Montana 1948

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Racism, Prejudice, and the American West Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Law versus Justice Theme Icon
Family and Loyalty Theme Icon
Racism, Prejudice, and the American West Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Growing Up Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Montana 1948, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Racism, Prejudice, and the American West Theme Icon

Montana 1948 is a historical fiction about life in the “American West” shortly after the Second World War—it serves as an account of how racism affected individual lives in the specific time and place indicated by the book’s title. Bias against Native Americans in the Hayden’s community is fundamentally unquestioned. David, who narrates the story as he looks back from adulthood, comments that as a child, he never questioned certain biases, but now he can see them for what they really are. Marie must sleep in a small servant’s bedroom off the kitchen, even though there is a free bedroom upstairs. Ronnie Tall Bear, though a star athlete, does not go to college because he cannot get accepted as a Native American. Wesley, though he is Marie’s advocate, and (we are led to believe) a generally good man, dislikes Native Americans as a group, believing them to be lazy and dishonest, and their beliefs to be foolish and old fashioned. Frank, meanwhile, is blatantly racist—Wesley believes his brother thought less of Marie Little Soldier than of a dog. And Grandpa Julian is of the opinion that abuse of Native Americans is something that just happens—his biggest concern about his son Frank’s abusive behavior is that Frank will accidently end up with a non-white child.

In the novella, popular depictions of the American west—“Cowboys and Indians” as they appear in movies, television shows, and radio programs—are often held up against the realities of the town. David spends a great deal of time sifting through these images and trying to reconcile them with the world he actually lives in. His dad, “The Sheriff” is not nearly as exciting as a western cowboy and his job ends up not being about “defeating bad guys” but rather extremely morally complex. David’s caretaker, Marie Little Soldier, meanwhile, does not match stereotypes of “Indians” he sees in popular culture. Throughout the novel, Watson calls attention to one of the most forgotten and underplayed struggles in US history: that of Native American communities who want to maintain their culture, identities, and dignity in a United States that has systematically disenfranchised them and looks upon them with little more than prejudice.

Racism, Prejudice, and the American West ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Racism, Prejudice, and the American West appears in each chapter of Montana 1948. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Racism, Prejudice, and the American West Quotes in Montana 1948

Below you will find the important quotes in Montana 1948 related to the theme of Racism, Prejudice, and the American West.
Chapter 1 Quotes

The harshness of the land and the flattening effect of wind and sky probably accounted for the relative tranquility of Mercer County. Life was simply too hard…nothing was left over for raising hell or making trouble.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Wind
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, David immediately draws a connection between the people of Mercer County, Montana, and the natural world. The environment itself is harsh and desolate--there's not much around but wind and dust. Humans have had to fight a long battle with the natural world in order to build civilization in this part of Montana. Such a battle is so long and difficult that there's not much time left over for "mischief." In other words, Mercer County is a calm, tranquil place because everyone works so hard just to get by.

The passage is suspenseful, even theatrical, because it immediately suggests that there was, in fact, some "trouble" in Montana--and that's what David is going to tell us about. And yet, as David will show, much of the "trouble" in Mercer County took place in secret, beneath this facade of tranquility and hard work. As David matures, he'll become more aware of the secret evils taking place in his beloved hometown.


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I never wondered then, as I do now, why a college didn’t snap up an athlete like Ronnie. Then, I knew, without being told, as if it were knowledge that I drank in the water, that college was not for Indians.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Ronnie Tall Bear
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, David mentions some of the racism and bigotry inherent in Montana society in the 1940s. David knew of a young Native American man named Ronnie Tall Bear, who was an exceptionally gifted athlete. Ronnie would have made a fine athlete at any number of great colleges--and yet, David recalls, Ronnie never attended a college. At the time, David didn't think too deeply about why Ronnie never went to college; he just accepted that college wasn't a place for Native Americans like Ronnie. Now, it seems perfectly obvious to question why Ronnie would never have been allowed in a college--and to see the unwritten racist rules of higher education and society itself. Thus, the passage conveys the extent of the apartheid state in America in the 1940s: certain races and ethnicities simply weren't treated fairly.

