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Symbolism in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Alexie Essay

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Updated: Aug 28th, 2021


“The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” is one of Sherman Alexie’s foremost collections of short stories. The compilation deals with the lives and troubles of Indians in and around the Spokane Indian Reservation.

The stories take a fresh, occasionally agonizing, look at life for modern Indians on the Spokane Reservation In the universal theme that pervades many of Alexie’s tales here and in his other writings. The themes of alcoholism, violence, and death are all infused in this collection. But, what actually makes the hardships of the Indians in and around the Spokane Indian Reservation bearable to the reader is the excessively used hilarity and empathy that Alexie has used in the anthology.

The narratives here by and large interrelate, referring to the same events or at least the same characters, generating a narrative that almost flows between stories.

The characters in these stories have not reached “happily ever after,” it is not apparent if they will ever get there.

Alexie introduces the themes he will develop throughout the book such as the relationship between the real and the imaginary, reservation poverty, and the idea of memory as an index of social and individual identity.

Victor is a fictionalized version of Alexie, as the author has admitted.

Symbolism in “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”

The Lone Ranger and Tonto are symbols for white and Native-American identity, respectively. The names are taken from a popular radio and television show of the 1950s in which a white man, the Lone Ranger, teams up with an Indian, Tonto, to battle evil in the old west.

The book begins with a tormenting scene. In the opening story, “Every Little Hurricane,” a boy named Victor (who is either a central or a secondary character, is either a child or an adult, in a number of the stories), describes a New Year’s Eve bash at his parents’ house as if it were a hurricane. Since Victor awakens from a reverie (prejudiced by television news), to the incoherent, exaggerated noises of the party, the references to the hurricane have a factual as well as a symbolic quality.

The weather forecast is for a hurricane, and the narrator surveys the uncanny conduct of many of the Indians on the reservation, many of them drunk and angry, recalling some wrong that had been done to them. The story also contains a flashback to when Victor was five years old and his parents could not afford to buy him anything for Christmas. Victor is a fictionalized adaptation of Alexie, as the writer has admitted. Nine-year-old Victor roams through his house while a night-long party swirls around him like a hurricane. A blood-spattered fistfight erupts between his two uncles Adolph and Arnold, in the front yard, and the boy witnesses, “…they had to be in love,” he presumes. “Strangers would never want to hurt each other that badly.”

“Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock” uses the playing of that song as a recurring symbol of a boy’s attachment to his nomadic father. In this story, Victor recounts memories of his father coming home drunk during the 1960s and listening to Jimi Hendrix play “The Star Spangled Banner.”

As a child, Victor would share in his father’s drunken ritual, putting the song on the stereo as he walked in the house, and then curling up and sleeping at his feet after he passed out.

(Jimi Hendrix, part Cherokee Indian, was a Seattle-born rock and roll star who gained fame for his masterful guitar playing. He died in 1970 at 27, choking on his own vomit while being taken to the hospital, purportedly due to drug abuse.)

Victor relates that his father’s love of Hendrix played a role in the breakup of his parents’ matrimony, as did his alcoholism and yearning to be unaccompanied. Lacking in the political focus of the Native American radicals, the father’s obsession has taken him, from captivity for aggression during an anti-war protest, to an intensive-care ward after a near-fatal motorcycle catastrophe.

In “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore,” two friends sit on a porch and observe the signals as a symbol of the decline of yet another high-school basketball star whose talent might have provided an getaway from reservation existence. The narrative has all the verbal color and anxiety of the accounts of those damned, virtually legendary champions of the New York playground league.

Several of the stories primarily concern the stigmas carried by Native Americans.

In “Amusements,” a young Native American couple, Sadie and Victor, come upon an alcoholic friend at a carnival, who has literally fallen down intoxicated. Embarrassed by his state and nevertheless feeling obliged to rescue him from a certain jailing, they pay the roller-coaster operator $20 to permit him to ride incessantly until he regain consciousness. As astonished by their impetuous cleverness as the rapidly gathering crowd of Whites is amused by the spectacle, the couple soon has to flee from the police, who are quick to react to any sort of “Indian trouble.”

A security guard chases Victor, who runs into the Fun House and symbolically sees his image distorted in “crazy mirrors.”

In the title story “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”, of the compilation, Victor, a youthful male, leaves the reservation to live in Seattle with his white girlfriend, who plays out the role of the Lone Ranger to Victor’s Tonto.

When the relationship sours, Victor, who is in the midst of an agonized parting from his White lover, strolls into a 7-Eleven in the middle of the night. Knowing what it is like to be robbed at such a job, he keeps the clerk on edge while slowly selecting and paying for a creamsicle. From other individual experiences, he knows that as a Native American he is instantaneously perceived as a threat–can be subjected by the police to illogical questioning and general warnings. Now that his relationship with his lover has ended, Victor returns to the reservation, stops drinking and finds a job answering phones for a high school exchange program.

