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A Native horror story re-appropriates a racist trope: the ‘Indian curse’

Stephen Graham Jones, author of "The Only Good Indians"
(Gary Isaacs)

The Blackfeet Nation, one of the largest Native American tribes in the U.S., resides on a 1.5-million-acre reservation in northwest Montana. Though it was formally established by the Treaty of 1896, the Blackfeet thrived on this territory long before its encroachment by British traders and American settlers. For centuries, the fertile forestlands helped preserve a rich hunting and fishing culture that sets the stage for Stephen Graham Jones’ latest horror novel, “The Only Good Indians.” In this stark page-turner, four Native American men get their comeuppance after disrespecting the sacredness of an elk kill.

The transgression is revealed 10 years after the fact, after Lewis, Gabe, Rick and Cass have settled into adulthood. Triggered by a vision of an injured elk in his living room, Lewis takes us back to the ill-fated event: A stroke of dumb luck leads the venturesome youths to an encounter with a sitting target, a cluster of elk bulls. With Thanksgiving around the corner, they grow giddy with triumph: “Thanksgiving was going to be an Indian holiday this year, with the four of them bringing in a haul like this.” But their joy is short-lived; transporting this much weight in meat through the deep snow will be impossible.

Among the small herd is a pregnant cow who fights courageously to save her calf, but to no avail. These unintended casualties change the tone of the kill from victorious to disgraceful: The game warden catches them and forces them to forfeit their plunder — except for the cow. She will be their last prize, because their penalty for the slaughter is a 10-year hunting ban — a decade that will end with more severe, supernatural retribution.

In keeping with the conventions of the revenge genre, each man will meet his fate in ingenious, mind-twisting ways. What began as a possible hallucination for Lewis materializes into something he calls Elk Head Woman, a shape-shifting beast who taps into the men’s emotional weaknesses, ensnaring them in torturous mind games before the final showdown. For Lewis — certain that “all that bad medicine” from the hunt is “messing with his head” — this means his preexisting paranoia spirals into genuine madness.

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Book jacket for "The Only Good Indians" by author Stephen Graham Jones.
(Gallery / Saga Press)

Elk Head Woman takes increasingly perverse pleasure in doling out extreme psychological violence before the men meet their ends. Herein one of the novel’s looming questions: What, besides karmic payback, has wrought this level of wrath? The vengeful apparition doesn’t seem to be guided by a clear moral or legal compass; innocent women in the men’s lives also endure brutal assaults — collateral damage in something like a total war.

Perhaps it can be explained by the cultural baggage around the slaughter of the animals. At the height of their shooting frenzy, Lewis recalls, “it was probably what it was like a century ago, when soldiers gathered up in the ridges above Blackfeet encampments to turn the cranks on their big guns, terraform this new land for their occupation. Fertilize it with blood.” Is Elk Head Woman’s destruction a ruthless warning against losing one’s way, against adopting the colonizer’s mind-set? Or is she simply evil incarnate, a manifestation of centuries of American carnage? Either way, if this weren’t a horror novel, some might call her tactics overkill.

One reason for the disconnect between crime and punishment is that Jones’ exceptional Native American characters, flawed and relatable, earn the reader’s trust and sympathy. Throughout the book, the four men share an inside joke about which of their everyday actions are worthy of “a good Indian.” When Gabe and Cass decide to cleanse in a sweat lodge, Gabe wonders whether such ceremonies should occur at night. Cass responds, deadpan, “Let me check the big Indian rule book.” The men’s banter, their affection for one another, their personal choices and troubled journeys frame their wrongdoings, big and small, as consequences of their complex lives on a reservation, not of their nature. And so the harrowing misfortunes that await them seem strangely undeserved.

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An argument could be made that Jones is reclaiming the “accursed land” or “Indian curse” trope of American lore going back to the 19th century. These white myths portrayed the settlers as besieged by a furious presence struggling for dominance against mystical, unreasonably vindictive forces rather than — as was the case — defenseless people. Also worth noting is the title, a notorious phrase, attributed to a U.S. Army general, that ends with: “are dead Indians.” Jones strips the statement of its genocidal context and reframes it as a tongue-in-cheek harbinger — cue the spooky music — of the horrors to come.

If Jones is up to some form of re-appropriation, his scheme is overshadowed by the outsize gore, as well as the fact that only Lewis makes any effort to figure out what any of it means. He is the most reflective of the group, the most alert to the big picture, but he drops off halfway through. In the second half, Elk Head Woman weaves an intricate setup for Gabe and Cass that results in a bloody face-off at the sweat lodge, with hardly a moment for the characters to breathe, much less to ponder what’s happening and why.

Despite the conundrum that is Elk Head Woman, “The Only Good Indians” redeems itself with a climactic edge-of-your-seat battle both on and off the basketball court between Gabe’s teenage daughter Denorah and an “Indian demon” masquerading as Shaney, a young co-worker of Lewis’. Denorah, a prodigy whom Gabe nicknamed “Finals Girl” because of her championship-ready skills, embodies rationality, clarity and strong will, making her the worthy adversary that neither her father nor the other men could be. Denorah’s quick thinking keeps her a few steps out of reach of her otherworldly pursuer.

Given Jones’ focus on developing Denorah as a character, readers might be left wondering if there’s an overarching allegory in this death match between an elemental, hellbent force and one who, through strategy and adaptability, is determined to survive in this unlikely arena, the reservation. And yet the more one tries to tease out a meaning, the fuzzier the intention becomes.

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“The Only Good Indians” strains to weave a horror story with robust character studies. In the end, there is enough in each strand to appeal to both the genre fan and the literary reader, even if neither is fully reconciled to the other.

González is a poet and the director of the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark.

The Only Good Indians
Stephen Graham Jones
Saga Press: 320 pages, $27


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