101 pages 3 hours read

Sherman Alexie

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven

Fiction | Short Story Collection | Adult | Published in 1993

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Summary and Study Guide


The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven is a collection of 24 loosely connected short stories by writer Sherman Alexie; all are set on or near the Spokane Reservation in Washington state. As a Salish descendant (his mother was of Spokane heritage and his father of Coeur d’Alene) and celebrated author, Alexie has become a mouthpiece for Northwestern American Indigenous tribes. Two stories cut from the original 1993 publication have been reinserted in the 20th-anniversary edition: “Flight” and “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show.” One story, “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” provided the basis for the 1998 Miramax film Smoke Signals.

Though the collection lacks a linear structure, the stories are bound together through three reappearing protagonists: Victor Joseph, Junior Polatkin, and Thomas Builds-the-Fire. The work operates as a bildungsroman in progress, with the characters repeatedly not growing into their identities as Indigenous men. The storylines spotlight both internal and external conflict as viewed through the lens of ethnicity, cultural deprivation, and tribal history. They also challenge stereotypes through their blending of pop culture and politics, self-deprecating humor and tradition, and aspiration and generational trauma. Above all, the stories emphasize the importance of seizing a definable personal and cultural selfhood, whether through traditional tribal methods or not. Though Alexie offers few happy endings to his plots, preferring open ones, he keeps the possibility of triumph viable.

Content Warning: This study guide references racism and racial stereotypes, genocide, alcohol addiction, violence, incarceration, sexual harassment, and terminal illness.

Plot Summary

In the first short story, “Every Little Hurricane,” a hurricane startles nine-year-old Victor from his sleep on the Spokane Reservation. He wakes to a vicious fight between his uncles at his parents’ New Year’s Eve party.

“A Drug Called Tradition” introduces three close friends on the Spokane Reservation: Victor Joseph, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, and Junior Polatkin. Escaping a well-attended party, the three travel to Benjamin Lake to experiment with psychoactive mushrooms. As a result, all three experience visions of each other in the context of a reimagined tribal identity.

“Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock” recounts the major events in Victor’s father’s life—namely, his incarceration following a Vietnam War protest and his relationship with Victor’s mother. Through this retelling, Victor gains more insight into why his father experiences Jimi Hendrix’s performance at Woodstock as a message of hope.

In “Crazy Horse Dreams,” Victor attends a local powwow where he bets on an acquaintance who he thinks has escaped the pressures of reservation life. Afterward, he hesitatingly accepts the sexual advances of an Indigenous woman but immediately regrets the encounter. He wishes he had the will, pride, and ethnic clarity of Crazy Horse.

Looking back on his own high school basketball career, Victor observes the up-and-coming players on the reservation in “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore.” His fear that the reservation’s new star, Julius Windmaker, will turn to delinquency becomes a reality. Nevertheless, both he and the reservation community hold out hope that a young third grader, Lucy, will take Julius’s place.

“Amusements” is a tragicomedy in which Victor and his friend make fun of a man called Dirty Joe, who has passed out drunk at a carnival. They place him on an amusement ride while he is unconscious, and a public spectacle ensues. Security catches everyone involved, leaving Victor regretful over having betrayed Dirty Joe and, through him, his entire tribe.

“This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” covers a road trip that Victor and Thomas take from Spokane to Phoenix in order to claim Victor’s father’s ashes. Through storytelling and visions, both friends reckon with their memories of Mr. Joseph and their accompanying pain and grief.

Having had enough mocking from her family regarding a mouse that ran up her pant leg, Victor’s aunt, Nezzy, walks out on her husband and son in “The Fun House.” Nezzy’s life has been ambivalent; she has found meaning as a dancer and seamstress but endured forced sterilization after the birth of her son. In the end, Nezzy returns home, finding power in traditional customs.

In “All I Wanted to Do Was Dance,” Victor’s romantic relationship with a white woman dissolves, and he attempts to escape the pain through alcohol consumption and carousing—this time with Indigenous women. He takes steps toward sobriety and employment, eventually settling on a measured approach. He finds consolation from a stranger over a bottle of wine.

