We were supposed to kill the Indian to save the child.

This chilling line from Mr. P mirrors the infamous quote from R.H. Pratt’s 1892 speech, where he suggests that the government should “kill the Indian, and save the man” in order to more successfully force Natives to assimilate to white American culture. Killing the Indian meant divorcing Native peoples from their culture, language, and tribes while introducing them to colonial traditions, including Christianity and the English language. This forced assimilation was thought not only to save the soul of Native people in a religious sense, but also to save them from their perceived primitiveness. The fact that Mr. P was taught this racist rhetoric by his mentors exposes that Natives still suffer from calculated cultural genocide in the modern day.

I deserved to get smashed in the face for what I've done to Indians. Every white person on this rez should get smashed in the face.

Mr. P understands why Junior’s anger led him to throw his textbook in Mr. P’s face, and he believes that it's a just punishment for how he has treated his students and the Native community throughout his years as a teacher at Wellpinit. Mr. P admits that he not only used physical force on his students, he also actively sought to divorce them from their cultural heritage. While Mr. P eventually realized the racist philosophies behind his teaching methods, he acknowledges that he cannot undo the damage he and his white peers have done to their Native students. Their unempathetic and prejudiced approach to education has only exacerbated the identity crises and emotional trauma plaguing the reservation.

They call me an apple because they think I’m red on the outside and white on the inside.

Junior admits to Gordy that his fellow Native peers harass him for choosing to go to Reardan, often implying that he’s becoming white. Junior’s skin color is “red” – a reference to the outdated, racist descriptor “redskin” when referring to Natives – but his peers believe that, after leaving his rez high school and assimilating to life at Reardan, he’s become white on the inside. The concept of belonging to a certain biological race but conforming with the culture of a different race is an old one and is often used to belittle people of color who engage in interests considered not stereotypical to their race, or who perform code-switching in order to assimilate to multiple cultural or racial groups.

And Roger, being of kind heart and generous pocket, and a little bit racist, drove me home that night. And he drove me home plenty of other nights, too.

Throughout his time at Reardan, Junior not only learns that barriers between people – like race and class – can be overcome, but also that people can grow, change, and reveal their better sides even when you don’t expect it. While Junior doesn’t excuse or deny Roger’s initial racism, he recognizes that despite being brought up in a bigoted community, Roger is ultimately a goodhearted person who wants to help others. From here, their friendship only continues to grow over the course of the novel.

Those white kids couldn't believe their eyes. They stared at me like I was Bigfoot or a UFO. What was I doing at Reardan, whose mascot was an Indian, thereby making me the only other Indian in town?

Junior realizes that the white residents of Reardan’s only exposure to Native American people or culture have been through an offensive caricature – the stereotypical school mascot – and that this is the only representation they have to compare Junior with. But Junior is a human being, not a stereotype or caricature. He will have to bear the brunt of the ignorance that the Reardan community is steeped in – and he does. Although his Reardan peers do eventually accept him, he endures racist jokes, aggressive teachers, and bigoted parents in his first months at school.