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Beyond Fistfights and Basketball: Reclaiming Native American Masculinity

Department of Culture, Society and Justice, University of Idaho, Moscow, ID 83844, USA
Humans 2024, 4(2), 200-211;
Submission received: 27 March 2024 / Revised: 27 May 2024 / Accepted: 11 June 2024 / Published: 19 June 2024


Substantial and necessary research examining the violence perpetrated against Native women continues to flourish, while violence and masculinity studies focused on Native men draws little attention. Meanwhile the murder rate of Native men is three times higher than Native women, twice as high as white men, and occurs at the hands of police more often than any other U.S. racialized group per capita. Colonization divided ‘Christians’ (white) and ‘heathens’ (Native), with settler whites identifying Native men as wild and threatening. I suggest the construct of settler colonialism and the ‘toxic gendering’ of Native masculinity continues today and impacts Native men internally (psychologically) and externally (rationally), contributing to violence perpetrated against and by them. This paper is an interpretive analysis of “Scary Brown Man” and Reservation Blues as examined through the intersection of the toxic gendering bias intrinsic to settler colonialism. Alexie’s novel offers a depiction of ‘typical’ reservation life and the conflicting struggle to maintain a healthy Native identity, while Ross’s article brings real-life situations into the conversation, encouraging the entry of intersectional discourse around Native masculinity into the arena of gender/bias research as applied to settler colonial studies while questioning the role of identity politics within disciplines.

1. Introduction

In 2023, the National Institute of Justice [1] reported that 83% of Native adults, both men and women, experienced psychological aggression or physical violence by an intimate partner. Intimate partner violence against Native women is one and two-tenths times higher than for white women and one and three-tenths times higher than for white men. The vast majority of Native victims of intimate partner violence are offended against by non-Native perpetrators, with less than 35% of perpetrators identifying as American Indian or Alaska Native [1]. These findings strongly suggest a correlation between the sovereign right of tribes to prosecute non-Native perpetrators and the failure of the federal government to recognize and acknowledge those rights. While the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act (VAWA) continues to sporadically allow for tribal prosecution of non-Native perpetrators of intimate partner violence, all of the other acts of violence committed by non-Native offenders remain under erratic and undependable federal jurisdiction, thus compromising the safety and security of tribal communities. This is particularly alarming when one considers the MMIW (missing/murdered Indigenous women) crisis plaguing Native peoples across the United States and Canada. As noted by Jacqueline Agtuca, editor of Restoration Magazine, the “MMIW crisis occurs at the hands of a range of criminals—domestic abusers, sexual predators, sex traffickers, and other criminals” [2]. While VAWA (when in effect) should protect women and girls against these criminals, federal laws and policy as applied to Native American peoples remain so convoluted as to disallow tribal law enforcement from protecting or even investigating many violent crimes.
Even more alarming than the Native statistics around intimate partner violence are the Bureau of Justice Statistics [3] and the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice findings [4] that show the murder rate of Native men is three times higher than that of Native women (which is twice the rate of non-Native women), twice as high as white men, and occurring at the hands of law enforcement at a higher rate than any racialized group in the United States. Substantial and necessary research examining the violence perpetrated against Native women is growing in and outside of Indian country, yet the violence committed against Native men is epidemic, under-reported, and under-researched, inviting the following question: “Who’s walking with our brothers?” [5]. As a Blackfeet scholar and the mother of six children, five of whom identify as male, this question became overwhelmingly personal for me in 2016, when my own young male cousin was reported missing and then found murdered. When tackling the deeply ensconced problem of violence towards Native peoples, it simply makes no sense to ignore half of the population. How can one examine the violence perpetuated both against and by Native peoples without examining the settler colonial gender dynamic?
The UCLA law professor Khaled Beydoun stresses “[the] discrimination endured by men of colour is framed within liberal circles as racial or ethnic animus, but seldom—if ever—examined from a conjoined gender lens” [6]. Beydoun correctly contends that the examination of gender discrimination is reserved for women, particularly white women, and seldom used to examine the conjoined race–gender bias experienced by black and brown men. I would add that the race–gender bias, which I refer to in this article as toxic gendering, is a byproduct of the construct of settler colonialism. Often, particularly within academia, this conversation must be opened by consciously and cautiously declaring that a focus on examining Native masculinities in no way deflects from the traumatic experience of Native women. A harrowing path to negotiate, this gender bias toward men creates an artificial need to apologize for focusing on Native men while on-going atrocities continue to be perpetrated against Native women [7] (it should be noted that some of the initial research came from the author’s Master’s research competency thesis; until now, this information has been unpublished).

