Lone Ranger And Tonto Fistfight In Heaven English Literature Essay

L2 CLE 2012-2013



'This is what it means to say Phoenix, Arizona'

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Sherman ALEXIE

Sherman Alexie was born in 1966 in an Indian reservation near Seattle, Washington. His descent his half Spokane half Coeur d'Alene. He started by writing poetry before writing prose. His writings describe the life of Indians today as it is, realistically, and depict the unvarnished truth. Despair, poverty and alcoholism are recurrent themes. His protagonists often struggle in their lives and with themselves, and Alexie explains what it means to be an Indian nowadays. Despite this, his works contain humor and irony.

The short story 'This is what it means to say Phoenix, Arizona' is part of a book named The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, which originally contained twenty-two interconnected short stories (the book was reissued in 2005 with two new short stories). This book was Alexie's first prose work, published in 1993.

In 'This is what it means to say Phoenix, Arizona' , we follow the journey of two young American Indians: Victor, whose father has just died of a heart attack, and Thomas Builds-the-Fire. They grew up together in the Spokane Indian Reservation, in the state of Washington. When Victor's estranged father dies, he decides to go to Phoenix to recollect his father's belongings and claim his savings account. Since he has not enough money, a former friend of his, Thomas-Builds-the-Fire helps him to pay for the plane tickets. The two young men undertake a 2000 kilometers journey to Phoenix, Arizona. After arriving to the trailer of Victor's father, they put the ashes in two boxes. The journey is the occasion to reminiscate the past years for the two young men. To return to the reservation, they take the truck of Victor's father. As they arrive to the reservation, Victor decides to give Thomas one of the two boxes. They both had the idea to toss them into the water from the Spokane Falls.

With this short story, Sherman Alexie wants to show how the Indian people have been acculturated and swallowed by European colonisation. He also wants to show what are the effects of this acculturation on Indians today, who are no longer Indians but who do not belong to the white community either. They have been ripped off their culture, traditions and often leave their reservation or find comfort in alcoholism. Alexie himself used to drink but he quit after the success of his work in 1990 and has remained sober ever since. He portrays a non-exotic, desillusioned Indian community. The main questions asked by Sherman Alexie in his works are "what does it mean to live as an Indian in this time and what does it mean to live on an Indian reservation." [1] 

Victor is an American Indian, whose father left when he was younger and Thomas is an oprhan. They were friends in the past, but Thomas was slowly cast aside by Victor and the other boys, because he was the story-teller of the reservation, but his stories were perceived as crazy and untrue by the others. Thomas has not been able to fit in the group at all. At one point, Victor even beat up Thomas when he was drunk, which he apologizes for during the journey, even though he knows things between them won't change much after the trip.

In the short story, we notice that if Thomas has found his Indian name, the narrator has not. Victor has not reached adulthood yet, but the journey (or vision quest) might take him there. In Indian culture, the names are very important, they are often linked with the totem animal of the individual. In order to discover it, you must undertake a "vision quest" and you can not be fully yourself, if you have not discovered your Indian name. Sherman Alexie has an Indian name but he keeps it a secret. We can guess that the narrator's Indian name would have something to do with the phoenix. Strangely enough, the narrator's father has been cremated although the tradition for Indians is to be buried with all their possessions. We can ask ourselves what is the significance of this particularity. On one hand it probably denotes the acculturation, Indians tend to act as westerners and abandon little by little their traditions, but on the other hand, it might be a strong symbol, that of rebirth, as a phoenix rises from its own ashes.

The story is interspersed with flashbacks, which are a narrative tool to provide explanations for the characters' actions and their feelings. Remembering his past helps the main character to understand it and once he will be able to understand it, he will be able to become an adult. Indeed, in Indian tradition, you have to reunite past, present and future in order to become an adult. The journey has an appeasing effect on Victor, he comes to peace with himself and gets closure in his relationship with his father. He is beginning to make amends (he apologizes to Thomas), to accept his past and the traditions of his culture by agreeing to stop and listen to Thomas, which means he is on the road to adulthood. It is a kind of a rebirth. As a phoenix, Victor rises from his father's ashes.

At the end of the short-story, Thomas predicts that Victor's father will "rise like a salmon" [2] . This fish is indeed very important in Indian culture. The salmon was born in rivers, goes to the ocean, and comes back to the river to lay down its eggs and die. The next generation of salmon redoes the cycle all over again. This fish symbolizes renewal and continuation of life. As Alexie stated : "Salmon, it's all about the salmon".

In the reservation, Thomas is the only one who tries to make the traditions live on but it is not easy and he is cast away. He, for one, is still in touch with his past, but no one wants to listen to him : "Thomas was a story-teller that nobody wanted to listen to." [3] , "He kept telling them (stories) long after people had stopped listening." [4] . He also has dreams and visions, but the mystical side of his culture is rejected by Victor and the other members of the tribe. This shows how the Native American have been acculturated and do not embrace their traditions. They have lost control of the symbols that represent them. [5] In Thomas's vision, people are here to take care of each other. Alexie asks the question of where are the "tribal ties, the sense of community" [6] , pleading that Indians should stick together, but obviously that is not the case in the reservation. As the Indians became more and more acculturated, they lost the sense of tribe and became more individualists. Indians no longer form a community but they do not belong to the American world either. Alexie tries to show how Indians are estranged from the rest of the world, but also estranged from their own culture and traditions.

Thus, this trip has been a revelation for Victor. He has come to terms with his past, which enables him to move forward and to become an adult. This has been possible thanks to Thomas who has "built the fire" under him and provoked Thomas's evolution.

Sherman Alexie's short-story shows the acculturation of Indians, who do not believe in their own culture and traditions anymore. But the notion of hope is present, as Victor is beginning to accept his culture.