How does the novel treat the subject of racism? Do Junior’s attitudes about race evolve as the novel progresses?
Questions of privilege and social class in the novel—the fact that so many Indian families live below the poverty line, have limited access to public services, and inferior education—are closely tied to questions of racial prejudice and history. For most of his early life, Junior has relatively little interaction with the white world, but he does have the inescapable knowledge that he is an Indian, an “other” in American society, and he knows the disadvantages that come with it. Perhaps this is one reason why Junior uses the label of “Indian,” and never the more politically correct term, “Native American.” Junior feels society at large sees him, and so sees himself, as an Indian. But, regardless of how mainstream American society depicts them, Junior knows that all Indians are not alike. Each tribe has its own unique culture. Junior has insight into his tribe’s culture that hypocritical sympathizers like the white billionaire, Ted, cannot buy or steal. But, along with each tribe’s unique identity comes prejudice and stereotypes. Rowdy plays off stereotypes when, after blaming a prank on coastal Indians, he says, “You can’t trust them whale hunters,” and Junior sees Montana Indians, like Mary’s husband, as wild and scary.
When Junior leaves the reservation for Reardan, other members of his tribe start to treat him like he is somehow less than Indian. At the same time, Junior’s first real exposure to white society makes him more aware than ever of his minority status. One of the key ways in which Junior’s understanding of racism evolves over the course of the novel is that he begins to see how the same structures of prejudice that have oppressed his and other Indian tribes are at work within himself. He objectifies Penelope because of her whiteness, he realizes. Gordy and Rowdy help him to see that being a victim of prejudice does not prevent one from being prejudiced against others. Junior also learns that, over time, superficial racial prejudices can be worn down. He becomes friends even with Roger, who, before they became friends, made the most racist joke Junior ever heard in his life. In the end, Junior sees the difference between Indian life on the reservation and white life in Reardan as mostly a question of privilege. As he says, it may be only “slightly better to live in Reardan than in Wellpinit,” but that slight advantage can be the difference between a successful and a miserable life.
Junior’s friendship with Rowdy is one of the main sources of conflict in the novel. What are the various ways in which this conflict shows itself? Why, despite all the ways that Rowdy has mistreated Junior, is Junior so adamant about being Rowdy’s friend?
From the very beginning, Junior puts his friendship with Rowdy at the level of a family relationship. Rowdy is the only person willing to overlook Junior’s strangeness, and Junior is the only one who has the patience for Rowdy’s violent outbursts. The two become mutually dependent on each other, and Junior seems to be the only person willing to see that Rowdy has good intentions under his violent and aggressive behavior. This means that Junior often suffers the consequences of Rowdy’s actions. Junior gets beat up by the Andruss triplets because Rowdy can’t control his temper, for example. And Junior spends much of the novel trying to win back Rowdy’s trust after Rowdy mistakes Junior’s decision to go to Wellpinit for a personal betrayal. The tense relations between Rowdy and Junior, Rowdy’s anger at Junior and Junior’s feeling that he has something to prove, get dramatized on the basketball court, where, during the first game, Rowdy fouls Junior violently, and, during the second game, Junior finally feels he can compete with Rowdy as an equal.
On the one hand, Junior sees Rowdy’s friendship as symbolic. Rowdy’s approval stands in for the approval of the entire tribe. If Junior can convince Rowdy to accept him after his decision to go to Reardan, then he thinks that the guilt he feels for leaving the reservation can be abetted. On the other hand, Junior is compassionate and is convinced that it feels good to help others. He knows that Rowdy gets no support from his abusive, drunken father. And Junior knows that no one else in Reardan thinks that Rowdy is worth helping. Junior, then, feels responsible for Rowdy. He believes that Rowdy was once the only person who believed in him, and, now that Rowdy feels abandoned, the least Junior can do is to show Rowdy the same support. A third explanation, somewhat different from these, is that, however close Junior might become with Gordy, Roger, and the other white students at Reardan, Junior’s white friends can never truly understand what it’s like to grow up as an Indian on the Spokane reservation. In the end, Junior fights so hard for Rowdy’s friendship out of the interrelated desires to better understand himself and to be fully understood.
At the time of the events in the novel, life in the Spokane tribe little resembles conventional notions of what Native American life was like in the days before Columbus. Nevertheless, Junior finds ways to link his present experiences back to the ancient traditions of his tribe. How does Junior make these connections and who are the main characters that help him to establish this important link with his past?
Over the course of the novel, Junior learns to see himself as a warrior and a nomad. Making this link to his tribe’s ancient traditions helps Junior to retain his Indian identity even as he leaves Indian territory. Junior’s father is the first to encourage Junior to see his decision to enter the all white Reardan school as the work of a warrior. Not a violent warrior, but a warrior for justice. Eugene hammers home the same idea when, after giving Junior a ride to school on his motorcycle, he says he would never have been brave enough to do what Junior is doing. Then, after the school year at Reardan ends, Rowdy brings up the idea of nomadism. In pre-Columbian days, most North American tribes were nomadic, meaning they wandered from place to place without establishing permanent roots. Rowdy suggests that the Indians who are afraid to leave the reservation are, in fact, the ones who have lost touch with this important aspect of their heritage.
But, of all the Indians who help Junior to make these connections with his tribe’s history, Junior’s grandmother is the most important. Junior grandmother is very tolerant of all different sorts of strange people, and she has many friends as a result. She is compassionate, and, with her dying breath, she asks her family to forgive the drunk driver who struck her while she was walking home from a powwow. Junior’s grandmother’s tolerance reminds him that, in bygone days, some Indian groups saw homosexuals as special, even magical, group members with access to the feelings of both sexes, and that epileptics, likewise, were seen as visionaries. Had he been born a few centuries earlier, the seizures Junior experienced as a child might even have made him a shaman. From his grandmother, Junior learns to contrast his tribe’s deep history of tolerance and acceptance with the intolerance he sees and experiences on the reservation in the present day.
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