“This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona”, is a short story that discussed the physical and mental journey of Victor when he traveled from Washington to Phoenix. Victor is a Native American living on a reservation somewhere in the state of Washington. One day he found out that his father died in Phoenix, Arizona, and as a dutiful son, he must claim his remains and the money left in his savings account. However, he quickly realized that he did not have enough money to pay for an airplane ticket.
In his desperation, he sought out the help of his estranged childhood friend, a fellow Native American named Thomas Builds-the-Fire. At the end of the journey, Victor learned so much about himself, his father, and his heritage, through the help of Thomas Builds-the-Fire.
The author, Sherman Alexie, created two characters based on Native American stereotypes. Thomas was a caricature of the traditional, good-natured, and eccentric Native American. On the other hand, Victor was a tough and mean-spirited Native American. The author described the culture and way of life within the reservation through the eyes of Victor and Thomas. By focusing the spotlight on this binary relationship, Alexie was able to show how open communication and the sincere desire to help can transform people from the inside out.
Alexie created a backdrop filled with stereotypes of Native Americans. For instance, the narrator states, “Who does have money on a reservation, except the cigarette and fireworks salespeople?” (Alexie 59). It seems as if the author felt that every Native American living on the reservation is unable to find good employment and longs for the day when they can have their convenience store.
At the same time, it can be misinterpreted to mean that Native Americans do not possess the talent or the business acumen to pursue other types of businesses. On the other hand, it can be interpreted as the lack of maturity in the lives of Victor and Thomas, because later on, they will talk about happier times that involve fireworks and cigarettes. Thus, they may have made an emotional connection to these products.
The author added another layer to the caricature he made by portraying Victor, not only as a tough Native American but someone who has a rebellious streak. His rebellion against authority was manifested by his desire to pursue jobs that were not considered typical choices for a man of his stature. In addition, he demonstrated his rebellious character when he confronted the tribal council and berated them for not having enough funds for emergencies, such as the need to retrieve the remains of a fallen comrade.
In the case of Thomas-Builds-the-Fire, the stereotype of the mystical Native American was in full display. Thomas-Builds-the-Fire told Victor about how he learned about his father’s demise and he said: “I heard it on the wind. I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight. Also, your mother was just here crying” (Alexie 61). In this instance, when Thomas talked about the wind, birds, and sunlight as if it is part of his senses, the author magnified an American Indian stereotype regarding the need to connect with nature (Alexie 61).
Stereotypes were shown at different points in the story, and it was more obvious when it comes through the binary depictions of Victor and Thomas Builds-the-Fire. The most important binary that the author tried to emphasize was the interaction between the “bad” and the “good” Native Americans. Victor was the stereotypical Native American that gave Indian reservations a bad reputation.
Victor exemplified the drunkard, violent, and guilt-ridden man in the reservation. All of these examples are stereotypes. The author shone the spotlight on one stereotype when he wrote: “Victor was drunk and beat up Thomas for no reason at all” (Alexie 65). In this situation, Victor was seen as the typical drunk Native American.
Thomas Builds-the-Fire, on the other hand, was portrayed as the Native American with the more desirable traits. Nevertheless, Thomas-Builds-the-Fire was far from perfect. The readers were made to feel that Thomas was a noble savage. Thomas did not spend all his money on cigarettes and beer, thus he had extra funds for emergency purposes. At the same time, he is good-natured. He did not fight back or did not resort to violent outbursts when people mistreated him.
Like the binary of “good” and “bad,” another binary between Thomas and Victor demonstrated that Thomas Builds-the-Fire appeared to be more in touch with his heritage. On the other hand, Victor tried to forget everything and he desperately wanted to keep his distance from his heritage. In the end, the author said, “Victor felt a need for tradition” (Alexie 62). It was a sudden realization that came to him after he saw the beauty of the Native American’s way of life.
Victor was compelled to shed off his macho image to embrace his friendship with Thomas. He was amazed to find out that he had a different perspective concerning his father. He was thankful that Thomas helped him to see his father in a more positive light. As a result, he was drawn back to his Native American heritage.
In the story, Thomas symbolized the positive side of becoming a Native American. Thomas bears the traditional last name. In stark opposition to Thomas’ character was Victor who tried to remove any evidence that connected him to the reservation.
This is because Thomas Builds-the-Fire is Victor’s spiritual brother. Thomas Builds-the-Fire shared a bond with Victor’s father. Therefore Victor’s father was also a father to Thomas. Victor gave Thomas “the cardboard box which contained half of his father”(Alexie 74). By giving Thomas half of his father’s ashes, the act symbolized their brotherly affection for each other. Victor realized that he could not use violence against Thomas. He knew that if he inflicts violence on Thomas, it is the same as inflicting violence on his heritage or his father.
Although the author focused on the stereotypes, the characters were given the chance to redeem themselves. The title of the short story, “This Is What It Means To Say Phoenix, Arizona” suggested that a born-again experience is possible. This is because the city of Phoenix gets its name from the Phoenix, the mythical bird that experienced a rebirth. Like the mythical bird, Victor experienced the cleansing power of rebirth as his anger and hatred towards his father melted away.
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, when the Phoenix died, it was engulfed in flames. However, from the ashes came forth a new creature. A renewed version of the Phoenix was able to rise from the ashes. In the same manner, Victor was able to rise once again by honoring the death of his father and by bringing back his father’s ashes to the land of his ancestors. Just as the Phoenix returned the ashes of its father to Egypt, the ashes of Victor’s father were brought back to the reservation.
By returning his father’s ashes, Victor reconnected with the past. Therefore, Victor became more connected to his heritage. When he forgave his father, he also experienced a change of heart. Sherman Alexie wanted the readers to realize that by accepting one’s heritage, the soul begins its journey towards healing and restoration.
In addition, Victor regained his identity. In the beginning, that author said, “Victor was ashamed of himself. Whatever happened to the tribal ties, the sense of community?” (Alexie 74). In the end, Victor’s healing created a ripple effect. It did not only change Victor but also the people around him. At the end of the story, the author wrote, “So Victor drove his father’s pickup toward home while Thomas went into his house, closed the door behind him, and heard a new story come to him in the silence afterward” (Alexie 75).
In the closing chapter, Victor and Thomas learned to accept their true identity. By driving his father’s pickup, Victor became one with his departed father. By hearing a new story, Thomas accepted the fact that he was indeed a storyteller. However, this time around, Thomas was able to hear fresh stories. In other words, a significant part of his life was healed. Therefore, he can begin to function as the person he was meant to be. It was made possible through the promise made by Victor that he will listen to the stories that Thomas will tell. It took only the commitment and acceptance of one man to change the life of another human being. This was one of the most powerful lessons in the story.
Alexie, Sherman. “This is What it Means to Say, Phoenix, Arizona.” Esquire. 1994: 59-75. Print.