Chapter 2 Quotes

All of these accomplishments made Ollie the perfect choice for white people to point to as an example of what Indians could be.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Ollie Young Bear
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we’re introduced to Ollie Young Bear, a Native American man who’s somewhat respected by the town’s white community. Ollie married a white woman, and his appeal in the white community seems to be based on his marriage more than anything else. David notes Ollie’s popularity even among bigots.

While David doesn’t get into why, exactly, a Native American man who’s married a white woman would be more appealing to the white community than a Native American who stays within his own culture, it’s easy enough to guess. Ollie seems to want to be a part of white America—he's internalized the racist worldview that whiteness equals superiority, and so tries his hardest to escape his own culture and "assimilate." This makes him a great token figure for racists to point to--both to try and prove that they're not racist and to try and prove that all the other Indians are somehow not living up to their potential.

I imagined all the Indians of our region, from town, ranches, or reservation, gathered on top of Circle Hill to do something about Marie’s death. But in my vision, the Indians were not lined up in battle formation as they always were in movies, that is, mounted on war ponies, streaked with war paint…Instead, just as I did in my daily life I saw them dressed in their jeans and cowboy boots, their cotton print dresses, or their flannel shirts.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker), Marie Little Soldier
Page Number: 93
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, David thinks about the death of Marie Little Soldier—a death that may have been caused by Frank. David has a feverish nightmare in which he imagines Marie Little Soldier’s fellow Native Americans preparing for vengeance. Although David is used to thinking of Native Americans dressed up in war paint, preparing for a charge—as in typical Western movies—in the dream he instead thinks of them dressed in civilian clothes.

It’s important to notice that David imagines the Native Americans in a more peaceful, and yet still highly Americanized pose. As he learns more about his Uncle Frank, David seems to be making a subconscious effort to treat Native Americans as human beings, rather than Hollywood caricatures. This dream shows Native Americans as still subject to white American racism--they're dressed in the clothing of the culture that oppresses them--but also as powerful figures in their own right. People don't need to fight bloody, exciting battles to be heroes; they can be heroic just by standing up, as normal people, for what is right.

Chapter 3 Quotes

“Screwing an Indian. Or feeling her up or whatever. You don’t lock up a man for that. You don’t lock up your brother. A respected man. A war hero.”

Related Characters: Grandpa Hayden (Julian) (speaker), Wesley Hayden, Frank Hayden
Page Number: 112
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, David eavesdrops on his grandfather Julian as he verbally abuses Wesley, David’s father. Wesley is suggesting to Julian that Frank—who’s always been the favorite child—should be sent to prison for molesting his Native American patients. Julian doesn’t deny that Frank has molested some Native American women; he simply says that such actions aren’t really crimes at all.

Put bluntly: Julian is an openly racist character—someone who doesn’t consider Native Americans “real” Americans, or even real humans, deserving of basic dignity and rights. Thus, he lashes out at Wesley for suggesting that Frank is anything other than a great man. Julian argues that Wesley shouldn’t arrest his own brother—and yet Frank, in spite of being Wesley’s brother, is a vile criminal, and deserves to be locked up. One wonders how much of Wesley’s motivation for arresting his brother is an abstract respect for the law and how much is his desire to assert his independence from his own family and his overbearing, racist father.

Epilogue Quotes

I find history endlessly amusing, knowing, as I do, that the record of any human community might omit stories of sexual abuse, murder, suicide.

Related Characters: David Hayden (speaker)
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we learn that David grows up to be a successful history teacher. He teaches his students what the books tell him to, but inside he knows that this must not ever be the whole story--his experiences as a child (those related in the novel itself) have taught him as much. Because Frank's suicide was ultimately ruled an accident, and his crimes of rape and murder were never investigated, all these events were essentially erased from history (except, of course, the history related in David's writing). Thus David has personal experience with the way history is inherently biased and incomplete, constantly being told and revised by the "victors"--those in power who want to cover up their crimes and erase the suffering of their victims.