The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Matter Anymore
Sherman Alexie’s work has given many readers a glimpse at a life they are comfortably ignorant towards: Native Americans. The history, tragedy, culture-- all of it escapes the minds of 21st century Americans entirely, spare for the occasional racist sports mascot or insensitive characterizations in the media. This is simply how people are brought up to think, though-- it is somewhat customary to either lie about or rewrite the atrocities committed upon the original occupants of what is now the United States. After all, Columbus day is still recognized. Alexie, on the other hand, has produced works that shed light on what this culture has become (as opposed to what the United States believes, which involves either rampant gambling or ludicrous headdresses), as is the case with the story “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn't Flash Red Anymore.” In this short story, featured in the collection titled The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Alexie uses a variety of symbols to illustrate the apathy, avoidance, simultaneous unity that resonates within this Native American culture.
The title “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore” refers to the topic of discussion between Adrian and Victor, the broken traffic signal that has fallen into disrepair. The two banter about how the signal was never of much use in the first place, but that it was still strange that it had yet to be repaired-- to quote: “‘When did that f------ traffic signal quit working?’ ‘Don't know.’ ‘... they better fix it. Might cause an accident.’” (Alexie). The two then laugh for a bit over how little it even matters that the signal ceases to work, since there is only one car that ever passes through the reservation. The signal, an insignificant part of the reservation that was hardly acknowledged in the first place, suffers a fate that many other things within the reservation share: apathy. Whether or not the signal was of any importance, it symbolizes the lack of concern anyone really has for the problems that plague the reservation-- the residents sort of grow accustomed to it and adapt to the disappointment. Take, for example, the conversation that the two have later on in the story about the very same light-- where Victor contemplates “‘Shit, that damn traffic signal is still broken. Look.’ Adrian pointed down the road and he was right. But what's the point of fixing it in a place where the STOP signs are just suggestions?” (Alexie) What they cannot stomach avoiding entirely, they leave to sink beneath their feet. This signal could be replaced with a number of other problems in the reservation and the effect would remain the same: Julius’s failure, the alcoholism, the bums, drifters, drop-outs-- all of it is left to fall into unchecked disrepair, a victim of the universal apathy within the reservation that everyone experiences when things turn for the worst.
There are some unfortunate situations in the reservations that the residents are capable of pushing aside rather than sadly watching them degrade. Take, for example, the floating about of attention between various basketball heroes. As one subsides, another younger prospect will take its place-- like Lucy taking the attention away from Julius’ failure. Julius’ diversion from the spotlight of the reservation fails to live up to a seemingly brilliant symbol in comparison. This symbol is something that the story cleverly parades right in the reader’s face, though it remains vague enough at times that many readers may not catch it on their first or second reading. The symbol in question here is none other than Adrian, the sidekick to Victor in his aged state of narration.
When reading the scenes with Victor and Adrian together, there are many hints that Adrian is not a separate character, but rather a projection of a different state of Victor’s mind. They are literally the same person, and it is inferred that Adrian may just be a remnant of Victor’s drinking days, and the alcoholic personality that manifests itself as a ghost or alter ego to Victor. This explains many of the more confusing scenes throughout the book, like the line “While I still held that pistol to my temple, I used my other hand to flip Adrian off. Then I made a fist with my third hand to gather a little bit of courage or stupidity, and wiped sweat from my forehead with my fourth hand.” (Adrian). The four hands are that of Victor and the alcoholic he used to be, a side of himself that he has projected into another person to avoid the shame and disappointment with himself. To Victor, it is easier to be ashamed of someone else for a decision that past-Victor actually made. To further support this idea and the symbolism, consider the line “"Are you dead yet’ I asked. ‘Nope,’ he said. ‘Not yet. Give me another beer.’ ‘Hey, we don't drink no more, remember? How about a Diet Pepsi?’” (Alexie). This interaction is essentially Victor asking if his alcoholic past can be put beside him, to which he answers himself by saying “no, and I may never leave.” Adrian is a perfect symbol to represent the reservations ability to put aside what they let fall into sad disrepair and monotony-- like the traffic signal.
Despite the prevalence of combined apathy and avoidance in this community, there is one other symbolic notion that gets a different reputation in the story than the symbolic significance it truly carries. This is of course referring to the character Julius Windwalker, the basketball sensation that takes an unfortunate tumble to alcoholism and a dead-end life. Julius takes all this hope that the community had placed in him to go all the way and maybe take on college level basketball/education, and he squanders it. Even though he lets down the community, the members who are disappointed the most are still somehow the most caring for him, as made clear by the lines “It really didn't bother Adrian that Julius was on the floor, so he threw an old blanket on top of him. Adrian and I grabbed our morning coffee and went back out to sit on the porch“ (Alexie). Victor talked about what it was like to watch the young star make his same mistakes, yet Julius symbolizes this attitude of trust, reliance, and community in their culture. The hardest thing Victor could have endured would have been to watch a hero like Julius ruin his life, but just like all the other difficulties his fellow reservation members suffer, Victor and the rest of the reservation have an innate ability to forgive and nurture those who have it rough at times. This is a unique sense of community that best embodies itself in something that hurts the community the most, and that what makes it such a strong symbol in Alexie’s short story.
Victor analyzes later in the story that only the little injustices are what hurt this proud people, now. When looking at the three key symbols of this story, though, it starts to make sense. The old and hackneyed strife like genocide, slavery, and terror are parts of the Native American existence that have been around long enough that they were left to the apathy that was discussed earlier. The recent injustices, though, are things that threaten the integrity of the community they share in a new and inescapable way. Media personalities can get away with what is fit to be called “red-face”, and sports mascots parade about stereotypical representations of a damaged and abused race, and this is fairly modern for the Natives’ timeline. It only makes sense that they have not had the time to push it back, or let it burn freely-- rather, they are still in the shock stage when it comes to processing this new ignorant cultural appropriation.