Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1049
1922, Oklahoma. On an Indian reservation, the hot summer has prompted residents to take their beds outside. One grandmother, Belle Graycloud, is sleeping in her garden; just down the road, in Watona, Grace Blanket and her daughter, Nola, are also sleeping outdoors. Grace is a Hill Indian, but she doesn't live with the rest of her people—instead, she has ventured into the town to live with the mixed-blood peoples. Her mother, Lila, had been a diviner, and she had received wisdom that her daughter would have to go and learn how other people lived in order for the Hill Indians to survive. So Grace came first to live with Belle and then bought a place of her own. Her sisters, Sara and Molene, were then sent to live with her; but they both quickly grew ill, and Molene died, while Sara was permanently weakened.
The land Grace lived on went from "Barren Land" to "Baron Land" when oil was discovered there. Michael Horse, a diviner, thought there was water there, but oil was found instead, and subsequently Grace became extremely wealthy. She had a child, whose parentage she would not reveal. As it turned out, her move to town had saved the Hill Indians after all: the discovery of oil saved the river from being dammed, which would have destroyed the reservation.
Now, Grace brings her daughter, Nola, to the Grayclouds' house. Belle's unmarried daughter, Leticia (Lettie) makes them tea.
Michael Horse drives his gold car to the Indian Baptist Church—an unusual event, as he is a non-believer. The Reverend Joe Billy and his wife, Martha, are pleased to see him; Michael only has eyes for Belle, whom he loves. Belle tells him she has had a premonition that "the girls are in trouble," which concerns Michael. He allows Belle's grandson, Ben, to drive his car back to Belle's house.
Belle's husband, Moses, tells them he is going to see his sister, Ruth Tate, and her husband. Belle explains that she is worried because Grace, Nola, and Nola's cousin, Rena, had gone out that morning and not returned. Michael suggests they go and look for the group, so they drive to Grace's house, which is empty. When they return home, Moses has come back from Ruth's house, but the girls have not returned. Belle and Lettie wait while Moses and Michael go to the livestock auction in the next town. Eventually, Rena and Nola return home—alone.
The girls explain what had happened. As they were walking out into the country, a man called John Hale nodded at them. Later, a black Buick pulled up near them, which John Hale was driving. Grace, afraid, told Rena and Nola to get on the ground, then approached the car to "lure" it away from the girls. The men shot Grace, then left her body in the grass. Nola heard them say that they had thought Nola was with her. The men poured whiskey on Grace's body to create the impression that she was drunk. Rena and Nola, terrified, set out for home.
Belle, Lettie, and the girls are unable to sleep. When Moses returns, he is horrified by the news. Lettie is watching over the girls with a pistol when she sees an unfamiliar man outside the window; she goes to shoot him but then realizes that he is "there for Nola, to help her"—a watcher. Rena's mother, Louise—an alcoholic—and her white husband, Floyd, arrive and try to comfort Rena. By this point, other watchers have arrived.
Belle visits Michael Horse in his teepee and asks if he has had any other visions....
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They tell Ona Neck, an older woman, what has happened. Indian women very frequently become oil heiresses, and white men marry them as "business investments," so all are sure that Grace has been murdered somehow for her oil—to which Nola is now heiress.
A French-Indian, Benoit, arrives in a truck. He is the husband of Sara Blanket but the lover of Lettie. He is shocked that Grace has been killed and wants to get the sheriff, but the family won't allow this.
Later that day, however, Grace's body is found. She is assumed to have been drunk, and Benoit (as a lighter-skinned and therefore more "trustworthy" Indian) is called to identify the body. He argues that Grace wasn't drunk and that this wasn't a suicide, but the sheriff disagrees.
Ona Neck discovers Grace's coffin looted and her body gone. Afraid of what this portends, she reburies the coffin and does not tell anyone except the Billy boys, who see her.
The atmosphere on the reservation becomes fearful, and more watchers arrive. Benoit comes to pick up Lettie and take her to Grace Blanket's house to fetch Nola's possessions. Benoit's arrangement with Lettie and Sara is amicable: he lives with Sara almost as brother and sister, but he loves Lettie. Lettie and Sara are friends. Together, Lettie and Benoit empty Nola's closet and drawers in Grace's house so that they can take her clothes to her.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., Stace Red Hawk, a Lakota Sioux, is a police detective. His partner, Dr. Levee, tells him what has happened to Grace Blanket and suggests they look into it, even though it is not their jurisdiction.
Michael Horse repaints his gold car silver. He meets the mute John Stink, an Osage man, and accepts a cookie from him at the market where the Indians go to collect their oil cheques. When Moses collects his cheque, he is told that full-blood Indians get only ten percent of their royalties. Previously it had been said that those who were part white would only receive some of their money and full-bloods would receive all, so the Indians complain, but they are told that the rules have been changed.
John Hale makes a deal with an Indian called Walker who is in debt. He says he will cancel Walker's debt if he can collect his oil money after his death. The doctor, Benjamin Black, worries about the hold this gives Hale over Walker.
Benoit and Lettie go to the carnival together, to have one night in which they will "forget the past" and be happy. They ride the Ferris wheel together, unaware that John Tate is photographing them.