Indians are nomadic…they can leave the rez

Junior Spirit, the high school student in Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian tries to get the most out of life even if it means walking alone between the white and Indian worlds.  Junior begins high school on the rez.  He is excited to learn, an eager student.  When he opens his math book he discovers that it belonged to his mother, he ‘was staring at a geometry book that was at least thirty years older’ (31) than he was.  The flood of emotions he felt results in him throwing the book and hitting his teacher in the face. ‘That old, old, old, decrepit geometry book hit my heart with the force of a nuclear bomb.  My hopes and dreams floated up in a mushroom cloud.’(31)  Instead of being upset with him Junior’s teacher ends up confessing about how badly he and others have treated native kids and how he was ‘supposed to kill the Indian to save the child…make you give up being Indian.’(35) He tells him everyone, including the members of his own community, have failed him.  He quietly tells him that he must leave the rez since all they are being taught on the rez is how to give up.  ‘If you stay on this rez…they’re going to kill you.  I’m going to kill you.  We’re all going to kill you.  You can’t fight us forever.’(43)

Junior leaves the rez to attend school in Reardan.  Living on the rez and travelling to town to attend school leaves him feeling like a stranger, “half Indian in one place and half white in the other,” (118) but he begins dating the most popular girl in school, joins the basketball team and makes some new friends.  During his freshman year he loses his grandmother, his dad`s best friend Eugene and his sister all tragically in alcohol related deaths.  After the death of Eugene he is overcome with grief and tries to understand why his family has so much to grieve about. (172)  He realizes that “Indians have LOST EVERYTHING”(173) – land, languages, songs and dances and concludes “we only know how to lose and be lost.”  He misses many days of school and upon his return is greeted by a teacher whose insensitive comments cause his classmates to leave the class to show their disapproval of her actions.  The show of support breaks down racial barriers for Junior allowing him to conclude the world is not broken down by black and white or Indian and white but rather by “the people who are assholes and the people who are not.(176)  Junior learns many things are not black and white and not always as they appear on the surface.  He realizes that his dad may be a drunk but also that he never misses any of his school activities while some of the white kids’ fathers never come in to the school.  After originally seeing the Wellpinit team as Goliath he realizes after defeating them that his team was in fact Goliath.  He cries in shame because he knows of their hardships and that many won`t be able to overcome them and he cries because he has “broken his best friends heart.”(196)

Rowdy visits Junior to tell him that he has been doing some reading about old-time time Indians.  He explains to Junior that he always thought he would leave the rez and it was ok because Junior was just being nomadic like an “old-time” Indian.  Junior starts to cry, perhaps because of the relief it brings to have his leaving explained this way.  This  knowledge allows them both to believe that it was ok to leave the rez in search of what you need to survive because that’s what Indians did before they were put on reservations.

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Ira Hayes – Native American Soldier

This song has similarities to the characters in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.  It is off Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indians album recorded in 1964.  It has been used in numerous teachings.

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we are all related

Should Indigenous people be fighting in the Armies of colonizers?  Michael Yellow Bird through his blog is very critical of the participation of Indigenous people in the wars of the United States.  He cites many reasons for not participating in war, reasons which take in to consideration Aboriginal philosophies and the notion that we are all related.

The young men in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony came back from serving in the United States Army in the Phillipines damaged and suffering the effects of colonization.  Tayo returned from the war with a jagged world view.  He has been sickened by what he has seen in the war.   Tayo didn’t really want to go to war, he signed up because his cousin Rocky wanted to go.  “Rocky understood what he had to do to win in the outside world.” (51) Rocky excelled at football and in track, he studied hard, and he turned his back on the Indigenous world view his family held.  Joining the Army was his way of proving his love for his country.  Rocky was seeking legitimacy and acceptance and bought in to the idea of selfless patriotism fed to recruits. Tayo felt conflicted toward going because he had told his uncle, Josiah, that he would help him with his livestock and he didn’t want to let him down.

