Writing from the Scene of the Crime: On Stephen Graham Jones’s “The Only Good Indians”
By Billy J. StrattonSeptember 11, 2021
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
Although much of Jones’s previous fiction is set in the American West, The Only Good Indians — like his boldest experiments in weird fiction — transcends borders and temporal dimensions or, more appropriately, creates its own. Like previous offerings, including Demon Theory, All the Beautiful Sinners, Mongrels, and Mapping the Interior, this story is set primarily in places dear to Jones’s heart — in and around the Blackfeet Nation in Montana. However, he also transports readers to the sites of horrific massacres that irrevocably altered native worlds. The events of Palo Duro, Texas, in 1874, featured in Growing Up Dead in Texas, and at the Marias River on a January morning in 1870, a key historical reference in Ledfeather and The Only Good Indians, are only two among the hundreds of vicious attacks perpetrated against native peoples which continue to live in native stories and memory even though they remain unknown to most Americans. Perhaps this is why Jones repeatedly brings readers back to these places and homelands, to sites where bones and bullets still lay scattered over the land, where the spirits of animals and humans alike dwell and memories still haunt. All the while — and this is what distinguishes Jones’s writing — he eschews the facile answers, clichéd figures, and binary alignments that serve so often as fixed sites of victimry and tragedy. In the complex merging of space, place, and history that Jones activates in his fiction, it is clear that he wants readers to know something of these places and to make them become a part of us, as well.
The Only Good Indians furthers these lofty ambitions and delivers just the kind of narrative slow burn Jones has become known for, crafting a story whose setting, characters, and sensations evoke a sense of uncanny familiarity. It opens in Williston, North Dakota, with a native oil worker named Richard Boss Ribs, or Ricky to his friends. Jones’s writing establishes a strong sense of isolation and menace from the start, which grows to resonate like an echo through a disjointed scene involving Ricky’s violent death. Jones teases stereotypes by setting the purported crime outside a bar, but we come to find out the real crime on which the narrative is hinged occurred almost 500 miles away and years before on the Blackfeet Reservation. This type of revelation evokes the postmodern sense that there is always more to be discovered, known, and remembered in the puzzles of his story’s telling. Much like the dusty attics of abandoned and haunted houses, the secret dungeons of forlorn castles, and maybe even that hedge maze outside the Overlook Hotel, Williston, and later, Great Falls and Browning, Montana, all hold their own dark and foreboding spaces. Situated on the high plains at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers, Williston is a town of booms and busts smack in the middle of the Bakken oil fields. Besides its ominous distinction as a site of intensive environmental destruction, the town has grown infamous across Indian Country as a place of horror for native American girls and women in an ongoing epidemic of sexual abuse and violence. Missing and murdered native and indigenous women may not be an explicit focus of the novel, but the presence and memory of this crisis is evident in the shadows that materialize, and is carried in the winds: a mournful cry and a scream of anger at society’s collective guilt. In addition to these immense crimes, Jones addresses an array of other injustices, exposing a national history marred by blindness and amnesia — an issue of particular relevance in today’s social context of alternate facts and fake news.
Such features and concerns are brought to the surface in The Only Good Indians through allusions to native cultural destruction, the theft of native lands, and the concomitant disruption of native foodways and cultural practices. Juxtaposed against this litany of forces that form the basis for so much deprivation, oppression, and violence, Jones offers one young, native female’s hopeful vision of “that handful of years when Indians only had reservations, before they got all of America back.” These historical and futurist contexts are brought into focus by four of the novel’s main Blackfeet characters — Ricky, Lewis, Cassidy, and Gabe — who partake in an ill-fated elk hunt. The characters’ decisions during this hunting trip unleash a chain of events and consequences that threatens to consume them and all those around them. Jones wastes little time in unpacking the tangled associations and effects he employs between violence and place in the novel’s structure as Williston is cast as the site of Ricky’s penitence. His fate ends up ironically described in a headline all-too-common to the region: “INDIAN MAN KILLED IN DISPUTE OUTSIDE BAR.”
