Native American Lit Time

By: Sresha Ventrapragada, Jamie Park, Katherine Anderson

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part time Indian displays the culture of the Native American Spokane tribe living in a reservation.

Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie was born October 7, 1966, in Wellpinit, a Spokane Indian Reservation, near Washington state. He was a writer whose poetry, short stories, novels, and films about the lives of American Indians won him an international following. Known for his frankness, quick wit, and mordant sense of humor, he was a popular speaker and performer, and he appeared on such television programs as The Colbert Report. In 2010 Alexie won a number of literary awards, including the PEN/Faulkner award for War Dances and the 2010 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas. He is known for relating his Native-American culture into his own writing through his own experiences.

Overview of Native American Culture

Native Americans, also known as the indigenous people of America or American Indians, are a group of people who discovered America before Christopher Columbus and other explorers. There are many recognized groups or tribes and they all live in specific areas that fulfill their tribe’s needs. For example, the Spokane tribe lived in the plateau area of North America, what is currently the state of Washington, because the area is surrounded by mountains to provide them with protection and also to keep the land dry from precipitation. In the plateau area, the Native American tribes have certain characteristics that distinguish them from other tribes. They recorded much of their life in diaries and lived in lodges. Native Americans followed folk culture which means that each group has different traits and traditions. They often incorporate many art and entertainment related activities into their lifestyles, such as storytelling, music, and dancing. Even though the Native American culture is not very prevalent in the current society, many organizations are trying to conserve and revive these native practices.

The purpose of this is the explain the culture of Native Americans and connect it to the book, the "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian".


Fish, such as salmon, trout, and whitefish are important foods. The men hunted bigger animals like buffalo by surrounding the animal. The staple plant foods include camas, bitterroot bulbs, seeds, and berries. Native American tribes also like to make fry bread, which is flat dough bread that is fried in oil and is eaten with honey, jam, or beef.


The Spokane tribe used spears, lances, knives, clubs, and bows and arrows. They also used shields to defend themselves. This tribe wore clothes made out of cedar bark, deerskin, or rabbit skin. Later on, they started hunting buffalo and used their hides to make clothing. Generally, they wore breechcloths, leggings, shirts, and robes but clothing also varied depending on the season. Armbands, wristbands, headdresses, and anklets were worn for special occasions.


Music is treated like property in this culture. Music is used in all celebrations and can take up to a year to prepare. Musical transmission involves the processes of teaching and learning that preserve songs and repertories from one generation to the next. Native Americans transmit music primarily through oral tradition. Some genres, such as social dance songs, are learned informally through imitation and participation


People of the Spokane tribe created dugout canoes from hollowed out logs of big trees. Men hollowed the trees by softening the timber with a controlled fire and carving it to form the shape of a canoe. They used the canoes to travel along streams and the Columbia River which was near the main reservation.


The religion of all Native Americans share a creation story, even though it is one that varies by tribe. The specifics of each religion vary greatly from tribe to tribe. There are no written texts, instead stories as passed down orally from generation to generation. Symbolism, especially with animals, is often a common part of Native American religion. Animals were used to represent certain ideas, characteristics, and spirits. Some Native American tribes used animals to tell the story of creation.

Elements of Culture: Language

1a. Quote from the book

“And yes, I had that stutter and lisp, but I also had that singsong reservation accent that made everything I said sound like a bad poem.” (Alexie 61)

1b. Example and Explanation

During the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of Native Americans were forced to learn English in boarding school. Researchers think that the event created a standard accent for the reservation which the Native Americans used in their tribe when they came back home.

The author describes this cultural aspect accurately because the speaker describes his accent as a standard accent among his tribe but he also speaks English fluently. The Spokanes in this book might have descended from people who were forced to learn English which might have caused them to keep this accent but still learn English.

2a. Quote from the book

“Wellpinit,” I said. “Up on the rez, I mean, the reservation.” (Alexie 61)

2b. Example and Explanation

Native American languages are shown to have developed phonology and grammar. There is diversity in these characteristics between indigenous American languages. Native American languages are often considered polysynthetic because they merge multiple word elements to create a single word that functions like a sentence.

