This chapter begins with a song about Big Mom. Coyote Springs is headed up Wellpinit mountain toward her house with all of their equipment. Big Mom is a mythical figure—a million stories are told about her, but some refuse to believe that she even exists. Junior and Victor, who are “damn good at denial,” once saw her walk across Benjamin Pond, but erased it from their memory. Thomas says that she is “the most powerful medicine.”
Big Mom is the focal point of magical realism in the novel, representing all of the spiritual practices of Native American and the power of a good story. This pilgrimage up the mountain toward her is a classic part of the hopeful underdog’s journey in literature, as the heroes go in search of their mystical mentor figure.
Rumors about Big Mom include that she taught Elvis Presley—and many other famous musicians—everything they know, and that you can hear them thank her on their favorite records if you strain hard enough. She is a musical genius, and shaped the history of music. Musician and guitar builder Les Paul took the original blueprint for the electric guitar from her home, and she taught Paul McCartney the song “Yesterday.” Many of her students broke her heart when they burned out early on drugs and drinking—but they did this so successfully that she made them honorary members of the Spokane Tribe: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Elvis. She sang a mourning song for them, and even the birds stopped to listen—she had taught them to sing too, of course.
Stories swirl around Big Mom, whose magic translates into immense musical talent. In Alexie’s rewriting of history, much of the best music of the last century came from Big Mom’s students, all of whom made the pilgrimage that Coyote Springs are making now. All this music, and all these musicians, share a common heritage in Alexie’s tale, and learn something essential about how to play blues or rock and roll from the mystical transformation of oppression and suffering that Big Mom offers with her experience as a Native American.
“Ya-hey,” says the towering figure of Big Mom when they reach her blue house. She tells Thomas that Robert Johnson is gone looking for wood to build a new guitar. She tells Victor that, if he wants, she can throw his guitar away for him. He says he’d like to see her try, and claims he doesn’t believe in magic. Big Mom tells him that he should forgive the priest who hurt him as a child, and that forgiveness is magic too. She then turns to Junior, laughing at his fear, and hands him two huge drumsticks. She calls Chess and Checkers by their real names, Eunice and Gladys, and leads them to a sweat lodge, leaving the men behind.
Big Mom offers Victor a way out of the devilish pact he has fallen into by accident by accepting this guitar, but he refuses, still denying her abilities. In response, she reveals something about his painful past that he has probably never told anyone, and thus demonstrates her real supernatural powers. She reads secrets in Chess and Checkers too, revealing their real names, and forging a bond with these female members of the band.
In Checkers’ journal, she writes that it felt like Big Mom could read inside her head. They all sang together in the steam, and came out sounding better than ever. Checkers is scared Big Mom will be angry about Father Arnold, because it feels like Big Mom comes from “a whole different part of God.” Later, trying to figure it all out, Thomas says that Big Mom is not God, but just a part of God—like all of them, but a bigger part than most.
Checkers’ journal offers a glimpse of the sisters’ mystical time in the sweat lodge with Big Mom. Checkers grapples with how to reconcile the spiritual power she feels so overwhelmingly in Big Mom with her Catholic beliefs, and Thomas offers an answer—God is big enough to encompass both Catholicism and Native religion.
Victor doesn’t understand how Big Mom can help them play, since she’s “just some old Indian woman.” At that moment, from the other room, Big Mom plays the “loneliest chord” they’ve ever heard on a guitar made from “a 1965 Malibu and the blood of a child killed at Wounded Knee in 1890.” She plays it over and over, and the band members are knocked to the ground. Big Mom explains that it is the chord created especially for Indians. Victor continues to question her, and he is not the first—Michael White Hawk once came to her wanting to play the saxophone like a warrior, and not like a healer. She warned him that the white man will always be better at violence, but he ended up in jail after smashing his saxophone over the head of a white cashier in Spokane. Big Mom was unsurprised at this, and asks why all Indian heroes have to be warriors, and also have to be men. Her stubborn male students always wind up betrayed by their music, and crawl back to her for healing.
