Native Americans are often a forgotten minority, in history and in literature. The slaughter of native lives and the obliteration of their culture is an unfortunate American legacy. Luckily, writer Sherman Alexie has attempted to fill the cultural void and illuminate the plight of his people. He does this through a style of writing he labels “reservation realism.” Although natives are the opposite of immigrants, the experience of the Native American minority shares many similarities with the discourse surrounding immigrants, therefore rendering reservation realism a viable division of immigrant literature. This genre uses stories that are often “biased,” “exaggerated”, or “deluded” as a means of documentation and translation of the Native American experience (Alexi). The idea here is that the “story-truth” can be truer than the actual truth (TTC 203). Reservation realism combines the storytelling tradition practiced within tribes with historical fact in order to capture the essence of reservation life. This is exemplified in “The Trial of Thomas Builds-The-Fire”, a story in Alexi’s collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. This story incorporates the surreal theme of reincarnation into its triangulated structure combined with a variety of literary devices in order to document the Native American experience, and to show the shared nature of their suffering.
Initially, Sherman Alexie utilizes a timeline divided into three tales, each representing a different reincarnation of the protagonist, Thomas Builds The Fire. He creates this structure in order to demonstrate the progression in native resistance as time passes, and to reveal the similarities between the experiences of Thomas’s incarnations. The three stories told by Thomas are also buttressed with details relating to his current predicament as a supposed felon. Thomas begins as an alleged criminal on trial in Spokane Washington. The reader is not informed as to what he is on trial for specifically because Thomas himself his unsure. While he is in a holding cell, the white officers discuss Thomas’s “future,” “immediate present” and “past” (93). Here is another example of the triangulation of time. Thomas’s past, future, and present are all connected. His history is shared with those who came before him. This theme of connectivity continues throughout the story as Alexie explores the idea of a collective, ancestral consciousness through reincarnation.
Alexie uses negative diction when describing Thomas’s propensity for telling stories, and exploits his protagonist’s present silence as a symbol, to demonstrate the destruction of Native American culture caused by white Americans. The guards at the prison where Thomas is being held, mention that he has a “dangerous” “storytelling fetish” The negative connotation of the word “fetish” implies that storytelling is somehow taboo, and this is further emphasized by the labeling of the fetish as “dangerous.” Since storytelling is a staple of native culture, treating it as a crime shows how caucasian Americans violated native traditions. In addition, the word “dangerous” illuminates the fear felt by those who believed that native culture threatened the colonial way of life. Negative diction is also manipulated in order to evince the effect of white Americans on native culture. For example, a native man named Walks Along labels his wife as a “savage in polyester pants” (94). The way in which Walks Along treats his wife is an example of a phenomenon called assimilation, which is the label given to the way minorities conform to a new way of life, perhaps losing their previous identities in the processes. He has conformed to mainstream American life to the extent that he now labels his own wife as a “savage”. Assimilation is a trend common to the immigrant experience. Colonials and pioneers marginalized Native Americans severely and it resulted in a loss of their cultural identity. Alexie is implying that this is one of the many negative effects that has resulted from the imposition of American conventions on native people.
In this story, silence is used as a symbol of oppression for the protagonist and for his people. The officers reveal that Thomas had “agreed to remain silent” and has not “spoken in nearly twenty years” (94). Thomas will not tell stories anymore because of the negative consequences that he, and those similar to him, have faced for doing so. His silence is an adaptation, gained from those before him who spoke and suffered the consequences. The reveal of this “adaptation” helps Alexi relate Thomas Builds A Fire suppression of the minority voice indicative of the immigrant experience. Silence in the face of oppression connotes defeat, victimizing Thomas and the native people. The reluctance to speak, or the loss of voice represents a loss of liberty. However, Thomas does not remain silent. The narrator informs the reader that Thomas began making “small noises that contained more emotion and meaning than entire sentences” (94). Eventually, Thomas breaks his silence when he defends himself at his trial. The slow progression that helps Thomas find his voice parallels the progression the natives in Thomas’s story makes from passive resistance to active retaliation. Finding his voice is a way for Thomas to find solidarity in the face of his oppressors.
Alexie also employs animal diction in his first tale to represent the inhumane treatment of natives, to infuse his story with the focus on animals and nature pervasive in Native American culture, and to interject a fantastical aspect, thus exemplifying reservation realism. His first story begins in 1858 and Thomas is a “young pony” who is taken captive (96). An American general writes a letter describing the stolen “captured animals”; the “poor creatures” that he regrets killing in order to prevent a “stampede” (97). Although the general is referring to actual horses, in the dialogue describing racial conflicts, members of the offending party often view the minority in animal terms. Native Americans were herded onto reservations as if they were horses or cattle. The metaphor is then extended as Alexi personifies the “mother” horses who “cried for their dead children.” Native Americans traditionally believe that humans share a brotherhood with animals. Here, Sherman Alexie is exemplifying one of the staples of reservation realism, an infusion of native culture into American literature.
