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The Only Good Indians Summary, Characters and Themes

“The Only Good Indians” is a horror novel by Stephen Graham Jones. 

It follows four Blackfeet men who, years after a questionable elk hunt, are haunted by a vengeful entity connected to their actions. As they try to live their lives, the weight of their past and cultural traditions closes in, bringing a chilling reckoning. The novel explores themes of identity, guilt, and the consequences of violating sacred practices.

Summary

The novel opens with a prologue set in North Dakota. Ricky Boss Ribs, a Blackfoot man, leaves the reservation for work and finds himself cornered. He has been blamed for property damage at a bar, but the true culprit is a vengeful elk spirit stemming from his past actions. Ricky is killed, presumed beaten to death by men.

A decade later, Lewis Clarke lives off the reservation, estranged from his Blackfoot roots. He’s married to Peta, a white woman, and tries to assimilate into a mundane life in Great Falls. However, the past refuses to loosen its grip. Lewis is tormented by visions of a monstrous Elk Head Woman, a spirit connected to a fateful hunting trip long ago.

That day, Lewis and his friends – Ricky, Cass, and Gabe – illegally hunted on sacred Blackfoot land, massacring a herd of elk. 

Lewis was forced to shoot a pregnant cow elk multiple times, a brutal act that haunts his waking moments. His hunting privileges revoked, his guilt compounded, Lewis believes the elk spirit seeks vengeance. 

His paranoia grows as his dog dies mysteriously, and he begins to suspect his wife, believing her possessed by the vengeful entity.

Meanwhile, Shaney Holds, a Crow woman and Lewis’ flirtatious coworker, draws his attention. 

Sensing her connection to the supernatural, Lewis believes her to be the elk spirit in disguise. In a desperate, misguided act, he murders Shaney, only to discover his wife, Peta, was the true carrier of the elk’s spirit. Peta, overtaken by the entity, kills herself in a freak accident, leaving Lewis distraught and alone. His guilt is confirmed when he finds a newborn elk calf within Peta’s body.

Now a wanted man, Lewis flees back to the reservation, but the elk spirit’s retribution isn’t finished. The narrative shifts to Elk Head Woman. Reincarnated from the calf into a young girl, she arrives at the Blackfoot reservation, seeking to finish her deadly work.

Gabriel (Gabe) Cross Guns, one of Lewis’s accomplices in the elk massacre, is now wracked by guilt and alcoholism. 

His estranged daughter, Denorah, is the star of the reservation’s basketball team, a source of both pride and pain. Gabe plans a sweat lodge ceremony with fellow accomplice Cass and troubled teen Nathan Yellow Tail – an attempt to honor Lewis’s spirit and atone for their past sins.

Cass, the most grounded of the group, has found stability with Jolene, a Crow woman and cousin to the murdered Shaney. However, the spirit of the elk disrupts their lives. 

Driven by an unseen force, Gabe murders Jolene and then Cass. In a final showdown, he believes he has also killed Denorah and, to escape the consequences of his actions, commits suicide.

The climax unfolds with Denorah, who escaped the massacre at the sweat lodge. Barely alive, she finds a critically injured Nathan but leaves him to continue her desperate flight from Elk Head Woman. 

The relentless spirit hunts Denorah across the reservation. In a chilling sequence, Denorah uses her cunning and the harsh winter landscape to evade capture. Her determination and knowledge of the land begin to frustrate the elk spirit.

The confrontation ultimately unfolds back at the site of the elk massacre. Denny, Denorah’s step-father, arrives to defend her. In a final act of understanding, Denorah signals to Denny that the spirit needs appeasement, not violence. Elk Head Woman uncovers the buried remains of her calf, and finally at peace, is transformed back into her true elk form. 

Leading her calf into the wilderness, the violent quest for vengeance comes to an end.

the only good indians summary

Characters

Lewis Clarke

Lewis embodies the struggle between cultural identity and the desire to assimilate. 

Haunted by his actions during the elk hunt, he’s torn between his Blackfeet heritage and the ‘American Dream’ represented by his white wife and stable job. His obsession with fixing the faulty light mirrors his futile attempts to ‘fix’ his broken sense of belonging and guilt. 

His growing suspicion of those around him, particularly Peta and Shaney, reveals his paranoia and the disintegration of his mental state. His tragic death symbolizes the devastating consequences of straying too far from the traditional path.

Cassidy “Cass” Sees Elk

Cass appears the most grounded of the four men, having found love and stability with Jolene. Yet, he’s burdened by deep-seated guilt over the elk hunt and doubts about his identity. 

His desire to perform the sweat lodge ceremony reflects a longing to reconnect with tradition and find redemption. However, the accidental deaths of those he loves expose his unresolved trauma, leaving him tragically vulnerable to Elk Head Woman’s manipulation.

Gabriel “Gabe” Cross Guns

Gabe is the most deeply troubled of the group, mired in alcoholism and a destructive pattern of choices. His estranged relationship with Denorah symbolizes his failure to embrace his responsibilities as a father and member of the community. 

