If you have to choose only one symbol in the first chapter of Thomas King’s novel Medicine River, you might go with the letters. Remember, the book begins with an excerpt of a letter from Will’s dad to his mom. Will has never met his dad. The letters seem to symbolize Will’s desire to know more about his history, especially as it relates to his father. It also seems to symbolize the way in which his past has been covered up or hidden from him.
When his mom catches him reading the letters, she’s upset. She says that they don’t belong to him and that they’re private. She then slaps him. She doesn’t slap him lightly—she slaps him “hard.”
In the context of his mom’s reaction, the letters might also symbolize the general, historical violence that Indigenous people have suffered. It might symbolize the ways in which their past and history has been forcefully and violently taken from them. Rose’s assertion that the letters are private might be a symbolic way for her to reclaim her past and history, even if she does so at the expense of her son.
However you talk about the symbolism of the letters, it seems safe to argue that the letters are the primary symbol of chapter 1. As you might have noticed, much of chapter 1 is dominated by either excerpts from the letters or scenes based on the letters and their author.