In the final story of the collection, “Witnesses, Secret and Not,” Victor is thirteen, and as a young man, accompany his father to Spokane, where the father has been questioned once a year, about the vanishing and assumed assassination of one of his associates, Jerry Vincent who was supposedly killed ten years earlier. The police have unaccountably sustained their interest in this case, though it is hardly extraordinary.

His father closely escapes crashing the car, after skidding on the icy road. At the police station, Victor’s father reiterates what he has told the police plentiful times before: he knows nothing about Jerry Vincent other than what he has already told them. The father admits to Victor on the drive home that he was involved in a car accident once in which a white man was killed, but he was never arrested because the white man had been drinking. The story ends when the two return home and Victor’s father cries into his food.

The understated narrative suggestively balances the tensions in such motifs as the unsolved crime and racial suspicions, family attachments and cultural malaise, shared experience and guarded personal revelations.

Finally, in several of the stories, Alexie masterfully maneuvers conventional storyline tricks and other forms. “A Good Story” reveals in its resolution that the story-within-a-story is in this case the broader story, generating a meta-fictional enigma with broader cultural suggestions, given the strong Native American tradition of story-telling.

Quilts in “A Good Story” are used as a symbol for the story’s structure. Junior’s mother, who is making a quilt, tells him all of his stories are sad, so Junior tries to tell one that is not. He relates a tale about Uncle Moses, and his nephew, Arnold, which ends with Uncle Moses beginning the very tale that junior, just told. This self-reflexive story underscores how storytelling helps to ensure the continuity of Indian identity.

Likewise, “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire” presents a situation in which a Native American storyteller, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, whom the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), has labeled as a troublemaker. Describing Thomas’s behavior as “A storytelling fetish accompanied by an extreme need to tell the truth. Dangerous.” he is imprisoned and sent to jail for life, for a “murder” that occurred more than one hundred and forty years earlier. Alexie accentuates the constant oppression of Native Americans in this story by symbolizing the injustice of the American system of justice.

In “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation,” the diary-form is engaged to expose the tortuous procedure by which a young man recovers from alcoholism and recognizes the divine truths in the state of a nearly autistic boy whom he has been given to raise. Containing elements of parable and symbol, “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation,” covers the years 1966 – 1974 and records the association connecting the narrator and an orphaned baby he adopts, who takes on Christ-like characteristics.

The baby’s mother is Rosemary Morning Dove, who asserts she was a virgin when the baby was born, around Christmas. After a fire kills her and her lover, Frank Many Horses, the narrator adopts the baby, named James. A heavy drinker, the narrator quits in 1971 in order to keep James. The last three years of the story feature his life as a somber man and his emergent relationship with James, a nearly autistic boy, whom he trusts will take care of him when he grows old.

Similarly, in “Indian Education,” The story is structured as a series of short descriptive vignettes, each depicting a grade in Victor’s education, to specify a boy’s evolution from the first through twelfth grades. Incidents from each grade, exemplify his life on the reservation, battles against bias, and hope for the future. Despite his academic accomplishment, the most lasting lessons are embedded in the baldly paradoxical chronicle of racial prejudice and self-destruction that makes his commencement seem less an achievement than a calamity of destiny, less an indication of greater successes than a basis for more bitter disappointments. Victor describes himself as intellectual, athletic, and desolate.

Crazy Horse Dreams

In this very short story, Victor relates an experience he had with a woman at a powwow. He draws on the image of Crazy Horse, a famous Sioux warrior, symbolizing, contemporary Indian men cannot measure up to the ideal of Crazy Horse. The woman Victor meets at a fry bread stand and seduces wants him to be something he is not. “His hands were small. Somehow she was still waiting for Crazy Horse.”

Family Portrait

This story describes Junior’s family members and their propensity for storytelling. It bears a remarkable similarity to the story Alexie tells about his own life. Alexie structures the story by “translating” what people say into what he heard. Superficially, he blames the sound from the always on television as distorting words. However, the television itself acts as a symbol for how popular culture and European ways have ruined Indian traditions.

In the allegorical story “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire,” Alexie illustrates the absurdity of his tribe’s, and all Native Americans’, situation as Thomas is sent to jail for life for a “murder” that occurred more than one hundred and forty years earlier. Alexie underscores the continued victimization of Native Americans in this story by symbolizing the unfairness of the American system of justice.

Samuel Builds-the-Fire is the grandfather of Thomas Builds-the-Fire and the main character in the story, “A Train Is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result.” In this story, Samuel loses his job on his birthday and begins drinking alcohol, something he has avoided his entire life. Like his son and his grandson, he is a storyteller, but younger tribal members on the reservation are tired of him and do not have time to listen to his stories, and his children have all moved away.

Samuel leaves the reservation to live in the city and takes a job cleaning motel rooms. Alexie illustrates the idea that the Spokane Indians are becoming more like Americans in abandoning their elders, and he implies they are losing touch with their tradition of storytelling. The final image in the story is of Samuel passed out drunk on the railroad tracks.

