Stephen Graham Jones’ “The Only Good Indians” is a novel that follows the story of four Native American men. Ricky, Lewis, Gabe, and Cassidy are haunted by an incident in their past, in which they go hunting on a piece of land reserved for their elders. Together, the men slaughter a herd of elk, one of which dies slowly, revealed to have been struggling to stay alive due to her pregnancy. Ten years later, the four men are haunted by a strange, eerie creature with the body of a woman and the head of an elk. Their horrific experiences with the spirit represent their struggles with their Native identity, and reflect the different experiences Native Americans must face when grappling with systemic racism alongside their own guilt involving their culture and traditions.
1. Beginning Note: Usage of the Term “Indian” in this Article
For the sake of clarity, I want to point out that I will occasionally use the term “Indian” when discussing this novel, as it is the term Stephen Graham Jones chooses throughout the course of the book. At this time and place in history, the terms “First Nations” or “Native American” are more commonly accepted within my environment, as the term “Indian” has discriminatory connotations and is built upon a racist history and geographic inaccuracies. However, the term “Indian” tends to be used more commonly in the United States, a practice which is commented on within the novel itself. In a scene where Gabe and Cass are in the process of trying to pass down a sweat lodge tradition to Nate, a younger member of the Blackfoot tribe, they discuss:
“Nobody says ‘Indian’ anymore,” Nate says, voice somewhere between insult and disappointment[…]
“We grew up being Indian,” Cass says, something about his delivery making it sound like his arms are crossed. “Native’s for you young bucks.” (Jones, p. 193)
This passage encompasses a clear generational clash. The language used to describe Cass reflects the elder Blackfoot’s defensiveness when a practice of theirs is criticized, even though the practice in question has resulted from being born into a system in which the Natives were branded with a racist label. From this we can see that Gabe and Cass have learned to accept a reality that was forced upon them. Their disagreement with Nate indicates a sense of frustration that a younger member of their tribe, who has struggled with systemic racism for a shorter span of time, can act like it is so easy to just shrug off this loaded term. Even though Nate’s words are progressive, it results in conflicting emotions for Gabe and Cass, who were forced to endure the title to the point that its usage comes so naturally.
It is an interesting segment as Gabe and Cass, too, have clashed with their elders, and the traditions they have found outdated. This is embodied in the initial incident where they kill the herd of deer on land reserved for elders (an event that comes to be known as the Thanksgiving Classic, a holiday that Jones clearly chose deliberately for its historical significance). The fact that Gabe and Cass’ argument with Nate takes place while they, too, are trying to pass on a tradition is significant–it suggests that there is a constant cycle of each Blackfoot generation struggling to find a balance between respecting their culture while also trying to progress with contemporary society.
In any case, I wanted to discuss this choice of language in this article before I really began my analysis, since my terms may fluctuate depending on the words the characters use. In a book about many social issues facing Native Americans, I thought it was important to discuss the nuance of this subject–though “Native American” or “Indigenous” are terms that are accepted as politically correct for non-Natives, its usage appears to be more complex amongst Native Americans themselves.
2. Guilt and the Concept of “Good” Indians
One of the most interesting aspects of The Only Good Indians is encompassed within its title, and the perception of what an “Indian” or a “Good Indian” really is. Jones’ novel explores the struggle of being a Native person within modern American society, and how it can sometimes feel like being caught between two worlds. Ricky, Lewis, Gabe, and Cassidy must contend with the systemic racism they have inherited–they often express bitterness and frustration with how the world perceives them as Native men, and how they are forced to deal with micro-aggressions, institutional racism, and the threat of violence in their everyday lives. But at the same time, the men are also guilty of imposing “Indian” expectations on themselves–they often admonish themselves and each other for not being “good Indians”, or being “Indian enough”, a struggle that is explored throughout the recurring motif of newspaper headlines.
“NATIVE AMERICAN MAN SINGLEHANDEDLY TAKES DOWN USPS” (Jones, p. 121), these statements will read, or “NATIVE MAN ON KILLING SPREE, TWO DEAD SO FAR, BABY MISSING” (Jones, p. 127). These headlines, a literal embodiment of the media, reflects how Native Americans are represented within modern society–the titles tend to be fear-mongering and hyperbolic, describing the men in violent or threatening terms. The headlines can never tell the whole story, yet they still can cast incredibly dark images, especially when they pile up. Notably, the men mentioned in the headlines are never named, dehumanizing them to the point that they are not seen as people, only conveying images that are exhibiting threatening or criminal behaviour. By utilizing this motif, Jones criticizes media’s complicity in perpetuating negative images of First Nations people.
The headlines, however, represent even more than this idea–they also reflect our protagonists’ internalized criticism regarding their own Native identities. The headlines come into their minds when they are self-reflecting, a pattern which seems to indicate they have read so many similar headlines that they have absorbed the critical tone into their own self-punishing thoughts. “INDIAN MAN HAS NO ROOTS, THINKS HE’S STILL INDIAN IF HE TALKS LIKE AN INDIAN” (p. 22), Lewis thinks to himself when feeling guilty for leaving the reservation. “INDIAN MAN FIRST IN HISTORY TO PICK UP AFTER HIMSELF” (p. 88) he also thinks, when he is doing something as innocent as eating a grilled cheese over the sink. There is a tone of comedy to these bitter thoughts, but they show that these headlines are constant in the men’s minds, indicating the weight of public perceptions as well as their own guilt in how they are representing themselves as Native Americans.
The men’s struggle with their Native identities is inherently paradoxical and contradictory, as identity struggles can often be. Ricky, Lewis, Gabe, and Cass take pride in being “Indian” to some degree, but at the same time, they resent what being “Indian” in this country has gotten them, landing them in a cycle of poverty, substance abuse, and dysfunction. The men want to honour their culture and history, but they also feel frustrated with practices they feel are outdated. They desire change and a chance to escape their reservation, but they also feel loyal to their home, and feel guilty that leaving may mean rejecting their roots.
