Sherman Alexie’s collection of short stories, titled “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” is a memoir-like window into the lives of native Indians in American reservations during the 1970s-1990s. It portrays the lives of many people, including their hardships, habits, flaws, and struggles in a white-dominated society. Alexie’s accounts, though technically fiction, borrow heavily from the author’s real-life experience, featuring many people and stories he witnessed or heard about from friends.
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One of the more recurring themes of the book includes poverty, broken homes, and substance abuse. Alcohol and drugs are major healthcare problems in the Indian communities, causing about 11.7% of all deaths, which is more than two times higher than the worldwide statistic of 5.6% (Nielsen 90). Like a red line, this factor connects many of the storylines told by Alexie, either in relation to death, trauma, unhappy marriages, single parenting, and substandard living. The purpose of this paper is to exemplify the destructive influence of alcohol on an Indian family, as illustrated in the short story titled “Because My Father Always Said…”
Drugs, Alcoholism, and Dysfunctional Families in Alexie’s Short Story
The chosen story is being told by a point-of-view character, who speaks about his childhood and his Indian family, with a focus on his father. The storyline is colored by the political events of that time period, namely the Vietnam War, the hippie movement, and the lifestyle associated with it. The storyteller makes the first big reference to alcohol when he describes the moment of his conception in a very raw language: “I was conceived during one of those drunken nights, half of me formed by my father’s whiskey sperm, the other half formed by my mother’s vodka egg” (Alexie 62)
The fact that both parents were described as drinking highlights a connection between drinking and unplanned parenthood (unwanted pregnancy). The descriptions of family life before the separation are filled with arguments and violence: “They fought each other with the kind of graceful anger that only love can create” (Alexie 63). These tendencies are further supported by the following quote: “I stood back and watched my parents argue.
I was used to these battles. When an Indian marriage starts to fall apart, it’s even more destructive and painful than usual” (Alexie 68). The fact that the storyteller was used to these battles tells the reader that quarrels and physical violence were common occurrences within the household. Eventually, the family broke up, with the father being left to support the child on his own, as per the Indian tradition. Alexie (71) states that in Indian tribes, men who abandon their children are looked down upon, as it is being seen as a white tradition.
The story is riddled with numerous mentions of drugs and alcohol, so much that it becomes part of daily life for the storyteller, to the point they do not feel the need to elaborate more on it. During an outtake where he shares some of the dreams, the storyteller mentions having dreamed of his father being a hippy, drinking, smoking joints, and using acids (Alexie 65). His father’s medication (Alexie 62), Jimi Hendrix’s death at the age of 28 (Alexie 67), and his father’s bike crash (Alexie 69) are all indicatives of the destructive influences of the substances on the lives of an average Indian family, in addition to the family matters that have already been described.
Politics and the unfair treatment of Indians at the hands of the government is being mentioned in the background, namely in relation to the war in Vietnam and the previous conflicts where the storyteller’s family used to fight, but the invisible influence of alcohol is seen in nearly all scenes, where it is either mentioned or has a direct effect on the events unfolding in the story. To summarize, although the purpose of the tale was likely to describe the tragic yet resilient bond between different family members, as the father, wife, and child still treated one another with love and care, despite the difficulties, it drew a scathing picture of family life being affected by a plethora of negative conditions.
Connection with Evidence
Native Indians both inside and outside of the reservations constitute a vulnerable population with socio-economic and healthcare parameters comparable to blacks and other native minorities. Based on Alexie’s short story evaluated in this paper, as well as the general theme of his book, there are several key criteria to evaluate the existing conditions of Indians with:
- Drugs and alcohol usage;
- Health effects of alcohol on the population;
- Poverty rates;
- Single parenting rates;
- Death rates.
According to Grant et al. (757), alcoholism and drug abuse are major issues in Indian tribal communities, with around 20% of all individuals, both men, and women, experiencing an alcohol-related disorder, and over 40% have had one at some point in their lives. This corresponds with Alexie’s stories, seeing how often either one of the parents or both of them were described as alcoholics. Grant et al. (758) report that Indians did not have a rich tradition of consuming hard spirits as white Europeans did, and, as a result, have a naturally lower resistance to alcohol and its addictive qualities.
The health effects of alcohol on the Indian population can be illustrated not only by the prevalence of health conditions but also by their severity. Whitesell et al. (378) indicate that Indian-Americans are twice as likely to develop chronic and long-term diseases related to substance and alcohol abuse, such as cirrhosis, alcoholic liver disease, and alcohol-related organ failure. These diseases are responsible for the high death rates presented in native Indian communities and require significant financial and timely resources to treat them properly. In the reviewed short story, the father was suffering from chronic diseases of unspecified origin, which could have been alcohol and drug-related.