2. Materials and Methods

This article applies an interpretive analysis of Blackfeet writer/attorney/activist Gyasi Ross’s “Scary Brown Man” [8] podcast (National Public Radio) and autobiographical article ( alongside Spokane–Coeur d’Alene writer Sherman Alexie’s novel Reservation Blues [9] as examined through the intersection of the gender/race bias intrinsic to the toxic gendering perpetuated by the structural forces of settler colonialism. (In light of the 2018 #MeToo allegations against Sherman Alexie and the use of his novel in this article, the author makes the following statement: I have read everything Sherman Alexie has published (pre-2018) and enjoyed it. Prior to the allegations, I met him in person. I feel connected to his writing personally and I support those who are brave enough to come forward, but I cannot disregard the impact his writing has made on me. Artists are subject to bad actions just like anyone else. I can be beguiled by great fiction while synchronously being alarmed at the reported character of the author.) Toxic gendering invites violence with its two-gender binary of men (strong/powerful) against women (weak/powerless), effectively confusing pre-colonial American Indian concepts of gender and identity. This binary is accepted and continued through the foundational concepts of on-going settler colonialism as a systemic means of Indigenous erasure through the logic of elimination [10]. Settler colonialism, the permanent replacement of the society of people indigenous to the land with the colonizers’ society, is an aggressive and continuous erasure of our ways of knowing and identity and remains toxic to Indigenous gender identity.
Ross’s article is a first-person account of racism and white privilege as experienced by a contemporary Native man, followed by his own reflective analysis. In narrating his experience, Ross provides and contributes to the framework for a counter-narrative deconstruction of the concepts behind the stereotypical representations of Native men today. In contrast, Alexie’s novel is a funny and sad fictional account of reservation life as experienced by three male Native characters written with the feelings and truths that only a Native man raised in an American Indian reservation environment could articulate. In this article, I explore Ross and Alexie’s work as accounts of survival, resistance, and thrivance. Ngāti Awa/Ngāti Porou iwi scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith [11] refers to Gerald Vizenor’s theory of “survivance” [12] as crucial to realizing the ongoing settler colonial process on Native masculinity, allowing insight and understanding to some of the structural forces behind what is often misrepresented as violence unique to Indigenous men, thus opening a conversation about Native men without inserting violence as core to their identity. Native identity is better explained for what it is not as opposed to what it is. The historical belief among Indigenous peoples regarding gender is minimal; not that there is no understanding of gender, but rather exists in the display of gender. Masculinity and femininity were displayed through generosity. The duty was to the community, not to the self. Violence is gender non-conforming. We need to reclaim generosity to reclaim our identity.
While a survivance theory is accurate in describing the on-going existence of Native peoples, it does not push far enough. The concept of thrivance as theory neatly picks up where Vizenor‘s theory of survivance left off: both are valuable analytical tools, but different chapters of the legacy of Indigeneity. Too often when scholars imagine the survivance of Native peoples, it invokes a plight of the Indian logic, de-emphasizing the culpability of the brutal settler agenda to a pathetic account of the Indian’s struggle to survive. This erasure of settler colonial accountability shifts the plight of the Indian off of the colonizer (and those that continue to benefit from settler colonialism) and onto the backs of the colonized. A thrivance focus moves away from the survival statement of “we are still here” to the success statement of “we remain productive, successful, and vibrant contributors in today’s world” [13], despite what settler colonialism continues to attempt to enforce, effectively shifting the culpability for the plight of the Indian back on the colonizer and emphasizing the value of Native peoples today. In addition, a thrivance focus accentuates the importance of healing to positive self-identity. Just as settler colonialism contributes to a negative legacy for Indigenous peoples, the positivity of a thrivance focus resets the narrative with the constructive contributions and everyday normalcy of Indigenous brilliance today.
