Reservation Blues

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Reservation Blues Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The song that starts this chapter is about an independent Indian woman, and the story picks up on Big Mom’s front porch with Robert Johnson. Johnson remembers his time with the guitar, how he would escape for weeks at a time before the guitar found him again—but it always did, even when he buried it. He had considered suicide, and had sworn off music. Now he feels free again, but guilty that he left his burden with another person. Johnson sings a short blues song, and the reservation holds its breath against the music that is “ancient, aboriginal, indigenous.” In his bed, Thomas hears Johnson’s voice, and hears the generations of pain attached to it—he sees a hut on a slave plantation and white men laughing at the music. Thomas listens, but the other Spokanes ignore the song, and ignore their pain.
Here, the mystical powers of the guitar are given more definite form in Johnson’s tale. Music is tied inextricably to magic, and the music of Johnson and this guitar—the blues—is an extension of the oppressed native culture of the reservation. The vision that Thomas sees of Johnson’s slave ancestors underlines the ways that African American suffering is similar to Native suffering—tied up in generational patterns and imposed by the white majority. Thomas is sensitive to this link and the music’s magic, but the others ignore its power.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
An open letter from David WalksAlong published in the Wellpinit paper speaks out against Coyote Springs’ ability to represent the tribe. It takes issue with Betty and Veronica, names Victor and Junior as drunks, calls out Chess and Checkers for being Flathead (not Spokane) Indians, and calls Thomas a “crazy storyteller.” It would be better for everyone, WalksAlong writes, if the rest of the band quit like Checkers and started attending church.
The community’s members are starting to turn more definitely against Coyote Springs, creating division by emphasizing everything about the band that comes from outside. Instead of coming together to celebrate this product of their reservation, the community closes itself off and divides itself further.
Themes
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
On Sunday morning, Thomas accompanies Chess and Checkers to the Catholic church, fighting the urge to run away. Chess holds his hand as the service begins, and Thomas observes Checkers’ adoring gaze at Father Arnold. Thomas drifts into a hot dream, where Father Arnold asks why he has come. Suddenly he is in a sweat lodge, where he is asked to pray but refuses, knowing that someone is there, watching, to steal their traditional songs. An animal brushes past him, and he follows it outside, through the forest. Then Thomas trips, falls, and awakens in the church. An old woman greets him, saying she is glad he has decided to quit the band, and that rock and roll is sinful. She tells him that the whole community is against Coyote Springs now, ever since they left. Thomas palms his communion wafer instead of eating it, and crumbles it to pieces outside.
Thomas, out of his love for Chess, makes an attempt to rejoin this religion that he cannot see as separate from its violent history and abuse of his people. His dream is a rebellion, a stirring-up of the native spirituality that he identifies with more strongly, which is condemned and endangered by the rise of Christianity—the force he feels watching him in the sweat lodge, perhaps. The old woman is another reminder of the close-mindedness that Thomas ran away from years ago when he witnessed a book burning at the church. He returns his communion wafer to the earth, which he feels more spiritually connected to than this symbol.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Victor and Junior are drunkenly working their way through their share of the prize money, as Betty and Veronica follow them around. Michael White Hawk is at the Trading Post when the two go to buy beer, and he knocks the beer out of their arms onto the sidewalk outside. He claims that they think they’re better than the rest of the tribe because they’re with white women. Junior offers White Hawk a beer, but he won’t be appeased. He beats on Junior and Victor, who are too drunk to fight back, and a crowd forms to cheer him on. Betty and Veronica try to intervene and are knocked back. Suddenly the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota steps up and knocks the raging White Hawk out with a two-by-four.
After their short-lived triumph in Seattle, Victor and Junior have fallen back into their pattern of alcoholism. Michael White Hawk, a more direct product of alcoholism (since his mother drank while pregnant with him), gives physical form to the community’s increasing anger at Coyote Springs, which is made worse by the intrusion of the white women. This burst of violence seems normal to the community, and is cheered by its members—it is part of the macho “warrior” attitude of many on the reservation.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
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White Hawk, Victor, and Junior are taken to Spokane for medical attention. The Indian EMT lies to the doctor, telling him there was a car wreck. White Hawk is Dave WalksAlong’s nephew, and the white people’s laws are to be kept off the reservation. Betty and Veronica pack up and ask for a ride to Spokane. Chess berates them for wanting the good but not the bad of being an Indian, telling them they don’t understand about magic, and that every place is sacred. Thomas intervenes and gives them a ride to town. In the car, Betty and Veronica ask him what is wrong with the reservation. Thomas only smiles, reminding them that there is nothing wrong here that isn’t wrong everywhere else, with white people too. He drops them at the Greyhound station.
