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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 281

The Indian Lawyer by James Welch follows the story of Sylvester Yellow Calf, a young Native American lawyer with a bright political future. Sylvester was raised by his grandmother on a reservation in Montana and went to college on a sports scholarship. He then went to Stanford Law School, and...

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The Indian Lawyer by James Welch follows the story of Sylvester Yellow Calf, a young Native American lawyer with a bright political future. Sylvester was raised by his grandmother on a reservation in Montana and went to college on a sports scholarship. He then went to Stanford Law School, and then back to Montana, where he is a lawyer who also serves on the parole board. Sylvester has a solid—if uneasy—relationship with the powers that be in his town. He has a white fiancée, who is the daughter of a former state senator, and he also has an impressive resume, so he "fits in," but only to a certain degree. Sometimes Sylvester chafes at this conflict. Sylvester's boss in the law firm, Buster, has been encouraging Sylvester to run for Congress; at first Sylvester seems indifferent to the idea, but them he remembers his own climb out of poverty and decides use his position to help other young and impoverished kids.

Meanwhile, we meet a man named Jack who has been in prison for some time. Jack has made some mistakes in the past, but he has since been a model prisoner who fully expects to be paroled. Instead, he is denied parole yet again. Jack believes that Sylvester is the one person on the parole board who voted against him, and asks his wife Patti Ann to find seduce Sylvester in the hopes that he can be blackmailed to grant Jack's freedom. Patti Ann does seduce Sylvester, but she also falls in love with him. Sylvester's relationships with both his fiancée and Patti Ann collapse, and at the end of the novel, Sylvester is all alone.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 777

Set in the cell blocks of a state prison and the back rooms of state politics, The Indian Lawyer depicts one man’s effort to survive the penal system and another’s search for the best way to represent the interests of Native Americans and others whom the political system neglects. The novel contains sixteen chapters that move freely between the main characters’ points of view. The plot progresses chronologically, but it is interrupted by reminiscences that take characters back to such pivotal moments in their pasts as Sylvester’s basketball championships and Jack’s courtship of Patti Ann.

The book begins with Jack Harwood’s parole hearing. Jack is serving a long sentence for armed robbery and is beginning to crack under the pressure of incarceration. Sylvester is a board member, and Jack is drawn to him because he is a Blackfeet. Jack has had problems with the Indian inmates who rule the violent prison. Insufficiently repentant and a onetime escapee, Jack is denied release. That afternoon, visiting with Patti Ann, Jack asks his wife to dig up information on Sylvester.

Back in Helena after the parole hearings, Sylvester, with his girlfriend Shelley, attends a party at Buster Harrington’s mansion. Buster, the founder of a law firm that is ready to make Sylvester a partner if he will agree to run for Congress, has arranged for a meeting with Fabares, a Democratic Party official. Sylvester is encouraged by his discussion with Fabares and tells Shelley that he is seriously considering becoming a candidate.

Patti Ann contacts Sylvester at his office. She is lonely from the years without Jack and has been traumatized by a series of miscarriages and a hysterectomy, but her vitality is restored in Sylvester’s presence. She manages to interest him in her phony story of a contested will, and Sylvester promises to investigate the situation. Jack phones Patti Ann and instructs her to see Sylvester socially, to intensify her relationship with the lawyer. Awakened by Sylvester, but fantasizing about adopting a child and rearing a family with a freed Jack, Patti Ann agrees.

When a meeting with Sylvester in a restaurant bar leads to her bedroom, Patti Ann knows she should feel guilty, but she does not. She is revived by their intimacy, but Sylvester is bothered. He does not know why he would risk shaking up his life at such an important juncture or why he is letting his relationship with Shelley deteriorate. He drives to Browning, to the Blackfeet reservation where he grew up. He visits Lena Old Horn, hoping that she will encourage his political ambitions. Somewhat reluctantly, Lena tells Sylvester, her former student, that she has faith in him.

Strengthened by his trip home, Sylvester returns to Helena and tells Buster that he will run. As the campaign begins to take shape, Jack Harwood’s plans also unfold. Although Jack wanted Patti Ann to sleep with Sylvester, the fact that she did enrages him. His plot is no longer merely for the purpose of escape. When he thinks of his tormentors in the prison, Jack realizes that he seeks revenge against Sylvester in particular and against Indians in general. After receiving sinister phone calls, Patti Ann knows that Jack’s contacts on the outside are working to blackmail Sylvester into granting Jack’s freedom. The affair with Patti Ann is a breach of legal ethics, a political disaster. When Jack’s contacts, Woody Peters and Robert Fitzgerald, decide to cut Jack out of the plan and make Sylvester pay for their silence, Sylvester’s political ambitions, his entire career, and Patti Ann’s safety are threatened.

Patti Ann and Sylvester are able to run Peters and Fitzgerald off, but Sylvester is afraid the former convicts will make trouble for him down the road. He decides not to run for Congress and risk a future humiliation. Buster and Shelley tell Sylvester that his chance will come again, and Buster quickly withdraws Sylvester’s candidacy. Shelley walks out after hearing of Sylvester’s affair. Sylvester helps Patti Ann by arranging a safe way for Jack to serve out his sentence and work toward parole. Buster tells Sylvester to take time off and travel to Europe. Instead, he goes to a Sioux reservation in North Dakota, where he helps the tribe with a water-rights dispute. Sylvester remains immersed in his work for the Sioux until he is called back to Browning for his grandfather’s funeral. The novel ends as Lena Old Horn watches Sylvester play basketball in a spring snowstorm. Lena knows that, playing all by himself, Sylvester is challenging the only person who ever stood in his way.

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