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