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Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols

Themes, Motifs & Symbols


Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Individual Ambitions and Communal Obligations

Junior has great personal ambition. He wants to become a famous cartoonist and to make money. Becoming rich and famous, Junior reasons, will help him to escape the Spokane Indian Reservation. The problem is that, from Junior’s perspective, what seems like better opportunity and freedom might, to the eyes of people in his larger community, look more like abandonment and betrayal. Once Junior decides to attend high school off the reservation at Reardan, he finds himself struggling both to discover his own personal identity and to relate back to the Spokane community. Junior has struggled, and often failed, to find acceptance there his entire life. He feels a responsibility to prove himself to Rowdy and the other Indians that see him as a traitor. At the same time, Junior tries to make a new name for himself at the all-white Reardan High School. At Reardan, Junior gains fresh perspective on the things that are bad about life on the reservation—alcoholism, hopelessness, and a lack of tolerance. But, with the help of friends and family, Junior is also able to relate his personal ambitions back to his Indian heritage.

By wandering farther from home, Junior better understands his roots. Thanks to his dad and his dad’s friend, Eugene, Junior is able to see leaving the reservation and going to an all-white school as courageous. He isn’t a coward, but a warrior. Likewise, Rowdy helps Junior to see how his going to school off the reservation can be linked back to the nomadism—the wandering from place to place—that was a part of his tribe’s culture for centuries. It is the people wasting their lives getting drunk on the reservation, Rowdy suggests, that have forgotten their community. As time goes on, Junior also finds belonging in other groups, like the Reardan basketball team, and he realizes that he is part of many less apparent communities, other “tribes,” like the tribe of poor people and the tribe of tortilla chip and salsa lovers. Junior takes comfort in the fact that he belongs to these groups. They strengthen his identity. At the same time, he hopes that, by asserting himself in the right ways, he can bring good things back to the communities that support him.

Poverty and Privilege

One of the main differences between life on the reservation and life in Reardan is that most of the families on the reservation, including Junior’s, are poor. This means that Junior often misses meals and school because his parents have no money for food or gas. Embarrassed by his poverty, Junior does everything he can to keep his Reardan classmates from understanding the true state of affairs. He often invents excuses or lies to his friends by saying he accidentally left his wallet at home. The white students at Reardan are financially better off, but Junior is surprised to learn that the privilege that accompanies wealth and white skin doesn’t insulate his friends from pain and problems. Penelope, despite her popularity and beauty, is bulimic, and Gordy, despite his shining intellect, is emotionally isolated and has difficulty relating to others. These problems of privilege are no less real than the problems of poverty, but the main difference—the thing that makes poverty so challenging—is that poverty prohibits people from pursuing hope and opportunity. And, what’s more, poor people often find themselves without the privilege to sort through or find help for their own equally real emotional struggles.


Junior always uses the term “Indian” to describe himself and the others on the Spokane Reservation. He never explains why he favors this term over the arguably more politically correct “Native American.” One can argue that “Indian” is more direct, less sugarcoated. Reardan’s white football star, Roger, certainly does not celebrate Junior’s heritage when he tells Junior that, “Indians are living proof that niggers fuck buffalo.” Using the term Indian, then, is also a concession to the racism in Junior’s social environment. The net effect of the racism and bigotry levied against Junior and his tribe on personal, institutional, and national levels is a collective disempowerment that stands in stark contrast to the unconscious privilege and opportunity in the neighboring white communities. But, Junior comes to realize, he participates in these same structures of prejudice. Junior sometimes uses homophobic language, for example, as a way to relate to and communicate with people like Rowdy for whom such language is the norm. Junior’s friends, likewise, show him that he pays so much attention to Penelope in part because she is white. Junior’s realization that he, too, has some racial biases is a key part of his moral education.


Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Sports and Competition

Sports play a significant role in Junior’s life before and after his transition to school in Reardan. On the reservation, Junior is never a stand-out player. The other kids refer to him as “retarded” because he grew up stuttering and physically awkward because of his hydrocephalus. Once Junior steps off the reservation, however, he discovers he can be a stand out athlete. Junior becomes a freshman starter on Reardan’s varsity basketball team. He argues that his new success is based on attitude, not ability. He didn’t wake up one day to discover he was secretly a great basketball player. On the contrary, the support and encouragement Junior receives from Coach and his teammates gives Junior unanticipated confidence. In this sense, sports demonstrate the importance of community in helping individuals reach their ambitions. Junior often uses sports competitions in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to present moral lessons. From his try-outs for the Reardan team, for example, Junior realizes that success can be more about persistence than skill. And, when Reardan beats Wellpinit in the teams’ second match, Junior is reminded how much Reardan’s success depends, not on skill, but on largely unnoticed social privileges.