Guilt, in general, is a pervasive theme in this novel, woven deeply into the men’s experiences with the Elk Head Woman. No matter which path the men take, they will always feel guilt, and their choices are never good enough for the demons that haunt them.
3. Symbolism and the Elk Head Woman: Ricky and Lewis Leave the Reservation
Two members present from the Thanksgiving Classic end up leaving the reservation, and in the first chapter of the novel, Ricky is killed outside of a bar. Right before he is murdered, we see him reflecting upon his life and situation. From this brief glimpse into his thoughts, we can already gather several issues facing him in his status as a Native American. He thinks about his decision to leave reservation, framing the departure in terms of “escape”. Though his brother, Cheeto, died of an overdose back at the “rez”, Ricky hopes that at least he personally would be able to “get out” (p. 3). It is clear, however, that Ricky’s past still follows him beyond the reservation–he can’t escape his Nativeness just because he’s changed his physical location. His white coworkers brand him with the racist stereotype of “Chief”, and he feels like he cannot look at a white woman at a bar without sensing the threat of violence from white patrons, as if they are possessive of a Native going near anything they have claimed as theirs.
In the same way that Ricky cannot escape his Native identity, he also cannot escape the spirit of the elk he murdered, who he comes across in a parking lot outside the bar:
“Ricky… considered that he maybe should have just stayed home, gone to Cheeto’s funeral, he maybe shouldn’t have stolen his family’s guns. He maybe should have never even left the rez at all. He was right. When he stood, there was a sea of green eyes staring back at him from right there, where there was just supposed to be frozen grass and distance. It was a great herd of elk, waiting, blocking him in, and there was a great herd pressing in behind him, too, a herd of men already on the blacktop themselves, their voices rising, hands balled into fists, eyes flashing white.” (p. 12)
From the passage it is not explicitly clear who kills Ricky, whether it is the elk spirits or the gang of white men at the bar. But what is clear is the deliberate language that is used here: the elk, like Ricky’s “Nativeness”, are restricting Ricky’s future. He is trapped by the threat of the white men behind him, certainly, but he feels equally threatened by the elk, which stand for a symbol of his own culture and past. He is not able to escape either one, and Ricky is the first to die.
The only other member of the four to leave the reservation is Lewis Clarke, an ironic name meant to envoke the image of Meriweather Lewis and William Clarke, explorers who are historically celebrated as heroic next to a servile Sacagawea. Lewis, too, finds that the spirit of the elk follows him. Though he leaves the reservation, marries a white woman, and takes a job with the United States postal service (decisions which seems to distance him from his “Nativeness”), Lewis’ choices plague him with guilt, as if by doing all these things he is betraying his roots. And indeed, his fellow Native Americans tend to make passive-aggressive comments about him leaving the reservation, questioning his “Indian-ness” with comments that trigger his guilt:
“She even lets me hang my Indian junk on all the walls.”
“Like Indian-Indian,” Cass says, “or Indian just because an Indian owns it?”…
The headline flashes in his head: INDIAN MAN HAS NO ROOTS, THINKS HE’S STILL INDIAN IF HE TALKS LIKE AN INDIAN (p. 22)
Despite those questioning his “Indian”-ness, however, it is clear that Lewis’ decisions can never actually make him white. This is highlighted in his interactions with his Caucasian wife, Peta, with whom he cannot avoid certain uncomfortable culture clashes. For instance, in this passage, we see a clear difference in one of their first meetings:
“So you’re, what, scalping it?” she called out to him, full-on loud enough.
“Um,” Lewis had said back, letting the push mower die down.
She’d explained it wasn’t some big insult, it was just the term for cutting a lawn down low like he was doing. (p. 17)
This passage is as an example of a micro-aggression: Peta means no harm, but she has used a term that is awkward and uncomfortable around a Native person, and is an example of a white person asserting to a minority what is and isn’t racist. This passage is just one example of how explaining a micro-aggression to a white person can feel frustrating and pointless. In a stand alone incident, you can argue that these kind of interactions aren’t that bad, and that reacting negatively to it is just being oversensitive. But a Caucasian person may not consider how many times a minority has to go through these same incidents, having the same conversations and experiencing the same frustration over and over again.
Peta is also a vegetarian, and because of this it doesn’t seem like an accident that she shares a name with PETA, a controversial animal rights organization whose ethics have been widely questioned. By making Peta a vegetarian, Jones is clearly setting up a contrast between her and Lewis, who was complicit in killing a herd of elk. From what we have seen in the story, Lewis’ Blackfoot tribe seems to depend on game. The land on the reservation is the only land Native American people have left, as the rest of it was taken from them. So the resources on the “rez”, including meat and game, are significant in a way it would not be to a white person. This contrast brings to mind the idea that vegetarianism and veganism may be paths that are taken for ethical reasons–but the issue becomes more grey when considering economic status, and how individuals’ unique cultural contexts may affect their ability to be able to give up meat as easily.
