Victor is either the narrator or the main character of most of the stories in the book. He becomes the reader’s eyes and ears in the world of the Spokane Reservation, from the first glimpse of the disturbing New Year’s party when Victor is nine, to the quiet summing up of the themes of the book in the final story. He is perhaps the “typical” Native American youth, recounting his view of his society and his struggles with identity, alcohol, and family relationships. Thomas Builds-the-Fire is a near mythical character, a storyteller and thus a symbolic link to the past. The stories he tells are usually historical, casting one of his present-day friends into a historical situation—as in “A Drug Called Tradition,” in which he starts a round of storytelling by imagining his friend Victor raiding the camp of a rival tribe to steal a horse named Flight. In other stories, Thomas is ridiculed for telling too many stories, stories that the others do not want to hear anymore. Thomas’s strongest appearance is in the surrealistic piece “The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire.” In it, he “testifies” by telling stories, casting himself first as a horse among a herd captured by the cavalry in 1858, then as a warrior in a similar battle. Though he is originally charged with “telling the truth,” by the end of the trial, his crime is the murder of two soldiers in the story he told of events of a century before. Thomas represents the pull of tradition among Native American people. He becomes the scapegoat for the “crimes” of the past and is the nagging conscience of modern Native Americans, reminding them of the past and the traditions that they often do not want to remember.
James Many Horses is the mystic of the stories, the fountain of wisdom and guidance. His near divinity is revealed in the title of his first story: “Jesus Christ’s Half-Brother Is Alive and Living on the Spokane Indian Reservation.” He was born near Christmas, and his mother claimed to be a virgin, “even though Frank Many Horses said it was his.” The infant James survives a fire that kills his parents and is adopted by the anonymous narrator of the story. James fails to develop normally and cannot walk, talk, or even crawl, but he is a supportive companion to the narrator through years of physical trials and alcoholism. James finally begins speaking at age eight, but his comments could possibly be only in the imagination of the narrator. The boy is wise and prophetic; his visions and counsel support the narrator for much of his life. In a poetic, visionary story, “Imagining the Reservation,” an “Indian child,” apparently James, figures strongly, counseling the anonymous narrator to “break every mirror in my house and tape the pieces to my body,” a marvelous metaphor for the act of becoming a writer who reflects his environment. In “The Approximate Shape of My Favorite Tumor,” an adult James Many Horses faces death from cancer with humor and love. James indeed becomes a Christ figure in life and death.
Victor, a member of the Spokane tribe living on the reservation. At the age of five, he snuggles between his drunk parents to sleep. He is a gifted fancydancer at the age of nine and plays high school basketball. He surprises tribal members by playing the music of Béla Bartók at a barbecue. He is sporadically employed and drinks at times. His romances are not successful. He is a generous person and often apologetic. He retrieves his father’s ashes from Phoenix and notes that he can have a reunion with his high school classmates any weekend at the local bar. His needs are simple; primarily what he wants out of life is a fair trade.
Victor’s father, a protester of the Vietnam War who spent time in Walla Walla, Washington, and was at Woodstock when Jimi Hendrix played the national anthem. He takes his children to visit Hendrix’s gravesite and survives a serious motorcycle accident. He maintains that his wife is extremely beautiful. An absentee father, he travels around the country and dies in Phoenix.
Victor’s mother, who met her husband at a Spokane party and accepts his chronic absence from their marital life. She loves her husband in a steadfast way and weeps when he is found dead, even though they no longer lived together.
Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a childhood friend of Victor and Junior who is a consummate storyteller and self-proclaimed visionary. At the age of ten, he shares use of a bicycle with Victor; five years later, Victor deliberately beats him while drunk. He accompanies Victor to Phoenix and worries about killing the lone animal in Nevada on the return trip. His storytelling abilities have been evident since his youth, but there is not the audience for them that he believes should exist.
Junior Polatkin, who is educated at a white school and lives off the reservation for a time. As a child, he is tormented by non-Indian peers. He is academically advanced, however, doing junior high school spelling in the second grade. A juvenile diabetic, his ketoacidosis is mistaken for drunkenness. After being named valedictorian of his farm school, he attends college. He has a non-Indian girlfriend in Seattle; they fight frequently and break up. He fathers a son and has parental visitation rights.
Norma Many Horses
Norma Many Horses, a powerful woman. She is self-sufficient, as handy on the back of a horse as on a basketball court, and considered to be a problem-solver. She works as a sports reporter for the local paper. She is an excellent dancer and acts as moral arbiter for tribal issues. Her fry-bread is legendary, and she is married to James Many Horses, for whom she cares while he is in the later stages of terminal cancer.
James Many Horses
James Many Horses, Norma’s husband. He is willing to ride in reverse in Simon’s car to retrieve Norma from the Powwow Tavern. He has a humorous attitude about life and his illness. He has been a jokester since his childhood.
Julius Windmaker, a young reservation basketball hero who began drinking Sterno before graduating from high school. This caused him to lose his athletic edge.