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Junior worries the reader might think he only likes white people and doesn’t see anything good in Indians. He says he likes Mary, his parents, and his grandmother. At Reardan he observes both good and bad parents. Bad parents are the ones who ignore their kids. Junior says he has white friends whose fathers he’s never met. Junior says he’s done the thinking and it’s better to live in Reardan than in Wellpinit, but maybe only slightly better. Then Junior talks more about his Grandmother. Junior says her greatest gift is tolerance. Indians used to respect eccentricity more, he says. They saw epileptics as shamans, and gay people were seen as magical. Indians today are intolerant, Junior says. His grandmother still does things the old way. But, Junior continues, his grandmother was just struck and killed by a drunk driver on her way home from a powwow. Her last words were “Forgive him.” Junior concludes that she meant the man who hit her.
Three days after Junior’s grandmother’s death, Junior’s family has a wake. 2000 people show up. None of the Indians on the rez hassle Junior that day, and, he says, after his grandmother’s death they quit giving him such a hard time in general. The crowd is so big, Junior’s family moves the coffin onto the fifty-yard line of the Spokane football field. Mary doesn’t come from Montana because she doesn’t have enough money to travel. Ten hours into the wake, a white billionaire named Ted stands up to make a speech. Ted says that ten years previously he bought a beautiful, obviously stolen powwow dance outfit for $1000 off of an Indian stranger who came to his cabin—really a mansion, Junior says. Ted says he bought the outfit even though he knew it was stolen. Ted says he felt guilty about buying the outfit for years, and he hired an anthropologist to track down its rightful owner—Grandmother Spirit. Ted came to return the outfit only to find Grandmother Spirit had died, and he would like to ask forgiveness and give the outfit back to Grandmother Spirit’s family.
Junior’s Mom stands up. She tells Ted there’s nothing to forgive. Junior’s Grandmother was never a powwow dancer, never owned a powwow dance outfit, and Ted’s outfit doesn’t look Spokane at all. She says it looks more Sioux or Oglala, but she’s not an expert and neither was Ted’s anthropologist. All the Indians laugh, and Junior says that, when it comes to death, laughter and tears are the same. Ted packs up the outfit and leaves the Spokane reservation.
On Valentine’s Day, Junior gives Penelope a homemade Valentine, and Eugene, Junior’s dad’s best friend, is shot in the face outside a 7-Eleven. Eugene’s friend Bobby shoots him over who will get the last sip of a bottle of wine. A few weeks later, in jail, Bobby hangs himself. Junior copes by drawing lots of cartoons and by reading the ancient Greek playwright, Euripides. Gordy gives him the play Medea. Junior is so depressed he thinks about dropping out of Reardan. After missing school 15 to 20 times for various good reasons, Junior sits down in social studies class. His teacher, Mrs. Jeremy, says it’s nice of him to show up. Gordy and the other students defend Junior by standing up and dropping their textbooks on their desks, then they parade out of the classroom, leaving Junior behind. Junior laughs and tells Mrs. Jeremy she’s an asshole. Then he leaves the class too. He says that, to grieve, he made lists of the good things in his life—lists of friends, music, food, books, and basketball players.
As the narrator of his own story, Junior often makes analyses of his life or pre-empts the judgments he imagines others might have about it. Junior’s analyses reveal as much about his character as they do about his subject matter. In the “Red Versus White” chapter, readers learn something about the parents of white families, that some white parents are extremely detached from their children’s lives, and that the Spokane Indians tend to have stronger family ties, but these generalizations say just as much about what Junior values, or has learned to value, as they do about the two communities. At this point in the novel, for example, readers have seen the difficulty of Junior’s position between the Wellpinit and Reardan communities, and few would accuse Junior of preferring white people. Junior’s fear that people see him as a traitor, however, affects his behavior and the way he tells his story. Likewise, this passage shows how much Junior has learned to appreciate his family. In the novel’s early chapters Junior said that Rowdy was more important to him than his family. Now Junior can see the ways in which his family links him to the positive traditions in his tribe’s past. Unfortunately for Junior, his realization is accompanied by tremendous loss.
Read more about Junior’s journey to understand his ties to his tribe’s past.
The billionaire, Ted, is a white hypocrite on a much larger scale than the geometry teacher Mr. P, and Junior treats Ted harshly in his narration as a result. Junior points out Ted’s hypocrisy and blindness. What Ted is most blind about, of course, is that Grandmother Spirit’s death is not about him, Ted, the white billionaire. Ted turns Grandmother Spirit’s wake into a platform to express his privilege—indirectly, through his guilt—even though he is misinformed. It is troubling to Junior that someone like Ted could identify with his community, could be a collector of Indian artifacts, even though he has never shared in that community’s struggle or its living culture. Ted could have discovered his anthropologist’s mistake, for example, by attending a single Spokane powwow and talking to the dancers. He also could have talked with Junior’s mom or the other member’s of Junior’s family before making a pompous speech at Junior’s grandmother’s funeral.
Much as Grandmother Spirit represented ancient Indian traditions and tolerance for Junior, Ted and his arrival represent the invasive, misinformed, and oppressive impact of European or white culture on those traditions. This history is something Junior does not lose sight of even when he considers that life might only be very slightly better in Reardan than in Wellpinit in the present age. The impact of European oppression is everywhere, the novel shows, but one thing that white people cannot steal, Junior shows, is Indians’ grief. Junior’s grief at his Grandmother’s death barely has time to settle before a fresh unexpected grief arrives. Before his death, Eugene was one of the few members of the Spokane community to continue to actively support Junior after Junior’s decision to go to Reardan. He gave Junior rides to school, called him courageous, and stitched Junior’s cut in the Wellpinit locker room. Sudden violent deaths, readers learn, are as common a part of life on the troubled Spokane reservation as Valentine’s cards are on Valentine’s Day. Common as they may be, however, these sudden deaths are still tremendously traumatic.
Read more about the role of death in the structure of the novel.
Eugene’s death is the second major loss in a very short time in Junior’s life. After it, Junior feels himself supported by the Reardan community. Gordy consoles him with literature, helping Junior to see that his loneliness and grief have been a part of the human experience for thousands of years. Junior finds support and concern from those who are closest to him. Some of Junior’s white teachers, however, persist in their ignorance, acting as if Junior’s resilience and persistence were actually laziness and avoidance. Junior speaks to Mrs. Jeremy irreverently after her comment about his absence. Given the reversal of their roles—Junior seems to have more experience and clearer insight than his teacher—what would normally be considered inappropriate language, here, seems all too appropriate. Junior’s defiance of Mrs. Jeremy’s authority, too, is a sign of his persistence. Despite his loss and pain, Junior is a long way from giving up.
Read an important quote about Junior’s theory on human morality.