Central to making sense of what Native men experience via the construct of settler colonialism is understanding its ongoing nature. Settler colonialism is constant and preceded by the physical act of colonialism. English scholar Patrick Wolfe defines settler colonialism as a “structure rather than an event”, which “destroys to replace”, encouraging “miscegenation, the breaking-down of native title into alienable individual freeholds, native citizenship, child abduction, religious conversion, resocialization in total institutions…, a whole range of cognate biocultural assimilations…including frontier homicide” [10]. Settler colonialism deliberately divides white ‘Christians’ and Native ‘heathens’ into separate hierarchies, with settler whites claiming superiority over the wild and threatening Native man.
Stereotype, misinformation, and willful ignorance reinforce the “mythical Indians” of America—savage, fierce, feather-wearing teepee-dwellers, perpetuating the idea that the settler must remain vigilant against the impending danger at the hands of the Native man [5]. Maintained through white supremacy, reinforced by the media and systems of education, the concept of the scary brown man creates a normalized and acceptable racism. This philosophy is so deeply ingrained in American society that the racism and stereotyping of Native peoples remains socially tolerated, leaving Native men to the exhausting chore of defending themselves against stereotype and racist perception or hazard such negative inundation that they internalize and self-sabotage.
Forced assimilation, or destroying to replace, remains today in what Wolfe points to as the settler strategy of sequestration. In the eyes of the colonizer, “colonized people outlive their utility” and are then sequestered by racialized zoning and the criminal justice system [10], effectively spreading federal settler politics and strategies from the reservation to any place with a Native presence. Sequestration furthers the unequal treatment of Native peoples, thus encouraging violence against them to be ignored and violence perpetrated by them to be spotlighted. It is presented by the media and the criminal justice system as violence against Native peoples being a thing of the past, while violence by them is on-going. This can be seen clearly in the dismal statistics of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples (MMIPs) as reported by the Department of the Interior [14]. The reality of violence against Native peoples remains so dire as to have inspired United States President Joe Biden to proclaim 5 May as Missing or Murdered Indigenous Persons Awareness Day [15].
Some pieces of the settler colonial construct that remain in place, contributing to the violence by and against Native men looking arcane enough to appear harmless, such as the “constructed Indian-ness” [16] of mascotry. There are no racialized groups in North American society in which it is acceptable for racist slurs to publicly represent entire communities beyond that of the Native American. It is ludicrous to imagine that Americans would accept a sports team called the Washington N*ggers or the Kansas City Sp*cs, yet, until 2020, the National Football League continued to support the use of the R*dskin name and mascot, despite the term being defined as “dated and offensive” ( (accessed on 2 February 2024)) by Oxford Dictionaries and the continued public outcry by Native advocacy organizations (“Not Your Mascot” ( (accessed on 2 February 2024)), “MascotsDB” ( (accessed on 2 February 2024)), and “Change the Mascot” ( (accessed on 2 February 2024))) for termination of all Native mascotry. The use of Native mascotry continues today in both professional and public-school leagues. Johnnie Jae, Otoe-Missouria/Choctaw journalist and founder of “Not Your Mascot”, explains [17] as follows:
“People don’t understand that these issues are rooted in racism. They [white settlers] did eradicate almost 99 percent of the population. Today, a lot of people are not aware we’re still here. They talk about Native Americans as if we’re in the past, and you never really hear about Native Americans as we are now in the modern times. So it really does perpetuate the idea that Native Americans are an extinct people”.
The concept of Native peoples as extinct is created and proliferated by settler colonialism to reflect the ideas of “conquest, colonialism, dislocation, dispossession, identity, tradition, and nationalism” as their [settlers] inherent right as superior beings [16]. This concept creates an environment in which Native men and boys are historicized, romanticized, and villainized, erasing the space to imagine contemporary Native masculine identity and effectively emphasizing the need to accentuate our thrivance as opposed to mere survival.