The third-person omniscient narrator Jones employs in this opening scene adds another element of ambiguity to the event in the unsettling headline, reminding readers, “that’s one way to say it.” Outbursts of violence against native people have been common for going on two centuries now in Western US towns, many of which were built on the very ashes of such carnage. Jones employs the flittering images of a Blackfeet oilfield worker’s violent death, adeptly rendered to draw this reality to the surface. Yet, in the worlds Jones creates things are not always as they seem: the scene of Ricky’s death serves to extend the range of Jones’s experiment with the slasher story by providing an initial glimpse of the monstrous figure that personifies the central mystery of the story as lusus naturae. Following Ricky’s putative murder by a group of white men with “hands balled into fists, eyes flashing white,” this seems like a story we’ve heard before. But before the drunken mob reaches Ricky, we catch a glimpse of a lurking presence hidden in the unmeasurable distance of the freezing night, leaving Ricky as the victim of what only appears to be an all-too-common crime.
Jones activates this merging of violence and retribution, space and place, past and presence, through an opening scene charged with ambiguity in a blending of horror and history that is intensified by the desolation of transgression — familiar elements of new West literature, the Gothic West, and weird fiction alike. This evocative scene is initially framed as another murder of a native person in a bloodslaked region with a long-established association to senseless brutality, but just beyond our perception, lying in wait at the edge of the shadows on a frozen prairie, lies another presence: a specter described only as “[a] huge dark form.” Jones’s mingling of narrative elements, which coalesce native storytelling, regionalism, and mystery into a unique example of weird horror — so compellingly as to elicit comparisons with Jordan Peele — leads us to reject almost immediately that Ricky’s murder fits the headline it receives. Instead, as the narrative gradually unwinds, the truth turns out to be far more dreadful: an inescapable retribution. Yet the consequences Ricky suffers, and those reserved for his hunting companions, are not altogether unexpected. They extend from a series of transgressions that led Ricky to exile in a futile attempt to escape and to forget.
The storied world that makes up Jones’s haunted West is complex and multilayered, creating a verisimilitude woefully lacking in the romanticized and exotic fables of B-horror and pulp Westerns. The small Western towns — or “how shit the reservation was” as one character describes Browning — are typified by mundane boredom and oblivion: in this place, elders who live in a section of the reservation called “Death Row” spend their time watching the televised 24-hour video feed from a security camera in the parking lot of an IGA. People adorn their homes with items facetiously referred to as “Indian junk,” or not; read sci-fi, horror, and fantasy novels, as well as comic books; break-dance in parking lots to music heard through the foam-covered headphones of a Sony Walkman; bundle up within Star Wars sleeping bags; celebrate a love for basketball; cook meals consisting of canned chili, mac and cheese with hot dogs, and grilled cheese sandwiches; or even take part in ceremonies inside a sweat lodge built of rebar and old blankets, done to the beat of a drum played from a cassette tape through the PA of a tribal police car. The contemporary native people of Jones’s story get around in trucks or an odd Harley-Davidson motorcycle, rather than the majestic saddleless horses depicted by artists such as Charles Marion Russell, Alfred Jacob Miller, and Frederic Remington, allowing Jones to overwrite a space so often used as a setting for pulp Westerns, or worse yet, narratives of victimhood with a new kind of indigenous horror.
Ricky’s violent death in Williston becomes the opening strike in a cascading chain of calamitous events reverberating from an elk hunt that readers aren’t given an accounting of until more than 50 pages in. Thus, while Jones uses Ricky as the sacrificial figure in a larger mystery that forms out of this fateful event, we also come to find out that the hunt itself took place nearly 10 years before the novel’s narrative present, on the “last Saturday before Thanksgiving.” Jones further connects this incident to the disorder begotten of colonialism: he originally frames the hunt with Ricky’s justification of “bringing meat to the whole tribe” but later reveals, through the reflections of other characters, that the hunt was done on a section of land set aside for elders in disregard of Blackfeet traditions, as well as modern tribal norms and laws. The implicit and explicit abuses perpetrated by the four friends explain why the elk hunt “had gone pretty much straight to hell,” as the hunt was far from the act of communal support Ricky cast it as. The shame these men feel for their involvement comes through in the three remaining friends’ evasiveness, when they speak of it as the “Thanksgiving Classic.” The repetitive use of this euphemistic phrase, along with its ironic association to a holiday that whitewashes colonial violence and oppression in early New England, belies the strong sense of disgrace and guilt the friends have come to feel for their actions. This makes their justification for trespassing onto a section of land reserved for elders seem little more than an excuse invented after the fact, and this forms the basis for the retribution meted out.
