Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
Junior has great personal ambition. He wants to become a famous cartoonist and to make money. Becoming rich and famous, Junior reasons, will help him to escape the Spokane Indian Reservation. The problem is that, from Junior’s perspective, what seems like better opportunity and freedom might, to the eyes of people in his larger community, look more like abandonment and betrayal. Once Junior decides to attend high school off the reservation at Reardan, he finds himself struggling both to discover his own personal identity and to relate back to the Spokane community. Junior has struggled, and often failed, to find acceptance there his entire life. He feels a responsibility to prove himself to Rowdy and the other Indians that see him as a traitor. At the same time, Junior tries to make a new name for himself at the all-white Reardan High School. At Reardan, Junior gains fresh perspective on the things that are bad about life on the reservation—alcoholism, hopelessness, and a lack of tolerance. But, with the help of friends and family, Junior is also able to relate his personal ambitions back to his Indian heritage.
By wandering farther from home, Junior better understands his roots. Thanks to his dad and his dad’s friend, Eugene, Junior is able to see leaving the reservation and going to an all-white school as courageous. He isn’t a coward, but a warrior. Likewise, Rowdy helps Junior to see how his going to school off the reservation can be linked back to the nomadism—the wandering from place to place—that was a part of his tribe’s culture for centuries. It is the people wasting their lives getting drunk on the reservation, Rowdy suggests, that have forgotten their community. As time goes on, Junior also finds belonging in other groups, like the Reardan basketball team, and he realizes that he is part of many less apparent communities, other “tribes,” like the tribe of poor people and the tribe of tortilla chip and salsa lovers. Junior takes comfort in the fact that he belongs to these groups. They strengthen his identity. At the same time, he hopes that, by asserting himself in the right ways, he can bring good things back to the communities that support him.
One of the main differences between life on the reservation and life in Reardan is that most of the families on the reservation, including Junior’s, are poor. This means that Junior often misses meals and school because his parents have no money for food or gas. Embarrassed by his poverty, Junior does everything he can to keep his Reardan classmates from understanding the true state of affairs. He often invents excuses or lies to his friends by saying he accidentally left his wallet at home. The white students at Reardan are financially better off, but Junior is surprised to learn that the privilege that accompanies wealth and white skin doesn’t insulate his friends from pain and problems. Penelope, despite her popularity and beauty, is bulimic, and Gordy, despite his shining intellect, is emotionally isolated and has difficulty relating to others. These problems of privilege are no less real than the problems of poverty, but the main difference—the thing that makes poverty so challenging—is that poverty prohibits people from pursuing hope and opportunity. And, what’s more, poor people often find themselves without the privilege to sort through or find help for their own equally real emotional struggles.
Junior always uses the term “Indian” to describe himself and the others on the Spokane Reservation. He never explains why he favors this term over the arguably more politically correct “Native American.” One can argue that “Indian” is more direct, less sugarcoated. Reardan’s white football star, Roger, certainly does not celebrate Junior’s heritage when he tells Junior that, “Indians are living proof that niggers fuck buffalo.” Using the term Indian, then, is also a concession to the racism in Junior’s social environment. The net effect of the racism and bigotry levied against Junior and his tribe on personal, institutional, and national levels is a collective disempowerment that stands in stark contrast to the unconscious privilege and opportunity in the neighboring white communities. But, Junior comes to realize, he participates in these same structures of prejudice. Junior sometimes uses homophobic language, for example, as a way to relate to and communicate with people like Rowdy for whom such language is the norm. Junior’s friends, likewise, show him that he pays so much attention to Penelope in part because she is white. Junior’s realization that he, too, has some racial biases is a key part of his moral education.