Reservation Blues is the story of a group of Native Americans in Washington who, led by the reservation outcast and storyteller Thomas Builds-the-Fire and spurred on by the demonic magic of Robert Johnson’s mystical guitar, decide to form a blues band that they name “Coyote Springs.” The novel charts the rise and fall of Coyote Springs, and the individual struggles of each member of the band as they face the systemic suffering of Native American life.
In the novel’s opening scene, Robert Johnson, an African-American stranger modeled after the real-life blues musician, appears on the Spokane reservation, waiting at the crossroads. Thomas Builds-the-Fire stops to talk with him, and ends up giving him a ride to the base of Wellpinit Mountain, sending Johnson to see Big Mom, who might be able to save him from the mysterious Gentleman who is chasing him. Johnson leaves Thomas his guitar, which seems to be imbued with magical powers. After a violent confrontation with longtime bully Victor Joseph and his best friend Junior Polatkin, the guitar—now broken, but not for long—tells Thomas that the three of them are destined to start a blues band, to give the reservation the music it needs.
The new band forms, with Junior on drums, Thomas as the lead singer, bassist, and songwriter, and Victor playing the mystical guitar. They call themselves “Coyote Springs” and practice in an abandoned grocery store in the small town, drawing small crowds of tribe members who watch as they rehearse covers of famous songs. As their fame grows, at least among Native Americans, they are invited to play their first paid gig at a bar on the Flathead reservation in Arlee, Montana. The show goes disastrously, since both Victor and Junior get very drunk early on in the performance. At the show Thomas meets the Warm Water sisters, Chess and Checkers. He sings a love song to Chess, and then pulls her onstage for a duet. The band crashes at sisters’ house, and Thomas convinces everyone that the sisters should join Coyote Springs as backup singers and keyboardists. They stay in Montana for a week, playing a triumphantly redemptive second show at the same bar, the Tipi Pole Tavern.
The band returns to Washington and continues to improve, playing a successful show at the unlikely location of a cowboy bar in Ellensburg, Washington. Mistrust of the band begins to grow on their home reservation, however, as community members in the church speak out against the content of their music, and David WalksAlong, the Tribal Council Chairman who has an old grudge with Thomas’ father, Samuel Builds-the-Fire, argues that they are disturbing the peace. Samuel, who is now a constant drunk following the death of his wife, then shows up passed out on Thomas’ lawn. In the night, we see Junior’s dreams of his own parents, who died in a drunk driving accident. Victor dreams of his mother and stepfather, who are both absent, and of a group of frightening men in black robes. We also see into the tragic past of Chess and Checkers’ family, whose father, Luke Warm Water, became an alcoholic after the death of their younger brother, Bobby, causing their mother to commit suicide. Flashbacks from the life of Samuel Builds-the-Fire, who now lies unconscious on the kitchen table, reveal a dramatic, pride-fueled pick-up basketball match years ago that pitted Samuel and Lester FallsApart against the eight men of the Tribal Police, who were led by David WalksAlong. Samuel and Lester nearly prevailed against the odds, but ended up having their victory snatched away at the last minute in a nasty, dirty game.
The next morning, on-edge after staying up all night and fed up with Victor’s insensitivity, Checkers attacks Victor violently in response to a rude comment about Thomas’s father, Samuel. Thomas intervenes, and gets into a wrestling match with Victor himself. Outside after the fight, Chess convinces Thomas that they should kick Junior and Victor out of the band. At this moment, a package arrives with an invitation to play in Seattle for one thousand dollars, a huge payday for the struggling band. Checkers refuses to go along, but Chess, Thomas, Victor, and Junior begin the long road trip in uncomfortable silence.
When they arrive, they discover that in fact they have been invited to a “battle of the bands,” a competition in which only the winner will receive the thousand dollar prize. With no other choice, they decide to sleep in the van before the competition. Back on the reservation, Checkers goes to the Catholic Church and meets Father Arnold, a white priest. Checkers talks to him about her deep desire as a child to be as “clean” as all the little white girls. She quickly falls in love with the understanding priest.
Miraculously, Coyote Springs wins the battle of the bands. We learn that two white women, Betty and Veronica, who have been following the band since the very beginning of their journey and have a physical relationship with Victor and Junior, sang backup. They all return to the reservation, but once there their luck runs out, along with the prize money. As a compromise with Chess, Thomas goes to church, but is unconvinced by the experience. A drunken Victor and Joseph are confronted by an enraged Michael White Hawk, the nephew of David WalksAlong. Michael beats them badly until a local drifter, the-man-who-was-probably-Lakota, hits him over the head with a two-by-four. The two band members slowly recover, as the money dries up—and no new gigs or record deals are coming in. Betty and Veronica return to Seattle, to the bookstore that they co-own.
One day, a Cadillac with two powerful executives from Cavalry Records, Phil Sheridan and George Wright, rolls onto the reservation. They offer Coyote Springs a possible record deal, inviting them to fly out to record a test in New York a week later. With this unexpected opportunity, the band feels pressure to perform the best they can. They make a pilgrimage to Big Mom’s house on Wellpinit Mountain and live there for a week, as she teaches them to play the chords full of suffering and pain that belong to all Indians, in spite of resistance from the ever-difficult Victor. At this point, all of the band’s music is original.
As prepared as they can be, Coyote Springs takes the plane to New York—the first time that any of its members have flown. But when they reach the recording studio and begin to play for the chief executive, Mr. Armstrong, Victor’s guitar suddenly rebels, burning him and bucking out of his hands. Armstrong leaves, and, enraged, Victor throws a tantrum in the studio, destroying some equipment. He and Junior leave to get drunk, while Chess, Checkers, and Thomas return to the hotel. Chess and Thomas decide to try and locate Victor and Junior, but it proves a nearly impossible task. Junior, meanwhile, stays sober and guides Victor home, haunted all the while by flashbacks of a white girl named Lynn, who he dated in college. She became pregnant, but chose to abort their baby, unwilling to marry an Indian. Alone in the hotel, Checkers is attacked by Phil Sheridan in a nightmare, and he reveals his true identity as a U.S. Army general from the Indian Wars.
Leaving their instruments behind, the band flies back to the reservation, where many tribe members wish to excommunicate them. Checkers confronts Father Arnold about their relationship, and he reveals that he is planning to leave both the reservation and the Church—but not to be with her. Defeated by tragedy and the memories of Lynn, Junior steals a rifle, climbs to the top of the water tower, and commits suicide. At his funeral, Chess and Thomas decide to get married and have children, but also to leave the reservation and move to Spokane. Checkers will go with them, leaving Victor alone. The night before Junior committed suicide, the guitar had come to Victor in a dream, telling him that it could make him famous if Victor would sacrifice the thing—or the person—that he loved most in the world. Racked with guilt, Victor has been sober since Junior’s suicide. Junior later appears to him, and the two of them throw flask after flask of whiskey into Turtle Lake. Determined to do better in life, Victor goes to David WalksAlong to ask for Junior’s old job, but WalksAlong crumples up his résumé, laughing. Defeated and despairing, Victor steals five dollars from WalksAlong’s secretary and buys a six-pack of cheap beer, cracking one open with a sound that echoes the shot from Junior’s rifle.
Chess, Checkers, and Thomas leave the reservation, stopping at a tribal feast along the way at the insistence of Big Mom. Big Mom takes a collection for them from the tribe, some of whom donate out of generosity, but many, like WalksAlong, out of a desire to see the three outcasts leave the reservation for good. They say their goodbyes and drive away to find new stories and new songs in Spokane. As they leave the reservation a herd of shadowy horses surrounds their van, running alongside them in the night.