3. Results

3.1. “Scary Brown Man”

Gyasi Ross’s article “Scary Brown Man” [8] illuminates the racism and white privilege pushed against Native men in the United States with both insight and humor, offering the reader an emotional view of the feelings of rage, humiliation, and, ultimately, an evaluation as experienced by the author. The article is divided by incident and analysis. The precipitating incident is housed in the mundane airline travel from Seattle to New York as necessitated by an invitation for Ross to appear on television following the release of his book How to Say I Love You in Indian [18]. Ross describes the first leg of his trip from Seattle to Chicago as unremarkable. The second leg of the flight, from Chicago to New York, is where the trouble begins.
All flights are through Southwest Airlines (SWA), which Ross characterizes as having used a million times before. SWA does not have assigned seating, and with Ross boarding in group ‘C,’ he knows he is destined for a middle seat. He locates an open middle seat in the front of the plane, with the window seat and the aisle seat occupied by a middle-aged white couple holding a baby. Ross asks if the middle seat is occupied, with the woman quickly responding that she is holding it for a friend. He waits patiently nearby assuming by the woman’s demeanor that she is lying. Ross is not mad or impatient with her, as he knows the unassigned seating game and her desire for no one to take the middle seat. When the final person boards, another middle-aged white woman, the seated woman grabs her hand as she walks by and implores her to sit with her. Ross states to the seated woman that it is obvious to him that they do not know each other and asks if she realizes the rudeness of her actions. The boarding woman quickly moves on while Ross stores his carry-on luggage and takes the aisle seat now vacated by the man who has “chivalrously” moved over to sit between his wife and Ross [8]. The woman chips away at Ross, telling him not to look at her and loudly proclaiming to her husband that she does not want him [Ross] sitting there.
At this point in his narrative, Ross breaks character by stating to his readers: “White privilege is the inherent suspicion that people of color—predominately men of color—are doing something wrong. Big Black men and big brown men are presumed guilty. All the time” [8]. This moment signifies to the reader that this article is more that an op-ed piece written about one brown man’s singular experience; rather, it is an examination reflecting an inside look into the hatred toward ‘others’ so inherently and casually practiced within white settler society. Frantz Fanon, in speaking of the way racism has changed since the “lynching era”, identifies this hatred as something that “cries out to exist” and must be embodied through “action and the appropriate behavior” [19]. Clearly, the words and actions of the white couple in question personify the accepted repetition of discrimination and stereotype against men of color.
In return to his narrative, Ross tells the woman (with carefully controlled anger) that she has “no input as to where I sit or where I look”, all the while remembering his childhood training: “You’re a big brown guy—don’t be too scary. Don’t be too big. Don’t be too brown” [8]. The woman’s husband, a slightly built white man, tells Ross to shut his mouth, illustrating the manner in which race and settler colonialism continue to function in society today. The exchange between Ross and the white couple, although muted, eventually garners the attention of the white male flight captain who pointedly confronts Ross with, “Is there a problem here?” [8]. Upon the captain’s initial approach, Ross feels relief, but quickly realizes that the captain assumes he [Ross] is the problem. Given no opportunity to explain and being threatened with being removed from the flight forces him to back down or risk missing his meeting. He sits down and silently stews about the incident for the entire flight. Upon returning home, Ross sent an email of complaint to SWA, who responds with what Ross considered “an incredibly condescending email” apologizing for his “less than pleasant” experience [8]. Ross sums up the experience as not less-than-pleasant, but as humiliating, created by privilege, and supported by the fact that there was nothing he could do without the risk of getting thrown off the flight or being provoked into a physical conflict: “In the same way cops provoke men of color by staring us down and asking if we have a problem and other rhetorical questions intended only to provoke” [8].