Aboriginal War Veteran

When Tayo returned and the white doctors could not heal him his grandmother wanted a medicine man to come and help him.  Tayo’s auntie resisted both out of fear of gossip and because she is a Christian and didn’t believe in such things.  Ku’oosh, the medicine man who comes to help Tayo, questioned him about the war but Tayo was unable to explain to the man what it was like, he was too damaged.  Thinking of the “dismembered corpses and the atomic heat-flash outlines, where human bodies had evaporated,”(37) he concluded that “not even oldtime witches killed like that.”(37)  He could not find the words to explain what it was like.  Tayo’s hurt was too deep for Ku’oosh.  The old man was troubled because other war veterans were not cured after his ceremonies and this made him concerned for all people since the world is a fragile place and everything is connected.

It is not until Tayo received help and guidance from Indigenous healers that he was able to begin his healing journey and start undoing the damage caused by internal colonization.  While he was at the bar with his buddies he ranted about how the Americans accepted them while they were in uniform and at war but turned their backs on them when the war was over.  His friends resented him for this because they were trying to get back the good feeling they had when they were part of the American Army.  They wanted to belong to western society, they wanted the feeling of acceptance they had during the war so they told their stories over and over.  Tayo was fighting colonizing discourse in his speech at the bar and his version of things did not sit well with his fellow vets.   Tayo cried as he is told his story and the others thought he cried for his dead cousin and what the “Japs” did to him.  “They don’t know that he is crying for them”(43) and what the war has done to them.  He didn’t hate the Japanese soldier because to Tayo they were related.  This idea of interconnectedness is an integral part of Aboriginal philosophy.  Leroy Little Bear speaks about a spider web of relations, that we are all interconnected and the European philosophy where universalism justifies interference.

Tayo’s health improved some after his visit from Ku’oosh but the “the sickness had receded into a shadow behind him,”(104) and he still was not well.  His uncle suggested that he get help from another man and Tayo agreed because “they were right.  They’d always been right about him”.(106)  Tayo had resisted seeing the western world view throughout his life.  However, participating in the war had resulted in internal colonization.  A person needs help from their family and community to heal.   Tayo found himself surrounded by people with varied and jagged views of the world.  His caregivers were not in agreement on what should be done for him but all felt a sense that they should help him, whatever the reason might be.  Tayo was eventually taken to Betonie, a medicine man near Gallup.  Betonie’s place looked down on the Ceremonial ground outside Gallup.  From his hogan Betonie saw all that had changed in the area and how his people lived with the change.  Tayo noted that “Betonie didn’t talk the way Tayo expected a medicine man to talk.  He didn’t act like a medicine man at all.”(118)  Betonie continued to have an Indigenous world view while living among all that is undesirable about western society and its horrible treatment of Indigenous people.  He had adapted to his surroundings without altering his view of the world.   Betonie explained to Tayo that the world is in constant flux.  He pointed out that, “at one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then.  But after the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies.”(126)  Betonie gave Tayo hope that he would get better.

In his blog Michael Yellow Bird asks some very tough questions about Indigenous people fighting in the wars of the United States.  He speaks of the Indigenous belief that all people and beings are related to one another so what does it mean to make war on our relatives.  He also wonders “What are the effects that all of the killing, maiming, poisoning, and torturing will have upon our people, especially on the psychic and cosmological levels.”  It is not a surprise that Tayo believed he saw his relatives among the Japanese.  It was his view that we are all related.

Tayo regained his health and again became a healthy and contributing member of his community.  The others from this group of veterans never did regain their health.  They sought legitimacy from western culture and did not attempt to decolonize their minds and died unnatural deaths.  Tayo resisted and although he went to war never bought in to the idea that the Japanese were his enemies but instead saw them as relatives.  It was not his war.  Tayo decolonized through the new ceremony and was able to again see himself as part of the whole, interconnected with all living things.