Junior says that alcoholism is what all unhappy families on the reservation have in common. Junior’s own dad, Arnold Spirit, Sr., is an alcoholic who disappears for days at a time. But, unlike Rowdy’s father, Junior’s dad is not physically abusive. Eugene, Junior’s dad’s friend, is an alcoholic who is shot in the face over the last sip of a bottle of wine. Alcoholism is directly or indirectly responsible for most of the tragedy that the Spirit family experiences. Junior’s grandmother, for example, is struck and killed by a drunk driver. And Mary suffocates in her trailer after she and her husband black out from binge drinking. But is alcoholism the cause of these tragedies or the symptom of previous ones? In other words, is drinking so prevalent on the reservation because Indians have been disenfranchised—abandoned by, and cut out from, society at large? Junior refuses to let past suffering serve as an excuse to justify present mistakes. After Mary’s death, he promises his mom he will never drink.

Physical Violence, Domestic Abuse, and Bullying

From an early age, Junior is bullied because of the complications of his hydrocephalus—his lisp, stutter, and ungainly stature. This bullying follows Junior into his teenage years when, worried he will get beat up, Junior avoids participating in community events like the Spokane Powwow. At least until Junior leaves for Reardan, Rowdy is Junior’s protector. Rowdy scares Junior’s bullies away. But, however bullied Junior is, Rowdy seems to have it worse. Like Junior’s parents, Rowdy’s parents are alcoholics. The difference is that, when Rowdy’s father gets drunk, he beats his son. This kind of domestic abuse is more common on the reservation than it is in Reardan. Indeed, physical violence in general is an expected and encouraged part of reservation life, and it unfolds according to unwritten rules. In fact, physical confrontation is so common on the reservation that, once Junior starts attending Reardan, he is shocked to discover that physical fights are completely taboo. That is, no matter how much Reardan kids insult each other, their confrontations almost never come to blows. The different relationship to violence on the reservation and in Reardan is further indication of the opportunity gap that exists between the two communities.


Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Oscar is a symbol of the powerlessness that accompanies poverty. Junior tells the story of Oscar, the Spirit family’s pet dog, to explain why hunger is not the worst aspect of being poor. Hunger is no fun, but there’s a way in which going hungry for a while makes one appreciate food more—it even makes food taste better. For Junior, however, the worst part about being poor is not being able to help others. Junior says that Oscar is his best friend. He says that Oscar is more reliable than any of the people in his life, including his parents and his grandmother. Yet, when Oscar gets sick, the family has no money to take Oscar to the vet. What’s more, Junior realizes that, as an Indian boy on the reservation, there is no chance for him to get a job to make money to pay for Oscar’s veterinary care. Junior is not only incapable of helping Oscar in the present, he sees no way of helping Oscar in the future. Junior’s parents see no other options either. Junior’s dad takes Oscar into the back yard and shoots him. Oscar death, then, also represents the harsh realities faced by those living below the poverty line.

Junior’s dad’s last $5

Junior’s dad’s last $5 represents the ambivalence—the double aspect—of human nature. Few characters in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are wholly bad or wholly good. Junior’s father is no exception. Around the Christmas holidays of Junior’s first year at Reardan, Junior’s dad disappears for a little over a week. Junior knows his father is on a drunken bender, and, when Junior’s dad returns after New Year’s and tells Junior to fish the last $5 he saved for him out of his boot, Junior recognizes how easy it would have been for his dad to have spent those $5 on a bottle of booze. Junior marvels at the self-control it must have taken his dad to save him this Christmas gift. He calls it “a beautiful ugly thing.” Accordingly, Junior’s dad’s gesture is both pathetic and heroic. The amount itself is also significant. $5 is not enough that it can change Junior’s life, but just enough that the gift is not an entirely empty gesture. Junior’s dad’s $5 shows the extent both of his faults and of his love.

Turtle Lake

Turtle Lake, at the center of the Spokane Reservation, is unfathomable—no one, not even scientists using a small submarine, has been able to measure its depth. In this way, it represents the deep mystery that resides with the Spokane people. Junior learns a frightening story about Turtle Lake from his father. A dumb, white horse nicknamed Stupid Horse drowned in Turtle Lake, only to wash up later on the shores of another nearby lake. When some people took Stupid Horse’s carcass to the dump to burn it, Turtle Lake caught on fire and Stupid Horse’s burnt body once again appeared on its shore. In light of this story, one might argue that Turtle Lake represents the incomprehensible and supernatural as they exist within nature. The divide between the “spiritual” and “natural” world is, after all, a European Enlightenment concept. For many of the American Indian groups displaced by white American settlers, the body and soul—the natural and spiritual—were indivisible. Turtle Lake, and its haunting presence at the center of the Spokane Reservation, points back toward that largely lost way of seeing the world that exists deep in the memory of the Spokane people.

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