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Last Updated on August 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619

The Indian Lawyer is a 1990 fictional novel written by James Welch. Both a romance and a psychological thriller, the novel tells the story of a young Indian lawyer known as Yellow Calf who tries to make it in the political and elitist society in Helena, Montana. It is the...

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The Indian Lawyer is a 1990 fictional novel written by James Welch. Both a romance and a psychological thriller, the novel tells the story of a young Indian lawyer known as Yellow Calf who tries to make it in the political and elitist society in Helena, Montana. It is the author’s fourth novel, and similarly to the previous three, it has Native American culture as its main theme.

Unlike his previous novels, however, Welch doesn’t really depict the struggles of an Indian man eager to prosper in the white world. Instead, The Indian Lawyer showcases a 35 year old man named Sylvester who seems to have successfully acculturated and assimilated himself to white culture.

After being a star basketball player in high school and college, he manages to escape a life of poverty in the Blackfeet reservation in Browning, Montana by becoming a graduate of Stanford Law School. He lands a job in a prestigious law firm and establishes a name and an excellent reputation in the legal system of Helena. He has a white, intelligent and attractive girlfriend named Shelly Hatton—a senator’s daughter, and he even plans to run for Congress himself. It seems that Yellow Calf has his life together already.
But, when an inmate by the name of Jack Harwood is denied parole, he becomes desperate to find something to end Sylvester’s career, so he asks his wife Patti Ann for help. Not long after that, Sylvester finds himself involved in a heavy blackmailing plot. Yellow Calf now has to figure out what he really wants and more importantly who he really is, which is why identity and self-discovery are also a common (if not the most important) theme in the novel.

Sylvester begins to question everything he achieved so far and goes back to his Indian roots. On the road he learns that even though he might have contributed to society as a member of the Congress, he still wouldn’t have done much for his people and the daily struggles they go through, and show respect to his heritage. He goes through an identity crisis, often thinking back on his past and reevaluating his future. He understands that he has completely alienated himself from his culture and accepted a world that still treats him (or rather his people) unequally. He must now rethink his choices and figure out what life’s real values are, and redeem himself both spiritually and physiologically.

Love and romantic relationships might be considered a secondary theme in the novel. As a young, successful and attractive man, Sylvester has had his fair share of female attention and his girlfriend Shelly seems to be ready to take the next step in their relationship. He likes and respects her, maybe even loves her, but he is unsure of his true wishes and desires. Perhaps his indecisiveness and impulsiveness is what leads him to sleep with Patti Ann and develop a complicated relationship with her as well. The romantic scenes are also quite explicitly described and some even argue that the novel focuses more on detailed descriptions and vivid landscapes rather than the resolution of the plot.

Finally, the novel explores human nature. It showcases all contemporary problems that shouldn’t be problems, such as race, gender and socioeconomic position. It shows how every person is at the same time both the hero and the villain of their own story. It shows how we all make mistakes, sometimes deliberately and sometimes without even knowing that what we’re doing is essentially wrong in the first place. It is a psychological portrait of human psyche and the internal conflicts and emotions one goes through when faced with the challenges of life.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 614

The Indian Lawyer focuses on the issue of assimilation, the merging of once-separate cultural groups. As a boy playing basketball with other members of his tribe, Sylvester displays exceptional athletic ability that allows him to envision a life beyond the boundaries of the Blackfeet reservation. When a sports journalist writes a column exhorting Sylvester to become an inspiration to his people by rising above the “degradation” so often associated with reservation life, his teammates react with resentment and distance themselves from the group’s new star. This is the first suggestion in the novel that by moving toward his goals in mainstream society, Sylvester will have to sever, or at least weaken, his cultural roots.

A basketball scholarship to the University of Montana leads Sylvester to law school, but time spent learning courtroom procedure is time spent forgetting Blackfeet history and ritual. Welch makes sure the reader knows, even if Sylvester does not, that a grandson who learns his tribal history from textbooks instead of taking time to listen to the elders speak is a source of secret shame for Mary Bird. The most profound symbol of Sylvester’s neglect is the war medicine, a hide pouch with secret contents, worn by his great-great-grandfather. Mary had presented the pouch to Sylvester before he left for college. Instead of cherishing the relic, which represents the strength and nobility of his ancestors, Sylvester leaves it behind, hidden in a bookcase. Later, as Sylvester prepares to announce his candidacy, his grandmother again places the war medicine where Sylvester can see it. This time, he accepts the link to his cultural heritage. While in possession of the pouch, Sylvester begins to understand that a congressional campaign backed by Buster’s wealth and the Democratic Party machine may be a step too far removed from the people he wants to help. The war medicine takes Sylvester not to Congress but to the Sioux reservation. For once, the Indian lawyer balances his heritage with his future as he tries to make sense of his own cultural identity.

In poignant contrast to Sylvester’s attempt to adjust to life outside his ancestral home stands Jack Harwood’s struggle to adapt to the demands of an existence on the inside of prison. Welch reverses the reader’s cultural assumptions concerning identities that represent power and influence and those that are assumed to stand for disenfranchisement. Furthermore, the white Jack Harwood becomes a racial minority in the predominantly Indian prison population. This irony demonstrates the considerable influence of circumstance, of capricious fate, over the lives of individuals. Harwood must learn a set of “con-codes” for behavior, without which survival is almost impossible. At first, Jack learns his lesson so well that he is able to teach new inmates the ropes. He is unable to alter his inmate façade even long enough to win his freedom at a parole hearing. Soon, like Sylvester, Jack begins to crack under the pressure of an alien environment. The way in which Sylvester and Jack escape the dangerous tangle in which they have become involved focuses attention on the presence of women in the novel.

In The Indian Lawyer, men receive invaluable aid and comfort from women. Without the contributions of his grandmother, Lena Old Horn, and Shelley, Sylvester would not be in a position to contemplate running for Congress. Even though she seems to trap Sylvester and betray Jack, Patti Ann’s nearly angelic support eventually saves both men from the violence that threatens them. This aspect of the novel suggests a belief in the ultimate importance of the affection and trust to be gained from the union of man and woman, from primary human relationships.

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