For Lewis, the Elk Head Woman has a very strong connection to his guilt over this culture clash. This guilt and anxiety comes to head when Lewis meets Shaney, a new co-worker at the post office who is the only other “Indian” on staff. Lewis feels consistently conflicted whenever he is around Shaney. He feels his colleagues think they should both be together simply because they are both “Indians”:
“…Because him and Shaney are the only two Indians at this station… everybody’s been doing that thing they do with armchairs or end tables when they match: trying to push him and her together over in the corner, leave them there to be this perfect set.” (p. 28)
Even worse, Lewis does actually feel a connection to Shaney. Besides being physically attracted to her, their shared heritage means that she sometimes just “get[s] what he’s saying” (p. 62) in a way that’s harder to explain to his white wife. It is this in conjunction with the fact that Lewis left the reservation that he is plagued with guilt. Peta doesn’t even want kids, which further adds to his anxieties:
“The headline kicks up in Lewis’ head on automatic, straight out of the reservation: not the FULLBLOOD TO DILUTE BLOODLINE he’d always expected if he married white, that he’d been prepping himself to deal with, because who knows, but FULLBLOOD BETRAYS EVERY DEAD INDIAN BEFORE HIM. It’s the guilt of having some pristine Native swimmers… it’s the guilt of having those swimmers cocked and loaded but never pushing them downstream, meaning the few of his ancestors who made it through raids and plagues, massacres and genocide, diabetes and all the wobbly-tired cars the rest of America was done with, those Indians may as well have just stood up into that big Gatling gun of history, yeah?” (p. 39)
This passage shows how deeply Lewis feels the weight of his history. He feels as if his life choices have let down every single Native person who has come before him, and these emotions lead to horror when he first glimpses the Elk Head Woman in his home.
Even during the Thanksgiving Classic ten years ago, Lewis already felt guilty for killing the herd of elk. When we see the event, it is from his perspective, so we see that he already felt the guilt, sorrow, and empathy for the elk:
“Maybe it was because she was terrified, because she didn’t understand what was happening. Just that it hurt.” (p. 65)
So when the Elk Head Woman begins to haunt him on the Thanksgiving Classic’s ten year anniversary, Lewis guilt and fear lead him to paranoia. He becomes convinced that Shaney is actually the Elk Head Woman, responsible for killing his dog and turning his wife against him. Shaney calls him “Blackfoot” all the time, after all, constantly reminding him who he is and where he came from. So Lewis guides Shaney into a dangerous situation, and her hair gets caught in the drive belt of his motorcycle:
“It takes maybe half a second for those chrome spokes to grab her long spiral curls, crank her head both up and to the side, her neck obviously cracking… An instant after her neck breaks, the top of her head scalps off and her forehead tilts loosely down into the rear wheel, the spokes shearing skulls as easy as anything, carving down into the pulpy-warm outside of her brain. It’s greyish pink where it’s been opened, and kind of covered with a pale sheath all around that, the blood just now seeping into the folds and crevices.” (p. 115-116)
Lewis’ guilt regarding his Native identity leads him to murder with very significant imagery, and in the wake of Shaney’s death, Peta walks in. As she investigates where the blood is coming from, she trips and falls, hitting her head on the corner of the fireplace. As she dies, Lewis realizes that Peta was actually pregnant after all. Hoping to at least save the baby, he cuts into her belly, and finds that an elk calf has grown there.
Instead of being horrified, Lewis takes the calf and flees, trying to bring the baby back to the reservation. The language used to describe his thoughts for his child’s future are painfully sad and hauntingly beautiful, unlikely hopes tinged with sorrow:
“He just has to get her home, to land she knows, to grass she remembers. He’ll watch her grow for the rest of the year, keep the coyotes and wolves and bears away, and, when she can, he’ll let her go on her own, stand there crying with sadness, from happiness. And then it’ll all be over. Indian stories always hoop back on themselves like that, don’t they? At least the good ones do.” (p. 128)
It’s horribly tragic because we know Lewis will not get away and see his daughter grow. The image of the elk baby is a symbol for the future, but we know that Lewis will not have a future. Two women are dead, and Native men are disproportionately victims of police brutality, so it is unlikely Lewis will get away. So Lewis is gunned down on the way back to the reservation. As he dies, his thoughts turn to fears, how he wishes he could be recognized for his humanity and the potential of his life:
“…On the ridge above him there’s four men sighting down along the tops of their rifles. He looks up to them, his lips moving, trying to explain to them what he’s doing, how this can work, how it’s not too late, how they don’t need to do this, it’s not like the papers have been saying, he’s not that Indian, he’s just him, locked into the steps of this story but finding his way now, finally, making it all work.” (p. 128)
It is interesting to note that Lewis’ baby, though he has doubted his “Indian-ness”, is still an elk. Even born to a white person, the calf has still inherited the Native spirit from Lewis, something that is not only a commentary on Lewis’ identity but also on the mixed race identity of the child.
This does not change the fact that Lewis is still dead, however. The spectre of the Elk Head Woman indicates that Lewis was rarely able to control the fate of his own story. The elk is both his past and his future, a demon and beloved child both. The tragedy lies in how Lewis flees the reservation but never escapes it, yet when he tries to get back to the reservation, he also never gets there. It’s like he’ll always be in between the two, he can neither truly live inside the “rez” or outside of it.
Unfortunately, as we will see when discussing Cass and Gabe, the “Indians” who never attempt to leave the reservation do not fare any better.
4. A Break in the Story
After Lewis is killed, there is a break in the story. We expect to go straight into Gabe and Cassidy’s story, to see what happened to the remaining four members of the Thanksgiving Classic.
But instead, we find ourselves in the perspective of someone unknown. It seems to be the voice of a fourteen-year-old girl and Lewis’ elk calf at the same time.
The girl-elk recounts a memory. In it, she tells the story of a herd of elk, who began to find good grass closer and closer to buildings. There, they find the hunters, but the grass is good, so they continue to eat:
“They didn’t know about trains, though. Not like the hunters did. When the locomotive and all its boxcars thundered through, the scent hot and metal, it was as if those tracks in the grass had stood up. They became a flashing moving wall of sparks and wind no elk could run through (one tried) and the screeching and tearing of those great metal wheels covered the boom of the hunters’ rifles firing again and again, until the sound of the rifles and the sound of the train were the same sound… but it was fair, what happened that day, and it had been the herd’s own fault.” (p. 136)
The story goes on to relay how the herd doesn’t trust trains anymore. They don’t trust hunters, and they stay in “lonely places”, away from the tracks they don’t trust.
