Tim O’Brien’s autobiographical novel The Things They Carried has a Native American character named Kiowa. O’Brien doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what Kiowa carries with him in the war, but what is does tell us is very revealing.
Kiowa is a complicated character, embodying several seemingly conflicting traits. Although he is a Native American, he is also a devout Baptist, as evidenced by the New Testament that he carries in his pack. While it is not unheard of for a Native American to be Christian, it is a little unexpected. However, Kiowa also carries in his pack his grandfather’s hunting hatchet. This item ties Kiowa to his Indian identity directly by linking him to an ancestor (something much more important to most Native American cultures than white culture). And, of course, the hatchet is a traditional Indian weapon.
Kiowa’s complex characterization mirrors the U.S. role in Vietnam. We were there ostensibly to help the South Vietnamese resist the advances of communist North Vietnam, but in the process alienated many of the people we were supposedly trying to help. White America also has a complicated relationship with Native Americans, a relationship that has been strained for centuries. Kiowa, however, seems to transcend these complications in a way that the other members of his unit cannot. Perhaps the combination of his Christian and Native American upbringing has prepared him for life in a way not possible for the others.