Dude, Where’s My Tribe?

Ever since I joined the Association for Mormon Letters email list the main author that has been held forth as a model for good Mormon writing is Chaim Potok. We like him because he managed to take an insular, idiosyncratic community (Hasidic Judaism) and craft novels that can speak to a wide audience.

A few days ago I ran across a book that provides another compelling model, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie. I’ve read a number of Alexie’s books before, so I knew I was in for some good writing, but I was amazed this time around at how elegantly he dealt with the subject we value Potok for, namely how a person (especially a young person) deals with the tension between the community he/she was raised in, and the larger world.

The story is about a Spokane Indian boy named Junior who, on the advice of a teacher, decides to leave the reservation school and pursue his education in a nearby town. He believes it’s the only way he’ll escape the fate of pretty much everyone he knows: alcoholism and an early death.

The book is filled with cartoons. One shows a boy standing next to directional signposts. The one that points behind him reads, “Rez: Home.” The boy is considering the direction of the other signpost, the one that reads “Hope???”

But everyone Junior cares about interprets his leaving the reservation school as a betrayal. They call him an “apple” meaning that he’s red on the outside and white on the inside. Going into the white world, even if it means he’ll live a longer, happier and more productive life, is simply unacceptable to Junior’s neighbors.

You simply don’t leave the reservation.

Of course, in the outside world Junior finds both good and bad things. But ultimately he does find hope. And he makes it very clear that he could not have found that hope on the reservation. He does have other very important things on the reservation: family, friends, and heritage. And he wants these as well. This tension between the white world (hope) and the reservation (family) produces some very moving and insightful moments.

This plot is very much like Potok’s My Name is Asher Lev where a young Jewish artist finds himself pulled between his religious world and the art world.

Potok and Alexie believe something that (it seems to me) the majority of Mormons I have come in contact with don’t. Namely, that all truth and goodness cannot be found in one place. Now I’m not just talking about optional or supplemental truth and goodness, I’m talking about indispensable truth and goodness. Had Junior stayed on the reservation he would have had his family and community, but he would not have had hope. Had Asher ignored his artistic talent, an essential part of him would have remained in darkness.

The reservation is the place where family and community are. The White world is the place where hope is. The Hasidic worldview is where family and faith are. The art world is where transcendence is (for Asher, anyway). Junior and Asher need both worlds in order to become whole. But in order to partake in both, they have to become a stranger in both.

Mormons often admonish each other to be in the world but not of it. In other words, we’re encouraged to be strangers to the world. But we are taught to never be strangers in our own community. Don’t leave the reservation. Don’t wander into the mists of darkness.

The fact of it is some of us have to leave the reservation. Maybe we're crazy. Maybe we're arrogant. Maybe we're broken. Maybe we're brave. But somehow the nutrients from the fruit of the Tree of Life are too few and we find that we're dying.

Whenever I think of the beginning of the Mormon hero’s journey, I imagine her stationed at the Tree of Life peering across the dark canyons, filthy rivers and greasy mists to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

This is the dilemma Mormon artists often face in our lives and our work. We feel ourselves becoming strangers to our own community. So many of us stand to lose so much if we become complete strangers. We lose family, friends, social ties, a common language, perhaps even our souls. Yet the world doesn’t accept us completely either. We’re strange.

What tribe can we be a part of? Where can we pitch our tent? Do we have to be nomads for the rest of our lives?

At the end of Part-Time Indian, Junior gives his best answer to that question.

“I wept because I was the only one who was brave and crazy enough to leave the rez. I was the only one with enough arrogance.”

“I realized that I might be a lonely Indian boy, but I was not alone in my loneliness. There were millions of other Americans who had left their birthplaces in search of a dream.”

“I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of book worms.”

“And the tribe of cartoonists.”

“And the tribe of chronic masturbators.”

“And the tribe of teenage boys.”

“And the tribe of small-town kids.”

“And the tribe of Pacific Northwesterners.”

“And the tribe of tortilla chips-and-salsa lovers.”

“And the tribe of poverty.”

“And the tribe of funeral-goers.”

“And the tribe of beloved sons.”

“And the tribe of boys who really missed their best friends.”

What is the possibility that we can have many homes, instead of having to give up the one we came from? Can we be a part of the tribe of Mormons, sex scene writers, pantheists, mocha ice cream lovers, Burning Man enthusiasts, and beloved sons and daughters?


  1. Brian says:

    Dude, most excellent post!!

