Painted Turtle Characters
by Clarence Major

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The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Painted Turtle’s alienation from her culture allows her to transcend reality through her music. Early in her life, she yearns to be a boy and experience the freedom of her father’s sphere; however, she must learn the confining ways of the worlds of her mother and grandmother. When she is raped at age thirteen and gives birth to twins, most of the Zuni interpret this as a curse, and their attitude gives meaning to the lifelong distance and discomfort she always feels for the demands and expectations placed upon her by gender and culture. To escape, she goes to a mental hospital and later becomes an unsuccessful barmaid and prostitute; eventually, she becomes a nightclub performer. She finally realizes that her childhood guitar can offer her not only an escape from reality but also an escape from a dreaded life on the reservation. Thus, she travels to third-rate clubs, bars, and hotels, singing for tips while sleeping in flophouses and hour-rated motels, until she meets Baldy.

Baldy, the narrator in the story, peers into Painted Turtle’s life across actual time and mythic distance; his own story becomes woven into hers. He initially meets Painted Turtle on “the grimy cantina circuit” when he is sent to hear her perform by their mutual agent, Peter Inkpen. Baldy’s task is to transform Painted Turtle into a more commercially appealing singer by suggesting that she switch to the electric guitar; instead, she unwittingly transforms him, and he joins her act when he trades in his prized electric guitar for an acoustic one. Being the son of a Hopi mother and a Navajo father makes him emblematic of the story; he, like Painted Turtle, must walk between two worlds. He represents the historic conflict that has always existed between different people. Throughout the novel, Baldy remains a distant figure and a stilted voice, telling little of Painted Turtle’s life and even less about his own. He is seen through her eyes as the narrative reveals her life to the world.

Old Gchachu, the father of the clan, is the human incarnation of the old ways. The collective memory—culture, custom, folklore, and history—is represented in his being; while she is in his presence, Painted Turtle is never sure if her experiences are dreams or reality. He prophesies when she is young that she will marry a wise priest, become famous for her traditional cooking skills, and become legendary for her love of children and family. When these beliefs do not come true, he reminds her that the soul of a Zuni dies if it strays too far from home.

Grandma Wilhelmina, Painted Turtle’s grandmother, represents both the sanctity of the past, as she embodies the traditional female role of healer and caretaker, and the options of the future, as she produces fine jewelry and sells it in stores all over the Southwest. Without saying much, she validates Painted Turtle’s independent spirit and sanctions her movement away from the traditional life.

Waldo Etawa, Painted Turtle’s father, symbolizes both the traditional father figure and the erosion of the Native American way of life. On one hand, he drinks; on the other, he teaches his daughter male tasks and helps her develop skills usually not taught to women. He fuels her independence by treating her like a son. Though successful, he lets the family’s material and social status slip as he fails to keep white society and modernization from altering the “old ways.”

Marelda Etawa, Painted Turtle’s mother, represents the stability of hearth and home and the probability of continuation. She remains at home, caretaker to both an older and younger generation as well as keeper of the family lore, its customs, and traditions; she rears the two grandsons in Painted Turtle’s absence.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Painted Turtle

Painted Turtle, a female Zuni singer and guitar player whose alienation from her culture allows her to transcend reality through her music. Early in her life, she yearns to be a boy and experience the freedom of her...

(The entire section is 1,307 words.)