Jones reinforces the context of these details through an intricate layering of motives and historical effects to build a story that highlights the insidious impacts of colonialism. These repercussions are portrayed as both an external force and internalized hegemonic effect, serving as a source of horror and ghoulish tropes. For many of the contemporary Blackfeet characters of the novel, these ideas also align with the effects that Anishinaabe scholar Lawrence W. Gross notes stem from the Euro-American colonialism that caused the “end of our worlds.” Given the catastrophic nature of colonialism as experienced on personal, social, and institutional levels, Gross’s characterization of settler history as apocalyptic is candidly descriptive. The effects themselves, however, also create natural associations with the genres of horror and science fiction dystopias, from the disruptive societal toll of privation, alcoholism, and substance abuse to the more visible results of crime and violence. Within this native-centered context, the actions of the primary characters in The Only Good Indians can be read as responses to the traumas, fears, and resentments endemic to cycles of mourning and loss. But they can also be read as psychological reactions to the loss of cultural knowledge and the interruption of spiritual practices that can exacerbate feelings of guilt and victimry. Jones includes numerous references throughout the novel that speak to the deeper context of Manifest Destiny, and especially its impact on Blackfeet people. This includes a litany of strange and creepy occurrences, from the strangulation and grisly death of one character’s dog and a merciless attack on a sweat lodge to the appearance of spectral figures such as a ghostly elk seen in a living room and a mysterious girl wearing a basketball jersey seen walking alone on the side of the road in Browning. Scenes such as these pull readers ever deeper into the foreboding Gothic West and the Blackfeet lands of Ricky’s, and his killer’s, origins.
Shifting to Lewis and the remaining participants in the elk hunt, Jones takes us to Great Falls, Montana, a town linked to Williston by the Missouri River and much closer to Blackfeet lands. With its emphasis on the confluences and entanglements of time, space, place, and history, Great Falls is situated just east of a site identified on contemporary maps as “First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park.” Also known as Ulm Pishkun to the area’s local native population — from the Blackfeet Piskun, for “kettle of blood” — it is among several communal “buffalo jumps” memorialized in Blackfeet language, memory, and story. Such places memorialize a Blackfeet orientation to the natural world, while emphasizing traditional hunting practices through accounts of those “selected to drape a calf robe over his shoulders and run out in front of all those buffalo” to draw them to the jump. As harsh as it may seem, the use of buffalo jumps proved for centuries an effective means by which these large and dangerous animals could be safely and efficiently killed to provide food as well as hides, horns, bone, and other parts to fashion items of cultural and sacred importance. The actions taken by the four friends during their elk hunt are incompatible with such customs; they indiscriminately fired upon the herd in a way more akin to the buffalo hunters depicted in Western histories such as Buffalo Bill or Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams. Like these mythic frontier figures, they also left the bulk of the meat to waste and rot.
Like Ricky, Lewis has also left the reservation: in his case for an ordinary life as a letter carrier in Great Falls where he is married to a non-native woman, Peta. Lewis breaks from clichéd associations in which native people are so often fixed in a tragic 19th-century past, instead expressing modern sensibilities and a love of genre fiction, of books “about wizards and druids at the mall, or werewolves and vampires being detectives.” His role in the infamous elk hunt is revealed following a DIY attempt to repair a light on a vaulted ceiling above his fireplace. Standing on a ladder, Lewis glances down through the spinning blades of a ceiling fan and sees an unsettling figure from “a past Lewis recognizes.” The spectral presence on the floor below has the form of “a young cow elk,” one that “Lewis knows” is “dead […] because, ten years ago, he was the one who made her that way.” Although the description of the elk hunt isn’t narrated until a few chapters later, Jones reinforces the menacing nature of this apparition through repeated associations with transgression.
