As with most of his fiction, Sherman Alexie’s “The Toughest Indian in the World” is a story that juxtaposes the tragic sense of cultural loss experienced by American Indians living in a modern world with the hopeful desire to find unique and personal ways of ensuring that Indian traditions never fully die.
At times, readers can become confused by Alexie’s combination of the reality of everyday life with ghostly visions and dense natural symbolism. In his fiction, the dead can speak, salmon can fly and landscapes can become startlingly surreal. But understanding how Alexie uses the juxtaposition of opposites in a short story like “The Toughest Indian in the World” can help to make sense of his overarching theme of the struggle for personal and cultural identity for contemporary American Indians who live in a world often hostile to tradition.
Hope and Pessimism
Alexie fills his story with images from the natural world that have special significance to American Indian culture. The story begins with the narrator remembering his Coeur d’Alene father, who always picked up hitchhikers -- but only if they were Indian. Hope, for the father, is represented as salmon, the primary source of sustenance for the Pacific Northwest Indians before being moved onto reservations. As the fishing industry depleted the salmon population over the years, the salmon, the hope for the future of traditional Indian life in the Pacific Northwest, have disappeared. The lesson here passed on from father to son is to fear whites, for “love you or hate you, white people will shoot you in the heart. Even after all these years, they’ll still smell the salmon on you, the dead salmon, and that will make white people dangerous.” But unlike his father, the narrator clings to the image of the salmon in visions and dreams, refusing to relinquish hope for survival. He chooses to live off the reservation and makes his living as a journalist, but he still stops to pick up Indian hitchhikers, continuing his father’s tradition.
Life and Death
The life-giving symbol of the salmon is repeatedly combined with images of death. At the story’s beginning, the narrator reminisces about spending his youth looking down at a river, imagining seeing “ghosts of salmon rise from the water to the sky and become constellations.” Later in the story, he muses that the “stars are nothing more than white tombstones scattered across dark graveyards.” This symbolic tension of opposites, in which life and death are in a constant state of flux, highlights one of the story’s main themes: the struggle to maintain native tradition in a modern world.
Love and Violence
At times in the story, the violence is metaphorical, as when the narrator recalls a former girlfriend who was “one of those white women who only dated brown-skinned guys.” This leads the narrator to feel as though he has been colonized by the relationship, “like a trophy, or like one of those entries in a personal ad.” The violence here is cultural, the reduction of a person as a unique individual to a walking, romanticized stereotype.
At other points, this juxtaposition is literal. The narrator picks up an Indian hitchhiker who makes a living fighting other Indians on reservations in illegal, bare-knuckle matches. To the narrator, he represents a modern-day warrior, a savior who can rescue the narrator from his fractured existence as an Indian living in a world hostile to native tradition. When they have a romantic encounter in a roadside motel, the narrator fantasizes that in making love to a warrior, he can become a warrior himself, and the scene becomes a ritualistic rite of passage. Alexie describes the encounter in terms of violence, describing the fighter’s rough, bruised body, his callused hands, his scars and unhealed wounds. Ironically, this scene occurs beneath a painting depicting 19th century U.S. Cavalry soldiers defeating a group of Indians. In the world of Alexie’s fiction, the historical violence of the past always haunts personal relationships in the present.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that “the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” For Alexie, this is the key to American Indian survival. By the story’s conclusion, the narrator remains torn between two worlds, the vanishing world of his Coer d’Alene ancestry and the modern world in which he makes a living as a journalist. But rather than trying to reconcile the opposing forces of traditional and modern life, he comes to accept them as a paradox, something seemingly contradictory, yet also capable of revealing a truth. Typical of most of Alexie’s fiction, “The Toughest Indian in the World” suggests that for most contemporary American Indians, the question isn’t which identity to choose, but how to maintain two cultural identities at the same time.