The song that begins this chapter is about the endless funerals of the reservation, and the way that drunkenness and suicide seem to be passed down through the generations. Few people cared enough to attend Junior’s wake, which took place in Thomas’s house on the kitchen table. A few sent flowers, and Simon drove backwards off the reservation, never to return, since Junior used his gun to commit suicide. Victor is angry with the reservation members, remembering how they watched as Junior did it. Lester FallsApart comes, and gives them three dogs: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
This song is an artful telling of the ways in which the sufferings of the reservation are a generational cycle, and thus create an environment where tragedy feels normal—so much so that few community members bother to attend Junior’s funeral. Lester does come, and his three dogs are a comedic undermining of Catholic ideals. Victor’s anger is aimed at the ways that the community seems to have added to rather than relieved Junior’s despair.
The dogs howl, and Big Mom hears them as she cries on her porch. Another of her students has died, and she feels a deep sadness—the bodies, of both musicians and horses, may finally have “been stacked too high inside her.” Robert Johnson tells her that they need her, and that she saved him. She gives him the cedar harmonica she carved, and walks down the mountain. She finds Father Arnold packing his bags, and asks him about Checkers. He tells her that he loves her, but is too scared and uncertain. Big Mom tells him that she is, too. She invites him to come and help mourn Junior, telling him that he can do the Catholic stuff, and she’ll do the traditional Indian things. He won’t need his collar or cassock, she says—he’s wearing a very powerful t-shirt.
The howling of the dogs is an echo of the screaming of the horses, both representing the generations of suffering and sadness that Big Mom has witnessed. She is a healing force, having given Johnson music again as a harmonica player, and her healing powers are needed now. She first forms a partnership with the uncertain Father Arnold, showing a level of humility and an open-minded approach to spirituality and religion that Alexie seems to promote. The “powerful t-shirt” is a dig at the stiffness and self-importance of “pure” Catholicism.
They bury Junior in the Spokane Tribal cemetery, near his mother and father. Big Mom and Father Arnold take turns leading the service, while Checkers, Chess, Victor, and Thomas watch. Lester and the three dogs are also present. The dogs howl, only falling silent when Big Mom murmurs to them. Victor surprises everyone by speaking, saying that Junior never hurt anybody on purpose. Thomas says that he tried very hard to be good. Victor lies and tells everyone that Junior had a half-breed son. He had discovered Lynn’s note in Junior’s wallet after his death. Big Mom sings a mourning song, and Checkers whispers a prayer.
The blended spiritualism of this service presents one way forward for those, like Chess and Thomas, who find both good and bad things in different styles of religion. That Junior never hurt anybody on purpose and tried very hard to be good only confirms the extent to which the circumstances of his life on the reservation—the painful patterns of suffering, and the cycle of hope and despair into which he was born—shaped his fate. Victor lies to help his friend “save face,” and to make it seem to others that Junior at least left something behind him.
Chess looks around the graveyard at all the Indians “killed by white people’s cars, alcohol, uranium,” at all the suicides. She imagines a mirage of a blonde woman and child dressed in black. Chess runs toward them, asking why she loved Junior, “that broken Indian man,” wanting to explain that her son would always be half crazy, at war with himself. The only solution is to keep breeding away the Indian blood. The son will never be accepted by Indians, or by whites. Chess closes her eyes, and when she opens them, the mother and son have disappeared. Turning to Thomas, who is waiting for her, she tells him that they should get married, and that she wants kids. She wants to have brown babies who will look up and see two brown faces. Thomas smiles and says, “Okay.”
The graveyard, with its rows of headstones, is a visible representation of the abstract pattern of suffering imposed by the white majority and the cruelty of history upon the native community. Again, the difficulty of interracial relationships comes to the fore, as Chess’s awareness of this generational suffering and what it means for her identity and the identity of Junior’s son (who does not in fact exist) comes crashing into her brain. To escape this, or to make it better, she turns to the one source of hope in her life—her love for Thomas.
Checkers goes straight to bed after the funeral. Chess asks her if she’s still bothered by nightmares of Sheridan, and Checkers explains that now she is haunted by memories of their father Luke, who cries and stands in the doorway, drunk. Chess tells her she and Thomas are leaving for Spokane, and that she found a job as a phone operator. At this moment, Big Mom enters with Father Arnold, who wants to speak to Checkers.
Although the cruelty of the outside world, represented by Sheridan, has faded from Checkers’ nightmares, now she is haunted by the effects of that cruelty in the alcoholism and suffering that afflict the reservation. These are the things that are driving Chess and Thomas away, to seek refuge in the hope love provides.