Big Mom cuts right through Victor’s stubborn denial with a chord that resounds with Native Americans’ history of pain and suffering. This is the chord that Big Mom learned from the screams of the dying horses, those killed by U.S. soldiers—the chord that transforms despair, magically, into the expressive form of blues music. The revelation that Michael White Hawk, the slow-witted reservation bully, was once a prodigious saxophone player, is unexpected, but makes his character all the more tragic. He couldn’t escape slipping into the stereotype of the violent, macho warrior created by generations of abuse and misrepresentation. Big Mom sees this aggression as a distinctly male fault, and wishes for more female heroes.
At the end of a long day of rehearsal, Victor resists playing the chord again. Robert Johnson listens, wincing, from the bushes. Thomas tells Victor to keep going, and they play once more through the song. That night, Thomas and Chess talk in their sleeping bag. Thomas tells a story, imagining that Coyote Springs is opening for Aerosmith at Madison Square Garden, winning over the crowd. He is scared—he has been ignored his whole life, and he doesn’t know what it will be like if someone actually listens. Chess is scared too, of all the men in whose shadow she has lived her life, and the pressure to be everyone’s perfect lover. Thomas asks what they are supposed to do, and she responds that all they can do is “sing songs and tell stories.” The Indian horses scream.
Johnson’s winces from the bushes predict a painful end to the band’s experiment with fame (and the devilish guitar). Thomas senses this danger, but is also thrilled by the possibility of being heard, and enraptured enough to concoct this story of the band winning over Madison Square Garden. The answer to Chess’s fears, and to the despair that chases all of them, lies somewhere in the music and stories that they create together as a way of transforming pain into something positive.
Big Mom listens to the band’s last rehearsal. Their whole set is original now, and she pronounces them as ready as they’ll ever be. Thomas wants to keep practicing, and he says that the community won’t let them back on the reservation unless they are heroes, or rock stars. Thomas calls for Robert Johnson, who hears but doesn’t answer, knowing that the band is entering dangerous territory. Thomas continues to worry about what will become of them if they fail.
Big Mom’s warning that the community will reject them unless they return as heroes, raises the stakes of the band’s upcoming test. Johnson’s continuing silence is a bad omen, as are all the previous “underdog” failures (like Samuel’s basketball game) of the reservation.
In a letter, Junior thanks Big Mom for the drumsticks, and tries to apologize for Victor. He explains that Victor has always been his bodyguard, beating up anybody who touched him since they were only boys, hanging out with him when both their dads were gone. When Junior flunked out of college, Victor was the one who came to pick him up. Victor can be a jerk, but sometimes he is good as well. Junior asks Big Mom to forgive him.
Junior’s letter goes some way toward explaining his extreme loyalty to Victor in spite of Victor’s many faults. It also demonstrates Junior’s selflessness, since he is concerned above all with defending the image of his friend—who, he explains, has taken care of him in his own way since they were both very young.
Big Mom watches them walk down the mountain, not sure what will happen next. She had told them they may get famous, like many of her students, or they may not—they would make their own choices. They all had said goodbye, and even Victor managed a “thank you.” At the airport, as they are boarding, Victor nearly refuses to get on the plane—none of them have flown before. Finally he relents, deciding to get drunk, but still refusing the eagle feather Thomas has offered him. Victor is fine during take-off, but when the plane hits turbulence, he asks Thomas for the feather, and whispers a prayer. Thomas produces a feather for each of them, and Chess tells Thomas she loves him. As they fly away, the reservation waits, collectively, for their return. Coyote Springs have only this one chance to be heroes, and the old Indian women are already predicting their defeat.
The tension rises as everyone is waiting to see what will happen to the band—Big Mom, and all the members of the reservation community. Victor’s uneasiness about the plane highlights the extent to which these characters have lived an isolate life, outside of mainstream American culture. Thomas’s eagle feathers are an anchor to the past, to their community, and to the particular Indian spirituality that they have been basking in with Big Mom—and it makes sense that Thomas, the storyteller, is the one most in tune with that spirituality. As they roll the dice with this journey, there is a mixture of breathless hope and inevitable despair in the air.