Tradition versus Modernity

When oil is found under Osage land, the traditionally Indian town of Watona is flooded with white settlers looking to get a portion of the oil money. Many members of the tribe—who are now incredibly wealthy—begin to drift away from their cultural roots, preferring to adopt a more modern, white way of life. One such person is Grace Blanket, who, despite being descended from the Hill Indians and their rich culture, is uninterested in traditional Indian life. Instead, she uses her fortune to embrace modern conveniences, buying a giant house with Roman columns that she fills with European objects. As the Watona Indians begin to place more emphasis on material goods, the Hill Indians retreat from Watona, choosing to live in total separation from the town and the dangers of white influence. Their self-imposed isolation suggests that the moral degeneration and materialism of Watona are a disease that can affect anyone living in close proximity. As the novel progresses, the drinking and gambling culture in Watona worsens until, by the end of the novel, the Watona Indians are gambling away sacred cultural artifacts with ease. Though some characters, such as Louise and Joe Billy, begin to turn back to the old ways, many of the Watona Indians have lost their deep connection to their culture and are eventually driven away from the land of their ancestors. By the end of the novel, the former Indian town of Watona is mostly populated by whites who want to rename it “Talbert.” The clash between tradition and modernity is best encapsulated by Nola, who, after following in her mother’s footsteps and purchasing a giant European-style house, has a mental breakdown upon realizing that she is surrounded by alien objects from a foreign culture. She runs away to live among the Hill Indians who have escaped the destructive forces in Watona by erasing the road that leads to their settlement, literally severing the connection between tradition and modernity.


As a novel based on real events, Mean Spirit cannot shy away from the rampant exploitation of the Osage people by both private citizens and the government. The very land that turns out to be so valuable is given to the Osage people through the Dawes Act, a law that greatly harmed Native American tribes by preventing communal landholding, reducing the size of Indian lands, and forcing assimilation into an American way of life. The land allotments that the Osage may...

(The entire section is 1025 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Mean Spirit’s central theme is the recognition that the survival of Indian culture is dependent on the survival of the natural world. The discovery of oil and the subsequent intrusion of whites into the Indian life of Watona initiates the deterioration of the community. The obsession with material goods, drinking, and gambling separates the Hill Indians from those living in town. Grace, who has little interest in old ways, desires electricity and china. When her daughter Nola, feeling threatened by the frequent murders and pervasive greed, marries Will, she too chooses to live in a European-style house; she buys numerous glass figurines, although her husband prefers earth and clay artifacts. Grace is murdered, and Nola experiences a complete nervous breakdown, ending only after she has murdered her own husband.

Drinking is invariably connected with gambling, initially showing the Indian culture’s lack of emphasis on material goods. Hogan says that the novel’s Indians have no concern about losing their possessions and merely enjoy the game of gambling; however, the pleasure in betting grows out of control, until men are gambling away their sacred pipes and women their sacred dancing shawls. The moral deterioration of the community is followed by many murders, a literal extinction of the people. Seventeen murders in six months have occurred near the start of the novel, and numerous characters die during the story. The Indians in town simply disappear. Originally, the town had belonged to the Indians,...

(The entire section is 623 words.)