Ayah is the main character and narrator. In the present tense of the story, Ayah is an old woman reflecting on her personal history: memories of her grandmother weaving outside, the birth of her first child, the death of her child Jimmie in war, and the loss of her two young children, who were taken away by white doctors. Ayah also recalls her husband, Chato, who, because he could speak English, served as the go-between in many of her significant interactions with white authorities. In the present time of the story, Ayah goes out to look for Chato, who has not yet come home for the evening. She looks for him at the bar, where he can usually be found on the days he receives and cashes their small assistance check, but he is not there. Leaving the bar, she eventually comes upon him walking home. They stop to rest, and Chato lies down in the snow. Seeing that he is about to die, Ayah wraps a blanket around him and sings him a lullaby she learned from her grandmother.
Chato is the husband of the story's narrator, Ayah. Because he speaks English and she does not, Chato serves the role of gobetween in the family's interactions with white authority figures. When white people come to the door to inform them that their son, Jimmie, has died in the war, it is Chato who must translate the devastating news to Ayah. Chato works for the white rancher, who shows no sympathy when his leg is injured on the job. When the white doctors, and then the BIA police, come to take their two young children away from them, it is again Chato who must communicate to Ayah that she has unknowingly signed the children away to the white people. Because she blames him for the loss of their children, Ayah no longer sleeps with her husband after that point. As an old man, during the present tense of the story, Chato sometimes becomes confused, and she finds him walking toward the ranch, as if they still needed him to work there. On the days when their assistance check arrives, Chato cashes it and heads straight for the bar. After Ayah finds him walking in the snow, Chato lays down to rest. He dies, as Ayah sings him a lullaby.
Danny is Ayah and Chato's young son who is taken away from them by the white doctors.
The white doctors come to take Ayah and Chato's children away from them, because they have contracted tuberculosis from their grandmother. The doctors intimidate Ayah into signing a piece of paper which gives them permission to take the children away forever. Although she has no idea what she is signing, she does so because she is afraid of them and wants them to go away. When they try to take the children, she grabs them and runs for the hills. They give up on chasing her, but come back later with a police officer and take the children, after which she rarely sees them again.
Ella is Ayah and Chato's young daughter who is taken away from them by the white doctors.
Ayah's grandmother does not appear in the present time of the story, but only in Ayah's reminiscences. Ayah recalls her grandmother spinning yarn from wool and passing on traditional songs. The grandmother is significant as the generational link in the matrilinear culture whereby women pass on tradition in the form of stories. When Chato is dying, Ayah sings him a lullaby her grandmother had sung to her.
Jimmie was Ayah's first-born child. When he died in a helicopter crash in the war, a white man came to the door to inform the family. The army blanket Ayah wraps around herself at the beginning of the story, and her dying husband Chato at the end of the story, had been sent to her by Jimmie while he was in combat.
The B.I.A. (Bureau of Indian Affairs) policeman appears the second time the white doctors come to claim Ayah and Chato's children. This character is significant in that he represents the Native American who helps the white authorities in the oppression and exploitation of other Native Americans.
The white rancher is Chato's...
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