The protagonist of the story, Abel is a Native American war veteran who struggles to find his place in the world. Some critics have interpreted Abel’s behavior as being caused by the strain of trying to balance the expectations of white culture with Indian culture. Others assert that the novel’s flashbacks indicate that Abel was estranged and uncommunicative even before he left the reservation for the army.
The story begins when Abel returns to the Walatowa reservation on a bus, so drunk that he can hardly stand or recognize where he is. Shortly after his return, Abel is hired by Angela St. John to chop wood. The two quickly start an affair. After being humiliated in a festival competition, Abel drinks in a bar with his chief rival, the albino. As they leave the bar, the albino takes a step toward him and Abel stabs him. Tosamah later explains that Abel testified in court that he thought the albino was turning into a snake.
After spending seven years in jail for the murder, Abel moves to Los Angles. He takes a job at a factory and meets Benally, who becomes his friend. He also becomes romantically involved with Milly, the white social worker assigned to his case. Much of the story told in Los Angeles is interspersed with sights of Abel wandering around, severely injured from a beating, with his thumbs broken-the book does not explicitly say what happened, but an earlier encounter with a brutal police officer named Martinez implies that it was he who inflicted the damage.
In the end, Abel leaves the city and returns to the reservation. A week after his return, Francisco dies. After arranging his funeral, Abel goes running to the point of exhaustion.
B The Albino
The albino is a mysterious but important person in this story. He is frequently called “the white man.” At the feast of Santiago, the albino beats Abel in a competition, humiliating him. A week later, Abel drinks with the albino in a bar. They leave together, and Abel hallucinates that the man is turns into a snake. He takes out his knife and stabs the albino to death.
C Ben Benally
Benally is a Native American man and a good friend to Abel. Raised on a reservation, Benally adapts to life in Los Angeles and appreciates the benefits of urban culture. He asks little more of life than to keep his job and to have a room to stay in without any interference. He is sympathetic to the way life is on the reservation, but he also recognized the benefits of assimilation: “You know, you have to change. That’s the only way you can live in a place like this. You have to forget about the way it was, how you grew up and all.”
Francisco is Abel’s grandfather. A believer in the traditional ways, he is described as a “longhair.” The novel opens with him trying to capture a sparrow so that he might have its feathers to use for ceremonial purposes. An elderly man, Francisco is mentioned in an old journal, written by Fray Nicholas. He wrote in an 1888 entry, “Listen I told you about Francisco [and] was right to say it. He is evil [and] desires to do me some injury [and] this after I befriended him all his life. Preserve this I write to you that you may make him responsible if I die.” There is no indication that Francisco had done anything violent to Fray Nicholas.
Francisco recalls taking part in the Winter Race and has a page in his ledger with a drawing of himself running the race and the caption “1889.” In the 1940s, when the novel begins, Francisco is a farmer working on the communal land owned by the reservation. Francisco was instrumental in raising Abel, and has been his only relative since his mother died when he was five. As such, he holds an important place in Abel’s life and acts as a role model for the confused young man.
Martinez is the brutal, sadistic police officer who ambushes Abel and Benally. Martinez accosts them in an alley when the two men are drunk, attempting to intimidate them. When Abel does not cower before him, Martinez cracks his knuckles with his nightstick. It is that senseless and brutal act that alienates Abel from white civilization. Benally also asserts that Martinez would stop in at the bar sometimes to pick up bribes-sometimes a free bottle of liquor, sometimes money.
A white social worker, Milly becomes Abel’s girlfriend. Eventually, he drives her away with abusive behavior.
G Father Olguin
Father Olguin is the Roman Catholic priest at the mission at Walatowa. He is a confused man, torn between the traditions of his religion and those of the society around him. He lives with a physical handicap as a result of a childhood illness.
Because of his unique position, Father Olguin functions as an intermediary between the outside culture and the people of the reservation. When Angela St. John arrives at Walatowa, she asks Father Olguin to help her hire an Indian worker. On first meeting her, he “regarded his guest discreetly, wondering that her physical presence should suddenly dawn upon him so.” As the story progresses, he develops strong feelings for her.
A large part of the book is devoted to the pages that Father Olguin reads out of the diary of Fray Nicholas, a priest who was at the reservation in the 1870s. At the end of the novel, when Abel comes to him at dawn to arrange the funeral of his grandfather, Father Olguin does not hesitate to accept the responsibility, but he is disturbed that he has been woken up so early. He reprimands Abel for waking him, but then has a sudden realization of how unimportant time is to Abel and his people. This leads to a greater understanding of his place in the community and Native American culture in general. “’I can understand,’ he said. ‘I understand, do you hear?’ And he began to shout. ‘I understand! Oh, God! I understand -I understand!’”
H Angela St. John
Angela is the white woman who comes to the reservation for health reasons and ends up having an affair with Abel. Although she is pregnant, her husband never visits her at the reservation. Seven years after their affair, Abel sees her walk by on the street in California and tells Benally about her. After Abel is beaten and hospitalized, Benally contacts Angela, and she goes to visit him in the hospital. She explains that she has raised her son with an awareness of Indian culture, telling him a story about a bear and a maiden that resembles the story that runs through Francisco’s mind as he is dying.
I John Big Bluff Tosamah
As pastor of the Los Angeles Holiness Pan-Indian Rescue Mission and Priest of the Sun, Tosamah gives sermons on both Biblical stories and Indian folklore, often mixing the two. Like N. Scott Momaday, he is a Kiowa, and some of the stories he tells of last days of the Kiowa people are repeated in Momaday’s history of the Kiowa, The Way to Rainy Mountain.
Tosamah has a vast knowledge of Indian folklore and Bible stories, but he was raised in the city; therefore, his knowledge of the Indian ways is mostly theoretical. Tosamah expresses scornful admiration for the ways in which white society has controlled and obliterated the Indian: “They put all of us renegades, us diehards, away sooner or later. They’ve got the right idea. They put us away before we’re born. They’re an almighty wise and cautious bunch, these cats, full of discretion.” Once, when Tosamah ridicules the Indians who stay with the old traditions, the “longhairs,” Abel becomes so angry that he almost starts a fight, driving him to a two-day drinking binge that almost costs him his job.
J The White Man
See The Albino