The song that starts this chapter draws a comparison between the trust that is broken in romantic heartbreak, and the heartbreak of a broken treaty. Thomas, Junior, and Victor are rehearsing in an abandoned grocery store called Irene’s. The electric bass and drum set that Thomas bought for himself and Junior are no match for the sound produced by Robert Johnson’s mystical guitar. After a few days, crowds come to watch them rehearse—first Lester FallsApart (a friendly alcoholic), and then others, and they dance in the heat. Undercover CIA agents infiltrate the practices, and the reservation’s Christians show up to protest the “devil’s music.” A chord from Victor knocks out their fillings from their teeth, and the reservation dentist is busy telling Catholics that there is no saint of orthodontics.
The opening song lyrics hint that love might be on its way, but always in the context of past wrongs committed against the Native American tribes. Thomas sponsors the crazy project of this band, who have no experience as musicians—but something magical drives them to hope. The community begins to gather around them, coming together in support or protest. The dark comedy of Victor’s blow against the protesting Catholics’ dental-work is a dig at the idea that rock and roll could be dangerous or the devil’s music—even as devil seems to be truly haunting Victor’s guitar.
Father Arnold, priest at the reservation’s Catholic Church, tries to convince his parishioners that God has other concerns than whether or not someone is playing blues music, but with little success. He himself was in a rock band after college, and the lead singer. Now Father Arnold sings in church, after receiving the call to the priesthood at a McDonald’s. His thoroughly ordinary life was at the time interrupted by a mysterious voice, and he obeyed it immediately, warning the priest at the Catholic church across the street that he was not a virgin. The priest told him it didn’t matter, so long as he could be celibate from now on. Arnold wound up on the Spokane Reservation after seminary.
Catholicism on the reservation is one focus of the novel, and Father Arnold’s progressive views and likeable personality help to balance out Thomas’ firm stance against the atrocities committed by the Catholic Church in early America. Arnold is just as human as everyone else on the reservation, but his position as a white outsider and representative of the Catholic Church—the latest incarnation of an organization with a history of oppression—always affects his relationship to his “flock.” Arnold’s faith is real, though, and tied in his mind to his past as a small-time rock musician. There is something spiritual in rock and roll, too.
Sometimes Father Arnold feels that delivering a good homily (sermon) is like being a lead singer in a band. He is confident he is good at it, and enjoys performing. When Arnold arrived on the reservation, he was expecting to see buffalo, and was surprised his parishioners could speak English. The members of his church explained that buffalo belonged with the Sioux, that they fished salmon, and that you couldn’t believe everything you saw on TV. They laughed, and he was impressed by their ability to laugh in spite of all of the poverty, alcoholism, and suicide they encountered. Mostly Arnold was impressed by their exotic beauty—especially their amazing eyes.
The purpose of religion and the purpose of music are similar—both build community, and work to transform suffering into strength or hope.. Arnold’s stereotyping expectations of what life on the reservation will be like are a mockery of white America’s obsession with Natives, who still manage to find a way to laugh in the face of this casual racism. This laughter is one way that they remain hopeful and sane in the face of the alcoholism, suffering, and despair that pervade their lives.
David WalksAlong, the Spokane Council Chairman and once a great basketball player, shows up to a band rehearsal and warns Thomas they are disturbing the peace. WalksAlong has hated the Builds-the-Fire family for a long time, ever since Thomas’s father, Samuel, was a better basketball player than he was. WalksAlong storms away from the rehearsal and returns to Council Headquarters, where he finds his nephew, Michael White Hawk, who has just been released from jail. White Hawk is built like a monster after hours of weightlifting.
David WalksAlong will become one of the band’s most outspoken critics, and the seeds of that dislike were sown in the past—in a confrontation with Samuel Builds-the-Fire (Thomas’s father) that Alexie narrates later in the book. David is an example of the ways that communities can be negative (exclusive and oppressive) as well as supportive. White Hawk is a tragic figure of the fallen, macho Native warrior, a twisted product of alcoholism (since his mother drank while she was pregnant) and anger at the world.
White Hawk dropped out of school after eighth grade, and is unable to read or write. WalksAlong had raised him after his single mother died of cirrhosis when he was two—her drinking damaged his mental development, but he was still muscular, and a lifelong bully. Now, White Hawk shows off the dozens of crude, painful tattoos he got in prison, and asks why WalksAlong never came to visit him, telling him that being locked up hurt “in here” and pointing to his chest. The news of White Hawk’s return spreads around the town, and no one seems very happy to hear it—particularly the members of the band, who end rehearsal early.
White Hawk is a terrifying figure, both violent and mentally damaged. The tragedy of his character lies in the painful patterns that he represents, patterns that seem to be a part of what it means to be Native American today: alcoholism, the macho need to fight and endure pain against impossible odds, the failure of inadequate education, friction with the police, and the way that all of these things are passed along from one generation to the next. The town knows how dangerous this product of their community truly is.
White strangers come to hear the band, “new agers” with crystals who are expecting ancient Indian wisdom, and are confused by the Sex Pistols covers. The band is improving at a frightening rate, and Victor, especially, is becoming a devastatingly good guitarist. The band’s two most devoted white fans are Betty and Veronica, who come to every rehearsal and sleep in a car outside Irene’s. They are blonde and wear silver feather earrings, turquoise rings, and beaded necklaces. They sing along with the band, and develop a following of curious Indian men, while the Indian women want to kick them off the reservation.