From my reading, the herd appears to be a symbol for Native American people and culture, while the hunters are likely white men, and the trains, the mechanical darkness of colonial “civilization”. Before the hunters and the trains, there was just nature and elk, but the elk were met with destruction upon approaching the hunters. Interestingly, the girl-elk voice criticizes the herd themselves for having been unwise enough to approach the town, rather than putting the blame on the hunters or the town. This is one of many examples where Jones appears to question Native Americans’ own role in their situation–whether this is actually meant to be critical of Native Americans or whether it is internalized victim blaming is a subject that will require further analysis.
But in any case, who precisely is speaking? The voice is deliberately written to be confusing. At first it appears to be Lewis’ child, as this passage directly follows Lewis’ death. We know it is an elk spirit in any case. But then the voice is also revealed to be Denorah, Gabe’s daughter, though it is difficult to decipher where the elk ends and Denorah begins.
I will discuss this connection between the Native Americans and the elk further on in this post, but first I wanted to return to the remaining quatro involved in the shooting at the Thanksgiving Classic–Gabe and Cassidy, the two that stayed on the reservation.
5. Those That Stayed: Gabe and Cass
In the next half of the book, we shift between the voices of Gabe, Cass, and Denorah, the “Indians” still living on the reservation. Denorah, Gabe’s daughter, is now a fourteen year old basketball star, who is already beginning to understand conflicting emotions and complicated experiences involving her Native identity. At her games she is often forced to endure the chant Indians go home, Indians go home, an athletic jeer with a sinister tone considering how many Native American had homes that were taken from them or destroyed. At school she is also given an assignment to draw her favourite holiday–and when she draws the day her sister’s team went to regionals instead of Thanksgiving or the summer powwow, her teacher gives her a B and asks her whether this is really Indian, and whether she is really honouring her heritage. This encompasses the difficulties facing Denorah on both sides: racism from non-Natives on one side, with guilt and expectations from Natives on the other.
There is some further interesting social commentary as we see Denorah calculating her grades to see how she can maintain a B average. She realizes that the only way to do this is to get a good grade in Health class.
“So, health, once that six-week unit kicks in, can make all the difference, Denorah maths out.” (p. 143)
This becomes significant only a few pages later, when we shift to Cassidy’s point of view. Cass does not have any children, and thinks that he is likely infertile:
“What he figures is that he is shooting blanks, just like all the Indians when they’re fighting John Wayne, and what he blames for that, or thanks, is uranium in the water. Gabe and Ricky and Lewis had grown up in Browning, which, the water’s not perfect there, but you can usually drink it anyway. Cassidy had been living on his dad’s place in East Glacier most of the time, though, where the water’s cloudy with who knows what-all. (p. 153)
While Cassidy doesn’t necessarily want children, he is highlighting just one example of how being born Native in a flawed system can change the course of a whole life. As Denorah notes, if she gets a bad grade in Health, her entire grade will be different. In the same way, just being born Native has made it so that Cassidy has grown up with poor water quality, a single element that has changed his health and therefore his whole future.
And indeed, Cassidy and Gabe do have grim futures. Though they are the members from the Thanksgiving Classic that live their whole lives on the reservation, and survive longer than those that left it, we can see that they are faring no better–particularly Gabe.
Gabe is estranged from his daughter and split from her mother. He’s an alcoholic who has to go to court-mandated therapy, and he has a restraining order from the school’s basketball games for his bad behaviour:
“Because of boisterousness, which is just cheering. Because of fighting, which wasn’t his fault. Because of public intoxication, which was only that one time.” (p. 164)
The reason Gabe had been escorted out of the game when he was given the restraining order was because Denorah’s coach had benched her for “showing off”, which Gabe interprets as “for being Blackfeet” (p. 165):
“It was like what Gabe had read about in that one book. Those two Cheyenne from the old days who got caught by the cavalry, sentenced to death, but asked if they could die like they wanted… The way those two Cheyenne wanted, it was to die on their horses, with all those soldiers shooting at them as they ran past. Once, they did it once, and made it through all the bullets. And then again. Finally they had to walk slow, give those plowboy soldiers a chance. That’s what Coach had done to Den: made her slow down, when she was faster than any of them, fiercer than them all.” (p. 165-166)
Gabe’s thoughts are perhaps referencing Colonel George Custer and/or the Battle of Washita River, in which Custer attacked a Cheyenne camp on the Washita River. It is disputed amongst historians whether this was a battle or a masssacre, and it is likely this kind of attitude that has triggered Gabe’s anger–he sees the incidents as connected as they both indicate that the world does not want Native Americans to survive, thrive, and succeed.
These passages used next to one another are interesting because the narrative portrays Gabe as somewhat of an unreliable narrator–he makes flimsy excuses for his bad behaviour, and does not take any responsibility for his own actions. But at the same time, the weight of his history shows that he is justified in being triggered after witnessing this incident. Specifically, watching his Native daughter be punished for something that does not seem that punishable. The fact that Gabe is attributing this punishment to her Native identity is not necessarily farfetched, even though he doesn’t actually have any proof–though data collection is scarce, it is clear that Native Americans tend to be punished more by established justice systems than whites. Natives are overrepresented in prisons, with Native youth three times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth.
Indeed, it would be easy to portray Gabe as “the worst Indian” of the four, using the language of the book. Not only is he not portrayed as a liar and not a particularly great father, he also appears to be the one with the most disrespect for any semblance of authority. While he is banned from hunting, he does so anyway, further disobeying his elders. He bristles around his father, and resents the game warden, and goes to Denorah’s basketball games even though he has a restraining order. Considering Gabe is an alcoholic on top of this, his portrayal can be seen as criticizing him for his own failings. And while I do think Jones is pointing out that Gabe is denying any responsibility, to condemn Gabe as a “bad Indian” would be overly simplistic.