Checkers refuses to speak to him alone, insisting that Chess stay with them. Arnold apologizes, but Checkers tells him it doesn’t matter, and that she is leaving with Chess. Checkers returns a bottle of communion wine that she had stolen before Junior shot himself. Checkers tells Arnold that she isn’t sure she can forgive him yet, and that he doesn’t know more than she does. Arnold agrees, knowing that he has been just like all other performers wanting to be loved and trusted. He says that, with discipline, perhaps he can be good again. Arnold tells Chess he can’t believe she stole the wine, and that he doesn’t know how she could have drank it anyway, since it tastes terrible. She responds, jokingly: “discipline,” and they all laugh awkwardly.
Now that Father Arnold is here to apologize Checkers has to confront the fact that this older, more “stable” white religious figure is actually almost just as lost as she is herself. Stealing the communion wine was a desperate act for Checkers, whose life has been so negatively affected by the alcoholism of her father. Checkers turns to humor, and to her relationship with Chess, to cope with the pain of this revelation.
Victor drives to Turtle Lake and sits in the van. Junior appears to him with a rifle hole in his head and they both scream. Junior asks if Victor will miss him, and Victor says he will miss getting drunk with him. Junior offers him a silver flask of whiskey that someone left in his coffin. Victor hesitates, telling Junior that he’s been thinking about quitting—he hasn’t had a drink since the suicide. Victor asks why Junior shot himself. Junior dodges the question once to reminisce about Betty and Veronica, but then responds, “because life is hard.” He explains that when he closed his eyes like Thomas, he saw nothing—“no stories, no songs.” Victor throws the flask out the window and into the lake. Junior hands him another, telling him they better get to work, and they throw countless silver flasks into the lake.
The apparition of Junior’s ghost is a surprise to Victor, who has denied all of the mystical things happening around him throughout the novel. Victor’s decision to give up alcohol could be a major turning point in his life, and a chance to escape the cycle of suffering. Junior’s reason for committing suicide is a deep despair, driven partly by the reminder that Betty and Veronica were reminiscent of his relationship with Lynn. He does not have the stories or the music that allow Thomas to transform his despair into something magical. The silver flasks are inherited from the U.S. cavalrymen, a clear link between historical cruelty and the particular suffering of Natives today.
Big Mom lights sage, and Chess, Checkers, and Thomas get ready to pray, for everybody, as Big Mom puts on a record. Victor goes to David WalksAlong looking for a job. WalksAlong is shocked to see him, after everything that Coyote Springs has done, but Victor humbly persists and hands over his résumé. WalksAlong reads it, crumples it up, and throws it at Victor. Victor picks it up and folds it neatly, his hands shaking. He tries once more, saying that he “thought this was the way it worked.” He says that he wants to drive the water truck like Junior did, but WalksAlong does not respond. Something seems to break inside of Victor, and he steals five dollars from the secretary’s purse and buys a six-pack of cheap beer. He pops the first can open with a sound that is exactly like a smaller version of the explosion of Junior’s rifle.
The mingling of religion or spirituality and music is another reminder that the two are intertwined in this world. Victor’s mission to David WalksAlong requires a humility and desire to change that Victor has not displayed once in the novel until this point. This fact then makes the laughing rejection with which WalksAlong greets his request so deeply tragic. Instead of supporting Victor’s desire to break free from the cycles of alcoholism, depression, and poverty on the reservation, WalksAlong, who is in a position of power, just drives Victor back toward alcoholism and despair, sealing his fate. Alexie really drives home the symbolism here, as alcohol is essentially “suicidal” for Victor, and represents him succumbing to despair just as Junior did.
The local paper reports that Father Arnold led the Catholics to victory in the annual basketball tournament. A few days later, the crazy FedEx guy arrives with a package for Thomas addressed from Cavalry records. It contains a letter from Betty and Veronica, thanking Coyote Springs for their help, and also has a cassette recording of the first song on their debut CD. Thomas pauses and then puts it in, hearing an Indian drum, a warrior’s flute, a cedar flute, and then Betty and Veronica singing about Mother Earth and Father Sky. The chorus says “my hair is blonde/but I’m Indian in my bones.” Thomas ejects the cassette and stomps on it, then slices the tape into pieces. He runs around the house collecting photos, worried that someone will come to steal them next.
