Thomas Builds-the-Fire describes a vision of the world in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event in which “most of the white men died and most of the Indians lived.” He surmises that Custer is the culprit; “only Custer could have done something that backward,” he says. The only other possible reason for the event’s occurrence, he says, is that “maybe the Ghost Dance finally worked.”
This imaginative, myth-building story—devised by or delivered to Thomas Builds-the-Fire—creates a universe in which the Native community is the sole remaining population of America. Themes of destruction, isolation, and imagination come to light as Thomas’s story unfolds.
The Tribal Council, Thomas says, “has ruled that anything to do with the whites has to be destroyed.” The nights are freezing, but the Indians, naked, burn down houses and everything in them. Thomas describes finding a small transistor radio in one house’s closet, “hidden away under a pile of old quilts.” Thomas longs to turn it on, but is afraid of what he might hear.
The violence, pain, and isolation that occur in this version of reality, despite the absence of white abusers and aggressors, is palpable. Thomas envisions himself as a member of this new world, and seems paralyzed by fear and longing.
Thomas loves an Indian woman named Tremble Dancer—she is, he says, one of “the Urbans,” or city Indians who survived the event and found their way to the reservation after the cities fell. There are only about a “dozen” Urbans left, Thomas says, and they are all ill. Tremble Dancer is not sick, he says, but her legs are covered in burns and scars. “Skins,” Thomas says, or Indians who lived on the reservation already at the time of the event, are not permitted to marry Urbans because they are stricken by a “sickness.”
The divisions between the Native community, even though they are the only remaining population in the Americas, are deep and disorienting. Rather than creating a stronger sense of community, Skins and Urbans alike experience extreme isolation and deep, unshakable cultural pain.
The weather, Thomas says, is changing. The nights are cold and the days are hot. Dead bodies are burned; The Tribal Council believes that those who fall ill have become victims of “a white man’s disease.”
The land and atmosphere are hostile and changeable. Illness is punished by isolating, stigmatizing rhetoric, and the loss of life throughout the community only continues.
Thomas describes his affair with Tremble Dancer. They meet in secret to “climb the branches of tree[s] and hold each other.” Tremble Dancer tells Thomas that “[her] legs are leaving [her,]” and that the rest of her is soon to follow. She tells Thomas that she is “jealous” of his healthy body.
If readers apply this world as an allegory to the world of the rest of the collection, Tremble Dancer might represent the weakness and vulnerability that accompany leaving the reservation, something we see Junior and Victor struggle to do.
During the burning of another house, Thomas finds a painting of Jesus Christ. “Jesus is white,” Thomas says. During the burning, Thomas can see “every color but white.”
Whiteness is reviled and hastily covered up in this new world—but it still retains its power as an antagonistic and oppressive force.
At night, Thomas says, he can “hear the horses exploding [and] the screams of children who are taken.” He describes the presence of “The Others,” Indians who have “come from a thousand years ago with arrow, bow, stone ax, large hands.” Sometimes The Others bring food and water, but often they are violent, and kill dissenters. One of the Others—presumably their leader—impregnates Tremble Dancer. She gives birth to “flopp[ing] salmon,” and shorty thereafter she dies.
The Others represent the vengeance of the past, and the memories contained within it. Once they resurge, they destroy the present—including Tremble Dancer, already weakened by the “white man’s disease” she brought from her old home in the city.
At a Tribal Council meeting, an Indian man named Judas offers a watch he found to the tribal chairman, who describes it as “a white man artifact; a sin.” Thomas remembers watches—bygones, now—and how “they measured time exactly, coldly.”
Thomas lives in a world, now, that exists outside of time. Offerings of “white man[‘s] artifact[s]” are made as a way to celebrate the destruction of the past.
Thomas holds the transistor radio in his hands, examining its perfect surface. He turns the radio on and cranks up the volume “until all [he can] hear [is] the in and out of [his] breath.”
The allure of the “artifact” of the transistor radio offers Thomas a retreat into memory, an escape similar to the one television offers, and a remembrance of community.