Ross breaks down his analysis of the incident into the following two categories: racism and white privilege, which are both inherent effects of settler colonialism. He defines the white couple as racist based on their stereotypical reaction to Ross’s physical appearance as a large brown man, while their comfort in confronting Ross and telling him to shut his mouth despite his physical appearance would not make sense without the ingrained settler’s notion of superiority. Franz Fanon reinforces this continuing subjectification of settler colonialism in his 1952 book Black Skin, White Mask: “I am not given a second chance. I am overdetermined from the outside. I am a slave not to the ‘idea’ that others have of me, but to my appearance” [19]. While it is Ross’s appearance that identifies the scary brown man to the settler, thus triggering the embodiment of action and behavior, there is a real danger to becoming a slave to appearance. Rather than simply reacting to the stereotypical response toward brown male bodies, we need to identify and understand how such racist responses are perpetuated and encouraged through the settler colonial process. Holding the brown man responsible for his physical appearance as cause-to-effect erases the responsibility of the settler for creating and preserving the binary of settler colonialism and the gender–race bias. Ross pushes back against the settler colonial response to his appearance by stating “I don’t think it’s possible to see a stranger as a human being and talk to them like that” [8], effectively emphasizing how racism and privilege position brown bodies as less than human in the mind of the oppressor. This is of vital importance, as it shifts the dichotomy of settler colonialism off of the colonized and onto the colonizer, where it rightfully belongs.
Interestingly, Ross categorizes the airline captain’s response as not inherently racist, but more likely the result of suffering from a “very bad case of white privilege” [8]. He goes on to define white privilege as the inherent suspicion that people of color are doing something wrong. While white privilege is a legitimate frame from which to analyze the comforts afforded white-skinned persons, it is important to draw on Anne Bonds and Joshua Inwood’s argument that white supremacy is a fundamental part of white privilege with the argument that white privilege “accentuates the structures of white power and the domination and exploitation that give rise to social exclusion and premature death of people of color in settler colonial states” [20]. As off-putting as the term white supremacy is, it is meant here not in the milieu of the Ku Klux Klan (although that should not be excluded), but in the context that settler whites innately consider themselves superior to people of color consciously and subconsciously. White privilege is merely polite verbiage for narrating the systemic oppression that stems from white supremacy, which stems from settler colonialism. When a large Native man interacts with a middle-class white couple, and the white airline captain assumes the Native man is the problem, it is realistic to assume white privilege, particularly under the ever-present construct of settler colonialism. Gyasi Ross, and scores of other Native men, live under this oppression every day; they “bite their tongues” and “swallow their pride” to avoid being “beat down, pepper sprayed and thrown in jail” [8]. In extreme, yet not rare, cases, they do so to avoid death at the hands of the white oppressor. In his personal story, Ross lays out an excellent example of the assumption placed on Native men by the settler colonial construct: to be brown is to be perceived as dangerous and pushing back is fraught with its own peril.
As a graduate student in 2017, I led a settler colonialism class discussion around Indigenous masculinity in which I questioned the men, particularly those who identified as Indigenous men, to elaborate on what it meant to be a non-white man. (For clarity and accountability, I intentionally advised the class that I was interested in their response, as it applied directly to my work. No identifiers are used beyond race and gender.) The men spoke of the pressure, specifically as an adolescent, to fight when a threat is perceived, or risk being branded a coward. For them, walking away from confrontation was not an option, as the social pressures of Indigenous masculinity (as exerted on them by the construct of settler colonialism) assumed violence and resistance. It was, however, deemed acceptable by my fellow students for a white boy to back down or run away from a fight. The right of white privilege protects them from physical confrontation, or the shame of evading physical confrontation, due to the “institutional set of benefits granted [them]” from their resemblance to the “people who dominate the powerful positions in our institutions” both historically and present-day [21]. White men have the comfort of knowing, often despite a lack of size or stature, they are afforded the privilege of assumed innocence and victimhood, while the Native man is assumed guilty based on his seen appearance as a scary brown man. This complicates the brown man’s reality of knowing that if a physical confrontation occurs between him and a white man there is the probability that the brown man will be judged at fault. Their non-existent safety net of white privilege forces them to choose between preserving their constructed masculinity, risking jail, or death. Provocation, constructed by the settler colonial nation-state, effectively places Native men into the role of criminal aggressor, thus limiting any discourse around Indigenous masculinity to the stereotypical fighting Indian [22]. Native men are saddled with the constant burden of choosing to fight when challenged or risk reinforcing the structures of power that label them as inferior by walking away.