Thomas Builds-the-Fire is a visionary and compelling storyteller whom most people on the reservation ignore. He is a central figure in “A Drug Called Tradition”, “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”, and “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire”. In the latter story, readers learn he once held the postmaster hostage with the idea of a gun. He is being tried for speaking the truth, after remaining silent for twenty years. During the trial he speaks in the “voice” of a young pony, that survived a horse massacre in 1858, in the voice of the warrior Qualchan, who was hanged, and in the voice of sixteen-year-old warrior Wild Coyote at the Battle of Steptoe. Thomas Builds-the-Fire symbolizes the Spokane Indian’s link to the past and the traditions they are losing.

Crazy Horse was a mid-nineteenth-century Lakota Indian known for his courage in battle and for his fierce resistance to white encroachment on Lakota lands. He appears in “Crazy Horse Dreams” as a symbol of what male Indians had once been.

James Many Horses is the central character in “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor.” In this story, he is dying of cancer but cannot stop telling jokes about it. As a result, his wife, Norma Many Horses, leaves him, only to return later because the next man she is with was “too serious.” Like most of Alexie’s characters, James is cynical, self aware, and philosophical, joking with his doctor about his imminent death.

Norma Many Horses is a primary character in “Somebody Kept Saying Powwow” and “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor.” She is married to James Many Horses, does not drink, and loves to dance. For Victor, she is a kind of ideal Indian woman, who is deeply committed to her people and impervious by the problems they face. People refer to her as “grandmother” out of respect.

Aunt Nezzy, a middle-aged cousin of the narrator who sews buckskin dresses, appears in “The Fun House.” After her son, Albert, and husband laugh at her when a mouse crawls up her leg, she leaves the house in disgust to go swimming naked in a local creek. She is dismayed by the way her family has taken her for granted, and is taking steps to revolutionize her life. At the end of the story she tries on a beaded dress that is too heavy and buckles from its weight. Refusing help, she rises. The dress is a symbol of salvation. At the beginning of the story, Nezzy says about the dress: “When a woman comes along who can carry the weight of this dress on her back, then we’ll have found the one who will save us all.”

Junior Polatkin, named after a Spokane chief from the nineteenth century, is another of Alexie’s alter egos, and readers first meet him in the story, “A Drug Called Tradition,” when he, Victor, and Thomas (all of Alexie’s alter egos in one story) take a drug and experience a number of visions during which they steal horses to win their Indian names.

Julius Windmaker appears in “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Don’t Flash Red Anymore.” A rising fifteen-year-old basketball star, he begins drinking and loses interest in the game. His character is symbolic of how other reservation Indians have ruined their lives and dreams with alcohol.

“The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” does two significant things.

Formerly, it illustrates Sherman Alexie’s wide range of talents as a writer.

Next, it tells a lot of good stories.

Sherman Alexie’s “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” is an meditative and witty tour of life in and around eastern Washington’s Spokane Indian Reservation that shines with wit, intelligence, satire, symbolism and a fine prose-poetry style.

The twenty-two entwined stories in the book outline the difficult lives of Alexie’s “cousins,” both on and off the reservation, whose survival continues exclusively by the endeavor of enduring numerous adversity. Alcoholism, paucity, and diabetes come together with dejection, desolation, and disappearances, in a place where there are no high school reunions because classes have “a reunion every weekend at the Powwow Tavern.”

In “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” Victor, older now, must retrieve his father’s body. With Victor having no money for the trip from Spokane to Phoenix, Thomas Builds-the Fire, the shunned storyteller who talks to birds and rusting cars, steps in and offers to help him. “How did you know about it?” Victor asks. Thomas replies, “I heard it on the wind, I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight. Also, your mother was in here crying.” Several times in the past, Victor has treated Thomas cruelly, now he has no choice but to accept.

In a scene reminiscent of Buddy and Philbert in Powwow Highway, they retrieve the body and drive back to Spokane in the father’s pickup truck, with gas money from the father’s meager savings account. Thomas tells stories, including one involving seeking a vision at Spokane Falls and encountering Victor’s father, but when they return to the reservation, they cannot be friends. As a token, Victor gives Thomas half of his father’s ashes.

In a moving scene from “Witnesses, Secret or Not,” a teen gives a dollar to a drunken associate lying in a doorway. To the teen, it’s a comic book and a diet Pepsi. To the other it’s much more; it’s sufficient for a jug. “One Indian doesn’t tell another what to do,” he says to himself.

It takes audacity to write stories such as these, and yes, antagonism. The anger shows through in stunning passages such as this: “James must know how to cry because he hasn’t yet and I know he’s waiting for that one moment to cry like it was five hundred years of tears. He ain’t walked anywhere and there are no blisters on his soles but there are dreams worn clean into his rib cage and it shakes and shakes with each breath and I see he’s trying to talk when he grabs the air behind his head or stares up at the sky so hard.”

He deftly, honestly and artfully depicts the struggles of Native Americans to survive in a world that remains hostile to their very survival. Against a setting of alcohol, car mishaps, hilarity, and basketball, Alexie portray the detachment between Indians and whites, reservation Indians and urban Indians, men and women, and most poetically, modern Indians and the traditions of the past.

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