The opening chapter of Medicine River starts, intriguingly, with a letter written to Rose by Will's absentee, now deceased, father. It is in this opening chapter that author Thomas King reveals the past that effected where Rose and "the boys" may legally live. Maxwell, Uncle Tony's son (Uncle Tony is one of Rose's brothers, thus one of Will's uncles), is riding in the back of Tony's pickup during the trip to help move Rose and her boys (Will and James) from Calgary to Medicine River. A conversation occurs between Will and James about whether "going home" meant going back to the "reserve":
We grew up in Calgary, James and me. ... We knew about Uncle Tony and Uncle Rupert and Uncle Frank, but I never met them until the day my mother came home from work and began packing. "Get your things together," she said. "We're going home."
James asked Will whether they were going back to the Medicine River reservation, and Will thought that maybe they were. It is Maxwell who interrupted and said that they were not allowed to go back to the reservation because the law prohibited their return. Maxwell explained they could not go back to the "reserve" because Will and James were "not Indian any more." He explained that Rose had married a white man, not an Indian, and that they consequently can't "stay" on the "reserve" because "It's the law" that only full-blooded Indians can stay there.
"We going back to the reserve?" James asked.
"Maybe," I said.
"No," said Maxwell, "you can't. You guys have to live in town cause you're not Indian any more."
"Sure we are," I said. "Same as you."
"Your mother married a white."
"Our father's dead."
I could feel my face get hot. "We can go to the reserve whenever we want. We can get in a car and go right out to Standoff."
"Sure," said Maxwell. "You can do that. But you can't stay. It's the law."
This chapter also provides a good example of colonialism. Because of the heritage of white European dominance over American Indians that marriages between whites and American Indians were not recognized by Rose's reservation and that the offspring of her marriage, Will and James, were not recognized as Indian.
Another chapter that reflects colonialism is that in which Harlen and Will make a trip to Billings that takes them right past the Custer National Monument, the monument commemorating the battle ground of General Custer's last stand against Indian tribes who were gathered at Little Bighorn to engage in a non-violent religious ceremony. In a very symbolic account of their attempted but failed night visit to the monument, Will threatens to charge the guard and the locked gates then, later, notes to himself that from their motel room window the top of the iron gate at the Custer monument could just be seen.
The symbolism here pits Harlen's easy acceptance of and participation in life against Will's introspective, reserved observation of the twisting happenings of life upon which he seems to exert no influence or control. On the one hand, the heritage of the men's shared ancestral colonized past is present in Harlen's life in which past and present intermingle in a seamless flow. On the other hand, Will broods over a colonized past that seems to haunt him relentlessly while it bounces him ill prepared along a path that holds shocking surprises for him. While the barely discernible top of the gate to Custer's monument--the symbol of shared Indian heritage--is a pleasurable allure of history for some, like Harlen, it is a chaffing uncertainty and psychological irritation for others, like Will.
Thus the shadow of yesteryear's colonialism looms above and drives the behaviors and reactions of Indian tribes today whether it be as a reconciling influence or as a disruptive influence: Silent, colonialism looms over the Indian psyche and can still be seen "if you looked hard" just as Custer's iron gate could still be seen in the dark from their motel room "if you looked hard."
... if you looked hard out the window, you could almost see the top of the iron gate at the Custer monument.