The storied world of the novel is given added emphasis by the unspoken completion of the sentence that makes up the title, The Only Good Indians…, a statement that evokes the genocidal logic through its well-known conclusion in which acts and their consequences are not merely joined to arbitrary or abstract conceptions of agency. They are not defined by the inflexibility of categorical imperatives either, since the larger story is one of change and adaptation, knowing and acceptance. The crucial hinge in The Only Good Indians turns on disregard for cultural knowledge and practices of respect and care intended to allow Blackfeet people to help sustain balance and harmony in the world. As a voice echoes an assertion in Lewis’s mind that in using buffalo jumps “they killed them fair and square,” he knows that no such consideration was given to the elk in their encounter. Enter the figure Jones offers up as his slasher, one both monstrous and terrifying, but also deeply sympathetic: Ponokaotokaanaakii, or Elk Head Woman. This vengeful spirit returns in a troubled time to close “a circle” while standing at the center of numerous scenes of horror, including a game of 21 and a chase that for once doesn’t lead to the end of the trail. For Jones, the confrontation with the slasher in the conventional role as an avenging force of retribution takes a shape akin to an animal haunting, one intersecting with themes explored in other horror stories including Stephen King’s Pet Sematary and English legends of ghostly black dogs known as gytrash. Where King relies on the frame of native history for his haunting, Jones sharpens the dramatic and philosophic significance of his story with the infusion of an indigenized perspective animated by the transmotion of Blackfeet land and the lived impacts of colonialism. The merging of horror with these issues — along with the novel’s prescient social concerns and the political-cultural crisis of our contemporary moment — gives the narrative a distinct urgency. Jones is unafraid to tackle the complicated tensions between tradition and change, prompting us to reconsider the imposed constructs of self and identity that many other native writers have also grappled with.
The visitation Lewis recognizes as a haunting leads him to make a phone call to Cassidy, another member of the elk hunting party, and a friend who still lives on the rez. Jones conveys the enduring distress of the experience that binds these friends together in subtle ways, such as when Lewis ominously breathes the words “those elk.” This conversation and another immediately following with the final member of the group, Gabe, form a connective tissue extending from the event that has haunted them all since. This connection extends to Ricky’s death in Williston nine years prior, to the appearance of a ghostly elk in Lewis’s home — the shock of which causes his near-fatal fall from the ladder. This strange and sinister encounter reminds Lewis of an elk hide buried in the back of his freezer that is revealed as a memento mori connecting these four friends to a rupture in time and space brought about by the elk hunt 10 years before.
As the story unfolds, a host of spine-chilling images, frightful judgments, and scenes of graphic violence are unleashed by the elk hunt that transform the elder section into what is described as “killing field up on the reservation.” As a result, the harsh retribution visited upon Lewis and Peta, Cass and Gabe, and others connected to them, derives from a tangled web of cause and effect, agency and dread, that threatens to swallow all in its wake. Such are the consequences Jones devises in abject scenes that are raised almost to sheer incomprehensibility. Things become clearer with the introduction of Gabe’s daughter Denorah, a young native woman who fights back not just “for her tribe, her people,” but “for every Blackfeet from before, and after” — an idea at the heart of the narrative. Alongside scenes of supernatural terror, monstrosity, and carnage, Jones offers us flashes of stirring empathy, humor, courage, and survivance to remind us that his is a world that functions outside the bounds of Western knowledge, space, and temporality. And beyond the tragic conclusions of end-of-the-trail colonial nostalgia and the binaries they sustain. Instead, the forces and energies Jones conjures exist in the in-between spaces where the struggle of good and evil is supplanted by the uncertainty and chaos of chance, with a rebuke that springs from responsibilities not kept, or simply just forgotten.
Sometimes when you read a story the scenes and images are presented so vividly it almost feels like they might fall from the page if the angle of the book tilts too high. All the Good Indians is the kind of book that might compel you to raise a hand to catch or bat a bounce pass thrown in one scene away from your face, or flinch at descriptions of a gunshot or a rushing train that can carry in your mind like an echo from some distant past in a story that feels transformed into a repressed memory or a long-forgotten dream. There are times when a story reads like a ritual and a prayer, an invocation of sound and meaning that contains a kind of medicine that can mend the past or change the future, while implying that the reverse isn’t an option. Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians is precisely that. In equal doses of grit lit, historical fiction, and supernatural horror, it challenges readers with an exhilarating take on weird fiction. The novel intricately brings together native storytelling with contemporary supernatural horror. Jones accomplishes this through the summoning of the dreadful figure of Elk Head Woman who emerges out of the past to "reckon dues and divide the world." Yet, the shape-shifting slasher who returns as a dealer of retribution is one that retains the capacity to elicit sympathy and understanding. Jones's unique take on the slasher succeeds in terrifying readers while giving heart to a narrative that will leave readers wondering where history ends and storytelling begins, and maybe even to question whether these narrative forms can ever be cleaved from one another, or should be.
Dr. Billy J. Stratton is an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Denver, where he teaches contemporary Native American/American literature, critical theory, film studies, and writing. He is a former Fulbright fellow to Germany whose criticism, fiction, commentary, and editorial work has appeared in numerous books and journals.
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