The Tribe You Cling To

In Sherman Alexie’s novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, the lovable narrator, 14-year-old Arnold Spirit (based on Alexie himself), touches on an idea that’s been goading me for years. We spend most of our life running from or trying to get into a particular tribe. By tribe, I mean social group identity. 

Being from nowhere once made me feel like I had no place and therefore no “people.” Of course, I have many tribes, probably three of four that resonate most with me. There is something poignant about Arnold’s quote below, with its wonderful teenage-hood ness and cultural context. In 2009, how relevant is the fact that we are being asked to step away from the one or two tribes we clutch to in order to breed some tolerance in this world? Very, I think.

But how does one do this without watering down an identity? 

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 bookworms.

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.

It was a huge realization.

And that’s when I knew that I was going to be okay. 

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2 Comments

Filed under Environment, Orienting

2 responses to “The Tribe You Cling To

  1. Sam

    This is wonderful, Molly. I don’t know this book or this author, but love his list of tribes. A good reminder for me as I explore my own loneliness in another new place surrounded by new people whom I’ve not thought of as part of any of my tribes. Except, I now realize, the tribe of what we’re doing right now. And probably some others.
    With so many tribes, though, how do we maintain real human connection with at least some of them? Because that, after all, is what really matters.

  2. Molly

    Sam, Good luck exploring! You nailed my question exactly. I attribute my general tolerance to the fact that I didn’t grow up being told negative things about a particular race/gender/age/culture. I also never felt like my happiness depended upon staying in the group I was born into. That said, I often feel like a lone wolf without a traditional community (one built on a solid foundation of beliefs, at least.) I do have community, but it’s diverse, scattered and full of disparate opinions. I like it that way; it keeps me learning.

    But then I remember this: being at a packed University of Notre Dame football game surrounded by a group of people I do not associate with and yet feeling emotionally overcome (heart pounding) by the strength and power of an allegiance so fierce and old. Humans like to be part of something, I think.