Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 350
The Indian Lawyer by James Welch explores the dual cultures that the protagonist tries to navigate and make peace with. The protagonist, Sylvester Yellow Calf, is an indigenous American man of the Blackfeet tribe who finds success in the corporate and political world. At first, he shuns his indigenous culture and ancestral roots to pursue the capitalist ideal of the American Dream.
He finds success outside of the Blackfeet reservation in Montana. Sylvester graduates from Stanford Law School and winds up working for a prestigious law firm in Montana. Even in high school, though, Sylvester finds success as a high school basketball star. This is important to note because basketball, especially high school basketball, is popular in Native American reservations across the United States. One could argue that high school basketball is almost a part of contemporary Native American culture.
The author made the protagonist a basketball star because, in many reservations, they are looked at as community heroes or source of pride. This sets up the character's eventual downfall as an adult. Interestingly, it is when Sylvester gets back in touch with his roots—after a disastrous attempt at a political career and being the victim of blackmail—that he is left in solitude. The scene in which Sylvester plays one-on-one with his shadow at the local basketball court symbolizes his full-circle return.
He is back to his roots, free from politics and worldly ambitions, but he is alone. This mirrors the incident in high school in which a white journalist calls Sylvester a model for minorities, an incident which leads to his teammates disliking him. In a sense, his high school team could be seen as an analogy for his tribal community. The white man, although meaning no harm with the observation, causes internal fracturing in the indigenous community.
This is a simplified and condensed analysis of the white liberals' "white guilt" and ideas of the "noble savage." By trying to apply the Anglo-American concept of a reward system, in which a leader is chosen and heralded, they undermine the social fabric of indigenous communities in North America.