Aboriginal War Veteran

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“between two fires, the Red and the White” Mourning Dove

If it is tough navigating colliding world views as a young woman it can be no easier being the elder figure trying to steer the younger generation through life using a moral compass developed over generations of living without the influence of a western world view.  Mourning Dove’s Cogewea is a personal narrative of an independent young half-blood woman trying to find her place the world.  Cogewea is immersed in both cultures and struggles daily with colliding world views.  Cogewea’s Stemteema is representative of the Indigenous world view.  Alfred Densmore, a “tenderfoot” hired on at the ranch, is representative of many negatives of the western world view.  Stemteema uses stories in an attempt to reveal Densmore’s true character to Cogewea.  Cogewea struggles. She knows her Stemteema is a wise woman whose words should be true.  However, she can’t quite comprehend that Densmore could be dishonest because she is unaccustomed and previously unaware of such levels of dishonesty.

The colliding world views come through in many situations.  While Cogewea is contemplating how western civilization has changed the world in which Indians live she refers to her Stemteema as “lingering pathetically in the sunset of a closing era.“ (41)  Before meeting Densmore Cogewea rambles on about life “between two fires, the Red and the White”(41) how she would prefer “living the white man’s way to that of the reservation Indian, but he hampers me.”(41)  The fourth of July celebrations bring a series of highs and lows for Cogewea as she interacts with the participants.  Believing she can’t understand them the judge and a companion speak about her attractiveness in front of her.  “The girl’s eyes filled with tears, as she turned away; brooding over the constantly light spoken words of the “higher” race regarding her people of the incessant insults offered the Indian women by the “gentlemen” whites.  She regretted with a pang, the passing of an epoch, when there were no “superiors” to “guide” her simple race to a civilization so manifestly dearth of the primitive law of respect for womanhood”. (65)  Cogewea is clearly frustrated at the horrible treatment of her people at the hands of the whites, who claim to be of superior social standing to the uncivilized breeds and Indians.

Cogewea openly disagrees with Stemteema’s warning about Densmore’s intentions when he first visits her tipi.  Stemteems warns “he is blinding you with false words….He is here to cheat you…Do not be foolish! My Cogewea.  Do not bring grief to my old age; do not wound my heart.”(103)  Cogewea doubts Stemteema, who has always been a good judge of charcter.  “Now Stemteema! You misunderstand.  I think Alfred is a good man.”  (104)  Despite Stemteema’s obvious distrust of the man and anguish over Cogewea spending so much time with him, Cogewea persists and asks to bring him back to the tipi so that Stemteema may tell him old stories.  Stemteema agrees even though she her “heart is sick!”(104) over Cogewea’s friendship with Densmore.  This incident foreshadows the trouble that is to come Cogewea’s way and is indicative of the conflict that she is feeling.  To question her Stemteema’s judgment and to ask for a return visit from a man who has clearly disturbed her grandmother show’s she is rejecting the knowledge and guidance of her Indian ancestors.

Cogewea’s word and thoughts are a constant contradiction.  The result of being keenly aware that she is a breed and as such subject to harsh treatment by both whites and Indians.   When questioned by Jim about whether she would marry Densmore if he asked she replies, “I will never marry a man unless I love him and he is of my own kind.“(112)  Later in a heated discussion about the arrival of the explorers and various churches Densmore states, “you seem to forget that you are as much Caucasion as Indian.  Your sympathies should be equally divided”. (134)  He further confuses her by telling her he loves her and wants to marry her in an Indian marriage ceremony.  Later in the tipi, Cogewea is disrespectful to her grandmother after hearing the story of Green-blanket feet, the Indian woman who was dishonored by her white husband telling her “the wisdom of the Stemteema is of the past…the young bird flies more sprightly than do the old.”(177)  Although Cogewea “believed  she should respect the words of her venerable monitor, she rebelled” (177) because she believed that Densmore loved her and that her grandmother was mistaken about his character and his intentions.

Cogewea eventually takes Densmore to Stemteema to ask for permission to marry him but she is refused.  Stemteema is very concerned.  She refuses and goes so far as to tell Cogewea “if you take this Shoyahpee, I will forget that I ever had a grandchild.”(250)  Despite the anguish her Stemteema feels and the wisdom used in denying permission to marry Densmore, Cogewea decides to elope.   Under pressure from Densmore and in a confused state she decides “perhaps there are times when one should possess the courage of self-assertion,”(253) but wonders “should it be to the exclusion of all admonitions?” (253)  Her poor judgment becomes quickly evident when Densmore, realizing she is not wealthy as he believed, strikes her, robs her and leaves her bound and helpless in the elements.

