Summary: Rowdy Sings the Blues
The day after deciding to transfer to Reardan, Junior finds Rowdy in the Wellpinit tribal school playground and tells him he is transferring to Reardan. Rowdy thinks it’s a bad joke and starts to get mad. Junior tells Rowdy to transfer with him, but Rowdy hates Reardan. Reardan is the only team to have beaten Junior and Rowdy’s 8th grade basketball team, and Reardan throttled Rowdy and Junior’s football and baseball teams too. Junior led Wellpinit against Rearden in the Academic Bowl, and Wellpinit lost 50 to 1. Junior was the only one to know that Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities. The Rearden kids, Junior says, “were the best of times.” Rowdy realizes Junior is serious and turns away from Junior. Junior touches Rowdy’s shoulder, and Rowdy turns back and shoves Junior. Rowdy calls Junior a slur and Junior says his heart breaks. Junior tells Rowdy to come with him and touches Rowdy’s shoulder again. Rowdy punches Junior in the face, and, while he’s lying on the ground, Junior realizes Rowdy has become his worst enemy.
Summary: How to Fight Monsters
The day after Junior’s fight with Rowdy, Junior’s dad drives him the 22 miles to Reardan. Junior’s dad tells Junior to remember that the white kids aren’t any better than he is, but Junior says his dad is wrong. Junior’s dad calls Junior a warrior. Junior waits outside the school and as the white students show up, they stare at his black eye and swollen nose. Reardan’s mascot is a Native American. There is a cartoon illustrating the differences between a white and a Native American student. The white student has a watch, khakis, and a backpack. The Native American has discount blue jeans, no watch, and a garbage bag for his books. Junior checks in at his office and goes to Mr. Grant’s homeroom where a blond girl named Penelope asks his name. The students laugh at the name “Junior,” but Junior says there are 17 people called Junior on the rez. Then, Mr. Grant takes roll and calls “Arnold Spirit”—Junior’s real name. Penelope is confused. Junior explains his name is both Junior and Arnold. He feels like two people in one body. Junior tells Penelope he’s from the rez.
After his conversation with Penelope, Junior says he didn’t speak for six days, but on the seventh he got into the weirdest fistfight of his life. To explain what makes it weird he lists the 11 unwritten rules for fighting on the rez. If anyone insults you, or you think they might insult you, or they insult some member of your family, you have to fight them or the appropriate member of their family. Basically, on the rez, you are expected to fight. The big white boy jocks call Junior names like “Chief” and “Tonto” and “Squaw Boy.” Then, Roger, the biggest boy of all, says a crude racial slur and Junior punches Roger in the face. Blood gushes from Roger’s nose. He and the other white boys stand around looking shocked. Junior tells Roger to meet him there outside after school, but Roger doesn’t understand. Roger and the others walk away, and Junior asks Roger what the rules are. Roger says, “What rules?”
Summary: Grandmother Gives Me Some Advice
Junior goes home confused. He tells his grandmother what happened, and asks her what it means that Roger walked away. She says it must mean that Roger respects him. The next day, Junior has to walk to school because the car doesn’t have enough gas to get to Reardan. Junior’s dad’s best friend, Eugene, sees Junior walking and offers him a ride on his motorcycle. When they get to Reardan, Eugene, who has “braids down to his butt,” is surprised at how many white people there are. Eugene tells Junior it’s cool that he’s going to school there. Eugene says he could never do it because he’s a wuss. Roger sees Junior pull up with Eugene and says hi to Junior. Roger compliments Eugene’s bike and walks away. Then, Junior says hi to Penelope and she pretends not to know who he is. Junior reminds her his name is Junior or Arnold. Then Penelope remembers. She says he is the boy who can’t figure out his own name. Junior says he may have impressed the king, but not the queen.
The early chapters of The Absolutely True Diary of Part-Time Indian establish the norms of reservation life. Poverty is standard. Alcoholism and physical violence are commonplace. It is not unheard of for grown men to bully 14-year-old boys. At the same time, education has fallen by the wayside. With Junior’s decision to study at Reardan the norms of reservation life are thrown into sharp relief against the norms of white life in the region. In contests between the Native American and the white world, Spokane kids almost always face demoralizing losses. What they often don’t realize is that, in Reardan, kids have better opportunities and more resources. This makes Reardan kids more likely to succeed at athletic contests, where prejudiced or lazy thinkers can easily misconstrue Reardan victories as a sign that Reardan kids are somehow better than Spokane kids, or, when it comes to academic contests, that Reardan kids are somehow smarter. The flip side of this attitude is that Spokane kids are constantly made to feel, and told that they are, inferior. In The Absolutely True Diary of Part-Time Indian, Junior acknowledges and debunks the myth that there is something fundamentally different about Native American kids. The only difference, Junior says, is that they have less opportunity.
The many disadvantages faced by Native Americans on the reservation go hand in hand with a feeling of injustice. Rowdy, on the one hand, recognizes that he has been wronged. His anger is so great he has difficulty navigating it, and he does a poor job communicating. Junior, on the other hand, humbles himself to go to Reardan. For him, Reardan represents white privilege and the white world, a world that has done nothing but oppress his people. Junior also recognizes he’ll get a better education there. Rowdy tries to vent his emotions with hateful language and violence, but Junior sees through the false show of Rowdy’s toughness and seems to recognize, that, more than anything, Rowdy is confused. Junior sees Rowdy’s friendship and approval as an essential part of his identity as a member of his tribe, as a Native American. Most of the tribe members, including Rowdy, make Junior feel like a traitor, and this threatens Junior’s sense of who he is. But, on his first day at Reardan, Junior’s dad helps him to re-conceptualize his decision to go to Reardan in a way that strengthens Junior’s sense of his Native American identity. Junior isn’t a traitor, but a warrior.
Despite this change in perspective, Junior struggles with a feeling of internal contradiction. Like the cartoon illustrating the differences between a white and a Native American student, Junior feels he has a line drawn down the center of his body. On the reservation, he is a traitor and a white-lover. At Reardan, however, Junior is made to feel more like a Native American and an outsider than he has ever felt before. Sometimes Junior feels half-Native American and half-white, but, just as often, he feels he is neither Native American nor white—an outcast from both worlds. Junior’s feeling of internal contradiction is reinforced by his two names. For the rest of the novel, Junior’s white friends will call him by his official name, Arnold, but his Native American friends and family will call him by his nickname, Junior. As Junior tries to resolve his own internal contradictions, he also has to discover the rules of a strange new world. He encounters racism to a degree he hasn’t yet experienced on the reservation, but he discovers that his new white world is governed by a different set of expectations.
On the reservation, physical violence is accepted, even encouraged, as a regular part of day-to-day life. In Reardan, physical violence is much more rare. People don’t hit each other. That is the unwritten rule. But Junior violates this unwritten rule of the white world. This makes Junior seem courageous to white students even though Junior crosses the line largely because he doesn’t know that it exists. Junior begins to see that being an outsider, though challenging, has its advantages. From his outsider perspective, Junior is able to find new ways of identifying both the negative and positive elements of his culture. On the one hand, the Spokane Native Americans can be seen as tribalistic. The group asserts its identity in opposition to other groups around it and by rejecting and disempowering members, like Junior, who don’t conform to the group’s strict expectations. But, on the other hand, in “Grandmother Gives Me Some Advice,” Junior is reminded of the many ways in which the Spokane culture is communal, meaning that group members care for and support each other in times of hardship. Both Junior’s grandmother and Eugene give Junior this positive, communal support.