The author does not accurately display this trait about Indian languages but instead he shows that the Native Americans like to shorten words. In this example, they said “rez” which is short for reservation in this case but the Americans they are speaking to don’t know what “rez” means so the speaker corrects himself.

Elements of Culture: Symbols

1a. Quote from the book

“That’s about the worst thing you can do to an Indian guy. It had taken them years to grow the hair. And Rowdy cut that away in five seconds.” (Alexie 22).

1b. Example and Explanation

Native Americans value their hair because they consider it part of themselves. The cutting of hair symbolizes the loss of a loved one, relationship, or part of oneself.

The author uses this trait of Native American culture accurately because he shows the importance of how men grow out their hair. The author also connects the relation between the hair and the character of a person throughout the book.

2a. Quote from the book

“I was the only kid, white or Indian, who knew that Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities. And let me tell you, we Indians were the worst of times and those Reardan kids were the best of times. Those kids were magnificent. They knew everything. And they were beautiful. They were beautiful and smart. They were beautiful and smart and epic. They were filled with hope.” (Alexie 50-51)

2b. Example and Explanation

White people have privilege that whitewashes their ancestors’ actions and unclean hands, justifies ongoing unjust or racist actions and that perpetuates that privilege. This is accomplished through legal, educational and social systems, where only certain privileged ones may speak of other races as if they were less-than or as specimens and not people.

The author displays the symbol of privilege by displaying how the white people are better that the Native Americans. There are many times in the book in which the life outside of the reservation is compared to the tribal life. These comparisons usually show how the white have better access to things and how they are able to achieve more.

Elements of Culture: Norms

1a. Quote from the book

“I mean, the thing is, plenty of Indians have died because they were drunk. And plenty of drunken Indians have killed other drunken Indians.” (Alexie 153)

1b. Example and Explanation

1 out of 10 of the deaths among Native Americans and Alaska Natives are related to alcohol— more than three times the percentage in the overall population of a country. There may be more alcohol-related deaths than this statistic because they did not count deaths caused diseases with alcohol as a major risk factor, such as tuberculosis and colon cancer.

The author accurately portrays this norm of Native Americans because it is normal behavior for deaths in a reservation to be related to alcohol. Throughout this book, three deaths have occured and they were all caused by someone getting drunk so this can show how alcohol is a normal cause of death in Native American culture.

2a. Quote from the book

It was my dream, too. And Indian boys weren’t supposed to dream like that. And white girls from small towns weren’t supposed to dream big, either” (Alexie 112)

2b. Example and Explanation

About 67% of Native Americans graduate from high school which is below the USA average of 80%. They also don’t have essentials that as other schools have such as running water and heat.
It is seen throughout this book that the tribe normally does not get to follow their dreams or achieve their goals because they don’t have money or they don’t have the basic education structure needed to graduate. The speaker would like to graduate and go to college but there is a low chance because it does not regularly occur in the tribe.

Elements of Culture: Values

1a. Quote from the book

“We all have to find our own ways to say good-bye. Tons of people told stories about my grandmother. But there was one story that mattered most of all… We all were excited to hear this guy’s story. And so what did he have to say?” (Alexie 161-162)

1b. Example and Explanation

Native Americans value nonverbal communication. They prefer to listen to people rather than speaking. They believe that words have power and when they express something, it should be done carefully. The emphasis when they interact is on the effectiveness of the expression instead of the actual verbal communication.

I think the author displays this value of Native American culture accurately because in this case, someone from outside of the reservation comes to the funeral to talk about the grandmother. The Native Americans at the funeral do not care about where he is from but they would like to listen to him and understand his purpose.

2a. Quote from the book

“‘In fact, looking at the beads and design, this doesn’t look Spokane at all. I don’t recognize the work.’...’It looks more Sioux to me,’ my mom said.” (Alexie 165)

2b. Example and Explanation

Respect is an important Native American value. They think that everything is sacred and equal, such as animals, people, lakes, and plants. They also believe that each thing has a purpose and they teach something.
The author shows this Native American trait by using articles and valuables owned by the tribes. The powwow dress that the mom is describing is very expensive but she tells the truth to the man by saying that the dress is not theirs because she respects other tribes. Also the tribe respects the dress because it is an important part of their culture.
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