Study Guide

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Identity

By Sherman Alexie

Identity

Chapter 1

Everybody on the rez calls me a retard about twice a day. They call me retard when they are pantsing me or stuffing my head in the toilet or just smacking me upside the head.

I'm not even writing down this story the way I actually talk, because I'd have to fill with stutters and lisps, and then you'd be wondering why you're reading a story written by such a retard.

Do you know what happens to retards on the rez?

We get beat up.

At least once a month.

Yep, I belong to the Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club.

Sure I want to go outside. Every kid wants to go outside. But it's safer to stay at home. So I mostly hang out alone in my bedroom and read books and draw cartoons. (1.39-1.42)

While Arnold's humor is in full force, we can also see that this sweet, funny kid has some issues with self esteem. Others on the reservation call him a "retard" – and bully and abuse him. This leads Arnold to self-deprecatingly give himself the label of "retard."

Why do you think Arnold's physical differences make him so vulnerable on the reservation? And why do you think Arnold cracks so many jokes (e.g., he belongs to the "Black-Eye-of-the-Month Club") about what seems to be a pretty serious situation? How does Arnold cope with isolation? Do reading and writing offer him refuge?

Arnold Spirit, Junior

I was born with water on the brain.

Okay, so that's not exactly true. I was actually born with too much cerebral spinal fluid inside my skull. But cerebral spinal fluid is just the doctors' fancy way of saying brain grease. And brain grease works inside the lobes like car grease works inside an engine. It keeps things running smooth and fast. But weird me, I was born with too much grease inside my skull, and it got all thick and muddy and disgusting, and it only mucked up the works. My thinking and breathing and living engine slowed down and flooded.

My brain was drowning in grease.

But that makes the whole thing sound weirdo and funny, like my brain was a giant French fry, so it seems more serious and poetic and accurate to say, "I was born with water on the brain." (1.1-1.3)

The very first sentence of the novel informs us not of our narrator's name, age, or occupation, but that he was born with too much water on his brain. That is, Arnold is a hydrocephalic, a medical condition that puts him at risk of brain damage and makes him susceptible to seizures. Arnold tells us this information up front, so we can guess that hydrocephalus is very important to how Arnold sees himself – and how others see him as well.

Speaking of which, how does Arnold perceive himself? Notice how many times he uses the word "weirdo." Take note too of the images he employs to describe himself and his brain. Why does he use the image of a car? A French fry?

Chapter 2

Okay, so now you know that I'm a cartoonist. And I think I'm pretty good at it, too. But no matter how good I am, my cartoons will never take the place of food or money. I wish I could draw a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a fist full of twenty dollar bills, and perform some magic trick and make it real. But I can't do that. Nobody can do that, not even the hungriest magician in the world.

I wish I were magical, but I am really just a poor-ass reservation kid living with his poor-ass family on the poor-ass Spokane Indian Reservation. (2.1-2.2)

The economic difficulties Arnold and his family face nearly squash any positive sense of self Arnold has. Poverty is intense, and it totally and completely limits Arnold's choices. Notice here how he starts to identify himself as a cartoonist, but immediately changes gears, writing that he is simply a "poor-ass reservation kid." Though drawing cartoons brings light into Arnold's world, that light sometimes has trouble shining through the darkness of poverty.

Chapter 5
Mr. P

"You've been fighting since you were born," he said. "You fought off that brain surgery. You fought off those seizures. You fought off all the drunks and drug addicts. You kept your hope. And now, you have to take your hope and go somewhere where other people have hope."

I was starting to understand. He was a math teacher. I had to add my hope to somebody else's hope. I had to multiply my hope.

"Where is hope?" I asked. "Who has hope?"

"Son," Mr. P said. "You're going to find more and more hope the farther and farther you walk away from this sad, sad, sad reservation." (5.163-5.168)

Mr. P comes to visit Arnold during his suspension for throwing the geometry book. Instead of fussing at Arnold, though, Mr. P characterizes Arnold as a "fighter" – as someone who has faced adversity and who, unlike others on the reservation, won't give up.

Why do you think Arnold is so resilient, so hopeful? What does this say about who Arnold really is? Mr. P encourages Arnold to nurture his "hope" by leaving the reservation. Arnold decides to transfer to the Reardan school twenty-two miles away. What would you have done?

Chapter 8

And then I felt smaller because the teacher was taking roll and he called out my name name.

"Arnold Spirit," the teacher said.

No, he yelled it.

He was so big and muscular that his whisper was probably a scream.

"Here," I said as quietly as possible. My whisper was only a whisper.

"Speak up," the teacher said.

"Here," I said.

"My name is Mr. Grant," he said.

"I'm here, Mr. Grant." (8.60-8.68)

Ah, the eternal question: "What's in a name?" After eight chapters, we finally learn the full name of, Junior, our lovable narrator. He is (drum roll, please) Arnold Spirit, Jr. Yet why does the novel so long to tell us Arnold's full name? Did he have to leave the reservation first before we could find this out? Why? How does leaving home change how Arnold sees himself? Why does Arnold feel so "small" when the teacher calls out his "name name"?

They stared at me, the Indian boy with the black eye and swollen nose, my going-away gifts from Rowdy. Those white kids couldn't believe their eyes. They stared at me like I was Bigfoot or a UFO. What was I doing at Reardan, whose mascot was an Indian, thereby making me the only other Indian in town? (8.27)

On his first day at the new school, Arnold sees himself not only through his own eyes, but through the eyes of the other students as well. He realizes that, to them, he's not Junior the weirdo Indian, but he is something foreign and alien – more like "Bigfoot" or a "UFO" than an actual person. (The only other Indian at the Reardan school is, after all, the stinking mascot.)

