Everyone at one point in their lives must have had an encounter with the feeling of isolation, loneliness, and loss as to who they are and what the purpose of their lives is. Among the people who bear the sorrow of alienation are Native Americans. Living among whites and Indian societies where sometimes physical appearance matters more than personal qualities and torn between fulfilling the expectations of both societies and pursuing individual hopes and dreams, they struggle to find the real version of themselves and the meaning of their existence. Sherman Alexie, an award winning author of The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven (1993) and James Welch, a prominent native writer of many literary works one of which is entitled Fools Crow, show their concerns over such phenomena in their novels, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Winter in the Blood. With Alexie growing up in a Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, and James Welch being part Blackfeet and part Gros Ventre Indian himself, both authors insert their personal experience into these novels to act as a significant source and validation for the Native Americans’ misery. Alexie in True Diary and Welch in Winter in the Blood have envisioned how alienation leads to the main characters’ self-discovery, through a realization of the differences they have in their lives, a disruption in their meaningful relationships with the loved ones, and a return to ancestral connection. Both authors indicate that despite the main characters’ alienation, they manage to grasp the meaning of their existence and find a solid ground to stand as who they really are.
One of the causes of alienation for both protagonists is the differences between the realities that they are in, what they desire for themselves, and what others expect of them. However, the external pressures they receive from others are given by different people in their lives. In True Diary, Junior receives pressures both from his native community and from white people initially while the narrator from Winter in the Blood are pressured by his family members. Junior lives on the reservation but goes to school at Reardan, which is considered to be the white people’s area. He wants to attend the school there because it is far better than the ones on the reservation (46). He still lives on the reservation because it is where his home is and his parents cannot afford moving outside (47). However, as his mother says, the Indians are angry at him for being the first person to leave the reservation in this way (47). In other words, the Indians expect him to live the way they all have been up until that time. His going to school at Reardan is not all smooth and happy either as he is treated like an alien (56), “a potential killer” (63), and “an idiot” (86) by the white. Many of them think he does not belong at Reardan (154). These treatments make him feel like “nothing” (82) while the Indians’ treatments make him feel “invisible” (156). Junior feels like he does not have a place of true belonging. On the other hand, the pressures given to the narrator in Winter in the Blood come from his family. His mother Teresa thinks Indians and whites are the same as long as they can work properly (20), and she wants him to keep working in the clinic even though the narrator knows he is only employed due to his race (22). The narrator cannot live like the whites do as even his romantic choice is criticized based on Indian values by his grandmother (4). Yet, he cannot truly live using the Indian traditional way either as all his living relatives and acquaintances, except for Yellow Calf and grandmother, live the way the whites do. In general, although the pressures that the main characters have to deal with come from different sources, they have made the main characters feel like they are being looked down on and casted aside.
Besides all the pressures that weigh them down, the main characters also experience a disruption in their relationships with the loved ones. This disruption is manifested through different forms in the two novels. In True Diary, the fight Junior has with Rowdy has turned their friendships sour. Rowdy is disappointed in Junior for deciding to transfer to the whites’ school at Reardan. Junior cares and loves Rowdy. Other than Junior’s family, Rowdy is the only person on the reservation who does not turn his back on Junior and accepts Junior for who he is. Being around Rowdy makes Junior feel indifference. Though Junior made new good friends with Gordy, Penelope, and Roger at Reardan, he wants Rowdy back, tries to mend their friendships, and still thinks of him as his best friend. He even states that the one thing which could hurt his feeling the most is if Rowdy tears up his cartoon of them which Junior gives on Thanksgiving Day (103). Even though they are not on talking term, when Junior does not know what to do, he emails Rowdy (115). Junior would feel completely lost without Rowdy. Meanwhile, in Winter in the Blood, the relationship between the narrator and First Raise and Mose is cut short because of the deaths of these two most beloved people. Having them in the narrator’s life had brought in the sense of Indianness in him. The narrator wants both his father and his brother back to the point of having to bury their memories away (108), but those memories persistently come back almost each time the narrator is drunk or see something in his everyday life. Losing both of them makes him lose his balance in life and feels alienated. To summarize, Junior’s cracked friendship with Rowdy and the separation of the narrator in Winter in the Blood with First Raise and Mose contribute to the main characters’ feeling of disconnection towards their land and their ancestry.
The pressures from the people surrounding the main characters and the separation with their loved ones have created some distance in them and made them lost sense of who they are. However, they are able to discover their true identity through a return to ancestral connection. Both in True Diary and Winter in the Blood, the main characters experience a moment of revelation in their lives. Junior from True Diary embraces himself as the true Indian after his conversation with his best friend Rowdy. In the ending scene of True Diary, Rowdy, who strictly refuses for the second time Junior’s invitation to come to Reardan, denies Junior’s request because he is not nomadic and states that nobody on the reservation is, except Junior (229). As they converse and gaze at the beautiful view of the Spokane land, Junior realizes that mentally he always remains connected to the land of the reservation no matter which part of the world he goes to physically. In addition, the interaction between the two also mends their broken relationship. Rowdy forgives Junior for his decision to attend school in Reardan. He feels upset, angry, and betrayed. Nevertheless, he admits that he has always known Junior will leave the reservation and explore the world and that he is happy for Junior (229). Rowdy’s confession sends Junior into tears, and he is thankful and promises to always love Rowdy (330). Similar to the narrator from Winter in the Blood, he also realizes his Indian full-bloodedness after engaging in a meaningful dialogue with his newfound grandfather Yellow Calf. The narrator has little knowledge of his ancestry. He always thinks he has a mix blood. His father First Raise and brother Mose are the one whom he cherished the most because their existence and closeness with him help him face his blurred identity in a way that they remind him of his Indian heritage. With them gone, he feels completely lost and aimless. He reveals that he feels a distance which comes from within him, and it has numbed him from feeling any affection for his grandmother, his mother, or Agnes (2). His talk with Yellow Calf shortly after grandmother dies has enlightened him of his ancestral connection. He explains that when Bird farts, the realization comes to him as if it were riding one moment of the gusting wing, as if Bird has had it in him all the time and has passed it to him in one instant moment of corruption (158). The narrator figures out that Yellow Calf is of Blackfeet descendant and he has had shared history with grandmother. This comic yet life-changing revelation is significant because it marks the ending of his aimlessness life and the beginning of a new page in his life where he is not a nameless person anymore. He knows for sure he is fully Indian. In brief, although the main characters’ newfound truths are revealed by different people playing different roles in their lives, it is clear that both Rowdy and Yellow Calf have a big influence on Junior and the narrator and have helped them discover their true identities by reconnecting them to their ancestry.
Ultimately, Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and James Welch’s Winter in the Blood affirm the influence of alienation towards people’s identity. The main characters in both literary works prove that alienation may be a result of the differences people have with each other or the uncertainty feeling of not knowing where they belong. In True Diary, Junior is alienated because he has dreams and hopes unlike the rest of the reservation people. While in Winter in the Blood, the narrator’s alienation is being caused by his cluelessness of his ancestry. Both alienations bring on the main characters’ self-discovery which is the affirmation of their connection to their ancestry. These themes of alienation and self-discovery commonly appear in Native Americans’ literature. Alexie and Welch successfully illustrate them in a way that people can easily relate to. The two novels significantly imply that no matter how lonely and worthless we feel ourselves are, we must stay true to ourselves and not let other people define ourselves.
Arini & Feby