3.2. “Reservation Blues”

Sherman Alexie’s novel Reservation Blues is a tragicomedy of several contemporary Native peoples on the Spokane Indian reservation, where Alexie himself was born and raised. The novel opens with the main character, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, meeting Robert Johnson, a down-and-out blues guitarist arriving on the Spokane reservation in search of Big Mom, a Coeur d’Alene elder rumored to be a mystical, hundreds-of-years-old musical genius. Johnson made a deal with the devil to be the world’s greatest guitar player, but the price he paid weighs heavily on him and he hopes Big Mom can undo the deal. Thomas takes Johnson to Big Mom and is rewarded with Thomas’s bedeviled guitar. Inspired by the new guitar, Thomas forms the band “Coyote Springs” with his friends Victor and Junior. Eventually, the band adds two women, Checkers and Chess Warm Water, from the nearby Flathead reservation. The inclusion of female Natives is important to the story for incorporating a gendered balanced nuance to the associations, integrating the need for feminine relationship to masculinity.
In part due to Thomas’s bedeviled guitar, Coyote Springs quickly finds popularity with non-Natives anxious to watch and listen to some ‘real’ Indians. Two white groupies, Betty and Veronica, join the band for an abbreviated period, but quit to form their own band of pretendians (a common term in Indian country for white people posing as Native for personal or financial gain) to capitalize on the popularity of Coyote Springs. Included in the story line are two white men from the aptly named Calvary Records, Sherman and Wright, whose characters represent the sordid history of America and the on-going impact of settler colonialism. Alexie’s narrative traces the rise and fall of Coyote Springs, providing a broad framework for examining issues relevant to Native Americans today. Each chapter begins with the lyrics to a blues song, successfully framing the entangled historical pain and mistreatment of Native and African American peoples. This subtle reference may be lost in a white audience that has not experienced, directly or through close relationships, the continuing oppression of settler colonialism.
When Thomas meets Johnson, he wants to learn more about the stranger on his reservation, but he is “too polite and traditional” to risk offending him. A brief narrative of what it means to be a traditional Spokane Indian is offered here by Alexie, claiming rules of conduct that are “thousands of years old” and have “been forgotten by most Spokane” [9]. The use of the word traditional in defining who or what kind of Indian Thomas is invites the contemplation of the conflict surrounding Native people around the internalized self-classification of community members as traditional, non-traditional, urban, and/or reservation Indians. The question of who is Indian enough [23] continues to contribute to the tension of where one fits in the world experienced by many Native peoples. These labels themselves are discordant, tied directly to the colonial notion of blood quantum, and contribute to the identity politics playing out within Native nations today.
Alexie writes Thomas as traditional with a gentle character who is a sensitive story-teller, prone to visions, and tends not to drink, smoke, fight, or play basketball. His bandmates, Victor and Junior, have been known to Thomas his entire life, and have a long history of bullying him physically and verbally. Victor is portrayed by Alexie as one of those Indian men that “savagely opened cans of commodities, roared from place to place, set fires, broke windows, and picked on the weaker members of the tribe” [9]. He is a fighter, bully, and basketball player. Junior is Victor’s sidekick, characterized as a former basketball star who is tall and good-looking like movie Indians, with long, straight purple–black hair. Junior, a college drop-out, may or may not have fathered a few mixed-race babies during his two semesters at college. Although Junior participates in Victor’s chronic bullying of Thomas, he always stops him from carrying things too far. Junior tries to be a good person but, haunted by the death of his parents in a drunk-driving accident, is easily led astray. Victor and Junior drink to excess daily, contributing to Junior’s suicide at the end of the book.
Each of the three main characters are presented to readers in the guise of a stereotypical Native man: a mystic traditional, an angry fighting and drinking basketball player, and a college drop-out alcoholic that wants to be good but just cannot seem to overcome the struggles of reservation life. Herein lies the conundrum of fictional works representing contemporary Native men. While scholarly research and statistics may support the characterization of alcoholism, violence, and poor education systems on reservations and reserves throughout North America, Alexie’s characters fail to push back against the stereotype, making it impossible for the uninformed reader to recognize the vast number of Native men flourishing today. This lack of recognition encourages a plight of the Indian logic, perpetuating the need for a white savior and reinforcing the settler colonial belief of white superiority [24]. More importantly, it may serve to reinforce the internalization of Native inferiority experienced by some Indigenous men.
Victor’s behavior is traced to his upbringing, including the abandonment by his alcoholic father and the mistreatment from his white stepfather. His life is a cycle of suffering, including his molestation by a Catholic priest, which culminates in his own anger and substance abuse. Junior shares with Victor the traits of drinking and fighting, but tries to push back against the stereotype by holding a job and showing somewhat erratic compassion. Together, they are every sad stereotype of reservation Indians. Although I recognize the faces of Victor and Junior in some Indigenous men, it is troubling to consider that this idea of our men is what much of settler society finds comfortable. The identity politics of settler colonialism too easily regulates the Victors and Juniors of Native society as the face of Indigenous masculinity without considering the roles gender bias and racism play in creating these dynamics.
Thomas, the soft-spoken storyteller, does not fight (although he is beat-up regularly), does not drink, and does not play basketball. He is part of his community, yet he is invisible to many due to his differences. He does not fit the expected reservation male mold in either a positive or negative way. He is not a warrior in the constructed stereotypical manner anticipated by settlers and [too often] Native citizens themselves. His character is positioned as physically and emotionally frail, yet Alexie skillfully weaves him through the story to emerge powerfully as the antithesis to the troubled and hopeless characters of Victor and Junior. Working in harmony with Chess Warm Water, he displays a direct contrast to the abusive relationships portrayed by the other characters. Thomas and Chess demonstrate hope and thrivance by removing themselves from their toxic circumstances to celebrate their life together at an “ordinary human level and [by] affirming their identities” as Indigenous man and woman [11].
Some consider Alexie’s writing as representative of the struggles experienced by contemporary Native people living on reservations/reserves throughout the continent. This is challenging, as some readers, particularly non-Native readers, assume a plight of the Indian mentality, associating backwardness and rampant despair to all of reservation life without considering the larger structures that create these conditions, and that the same issues exist in non-reservation poverty-stricken areas throughout North America. Poverty, violence, and despair are not an ‘Indian problem,’ but a structural inequality problem. The real Indian problem is the dismissal or ignorance of non-Native scholars, researchers, and advocates to the complexities and impact of settler colonialism. Reservation Blues is a story of thrivance despite the overwhelming odds and trauma of structural violence. With a peculiar sense of Native humor, Alexie narrates us through the alcoholism, stereotype, and racism so often associated with reservation life, while at the same time encouraging readers to think critically about the roots and origins of the generational trauma associated with settler colonialism.
Spokane poet and scholar Gloria Bird expresses apprehension in her critical review of Reservation Blues, stating the following: “as a Native reader, my concern is with the colonialist influence on the Native novel, and how that influence shapes the representation of Native culture to a mainstream audience [25]. When questioned at a Seattle Town Hall discussion in 2017, Alexie acknowledged the risk but defended his literary decisions by stating the following: “I write stories based on my experiences that Indians can relate to, laugh about, and sometimes cry about. Always write yourself, don’t pretend” [26]. With this in mind, I continue to find Reservation Blues and “Scary Brown Man” compelling stories of the life experiences of some contemporary Native men.

