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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1003

Alienation From the very beginning of the story, the theme of alienation is apparent. George Black Bull is on the run from the law. From that point until the conclusion of the novel, the underlying theme is one of isolation.

Thomas’s family is forced to leave the community and find...

(The entire section contains 1003 words.)

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  • Characters
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From the very beginning of the story, the theme of alienation is apparent. George Black Bull is on the run from the law. From that point until the conclusion of the novel, the underlying theme is one of isolation.

Thomas’s family is forced to leave the community and find their way in the wilderness. The family finds peace in the forest, but, by a twist of fate, Thomas is yanked from this environment and is forced into another strange setting. Again Thomas feels alienated. He is not comfortable with his new surroundings, and because of his unusual background, he becomes estranged from the people around him. Everything about the new people he must live with is different from Thomas: their language, clothes, beliefs and visions of the world, and even the type of food they eat. His life follows this pattern, taking him from one strange environment to another. In each new environment, he always feels like the stranger, the alienated one.

In the end, it is Thomas’s alienation from himself that he must face. Although he seeks out his homeland on a subconscious level, it takes him awhile to remember that this is the place of his roots. At first, he believes that he has come home to recuperate from his accident. Slowly, it dawns on him that he has truly come home. In the last moments of the novel, Thomas learns to bridge the alienation that exists in his own head.

One of the main causes of the underlying theme of alienation in this story is the dishonesty of the people around Thomas. Blue Elk, a fellow Ute, pretends to befriend Thomas and his family in the beginning of the story. However, Blue Elk’s intentions are always selfish and usually mercenary. Blue Elk first leads Thomas’s family to Pagosa’s sawmill and away from the reservation by filling their heads with the idea that they would make a lot of money. Instead, the family becomes ensconced in chronic debt. Blue Elk lies to Thomas to get the boy to leave his wilderness lodge. Blue Elk then steals all the boy’s possessions.

Red Dillon is also dishonest. He teaches Thomas to throw rodeo events so that he can up the ante on bets. His cheating often causes the two of them to get into trouble such that they must strategically hide their horses for sudden getaways from the small Western towns in which Thomas rides in rodeos.

Rites of Passage
The other overall theme of this novel is the rite of passage. This is portrayed through Thomas, who must learn to negotiate his way from childhood to adulthood down some very complicated roads. First, Thomas learns to find his way through the wilderness. He becomes completely self-sufficient in nature, learning not only to kill for his food and to make his own clothes but to communicate with the wild creatures there.

Then Thomas must learn to deal with his peers. He is not very successful in this arena. The only way he can deal with them is to isolate himself from them or to beat them up. The school environment in which he must face his peers is also a challenge because it is ruled by the ways of the white society. This means that Thomas must surrender his traditional ways, even though his peers are fellow Utes. He does eventually acquiesce to the school environment, accepting the clothes and food and trying to learn farm skills.

Thomas’s rites are not over, however. He has more things to learn before he reaches manhood. He is taken in by Red Dillon and is taught how to ride tough horses. He learns how to take falls. He becomes very familiar with constant, physical pain. He also learns how to cheat. Eventually, he gains enough confidence to free himself from Red.

The effects of all the hardships that Thomas has endured stay with him as he continues down his road toward maturity. He takes his anger out on the horses, torturing them, as he has been tortured. He is filled with anger and frustration. His final lessons begin when he is crushed under the weight of a fallen horse. During his recuperation, Thomas experiences the final rite, the passage which forces him to face himself.

Culture Clashes
There are two different types of culture clashes going on in this novel. First, there is the clash between the Native American culture and that of the white people. Then there is the clash between the traditional and nontraditional Indians.

The clash between the Native American culture and the white people is evident in the way that Thomas and his family must live on the Ute reservation. They are not allowed to go fishing or hunting when they are hungry without first receiving permits. This system, although supervised by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), is the direct result of having had their land confiscated by the U.S. government and then partially reissued as reservation land, with strict boundaries and prohibitive rules.

The other aspect of this clash between the divergent cultures is demonstrated at the school to which Thomas is sent. The school is run by white people, whose philosophy demands that Native children must look and act like white people to get along in the world.

The clash between traditional and nontraditional Native people is shown in the way many of the Utes look at the Black Bull family when they return to town, dressed in their native clothes. It is also seen in the attitudes of the Native American children when they react to what seems strange to them, as when Thomas refers to the ancient songs and stories of the Ute people. The nontraditional Native Americans are only vaguely aware of these traditions, if they are aware of them at all. Thomas’s relationship to nature, in particular to the bear cub, is yet another unusual aspect that the nontraditional Native Americans do not understand.

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