Part I: Bessie
When the Legends Die begins in the company town of Pagosa, Colorado, where the protagonist’s father, George Black Bull, a Native American of the Ute tribe, works at a sawmill. George enters the scene running. He is being sought after because he has killed Frank No Deer, a common thief. George is afraid that he will be put in jail, so he tells his wife where he is going in the wilderness and tells her to follow him after dark. His wife, Bessie, when asked by the sheriff if she knows where her husband is, denies knowing. As she waits for nightfall, Bessie thinks back on how she and her husband and son ended up in Pagosa. Then, in the middle of the night, she packs a few belongings, wakes her young son, and takes a circuitous route to the location of the planned rendezvous with her husband.
In the wilderness, George and Bessie return to their traditional ways, capturing meat, finding seeds, and picking berries for food. They make clothes and a shelter from the natural materials that they gather. They sing songs and tell stories that their grandparents had taught them. At the end of the first year, before the winter has ended, George is trapped and killed in an avalanche.
Before the next winter, Bessie takes Thomas back to Pagosa to buy supplies. Bessie is an expert basket maker and trades her wares for the winter clothing and the utility items that she needs. She worries that the sheriff is still looking for her husband and might take her son away from her. A while later, when she returns to town, she feels more confident and asks the shopkeeper for details about the sheriff. Jim Thatcher tells her that the sheriff has decided that her husband acted in self-defense and that her family is free to return to the town.
Another winter comes, and Bessie becomes sick and dies. Thomas befriends the animals around him, including a small, orphaned grizzly bear cub. He becomes what he believes to be the bear’s brother. One summer, Thomas ventures back into Pagosa, with the bear trailing behind him. When some of the citizens of the town threaten to shoot the bear, Jim Thatcher stops them.
Blue Elk, a man who one character states would sell anything to make a profit, including his own grandmother, befriends Thomas, who does not speak English, only to betray him. Blue Elk strikes a deal with the local minister, who believes that Thomas is not fit to live on his own and must be taken to the nearby Indian school, a place where Thomas can learn the ways of the white men. To get Thomas to agree to leave his wilderness lodge, Blue Elk tells Thomas that the other Native American children at the school need to learn the traditional songs and old ways of the Ute people. He suggests that Thomas go with him to Ignacio, the center of the Ute reservation, to teach the children the things that Thomas has learned. The bear cub tags along.
Part II: The School
Once he arrives at the school, Thomas quickly discovers that he has been tricked. His bear is chained and caged. Thomas is roomed with Luther Spotted Dog, a boy close to his age but who lives in world totally different from the one that Thomas is used to. Thomas dislikes the bed he is told to sleep on, the clothes he is told to wear, and the food he must eat. He lashes out in anger at almost everyone who demands that he must change.
The bear must be gotten rid of, so once again it is Blue Elk who schemes to get Thomas to return the bear to its natural surroundings. Thomas, who believes Blue Elk is taking him home, agrees to go with Blue Elk. However, once they arrive in the vicinity where Thomas used to live, Blue Elk blackmails Thomas by threatening to leave the bear chained to a tree to starve unless Thomas returns to the school.
Upon his return, Thomas does not fare much better than he had before. After a fight, he is put on restriction and locked in a small room. One night, he escapes and returns on his own to the lodge in the wilderness. When he arrives, little remains of his former dwelling. Blue Elk has ransacked his home, taking everything he can use or sell and burning the rest. Thomas, after discovering that Benny Grayback, one of the counselors from the school, has followed his trail, returns to the school, resigned to his fate.
In the next episodes, Thomas dons the white man’s clothes, has his braids cut off, and tries to learn the skills of farming and the language of his oppressors. He learns to...