Gabe has done a lot of what he believes is expected of him as a Native American. He has never made any attempt to leave the reservation. He has had one child, the same issue that Lewis was concerned about earlier. And indeed, Gabe remembers having a lot of potential when he was a young boy. He remembers being fifteen, and seeing the future ahead of him. He remembers being talked to when he was young about finding his way in the world, using the metaphor of the pathway of an arrow. As an adult, he thinks about Native kids trying to “find the straight and narrow”:
“If they did? Bull’s-eye, man. Happy days. If they didn’t? There were examples under every awning in town, drinking from paper-bagged bottles. White crosses along the side of all the roads. Sad moms everywhere.” (p. 181)
Jones thus sets up several interesting questions with Gabe’s portrayal. Gabe has been born into a society that has been built to punish Native Americans, something Gabe highlights by pointing out how often Native Americans end up killed, incarcerated, or fallen victim to the cycle of poverty. But Jones seems to ask, does Gabe too have to take responsibility for his life and his choices? Is he correct that some of their tribe’s traditions need to adapt to modern society? Or is it that the men only meet terrible fates because they don’t listen to their elders? Jones appears to be saying that there is truth to all of these things, so it is impossible to entirely condemn Gabe.
It’s also hard to brand Gabe as a “bad Indian” as we can see how the system has broken him. Gabe was once a cop, who was shown to be fiercely protective and loving of his people. He saw all of the problems on the reservation and watched them happen again and again. He did his best to try and help, but the cycle only continued, and he kept on seeing more and more death and dysfunction. Gabe carries that sorrow with him. Cassidy tells Nate of this, when the young Native is complaining that Gabe doesn’t have to be organizing this sweat for him:
“He’s scraped so many kids up off the asphalt he could probably write the manual for how to do it… He’s had to carry stoned babies to grandmothers… Some of the drunks he shakes awake in the morning, they’re stiff, and he remembers them from second-grade homeroom… His first week, he was the rookie cop they made drag Junior Big Plume from the shallows, when his face was all… he sent my brother Arthur to prison, how about that? He doesn’t want you to end up there, too…. He’ll stand out there and keep that fire going for you for as long as you need.” (p. 207-208)
Gabe’s past and present are complicated. His anger and drinking comes from somewhere. So while he is responsible for his own choices, he has seen so much shit that it has caused him to become cynical about everything–about white people, about the reservation, about authority figures, and about his elders.
As for Cassidy, he, too, feels resentful for staying on the reservation. As they discuss at the sweat lodge:
“There’s nothing, like, against doing [a sweat] at night, is there?” Gabe asks.
“Let me check the big Indian rule book,” Cassidy says. “Oh yeah. You can’t do anything, according to it. You’ve got to do everything just like it’s been done for two hundred years.” (p. 179-180)
(As a side note, it is Gabe and Cassidy’s resentment towards their traditions that perhaps causes them to lash out at Lewis earlier in the novel, bitter that Lewis doesn’t have to abide by the same rules. As we have of course seen, leaving the reservation changed nothing concerning Lewis’ fate with the Elk Head Woman.)
Cassidy’s feelings towards his Nativeness are perhaps best summarized by this:
“He hates being from here. He loves it, but he also hates it so much.” (p. 189)
Cassidy is utterly conflicted with his identity. We can see these paradoxical feelings reflected through his attitude towards his own name–Cassidy is constantly changing what he wants people to call him, a clear indicator that he is not sure of who he wants to be or how he wants to be perceived. All throughout the novel he’s changing his mind: he’s Cassidy one minute, then Cass, then Cashy. His original name is Cassidy Sees Elk, a significant title that seems to suggest that part of the reason for his name changes is that he feels like he does not see elk, the symbol for his Native heritage. Or, perhaps, it indicates that Cassidy does see them, and the guilt and expectations they impose, but has no desire to do so. So although Cassidy reflects that “names are stupid” (p, 162), clearly he doesn’t actually feel this way. The fact that he keeps changing his name means that he understands how significant a label can be, branding him and affecting the way the world sees him.
Gabe and Cass meet their deaths when the spirit of the Elk Head Woman slaughters Cass’ dogs outside the sweat lodge. Since one of Cass’ dogs had earlier bitten Gabe’s hand, Cass accuses Gabe of killing them. This sparks an argument: the two friends fight over the fact that Cassidy’s money is missing, and he finds funds in Gabe’s pockets. They fight over Jo, Cassidy’s fiancée, who Gabe does not like. They both then trash each other’s trucks, a fight that ends in crushing Jo, who was sleeping in one of the trucks, to death.
From the woods, the spirit of the elk watches things escalate between the two. She’s happy to see the pair’s friendship fall apart, to watch violence intensify:
“If either of them looked just six feet into the darkness to the right, they’d see the white slash of your smile. This is it. They’re doing it.” (p. 233)
Cassidy gets his gun, and when he sees movement in the woods, he shoots. But he hasn’t shot the monster threatening them–he has shot Denorah, Gabe’s daughter. Gabe realizes that Denorah had come to get the money he promised her–money not stolen from Cassidy but given to him from Nathan’s father, paying for Nathan’s sweat.
“Only, Cassidy shot her with a 7.62mm round… had shot her so clean that it hadn’t even thrown her back into the lodge, had just blown a ragged plug of meat out behind her. But she’s not meat, she’s my daughter, Gabriel says inside, screams inside, can’t stop screaming about inside. Exactly, you say back to him.” (p. 239)
The Elk Head Woman is drawing a comparison here. She revels in Gabe seeing his daughter shot, just as they had killed her and her elk calf ten years earlier. When Gabe watches Denorah die, he thinks of her wasted potential, both for her own life and for the tribe:
“His girl, his baby girl. She was going to take the team to state, she was going to take the whole tribe into the pros, into legend. Everybody was going to quit painting buffalo and bear footprints on the side of their lodges, were going to have to learn to draw all the lines in a basketball… She was going to make it out of here, like Gabriel never had. Like nobody ever did. Exhibition one: Ricky. Exhibition two: Lewis.” (p. 239)
In a terribly sad scene, since they both still love each other, Gabe kills Cassidy. It is only after this that he realizes that something is off. He realizes that Denorah was never there: Cassidy shot Nathan instead. The spirit of the Elk Head Woman had caused them to see things. Nathan is not yet dead, but he is struggling and frightened, and all Gabe can decipher him saying is Po’noka–a word which means Elk.
