Thomas Builds-the-Fire sits in a Spokane tribal holding cell while Bureau of Indian Affairs officials, in another room, “discuss his future, the immediate present, and of course, his past,” and claim that Thomas has “a storytelling fetish accompanied by an extreme need to tell the truth.” They classify him as “dangerous.”
Storytelling, a major theme throughout the collection, is literally on trial here. Thomas, bearer of stories and visions, has been marked “dangerous” and is now profoundly isolated from his community.
We learn that Thomas has been silent for almost twenty years, and only recently has begun again to “make small noises that contain more emotion and meaning than entire sentences.” His noises—one in particular—recently inspired Esther WalksAlong to leave her husband David, the tribal chairman. Thomas was arrested almost immediately after Esther left.
Though we don’t know for sure what caused Thomas to take a 20-year vow of silence, it’s clear that he still longs to communicate, and can’t help still communicating with the people around him.
The BIA members discuss what charges should be brought against Thomas. Whatever they are, they must be “felony charge[s].” Meanwhile, Thomas sits alone in his cell, counting bugs and allowing stories and visions to wash over him. He looks out at the sky through the bars over his cell’s window, and wonders how he will be punished.
The unfairness of Thomas’s predicament echoes the unfairness of the persecution of Native people throughout the years. Without rhyme or reason, Thomas is being held against his will, and the worst possible charges are being levied against him in a vaguely surreal, Kafkaesque scene.
At Thomas’s trial, the traveling judge tells Thomas that “the court must be certain” he understands the charges being leveled against him. Thomas claims that “the exact nature of any charges have [not] been revealed, let alone detailed.” The judge attempts to trap Thomas and implicate him in his own guilt, then asks him to call his first witness. Thomas calls his “first and only witness”: himself.
Thomas’s serving as his own witness is in direct engagement with larger themes of witnessing and storytelling at work throughout the text; he is, he knows, the only one able to tell the truth of his own life, and, more than that, is the only person willing to stand up for himself.
Thomas mounts the witness stand, closes his eyes, and speaks. He begins to tell a story, and describes a vision of himself as a pony living in 1858. Colonel George Wright, he says, stole 800 ponies from the Spokane chief Til-co-ax, the chief’s “entire wealth.” Then, overwhelmed by their number and fear of a stampede, Wright killed all but a few. Thomas says that he was one of the ponies who’d been spared; he watched for hours as his brothers and sisters were executed one by one. Thomas details throwing several of the Colonel’s men who attempted to ride him, and, eventually, tells of his escape.
Thomas’s tale of loss, violence, and horror is just a glimpse of the enormous scale of atrocities against Native people over the centuries. Thomas connects to the past in a visceral manner, linking his pain with the past suffering of his people.
The judge asks Thomas if this story is “the extent of [his] testimony,” and Thomas replies that “there are a so many more stories to tell.” The judge allows Thomas to continue.
Thomas is unknowingly indicting himself. His stories are what his captors want to hear, as evidence that he is “dangerous.”
Thomas describes himself as an Indian named Qualchan, an escapee from Colonel Wright’s camp. Wright captures Qualchan’s father and threatens to hang him, too. Qualchan returns to camp and is placed in chains. After putting up a fight, Qualchan is hanged beside six other Indians. The judge asks Thomas “what point” he is trying to make by telling this story. Thomas replies that “The City of Spokane is now building a golf course named after me, Qualchan, in that valley where I was hanged.” The courtroom explodes in “motion and emotion,” and the judge calls for order while the attendees of Thomas’s trial fight each other. One woman shouts “Thomas, we’re all listening, we hear you,” again and again.
The cruel irony that the city of Spokane is building a golf course named after a hanged Indian warrior in the very valley where he met his death falls, at first, on deaf ears. The judge and jury seem unmoved, though the attendees of Thomas’s trial recognize the horror of the injustices his visions have been attempting to underscore. All Thomas wants—has ever wanted—is to be heard, and now, though he’s on trial for crimes he didn’t commit, he finally has a captive audience.
The court is cleared and order is restored, and the judge calls for “administration of justice.” He calls for Thomas’s cross-examination, and the prosecuting attorney approaches Thomas. She asks him where he was on a date in 1858. He replies that he was an Indian named Wild Coyote, and was, at sixteen years old, about to head into his first battle. He describes a vision of a bloody battle, full of days of fighting. When the prosecutor asks Thomas how many soldiers he killed in the struggle, he admits to killing at least two soldiers before abandoning the fight. The prosecutor asks Thomas if he “murder[ed] two soldiers in cold blood and with premeditation,” and Thomas admits his own guilt.
Thomas’s stories are cautionary tales, of a sort, though they all take place in the distant past. The court uses his own good intentions against him, and enacts a kind of violence against him by indicting him for crimes he is forced to admit he committed, as he was inhabiting and participating in a vision of the past.
An article in a local newspaper describes Thomas’s sentencing. “the self-proclaimed visionary of the Spokane Tribe,” it says, “was sentenced today to two concurrent life terms in the Walla Walla State Penitentiary.” The article also notes that Thomas’s “many supporters battled with police for over eight hours following the verdict.”
Thomas’s cruel and unfair sentencing highlights the brokenness of his community and his profound isolation within it. Yet at the moment of his downfall it seems that he has finally found some true supporters on the reservation.
On the bus to the Walla Walla State Penitentiary, Thomas sits among “six other prisoners: four African men, one Chicano, and a white man from the smallest town in the state.” The men have heard of Thomas’s trial and his storytelling abilities, and ask him to share a story with them. Thomas realizes that all seven of them are headed off to “a new kind of reservation, barrio, ghetto, logging-town tin shack.” He closes his eyes, and begins to tell the men a story.
Thomas has a new audience, and an eager one; it is the one small reprieve in an otherwise devastating, violent, isolating situation. Thomas’s litany of various dwellings for the poor and oppressed throughout history then links present-day mass incarceration and the continued abuse of various groups to larger historical cycles of oppression and suffering.