The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian features two main settings, the Pacific Northwest towns of Wellpinit and Reardan. These contrasting locations – one an impoverished Indian reservation and the other an affluent white community – become very important to the ever-shifting identity of our narrator, Arnold Spirit, Jr.
First, there's Wellpinit, the home of the Spokane Indian Reservation where Arnold lives with his mother, father, sister, and grandmother. The Spirit family have lived on the reservation all of their lives, and Arnold is known there not by his first name, but simply as "Junior." As his name suggests, he's very much connected to – and identified by – his family and his tribe.
The reservation, though, is a pretty rough place. Fist fighting is a way of life (see: "The Unofficial and Unwritten Spokane Rules of Fisticuffs," 8.86) and, since Arnold is a stuttering outcast, he gets picked on and beaten up regularly. Whether kneed in the crotch by the 30-year-old Andruss triplets (3.96), or shoved around by his best friend Rowdy (3.77), Arnold is constantly bullied and belittled. He's a regular member of the "Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club" (1.42).
The reservation is a rough place in other ways, as well. Poverty is a given for most Indian families, and its effects, as Arnold tells us, can be pretty soul-crushing. "Poverty," he writes, "doesn't give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor" (2.54). Arnold's family often lacks the basic necessities, such as money for gas or food in the refrigerator. This leads many of his family members to try to escape reality by either hiding in the basement (such as his sister, Mary) or guzzling booze (such as his parents).
Speaking of which, alcoholism is rampant on the reservation. Both of Arnold's parents are alcoholics, as is, well, almost everyone. This situation, unfortunately, leads to many, many senseless deaths. Arnold loses both his grandmother and his sister in alcohol-related accidents. Arnold's father's best friend Eugene gets accidentally shot in the face while fighting over the last drop of alcohol in an almost-empty bottle.
With hope flickering out of existence, Arnold tells us that reservations were "meant to be prisons" (29.26). They are places where Indians were supposed to die – and disappear.
Despite all this, Arnold does acknowledge that there are some good things about the reservation in Wellpinit. As he tells us, "the reservation is beautiful" (30.1), with millions of pine trees everywhere, some of them "older than the United States" (30.6). Plus, the reservation is home to a very close-knit community of Indian families where everybody knows everyone else. Arnold writes that "you know every kid's father, mother, grand parents, dog, cat, and shoe size. I mean, yes, Indians are screwed up, but we're really close to each other" (22.17). He compares Indian families to the white community in Reardan, where neighbors can be strangers and fathers have been known to hide "in plain sight" (22.19).
For Arnold, then, the reservation is both heaven and hell, both home and a place he must leave.
The novel's second major setting is Reardan, an affluent, mostly-white town 22 miles away from the reservation in Wellpinit. Reardan is home to the high school where Arnold decides to transfer. Arnold's identity in Reardan is not directly related to his tribe or his family. He is known in Reardan not as "Junior," but as "Arnold."
Reardan, upon first glance, is a wonderland to Arnold. It is a place of optimism and opportunity, primarily due to the town's economic prosperity and ample resources. The school has a computer room and a chemistry lab and awesome basketball courts. Because of this, Reardan wins at everything – whether athletic or academic competitions. The Reardan kids are like these amazing mythical creatures to Arnold. He writes that they are "beautiful and smart and epic" and filled to the brim with "hope" (7.38-7.39).
Yet, not everything is what it seems. Instead of completely idealizing Reardan, Arnold admits that the place is a "hick town" that is "filled with farmers and rednecks and racist cops" (6.19). We see this viewpoint developed in the novel through characters like Penelope, Arnold's beautiful white semi-girlfriend. She describes Reardan as a place where the people have "small ideas" and "small dreams." She continues: "They all want to marry each other and live here forever" (15.87). Penelope sees Reardan as having some of the same limitations as the reservation. Reardan is Penelope's home, but it is also a place that she must leave in order to realize her dreams.