In this sense, Arnold starts seeing himself two ways at once: the way he sees himself and the way the white kids see him. It's almost as if he is looking through bifocal glasses. In his writing on African Americans, writer W.E.B. Du Bois has called this way of seeing oneself a "double consciousness."

Arnold Spirit, Junior

"My name is Junior," I said. "And my name is Arnold. It's Junior and Arnold. I'm both."

I felt like two different people inside of one body.

No, I felt like a magician slicing myself in half, with Junior living on the north side of the Spokane River and Arnold living on the south. (8.72-8.74)

In Arnold's conversation with the beautiful Penelope, we begin to see a true splitting of Arnold's self. He is Junior at home on the reservation, and he is Arnold when he is at school in Reardan. Do you think Arnold's split personality is a positive thing? Why does Arnold use the image of a magician slicing himself in half? Do you think Arnold can reconcile these two people living inside of him? How?

Chapter 17

Traveling between Reardan and Wellpinit, between the little white town and the reservation, I always felt like a stranger.

I was half Indian in one place and half white in the other.

It was like being Indian was my job, but it was only a part-time job. And it didn't pay well. (17.1-17.3)

Title alert! Arnold writes, at last, about feeling like he's only a "part-time" Indian. Again, this ties into the way that Arnold feels himself splitting into two. It's like he's "half-white" in one place and "half-Indian" in the other. This leads Arnold to feel like a stranger in both places. Are there any places where Arnold feels accepted or at home? Where? (Hint: think about the library or the basketball court or Arnold's friends at school.)

Chapter 18

"Well, life is a constant struggle between being an individual and being a member of the community."

Can you believe there is a kid who talks like that? Like he's already a college professor impressed with the sound of his own voice?

"Gordy," I said. "I don't understand what you're trying to say to me."

"Well, in the early days of humans, the community was our only protection against predators, and against starvation. We survived because we trusted one another."

"So?"

"So, back in the day, weird people threatened the strength of the tribe. If you weren't good for making food, shelter or babies, then you were tossed out on your own."

"But we're not primitive like that anymore."

"Oh, yes, we are. Weird people still get banished."

"You mean weird people like me," I said.

"And me," Gordy said.

"All right, then," I said. "So we have a tribe of two." (18.20-18.30)

Gordy explains to Arnold the push and pull between an individual and their community – and why Arnold, ever the individual, has been made the outcast of his society. Gordy too, we discover, is a kind of outcast. But why? What do you think of Gordy and Arnold's decision to form their own tribe?

"The people at home," I said. "A lot of them call me an apple."

"Do they think you're a fruit or something?" he asked.

"No, no," I said. "They call me an apple because they think I'm red on the outside and white on the inside."

"Ah, so they think you're a traitor."

"Yep." (18.18-18.22)

While Arnold himself is feeling like he has a split personality, the other Indians back on the rez are taking things a step further. The reservation has decided that, by leaving his home and going to school with white people, Arnold is a traitor. Why do you think that is? What does it mean to call Arnold an "apple"? Do the people on the rez think that Arnold's Indian-ness is only skin deep?

Chapter 25
Coach

"And I have to be honest, guys," Coach said. "We can't beat these guys with our talent. We just aren't good enough. But I think we have bigger hearts. And I think we have a secret weapon."

I wondered if Coach had maybe hired some Mafia dude to take out Rowdy.

"We have Arnold Spirit," Coach said. (25.117-25.119)

Coach's speech to Arnold, and his ongoing encouragement of Arnold's mad basketball skills, illustrates the awesome power of being believed in – and being told that "you can do it" (25.141). How does Coach's positive outlook radically change Arnold's basketball playing? How does Coach's enthusiasm change who Arnold is – and how he sees himself?

Chapter 29

I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms.

And to the tribe of cartoonists.

And to the tribe of chronic masturbators.

And the tribe of teenage boys.

And the tribe of small-town kids.

And the tribe of Pacific Northwesterners.

And the tribe of tortilla chips-and-salsa lovers.

And the tribe of poverty.

And the tribe of funeral goers.

And the tribe of beloved sons.

And the tribe of boys who really missed their best friends.

It was a huge realization.

And that's when I knew that I was going to be okay. (29.31-29.43)

Alright everyone, it's time for a mega-huge epiphany. Arnold is done with seeing himself as just one of two people: half-Indian Junior or half-white Arnold. He refuses to be defined solely by his race or ethnicity anymore. Instead, Arnold realizes that he belongs to many different groups, some of which have absolutely nothing to do with being Indian or being white. This new kind of identity that Arnold embraces is multi-tribal, meaning that Arnold now realizes the he belongs to about a million different tribes. What are some of the tribes you belong to?

Chapter 30
Rowdy

"So, anyway," he said. "I was reading this book about old-time Indians, about how we used to be nomadic."

"Yeah," I said.

"So I looked up nomadic in the dictionary, and it means people who move around, who keep moving, in search of food and water and grazing land."

"That sounds about right."

"Well, the thing is, I don't think Indians are nomadic anymore. Most Indians, anyway."

"No, we're not," I said.

"I'm not nomadic," Rowdy said. "Hardly anybody on this rez is nomadic. Except for you. You're the nomadic one."

"Whatever."

"No, I'm serious. I always knew you were going to leave. I always knew you were going to leave us behind and travel the world. I had this dream about you a few months ago. You were standing on the Great Wall of China. You looked happy. And I was happy for you." (30.176-30.184)

Though Arnold has accepted himself, it's still important to him that Rowdy does too. And here, he does! Rowdy is able to come to terms with Arnold's decision to leave the reservation – and Arnold's new identity – by thinking of Arnold as a "nomad." In this sense, Rowdy still sees Arnold as an Indian (after all, the "old-time Indians" were nomads), even though he is no longer on the reservation. Why do you think Rowdy's approval is so important to Arnold?