The structure of this story enables Alexi to show the ways in which the native response to American oppression evolved over time. The story continues as Thomas describes how, as a pony, he let a man “saddle” him but then “suddenly rose up and bucked him off and broke his arm” (98). This single act of defiance marks the beginning of the progression of natives from hopeless victims that transformed into worthy adversaries. However, it is important to note that the defiance occurs as the response to imposed hardships and oppression. This parallels the experience of the natives in regards to their colonial captors. Native Americans were exploited and slaughtered by European settlers, and forced to vacate communities they had occupied for centuries. Just like the “young pony” they did not start the conflict. Moreover, in Thomas’s second story, he is a man named Qualchan fighting in an Indian war. Qualchan was a real Yakima chief and Thomas’s version of his story is accurate (“Spokane History Timeline”). This is an example of the actual history that infiltrates Alexie’s fictional story; the “realism” portion of reservation realism. Qualchan was hung with six other “Indians…who had never raised a hand in anger to any white” (98). The hanging is another instance of the native reluctance toward violence, compared with the brutality of the whites. It emphasizes that Thomas, although on trial for some unidentified crime, is a victim since he shares a past with his suffering ancestors. Finally, in Thomas’s third story he is a man named Wild Coyote who is also engaged in a conflict with the whites. Even though he desires peace between “white and Indians”, he notices that the whites have “cannons and had lied before” so he decides to attack the men rather than brokering peace (100). This signifies the complete escalation from passive resistance to violent conflict. Although the murder and scalping of the white men by Wild Coyote is brutal, Alexi makes the reader sympathetic to the plight of the natives with the previous stories. He shows that this crime committed by Thomas as Wild Coyote, is a response to the the previous atrocities he has suffered.
The author also manipulates imagery in order to portray those who desire Thomas’s incarceration in a negative light. It is prudent to remember that this unusual story is Thomas’s testimonial for his trial. Alexie wants the reader to be the jury and to decide that the plaintiff is innocent. When the judge asks Thomas what his point is in telling this story, he informs the judge that Spokane is “building a golf course” named after Qualchan located in the same valley where he was hanged (99). He’s saying that the predecessors of the men who hung him are now publicly commemorating him. However, this seems like a weak attempt of repentance. The fact that the monument is a golf course, cheapens the action. Golf is a sport synonymous with the white upper class. White, privileged men are undoubtedly building this golf course and they are putting Qualchan’s name on it as a consolation prize. At least, this is what Alexie is implying. This is an example of the bias present in reservation realism. Alexie wants the reader to be incredibly biased toward Thomas and the natives so he embellishes historical events and uses imagery, such as the golf course, that emphasizes a negative bias against the whites.
Furthermore, Alexie portrays the injustice that Americans perpetrated against natives through depiction of the legal officials at Thomas’s trial as injudicious and corrupt. Furthermore, a theme of injustice permeates this story. Since Thomas represents the Native American community, the guards and the judge signify white America. When Thomas is in prison, the officers are deliberating about what to charge him with. They are inventing a “felony charge” for Thomas because they “don’t need his kind around” (94). The members of the justice system are corrupt thus connoting universal societal corruption in regards to minorities. If the system that is designed to uphold justice fails to do so it is logical to assume that justice does not exist, at least in the world of Thomas Builds The Fire. When Thomas eventually admits to Wild Coyote’s murder, he expresses his remorse admitting that he is “sorry that those men had to die” (102). He is even “happy” for the surviving soldiers who “fought well” and “deserved to live another day” (101). However, this is disregarded by the judge who gets Thomas to admit to the “cold blooded” murder. They judge does not care about the reasons for Thomas’s actions. He just wants to put a native in jail. This brand of injustice represents the unfair treatment of minorities in America by the judicial system.
Although unrealistic, the theme of reincarnation helps the author to show that the histories of the Native American peoples are connected. For the purposes of this work, Thomas is reincarnated and has actually experiences all of the events depicted however, the reincarnation can also be interpreted figuratively. Crimes committed by natives against whites in the present era, are the consequences of past events. Since this collection, and reservation realism, often has a focus on the civil unrest and criminal activity currently occurring within the native community, Alexi is trying to explain this behavior through the fantastical story of Thomas Builds The Fire. Here, is an instance of the “story-truth” carrying more weight than an actual, realistic portrayal. If Thomas actually existed he would not remember his past lives even if reincarnation is possible. Still, the surreal theme succeeds in making Thomas’s story more powerful, and thus more persuasive. However the fictitious court ultimately disregards any mitigating circumstances and Thomas is sent to jail.
On his way to the penitentiary, Thomas shares the bus with “six other prisoners” of various races. The bus will deliver them to “a new kind of reservation, barrio, ghetto, logging-town tin shack” (103). Once again, a native man is being taken involuntarily from his home and the vicious cycle continues. It is important to note that Thomas is not alone and is instead accompanied by other races of oppressed people. This shows that oppression and injustice in America is not indicative to any one race. Suffering is as integral to the American experience as baseball and apple pie. The same conflict of prejudice and oppression is continually reborn, just like Thomas. Perhaps Alexi is suggesting that it is up to us to stop history from repeating itself.