Tayo leaves Betonie and hitchhikes back towards New Laguna. He stops at a gas station to buy some candy, but the white cashier expects Tayo to steal something. Tayo laughs off the cashier’s casual racism by remembering that white people are the product of witchery. As Tayo walks away from the gas station, stepping carefully to avoid killing grasshoppers, Harley rides up in a truck. Another veteran, Leroy, and a woman, Helen Jean, are in the truck with Harley, drinking heavily.
In the white world, Tayo is not seen as more than a lazy criminal because of his Native American blood. Knowing the story of how white people came to be allows Tayo to brush off this racism because it means that white people aren’t actually the dominant culture that they believe themselves to be. After meeting with Betonie, Tayo cares more for nature than he did while he was sick, being careful not to hurt even an insect.
Tayo gets in the truck with Harley, as Helen Jean and Leroy laugh about how Harley tricked the car salesman to give him the truck with no money down. Harley considers it a small repayment for the land white people have taken from him. Tayo doesn’t consider it such a good joke considering the junky car will probably crash and kill Harley. When they get back to New Laguna, Tayo wants to get out but Harley forces him to come to the bar with them. Leroy keeps driving too fast and Tayo gives in to the numbed sensations.
The methods that Harley uses to “get back” at the white people who have wronged him are actually more destructive to Harley than they are to white people. Driving this truck means nothing to white people and could actually kill Harley. Similarly, alcohol as a numbing agent so that the Native Americans can live in a culture that constantly puts them down is actually more destructive to the Native Americans than it is helpful.
At the Y bar, Helen Jean stumbles getting out of the car and drops all her makeup out of her purse. Harley picks it up for her, playacting at putting some on while Leroy and Tayo tease him for being “chickish muggy.” They all go into the bar and get a table next to some Mexicans who work on the railroad. Helen Jean smiles coyly at the Mexican men while Harley and Leroy try to entertain her with stories of past sexual conquests. Eventually, Harley and Leroy focus only on getting drunk, not even noticing when Helen Jean leaves their table.
Helen Jean wears copious amounts of makeup, in some sense hiding her Native American identity in order to appear beautiful by the standards of the dominant white culture. Harley also seems to be trying on a different identity by dancing around like a “chickish muggy,” a term that seems to mean a man who acts like a woman. These performances of “putting on another skin” recall the story of the bear boy that Betonie told Tayo. Meanwhile, Harley and Leroy display their own performance of being accepted by white culture by bragging about having sex with white women, such that they prevent themselves from making a connection with Helen Jean, a fellow Native American.
The narrative focuses on Helen Jean. She knows that the New Laguna men won’t beat her up the way some other men have, but she still doesn’t want to waste her time with them. Helen Jean always plans to go back to her reservation each weekend to bring money, but never manages to do so.
Helen Jean, like Rocky, has left her Native American heritage behind in order to be survive in the white world. Her inability to return to her reservation suggests that it is impossible to live according to white culture’s standards and stay true to a Native American identity.
Helen Jean had come to Gallup to get a job at the movie theater, wearing her best clothes and careful makeup when she went in for the interview. She was embarrassed to find out that the job was actually for a janitor and even more ashamed when the manager starts expecting sexual favors from her. Now, Helen Jean tells her roommates she is going to work, but instead goes to bars and targets veterans who have a fat disability check and might give her some money to help pay rent.
Helen Jean is a competent and intelligent woman, but white culture refuses to see her as anything but menial labor because of her race. Helen Jean also faces sexual harassment, as her white manager seems to believe that Native Americans exist to please him. Yet instead of returning to her Native American community on the reservation, which has its own problems of poverty, Helen Jean believes she must look out for herself alone by tricking Native American veterans out of their money. Her roommates also seem to live by the individualistic values of white culture, demanding that each person pay their own way rather than helping each other when money is tight for one of them.
The veterans usually just want to tell Helen Jean about their glory days picking up white women in their US uniforms, though some men get violent as they get drunk. When the men are drunk and pliable, Helen Jean asks them for money to send back to her family on the reservation. If she gets them drunk enough, the men usually fall asleep before they can pressure Helen Jean for sex. Helen Jean doesn’t want to end up like the other hopeless women in Gallup, so she leaves the dead-end Indian War Heroes, who she knows have no money, for the Mexican men, and the promise of some money borrowed from their railroad pay checks.
The veterans use Helen Jean as a placeholder for their own desire to fit into white culture, also displaying the violence that the novel sees as inherent to white culture when their attempts do not work. Trying to be white forces both the veterans and Helen Jean to stop seeing each other as people. Helen Jean has also internalized the racism that paints all Native Americans as poor, drunk, lazy, and going nowhere. She has more faith in the Mexican men who she assumes have paying jobs and money to spare.
