The song lyrics here refer to religious persecution by the “black robes” from Victor’s dream, with the refrain “My God has dark skin.” Back in the narrative, the van refuses to go faster than 40 mph. The band members find a Super 8 Motel and look at the city sights, amazed by the sheer number of white people. “No wonder the Indians lost,” says Junior. They debate how many rooms to get, deciding that the club that invited them, Backboard, should pay for it. Victor heckles the clerk, while Thomas, as the lead singer, calls Backboard. He returns with bad news: what they have been invited to play in is a contest, and only the winner gets the thousand dollars. They have to pay for their own rooms, but they can’t afford to, so they sleep in the van, eating bologna sandwiches.
The news that the one thousand dollars is the prize in a competition, rather than a guaranteed payment, deflates the hopeful band members once again, setting them back to their subsistence in the back of the van and setting up another moment of underdog struggle. The band’s awe at the sheer number of white people in Seattle shows that they are outsiders in mainstream America, members of a minority group that feels out of place among the majority. The song lyrics also suggest that religion and spirituality will play a major role in this chapter.
Back at the reservation, Checkers dresses up to go to the Catholic Church and meet Father Arnold. She wears Nikes, remembering when her father Luke used to send her and Chess to buy cheap plastic tennis shoes in the Spokane supermarket. Now Checkers always buys Nikes, even though she can’t afford them. She kneels to pray in the pews, and when she has finished Father Arnold is waiting for her. Checkers smiles at the handsome priest. They talk about her faith, and Checkers remembers her baptism, and a moment in her teens when she survived a forest fire after the damp touch on her forehead seemed to return and save her.
Checkers’ shoes are another outward sign of the ways that her painful past, like living without much money to speak of, forms the way she acts in the world now. Her fateful meeting with Father Arnold already contains all the seeds of a future romance. The revelation that this miraculous moment in the forest fire is at the heart of Checkers’ spirituality shows that her belief is deep and an important part of her identity.
Checkers begins to tell Father Arnold about Junior and Victor having sex with Betty and Veronica. She explains that this makes her hate both white women and Indian men. White women, she feels, are always perfect, always desired. She remembers shopping in Missoula and seeing the white girls’ clothes, so clean compared to her muddy dresses, which were ruined by the wagon ride from Arlee. The sisters tried to hide under blankets, but dirt got everywhere. Checkers says that she used to get so dark that people thought she was a black girl. She would follow the white girls around, wanting to be just like them. Chess told her they were better than the white girls any day, but Checkers never believed her.
Checkers’ views on interracial relationships continue the tensions that exist between Native Americans and the white majority. Everything in mainstream American culture suggests that the ideal of beauty is white, clean, and rich. This confused and saddened the young Checkers, who felt forever inadequate, dirty, dark, and undesirable. The “dirt” that Checkers cannot escape is a sign of both her poverty and her race, neither of which she feels she can escape, though she wanted desperately to conform to that white ideal of beauty.
Checkers remembers when Father James brought his white nieces to the reservation for a visit. They were supposed to all be friends, and once she, Chess, and the two white girls helped with Communion. In the storage closet, one of the nieces pushed Checkers, and she spilled wine all over the floor and her dress. The nieces laughed, and then cried when Father James came running, so that Father James scolded Checkers and Chess and wouldn’t let them help with Communion for a long time. Even after that, though, Checkers used to play with the white girls, teaching them how to climb trees. Sometimes she could play with their dolls, but other times she would wait outside their house until after dark and then walk home alone.
The deep insecurity that Checkers feels because she is not white, and therefore does not match society’s idea of what it means to be a beautiful girl, is played out in this tragic scene from the sisters’ past. Father James takes the side of his white nieces, and the sisters feel the injustice of their punishment deeply. Checkers, though, cannot help but be drawn to the nieces, even though they mistreat and abuse her, because she is so desperate to belong to the world they inhabit, and has always been conditioned by society to see whiteness as superiority.
When the white nieces left, Chess and Checkers saw them off at the train, and Checkers wanted so desperately to go with them, to be like one of their dolls, to escape the dirt of the reservation. She wanted to be white like them, because Jesus was white and blond in all of the pictures. Father Arnold reminds her that Jesus was Jewish, but she says she never saw him painted that way. Checkers remembers that, as she hugged the nieces goodbye, one of them pinched her nipple, and she started to cry. Father James then hugged her, telling her that it would be all right, and that he knew how much she would miss his nieces. Telling the story, Checkers cries, and Father Arnold holds her, asking what’s going on.
