Eccentric Thomas Builds-the-Fire hosts a large party after receiving money from Washington Water Power, which has paid him to put electricity poles on his land. Victor and his friend Junior sneak off to take magic mushrooms at Benjamin Lake. On the way, they see Thomas at the side of the road and allow him to join. Victor gives Thomas the mushrooms and asks him to describe what he sees.
Thomas sees Victor stealing a horse. This is followed by a lyrical interlude, narrated in the first person, in which the narrator describes stealing a horse from an encampment belonging to “The Others”. Junior takes the mushrooms while driving, and describes Thomas dancing naked. This is followed by another interlude (also in the first person) in which the narrator describes dancing out of grief after his entire tribe has been killed by smallpox. The dance takes on magic powers and drives all white people back to Europe. Finally, Victor takes the mushrooms and sees Junior singing. This is followed by one more interlude, which takes place in an alternate history in which Native Americans have taken over the United States. A popular singing cowboy narrates this section.
As the drug wears off, Junior and Victor allow Thomas to tell a story. Thomas talks about three boys who take off their clothes and steal horses in hopes of finding their adult names - a Spokane coming-of-age ritual. Thomas suggests that the boys are themselves, but Junior and Victor laugh at this suggestion. Thomas gets angry and storms off, warning Victor and Junior not to slow dance with their skeletons.
The narrator suggests that a person’s past and future are their skeletons, and allowing either to get too close can cause problems. After seeing a vision of his grandmother walking on water, Victor becomes frightened and throws away the mushrooms.
The next day, Victor and Junior chat in front of the Trading Post. Big Mom, the tribe’s spiritual leader, approaches him and cryptically tells Victor that she knows what he saw. She gives him a tiny drum and tells him to beat it if he ever needs her help. Victor keeps the drum for years.
In “A Drug Called Tradition”, Alexie explores what it means for his characters to be “real Indians” (20). The characters in this collection have a complex relationship with their culture. Although Victor, Junior, and Thomas feel deep ties to Spokane tradition, their lifestyles and experiences are very different from those of their ancestors. Alexie illustrates this dynamic at several points in the story. For example, Victor truly respects Big Mom, the tribe’s spiritual leader, and has great reverence for the drum she gives him. However, he also maintains a certain ironic detachment from traditional spirituality, jokingly characterizing the mushroom trip as “spiritual shit” (14).
Alexie accompanies the realistic plotline about Victor and his friends taking drugs with a series of surreal vignettes. These vignettes describe alternate histories in which the relationship between Native Americans and Europeans played out differently. Often, these interludes draw on elements of Spokane spirituality, such as traditional dancing and its spiritual significance. These interludes demonstrate that Spokane tradition is not just limited to mythology, religion, and the arts; it also incorporates the tribe’s more recent, tragic history.
There are important stylistic differences between the alternate-history interludes and the realistic plotline. The interludes draw on Alexie’s background as a poet. They include lush visual descriptions and surreal experiences, such as a talking pony. They are also related in a more conversational tone than the realistic plotline, which features staid, logical narration.