“The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire” features Thomas resuming his storytelling after 20 years of total silence. His words inspire a woman to leave her husband, who was once the tribal police chief, which leads to Thomas’s arrest. His previously ignored stories gain a captive audience during his trial, and he delineates the details of tribal injustice on a historical scale. Thomas is sentenced to two life terms for having told the truth about the past, but he has finally gained renown for his storytelling.

“Distances” acts as the sequel to “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire.” It narrates an apocalyptic story that Thomas tells his fellow incarcerated men. The story imagines a future for the Americas in which the white population is gone and efforts to reclaim Indigenous heritage have begun. Those left behind who are not too sick must rid themselves of all artifacts of white civilization.

“Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation” recounts an accidental house fire that results in the orphaning of a child named James Many Horses. The unnamed narrator becomes the child’s guardian and worries incessantly about his physical and verbal development. By James’s seventh birthday, the narrator believes James can speak, which is not officially substantiated. By the story’s end, the narrator attests to the profound insights that James communicates.

In “A Train Is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result,” Thomas’s grandfather, Samuel, loses his job in the city through no fault of his own. His lack of family, friends, and purpose leads him to take his first sip of alcohol. The narrative concludes with Samuel intoxicated, lying face down on the railroad tracks in the path of an oncoming train.

“A Good Story” is a plea by Junior’s mother for an alternative to the usual sad stories he tells. Junior crafts one about a young boy, Arnold, who visits Uncle Moses instead of spending time with his schoolmates. Junior’s mother is pleased with his story, and Junior feels comforted by her happiness.

“The First Annual All-Indian Horseshoe Pitch and Barbecue” is a dreamlike narrative depicting beauty in ordinary occurrences: Victor’s piano playing, a girlfriend’s whisper, the sunlight’s warmth, and Simon’s multiple competitive wins. It ends in a peaceful state of community.

Victor narrates “Imagining the Reservation” with a series of imperatives to “imagine” precolonial history in a subversive way. Accounts of victimization through assault, heartbreak, hunger, and war coincide with encouragement to multiply anger by imagination in order to survive.

In “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor,” James Many Horses responds to his cancer diagnosis with biting humor. Doing so offends his wife, Norma, who leaves him to undergo his cancer treatments alone. When no hope for a cure remains, Norma returns to help James die the “right way” (170).

“Indian Education” follows Junior from grades one through twelve, documenting various childhood slights, racial injustices, small failures, and victories. Junior graduates as valedictorian but senses his isolation from his peers, many of whom can’t read.

In “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” Victor grapples with the racial suspicion that arises during his waking life as well as saturates his unconscious. His relationship with his white girlfriend seems to fuel his hauntingly violent nightmares about tribal warfare, causing him insomnia and ending their relationship. Victor returns to his reservation to escape the racial tension and find a sense of belonging.

In “Family Portrait,” Junior recalls the prominence of TV programming throughout his childhood; it both marked time and healed emotional wounds. Junior contrasts TV shows with his family’s various traumas. Television offered a more reliable experience and therefore became his family’s common ground.

“Somebody Kept Saying Powwow” traces the platonic relationship between Junior and Norma Many Horses. Junior looks to her for guidance as a mentor and tribal caretaker. She helps him form his identity, having earlier written an article praising his athletic skills. Therefore, he feels deep shame when he confesses the worst thing he ever did. In the end, Norma offers forgiveness by way of renaming him Pete Rose—an incredibly gifted man who is only remembered by his faults.

An unnamed father and teenage son draw closer together on their journey to Spokane in “Witnesses, Secret and Not.” Required to give his annual testimony to detectives, the father must recount the details leading up to his friend’s disappearance and presumed death. The curious son’s questions bring him deeper understanding of his father’s grief, as well as his relationship to white justice.

“Flight” expresses a younger brother’s longing for his absent older brother, who has been captured as a POW. For years John-John waits by windows and listens for airplanes in the hope his brother has finally come home. He imagines different versions of their happy reunion, desperately hoping one of them will eventually come true.

Junior transits to college in “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show.” There, he feels out of place among the predominantly white student body. He falls in love with Lynn Casey, an outspoken white student in his history class; in an unexpected night of passion, she conceives Junior’s child. The two go their separate ways, unsure of their personal futures but equally committed to raising their son with an understanding of his Spokane heritage.