Unresolved Cultural Conflict in
Native American Fiction
Perhaps the most common theme in Native American fiction is the conflict felt by American Indian characters who try to succeed in white-dominated American society without abandoning or betraying their Native traditions. Many characters in these works search for a middle ground where the two cultures can coexist peacefully, but time and time again, this middle ground proves to be at best elusive—and at times intrinsically impossible—because of fundamental differences in the way whites and Native Americans view the world. This unpleasant reality frustrates not only the characters but also the well-intentioned reader who is often puzzled by this barrier separating the two cultures. One of the places that both whites and Native Americans have looked to (both in fiction and the “real world”) as a potential common ground is the sports arena or ball field. Certainly the fact that all players are theoretically competing on even terms, coupled with the success of a few Native American athletes like Jim Thorpe and Billy Mills, suggests that the field or arena is a place free of cultural bias; however, this does not often prove to be the case. In two important articles about young Native American basketball stars who try to make the leap from the reservation to Division I college basketball, Sports Illustrated writer Gary Smith demonstrates that the arena walls are not thick enough to keep out the profound cultural differences that separate these two groups and weigh heavily on every step these young athletes take. It is, then, little surprise that many Native American authors have used sports references to try to explore this cultural conflict that haunts their characters.
The symbolic use of basketball by Native American authors has been discussed by a few critics, most notably Peter Donahue in “New Warriors, New Legend: Basketball in Three Native American Works of Fiction.” In this essay, which focuses on the works of James Welch and Sherman Alexie, Donahue suggests that basketball has been both a blessing and a curse in Native American culture. Donahue astutely points out that one important