As a college student, Junior Polatkin often dreams of starring in a Wild West show where he guns down traditional white heroes like Billy the Kid and Wild Bill Hickok. In real life, he attends Gonzaga University, a small liberal arts school with an almost entirely white, upper-middle class student body. He has an intense crush on a white student named Lynn in his history class; he is drawn to her when she takes a critical attitude to American history and questions the professor. However, she snobbishly rejects him when he asks her to have coffee with him.
Because people on the reservation give Junior a hard time for attending college, he chooses to stay in his dormitory over winter break. One day he runs into Lynn while getting his mail. This time she is much friendlier, and they get lunch together and talk for hours. As they leave, Lynn kisses him.
Junior and Lynn have a one-night stand, and Lynn becomes pregnant. She refuses to marry him because she does not love him, and keeps the baby because she is Catholic and already feels attached to it. After she gives birth to a son named Sean, Lynn and Junior drift apart. In spite of this, Junior retains minimal visitation rights and Lynn makes a point of teaching Sean about his Indian heritage. Junior takes another history class with the same professor as before, and continually questions him just like Lynn did. The professor mostly ignores these interruptions, and finally gives a pop quiz out of spite for Junior. Junior aces the quiz, but drops out of Gonzaga because he feels depressed and lonely. He returns to the reservation despite Lynn’s urging to stay in school.
“Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show” takes a critical look at the dynamics of interracial relationships. Junior Polatkin and Victor Joseph both date white women in their youth, which are, by and large, negative experiences for both of them. Junior is extremely conscious of his race in his interactions with Lynn, to the point that it is the first thing he tells her about when they meet. Lynn’s bemusement at this (and the fact that she only discloses her Irish ancestry much later) can be interpreted as an example of white privilege; she is fundamentally unable to understand why Junior is self-conscious about his heritage because she has never been part of a minority.
The setting of this story helps explain the tension in Junior and Lynn’s relationship. At Gonzaga University, Junior is very different from the predominantly white, privileged student body. Although he feels alienated when he goes home to the reservation - his peers judge him harshly for attending college - he feels even more marginalized at school, where his professor teaches a sugarcoated version of American history and the other students see him as a threat. The university itself was founded in the nineteenth century to convert and "re-educate" Native Americans. This history helps explain why Junior’s race is such a significant factor in his relationship with Lynn; the politically and racially charged environment makes it difficult for each of them to move past the differences in their experience.
Movies and entertainment are an important motif in “Junior Polatkin’s Wild West Show”. In the opening paragraph, Alexie contextualizes the plot by imagining a revisionist history of the American West, where the Native Americans are the protagonists and the conquerors. This gives readers insight into the vast gap between how American history and culture is traditionally presented, and how it is seen by Native Americans. Because the westward expansion is such a romanticized period of American history (and it continues to be depicted as such in popular movies, television, and literature), it is an especially sensitive topic for some Native Americans. Throughout the story, Alexie emphasizes alternate interpretations of this history – whether it is through Lynn and Junior questioning their history professor, or Junior visualizing a film adaptation of his relationship with Lynn that breaks racial (and gender) barriers.