Study Guide

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Themes

By Sherman Alexie

  • Identity

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    Arnold starts The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian feeling like the reservation outcast, but once he transfers to the fancy white school in Reardan, he becomes a basketball star who gets carried around on people's shoulders. How does Arnold go from zero to hero?

    Well, the journey to a new identity is not an easy one for Arnold, trust us.

    When Arnold transfers to Reardan, he sees himself as having two different selves: Junior from the outcast from the reservation and Arnold from the white high-school at Reardan. The rest of the novel is really all about reconciling these two different selves.

    So how does he do it?

    Well, Arnold learns to see himself not simply as Junior the Indian or Arnold the traitor, but as someone who belongs to many different tribes (24.31-24.44). He becomes a multi-tribal kind of guy. He moves between locations, kind of like a "nomad" (30.182). By seeing himself in this way, Arnold resolves his split personality crisis and finds a meaningful, less restrictive form of identity.

    Questions About Identity

    1. Why does Arnold belong to the "Black-Eye-of-the-Month-Club" (1.42)?
    2. Why does Arnold go by two different names: Junior on the rez and Arnold at school? Do you have different names you use in different settings? Why?
    3. Why do people on the rez start calling Junior an "apple" (18.18)? Why don't they support his choice to go to school in Reardan?
    4. Which tribes does Arnold belong to? (29.31) Which tribes do you belong to?
    5. Why does Rowdy call Junior a "nomad" (30.182)?

    Chew on This

    Our environment can define who we are. By changing our environment, we can change ourselves.

    By seeing himself as a member of many different tribes, Arnold is able to forge a new and meaningful identity. He becomes multi-tribal, which means that he belongs to many different groups.

    Arnold is a nomad, just like the old time Indians. Even though he leaves his home on the reservation, he's not abandoning his family, history, or identity as a Native American.

  • Home

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    Sherman Alexie dedicates The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian to his two hometowns: Wellpinit and Reardan. Like Alexie, Arnold Spirit, Jr. has two hometowns as well. There is his family's home on the Spokane Indian Reservation, and then there's his place at the white high school in Reardan. Though he should be at home in both places, sometimes Arnold feels like a complete stranger. In the end, Arnold stops thinking of home so much as a specific place, and instead learns to be at home among many different people. As Rowdy tells him, he is a "nomad" (30.182). (For more, see our section on "Setting.")

    Questions About Home

    1. How is Rowdy's home different from Junior's?
    2. Why does Mary hide in her parents' basement? Why does she leave home and go to Montana?
    3. How are the homes of the white basketball players different from those of the Indian basketball players? Does this change how they play?
    4. Why does Arnold call the reservation both a prison and a place of great beauty? Can it be both?
    5. Is being a nomad a good thing? Is it a good thing according to Rowdy?

    Chew on This

    Sometimes you have to leave your home to find yourself.

    Home is not only the place where you were born, it can also mean the place where you belong. A person can have many different homes.

  • Race

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    Race is a pretty huge deal for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Why? Because it gives Arnold Spirit, Jr. a good deal of trouble in his search for self. Arnold feel like he's only half an Indian – or as he says a "part-time Indian" – once he transfers to the white school of Reardan. He then gets split into two: Junior on the Indian reservation and Arnold in his white high school. This all suggests that one's racial or ethnic identity can change depending on place or social setting.

    Questions About Race

    1. How are being a Native American and being poor related in Junior's mind?
    2. What does it mean to "kill the Indian to save the child" (5.40)?
    3. Why do Junior's parents say that white people have the most hope (6.10)?
    4. Do you think Junior idealizes white people and the culture at his white school (7.34, 22.1)?
    5. What does Gordy mean when he says "White girls are privileged" (16.26)?
    6. What does it mean to be a part-time Indian?
    7. How can one's racial identity change? What does it mean to "become" white (18.15)?

    Chew on This

    As Arnold tells us, being an Indian also means being poor. Race and class are deeply connected.

    Arnold sees himself as half-Indian and half-white. This suggests that racial identity can change depending on situation.