Even after the white nieces’ continual cruelties toward her, Checkers wants very badly to become like them, and is even willing to debase herself to do so. She reveals to Father Arnold that this desire stems in part from having only seen Jesus painted as white, and thus having a white man portrayed as the ultimate good in her life. Father James, who doesn’t witness this final cruelty of the nieces, highlights how hard it is to understand this type of insecurity as a member of the mainstream majority.
In the van, Coyote Springs sleeps fitfully, frightened by the city. Chess is still awake, though, and she listens to the men’s nightmares. Junior dreams of horses, that he is leading warriors who try in vain to attack a steamship, and then are ambushed by invisible cavalry. When only Junior is left, the men tear Junior from his horse and beat him. One soldier shoot Junior’s pony, and when Junior he asks who he is, the soldier introduces himself as General George Wright. Junior is then bound and seated at a table across from the General, where they wait in silence for General Sheridan to arrive.
Again Alexie uses nightmares to create a window into the past that has formed his characters. Junior’s dreams transport him through history to a scene that underlines the powerlessness of the Indian warriors in the face of the technology of the white man, and the cruelty of white soldiers. The reader is here introduced to George Wright, who will reappear later in the story in an unexpected way—as an executive at a modern record label.
When Sheridan, a second, larger white man, arrives, he offers Junior his hand, but then realizes his hands are bound and smiles. He charges Junior with the murder of eighteen settlers. Junior pleads not guilty, but Sheridan condemns him to be hanged. Sheridan offers to save him if he will sign a clean white paper, but Junior throws away the pen, which revolves in slow motion while the sun rises and sets, and snow falls and then melts. Sheridan tells him to pray, and Junior begins to sing his death song, but before he can finish the gallows platform drops. Junior wakes up with a shout that rouses Thomas as well.
Sheridan, who will also reappear as an executive at the record label, almost mockingly offers Junior his hand—a reminder, along with the skewed justice of this “trial” and the blank confession to be signed, of the many false contracts negotiated between Native Americans and the U.S. government. The distortion of time only emphasize the magical and fantastical elements of this moment. The soldiers show complete disregard for the way that Junior chooses to pray.
Junior falls back asleep, but Thomas stays up with Chess. They discuss religion. Thomas tells her he was baptized Catholic, but quit the church at nine when he found everybody burning records and books. As an avid reader already, he mourned their loss. When the bellowing priest asked him to help, he grabbed a book of magic tricks from the burning pile and ran away. Chess tells him that Checkers is planning to go and see Father Arnold, and that Chess herself is thinking about joining the church on the reservation as well.
Thomas has rejected religion because of what he sees as its close-mindedness, the same instinct that leads certain members of the Catholic community on the reservation to reject the music of Coyote Springs. Instead, he chooses the world of books, and the magic of storytelling. For Chess and Checkers, though, religion—even a “white” religion like Catholicism—is a vital part of their identity.
Victor, meanwhile, is dreaming of his summer at Mission School when he was nine—a Catholic summer camp. He was homesick, and cried constantly for the first few weeks. In his memory, a priest interrupts him daydreaming while mopping the floor. Victor spills the bucket of water, then stands, shivering, at attention. The priest asks if he is afraid of God, and Victor nods. He then nods faster when the priest asks if he is afraid of him. The priest tells him there is nothing to be afraid of, and he helps him clean the mess. He touches Victor’s newly shaved head, and tells him that he is a beautiful boy. Victor smiles at the priest, and the priest smiles back. Then he kisses Victor “full and hard on the mouth.”
Victor’s mind has also turned toward religion, and specifically to a traumatic memory of abuse that he suffered as a young child. This too, goes some way toward explaining Victor’s constantly thorny attitude. He is terrified of the authority that the priest’s religion and race afford him, and then, at the moment when he allows himself to trust the priest for the first time—with a small smile—the priest betrays that trust in a horrible way, surely changing Victor’s relationship to trust and intimacy forever.
In her journal, Checkers writes that she has fallen in love with Father Arnold, and she thinks he might love her back. This is the reason, she thinks, why she had the fight with Victor: God was planning for her to meet Father Arnold. Back in the van, the band wakes up, smelling the ocean air. They go to Pike Place, and start to notice brown people mixed in with the white. They are also dumbfounded to see two men holding hands in the street. They see old Indian men, drunks, who kept talking to Victor and Junior like they are in a secret club. One, addressing Victor as “nephew,” turns out to have known Victor’s grandfather. His name is Eddie Tap Water—his name was changed from “Spring Water” when he became “Urban Indian.”
