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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.
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Set in 2006, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a semi-autobiographical novel by Sherman Alexie. Although based on the author’s childhood, True Diary is a work of fiction.

14-year-old Junior (Arnold Spirit, Jr.) lives in Wellpinit, Washington, a small town on the Spokane Indian Reservation, known to residents as “the rez.” Junior describes the rez as “located approximately one million miles north of Important and two billion miles west of Happy.”

Junior was born with too much cerebrospinal fluid in his brain, and the consequent brain damage has resulted in numerous complications, including:

  • Nearsighted vision in one eye and farsighted in the other
  • Seizures
  • A stutter and lisp
  • 42 teeth (most people have 32)
  • A huge skull

Due to Junior’s physical challenges and speech impediment, people on the reservation regularly beat him up and refer to him as a “retard.”

Junior’s Suspension

On the first day of his Freshman year of high school, Junior’s so excited about learning geometry that he opens his textbook to kiss it. As he leans in, he sees “Agnes Adams” written on the inside cover. Agnes Adams is Junior’s mom.

With horror, Junior realizes that the book he’s holding is at least thirty years old. To him, the fact that his tribe is so poor that students have to use the same books their parents did is the “saddest thing in the world.” He feels his hopes for the class, and for his life, evaporate.

Without really understanding why, he suddenly hurls the textbook across the room, hitting his teacher in the face and breaking his nose. Consequently, Junior’s suspended, the first time he’s ever gotten into trouble at school.

Junior doesn’t realize it at the time, but this moment of anger signals his refusal to accept the poverty, alcoholism, and poor education that his fellow Spokanes take for granted. The teacher whose nose Junior has broken is angry with Junior, but he also understands, better than Junior does, the feelings behind Junior’s anger. He advises Junior to leave the reservation, and Junior decides to transfer to Reardan, the rich, redneck, racist farm town where the white kids go to school.

Through Junior’s story, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian touches on the themes of racism, identity and belonging, the importance of dreams, poverty, alcoholism, and friendship.

Racism

Junior’s old geometry teacher, Mr. P, can’t be too upset with Junior for breaking his nose. Mr. P, who’s white, still feels guilty for beating his students in the early days of his teaching career. All the teachers had been taught to “kill the Indian to save the child,” to beat all of the Indian’s culture out of him. Mr. P feels like he deserves to be smashed in the face with a book. He wants more for Junior than the reservation can give him. Junior needs to venture out into the world, even though he’ll encounter persistent racism there.

First Days at Reardan

Junior’s the only Indian at Reardan, aside from the school mascot. Racism, both subtle and outright, is rampant at Reardan. A few of the jocks pick on him. They never try to fight him—Junior suspects that even though he’s nerdy, he’s an Indian and, therefore, viewed as a “potential killer.” Instead of fighting him, they call him names like “Chief,” “Tonto,” and “Squaw Boy.”

One day, an older jock named Roger asks Junior if he wants to hear a joke: “Did you know that Indians are living proof that n*iggers fuck buffalo?”

Junior has never heard anything so racist. He punches Roger in the face.

Junior suddenly feels brave. He thinks maybe this is the pivotal moment in his life when he tells the world that he’s no longer willing to be a human punching bag. He later realizes that he’s earned Roger’s respect by punching him.

As Junior starts to find his footing at Reardan, he starts hanging out with Penelope, the most popular girl in school. Junior knows that she’s only “semi-dating” him because she’s tired of being perfect, and dating an Indian gives her a blemish, with the added benefit that it pisses off her racist dad. Junior doesn’t mind that Penelope is using him because, as he sees it, he’s using her, too. Penelope is his way into the social scene at Reardan. Once he starts dating Penelope, he becomes relatively popular.

Identity and Belonging

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 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.

Finding Belonging on the Basketball Team

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),...

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Summary The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Guide Shortform Introduction

Set in 2006, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is a semi-autobiographical novel by Sherman Alexie. Although based on the author’s childhood, True Diary is a work of fiction.

Throughout, Alexie’s narrator, Junior, refers to the Spokane tribe as “Indians” rather than “Native Americans,” “American Indians,” or “Indigenous...

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Summary The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Guide Part 1: Welcome to Spokane

14-year-old Junior lives in Wellpinit, Washington, a small town on the Spokane Indian Reservation, known to residents as “the rez.” Junior describes the rez as “located approximately one million miles north of Important and two billion miles west of Happy.” Reservations like Spokane’s were created in the image of death camps. Junior speculates that the government hoped Indians would go there, die out, and disappear. But the Spokane tribe didn’t disappear, and now tribe members stay of their own free will. They’re born on the rez and they die on the rez. No one ever leaves.

