In The Sign of the Beaver, Matt Hallowell is a boy who gets left alone in for months in the wilderness of 18th century Maine. While he is only twelve-going-on-thirteen years old, Matt has been entrusted with guarding his family's newly built cabin while his father makes the journey to retrieve the rest of their family from Massachusetts.
After unfortunate incidents involving a thief and a bear, Matt finds himself with very limited resources for food. One day, he makes an attempt to get some honey from a beehive, and is attacked by the bees inside. Matt hurts his ankle while running away and falls into a pond, but is saved and taken back to his cabin by a man named Saknis. Saknis and his grandson Attean are Native American, and while Saknis is very accepting and open, Attean hates Matt at first.
Saknis arranges a deal where Attean will bring Matt food in exchange for Matt teaching Attean how to read in English. The two have reading lessons every day, and while Matt teaches Attean how to read, Attean also teaches Matt a lot of things, including the following:
- How to trap rabbits
- How to fish with a spear
- How to make and use a bow and arrow
- That his people mark their area with the sign of the beaver, which lets other tribes know not to hunt on their land
- Words of Attean's language and stories from his tribe's religion
However, the most important knowledge that Attean gives to Matt is a new perspective on the relationship between white men and Native Americans. As he spends more time with Attean, his family, and the people of his tribe, Matt sees how much white settlers have taken from them. He realizes that Attean's way of life is inherently respectful of nature and other people, rather than "savage," as he had been taught in the past.