Alcohol abuse is directly connected to poverty rates experienced in the reservations. There are several parameters that connect alcoholism and low socioeconomic standing. Kerr et al. (470) state that aside from the obvious biological and healthcare issues, the economic unreliability and the relatively high availability of alcohol in the American market play an important role in exacerbating poverty rates in native Indian communities. Namely, businesspeople and job providers do not trust individuals with alcoholism to hold any important and well-paying positions, whereas the purchasing of alcohol drains their savings that could have been spent on improving their lives (Kerr et al. 471).
Finally, the issue of single parenting, as illustrated in Alexie’s tale, is not exclusive to that family alone. Nielsen (130) reports that single parenting rates among Native Americans are similar to those of Black Americans, standing at around 24% of all households, whereas the average in the US is 10%. Nielsen (122) also indicates that 73% of children born to unmarried couples have been unintended, which resonates with Alexie’s account of the storyteller’s conception as part of an entertaining night between his two drunken parents.
Analyzing Alexie’s stories based on singular factors while lacking connection with one another would be a wrong approach, as all of the factors surrounding native Indian communities are interconnected to one another in some way or measure. Systems theory of sociology states that “characteristics of organizational behavior, for example, individual needs, rewards, expectations, and attributes of the people interacting with the systems, considers this process in order to create an effective system” (Bales 212). It is possible to assume that without the influence of alcohol, the entire life of the storyteller and his family would have turned out differently.
While it was not clear about the causes of family separation and inter-family conflicts, the connection between poverty, violent behavior, and alcoholism is evident. The majority of cases of domestic violence happen because of the socio-psychological effects of poverty as well as the physical effects of abusable substances. Kerr et al. (470) connect the abuse of alcohol with historical trauma, low self-esteem, and high suicide rates. The majority of native Indians, as indicated by Alexie’s quote about it not being worth fighting for this country, with how it treats the previous owners of the land, taken by trickery and force (Alexie 64).
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The perception of alcohol as a ploy used by white people in order to undermine the integrity of the native Indian population and make it easier to conquer and take over their lands is a familiar narrative within the community. It resonates with McCreight’s account of the situation, with “firewater” being delivered by people with forked tongues. Throughout the entire book written by Alexie, there is no mentioning of any significant effort to reduce the amount of alcohol consumed by the population of the reservations. That could be interpreted as an indicator that the overarching white authorities are content with the status quo.
Alexie’s book, titled “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” provides a sobering account of everyday life in native Indian reservations. The focus of the paper was on alcohol abuse in its relation to negative consequences on families and individual wellbeing.
The reviewed story features many critical issues that affect family life, in relation to the substance, namely unplanned pregnancy, home violence, healthcare issues, drunk driving, early alcohol-related deaths, and the overarching levels of poverty. While alcohol is not the only factor that affected the outcome, it certainly plays an important binding role within the story, resulting in a series of tragic events.
The fact that the majority of these stories were either personal experiences of the author or stories otherwise based on real events brings even more gravitas to the gloomy situation portrayed in the book. The official statistics related to the standards of living and poverty in native Indian communities confirm the observations already made while reading these stories. Alcoholism in reservations is a serious system problem that needs to be addressed in a holistic manner, including not only medical but also social, political, and educational interventions.
Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Open Road Media, 1993.
Bales, Robert. Social Interaction Systems: Theory and Measurement. Routledge, 2017.
Grant, Bridget F., et al. “Epidemiology of DSM-5 Alcohol Use Disorder: Results from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions III.” JAMA Psychiatry vol. 72, no. 8, 2015, pp. 757-766.
Kerr, William C., et al. “Economic Recession, Alcohol, And Suicide Rates: Comparative Effects of Poverty, Foreclosure, and Job Loss.” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, vol. 52, no. 4, 2017, pp. 469-475.
Nielsen, Marianne O. Native Americans, Crime, and Justice. Routledge, 2019.
McCreight, Major Israel. Firewater and Forked Tongues: A Sioux Chief Interprets American History. Pickle Partners Publishing, 2017.
Whitesell, Nancy Rumbaugh, et al. “Epidemiology and Etiology of Substance Use Among American Indians And Alaska Natives: Risk, Protection, And Implications for Prevention.” The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, vol. 38, no. 5, 2012, pp. 376-382.