This story takes place in an apocalyptic alternate reality where a plague has wiped out all white people. The Native American survivors are divided into the Skins, who lived on the reservation prior to the plague, and the Urbans, who lived in cities. The Urbans were weakened by the apocalypse and many have horrible deformities; one even gave birth to a monster. The narrator, a Skin, is in love with an Urban named Tremble Dancer. The Tribal Council orders anything related to white people to be burned, including houses. The narrator finds a transistor radio in an attic and manages to save it. He secretly keeps it.
In the nightmarish new reality, the world outside the reservations is empty and desolate. The Tribal Council buries the bodies of tribe members who die on the football field. The narrator frequently dreams about television and wakes up crying. One day, the ghosts of Native Americans from thousands of years ago rape Tremble Dancer and murder Noah Chirapkin, the only Skin to venture off the reservation after the apocalypse. Tremble Dancer dies shortly after giving birth to a salmon. A Skin named Judas WildShoe turns in a wristwatch to the Tribal Council, who burn it, as the narrator clings to his radio for comfort.
Like “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire”, this story takes place in a surreal alternate reality apart from the reservation setting of the collection’s more realistic stories. The plague that kills the white people in this story may be inspired by the role of smallpox in Native American history. That disease decimated the indigenous population when European settlers introduced it to North America. The apocalypse that seems to target white people may be a reversal of this historic tragedy.
In “A Drug Called Tradition” the characters have visions about white people leaving the United States to the Native Americans. In that story, such an event is portrayed positively. However, “Distances” features a similar event but depicts it as a harrowing tragedy. The narrator of “Distances” craves television and other artifacts of pre-apocalypse civilization. Alexie suggests that like it or not, Native Americans have become dependent on European society, and their fraught relationship with white America is unlikely to have a clean resolution any time soon.
In keeping with other stories in the collection, “Distances” features subtle references to Christianity that shed light on the text’s meaning. Judas WildShoe’s name seems to be drawn from Judas Iscariot, a figure from the New Testament best known for betraying Jesus Christ to the leaders who would later kill him. Judas WildShoe plays a similar role in this story, aiding the corrupt tribal leadership in destroying a wristwatch.