Checkers is returning to her usual pattern of falling in love with the reservation priest—a secure, white figure with a privileged place in a religion that Checkers has admired since childhood. In Seattle, the band members start to notice their fellow minorities, and their fellow Indians. These primarily drunk old men feel a special kinship with Victor and Junior, perhaps because they are all tied together by the same generational suffering, and drawn to the same release: alcohol. This is Alexie’s first introduction of the “Urban Indian.”
Victor is drawn to the drunks that frighten Junior and the others. Lester FallsApart, the “most accomplished drunk on the Spokane Reservation,” is a hero, and there is one such gentle drunk on every reservation. Thomas realizes they’ve let too much time pass, and they have to leave for the band’s sound check—but now Victor is missing. Suddenly they hear a beautiful voice singing, accompanied by a guitar. They find Victor playing with an old Indian singer who has bandaged and bloody hands. Victor uses the man’s guitar, which looks as though it’s made of cardboard but sounds perfect. The duo draws a crowd, earning maybe two hundred dollars. The band waits an hour, watching them play. Finally, Thomas pulls Victor away from the guitar, which starts to burn, and they race to the sound check.
Alcoholics are a normal feature of life on the reservation, something that everyone must deal with in one way or another. There is no longer anything exceptional about alcoholism, and it is sometimes even celebrated. The encounter between Victor and the old Indian singer is a mystical one, as the man’s bandaged hands suggest that he is linked to the same devilish pact that tormented Robert Johnson, and that now affects Victor, gifted with great musical power but at a significant cost. Their duet is otherworldly, magical, and dangerous, transporting them away from reality.
In his journal, Thomas outlines the ten commandments of the reservation as given by the United States government to the Spokane Indians. These are darkly comic revisions of the Biblical commands, i.e. “you shall not steal back what I have already stolen from you,” or “you shall not misuse my name or my symbols, for I will impale you on my flag pole.” On the reservation, Checkers dreams of Father Arnold—the two of them are naked, and he lies beside her, smelling of smoke and Communion wine. She fantasizes that he is touching her, and that he whispers, “I forgive you” as he starts to have sex with her.
This dark satire from Thomas underlines the ways that religion has been used as a tool by various white governments to control Native Americans, and makes dark comedy of the unjust abuses that Natives have suffered at the hands of those governments. Checkers’ explicit dream about Father Arnold highlights the extent to which the things about him that attract her are tied up in his religious association—the Communion wine, incense, and confession.
A radio interview with Thomas after the “battle of the bands” reveals that Coyote Springs won the competition. Thomas discusses his songwriting, and the two white women (Betty and Veronica) who sang backup unexpectedly. Thomas has mixed feelings about them—he doesn’t want Indian people to think the band members are all white. After all, he says, “an Indian woman invented the blues a day before Columbus landed and rock ’n’ roll the next day.” Thomas tells the interviewer that he and Chess voted against the two white women, but Junior and Victor voted them in with a coin toss. He says he feels they are all using one another as trophies, that the couples won’t last, and he tells the announcer that he and Chess are in love.
The intrusion of Betty and Veronica is another chance for Thomas to mull over the potential problems of interracial relationships. He states clearly here that Betty, Veronica, Victor, and Junior are motivated more by a quest for “trophies” rather than real love. There’s also the sense that the white women’s presence will devalue the efforts of the Indian group, that they will take credit or render the band’s music less powerful, since they do not have the same background of suffering that drives the creation of the band’s particular blues style.
The interviewer asks about Checkers, and Thomas tells him she stayed behind to sing in the Church choir. He says that Chess is also religious. The interviewer asks Thomas whether this seems odd, and Thomas tells him that God is a long ways up, so we need to be loud so he can hear us—and “what’s louder than rock ‘n’ roll?” He says he doesn’t know if God is a man, or a woman, or an armadillo.
Thomas addresses his stance on religion honestly here, emphasizing how little he knows for certain. While he resents the Catholic Church for their violent history and the certainty they claim, he still feels a basic reverence for some higher power, which his music addresses.
On the reservation, Checkers sings in the choir, watching longingly as Father Arnold conducts the service. She steps past the communion wine, remembering her own father’s smell. At the end of the service Arnold introduces her to the congregation and announces an upcoming potluck and basketball tournament against the other churches on the reservation. Checkers stays behind to speak with him, flirting, and kisses him on the cheek. He smiles as she runs away.
