The title of Sherman Alexie's first novel, Reservation Blues, sums up the two central themes that reverberate throughout the story: reservation life and the particular, peculiar status of blues music in American history and identity. The novel follows the story of a Native American blues rock band based near Spokane, Washington, whose rise and fall is dictated, at least partially, by the cursed guitar of blues legend Robert Johnson. However, Alexie's use of the blues is not as strictly literal, because he uses the particular rhythms and identities of the blues in order to explore contemporary Native American life. By comparing and contrasting Alexie's presentation of the Native American history and culture with his use of the blues, it is possible to see how the novel argues for a kind of hybrid identity that is based in a pre-American culture but which nevertheless reconstitutes itself through distinctly American forms of representation and meaning. In particular, this analysis helps reveal how the novel uses its discussion of the Native American experience and the blues in order to simultaneously explore the symmetry between the Native American and African-American experience while highlighting the contrast between the Native American conception of place and history and those spaces and histories defined by a dominant, white America.
Before getting into the novel in detail, it will helpful to outline the primary metaphorical relationships that exist in the novel between three different ideas of culture, identity, and space. Reservation Blues can be seen as a study of the American melting pot, but one that specifically focuses on the categories of Native American or Indian, black, and white (there are further divisions between Native American tribes, but these distinctions are less relevant to the specific focus of this study). These categories are in flux throughout the novel, and the interactions and intersections are what make up the bulk of the story's deeper content.
On the one hand there is a natural convergence between the Native American and African-American experience, because in both instances a distinctly white, European culture and history have dictated the scope and content of that experience through colonial domination even as both Native American and African-American subjectivities are informed by histories that extend back well beyond the colonization of America. This is arguably the most obvious cultural relationship in the novel, because there are simply obvious "similarities between the social and economic conditions of African-Americans and American Indians" (Andrews 137). At the same time, however, there is contrast set up between Native American and white American culture, because the experience of the story's African-American character serves as a kind of mutually-shared node wherein Native American and white American influence is felt and expressed. As a result, an analysis of the novel's use of the blues in its depiction of a contemporary Native American experience means looking at the way these cross-linked cultural and historical relationships are rendered and explored.
These categories are helpfully elucidated in the essay "The Cycle of Removal and Return: A Symbolic Geography of Indigenous Literature," which talks about "the Symbolic Reservation" in the same sense as "the Symbolic South and the Symbolic North" (Teuton 48). In the essay, Christopher Teuton notes that "just as the Symbolic South and the Symbolic North are mutually defined by their relationship to the history of African-American slavery, the Symbolic Reservation and the Symbolic City exist in a dialectical relationship shaped by the impact of Western colonialism in North America" (Teuton 48). While one could easily conduct a reading of Reservation Blues focused on the Symbolic Reservation and the Symbolic City, what is most interesting for this study is the parallel that emerges between the reservation and the South, because it is here that the novel does its most interesting work by cross-referencing concepts and categories that would otherwise have existed in their own dichotomies, i.e. South v. North or Reservation v. City.
The novel essentially takes what has frequently been conceived of as two distinct relationships (black-white and Indian-white) and demonstrates how these relationships are actually two points in a larger, triangular interaction between all three categories, an interaction that defines the American experience as a whole. By reframing these relationships, the novel is able to simultaneously demonstrate the extent to which Native and African-American experiences have been controlled and constrained by white America while revealing the hidden interactions across categories. In turn, this confrontation with historical constraint and cultural cross-pollination reveals a shared language that can help redefine a new kind of hybrid Native American identity for the contemporary world.
Even though Reservation Blues is Sherman Alexie's first novel, it is actually the second time he has written about the Spokane Indian Reservation, with the first being his collection of short stories entitled The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (Kraztert & Richey 5). The novel mostly takes place in the small reservation town of Wellpinit, and the setting is an important part of the novel's blending of Native American subjectivity and the blues because the blues themselves are so deeply tied to a specific geographic location, namely, the American South. As will be seen, the town of Wellpinit is both unique to the reservation and a kind of reconstitution of the South, because although the exact same racial and cultural issues experienced by black blues musicians in the South are not directly transplanted to the reservation, the residents of Wellpinit nevertheless experience their own form of segregation and discrimination.
Almost immediately the novel draws a connection between the reservation and the American South with Robert Johnson's arrival in Wellpinit. Specifically, the novel details how Johnson "strolled to the crossroads near the softball diamond, with its solitary grave hidden in deep center field" (Alexie 3). This line is important for the novel's treatment of location and setting because Johnson himself is famous in American folklore for having sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in the South, supposedly in return for his seemingly supernatural guitar ability (Ford 198). This image is repeated again when Thomas first meets Johnson and asks him if he knows where he is, to which Johnson replies that he is "at the crossroad," and "his words sounded like stones in his mouth and coals in his stomach" (Alexie 5). Johnson has come to Wellpinit to reclaim his soul, and thus the crossroads represent both a mirror of the original crossroads of legend as well as a new point of departure.
In his essay "Sherman Alexie's indigenous blues," Douglas Ford notes the recurrence of crossroads throughout Reservation Blues and identifies them as "a crossroads similar to those in the blues, a juncture where we can see an indigenous Native American oral tradition still at work, but now in a hybrid form, informed by the other discursive forms that have crossed its path" (Ford 198). While Ford's observation is astute in that he recognizes how the novel constitutes these crossroads as distinctly Native American crossroads, it is nevertheless insufficient because it ignores the symmetry the novel relies on by suggesting that these crossroads are strictly points of interaction between histories. In reality, these crossroads serve as both a point of interaction and hybridity between Native American and black experiences and identities and a point of contrast between Native American and white spaces and meaning.
Specifically, even though the novel is mostly about Thomas and the Coyote Springs, it nevertheless begins, like Robert Johnson's original legend, with Johnson standing at a crossroads. This is an important detail because it marks Johnson, rather than a Native American character, as the figure precipitating the changes that reverberate through the reservation, even as it is the reservation and its people that are able to change Johnson's fate. In doing so, the novel suggests that these Wellpinit crossroads should be taken as a commentary on the original crossroads themselves in addition to being seen as a point of interaction between Johnson and the Native American population. In this way, the crossroads simultaneously represent a cross between African-American and Native American culture in the sense of a meeting or blending as well as a cross between Native American and white American culture in the sense of a perpendicular divergence.
Thus, the crossroads of Wellpinit are not merely Native American crossroads existing in a vacuum, but rather represent a kind of native crossroad that offers the potential for genuine freedom, rather than the false promise of white America presented to Johnson at the legend's original crossroads. The novel implicitly contrasts the crossroads of the American South, deep in the country ruled by white Americans, with the crossroads of the American Northwest that lie in the heart of the Native American's little remaining territory. Instead of meeting the devil at the crossroads of Wellpinit, Johnson meets Thomas Builds-the-Fire, and instead of losing his soul, he is given the opportunity to get it back. All at once the crossroads of the Native American reservation offer a point of meeting between Native American and African-American history…
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