Will is photographing a wedding in the community when he notices Harlen’s conspicuous absence from the celebrations. According to Will, “any time there was a gathering of two or more Indians in a hundred-mile radius of Medicine River, chances were one of them was Harlen.”
Bud Prettywoman tells Will that Harlen was pretty wild when he was younger, but when he married Doris, Harlen stopped drinking and settled down. When Doris died in a car accident, Harlen drank so much he almost killed himself. Bud gets comfortable in his chair and settles into telling Will Harlen’s story.
Will remembers that he first met Harlen at Rose’s funeral, when Harlen offered to give him a ride back to Medicine River after the service. When Harlen asks what Will does in Toronto, Will answers that he’s a photographer, and Harlen suggests that Will move “home.” Later that evening, as Will sits in the airport waiting for his flight, Harlen comes to see him in the terminal. He brings Will a folder containing a pamphlet from the Chamber of Commerce on Medicine River, as well as copies of pages from the phone book of all the local photographers. Harlen has annotated the pages to indicate that all the photographers are white: “No competition for an Indian photographer.”
When Will returns home to Toronto, he loses his job and spends a few months freelancing before moving to Medicine River. When he disembarks the plane, he finds Harlen waiting for him in the terminal.
In the present, Bud comments that Harlen has started drinking again, so Will goes looking for him, checking all the bars in town. Finally, he decides to look in Harlen’s apartment. There, he finds Harlen passed out in bed next to a bucket of vomit.
In the past, when Will first returns to Medicine River, Harlen helps him secure a loan to open a photography business and then becomes Will’s first client, asking for a portrait of himself in his dance outfit. Harlen begins leaving Will’s business cards all over town, and within a year Will’s business is profitable.
In the present, Harlen wakes up and asks Will to make him some soup. Will is in the kitchen when Bertha Morley arrives. She explains that Harlen isn’t drunk; he just has the flu. Bertha and Will sit with Harlen while he eats, and Will thinks back to the evening he flew to Medicine River from Toronto and the image of Harlen leaning against the glass at the airport terminal, waiting for him.
Driving home from a basketball tournament together, Harlen asks Will why he is depressed, speculating that it’s about Louise. Will remembers when he met Susan Adamson, a woman he dated in Toronto.
Harlen realizes that they’re going to pass by the Custer National Monument and wants to see it, saying it’s part of indigenous peoples’ history. When they arrive, a man is closing the gate, and even though Harlen pleads his case, the man won’t let them pass to see the monument.
In a flashback, Will remembers calling Susan at home for the first time. A child answers, and when Will asks for Susan, the child replies that her mom is sick but that Will could talk to her father. Will lies about his reasons for calling and gives Susan’s husband a fake name.
In the present, Harlen suggests that they spend the night in a motel and see the monument in the morning. Will has restless dreams in which he storms the monument.
Harlen recruits Clyde Whiteman to join the basketball team....
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Clyde is a strong player, and Harlen believes he’ll help the team win a championship. He had been a great player in high school and everyone in Medicine River thought he would be recruited and become famous, but on the night of his graduation, he and his friends stole a car and crashed it after a high-speed chase with the cops. Seven months after Clyde was released from jail, he was sleeping in the backseat of a car whose driver robbed a cash register at a gas station. Harlen insists that Clyde is a good kid who has bad luck.
Clyde proves himself in the team’s next game, scoring forty-two points. The team starts a winning streak, and Clyde thinks that playing with them will help him turn his life around and stay out of trouble.
Harlen begins criticizing the team, thinking it will motivate them. His negativity affects Clyde, whose play suffers. One night, after losing a game, Clyde lands himself in jail for getting drunk and trying to hit a cop. Harlen is inconsolable and wonders why Clyde always gets himself in trouble.
Will thinks back on his absent father and realizes that his mother never said his father’s name whenever she told stories to Will and James about their childhood. Once, however, she uses the name Howard, and when Will questions her about it, she dismisses him, telling him it was a long time ago.
After spending thirty days in jail, Clyde rejoins the team. Harlen enlists Will to talk to Clyde about staying out of trouble until the playoffs are over.
Clyde and Will drive home from a game together. Clyde laments that he can’t change his pattern of behavior and disappoints everyone, especially Harlen.
During the championships, Clyde helps the team make it through the semi-finals. That night, Clyde is arrested for borrowing a car. The team manages to win the final the next day without their star player.
Will goes to visit Clyde in prison and finds him playing basketball in the gym. He learns that Harlen brought Clyde a championship jacket. Clyde promises that he has learned his lesson. As Will leaves, he watches Clyde take a perfect shot, the ball falling smoothly into the hoop and tangling in the chains of the net.