Sherman Alexie’s bildungsroman The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian highlights the struggles of a Native American teenager as he finds his place in two very different worlds. Alexie presents a first-person account of the life of the work’s protagonist, Arnold Spirit Jr., or simply “Junior.” Junior is a budding cartoonist who uses self-deprecating humor to tell a rather tragic story about life on the “rez,” or reservation. Though the story is told from Junior’s perspective, his social group has extraordinary significance, revealed as Alexie explores the ways that a community shapes, supports, and accepts an individual. 

At the beginning of the novel, Junior’s only community consists of people living on the Spokane reservation alongside him. His sardonic descriptions of life as a Native American teen develop disturbing images of the hardships that the community faces. Its members are poor, face issues with alcoholism, and feel that their lives are constrained by a lack of opportunities. Despite having grown up in such a milieu, Junior has ambitions; he longs to become rich and famous one day. Members of his community may feel limited by their circumstances, but Junior’s awareness compels him to dream of a life outside the reservation. His community affects his sense of self, motivating him to seek change.

In the novel’s inciting incident, Mr. P convinces Junior to enroll at Reardan, a wealthy, mostly white high school. This decision begets two distinct reactions from Junior’s Native American community. His parents, on the one hand, react supportively. They offer unconditional love that helps him become an emotionally mature individual; he is able to acknowledge the role that community has played in his parents’ lives, too. He realizes that had they not been born into poverty, they might have had successful careers of their own. In contrast with their reaction, some of the other members of the community, including Junior’s best friend, Rowdy, resent Junior’s decision to leave the reservation. As a result, Junior feels as if he has betrayed his people. He carries feelings of guilt throughout the novel, even blaming himself for his sister’s death later.

Through the course of the novel’s rising action, Junior must straddle two very distinct worlds, a struggle that serves as the major conflict in the work. When he starts studying at Reardan, he feels as if he no longer belongs in either world and thus becomes the eponymous “part-time Indian.” At Reardan, he finds a new community, which at first seems unwelcoming and sometimes hostile. Eventually, however, his new peers contribute to Junior’s growing sense of self. For instance, Gordy teaches him to view his cartoons in a more serious light, as something that could serve a larger purpose. Junior seems embarrassed about being poor, and he is convinced that the people at Reardan will turn their backs on him when they discover this fact. However, Penelope and Roger respond only with kindness, helping him understand that members of this community are willing to accept him as he is. While at Reardan, Junior can unlock his full potential, academically and athletically, thanks to the advice and support he receives from teachers, such as Coach.

In the novel’s climax, three members of Junior’s Native American community die tragically in quick succession: his sister, his grandmother, and his family friend. It is at this critical point that both communities—the reservation and Reardan—step up to help Junior cope with the loss. At the reservation, he finds strength in numbers and can grieve privately with the members of his tribe. At Reardan, the incident in his social studies class reveals that Junior has fully become a part of its community; his friends openly revolt against a white teacher who belittles Junior’s suffering. He recognizes that he does indeed belong to both worlds.

The events of the novel’s falling action continue to show that Junior has become a well-adjusted individual able to value his community at the reservation while also being grateful to his community at Reardan. Both communities leave an indelible mark on Junior, and he realizes that he does not have to limit himself to one or the other. He grows to recognize that individuals can belong to multiple “tribes” at once and that each is instrumental to defining one’s sense of self and purpose. The novel reaches its resolution when Junior and Rowdy finally make amends and play together. Rowdy realizes that by moving out in search of better opportunities, Junior is, in fact, upholding the nomadic culture of the Native American community. Though Junior still feels a degree of guilt for leaving, the novel ends on a positive note: Junior expresses hope for a better future, having arrived at a well-defined sense of self.