Tayo dreams of old Betonie’s Navajo singing, until he is awakened by someone telling him to leave. Tayo thinks it is Betonie telling him to get on with the journey to find the cattle, but it is really the bartender throwing Tayo, Leroy, and Harley out after Harley got in a fight with the Mexican men. Tayo gets Harley and Leroy into the car and drives off into the desert, wondering how long they all will survive in a life of drinking. Tayo stops the car at a rock formation along route 66 called Mesita, then vomits out everything in his stomach, trying to vomit out his past.
Whether the fight arises from competition for Helen Jean’s attention, or simply Harley’s desire to start a fight and distract him from his sadness, the fact that the fight is with Mexican men rather than white patrons is another sign of white cultural dominance. Instead of finding commonalities in the ways that both Mexicans and Native Americans are treated as sub-human in white culture, the two groups fight each other as they each try to gain white acceptance. Tayo’s dream reminds him that he should be on a mission of greater importance, and that the cultural hybridity of the cattle is better than petty fights over which race is better.
Betonie had explained that the scalp ceremony meant to put fallen warriors to rest is no longer enough to soothe the Indian veterans who have seen the way that white people live. Betonie compares this longing to a man who stole white shell beads from a grave and then could think of nothing but the beads. The veterans are also trying to distract themselves through liquor and stories about their courage in the war, so that they don’t have to remember their lost land. Tayo takes off walking, realizing he is in transition just like the boy called back from living with the bears.
Believing in the myth that white culture is better than Native American culture leaves Native Americans perpetually unsatisfied, chasing a pipe dream. It is not that the novel suggests that Native Americans could not achieve the kind of material success that white people enjoy (though there are certainly difficult obstacles because of racism against people of color) but rather that these things wouldn’t actually make them happy if they got them. As in the story about the beads, possessions will never take the place of belonging to the land and their cultural heritage. Tayo is in the midst of realizing that he has to go back to his Native identity instead of chasing after white people.
The novel tells another poem-story about a Ck’o’yo magician called the Gambler. The Gambler tricks everyone who comes to his house into eating cornmeal laced with human blood, giving the Gambler power over them until they gamble away everything they own and even their own life. The Gambler even captures the storm clouds and holds them captive in his house.
The Gambler in this story parallels the role that white people play in the novel, forcing Native Americans to do acts of violence against each other just as the Gambler forces his victims to eat other people. The Gambler also harms the natural environment as white people do in the novel.
The Sun, father of the storm clouds, realizes that the storm clouds are missing and that the land is suffering greatly in their absence. Sun Man visits Spider Woman, who gives him advice on how to avoid being tricked by the Gambler, as well as the answers to all the Gambler’s riddles. Sun Man goes to the Gambler, refusing all food, and does everything just as Spider Woman said. The Gambler loses, and Sun Man cuts out the Gamblers eyes to make them the horizon stars of autumn. Sun Man then opens the Gambler’s doors and lets the storm clouds out.
In order to trick the Gambler at his own game, Sun Man has to stay true to the native wisdom that Spider Woman teaches, and avoid all the tempting offers that the Gambler makes. Similarly, Native Americans must put their faith in native wisdom and refuse the false goals that white people offer as success. Making the Gambler’s eyes into stars is another example of the interconnected nature of the world, as humans and natural objects can be transformed into each other.
Tayo goes home to New Laguna and waits to see one of the things Betonie mentioned would finish the ceremony. In late September, Tayo finally sees the constellation that Betonie drew in the dirt in the northern sky. Tayo takes his truck as far as he can, then comes to a washed out bridge. He then continues on horseback away from the paved road. After an unspecified number of days on horseback, Tayo comes across a woman with her hair tied back in the traditional way. Tayo explains to her that he is looking for his uncle’s stolen cattle and the woman lets Tayo water his horse. The woman invites Tayo into her house for a meal. The novel turns to the poem-story, where Hummingbird and Fly get tobacco from Caterpillar.
Looking for the constellation echoes back to the Gambler’s eyes being used as stars, drawing a connection between the formation of stars that will help Tayo escape from the white cultural power that the Gambler represented in the story. Crucially, modern transportation like the truck is ineffective on this journey and Tayo has to use a natural method of a horse instead. By finding the woman, Tayo has now found two of the four objects that Betonie told him to remember. Like Caterpillar giving Fly and Hummingbird tobacco, the woman gives Tayo valuable help on his journey by giving him a meal and a rest.
The woman undresses first herself and then Tayo. They sleep together and Tayo fully gives in to the pleasure of their bodies. That night, he dreams of the spotted cattle and the woman whispering in his ear to make the cattle scatter. Tayo wakes feeling more refreshed than he has in years. He sings the sunrise song he learned as a child to welcome the dawn, knowing that the Dawn people begin and end all their stories with the word “sunrise.”
Sleeping with this Native American woman is an act of true love and self-acceptance, rather than the desperate attempts at acceptance hidden in the veterans’ stories about having sex with white women. This act brings Tayo closer to finding the cattle, and closer to his Native heritage. By remembering the tradition of starting stories with an offering to the sunrise, Tayo effectively begins a story about himself within the novel that will follow his quest to find the cattle.