Checkers’ religious reverence is tied to her love for Father Arnold. Her avoidance of the communion wine is a reminder of the role that alcoholism played in her painful personal past. The flirtation between Checkers and Father Arnold almost seems to reduce her age, so that she is nervous and flighty like a teenage girl—she is looking for a father figure, according to her usual pattern.
Father Arnold falls asleep in his office, and dreams that he is preaching to a huge congregation of Indians. He is powerful, with a red phone line to God, but no one listens to him. The Indians speak in their own languages, and burn sage rebelliously. Just as he is about to give up, the local missionaries, Marcus and Narcissa Whitman, enter, bow to him, and hold out two black boxes toward the Indians menacingly. Suddenly the Indians calm down, and Arnold delivers his best sermon ever. Afterwards he asks the Whitmans what’s in the boxes, and they tell him “Faith.” When they open the boxes, he sees they are empty, and the missionaries tell him that the Indians believe the boxes are full of smallpox, and that faith and fear are different words for the same thing.
Father Arnold’s dream offers a glimpse into the dark past of the Catholic Church’s relationship to Native Americans, and the abusive, fear-based tactics that early missionaries used to gain new “converts.” Father Arnold is caught between a sincere desire to break through to his “rebellious” parishioners (and to be appreciated as a captivating “performer”) and misgivings about the tactics of the missionary couple. The dream helps explain Thomas’s inability to separate religion from the history of suffering and abuse it spawned.
Thomas and Chess take turns driving the victorious band home, with Junior, Victor, Betty, and Veronica in the back seat. Chess asks Thomas if he’ll come with her to church on Sunday, and tells him that Checkers probably has a crush on Father Arnold by now. After a while, Thomas asks how she can go to a church that killed so many Indians. She tells him it requires faith, but Thomas lists the evil men—from Hitler to Custer—that make it so much easier to believe in the devil than God. Chess responds by listing examples of good Christians: Crazy Horse and Martin Luther King. This is a mystery of faith, she says—and look at creation, how can it be accidental?
Chess’s revelation to Thomas of Checkers’ crush underlines the extent to which this is a pattern in her sister’s life—searching for stability and validation in older men, especially priests. The two debate religion, with Thomas’s cynical view of religious abuses and the presence of evil in the world countered by Chess’s faith in the good. Creation, the natural beauty that both she and Thomas feel very acutely, is the chief proof of God’s existence for her.
Thomas admits that he doesn’t believe the world is all an accident, and he thinks of the simple beauties of the reservation, and thinks of his stories. He closes his eyes and tells Chess a story about how they were both slaughtered at Wounded Knee, that there was “a part of every Indian bleeding in the snow.” The soldiers shouted “Jesus Christ” as they killed them. Thomas imagines Chess running like a shadow, until a young white soldier shoots her and tears her apart like a coyote, all in the name of God. When Thomas opens his eyes Chess is crying. She tells him that God didn’t kill the Indians, that it was the result of free will. They have to choose the good—and white people aren’t evil either, as they want to be like the Indians. From the backseat, Betty agrees, but Chess snaps at her.
The mystery of creation is what convinces Thomas that the world must be a result of the action of some higher power, but he still cannot escape a deep awareness of the historical evils that have been perpetrated in the name of Christianity, in particular against their Native ancestors. Thomas’s graphic story illustrates this evil, which Chess feels deeply, but chooses to attribute to the free will of bad people, not to God. Good must be chosen, and evil is not a basic feature of any person—even the white people who have abused Native Americans.
Thomas smiles, and tells Chess his theory that you aren’t really Indian unless at some point you didn’t want to be. Chess reminds him that this theory came from her. They cross into Wellpinit, and Chess tells Thomas there’s no such thing as an Indian atheist. She asks how Indians were able to survive if there wasn’t a God who loved them, and who also brought the two of them together. Faith, she says, is love. Nervous and resistant, Thomas finally relents, agreeing to go with Chess to church. They pull into the driveway, seeing Checkers silhouetted against the bright lights of the house. Chess runs to greet her, and Thomas closes his eyes.
This repetition of Chess’s point earlier, that regret and pain are a part of what it is to be Indian, underlines its universality. Another part of being Indian, she argues, is believing in some spiritual power, something that must have watched over them if they have survived until now. Love is her chief evidence for good in the world, and in particular the love between herself and Thomas. Thomas relents in the face of this claim, since he too believes in love’s power.