The rez is characterized by the poverty and alcoholism of its residents. But the rez is also an extended family—everyone knows each other and comes together in times of need.

This doesn’t mean that life on the rez is always peaceful. As happens in communities where everyone knows everyone else’s business, disagreements are frequent, and there are unofficial rules for handling conflict and defending your honor.

Spokane Rules of Fisticuffs

  1. You have to fight anyone who insults you.

  2. You have to fight anyone you think is going to insult you.

  3. You have to fight anyone you think is...

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Summary The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Guide Part 2: The End of Summer

Junior says that most people think the worst thing about being poor is being hungry. He acknowledges that sometimes, he and his family go upwards of 18 hours without eating because they don’t have the money for food. But Junior always knows that eventually, one of his parents will come home with KFC. And KFC tastes even better when you’re hungry.

Junior sometimes wants to blame his parents for their poverty, but he knows he can’t. He knows his family’s poverty is not his parents’ fault, and he knows they dreamed of more. But no one on the reservation realizes their dreams. They don’t get the chance. They’re too poor. And that creates a cycle that’s hard to escape.

  • First, you believe you’re poor because you’re stupid.
  • Then, you believe you’re stupid because you’re Indian.
  • Finally, because you’re Indian, you believe you will always be poor, and the cycle repeats itself.

Poverty doesn’t make you strong or perseverant. Poverty just “teaches you how to be poor.”

Oscar

For Junior, the worst thing about being poor isn’t hunger. It’s the inability to save his best friend, his dog Oscar. When Oscar gets sick, Junior begs his mom to take Oscar to the...

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Shortform Exercise: Examine Your Education and Identity

Junior’s excitement about school is ruined when he realizes that his school’s resources are the same today as they were when his parents went there. He feels like his community has given up on him. Think about your own educational experiences and sacrifices you’ve made to achieve your goals.


After reading about Junior’s first day at the reservation school, do you see any similarities in your own educational background? Can you identify any aspects of your education that you’ve taken for granted? What are they?

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Summary The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Guide Part 3: Early Fall

When his parents get home, Junior asks them, “Who has the most hope?” His parents look uneasily at each other, unsure of how to answer, but when Junior asks again, they say, at the same time, “white people.”

Junior knew they’d say that. Now he knows for sure where he and his hope need to go: to Reardan, the rich, redneck, racist farm town where the white kids go to school.

For a kid on the rez, saying, “I want to go to Reardan” is like saying, “I want to fly to the moon.” No one leaves the reservation, certainly not to go to another school, and certainly not a white school. But Junior’s parents put up little resistance. Even though Junior’s dad once got pulled over in Reardan three times in one week for DWI (Driving While Indian), Junior’s parents know Reardan is one of the best schools in the state. They suggest he wait until the following school year, but Junior insists that if he doesn’t start the following day, he never will. Junior’s parents agree. It’s as if they’ve been waiting for Junior to ask to go to Reardan. Like Mr. P, they see their son’s potential and don’t want him to end up drunk and impoverished like the rest of the Indians on the rez.

Saying...

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Shortform Exercise: How Your Culture Affects Your Decisions

We’re all members of multiple cultures. For example, you may belong to a family culture, school culture, regional culture, religious culture, and ethnic culture. Think about how your loyalty to these various cultures has affected how you view the world and the decisions you’ve made.


Why do the people on the reservation consider Junior a traitor?

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Summary The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Guide Part 4: Late Fall

When Junior gets home the day he contradicts his geology teacher, he finds his mother crying. His sister has gotten married to a Flathead Indian she’s just met at the casino and has moved to Montana. She didn’t tell anyone she was going. She just called her mom from Montana to let her know she was married.

Since 1881, when the Spokane Reservation was founded, no one in Junior’s family has left, and now Junior’s parents have lost both their children to the “outside world.” Junior wonders if they feel like failures.

At first, Junior is worried about his sister. But then he realizes that his sister is trying to live her dreams. She’s living the romance novel she always wanted to write. This is a step up from isolating herself in the basement. The move proves to Junior that Mary’s spirit hadn’t died. She hasn’t given up. It’s a big deal for anyone to leave the rez, and Junior is proud of her. He also realizes that he’d shamed her by leaving first. His bravery had inspired hers.