Cogewea is left humiliated and shamed after her encounter with Densmore.  She admits she was “blind not to listen to Stemteema’s warnings.”(278)  She experiences spirit murder at the hands of Densmore.  “Her heart was numb! She had lived and died in this one day…To Cogewea, the world was dead!”(279)  It takes Cogewea two years to fully recover from the internal damage inflicted by Densmore.   Her self doubts are erased when a voice speaks to her from her old buffalo skull.  She makes no mistake this time choosing to heed the advice given to her and she is once again happy.

Cogewea suffered because of her colliding world views.  Being of mixed blood she was bound to suffer because she was not accepted in either the white or the Indian worlds.  She experiences internal conflict, humiliation and shame when she ignores the wise guidance of her Stemteema.  After a long period of reflection and many visits to Buffalo Butte she finally finds her way.

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“neither a wild Indian nor a tame one” (Gertrude Simmons Bonnin)

Indigenous people traditionally existed in villages where there was a keen sense of responsibility felt by individuals toward the community as a whole.   People behaved in a manner which considered the needs of the whole over the needs of the individual.  In order for a group to function each individual must behave in a manner which ensured the continued smooth functioning and survival of the community.  Mutual respect for one another was important for the health of the individual and community.  Gertrude Simmons Bonnin’s, Impressions of an Indian Childhood, is a narrative of an Indigenous girl’s life from the comfort and security of her village to life in an Industrial school in the East and back home to her village and people with a much altered view of the world.  The reader follows the girl as she transforms from an innocent child with a clear view of her world to a young woman with jagged views which have resulted from her exposure to western society and values.


The child is introduced as a respectful yet “wild little girl of seven.” (3) It is clear her mother encouraged her to explore her surroundings but the girl obeys her mother and has learned the community behavior code well.  The little girl’s curious nature leads to her being lured away from the village to attend school.  Her mother does not want her to go and asks her not to but the girl wants to and so she is allowed to leave the security of her mother’s home and her community.  It is not really a surprise that her mother would allow her to go given what was socially and politically acceptable at the time and the respect she would have for her daughter’s decision.  Other children were leaving to attend school and many Indigenous parents wouldn’t stand in the way of their children’s decisions believing life choices and the experience gained is how one learns.  Her mother could have stepped in and stopped her from leaving but if it is what the girl wanted then her mother would let her and accept that she is going to learn some tough lessons.  When telling her son she has decided to let his sister go with the missionaries the mother laments, “I know my daughter must suffer keenly in this experiment.  For her sake, I dread to tell you my reply to the missionaries.” (5)  As she is getting ready to leave her mother, the girl realizes that things have changed.  “I was in the hands of stranger whom my mother did not fully trust.  I no longer felt free to be myself, or to voice my own feelings….I was as frightened and bewildered as the captured young of a wild creature.” (6)  She was, in fact, the captured young of a free being.

Shortly after arriving at the school the girl hides when she hears that they are going to cut off her hair.  In her experience only mourners and cowards cut their hair.  She hides in an attempt to avoid having her hair cut.  When discovered she “resisted by kicking and scratching wildly” (7) yet despite her efforts was “carried downstairs and tied fast in a chair” (7).   After they cut her hair she was no longer a child with “wild freedom and overflowing spirits” (1) traits which were a source of great pride for her mother, she was now “only one of many little animals driven by a herder.” (7)  By her own acknowledgment she was a victim of spirit murder.  “I lost my spirit,” (7) she laments.  School authorities had no respect for the girl’s desires, beliefs, dignity or being.  They were dehumanizing her and the other children by being acting violently, dominating them behaving in a manner of superiority.

At school the girl is introduced to Christianity’s devil figure, “the chieftain among the bad spirits”(8) as she refers to him.  Though she had been raised not to fear evil spirits, she has a nightmare about the devil.  This evil being and the expectation to fear it has been introduced to her world.  In the dream she is at home with her mother and aunt and the devil arrives and ignores them but chases her around her dwelling.  Just as the devil is about to pounce, her mother picks her up and the devil disappears.  It seems the devil represents the evil within her new life. Her mother is safe from the devil because she has never been exposed to the idea that evil spirits are to be feared.  The girl sees her mother as the one that can save her from the nightmare she is living.

