How can a white man, and one raised in the United Kingdom and a world ago at that, possibly comment on “The Only Good Indians”? How can anyone not subjected to the intense historical dislocation and disruption that the Native population has experienced fully understand the complex contemporary world which Native Americans have to navigate? How is it possible to try to grasp the complexity of a present determined by past? These are the broader questions which were raised for this reader by Mr. Jones’s excellent novel. Beyond these broader philosophical issues, “The Only Good Indians” also presents a first-rate horror narrative.
Lewis, Ricky, Cass, and Gabe are four young Blackfeet living on a reservation who violate policy/tradition about where they can hunt for elk. In an area set aside for the Elders, these Youngers embark on a small-scale slaughter of elk. One of the hunter’s victims is a young calf who is pregnant. While a success in terms of body count the hunt is a dismal failure as the hunters are caught before they can process their victims. It is a slaughter all for naught.
Ten years later and the four are no longer together. Ricky flees the reservation following the death of his younger brother, only to be beaten to death outside a bar in South Dakota. Lewis has headed off the reservation to the “outside” where he has a white partner, a job with the USPS, and experiences the sense of being the “other.” Returning to the reservation he is shot to death by state troopers following a diabolical domestic incident. Cass and Gabe stay on the reservation, kept in place by family and the heavy weight of state-sponsored poverty disguised as tradition. But they, too, are unable to escape their past. All four of these men are, somehow, driven to the very end of their psychological capacity by their participation in the slaughter of the elk. The return of a vengeful spirit to rectify this slaughter, and the beautifully crafted way in which these ends are achieved, remain the central part of the horror narrative; and, as a word of caution, this aspect of the work this reader found deeply disturbing. It has been a very long time since your reviewer has had to take a hiatus on a text due to its capacity to unsettle. All of which stands as a testament to Stephen Graham Jones’s skill as an author.
"The Only Good Indians" does so much more than terrify, which it does very well! It should, I would argue, make all readers aware of the difficulty posed for many Native peoples in balancing the roles of past and present. It speaks to the vital importance of traditional pathways and how they need to adopt to the contemporary to avoid becoming tired and inflexible. This is a very complex and nuanced read, disguised heavily as a truly frightening story.
“The Only Good Indians,” along with more of Stephen Graham Jones’s works, is available at the Cabell County Public Library.