It is then that Gabe realizes the spirit of the elk woman is hunting him. He realizes that the Elk Head Woman has killed Nathan’s cop father, too, and that the deaths will all be blamed on him. His mind takes on the tone of the newspaper headlines, all words capitalized when he thinks of how everything will be perceived:
“He’s the one they’re going to say did it, who cares why. Because he’s an Indian with a Bad Track Record. Because a Tribal Police Officer Came Out. Because He Didn’t Like his Other Friend’s Fiancée. Because His Mind Boiled Out in a Sweat. Because His Murderer Friend Just Got Shot. Because the Great White Stepfather Stole All Their Land and Fed The Bad Meat. Because the Game Warden Wouldn’t Let Him Get His Own Meat. Because His Father Reported Him for Stealing a Rifle. Because the Rifle was Haunted by War. Because because because. He did it for all those reasons and whatever else the newspapers can dream up.” (p.245)
Regardless of the truth, Gabe realizes, perceptions of Native Americans in society will mean that someone will find a reason why he will be portrayed as the villain.
In the end, Gabe comes face to face with the Elk Head Woman. He asks her why she would do this. She doesn’t answer him but tells him to kill himself, or she will come after Denorah. So Gabe does, chanting Denorah’s name before he pulls the trigger. But before he does so, he says this:
“I always-I wanted it to be like those two Cheyenne I read about, yeah? I wanted to run my horse back and forth in front of all the soldiers, so it would be like… it would be heroic. Like the old days. Not like–not like this.” (p. 248)
These words of regret echoes Lewis’ last thoughts, and the thoughts Gabe had when he assumed Denorah had died: they all reflect upon the lost potential of a Native life. Like Lewis, Gabe is human, who had hopes and dreams, and who loved people fiercely. We can see Gabe’s love in the way he dies, thinking of Denorah and her future. We can see that Gabe wanted so much to be a “heroic Indian” and to help people, but because of so many variables, a cyclical environment, the feeling of being trapped, and his own personal mistakes exacerbated by systemic racism, Gabe’s potential ebbs away. He instead will be known as a drunk who killed his friend. So though he and Cassidy both take a different path from Ricky and Lewis by staying on the reservation, ultimately it does not matter. All four end up dead.
The fate of the four present at the Thanksgiving Classic is incredibly grim–however, the story is not yet over. I have discussed a lot in this post so many factors that ended in this tragedy. But there remains more to discuss–a few remaining threads, a few final questions–and, possibly, a shred of hope.
6. The “Monstrousness” of the Elk Head Woman
But first. Who is the Elk Head Woman?
As we have discussed throughout this post, it is clear that this spirit represents “Indian-ness” in some form. She stands for the spirit of the Blackfoot tribe, or Native identity in general; their history, traditions, and culture. As we have seen, Ricky, Lewis, Gabe, and Cass are haunted by their “Indian-ness” as much as the system forced upon them by white colonialism. They are plagued by the weight of their history and Native expectations. This is why Jones picks the elk as the monster; we might expect him to pick a monster that evokes a representation of whiteness or colonialism, as these forces might be more expected to represent destruction towards Native American people. But the elk is chosen as the monster to show the complexity of the issues facing Native Americans. Though the elk creature haunts them, and is the “evil” of the story, the elk is also a part of them. This is shown whenever any of the characters blend with an elk or the Elk Headed Woman, or when they use the same language. For instance, as Gabe reflects while he is being hunted:
“[But] what would an elk have to do with this, though? How could an elk make them all kill each other? Why would an elk even care about two-leggeds, unless the two-leggeds were shooting at them? And why is he even thinking like that? Two-leggeds?” (p. 244)
So we can understand the connection between the characters and the monster to this point. So what else is there to say about the Elk Head Woman?
The question left to explore is this: if the spirit of the elk herd represents the tribe and Native identity, and can be understood as punishing the four men for disobeying rules of their elders–then why doesn’t the Elk Head Woman stop with the murder of the four men?
This is a little tricky to unpack.
First we must consider how the Elk Head Woman is represented in the book. Though she is always eerie, she is not always monstrous. Earlier in the novel, we sympathize with her. We see throughout the story that she is fiercely protective of her young. There is love and kindness in her voice, and maternal protectiveness:
“You stand over your calf until you can’t stand, and then you try to fall such that your body can shield it.” (p. 198)
This can be seen as representing how the spirit of the elk cares deeply about the future of her calf–she does not want Native customs and culture to die, she cares for the next generations of the tribe. But as the novel goes on, it is frightening to watch how the spirit revels in the death and destruction of the four men we have followed. In revenge for the elk that have suffered, she imparts more suffering, and enjoys it:
“From the herd, you have the scent and the taste and the sound of Richard Boss Ribs getting beat to death in that parking lot in North Dakota, and you felt Lewis Clarke catching bullets with his chest, his body dancing against your own, his arms holding you like you were all that mattered, but this time you’re going to see it happen. It’s going to be different. It’s going to be better. It’s going to have been worth the wait…” (p. 225)
“If either of them looked just six feet into the darkness to the right, they’d see the white slash of your smile. This is it. They’re doing it.” (p. 233)
“It’s perfect, it’s amazing.” (p. 241)
And perhaps most importantly,
“…That’s not even close to what they deserve. They need to feel what you felt. Their whole world has to be torn from their belly, shoved into a shallow hole.” (p. 225)
There is a lot to unpack here, particularly that last sentence.
