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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
One of the aims of this novel is to show the Cherokee Nation as a valued community. Part of this value comes from the way the Cherokees rethinks the notion of what constitutes a family. This novel refuses to privilege one family structure over another: while it asks us to consider the advantages of Cherokee familial structures, it does not undervalue the bond between mother and child.
The novel provides many examples of what makes up family on the Cherokee Nation. Annawake explains that the Cherokee people do not distinguish between mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandfather, and grandmother. The reason that Annawake can feel outrage about Turtle, even when her aunt chose to give her away, is because no individual—even birth parents—have the legal authority to give away their children. No one is any way "contracted" to be more obligated to a child than the next person is. Millie's house is filled with kids who Millie has had with her divorced husband, Dell. Annawake, Millie's ex-husband's sister, actually lives with Millie, and Dell still comes around often. Sugar tells Alice about one of her grandkids whose mother had so many kids when he was born that someone else on the Nation adopted him. They share their kids, without valuing one family relation over another. This family model offers a more inclusive alternative to the nuclear family, and a sense of security in its vastness. This theme is addressed again and again through Alice. The thought of a bigger support network brings her great comfort.
In the end, the novel does not condemn a more conventional American family structure. Indeed, Turtle will live with Taylor at least nine months out of the year, probably also with Jax. The novel does privilege the idea of inclusion, however. Turtle is not better off being separated from her mother to live in a more untraditional family structure. She is, however, better off having more relatives to take care of her. Now she will have her grandfather, and all of his relations, widening her web of "family."
This novel takes a strong sociopolitical stance in the way that it addresses Native American life in America today. It challenges the conventional American lifestyle by presenting the Cherokee Nation as an alternative. Jax's conversation with Gundi offers a good way of conceptualizing this theme. He asks Gundi if she could be completely satisfied painting for the good of society, if she never was allowed to sign her paintings. In other words, he questions whether either of them could feel totally happy immersed in a communal life, never thinking of their individual life first.
In the case of child adoptions, the Cherokee stray from the conventional legal tendency to ask what is the best situation for the child. In addition, the Cherokee consider what is best for the tribe. The author presents a scene of communal living where no one needs to question his or her own achievements or ambitions. When Alice goes to the stomp dance, she loses a sense of herself, and finds a sense of belonging. Boma Mellowbug's tree becomes an important metaphor for the Cherokee life; instead of devaluing Boma for not being "self-sufficient" the town celebrates her spirit by turning her tree into a community landmark. This lifestyle is a stark contrast to America's mass-consumer society that is based on individual desire and ambition. Barbie symbolizes the antithesis of the Cherokee life; she is motivated by capitalist values and marketing schemes, literally turning herself into a commodity. Not only do the Cherokee refuse materialistic status symbols, they also value dependents as an important part of their community. There is no shame in asking for help, and it is consistently given, as they share food, family and land.
The novel suggests that Native American culture cannot thrive at all outside of Native American reservations and communities. Annawake comments that trying to raise a child Cherokee by living outside the Nation is like raising an elephant, but taking it to the zoo once in a while. Gabriel's experience helps to develop this theme: if a child taken away from the Nation, he was misunderstood by a white world that took him for a kind of pseudo-Mexican. Gabriel's demise illustrates the way in which white society is ignorant of Native American culture, and the way in which Cherokee people living outside the Nation are victimized as a result.
Cash Stillwater's stint in Jackson Hole is another way the novel addresses culture clash. His past "get rich quick" attitude is in a way a product of white television. As soon as he tells Alice how he ran away to Wyoming, because he thought "being close to good times is like having good times," Alice thinks of Harland, her T.V.-loving second husband. The T.V. indeed offers a way of being close to good times; it provides a kind of virtual world, in which a person can experience something vicariously without ever having to live it. This kind of illusion is the same that drove Cash to a ritzy tourist town, where money and the illusion of Indian culture ran rampant. Indeed, this environment only brought him more pain and suffering. Mr. Crittendon's suicide illustrates the point further. A man worth a million dollars self-destructed when he felt that Native American culture had no other value in American life other than being marketed as a commodity.