Finding Your Identity: Lessons from Arnold Spirit Jr.

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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How is the theme of finding your identity explored in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian? How does Junior learn about the concept of finding your identity?

The idea of finding your identity is often present in the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Junior, a young member of the Spokane Indian tribe, leaves his reservation for a better education. In the process, Junior tries to understand his identity and learn more about himself.

Read more about the theme of finding your identity in the book The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

What Does Finding Your Identity Mean?

As he struggles to fit in at his new school, Junior feels like he’s split in two: He wakes up as an Indian (Junior) and arrives at Reardan as a nobody (Arnold). He hopes this is part of his quest of finding your identity.

He doesn’t feel like he belongs on the reservation, either. Many Indians think you become as good as white if you aspire to a better life, and Junior faces many people on the rez who think of him as a traitor for going to school outside the reservation. As Junior learns about the idea how “how to find your own identity,” he faces this issue more than once.

Finding Belonging on the Basketball Team

Finding your identity can happen through friends or common interests. One of these common interests was basketball. Junior makes it onto Reardan’s varsity basketball team, and he finally starts to feel he’s found his tribe. As the team enters the reservation for their first game against Junior’s old high school, Wellpinit, Junior can hear the Wellpinit fans chanting. It takes him a moment to realize they’re chanting “Ar-nold sucks! Ar-nold sucks!” They’re making a point of calling him by his Reardan name, Arnold, rather than his reservation name, Junior.

When the team walks into the gym, the fans go silent. Then, all at the same time, all the spectators in the stands turn their backs on Junior, displaying their contempt towards his new identity. Junior’s angry, in part because he thinks that if his community had been this organized when it came to educating its children, he might still be there. Thinking about this irony makes him laugh, the sole sound in the gym. In a show of support, his teammates join him, and they laugh their way to the locker rooms. But Junior’s fellow tribe members don’t let up—a fan throws a quarter at Junior, leaving a gash that requires stitches, and Junior’s former best friend, Rowdy (who plays for the reservation team), knocks Junior unconscious within minutes of Junior’s return to the game. Reardan loses by 30 points.

Later in the season, Junior’s eager for Reardan’s rematch with Wellpinit, even though he feels like the “Indian scout who led the U.S. Cavalry against other Indians.” This time, Reardan destroys the reservation team, and Junior ecstatically compares himself and his team to David, who knocks out Goliath with a stone. But then he realizes something: Reardan isn’t David, the underdog; Readan is Goliath, the giant, the team with all the advantages. 

Junior’s teammates drive their own cars, carry their own cell phones, have parents with good jobs, and will go to college. In contrast, more than one kid on the Wellpinit team probably didn’t eat breakfast. Two of them have fathers in prison. None of them will go to college, and Rowdy’s father will beat him for losing the game.

Having spent most of his life as the underdog, Junior’s now ashamed of his privilege. He continues to feel like only a part-time Indian. He also learns that finding your identity is challenging.

Strength in Numbers

Junior eventually realizes he’s in the company of millions of Americans who’ve “left their birthplaces in search of a dream.” He’s also not the only one who has asked the question “how to find your identity.” Junior realizes he’s a member of the Spokane tribe, but he’s also a member of many other tribes, including:

  • The basketball tribe
  • The bookworm tribe
  • The teenage-boy tribe
  • The poverty tribe
  • The American immigrants tribe
  • The tortilla-chip-lovers tribe

Finding your identity means understanding that the world is bigger than the Spokane and that he’s a member of many different tribes, Junior knows he’s going to be okay. He also knows that the idea of “how to find your identity is a big question, and he will continue answering this question as he grows up.

Finding Your Identity: Lessons from Arnold Spirit Jr.

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best summary of Sherman Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian summary:

  • How Junior gets split between two worlds when he goes to a mostly white school
  • How Junior overcomes being an outsider to being part of welcoming social circles
  • The tragedies of alcoholism and poverty that leave Junior with renewed strength

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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