Upon returning home during summer break the girl recognizes that she is conflicted in her view of the world…..expand to show contrast  She felt “even nature seemed to have no place for me.  I was neither…a wild Indian nor a tame one.”(9)  She believed that because her mother had never been to a schoolhouse she could not comfort her.  She felt alienated from her family and the young people in her community.  Her mother does not understand her daughter’s sadness and does not know how to help her.  After hearing her mother crying and grieving for her she decides to return to the East without saying good bye.

Bonnin’s work is a powerful narrative which tells the story of the internal conflict this young girl experiences over many years.  Throughout her life she clings to her traditional beliefs while being introduced to western culture and its values while attending school.  She is pleased that she has done well in school but she now has a jagged view of her world that didn’t exist before she left home to enter the world of the colonizers.  The home that once was such a source of comfort to her she now refers to as a “dingy room” (11) and as she questions her mother about its upkeep she is told her brother has lost his job and since then they “are left without means to buy even a morsel of food” (11) and her brother “has not been able to make use of the education the Eastern school” (11) had given him.  The girl was speechless.  She “found no words with which to answer satisfactorily”(11) her mother’s assertion that many years at school were of no use.  The reader is left wondering how the daughter will find her way in the colliding worlds in which she now lives and to what extent cognitive imperialism affects her.

teenage daughter and mom


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“they wake up when they have to, eat when they’re hungry, and sleep when they are tired.” Robert Arthur Alexie

Living in an Indigenous community has long been based on knowing you are connected to the world around you and that your actions have a ripple effect through your family, your community and beyond.  Children learned expected behavior by watching how those around them functioned as part of a group.  Survival depended on coexisting with the natural world and so Indigenous people acted as stewards of the earth.

The arrival of the colonizers disrupted the Indigenous world and way of life.  The struggle for Indigenous people to raise families and maintain a sense of community which incorporates traditional values continues to this day.  Stories of these struggles have appeared in many literary works at first mainly through the eyes of non-Indigenous authors and now mainly through Indigenous eyes.

Robert Arthur Alexie’s Porcupines and China Dolls, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian,  Lee Maracle’s First Wives’ Tales Salish Style, Mourning Dove’s Cogewea, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony and Gertrude Simmons Bonnion’s Impressions of an Indian Childhood all contain elements of conflict that are a result of trying to juggle the values and ways of an older time with those of today.

In Porcupines and China Dolls when referring to the carefree life of children in the 1920s and 1930s Robert Arthur Alexie writes “they wake up when they have to, eat when they’re hungry, and sleep when they are tired.” (8)  The children soon after were thrust into a regimented residential school life where everything was scheduled and planned out for them. Their carefree existence was snuffed out for a lifestyle the colonizers believed was superior to their Indigenous way of doing things.

The world in which Indigenous people live has changed to the point where it is no longer practical in many homes to allow children to wake, eat and sleep only when the need or desire arises.  Yet in many homes there are remnants of this way of raising children because the Indigenous person’s idea of allowing children to learn through experience and develop self-discipline remains a part of their set of values.  The challenge is to incorporate Indigenous values into families that must exist in a world dominated by western values, values which often conflict with their own Indigenous values.

Sisters stop their fun to pose for this photo. The young ones don’t appear to like having their picture taken.

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Introductory Post

Hello and welcome!  This blog focuses on the challenges of raising Indigenous children under the burden of a jagged worldviews as presented in the literary works of numerous Indigenous authors.   Raising children is a difficult task in of itself.  Colliding worldviews compound the task and can create an environment of contradiction, confusion and instability.  The challenge is taking the Indigenous world view and its methods of parenting and making them work in a world dominated by western world view.  The blog is part of the requirements for the Indigenous Fiction (ENGL 3481) course at Trent University.  The instructor is Dr. Sara Humphreys.

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