Junior Polatkin describes his friendship with Norma, noting that he knew her long before she knew her husband James. He knew Norma, he says, “back when there was good fry bread to be eaten at the powwow, before the old women died. Sometimes,” Junior says, “it feels like our tribe is dying a piece of bread at a time. But Norma was always trying to save it.” Norma, though young, was at that time nicknamed “grandmother” by her friends and other members of the tribe.
Norma has been shown throughout the text so far to be a supportive figure for the difficult men around her. As a young woman, she saved Thomas from Victor’s bullying, and after leaving her husband, James, she returns to his side to help him “die the right way.” Norma, Junior says, has spent her life trying to “save” the tribe and its culture, too.
At a powwow, Norma and Junior sit and talk; everyone, he notes, wants to spend time with Norma. Norma, he says, believes that “everything matters,” and that “Indians are the most sensitive people on the planet.” She teaches Junior that “watching automatically makes the watcher part of the happening,” and she lives her life, Junior says, “like we all should do.” She does not drink or smoke, and she is a joyous dancer. After the powwow, Norma drops Junior off at home, and he has a dream about her. He dreams of her “a hundred years ago,” riding bareback and shouting something Junior can’t understand.
Norma is frequently representative of one of the larger narrative’s major themes: bearing witness. She explains the implications of “watching” to Junior, and has also borne witness to Thomas’s suffering and her husband’s decline. Norma is not a passive witness, though. She has a firm place in the text and a direct influence on those around her—she represents the act of bearing witness as an active, generous, even healing one.
Junior tells Norma about his dream, and they talk about horses. Norma, Junior says, is a “rodeo queen.” She hangs out with cowboys and sometimes sleeps with them, and they sing songs in her honor. Most nights, though, Junior notes that Norma goes “home alone and [sings] herself to sleep.” Junior always thought that Norma would settle down with Victor, “since she was so good at saving people and Victor needed more saving than most anybody,” but he says that Norma and Victor never got along. Victor was a bully as a youth, and Junior doubts Norma ever forgave him.
Norma is never quite a savior figure, though she encroaches on that territory. Though Victor “needs saving,” she is not the one to do it—nor does she “save” her husband or Junior. She appears to have rescued Thomas in their shared youth, but, as we see later on, Thomas is a tragic figure who in the end is unable to be rescued from forces beyond his control.
Norma, Junior says, used to be the sports reporter for the tribal newspaper. He saved a clipping of a story she wrote about a winning basketball game he played in high school, and keeps it tucked in his wallet to this day. In the article, Norma describes Junior’s victory and implies that “for just a second [Junior] was Crazy Horse.”
It is apt that Norma, as a bearing-witness figure, served as a reporter for the tribal newspaper. She bolsters Junior’s confidence through the witnessing of his talent, and comparing him to Crazy Horse, the idealized strong warrior and leader.
Norma lives her whole life on the reservation, but when Junior returns from college, she wants to know what the world “out there” is like. Junior describes it as “a bad dream you never wake up from.”
There are some things that Norma cannot bear witness to, and requires others, like Junior, to see for her.
Norma asks Junior what the “worst thing [he] ever did” was, and he describes a college basketball game during which he chanted hateful things at a player from another team who’d at one time been incarcerated. After Junior tells her this story, he notes that “she treat[s] him differently.” After a while, things go back to normal. Norma nicknames Junior Pete Rose, because “after all that greatness, he’s only remembered for the bad stuff, [and it] ain’t right.”
Here, Norma bears witness to an act of violence and meanness from Junior’s past. She absolves him, though, after a time, and her ability to witness his mistakes and forgive them lends him strength, and allows him to feel seen, supported, and even loved.