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Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a collection of short stories that explores the continuing Native American struggles in the modern era. The product of more than 500 years of oppression and persecution, the world of the Native American reservations is plagued by poverty, dysfunction, and alcoholism. Living in one of these reservations, Victor Joseph is a man who is torn between the modern world and the world of ancient tradition. He struggles with issues of identity and the place of Native American beliefs and history in a white American-dominated hostile environment. While going to a 7-11 at 3 am on a particularly hot night, Victor reminisces about the time he left the reservation with a white girlfriend to start a new life in Seattle. Through depicting Victor’s tribulations, the short story “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” explores Native American issues of alienation and assimilation, and how these problems can be addressed by members of the community.
One of Alexie’s main themes in his short story is the sense of alienation that Native Americans feel in the modern world. The story begins with Victor walking up to a 7-11 to get a creamsicle 3 am in the morning. Once he enters the store, he notices the clerk giving looking him over, commenting, “He looked me over so could describe me to the police later.” It’s important to note that Victor is at a 7-11 store on a Native American reservation. Even within the confines of his home territory, Victor feels a strong sense of alienation and “othering”. He is not just a man buying a simple creamsicle, but a suspect later to be described to the police. Victor’s identity as a Native American is constantly reinforced by this sense of alienation. As Victor travels down a Seattle road to escape a violent and turbulent argument with his girlfriend, he is stopped by an officer for “Making people nervous. You don’t fit the profile of this neighborhood.” He himself comments how he doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. This sense of alienation isn’t just a literary device, but a very real perception by many Native Americans. According to a study carried out in 1987, many Native Americans suffer from “perceptions towards feelings of alienation” (Trimble). It is this native American feeling of “otherness” that Alexie attempts to capture in his work.
Alexie also shows in his short story how feelings of alienation can lead to a desire to assimilate with the “othering” force. Critic Andrew Dix comments how such pressures to assimilate not only lead to the drowning out of Native American voices, but also make it impossible to construct a cohesive native American identity (Dix). Victor is torn between two different ways of being, his traditional Native American heritage and the hostile world of modern urban living. Victor’s departure from Seattle was his attempt to rid himself of the cognitive dissonance of living in these two worlds at once, a way to assimilate his “otherness” into the wider White American culture. Yet Victor’s attempt at assimilation in Seattle did little to separate him from the alienation he experienced at the reservation. When he’s stopped by the police officer in Seattle, Victor thinks to himself, “I wanted to tell him I didn’t fit the profile of the country but I knew that would just get me in trouble.” Even hundreds of miles away from the reservation, Victor feels as if he’s still somehow confined to it.
While Victor’s attempt at assimilation ends with his return to the reservation, he never allows his negative experiences to leave him jaded and cynical. When Victor breaks up with his white girlfriend, he thinks to himself, “When one person starts to look at another person as a criminal, then the love is over. It’s logical.” The end of the relationship is a metaphor for the end of Victor’s flirtation with assimilation. According to critic Jolie Sheffer, “White women seem to offer the promise of the American dream in the future (a mirage in the distance), but, given US history, also prevent pantribal solidarity and threaten Native American identities” (Sheffer). Victor’s time away from the reservation and his encounters with people outside of it showed him how actively hostile the world is to his identity and way of life. Even when confronted by the hostility of the 7-11 clerk, Victor does not act in kind. Instead, he makes the manager laugh, asking him if he knows the theme to The Brady Bunch. He counters hostility with humor, leading the clerk to give him the creamsicle for free. Thus, Victor refuses to be a part of the system that perpetuates self-alienation.
Sherman Alexie’s short story “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” is a trenchant piece of literature that explores Native American issues of alienation and assimilation, and how individuals can overcome those obstacles. Victor feels isolated and alienated from mainstream white American culture. Even when riding down the road in his car, he cannot help but be reminded that he is different. That he is an “other.” Even when he attempts to assimilate, his efforts are thrown back at him. After living with his white girlfriend for some time, he comes to be a personification of the destruction of the Native American identity. When he eventually returns to his hometown, he’s again treated to the same “othering” process that he’s experienced his whole life. Yet instead of lashing out or saying nothing, he takes the opportunity to create a positive encounter. Victor figures out the key to stopping the infinite cycle of alienation and assimilation: mutual understanding. Ultimately, Sherman Alexie’s work stands as a testament to the struggles of the Native American community to maintain identity in the face of assimilation.
DIX, ANDREW. “Escape Stories: Narratives and Native Americans in Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” Yearbook of English Studies (2001): 155.Academic OneFile. Web. 3 Apr. 2016.
Sheffer, Jolie A. “The optics of interracial sexuality in Adrian Tomine’s shortcomings and Sherman Alexie’s the lone ranger and tonto fistfight in heaven.” College Literature 41.1 (2014): 119+. Academic OneFile. Web. 3 Apr. 2016.
Trimble, Joseph E. “Self-perception and Perceived Alienation among American Indians.” Journal of Community Psychology J. Community Psychol. 15.3 (1987): 316-33. Web.
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