4. Discussion

The truth remains that Native men in the United States and Canada are the most likely group of people to experience violence, to be killed by police, to have the highest rate of incarceration, and are more likely to have violence committed against them by someone outside of their own [Native] community than any other racialized group [1]. It can be argued that these statistics, while already alarming, may be much higher than represented, as the Department of Justice continues to virtually ignore the violence perpetrated against Native men and boys, in part due to the lack of crime statistics numbers (i.e., Native Americans/Alaskan Natives represented as “other”). The Bureau of Indian Affairs, under the U.S. Department of the Interior, found that homicide was one of the leading causes of death for American Indian males aged 1 to 54 years old, while at the same time acknowledging that the listed statistics may be drastically under-reported, as Native peoples are “often misclassified as Hispanic or Asian” [27]. In Ross’s “Scary Brown Man” and Alexie’s Reservation Blues, we are presented with examples of Native men judged and critiqued by themselves, their own communities, and non-Indigenous others.
Ross, a well-educated and traveled Native man, experiences racism and the impacts of white supremacy and white privilege based on his physical appearance. He is too Indian and too brown. So Indian and so brown that, at his first jury trial as a young attorney, the white prosecutor saw him and questioned: “Excuse me sir, are you waiting for your attorney?” [8]. In the prosecutor’s cloak of white privilege and assumed superiority, she could not recognize the large brown man in a suit as a possible peer, in much the same way that the SWA captain failed to recognize him as anything other than the problem. Ross’s engagement with and critique of the settler colonial narrative pushes back against the too-common Indigenous internalization of assimilation and acculturation. Instead, he exemplifies thrivance, as, despite the historical cloud of settler colonialism looming over him, he continues to contribute and stand out in today’s society as an attorney, author, advocate, and Blackfeet man.
Reservation Blues uses Junior and Victor’s characters as an emphasis of the ways hegemonic masculinity encourages the use of power and control through sex and intimidation. They are merely surviving their circumstances and choices. Thomas and Chess, however, are thriving and decolonizing themselves through their relationship. They learn together to seek balance individually and culturally through a reciprocal relationship of survival and thrivance. The success of leaving the reservation with their Indigenous knowledge intact is transformative resistance against the settler colonial narrative. They embrace their Indigenous identities while journeying out into the world to find their way together—thrivance.
Many of Alexie’s novels use basketball as a means of navigating conflict. In Reservation Blues, Thomas, the non-basketball player, uses it as a means to think through how it is that men earn respect on the reservation. Thomas narrates the story of his father, Samuel, once the reservation’s greatest basketball player, and a friend playing against a squad of tribal police led by Officer Wilson (a white man who hated living on the reservation but claimed a little Indian blood when useful) to get out of a drunk-driving arrest [9]. They face-off, two against six, in an epic clash of Indian vs. settler. Throughout the basketball battle, the teams engage in trash talk, with Samuel calling out historical grievances with each of his legendary shots [9]:
“That was for every one of you Indians like you Tribal Cops. That was for all those Indian scouts who helped the U.S. Calvary. That was for Wounded Knee I and II. For Sand Creek. Hell, that was for both Kennedys, Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, …Leonard Peltier, too. And Marilyn Monroe, And Jimi Hendrix…”.
Colonialism brought reservations and restrictions to the activities of Native men, strictly limiting their roles as providers and protectors and eliminating the opportunity to celebrate bravery, thus creating the need for an alternative means of earning honor and respect. Alexie’s lifelong love affair with basketball encapsulates the common joke among Native peoples that basketball is the new Indian wars. High school gyms in Indian country fill with fans anxious to watch their team represent their community in a good way. Polish scholar Jozef Jaskulski refers to the reservation basketball court as a “mock-heroic battleground/sweat lodge in which young people earn respect…a basketball player may be perceived as a transfiguration of the pre-colonial warrior, while making basketball plays might correspond to counting coups” [28]. Indian basketball does not escape the racism inherent to settler colonialism, however, as, in 2017, well-known Montana radio personality Paul Mushaben created the blog Indian Basketball, calling for a separate state league for high school “Indian teams”, citing the safety of non-Native teams, blaming the majority of “problems” on reservation teams, and comparing Indian basketball to “gang violence in cities like Chicago, which comes basically from the African American community” [29]. Mushaben was suspended by the radio station, yet the initial outrage over his comments was overshadowed by the outpouring of support he received for what many interpreted to be a violation of his right to free speech. It would appear that even Native children playing organized sports are regulated by the too-big, too-brown, and too-savage rules of white privilege.
