Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Indian Lawyer focuses on the issue of assimilation, the merging of once-separate cultural groups. As a boy playing basketball with other members of his tribe, Sylvester displays exceptional athletic ability that allows him to envision a life beyond the boundaries of the Blackfeet reservation. When a sports journalist writes a column exhorting Sylvester to become an inspiration to his people by rising above the “degradation” so often associated with reservation life, his teammates react with resentment and distance themselves from the group’s new star. This is the first suggestion in the novel that by moving toward his goals in mainstream society, Sylvester will have to sever, or at least weaken, his cultural roots.

A basketball scholarship to the University of Montana leads Sylvester to law school, but time spent learning courtroom procedure is time spent forgetting Blackfeet history and ritual. Welch makes sure the reader knows, even if Sylvester does not, that a grandson who learns his tribal history from textbooks instead of taking time to listen to the elders speak is a source of secret shame for Mary Bird. The most profound symbol of Sylvester’s neglect is the war medicine, a hide pouch with secret contents, worn by his great-great-grandfather. Mary had presented the pouch to Sylvester before he left for college. Instead of cherishing the relic, which represents the strength and nobility of his ancestors, Sylvester leaves it behind, hidden in a bookcase. Later, as...

(The entire section is 614 words.)