Thomas Builds-the-Fire has been compensated by Washington Water Power, who paid him off in order to install ten power poles across land he’d inherited. He throws a party to celebrate. Victor, who narrates this story, and his friend Junior Polatkin are there, but they leave early go try some “new drugs” at Benjamin Lake and hopefully experience visions. Victor says that he hopes the experience will be “spiritual” and “very fucking Indian.”
Victor and Junior engage in the cultural practice of the vision quest somewhat ironically. They do really want to experience visions, but acknowledge that their search for them is hollow in comparison to the divinely-bestowed visions of their ancestors (and even those given to Thomas, a visionary and storyteller.)
After driving a little ways, the two boys see Thomas standing by the side of the road; he has left his own party in order to follow the two boys. Victor invites Thomas to join them at the lake, but the invitation comes with a condition: Thomas can only come if he promises not to tell any stories after he’s taken the drug. Thomas agrees. Victor gives Thomas the drug, a hallucinogen, and Junior asks him what he’s able to see. Thomas “poke[s]s his head through some wall into another, better world,” where he says he can see Victor—wearing braids, stealing a horse, riding by moonlight.
Victor and Junior see Thomas as an outcast or a burden, but agree to let him come along—perhaps because they are aware of his predisposition toward visions. Thomas would rather spend time with Victor and Junior than host his own party, and he is eager to be a part of whatever the two of them are up to; he is the first to take the drug (which is never explicitly named), and the first to experience its effects.
Junior asks Victor to give him some of the drug. Though Junior is driving, Victor obliges. The boys reach the lake, and Junior’s vision begins; he can see Thomas “dancing naked around a fire.” He describes his vision-Thomas as “tall and dark and fucking huge.”
Junior sees a vision of Thomas that contrasts to the Thomas of now. Young, awkward, and outcast in the present, the Thomas of Junior’s vision is strong and large and takes up space—it’s like Thomas as he was supposed to be, in some tribal past or alternate present.
Junior spins the car in circles through the empty fields near the lake, and Victor tells him to slow down. Both Junior and Thomas are consumed by their visions. Victor leans over to the driver’s seat to stop the car, and Junior jumps out and runs through the field. Victor follows him. Thomas drives up behind them; Victor tells him to stop the car, and asks him where he was going. Thomas replies that he was chasing his vision of Victor and his horse. Victor finally takes some of the drug, and “instantly” has a vision of Junior, standing on stage in blue jeans, strumming a guitar and singing about Crazy Horse.
Throughout the book visions are symbols of yearning for a way of life that is gone. The boys long to connect with what their culture and heritage was before it was decimated by white people. Even in their visions, though, they are unable to escape the loss of Native culture or arrive at their own cultural markers—visions of songs about Crazy Horse—without first experiencing white markers—blue jeans and guitars.
The boys walk down to the lake. Thomas puts his feet in the water, and Junior and Victor sit on the hood of the car while the drugs wear off, drinking diet Pepsi and watching as Thomas talks to himself, “telling himself stories.” Victor and Junior speculate about why Thomas is the way he is. “Some people say he got dropped on his head when he was little. Some people think he’s magic,” Victor says, adding that he thinks both things are true. Thomas turns around, and asks the boys if they want to hear a story. They oblige him, and he begins.
Though Victor and Junior experience visions, they are only able to do so with the help of a hallucinogen; Thomas, however, can seemingly access his visions through his stories any time he wants, and often even when he doesn’t. The boys and, eventually, the tribe as a whole, will mock and revile Thomas for his stories, but in this moment they are blessings, and Victor and Junior covet them in a way.
Thomas tells a story of three Indian boys drinking diet Pepsi out by Benjamin Lake, “wearing only loincloths and braids.” The boys, Thomas says, “have decided to be real Indians tonight. They all want to have their vision, to receive their true names, their adult names.” In Thomas’s vision, the boys are all “carried away to the past, to the moment before any of them took their first drink of alcohol.” The boys sing, dance, drum, and steal horses.
Thomas, too, dreams of being able to connect with his heritage in a pure, authentic way. He knows that Victor and Junior, too, want to participate in a version their culture without pain, suffering, or abuse. Thomas’s vision is a brief and beautiful respite from the cultural baggage all three boys bear, and will carry into adulthood.
After he is finished with his story, Thomas gets up and walks away. Victor regrets being cruel to Thomas as children; he notes that Thomas has always been kind to both him and Junior. Thomas turns around and yells to Victor and Junior, telling them “not to slow dance with [their] skeletons.”
Though Victor seems to have a change of heart here, his behavior toward Thomas will not change. Thomas warns Junior and Victor not to engage with their “skeletons,” or the dark sides of their past and potential future.
Victor and Junior stay at the lake until the sun comes up, experiencing residual visions. The following day, the spiritual leader of the tribe, Big Mom, comes upon them, and tells them that she knows what they saw. She hands Victor a small drum that fits in the palm of his hand, and tells him to hang onto it in case he needs her; it is, she says, her “pager.” Victor, in the present, tells us that he’s never used the drum; Big Mom died, he says, a couple years ago. He still likes to keep the drum nearby, and calls it “the only religion [he has.]”
Big Mom wants for the boys to be able to get in touch with her, and with themselves. In a leap to the present day, Victor reveals that her faith in the power of their visions and their agency in reclaiming a cultural rite of passage has had a deep and lasting impact on who Victor himself has become.