The arrival of this package from Cavalry records represents the ultimate stab in the back to Coyote Springs. Betty and Veronica, briefly back-up singers for the band, have swooped in and usurped their place at Cavalry Records, using bland and racist Native American images and sounds to sell records. These white women do not have the same rich cultural heritage or background of suffering and oppression that lends power to Coyote Springs’ music, and to the blues more generally. This is pure theft, in Thomas’s view—a deep cultural violence perpetrated for profit, reminiscent of whites stealing Native American land throughout history.
We then see Victor’s résumé, which is littered with misspellings. Coyote Springs is gone. Victor wanders around the reservation with the three dogs, while Thomas, Chess, and Checkers prepare to leave for Spokane. Thomas tells Chess he isn’t worried about saying goodbye to his dad, Samuel, since with his “Indian father radar” Samuel will eventually show up at their place in Spokane at three in the morning. They drive away, and Thomas feels a tightness in his chest. Down the road, they come across Big Mom, who hitches a ride to a community feast at the Longhouse and then convinces them to come inside with her, to eat and possibly to take a collection.
The misspellings are another sign of the ways that the reservation members are sabotaged by the system; a lack of education traps them in the cycle of poverty, as they aren’t given the tools they need to succeed. Thomas, Chess, and Checkers are determined to escape this cycle, even as the thought of leaving the reservation breaks Thomas’s heart. Big Mom has anticipated their departure with her uncanny, supernatural ability to read their intentions..
The group sits waiting for food for a long time, until Big Mom walks into the kitchen and discovers there is not enough fry bread. She tells the cook to take out the rest of the food and leave the fry bread to her. The cook is scared, remembering the last time there was a fry bread riot. The mob chants for fry bread, until Big Mom walks out with a huge bowl. She admits that there is only half as much fry bread as they need, and the crowd mills around, restless and combative. She explains that she can feed them all by ancient Indian secrets. Then she holds a piece of bread over her head and tears it in two. The crowd cheers.
This episode with the fry bread is the sort of thing that will spawn stories of Big Mom’s prowess. In reality, we see that this prowess is much more practical than magical—her breaking of the bread is an echo of the Christian story of Jesus, who feeds thousands with only a few loaves of bread, but Big Mom’s wry method is much more pragmatic and mathematical, grounded in the grim reality of the world but also a sense of community.
Robert Johnson is walking through town when he sees the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota. They walk together toward the Longhouse. Thomas is amazed when Johnson arrives—he looks like a different person. Johnson tells them that he is planning to stay on the reservation, that he feels at home there, and that the people might need his music. As Chess, Checkers, and Thomas start to leave, Big Mom takes up a collection for them from the tribe. Some, like David WalksAlong, donate out of spite to get them off the reservation, while others give out of guilt, and a few from kindness. They file out to the parking lot and say their goodbyes, with Johnson playing chords on the harmonica while the man-who-was-probably-Lakota plays the drum and chants that “the end of the world is near.”
Johnson feels at home on the reservation for the same reason that the genre of the blues found a home with Coyote Springs: a shared experience of suffering and oppression. This collection, spearheaded by Big Mom, is a picture of the positive and negative sides of the community—they support this effort of one of their own to escape, but more often out of spite or guilt than genuine kindness. Johnson has rediscovered his original music, away from the lure of fame and fortune—a hopeful sign.
As they drive away in silence, Chess, Checkers, and Thomas think about the future. They finally admit that they are scared, and they hold their breath as they drive over the reservation border, but nothing disastrous happens. Suddenly the shadows beside the van take shape, and becoming running horses. Chess and Checkers roll down the windows and reach out to touch them, hot and wet. In a dream, the three of them sit with Big Mom at the powwow while she teaches the Spokane Indians a new song, the shadow horses’ song, the screaming “song of mourning that would become a song of celebration.” Big Mom plays a note on her horse-bone flute for every horse that died, and then for every Indian. In the van, Chess, Checkers, and Thomas sing together with the shadow horses: “we are alive, we’ll keep living.” They hold tightly to the horses’ manes outside the blue van and drive forward to the city, where new songs await.
It is unclear at first whether this escape is a sign of despair for life on the reservation, or hope for the future, but in this lyrical final moment, as the fantastical horses (symbols of Native American history and spirituality) arrive to accompany Thomas, Chess, and Checkers on their journey to Spokane, there is at last a sense of hope and beauty in the face of all of the suffering they have endured. Music will transform mourning into celebration, with guidance from Big Mom, so that death is transformed into surviving and flourishing life. New adventures and new songs await this small new family unit away from the reservation, but their history and community will remain with them forever.