The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Sylvester is the central focus of The Indian Lawyer. The other characters in the novel exist primarily as foils; they illuminate aspects of Sylvester through their interaction with him.

Sylvester is a man of both physical and intellectual prowess who is accustomed to achieving his goals. From the basketball court to the courtroom, Sylvester’s victories have been of heroic proportion. He is never sure whether he competes for his own glory or for the sake of the tribe and race he always represents but from which his success has made him feel detached. This distance between Sylvester and his people creates a sense of loneliness that is the hero’s tragic flaw. Giving way to the temptations of Patti Ann is a mistake that costs Sylvester his biggest game, the congressional election. His defeat strengthens him, however, and the novel suggests that the Indian lawyer has regained his sense of cultural mission by joining the Sioux’s legal battle.

Jack Harwood is not a typical convict. He is more intelligent and compassionate than his fellow inmates. His fascination with the concepts of crime and punishment, not a truly criminal nature, seems to have led him to prison. Subject to the harshness of incarceration, Jack gradually loses his strength and assuredness until he is reduced to the role of a cornered animal. Flashbacks to better times, to the days when he was able to protect himself from prison predators—or, better still, to his...

(The entire section is 477 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sylvester Yellow Calf

Sylvester Yellow Calf, a Blackfeet Indian who is a model of achievement. Formerly a college basketball star, he went on to study law at Stanford and then to become a well-regarded lawyer in a firm in Helena, Montana. Far more materially successful than the childhood friends he has left behind, but not entirely comfortable in upper-middle-class white society, he feels caught between two cultures. As the novel begins, he is being courted by national political organizers as a possible congressional candidate. He also serves on the state parole board, as one member of a group that decides which inmates will be paroled. Vaguely dissatisfied with his relationship with his girlfriend, he is easily seduced by Patti Ann Harwood, an attractive young woman trying to help her husband, a convict who has just been denied parole. As the resulting love affair becomes the focus of a blackmail plot, Sylvester realizes for the first time how easy it is to make a disastrous, life-changing mistake. He discovers that the distance between himself and the convicts he evaluates is smaller than he thought. Fearing that his relationship with Patti Ann will haunt his political career, he withdraws from the congressional race. Disappointed because he thinks he has let down the Indian peoples of Montana, he realizes that he can still serve them. As a lawyer for Indian causes, he will combat the problems of poverty, racism, and alcoholism.

Jack Harwood

Jack Harwood, a convict in his mid-thirties who was sent to Montana State Prison for two armed robberies. No one in the prison system can understand why he is there. Smart, educated, and married to a lovely, loving woman, he seems to have no reason to commit crimes. Paranoid and fearful, he develops a hatred of Indians after he is stabbed by a tough Indian inmate. His belief that he must leave prison immediately or be...

(The entire section is 780 words.)