This voice of the spirit is angry. Her anger, representing Native rage at the injustice at what has been done to their people, is understandable. The elk’s herd has been slaughtered. The Elk Head Woman knows that the men who have killed the herd can only sympathize, and not empathize. So she wants the men to literally feel what she has felt, feel their futures be ripped away, feel pain and death. She wants everyone to truly, truly experience everything exactly as she has.
When we understand what this symbolizes–that the elk herd represents the spirit of Native Americans, who have been killed, punished, and subjugated by the American system–we see some elements of hypocrisy emerge. The Elk Head Woman wants people to understand the suffering of Native Americans in the past, and to keep the past alive. But in doing so, by imposing guilt, pain, and shame on Natives in the present, she hurts and punishes the very people she wants to be helping–the next generations of Native Americans.
Since the expectations of living up to being “good Indian” appears to perpetuate Native suffering, Jones seems to ask Native Americans to look inwards. Can they respect their ancestors and their past without punishing and judging each other? In a world that hurts Natives so badly, are they complicit in hurting each other as well?
The guilt and expectations of what makes a “good Indian” clearly turns the Native characters in the book against each other. Though white characters and cops are also involved in the killings, the majority of the Native characters that die are killed by each other. Gabe even literally kills himself, a death that also comes from a Native hand.
This is not to say that Jones is implying that the suffering of Native Americans is their fault. The system in which they exist is clearly incredibly damaging. He only seems to ask: where does the guilt of being a “good Indian” end, and does it hurt younger generations as much as elder generations were hurt in the past?
As Cass says during the Thanksgiving Classic, as an argument as to why they should be allowed to hunt and disobey the elder rule:
“Elders aren’t the only ones with empty freezers.” (p. 56)
Circling back to the beginning of this section, we see that the Elk Head Woman does not stop at killing the four men guilty of slaughtering the elk. She also wants younger, more innocent generations to be punished as well. Though she promises Gabe she will not go after Denorah, for instance, she does. She also stalks Nathan, the young boy that Gabe and Cass try to mentor in the sweat lodge.
We can see why she is doing this. We have already seen Nathan resent certain Native traditions–calling them for example “Indian bullshit” (p.226). And as we’ve seen from Denorah, when she created that art project in class, her teacher chastises her for saying it is not honouring her “Indian heritage” well enough.
From these examples, it seems that no one can ever be “Indian” enough. Ricky, Lewis, Gabe, and Cass are not just punished for killing the elk–they are also punished for failing to live up to the Elk Head Woman’s expectations of what an “Indian” should be. As we’ve seen, these four men have tried their best even though they are flawed. Lewis just wanted to marry the woman he loved and not have to feel guilty about it. Gabe wanted to help people, and was beat down by the system. All four of them do their best to try to be “good Indians”. As Cassidy says, when discussing trying to teach Nathan their custom of the sweat lodge:
“I wish–back when, I wish I would have paid attention when his grandad was doing all this for me… So I could, like, pass it on better.” (p. 211)
There is desire to respect their culture. They are not perfect and they make mistakes, but they are still “Indian” regardless of any issues that they have.
From this, we can see that the Elk Head Woman and her herd deserve respect and empathy. We know that she can be a loving, protective, and nurturing force. Yet certain aspects of can also be destructive.
So the Elk Head Woman is not a simple “monster”. She is only one of many of the pressures facing contemporary Native Americans. But since her “evil” is complex, is the goal necessarily to “defeat” her? We see this explored in the last chapters of the book, where she faces off with Denorah, a symbol for a new generation of Native Americans.
7. Finale: Indian stories always hoop back on themselves like that, don’t they?
Denorah is preparing for her big basketball game when she heads to the sweat lodge, to pick up the money Gabe has promised her. This game will be incredibly meaningful one for her, because a college scout will be present. Denorah reflects on this as she approaches the lodge. As she does so, she thinks of a joke that insinuates that Natives are harmful to one another, and do not want each other to “escape” or succeed:
“She knows the joke about how Indians are crabs in a bucket, always pulling down the one that’s about to crawl out, but she thinks it’s more like they’re old-time plow horses, all just walking straight down their row, trying not to see what’s going on right next to them.” (p.258)
Denorah believes the problem is not as insidious as Natives wanting each other to suffer–it is more passive, turning a blind eye to each other’s suffering because they know the system is stacked against them if they get involved. Like when Ricky had to break into a house to report a man drowned in Duck Lake, and then only got arrested for it, because the “cops couldn’t look past a breaking-and-entering” (p. 258).
As she ruminates, Denorah comes to the lodge, where she meets the Elk Head Woman, this time taking the shape of Shaney. Shaney challenges Denorah to a basketball game, something that begins in friendly competition, but slowly becomes more sinister. While they play, many of their exchanges have loaded meanings, considering Shaney’s true identity:
“So this is what’s most important to you, right?” Shaney says. “Basketball? Matters more than anything to you?”
Denorah fixes Shaney in her eyes for a moment, like taking in stock.
“And you think you can take it away from me?” (p. 266)
The spirit of the elk seems to take on a taunting, critical tone when she asks whether basketball is most important to her. Like Denorah’s teacher asked earlier in the novel, does basketball really honour your “Indian-ness”?
But Denorah seems to assert that the Shaney-elk spirit does not get to pick what is and isn’t “Indian” about her. And in fact, her love for basketball is tied to her Native identity:
“This win isn’t just for pride, Denorah tells herself, in order to push harder, be faster, jump higher. It’s for her tribe, her people, it’s for every Blackfeet from before, and after.” (p. 267)
Here, Denorah is reevaluating what being “Indian” can be, not giving the word a strict definition but taking the love for her tribe and respect for her history and giving the word an adapted meaning.