The nonchalance of the Indian EMT’s lie reveals the extent to which this type of violence is a pattern for which there are established rules and procedures. It also underlines the divide between life on the reservation and life outside. This divide is part of what drives away Betty and Veronica, who are no longer so happy with their exotic human trophies, having seen the reality behind the curtain of “spirituality.” Thomas’s assertion that what is wrong on the reservation is wrong everywhere is a reminder that alcoholism and violence are not Indian attributes, but human ones.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
The members of Coyote Springs are truly outcasts now, holed up in Thomas’s house and greeted by silence when they venture out. Led by WalksAlong, the tribe nearly votes to excommunicate them all. They are out of money, living on their monthly stipend of commodity food, and record companies aren’t interested in them. Taverns won’t hire them either, since they “cause trouble.” At their most desperate moment, a Cadillac appears on the reservation, asking the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota to get in the car and lead them to Coyote Springs. He runs along in front of them instead, past the smell of Old Bessie’s fry bread, and stops in front of Thomas’s house. He asks if they know that the end of the world is near. The men in the Cadillac call him “Chief,” replying that they’ve “been there and back.”
The community has now turned entirely against Coyote Springs, led by the vengeful David WalksAlong. This is the lowest point for the band members, as they sink back into the rhythms of poverty that have governed their whole lives. Just as they hit bottom, though, hope returns from an unlikely source—two white record executives whose absurd arrival at the reservation underlines how out of place they are. There is something larger-than-life and fantastical about these men, who have been to the end of the world and back again.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Two white men, short and stocky with huge moustaches, get out of the car and knock on the door. They introduce themselves to Thomas as Phil Sheridan and George Wright, executives from Cavalry Records in New York City. A fax from the pair to their boss, Mr. Armstrong, gives a review of the band, suggesting that they have a lot of potential and describing them in commercial terms. Chess and Checkers, for example, would attract men with their “exotic animalistic woman thing.” Junior is “ethnically handsome,” making up for Thomas’s goofiness and the fact that Victor looks like “a train rain him over in 1976.” They list the band members’ particularly “Indian” traits: dark skin, big noses, scars, long hair. They suggest dressing them up with war paint, feathers, etc., and recommend flying them to New York for some studio work.
These absurd figures turn out to be fantastical reincarnations of famous U.S. Army Officers who fought in the Indian Wars, now helming “Cavalry Records” (“cavalry” is the term for soldiers on horses). The contents of the fax are blatantly racist and commercially driven, making it clear that the villains of Native American history are equally villainous in their modern roles as record executives. The men are clearly interested in exploiting the exoticism of the band, appropriating their unique features for their own profit. The suggestion that they dress the band up in war paint underlines just how direct this exploitation of their image will be.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Checkers searches for Father Arnold, and finds him cleaning generations of Indian graves in the Catholic cemetery. She tells him that she has rejoined the band, and he takes her hand and smiles as she apologizes. Checkers says they need the money, and Arnold tells her that Jesus didn’t have any money. She responds that Jesus could turn one loaf of bread into a thousand, and she can’t. They kneel together to pray for the band’s safety. Arnold tells her it will be okay, and Checkers leans forward to kiss him on the lips. He is surprised, and then kisses her back, clumsily, before pushing her away and closing his eyes to pray.
Checkers’ growing infatuation with Father Arnold comes to a head here, with this kiss. She doesn’t know where to turn, and his offer of Jesus as a sign of moral stability and comfort is not enough to meet her real needs of food, money, and security. The cycle of poverty constricts her choices, since she doesn’t have Jesus’s miraculous ability to turn one loaf of bread into a thousand.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Hope, Despair, and the Blues Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon
Community, Friendship, and Love Theme Icon
Wright and Sheridan are on the phone with Armstrong, who tells them to go check out a pair of “hot white chicks” in Seattle and then come back and pick up “the Indians.” Somewhere, the horses scream. Wright tells Sheridan he has always been a good soldier, as they drink from a hundred-year-old flask. They give the band a few hundred dollars to hold them over for the week. They spend this on Doritos and Hershey’s, and a stock of beer for Junior and Victor. The next day, Thomas receives a letter from Big Mom, telling him that without her help, they will have no chance of landing a contract, and that Robert Johnson is waiting for him. Big Mom invites the band to visit her at her home.
The “hot white chicks” in Seattle—a term that underlines the extent to which these capitalist executives reduce people to objects—could only be Betty and Veronica, but this is only a hint of what is to come. The scream of the horses and the hundred-year-old flask signal the rip in time that has pushed these Army figures into the present. The casual gift of a few hundred dollars shows the vast inequality between these figures of white power and the band members, and is an echo of past examples of white authority figures making big promises to compromised Native Americans.
Themes
Race, Culture, and Identity Theme Icon
Alcoholism and Patterns of Suffering  Theme Icon
Storytelling, History, and the Spiritual Theme Icon