Again, Alexie mocks the exotic stereotypes that white Americans have of Native Americans, who are supposed to be spiritual and “other”—fundamentally disconnected from the culture of punk rock. Betty and Veronica are archetypes of these stereotyping white interlopers, their names pulled from the Archie comic books. They are caricatures of the fascination that white people feel with the exotic otherness of Native American—and the men’s reaction to them is a sign of a tension for and against interracial relations that will reoccur in the novel.
Betty and Veronica go home one night with Junior and Victor, and little Indian boys swear they see the women them naked, as if “their lies proved they were warriors.” Betty admits to Junior that he is the sixth or seventh Indian man she has been with, and they kiss and fall asleep. Victor, meanwhile, is having a coarse debate in the adjoining room with Veronica about how far they should go that night. The girls leave in the morning and drive back to Seattle, where they own a bookstore called “Doppelgangers.”
For Junior, Victor, and even the boys, going home with Betty and Veronica is a macho badge of honor—while for Betty and Veronica it is a dip into the exotic idea that they have of Native American culture. Betty and Veronica are near copies of one other, making them, appropriately, “doppelgangers” who exist more as symbols than as characters.
The band’s fame grows, and Indians from all over show up to watch rehearsals. Thomas decides they need a name. Victor suggests Bloodthirsty Savages, and Thomas counters with Coyote Springs. When Victor says “Fuck Coyote,” lightning strikes the reservation, starting a small fire by the Uranium mine. Junior subsequently loses his job when his truck is transported inside an abandoned dance hall, and is too big to be taken out without being disassembled. In the face of these omens the band relents, and they become Coyote Springs—although Victor and Junior still threaten to quit every day.
The magical realism re-enters the story with Coyote (a mythological trickster in some Native cultures) and his fantastical assertion of his power, which is described in a matter-of-fact way. Victor’s alternative suggestion for a band name, Bloodthirsty Savages, mocks the popular image of Native Americans but also reveals the ways that Victor and other men on the reservation feel pressure to rise to the warrior image the world presents to them.
Coyote Springs still just plays covers of famous musicians, but Thomas decides he will write new songs for them—he has power in the band, because he is the only one with any money, and money is power on the reservation. David WalksAlong, for example, was elected Councilman by one vote after paying Lester FallsApart a dollar for his vote. Thomas goes home to write, but can’t find any inspiration and falls asleep watching the Sound of Music. He wakes up late at night and listens to the faint voices that haunt the reservation, which sound like horses. Thomas opens and closes his empty refrigerator, hoping food will appear in it—an old childhood game of his, the “immaculate conception of a jar of pickles.”
Money is power on the reservation because there is so little of it—so little, in fact, that corruption within the community happens at a cost of only one dollar. This is also enabled by the fact that Lester FallsApart is an infamous alcoholic. Thomas uses humor, hope, and imagination to get through the pangs of hunger that have haunted him since childhood. The sound of horses recalls Big Mom’s story of the slaughtered ponies, and their screams are a form of music that contains historical suffering—like the blues.
Thomas thinks of fry bread, a traditional Spokane food. Big Mom has won the fry bread-cooking contest for the past 37 years, descending from her mountain to cook, and The-Man-who-was-probably-Lakota usually came in second. Fry bread was a part of young Indian romances, and a symbol of survival and hope—but now the band is out of even this simple staple. Thomas writes the first song to the rhythm of his growling stomach, and calls it “Reservation Blues.” Soon after, a half-crazy war veteran working for FedEx delivers an invitation for the band to play at the Tipi Pole Tavern in Montana.
Fry bread is another invention of necessity, a product of poverty, but one that, like music, inspires community and drives off despair. It is an integral and positive part of the shared culture on the reservation, a symbol of hope—and it makes sense that it should be involved in the writing of Thomas’ first song, composed to the rhythm of his hunger. As if from nowhere, the band’s hope is restored by this first invitation to play for money.
The band takes Thomas’s worn blue van to the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, and gets lost, stopping at a crossroads. They ask for directions from a Flathead grandmother and granddaughter in a government-built house that looks like those in Spokane. The women tell the men the Tavern is “over there,” and “not too far.” Finally, after asking who the lead singer is, the granddaughter tells Thomas how to get there. “Thanks cousin,” says Thomas. Eventually they arrive, two hours later than scheduled, but the old man outside says they are still early, by Indian time.
The community of Native Americans in America carries over across borders, since different tribes are united by a shared culture, shared history, and shared patterns of suffering—in the novel, at least, they refer to one another as “cousins” and operate according to their own cultural script. Throughout the book, Thomas is singled out as the “lead singer” by minor characters.
After dark falls, the crowd shows up, and the owner of the bar—whose engraved belt buckle says JIMMY, although that is not his name—leads Thomas and the band into the bar. The bar fills up with Flathead Indians come to hear this all-Indian blues band, and the members of Coyote Springs step up to the stage for the first time. Victor says he is ready to be immortal. They mess up their first count, but then start again, playing four and then nearly five chords before Thomas steps up to the microphone.
The Native community is hungry for music, eager for a group of their own to succeed and give them a collective means of combating despair. Victor is interested only in fame, which the band is clearly not yet ready for—but they are, optimistically, taking a first brave step into the uncertain world of the difficult music industry.