A Yellow Raft in Blue Water might be read as a meditation on family, on the mysteries of self and community, on the search for identity as individual and as member of the larger group, and on the pursuit of independence in the light of the reality of interdependence.
The main characters of the novel, Rayona, Christine, and Ida, while deeply involved with one another, remain in important ways isolated. They touch one another at a multitude of levels, but they communicate with one another only indirectly and, it sometimes seems, haphazardly. Family relationships have been distorted by the family secret that Ida carries, but family remains at the heart of the story.
The characters derive some of their identity from their complex relationship to the Native American community, but after Lee’s death, the interaction of Ida and of Christine, who has moved off the reservation, with the community at large becomes limited. Moreover, Christine has married a black man, and Rayona, of mixed racial heritage, fantasizes an identity on the basis of a letter sent to someone else, a daughter of the white middle class.
As Catholics, the three women are also members of a faith community. Dorris hardly offers an idealized portrait of the church (the priests, for example, are depicted as vessels of clay), and the book implies no necessary affirmation on the author’s part of religion in general or of Catholicism in particular. Yet two of the novel’s three parts close with Christine’s spiritual crisis, her loss of faith, suggesting that the character’s Catholic identity, however complicated and ambiguous, is not to be taken lightly.
What complicates the characters’ relation to the community as much as anything is the pursuit of independence. Both Christine and Rayona set out on their own; each is motivated, at least in part, by a desire to reject the mother who has, it seems, rejected her. Yet each character will learn the truth of interdependence, and if this is a novel of setting out, it is even more strongly a novel of return. Rayona returns to Christine. Christine returns to the reservation, to the church, to Ida. Dayton Nickles is a pivotal figure. He is instrumental in Rayona’s return, and he gives Christine the shelter and support she needs; yet the women also bring the gift of warmth and caring to a lonely man. It is perhaps as a gesture toward the theme of interdependence, with its suggestions of interaction and interweaving, that Dorris ends the novel with the image of two friends, Ida and Father Hurlburt, the Catholic priest who is also part Indian, sharing a concern for Christine, while Ida braids her hair, twisting, tying, blending.
Identity In 1979, Michael Dorris wrote that "there is no such thing as 'Native American literature,' though it may yet, someday, come into being." Among the requirements for such a literature, Dorris continued, was a "shared consciousness, an inherently identifiable world-view." Expanding on this theme of identity in a 1992 essay, Owens notes that in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water , for the most part, "the individual who would 'be' Indian rather than 'play' Indian is faced with an overwhelming challenge." Only Aunt Ida "becomes...the bearer of the identity and order that are so fragile they may perish in a single generation if unarticulated." Although Ida, too, is unavoidably influenced by the bombardment of mainstream culture, Owens notes that "she can take off her earphones and wig, turn off the television soap operas, and become a story-teller, leaving her 'savings'—a recovered sense of self, identity, authenticity—to...
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Rayona." The other characters in the story, on the other hand, are too enmeshed in sometimes conflicting, sometimes just unknown or unconscious forces of identity. Lee tries to become a Red Power representative but ends up bowing to the mainstream social forces that send him off to die in Vietnam. Lecon never rises above the stereotype of the traditional male, whether Indian or white, who sees women only as the servants of men. And though Christine struggles perhaps the hardest to establish herself as independent, she has only a vague sense of her real mother and not a clue about her real father. She goes from blind acceptance of Catholicism to total disillusionment and outright rejection of her faith This ignorance and irrationality can be seen as coming partly from Ida's secretiveness but also, especially as she grows older, from Christine's own apparent lack of desire to explain why she is taking a given action, like dropping Rayona off at Ida's and then disappearing. As a result of this lack of communication between mother and daughter, Rayona must negotiate her sense of self and community in a cultural vacuum. As a mixed blood, however, Rayona is different from the other characters (except for Father Hurlburt, who serves as an important link between the white and Indian communities). The positive side of feeling left out that is so common to mixed bloods is that Rayona is willing to try new things. For example, she agrees to impersonate her male cousin at the rodeo in which she wins a prize. (In fact, in an earlier version of the story, which appears inBartlett, the narrator was Raymond, a male Rayona.) When we leave Rayona at the end of her section of the book, she is actively questioning her mother about the details of the mysterious letter from the Virgin Mary. In this curious, questioning attitude, there is hope that Rayona, like the resilient synthetic fabric whose name she bears, will forge a new identity, neither Indian nor white, male nor female, self- nor other-oriented, that will survive and even endure.
Strength and Weakness Because Dorris' characters are developed by seeing them from several points of view, the reader gets a more rounded portrait in which different sides of the personality are revealed. This is evident when we examine each major character's strengths and weaknesses and the struggle within each figure to see which attributes will win out. As the youngest major character, Ramona has the least knowledge of what is going on, so ignorance is her main weakness. Thus she interprets Christine's leaving her at Ida's as abandonment, when it is in fact Christine's attempt, however cowardly, to protect her daughter from the truth about her mother's illness. Among Rayona's strengths, however, include courage, seen in her taking Foxy Cree's place in the rodeo. Rayona also shows great curiosity, which is evident in the many questions she is always asking, and her powerful imagination creates alternate identities that help her soothe the pain of not knowing the full truth about her mother and father. Christine's strengths include: her love for Rayona and Lee and her fierce desire to protect them; her fearlessness in taking up dares, and her perseverance and diligence when she is doing something she believes in, like helping the nuns (before her disillusionment). Never understanding the circumstances of her birth, however, and growing up without a father, Christine must constantly wrestle with feelings of isolation and dissatisfaction with her general lot. She also struggles with insecurity when males like Dayton seem to reject her. Ida is probably the most complex of the three major characters. She can count among her strengths her memory of important events in the past, which she thinks of as "savings." Ida also proves herself very practical in the way she out-maneuvers Clara to claim Christine as her legal daughter or manages her property to achieve some financial stability. Ida also shows perseverance in helping to raise three children, only one of whom is her own. She pays a price for her achievements, however. First, Ida is resentful toward her father and Willard, both of whom (like most men, she feels) make her feel stupid. Second, in her desire to cover up the sins of her father and Willard, as she sees them, Ida has isolated herself and left herself little room for any life of her own, literally branding herself (with the teakettle) as a misfit and recluse in the eyes of others.
Culture Clash Though Dorris has been criticized for not emphasizing the importance of a distinct native American identity, A Yellow Raft in Blue Water shows that he is well aware of the factors that hamper its development. The book is a virtual catalogue of different forms of culture and the ways they rub against each other, sometimes creating barriers, and occasionally melding. There is Elgin's black culture and its conflict with Christine's upbringing on the reservation. "We're the wrong color for each other," Rayona has heard her mother tell Elgin. "That's what your friends think." There is the white Catholic culture of Father Tom, who knows no Indian language and is the constant butt of Indian humor. There is the more traditional Indian culture in which Ida, who "wears resentment like a medicine charm," has been raised, despite her more recent exposure to Western media. Like the traditional Indian, Ida has an expanded awareness of the past— especially the truth about Christine's parentage and Lee's father And finally, there is the mixed-blood heritage that exists in both Rayona (Indian-black) and Father Hurlburt (Indian-white). This heritage is both parodied, as in Father Tom's stilted reference to Rayona's "dual heritage," and respected, as seen in Father Hurlburt's important role in the story as a witness to and confidant of at least some of Ida's secrets.