The Only Good Indians, by Stephen Graham Jones

Trigger warning for animal cruelty.

Throughout Stephen Graham Jones’s challenging novel, The Only Good Indians, characters constantly refer to how they’re winging things when they attempt to practice traditional indigenous ceremonies and their worries about what it means to be “Indian.” In fact, at one point, the main protagonists have a small argument about their use of the name “Indian,” when younger generations have been labeled and use the labels indigenous or native. That there is so much tension and makeshift ceremonies and practices constantly drew my attention to how disrupted the Blackfeet people are in this novel–so much so that the generations barely seem to have any continuity between them. This refrain also highlights the fact that this book seems to be all about doomed four Blackfeet men after they commit a crime against nature so egregious that something wants them to pay for it with their lives.

The Only Good Indian is comprised of four sections. The first is the shortest and is full of headlines that tell us exactly how what unfolds will be portrayed in the media. While we see the short, brutal end of a man who is attacked by what appears to be a young elk only to accidentally damage a couple of trucks belonging to a bunch of drunk white men who’ve just come out of the bar, the headlines repeat old cliches about drunk Indians. From this section about Ricky, we move on to Lewis Clarke (he was teased a lot when he lived on the reservation) in an even more troubling section in which Lewis appears to lose his mind even though his life seems ideal. Through Lewis, we learn just what the quartet of friends—Ricky, Lewis, Cass, and Gabe—did that set a strange figure, the Elk Head Woman, after them. When they were teenagers, on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, they went hunting. It was still the season and at least one of them had a permit. But, when they find a small doe herd, they open fire and kill far more animals than they can haul back. The teens end up leaving most of the dead elk behind and are caught by the game warden with their catch trying to load it into Cass’s truck.

For years, the four men thought that being banned from hunting was the worst thing that would happen to them. Ricky and Lewis leave the reservation. Cass eventually settles down with a Crow woman on the Blackfeet reservation, while Gabe is still trying to find his way and comes and goes depending on whim and restraining orders. But then Ricky and Lewis start to see elk where there definitely shouldn’t be elk and things get violent. It’s only in the latter two sections of the book that all the pieces start to really come together as Elk Head Woman starts to show herself around the Blackfeet reservation (which may be in Montana). And it was only in this second half that I started to see how the broken connections of culture, family, friendship, and the natural world were at war with each other. The only way for there to be peace was for someone to discover a way to reconcile old with new, bury what needed to be buried and resurrect what needed to be resurrected.

I struggled with this book. It took me most of a week to finish it, mostly because of the graphic descriptions of killing and butchering elk. I picked up The Only Good Indians because I was looking for something to freak me out for Halloween. Mission accomplished there. When I got to the second half of the book, however, I realized that this book was about much more than gruesome and bloody revenge. Like the best examples of the horror genre, this book unsettles us at the same time that it makes some very pointed observations about how we got to where we are and what’s wrong with the status quo. For readers with strong stomachs, I heartily recommend The Only Good Indians.

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