  • Poverty

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    One of the most compelling aspects of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is that we see firsthand how devastating and totally awful poverty is not only for an individual, but for an entire community. We see how poverty has squashed hope on the reservation: how alcoholism is everywhere, a condition that leads to tons and tons of senseless death. (Arnold loses his grandmother and his sister.) Though poverty may not teach us anything (as Arnold is quick to tell us), Arnold's fight for a better life inspires us – and gives us hope that things can change.

    Questions About Poverty

    1. Why does chicken mean so much to Arnold?
    2. Can you learn anything from poverty? What does Arnold think? What do you think?
    3. Why is Junior so upset about using his mother's geometry book? Would you be upset?
    4. Who did you root for during the Reardan v. Wellpinit games? Why?

    Chew on This

    What's the key to hope? Plain and simple: money. If you have it, the world is your oyster. If not? Well, the world can be a pretty bleak place.

    While poverty itself may not teach us anything, Arnold's story of struggling against poverty – and leaving the reservation – fills us with hope. We learn not to give up, but to keep on fighting.

  • Literature and Writing

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    The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a novel that explores the many different relationships people have to literature and writing. For Arnold, writing and drawing become a means of reaching out and connecting to others. He refers to his drawings, after all, as little "life boats" (1.56). For Gordy, books and knowledge have a way of expanding the world into a place of infinite possibility (Chapter 12). On the other hand, for Mary, reading and writing romance novels provide an escape from her existence on the reservation (Chapter 5). Similarly, Rowdy reads cheesy comic books in order to live a whole different life where people are happy and things are all sunshine and lollipops (3.114). Which kinds of relationships are the most positive, do you think? What kind of a relationship do you have to books?

    Questions About Literature and Writing

    1. Why does Arnold draw cartoons? Why does Rowdy like comic books?
    2. What is the relationship between words and text in this novel? What do Arnold's cartoons tell us that his words don't?
    3. Why do Gordy and Arnold get "boners" in the library?
    4. How is Mary's relationship to reading and writing different from Arnold's? Why does she hide her stories? Why do you think she likes romance novels so much?
    5. Why does Arnold relate to the play Medea?
    6. Why does Arnold think that Tolstoy is wrong?

    Chew on This

    Reading and writing can become a way to escape from the world (such as Mary's romance novels), a way to expand the world (like Gordy's view of the library), or a way to connect with others in the world (the way Arnold views his drawings).

    Arnold's love of reading and writing fill him with a joy for life, learning, and knowledge that helps him through his darkest moments – and gives him the strength to leave the reservation.

  • Mortality

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    Though our narrator Arnold Spirit is only fourteen years of age, he is confronted with the death of his loved ones over and over and over again. For Arnold, death is pretty much relentless, and comes knocking at his family's door time after time. With bodies piling up left and right in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Arnold finds that death is a very hard thing to cope with to cope with – especially when it is senseless. That is, the death Arnold is confronted with is primarily the result of poverty or alcoholism.

    Despite all of this, Arnold must learn to carry on. Arnold does this by focusing on life and the joy that it brings. (Note for example the lists he makes in Chapter 24).

    Questions About Mortality

    1. Why does Arnold's father kill his dog Oscar? How did this make you feel?
    2. Why are there so many deaths on the reservation? What is the root cause?
    3. After Arnold loses his grandmother and Eugene, he becomes depressed. How does he find his joy again? Why is joy so important for Junior?
    4. Rowdy blames Arnold for Mary's death. Do you?
    5. Why does Arnold sometimes laugh when really, really bad things happen?

    Chew on This

    Though we may face death in our lives, we must find the joy in our life – and carry on. We cannot give up or give in.

    Death may be a part of life, but senseless and preventable deaths – such as those caused by poverty or alcoholism – are the greatest tragedy. They cause needless pain and suffering.

