The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The central figure in Green Grass, Running Water is Lionel Red Dog, who as a youth had a promising future that, through a series of misadventures not of his own doing, was foreclosed to him. During a trip to Salt Lake City to read a professional paper for a colleague in the Department of Indian Affairs, which employed him, Lionel was unwittingly drawn into an Indian activist group, and he landed in jail.

When he returned to Blossom, he was fired. His conviction made it difficult for him to get another job. Finally, Bill Bursum, the white owner of a local store, offered to hire Lionel to replace his cousin Charlie, who had left Bill’s employ to attend law school. Twenty years later, Lionel is still at work in the store; he is Bill’s best salesman, but he has never had a salary increase. Bill Bursum’s story is closely connected to Lionel’s.

The same is true of Charlie’s story. Charlie, having completed law school, is a Porsche-driving success, employed by Duplessis International Associates, the construction firm commissioned to dam a tribal river. When the dam is finally destroyed, Duplessis, no longer needing its token Indian, fires Charlie.

Alberta Frank is a college professor in Calgary who, realizing that her biological clock is running down, wants desperately to have a baby but has no desire to have a husband. She engages in simultaneous affairs with Charlie and Lionel, and her story is intricately tied to...

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Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Lionel Red Dog

Lionel Red Dog, a good-natured underachiever of Blackfoot Indian heritage. All his life, Lionel has stumbled into mishaps. As a child, misidentified as another boy, he narrowly avoided receiving heart surgery instead of his tonsillectomy. As a college student, he was mistaken for a Wounded Knee protester and arrested after he read a paper on cultural pluralism at a conference. On the brink of forty, he sells television sets and stereos in Bursum’s electronics store; everyone, including Lionel, thinks the job is a waste of his talents. He has to wear a garish gold blazer at work. The blazer, which becomes increasingly ratty as time goes by, symbolizes Lionel’s stalled plans. He dreams of finishing his university degree but has taken no steps to do so beyond talking about it. It is unclear at the book’s end whether he will go on selling TV sets, move back to the reserve and live in his uncle’s rebuilt cabin, or go back to school; his direction probably will be determined by other people or by fate.

Alberta Frank

Alberta Frank, a professor of native studies at the university in Calgary. Alberta dates both Lionel and Charlie Looking Bear. She is fond of both but does not want to marry either. A brief, youthful marriage made her wary of too close an involvement with any man. She does, however, feel her biological clock ticking and wants to have a baby. Artificial insemination seems to her the most trouble-free way, but because most clinics reject unmarried applicants and the others have long waiting lists, she is unable to follow through with this idea. Meanwhile, she teaches Native American history to bored white students and plans to travel back to Blossom, where she can attend the annual Sun Dance and help Lionel celebrate his fortieth birthday. By the time she arrives, she is plagued...

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List of Characters

Alberta Frank: A successful, single college professor who is having affairs with both Lionel and Charlie. She wants to become a mother, but cannot commit to a permanent relationship with either of her suitors. She teaches Native American history, including the internment at Fort Marion.

Babo Jones: A female janitor who accompanies Dr. Hovaugh in his pursuit of the escaped Native Americans.

Bill Bursum: Owner of the electronics store where Lionel works. He builds an elaborate map out of televisions as a promotional stunt and is confounded when the ending of his favorite western suddenly changes to show the Native Americans beating John Wayne and his cavalry.

Charlie Looking Bear: A hotshot lawyer with little use for his traditional roots. He is competing with his cousin, Lionel, for Alberta’s affections. His father, Portland, is an actor who used to play stereotypical “Indian” characters in black-and-white westerns.

Coyote: A mischievous supernatural figure to whom the narrator tells the origin stories of the four old Native Americans. He also accompanies the four to Blossom and precipitates the climactic dam break.

Eli Stands Alone: A retired academic who is living in a cabin in the woods. He is opposing the completion of a river dam that would tear down his cabin. He is Lionel and Latisha’s uncle.

George: Latisha’s aimless and physically abusive husband. He deserted Latisha when she was pregnant with their third child and now the two are estranged.

Hawkeye, Ishmael, The Lone Ranger, and Robinson Crusoe: Four elderly Native Americans who escape from a mental institution in the United States. The characters are also known as Old Woman, Changing Woman, First Woman, and Thought Woman, respectively. Although most of the characters see them as men, some people refer to them as women. They were part of the notorious Native American internment at the end of the nineteenth century.

Dr. Joseph Hovaugh: A doctor at the hospital from which the four old Native Americans escape. He pursues them on their journey to Blossom.

Latisha: A hard-working single mom with three kids. She runs the Dead Dog Café and is Lionel’s sister. Her husband George physically abuses her for years before suddenly abandoning his family.

Lionel: A hapless salesman in an electronics store who is in love with Alberta. As his fortieth birthday approaches, he vows to quit his dead-end job, go back to school, and convince Alberta to marry him.

The Narrator: An unnamed figure who tells the origin stories of the four old Native Americans to Coyote. The Narrator also relays the stories of the main characters as relayed by the four old Native Americans.

Norma: Eli’s no-nonsense sister as well as Lionel and Latisha’s aunt. She frequently nags Lionel about his lack of ambition.