Sherman Alexie’s story “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” tells the reader a lot about life on a reservation for Native Americans. It shows the importance of family and camaraderie, the dangers of substance abuse, and the importance of story telling. All of these things happen to be and involve historical and cultural problems for many Native Americans, and so the story is quite representative. The historical trauma done to Indians is a subject that is often lost on many Americans, and which deserves much more attention. To understand Victor, Thomas Builds the Fire, and the other characters of this story, we have to know more about history and about how difficult it has been for Indians to adjust to the world which is changing so rapidly and appears, in some cases, to be leaving them behind.
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To begin with, it is useful to look backwards in time. The Native Americans in the 18th century had a good relationship with the British. There was a royal proclamation in 1763 that gave them certain land rights and which told settlers not to disturb native lands. Following the American Revolution, the natives had to start afresh trying to build a relationship with the newly independent American settlers. This was a lot more difficult. There was more distrust. The Americans invaded the native lands and took them over. There was a lot of bloodshed and unhappiness. There was also a lot of suspicion between both sides and constant skirmishes.
The bad blood between the two sides grew over the years, and American administrations tried to expel natives from lands in the east towards the west. They created the Indian Territory north of Texas, which had a certain amount of autonomy. The tribes moved there, following the trail of tears. For a long time they had a certain amount of power in the Territory to look after their own affairs, but throughout the 19th century they began to lose the right to govern themselves. Congress took more and more control. In his fascinating book on the subject, Jeffrey Burton describes how this process unfolded:
Abolition or reduction of the courts to the Five Nations broke the back of tribal government for, without an independent judiciary, the tribes were powerless to delay or seriously influence the course of whatever was ordained by the Congress and Executive of the United States. Partial, faltering, idle, or corrupt as many of [the native courts] had been, [they] and the laws upon which they stood represented the clearest tangible expression of a national identity.
It was not long afterwards that the Indian Territory was absorbed into the United States, becoming the 46th state: Oklahoma. Its leaders at the time tried to gain entry as two separate states, but Congress didn’t like the idea of giving so much power to the people of the Territory. Thus a sad chapter in American history was closed. The Americans of this time felt they had a god-given right to the Indian land and that Indian’s didn’t have an appreciation for property (a fact which is not true). The Americans of the time saw themselves as a single, unified group that God had given America to. We see just how difficult life is for Indians on the reservation. Everyone is poor except those who sell cigarettes and fireworks. Many families are dysfunctional, many lives appear to be going nowhere. The Indians as a whole appear isolated and alone, and few more that Thomas Builds the Fire who has been ostracized from his clan because of his storytelling.
Some Indians and some reservations have been successful over the years. The Seminoles for example. In 1979, they opened the first casino on Indian land. Now many other tribes have copied their techniques and use casinos, and the exception to anti-gambling laws, to make billions of dollars. Recently other parts of the tribe have expanded their entertainment holdings by opening up resorts, golf clubs, and an "Indian Village". This is a great way to educate people about Indians, plus the gift shop brings in extra cash. They also sell tobacco at a good price. In 2006, they bought the chain of restaurants called the Hard Rock Café. This famous international chain showcases rock n’ roll memorabilia and dishes out delicious hamburgers and pub food.
In this story Alexie shows how the past is always going to define who we are, but that we do have control over how much it controls us. Bad things can happen in the past, and they will always shade our feelings, but they are not the entire world, they are not everything. What makes this story special in many ways, is the humanity of the characters. After they have suffered so much, the are still capable of forgiving—as when Thomas Builds the Fire helps Victor get to Phoenix after all the bad blood between them.
How can we look at a place like many of the Indian reservations in this country and feel a sense of hope, knowing how broke things are? How can we move forward together in a spirit of peace and reconciliation? Part of the answer lies in the character of Thomas Builds the Fire. His love of stories and his appreciation of the world around him, let’s us see things in a new light. He believes that as long as the old stories are remembered and told—no matter how crazy—there exists the possibility to rebuild his nation. It will take a lot of work and a lot of forgiveness, but it might just be possible.
In the end, when we look at the relationship between Indians and other Americans we see a relationship that can be fixed and that is full of promise, despite all of the negative and tragic events of the past. Generally, Americans are not any more ethnocentric than other countries. Indeed, there maybe shameful periods of American history, but as a whole Americans are much more open than people of other countries and more welcoming too. Integration and assimilation of different groups is never an entirely smooth process, and it is important not to get too caught up in these problems considering the many good things that have come out of the United States.
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