His desperate attempts to appease Cass and find belonging expose his vulnerability and lack of self-worth. Gabe’s eventual suicide shows the complete collapse of a man who was never able to find balance or peace.

Denorah Cross Guns

Denorah represents a younger generation grappling with the complexities of modern Indigenous identity. She desires acceptance while navigating the pain of her father’s absence and the lingering effects of the elk hunt on her community. 

Her exceptional basketball skills serve as a form of personal power but also become a tool of Elk Head Woman’s manipulation. Through her terrifying ordeal, Denorah ultimately displays a profound resilience and a willingness to protect her heritage and community.

Elk Head Woman

As a vengeful spirit rooted in Blackfeet myth, Elk Head Woman is a relentless force. Her actions force the men to confront their guilt and the consequences of their transgressions. 

She’s both a terrifying, vengeful presence and a tragic figure, embodying the violated natural order and the consequences of forsaking traditional ways. While her actions are brutal, they highlight the importance of honoring the delicate balance between human beings and the natural world.

Peta Lewis

Peta, Lewis’s white wife, represents a well-meaning outsider. Her love for Lewis is genuine, yet she can never fully comprehend his inner turmoil or the cultural context of the haunting. 

Her initial attempts at support turn into bewildered suspicion as Lewis’s behavior grows erratic. Her death as a result of Elk Head Woman’s possession becomes a devastating symbol of how destructive this vengeful spirit can be to those not directly involved in the original transgression.

Shaney Holds

The flirtatious and enigmatic Shaney, a Crow woman, initially appears as a potential source of conflict and temptation for Lewis. 

However, she’s subtly revealed to be connected to the Elk Head Woman, sharing a desire for both retribution and a return to balance. Her knowledge of Lewis’s story and manipulations foreshadow her true nature. 

Yet, like Elk Head Woman, there’s a sliver of tragedy within her motivations, with hints that her own community experienced parallel injustices.

Denny Pease

The tribal game warden, Denny becomes both a father figure to Denorah and an inadvertent protector. 

Initially, he serves as a symbol of authority who punishes the hunters for their violation. However, his later role in saving Denorah demonstrates a deeper understanding of the forces at work. 

His willingness to negotiate with Elk Head Woman underscores his respect for the balance between human actions and the spirit world.

Victor Yellow Tail

As a police officer and Nate’s father, Victor represents the complex intersection of modern law enforcement and traditional beliefs. His desire to bring his troubled son to the sweat lodge suggests a lingering faith in Indigenous customs. 

His death, while heroic in protecting Denorah, emphasizes the vulnerability of even the most well-intentioned individuals when faced with the power of such an ancient and vengeful spirit.

Themes

The Struggle Between Traditional Ways and Modern Realities

Throughout The Only Good Indians, Indigenous characters navigate the complexities of their cultural heritage amidst the challenges of contemporary life. The central act of the novel’s inciting incident – the four young men hunting on land reserved for tribal elders – highlights this conflict. 

While they understand the rule’s purpose, rooted in traditional respect for the elders, they also struggle against the frustrations of poverty and the limited opportunities available to them. 

The elk hunt becomes an act of defiance, a desperate grab for control in a world that often seems to offer them none. This continues as the characters move away from their reservation home, highlighting the internal struggle of honoring heritage while adapting to a wider society that frequently misunderstands or outright devalues Indigenous customs.

The Inescapability of the Past

The spirit of the elk relentlessly pursues the men as an embodiment of their misdeeds. 

This spectral elk isn’t just about revenge; it’s a force ensuring that the men cannot escape the consequences of their actions. The novel suggests that the past—both personal and historical—cannot be outrun. Lewis’s attempts to bury his guilt through assimilation into a ‘normal’ life with Peta fail miserably. 

Gabriel’s self-destruction and Cassidy’s attempts to leave his past behind are all thwarted by the consequences of their actions and the generational trauma that shapes their choices. 

The Only Good Indians argues that attempts at denial only make things worse and the path forward may lie in directly confronting past injustices, both within oneself and the wider community.

Nature’s Indifference and the Illusion of Control

The Elk Head Woman, while embodying vengeance, also represents the raw and indifferent power of nature. Humans, despite our technologies and societal structures, are ultimately subject to the natural world’s forces. 

The novel emphasizes how fragile the illusion of human control can be. Lewis tries to build a perfect suburban life, only for nature to violently break through his attempts at domestication. 

The men, believing they could kill the elk with impunity, learn a brutal lesson about the interconnectedness of life and the consequences of violating these natural boundaries.

Toxic Masculinity and Destructive Competition

The relationships between the four central male characters are deeply scarred by toxic ideals of masculinity. 

There’s a constant undercurrent of one-upmanship, particularly between Gabriel and Lewis. Their reckless, misguided choices stem from a need to prove themselves strong and capable in a world that constantly seems to deny them those qualities. This pressure manifests in violence, both towards others and themselves, creating a self-destructive cycle.

The novel critiques these harmful masculine archetypes, showing how they lead to self-destruction and inflict pain on the people around them.

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