Perhaps more than any other minority group, Native Americans face a continual struggle to find a place in modern society and culture. They have been relegated to reservations and must overcome huge challenges to find their way anywhere else. Their entire culture and history has been romanticized and reparations for their tragedies and suffering have never been fully paid. Sherman Alexie’s short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, chronicles the barriers and despair that his people grapple with every day.
Alexie’s characters live with the past hanging over their heads, unable to move on or forget their ancestors. The white people remind them when they idealize the past and see modern Native Americans as their ancestors; they are unwilling to see them as they are now, because that would mean recognizing the poverty and racism that traps the young and talented on the reservations. The Indians themselves simultaneously long to be like their ancestors and are ashamed that they do not live up to the picture of those ancestors. When Victor and his two friends take a new drug, it sends them into an ideal world. In this world, Victor is an Indian warrior stealing a black pony, Thomas is a dancer so powerful that he sends the white men back to where they came from, restoring the Indians’ lands, and Junior is a famous guitar player in a world where the Indians won and the president is an Indian. Each boy represents a futile dream that means nothing in the real world, because it is not possible.
Thomas Builds-the-Fire is ostracized, even as a boy, because he tells stories and cannot stop telling stories. He is just as trapped on the reservation as the rest of his peers, but they hate him because he does not stop dreaming. His stories take the present and join it with the past. As a boy, when he jumps off the roof of the school, “for a second, he hovered, suspended above all the other Indian boys who were too smart or too scared to jump” (70). He also speaks truth and faces reality for what it is. Most Indians try to drown reality in alcohol, which works only temporarily, but Thomas knows before anyone else that Victor’s dad will leave. He is also the only one willing to help Victor claim his father’s ashes and belongings. Reality and dreams are both possible for Thomas, and he knows the truth of surviving is to take care of each other.
Alexie also explores the perpetual cycle that traps his people. Basketball could be a ticket off the reservation for some of the boys, but they all fall prey to alcohol, the savior and bane of the Indians. As Victor and his friend sit and drink, they reminisce about reservation basketball stars of the past, including Victor himself. But not one of them has made it. Their heroes are young kids who happen to be good at basketball, and to some extent, Victor and his friend recognize how sad that is, that their heroes crash and burn before they are even legal drinking age. When one of those heroes falls, the reservation’s hopes fall with him.
Alcohol holds a place in every story in the collection. Sometimes it is a small role, sometimes a big role, but it is ever present, just as it permeates every home on the reservation. It allows the Indians to escape their miserable reality, but it also traps them within that reality. It destroys hopes and relationships, but it is one thing from the past they can hold onto, even if it destroyed their ancestors just as it destroys them.
Sherman Alexie does not hesitate to portray life as it truly is for his people, but he never forgets the hopes and possibilities that each new generation searches for, and one day, someone just might break free.