Junior Gets a Study Buddy

Junior is himself inspired by his sister’s bravery. The next day, he approaches class genius Gordy, who says he’s too busy to talk to Junior because he has to go debug...

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Summary The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Guide Part 5: Early Winter

Although Junior doesn’t think he’ll make either the varsity or junior varsity team, he tries out for basketball anyway. There are 40 students competing for 24 varsity and junior varsity spots.

After running 100 laps around the gym, the team hopefuls play full-court one-on-one games so the coach can assess their skills. Junior is paired with Roger. Predictably, Roger easily steals the ball from Junior as he starts to dribble, then knocks Junior over when it’s Junior’s turn to play defense. The coach acknowledges that Roger’s much bigger than Junior and asks if Junior needs a break. Junior really wants a break, but knows that if he takes it, he’ll lose his shot at making the team. He has to prove his tenacity.

The next time Roger knocks Junior down, he jumps up and chases the ball, which has bounced into the stands. He grabs it and sprints back to the court, not even bothering to dribble, running like a fullback. By the time he gets 15 feet away from Roger, who’s ready to tackle him like a linebacker, both boys are screaming. Junior nails a jump shot, then Roger grabs the ball and takes it to the opposite end of the court. Junior stays with him and fouls him to keep him from...

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Summary The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Guide Part 6: Late Winter

In February, Eugene and his friend Bobby, both drunk, argue in a 7-Eleven parking lot over who gets the last sip of wine. Bobby shoots Eugene in the face, killing him. Once in jail (and sober), Bobby hangs himself.

Junior has no idea how to deal with his grief. He copes by reading lots of books and drawing lots of cartoons. He loses track of how many days of school he’s missed—fifteen, maybe twenty.

Junior wonders why God would make his family suffer so much. He finds his answer in the Euripides play Medea, which Gordy has shown him. In it, the title character asks, “What greater grief than the loss of one’s native land?” This hits a chord. Junior suddenly understands his family’s grief and the suffering of his community on the rez: Indians have lost their native land. In fact, they’ve lost everything: their languages, their dances, their songs, and their relationships with each other. The only way of life they know is “how to lose and be lost.”

Junior’s so angry at this unfairness that he wants to kill God. He also thinks he’s cursed his family and his tribe by leaving Wellpinit to go to school at Reardan. He blames himself for his grandmother’s and Eugene’s deaths,...

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Shortform Exercise: Examine the Power of Expectations

Junior believes that one of the most powerful sentences in the world is “You can do it.”


Why do you think Junior plays basketball better at Reardan than he did on the reservation?

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Shortform Exercise: Examine Your Privilege

After living most of his life as a “David,” an underdog, Junior realizes that at Reardan, he’s playing for Goliath, the side with all the advantages. He’s suddenly ashamed of his privilege.


What are your privileges? Which ones do you tend to take for granted?

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The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Summary The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian Guide Part 7: Spring and Summer

As the school year comes to a close, Junior and his parents go to the cemetery to clean the graves. Junior’s mom tells him how proud she is of him, which is the greatest thing she could have said, as far as he’s concerned. He understands that he can be happy while still missing his sister.

Junior cries thinking about how amazing his sister was. She pursued her dreams. She never reached them, but it was the bravery of the attempt that mattered. Junior sees that, like his sister, he’s also making the attempt, and it also might kill him, but staying on the rez also would have killed him.

Junior cries for:

  • His sister and her premature death
  • Himself and the fact that he’s the only one who’s been brave and arrogant enough to leave the rez and find a “better life out in the white world”
  • His tribe, many of whom will die in the coming year due to the effects of...

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Shortform Exercise: Reflect on the Themes

Think about the theme of identity in The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.


What was the most important thing Junior learned by the end of his first year at Reardan?

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Table of Contents

  • 1-Page Summary
  • Shortform Introduction
  • Part 1: Welcome to Spokane
  • Part 2: The End of Summer
  • Exercise: Examine Your Education and Identity
  • Part 3: Early Fall
  • Exercise: How Your Culture Affects Your Decisions
  • Part 4: Late Fall
  • Part 5: Early Winter
  • Part 6: Late Winter
  • Exercise: Examine the Power of Expectations
  • Exercise: Examine Your Privilege
  • Part 7: Spring and Summer
  • Exercise: Reflect on the Themes