Junior Polatkin describes Norma Many Horses and his relationship with her over the years. Norma cares deeply about preserving tribal culture, and encourages everyone to come watch the dancing when powwows are held. She is a great dancer herself and likes to go to the bar and dance with everyone. Junior fondly recalls one night when she danced with only him and then drove him home. Before she married James Many Horses, Norma had a reputation for promiscuity, sleeping with both men and women.
Junior expects Norma to become involved with Victor, because Victor has more problems than anyone in the tribe except for Lester FallsApart. However, Norma and Victor never got along, although she is patient with him when he is drunk. When Junior was in high school, he single-handedly won a basketball game and Norma wrote an article about it for the reservation newspaper. He keeps it in his wallet to this day.
Junior attended college off the reservation and had a son with a woman from the city, but they broke up and his son only visits for six days each month. After returning from college, Junior complained to Norma about the world outside the reservation. She asked him about the worst thing he ever did, and Junior tells her about a time he and his college friends mocked a player on their basketball team who had just been released from prison. This changes Norma’s opinion of Junior, and for a long time it affects their relationship.
However, one day Norma informs Junior that she will call him Pete Rose from now on, because despite his impressive feats in baseball, Pete Rose is only remembered for his gambling problem. Norma thinks it unfair that people be remembered for the bad things they did instead of the good. This is her way of telling Junior she forgives him, and after that they are back on good terms. When Pete Rose fails to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, Norma tells Junior the news but promises she still loves him.
“Somebody Kept Saying Powwow” features a motif of outsiders who suffer because they are different. Junior feels alienated from his friends on the reservation because he attended college; the basketball player cannot integrate with his team because he spent time in prison; Norma gets a reputation for promiscuity because of her many sexual partners (and possibly her bisexuality). This plays into the theme of compassion, which features prominently in this story and much of Alexie’s other fiction.
In “Somebody Kept Saying Powwow” compassion and forgiveness drive the character development of both Junior and Norma. Junior begins to solve his psychological issues when he confesses to Norma about mocking the basketball player, and he makes further progress when he attempts to apologize to the boy. Norma grows in a similar fashion over the course of the story. Although she holds Junior’s confession against him for a very long time, she eventually reconciles with him after realizing that Junior is a good person despite having been cruel in the past. Alexie suggests that the harm caused by excluding outsiders can be somewhat resolved by both sides engaging with each other compassionately. Although this story focuses on interpersonal relationships, its philosophy has broader sociopolitical significance, since American Indians also suffer for being different in broader American society. Alexie’s suggestion that empathy can help overcome this problem is similar to his treatment of the issue in “Imagining the Reservation”.
The story can also be read as a character sketch about Norma Many Horses. She appears as an important secondary character elsewhere in the collection, most prominently in “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” and “The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor”. Although Junior Polatkin narrates this story and its plot is driven by his experiences, the narrative is structured around his interactions with Norma. All of the major plot events involve their relationship, and Junior even pauses the narrative at several points to explain Norma’s back-story. In this reading, Junior’s character development can be understood as a catalyst for Norma’s own personal growth. His interaction with the basketball player and his subsequent guilt are included to show Norma the importance of forgiveness. This interpretation is supported by the fact that Junior is not very introspective about the incident; Norma is much more expressive in explaining how her relationship with Junior has changed. This suggests that her development and growth is more important than Junior’s, even though he is the narrator of the story.