Life in Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues Term Paper

Pages: 9 (2819 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 7  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Junior  ·  Topic: Native Americans


All at once the crossroads of the Native American reservation offer a point of meeting between Native American and African-American history and a point of divergence between Native American and white American influence.

That the novel presents the crossroads of Wellpinit as a potentially hopeful point in space that offer a chance at redemption instead of damnation is important, because for the most part, life on the reservation is neither hopeful nor redemptive. The space of the reservation is a space where "death, alcohol, poverty, book-burning, and child abuse find their place," and everyday life is not conducive to hope or the possibility of change due to the centuries-long legacy of colonialism (Meredith 446; Evans 52). This too serves as both a contrast between the American South and Native American space while highlighting a convergence between Native American and African-American experiences, because although the bleak life of the reservation and the experience of a black man in the South are both the result of a dominant white culture, the novel nevertheless suggests that the space of the reservation still retains some kind of autonomy of spirit that never truly existed for blacks living in the South.

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TOPIC: Term Paper on Life in Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues Assignment

Even though the American South includes a large African-American population, and the blues legacy that Johnson represents in the novel is a distinctly African-American invention, blacks in the South nevertheless have always existed in a space entirely determined by white culture and suffused with white history. This is why Johnson's original crossroads lead him to lose his soul; he is at a crossroads in the country of colonized America, where the only options available are those that cost far too much. In contrast, because the space of the reservation is a space dictated by a culture that precedes the colonization of continent, it is able to offer something more hopeful. Even though the limits of the reservation were decided by white Americans, and even though the social and economic problems facing the reservation are ultimately the result of policies decided by white Americans, the space of the reservation nevertheless represents a connection to a history and a past that extends "for thousands of years," well before the arrival of any European (Alexie 5).

It makes perfect sense, then, that the central character of the story is Thomas Builds-the-Fire, because Thomas represents a link to this earlier past more than any other character except Big Mom, who seems to represent the wellspring of history and knowledge from which Thomas draws his stories. Having "counseled, healed, and taught music to the biggest names of rock 'n' roll," as well as lived on a hill above Wellpinit for longer than anyone knows, Big Mom functions as the unrestrained history of both the Spokane people and American music in general, while Thomas serves as the channel by which this history is expressed to the contemporary world (Andrews 142). In a sense, then, Thomas himself represents a kind of narrative crossroad, where the history of African-American blues meets the legacy of Native American spirituality and community.

Even though it is Victor who gets Johnson's guitar and thus seemingly inherits his demonic skill and the meteoric rise it brings, it is Thomas who actually brings the band together, and it is Thomas who is responsible for their lyrics (Alexie 296). Thomas is the heart and soul of the band, even if Victor is the flair and ostensible skill. This is an important detail because it suggests that the true importance of the blues comes not from the technical skill of the guitar, but rather the history and identity revealed through the individual's emotional investment in a story-telling song.

Because Thomas is channeling this emotional investment, he is the one who ultimately serves as the locus of the novel, as he is the one who sees past the appeal of the guitar and actually understands why the blues are important as form of collective relief. The guitar, while ostensibly responsible for both Johnson and Victor's success, actually serves to hinder expression and recollection. For example, the novel relates how there are "sings that [Johnson] loved but could not sing" because of the curse associated with the guitar, and the only hope for hearing these songs again is a reconnection with a truer, older history that predates the introduction of white colonization and domination (Alexie 7). The hopeful power of the blues lies not in the form's blistering technical requirements, which are rendered in the novel as literally burning fingers, but rather in the blues' ability to voice "the personal catastrophes [the] characters experience collectively," such that they can express "a tragic history shared by many at once" (Ford 199). Paradoxically, then, the blues are able to serve as a positive, uplifting force precisely because they express tragedy, but a tragedy whose weight falls not on the individual, but rather the collective.

This is why the novel's ending, though undoubtedly tragic, could not truly be called sad or hopeless. Junior dies, the Coyote Springs break up, and the Native American band is dismissed in favor of a white appropriation and commodification of their history and culture. Nevertheless, the novel offers some small bit of hope, because the history of Native and African-Americans is recalled and reinforced through the performative release of music. Even if this music cannot ultimately find a place within white culture, by incorporating the blues into the native history of the reservation, Thomas is able to provide his community with a new language for expressing their collective experience in an augmented, hybrid form that simultaneously celebrates their exclusive experience while drawing on the common experiences of disadvantaged peoples.

Thus, the return to the reservation that occurs after the band's failure in New York, while ultimately tragic and bittersweet, is not a return to the past, but rather a recontextualization of that past within a contemporary, hybrid experience. By the end of the novel, while the remaining members of Coyote Springs have failed to achieve the kind of success they might have hoped for initially, they nevertheless have been forced to reconsider their own identities and histories within the complex interplay of cultures that dictate their lives. This process is especially crucial for Thomas, because as a storyteller he cannot help but consider the intersection between individual narrative and collective history. Ultimately, the novel suggests that what truly matters are stories, and particularly the stories that make up the shared experiences of a people or culture.

Reservation Blues is first and foremost a novel about identity, and how individual identity is the unique, personal story made up from pieces of the collective story created and shared by a community. In the novel, Sherman Alexie uses the lore of African-American blues music in order to explore both the experiences common to Native and African-Americans as well as the stark differences between what is offered or imposed by a white American culture and the older, more essentially community provided by Native American recollection. By reconstituting what had heretofore been considered strictly binary relationships between racial and ethnic categories, the novel is able to paint a much more complex picture of contemporary Native American life and experience than has previously been possible within American culture. The history of the blues provides a shared musical and metaphorical language that can help express the collective experiences of Native Americans, and the rise and fall of the Coyote Springs allow the main characters to internalize and understand that shared language in a way previously made impossible by the legacy of white oppression.

Works Cited
  1. Alexie, Sherman. Reservation Blues. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005.
  2. Andrews, Scott. "A New Road and a Dead End in Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues." The Arizona… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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Life in Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues.  (2013, April 23).  Retrieved August 1, 2021, from

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"Life in Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues."  April 23, 2013.  Accessed August 1, 2021.