Warriors, chiefs, feathered headdresses, savages, these are only a few of the countless stereotypes associated with the Native American culture, from their lifestyle to their religion, which is portrayed incorrectly in the media. Many of the modern stereotypes are apparent in Sherman Alexie’s novel, Reservation Blues, which depicts the lives of five Native Americans who form a band, called Coyote Springs. Immediately, in just the second chapter, the common stereotypes of Indians are expressed by Father Arnold, the white priest on the reservation, when he sarcastically questioned what “[Indians] have to laugh about? Poverty, suicide, alcoholism?” (Alexie, 36). The perspective of a character, who is not originally from the reservation, represents the majority of white American’s prejudices of Indians at the time the book was written. In Reservation Blues, Sherman Alexie exposes several Native American stereotypes such as alcoholism, poverty, and their foreshortened sense of future.
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Several references in the novel support the stereotype that most Native American’s are alcoholics. When Coyote Springs encounters Samuel Builds-the-Fire passed out on Thomas’ lawn, it is a typical occurrence for them. Throughout their lives they have “[seen] too many drunks littering the grass of the reservation,” demonstrating that alcoholism is a common issue for many people on the Spokane reservation (Alexie, 96). Later that night Chess expresses how ashamed she is to be Indian “when [she’s] walking¬ downtown…and [sees] some drunk Indian passed out on the sidewalk,” which similarly confirms that coming across alcoholics on the reservation is far from unusual (Alexie, 99). In addition to Alexie’s exposure of the alcoholism on the Spokane reservation, Chess and Checkers, who are Flathead Indians, also reminisce of their father’s struggle with alcoholism and how he used it as a coping mechanism for Backgammon’s death. When Thomas tells Chess that he does not drink she is astonished and thinks “maybe she [has] snagged the only sober storyteller in the world”. Her evident shock in reaction to finding this out indicates the rarity of finding a sober man on the reservation (Alexie, 75). Therefore, it is clear that alcoholism not only exists on the reservation, but it is a widespread problem among many of the Native Americans.
Another stereotype that Alexie exposes in the novel is the idea that Indians live in poverty. In chapter four, Chess, Checkers and Thomas further discuss why they are ashamed to be Native American. Checkers explains how she “[hates] it when some Indian comes begging for money” because she “[doesn’t] have much money [herself]” the fact that this has occurred so many times that it bothers Checkers, indicates that there are many impoverished people in her community the poverty within her community. (Alexie, 99). Throughout the novel, the Indian’s frequently mention eating commodity food, which is funded by the government for supplemental nutrient needs. Their lack of “real food” implies that Coyote Springs, and the majority of the Indians on the reservation, do not even have enough money to buy a sufficient amount of food for themselves. Additionally, when Coyote Springs find out they’re invited to play in Seattle they think they are going to be paid a thousand dollars, consequently, Junior, Victor, and Chess all instantly agree because they “knew that Coyote Springs needed the money” which shows how desperate they are for any kind of cash and that the prize money is the main motivation for playing the gig (Alexie, 124). None of the members have steady or well paying jobs and “a job [is] hard to come by on the reservation, even harder to keep,” as a result many people on the reservation live in poverty due to having little or no sources of income (Alexie, 13). In the novel, the Indian’s constant use of commodity food, desperation for money, and depiction of beggars on the reservation essentially prove the stereotype that most Native Americans are impoverished.
In Reservation Blues, there are various examples that support the stereotype of Indians having an unsuccessful and/or foreshortened future. Firstly, none of the main characters in the story have successful parents, in fact, most of them are no longer alive. The average lifespan of an American is 78 years old, however Victor’s parents, Junior’s parents, Chess and Checkers’ mother and Thomas’ mother all died before they reached middle age. The fact that all of their parents died so young demonstrates how their future was foreshortened by death, caused by suicide, alcohol, and other accidental reasons. Along with foreshortened futures, Michael White Hawk’s character is a representation of the Indians who have an unsuccessful future on the reservation. “[White Hawk] dropped out in eighth grade, unable to read and write,” he was also imprisoned for two years. With this past it is highly unlikely that White Hawk will be able to live a successful life in the future (Alexie, 39). The numerous deaths of the parents of Coyote springs, and the unsuccessful life of White Hawk are several ways that Alexie proves the stereotype that Native Americans have an unsuccessful, foreshortened future.
Through the lives of the characters in Reservation Blues, Alexie is able to expose the stereotypes of poverty, alcoholism, and a foreshortened or unsuccessful sense of future, which are commonly associated with Native Americans. The frequent references to alcoholism on the reservation, the major lack of jobs and income for Indians, and the repeated incidents of early death among the main characters clearly support these negative stereotypes. The fact that in this story, most of the stereotypes are validated leads to the question of functionality among these families on the Native American reservations.
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