    Life is about finding our “tribes,” and being comfortable living within them. It takes courage to go “off the rez” in search of those tribes. He guides us back to where we belong, because He knows who we are and He wants us to find out, as well.

  2. How a apropos to read your post tonight! Earlier today (2/27) I had my regular Wednesday morning conversation with the local Russian Orthodox priest, who has become an enthusiastic Sunstone reader. He returned my most recent issue lent him last week before I’d read it myself. As I opened it I noticed your prize-winning essay, which I’ve not yet finished, so you were freshly on my mind.

    And now you offer this post, which suddenly gives me a new sense of “tribe”! It allows me to keep my Mormonness without further apology as I wander new paths, including my father’s Russian Orthodox tradition and the increasing defection of almost all my children from their Mormon heritage or, as Harold Bloom might put it, “the people of Joseph”.

    It also allows me to forgive myself for too often posting heresies in this blog space without the skill to empathize with other writers. Keep writing brother! We old guys can still learn from you younger, thoughtful and caring artists.

  3. Kristine says:

    Stephen, I like this way of framing the questions. It raises a few for me: is the power of belonging to a tribe diluted by the recognition that one could belong to many? That is, does some of the potency of tribalism rest on an irrational sense of identity that won’t stand much scrutiny from a perspective located outside (off the reservation)? If so, is there any value in preserving that irrational sense, or should we always privilege the (rationally) examined life?

  4. W.W. Beauchamp says:

    Building off of what Kristine said so well, I think that the power of belonging to a tribe lies in its separateness from other tribes. Being part of the Mormon tribe means just a little bit more than being part of the Mocha Ice Cream Lovers tribe. Stephen, perhaps it’s a little too easy to take the notion of tribe and make it all inclusive. The answer doesn’t lie in making every sub-grouping of the human species a tribe, like Junior apparently does (I haven’t read the book so I’m basing this on your interpretation of the end). That’s too easy. It’s like, we all belong to the human tribe. Duh. Self identity is lost if you spread it too thin; belonging to specific tribes makes us who we are.

  5. pmb says:

    Yes, Beauchamp, a tribe revolving around ice cream is not as powerful as a tribe revolving around history, culture, and genetics. No argument there. But you say

    “Self identity is lost if you spread it too thin; belonging to a specific tribe makes us who we are.”

    And I wonder if self identity is lost when we store it all in one place-if you can only be truly authentic when you choose for yourself what to be, rather than let one group define it for you. In that case, taking a little of this culture and a little of that may make a stronger individual.

  6. pmb, your last paragraph on being truly authentic brought to mind Carl Jung?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s last letter to Miguel Serrano where he speaks of his basic tenet: “Follow that will and that way which experience confirms to be your own, i.e., the true expression of your individuality. As nobody can become aware of his individuality unless he is closely and responsibly related to his fellow beings, he is not withdrawing to an egoistic desert when he tries to find himself. He can only discover himself when he is deeply and unconditionally related to some, and generally related to a great many, individuals with whom he has a chance to compare, and from whom he is able to discriminate himself . . .”

  7. I love the new look of the blog, and the new posts that are up. Great writing and great thoughts here.

    My daughter went to a huge high school with a graduating class of 1200. She said she discovered the only way to survive was to find a “tribe”–the debaters, the swimmers, the art kids– and to make friends there. After she felt secure, I saw her branch out and meet more and more of the other students. I think there is an important power to belonging to a tribe. It’s also a part of growing up to be able to differentiate from these groups and decide which things are part of the authentic self. (as Eugene’s quote points out.) Thank you for your recommendation of this book. I think it will be of great interest to those who identify with the “Mormon” tribe.

  8. kia kaha says:

    mine is only a question as i try to gain a better understanding of the posted comments,does any of those who have posted,experience peace,joy and even fulfillment on a whole as part of your daily going ons,from living b y the commandments and striving to have the companionship of the HG?

    MY QUESTION IS SINCERE AND GENUINE,i am not seeking to provoke ill feelings,neither am i nieve or ignorant to the complexities of life in or out of the church.

  9. Stephen Carter says:

    Hi Kia,

    Let’s say the answer is yes. How does that influence how you interpret our posted comments?

  10. kia kaha says:

    kia ora Stephen

    kudos for the reply bro,however you seem uncertain bout or at the very least apprehensive to committing to a straight answer,but anyway to go along with your hyperthetical “yes” i can only say that it prompts yet more questions like why?why arent those experiences shared and explored in commentary?,just to state the obvious,keep in mind this further observation is only hyperthetical.

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