As the game goes on, the Shaney-elk becomes more eerie and sinister, but there is something about her that is also a bit tinged with sadness.
“I’m dying,” Shaney says, easy and obvious as anything.
“But not yet, don’t worry.” (p. 275)
This expresses a sadness for the aspects of Native history that have gone and will not return–all of the losses Native Americans have had to endure.
After a while, the Elk Head Woman fully reveals herself to Denorah, and begins to give chase. As Denorah races away, her thoughts go to her drill sergeant at her games, to the idea of surviving at any cost:
“How bad do you want it How bad do you want it?” (p. 280)
Her father Gabe, after all, had called her his “Finals Girl”. He was referring to basketball finals, but the image evokes that of the trope of the Final Girl, the last survivor in a horror story. Denorah is a survivor, and so the trope rings true, only this time, the trope has been adapted. Instead of being the typical white, blonde Final Girl who has gone through so much suffering in a horror movie, Denorah is a new kind of Final Girl, one who represents women who go through real-life horror and are still given little attention.
As she runs through the rez, Denorah thinks of her dad, and how she did not speak up for him. He was an ancestor, a part of her that she wanted to distance herself from:
“I’m sorry,” she says to the idea of him. Not because he died however he died, but because she never told anybody to let him stay when they were dragging him from the gym. Because she pretended he didn’t know him. Because she was embarrassed. (p. 299)
This continues the pattern we have seen with younger Blackfeet resisting their elders, and regretting that resistance at the same time. Denorah weeps at the memory, and runs into the forest. There, she looks at the trees, and we see this passage:
“She stops, her hand on an aspen, a birch, she doesn’t know stupid trees, trees are only good to make basketball courts from. The tree holds her up just the same. She pats it in thanks and looks past it…” (p. 299)
These trees, calling back to the “Break From the Story” section where the Blackfoot tribe’s history originally consisted of elk and trees before hunters and towns entered their lives, literally stand for Blackfoot roots. Though a younger generation may not not appreciate their elders properly, this does not change the fact that they younger generation owes their present to their past.
As Denorah looks past the trees she sees they have come back to the beginning of the story–back to Duck Lake, and the location of the Thanksgiving Classic. Elk bones litter the ground. “I’m sorry,” Denorah says to the bones (p. 301), in an apology echoing the one just made to her father.
The Elk Head Woman catches up with her, but instead of attacking Denorah, she is overcome with sorrow. Denorah feels a twinge of empathy. She wants to reach a hand out to the spirit, but she remembers the deaths, and doesn’t.
It is then that the Elk Head Woman and Denorah discover something. An elk calf has survived, almost buried beneath the dirt. The Elk Head Woman clutches the calf to her chest… and then a shot rings out.
Denorah’s stepfather has arrived, alerted to the horror by Nathan, who ran to the game warden at Denorah’s request. But even though the Elk Head Woman has been the “monster” of the book, at this moment, she is only a mother again:
“Elk Head Woman understands this, resists all her instincts to run, instead turning to curl around her calf, give her back to the slope, hoping her body can be thick enough to keep her calf safe. Because that’s what an elk mother does, isn’t it? That’s the only thing you’ve ever really wanted to do this whole time, ever since you found yourself suddenly back in the world. Just–your anger, your hate, it was coursing through you so hot, and you got lost in it…” (p. 303)
Again, we circle back to the idea that this spirit is no demon, even though she was perpetuating pain and destruction. Denorah looks at this scene, and realizes that everything is cyclical. Her father hunted the elk, the Elk Head Woman killed her father. Each generation hurts each other. She realizes that her stepfather killing the elk woman will not stop the cycle, it will only result in even more suffering. So she stops her stepfather from killing the Elk head Woman.
“It’s over, enough,” Denorah thinks. “It can stop here if you really want it to stop.” (p. 304)
Her empathy and understanding, her desire to stop violence and pain, is what ultimately changes the course of the story. The Elk Head Woman turns back into an elk, and she and her calf walk off into the woods.
In the last few paragraphs, the narrative goes on to explain that Denorah’s team loses State in double-overtime. But she does not resent the team for beating her. She honours the Crow team that beat her, but is determined to win the next one:
“That show of sportsmanship, of respect, of honor, it’s what gets silhoutted on thousands of posters all through high school sports, all across the land that used to be hers. It’s not the end of the trail, the headlines will all say, it never was the end of the trail. It’s the beginning.” (p. 305)
From reading The Only Good Indians, this end of the story does in no way solve the myriad of social issues facing Native Americans in contemporary society. But for all the tragedy and death in the novel, the ending remains hopeful. Nothing can undo the genocide, massacres, and subjugation that changed the course of Native lives. Land was taken from them–the phrase “used to be hers” indicates that this is something in the past, and the land will not be hers again. But despite this, the narrative is hopeful that the cycle of suffering can stop–that the future will be messy and challenging for Native Americans, but the next generation of “Indians” do wield some power, and can survive through respect, support, empathy, and love for each other.
8. Final Thoughts
I am not Native American, and I do not claim to understand the struggles and pain of Indigenous peoples. I did find however that this novel was incredibly powerful in communicating such intense pain and suffering. I found it to be a moving appeal for empathy. It is understandable that Native American voices would feel such sorrow and rage, and want those who have not felt their pain to truly feel it, to be destroyed like they have, slaughtered like the herd of elk. Jones asserts that no one should have to suffer to understand the suffering of others–but they should practice empathy if we are going to go into a future with considerably less pain. Accepting each other for our humanity is the only way to stop the cycle of suffering.
As Thanksgiving approaches, consider supporting First Nations charities in your local community. For resources on how to help First Nations communities in Canada, please see here. For the United States, please see here.