As Junior explains to Mr. Dodge and his classmates, petrified wood
is formed when a piece of wood is buried under dirt and minerals “kind of melt the wood and the glue that holds the wood together. And then the minerals sort of take the place of the wood and the glue. … Like, if the minerals took all the wood and glue out of a, uh, tree, then the tree would still be a tree, sort of, but it would be a tree made out of minerals.” This description applies also to what happens to Junior in Reardan, or at least to what he and other members of his tribe are afraid will happen: if Junior, an Indian, is immersed in an all-white
community like a tree under dirt, his Indian identity will gradually deteriorate, replaced by white values and white culture. He’ll still be an Indian, sort of, but only in body, just as the tree is only a tree in shape; the integral things that make him Indian will be gone. This is a much darker narrative than Mr. Dodge’s explanation—“it was pretty amazing that wood could turn into rock”—and it pushes back against the optimistic but too-simplistic story of transformation that Junior himself expected when he first came to Reardan. He might have thought before that he could turn into a new version of himself, but is now discovering that can’t happen without some kind of loss. Even so, it’s important to note that this symbolism speaks more to Junior’s frame of mind at this particular moment in the novel than it does to the final outcome. Though a gradual change in his own identity seems impossible to Junior now, by the end of the novel he will understand that his Reardan and reservation identities can coexist.