Junior is the tragic character of Reservation Blues. He is a college drop-out haunted by the death of his parents and the abortion of his child by a white college girlfriend. In the end, Junior is so overwhelmed with his history, current situation, crushing loneliness, and sense of failure that he climbs the reservation water tower with a stolen rifle and commits suicide. His death is a pivotal point in the story, yet it is taken in stride by the other characters. Junior’s suicide and the reservation community’s lack of reaction reflects the commonality of suicide among Native American and First Nations peoples. Cherokee psychiatrist Dale Walker, in addressing the perceived lack of empathy by Native peoples regarding suicide, answers with the following: “One of the most difficult things to hear is when the community says, ‘We can grieve no more. We’re cried out. We just can’t respond anymore to the problem” [30]. Native peoples have higher rates of suicide than any other group, and present differently than the general population, with Native men between the ages of 18 and 24 most highly affected [30]. Suicide, under the oppression of settler colonialism, is internalized genocide reflecting the on-going erasure and disappearance of Native men.
Sociologist Barbara Chasin identifies the high rates of suicide and violence among racialized groups as anger and rage transmuted into physical symptoms, with suicide being an “inward directed aggression” [31]. Although Chasin identifies capitalism as the defining structural issue, it can be argued that capitalism is yet another byproduct of settler colonialism; regardless, young Native men are dying at phenomenal rates, yet they continue to be portrayed as “victimizers, not as victims” within the hegemonic masculine ideal normalized through white supremacist patriarchy [5]. This wide-spread normalization of settler colonial hegemony supports an environment so toxic that Native men risk internalization, responding with violence towards themselves or others, while non-Natives use it to justify stereotyping and violence against Native men by non-Native peoples.
Cree/Metis feminist scholar Kim Anderson speaks out in support of research around Indigenous masculinity, purporting that “our families are only going to be as healthy as our men are, too. Perhaps it’s time to pay attention to men who haven’t had as much of the focus” [32]. The identity politics of dividing and ranking the needs of Native peoples by conceived gender remains an effective way to divide and conquer, thus perpetuating the settler colonial agenda.
“Scary Brown Man” and Reservation Blues are stories of the ongoing impacts of settler colonialism on Native men, but they are also stories of thrivance. Despite the oppression of settler colonialism, Gyasi Ross is a successful lawyer, author, and advocate for Natives and other peoples of color. In Reservation Blues, Thomas ultimately survives his traumatic upbringing and goes on to develop a loving and healthy relationship with a Native woman, bringing the novel to an end with a sense of hope and healing. As long as the construct of settler colonialism exists, with its tentacles of racism, white privilege, oppression, and violence, we need to explore and advocate to lessen its damaging impact on Native peoples while simultaneously working to build movements that challenge settler colonial power and its self-serving priorities. Failing to understand how the violence perpetrated by Native men is reflective of the violence perpetrated against Native men simply recreates the cycle. Recognizing what is happening to our men is a first step toward seeking a solution. Too many of our men have vanished. It is time to walk beside our brothers in support as they move beyond fistfights and basketball.


This research was funded by the ‘NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION Graduate Research Fellowship’ (2017–2019), the ‘APS Phillip’s Fund for Native American Research’ (2022), and the ‘University of Idaho’s CLASS Summer Research Grant’ (2022).

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable.

Data Availability Statement

No new data were created or analyzed in this study. Data are contained within the article.


The author would like to acknowledge the invaluable and on-going support from members of the Blackfeet Nation, with particular thanks to Roberta Baumann and Rhonda Grant-Connelly.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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Baumann, D. Beyond Fistfights and Basketball: Reclaiming Native American Masculinity. Humans 2024, 4, 200-211.

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