  • Friendship

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    Arnold's main friend – and only friend – on the reservation in Wellpinit is Rowdy. Once he moves to Reardan, though, he becomes friends with a whole host of people: Penelope, Gordy, Roger, even the school basketball coach. Why is it important that Arnold meet new people and make new friends? What does he learn from these people? Why is it important that he reconcile with Rowdy in the end of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian?

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Junior says that Rowdy is more important than his family (3.123). Can your best friend be more important than your family? Why?
    2. Why do Roger and Arnold become kinda sorta friends?
    3. How is Gordy's friendship important to Arnold? What exactly does Gordy teach him?
    4. Though they reconcile at the end, do you think Rowdy and Arnold can ever really be friends again? How is Rowdy both an enemy and a friend?

    Chew on This

    Connecting with different people and making new friends is an important part of finding out who we really are.

    Relying too heavily upon the strength and friendship of another person can prevent us from ever learning how to stand up for ourselves.

  • Hopes, Dreams, and Plans

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    The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a novel about hope, and how important it is to have it and how it helps us stay afloat. In this novel, we see the consequences of people and even whole communities that lack hope. Why is it important to hope? Who has the most hope? Why do only white people seem to have hope? Why does Arnold have hope?

    Questions About Hopes, Dreams, and Plans

    1. Did Arnold's parents have dreams, hopes, and plans? What were they? Did they come true? Why or why not?
    2. Think about Mary and her dreams. What happens to them?
    3. Why did using his mother's geometry book crush Arnold's dreams?
    4. What are Penelope's dreams?
    5. Why are the words "you can do it" (25.140) so powerful for Arnold?
    6. What do you think will happen to Arnold after high school? What will happen to Rowdy?

    Chew on This

    The power of hope is limitless. If we can still dream, then we can imagine ourselves out of even the darkest situation.

    When others believe in you, it's so much easier to believe in yourself.

  • Education

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    Reardan High School is a wonderland of chemistry labs, brand new basketball courts, and computer labs. The place is a regular learning hotspot. Arnold leaves the reservation to get a better education in Reardan, but, as we find out, the things that he needs to learn aren't always found in those fancy classrooms. In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, so much of what Arnold learns has simply to do with attitude. From Gordy, the Reardan brainiac, Arnold learns about the joys that knowledge can bring. From Coach, the head of basketball at Reardan, Arnold learns about the power of positive thinking – and how a simple phrase ("you can do it") can completely change who you are. Why could Arnold not learn these things at his high school in Wellpinit?

    Questions About Education

    1. Why doesn't Junior want to use his mother's geometry book? Why does he throw the book at Mr. P?
    2. Why does Mr. P tell Junior to leave the reservation?
    3. What does it mean to "kill the Indian to save the child" (5.40)?
    4. How is Gordy important to Arnold's education? What does Gordy teach Arnold?
    5. What does Arnold learn from his basketball coach at Reardan?

    Chew on This

    A good education opens the door to great opportunity.

    The most important part of Arnold's education at Reardan is that he learns to believe in himself. He learns not to give up.

  • Tradition and Custom

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    In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Arnold comes from the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, a place built on tradition and custom. Arnold describes his culture for us in full detail: powwows, fry bread, and many, many funerals. What is Arnold's relationship to these traditions and customs? Arnold also tells us that Indian families tend to stay in one place, a tradition that makes it hard for Arnold to leave the reservation.

    What are the traditions and customs of the folks in the white town of Reardan? Do Reardan and Wellpinit share any traditions or customs? What about basketball?

    Questions About Tradition and Custom

    1. Why doesn't Junior want to go to the powwow?
    2. What is significant about Junior's grandmother's funeral?
    3. How are Indian families different from white families, according to Arnold?
    4. Why does Billionaire Ted collect Indian art? Why does Arnold dislike Billionaire Ted?
    5. Why is basketball important to the reservation and to Reardan?
    6. How are the funerals of Mary and Junior's grandmother different?

    Chew on This

    By leaving the reservation, Arnold breaks with the tradition of his people and hopes to find a new life – and a new identity.

    By becoming "nomadic," Arnold doesn't break with his people's tradition. He merely continues a traditional part of his culture that had been long forgotten.