to be a “part-time Indian”.
Presenting an example of the role of self-identification, the novel explores the process of how and why Junior creates a new identity. By dealing with the issues of identity, death, alcoholism, and poverty, the novel shows the status of Native Americans through the eyes of Junior. Racism, death, alcoholism, and poverty are the concepts mostly associated with the lives of Native Americans as a collective identity in comparison to whites. However, Junior does not want his future to be like his “fellow tribal members” who “were slowly killing themselves and supposed to disappear”. By observing the status of Indians, Junior realizes that he was “the only one who was brave and crazy enough to leave the rez with enough arrogance”, aiming at having “a better life out in the white world”. This shows that Junior is independent of his tribe and ready to embrace life within the white society as an Indian. In a sense, he implies that one’s life is made of his choices, as he attempts at living a life in the quality that he assumes white society is enjoying. Cornel Pewewardy further argues that “the race construction process plays out in defining our cultural identity as well as how these institutions helped to form identities around these definitions”. The novel exemplifies illustrating Junior’s identification of himself within the two societies and the two schools. He leaves the reservation and gets into the white society “in search of a dream”. Thus, Junior is not escaping from his culture or heritage. Instead, he reconstructs his identity by showing that it is possible for Indians to have these two parts in their lives: Indian culture and living this culture in the white society can coexist.
Seeing the lower status of Native Americans in comparison to whites, Junior regularly uses the term “other” throughout the novel. And Junior is aware that Native Americans collectively are regarded as the inferior “other” group since the dominant culture in the United States is the white society. Jean-François Staszak explains in “International Encyclopedia of Human Geography”:
the creation of otherness consists of applying a principle that allows individuals to be classified into two hierarchical groups: them and us. The out-group is only coherent as a group as a result of its opposition to the in-group and its lack of identity. This lack is based upon stereotypes that are largely stigmatizing and obviously simplistic.
It points out that there exist stereotypes of the “out-group” in the racial and social hierarchy that classifies individuals. This classification also creates the superiority and inferiority ideology that leads to the out-group’s being regarded, and as “inferior” or the “othered”, as they are the minority in the dominant culture. And this “othering” ideology can be seen in the lives of the Spokane Indians in the novel. However, serving as an example showing that stereotypes can be subverted, the novel highlights the capabilities of Junior and implies that the generational struggles of Native Americans do not have to necessarily repeat. Therefore, in this paper I will argue that Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian paves the way for Native Americans to overcome the “othering” ideology in the white society. Through the main protagonist Junior as a representation of complexity of identity, the novel illustrates how Junior feels and acts in the two societies. By so doing, the novel explores how Junior subverts the stereotypes of Native Americans and inspires other Indians to get over the idea of seeing themselves as inferior to whites. While exploring this, I will also touch on the function of humor in the novel as an important and prominent aspect that plays a crucial role in Junior’s life.
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