In Frank Waln’s song “What Made the Red Man Red,” the Sicangu Lakota rapper says, “We’re from the land, it made us strong.” The history of the indigenous relationship with land is one marked by horrific violence. It’s also a point of pride. And both are at the heart of Stephen Graham Jones’s new book, which we’ll talk about in this review of The Only Good Indians.
What is The Only Good Indians About?
Four men–Ricky, Lewis, Cassidy, and Gabriel–have been friends since childhood. At the time the novel begins, though, they’ve drifted apart. This, of course, is not unusual. In fact, it’s pretty common to lose touch with friends as you grow older. However, there’s something else at work here.
‘Round about ten years before the story starts, the men went hunting. More specifically, they went elk hunting on a piece of land they weren’t supposed to cross. In doing so, they not only violated the law, but they also violated a taboo. And now something is coming after them.
But that’s nothing new, really. The men are indigenous–Blackfeet, to be exact–and to be indigenous is to be chased by history and haunted by intergenerational trauma. After a lifetime of that, a supernatural threat almost feels like, “Yeah, and?”
Wait, Didn’t All That Bad Stuff Happen to Natives Like, Hundreds of Years Ago?
Yeah, you’d think so, judging by the way native history is taught or rather, not taught. After all, the title of Jones’s book comes from a famous phrase that apparently originated in the 19th century: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
And while I’d love to go through 528 years of broken treaties, broken promises, and broken bodies, we don’t even need to, because it never stopped. Just last week, for example, marked the 30th anniversary of Canada’s Oka Crisis. Disputes over oil pipelines on native land are even more recent. There’s also the phenomenon of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
Settlers/settler governments view Native bodies the same way they view the land & water. Disposable, unworthy of respect & open to violence
— Frank Waln (@FrankWaln) September 6, 2016
But high death rates can be “natural,” as well. Native Americans, for instance, are 177% more likely to die of diabetes than the general population. There are also higher rates of heart disease among native communities. And natives even still die of diseases we consider old-timey, like tuberculosis. On top of all that, suicide is also rampant.
The high rates of disease should come as no surprise, though, when you consider how many natives are forced to live. Many, for example, don’t have running water. I’m talking about now, in the year 2020. (You can help.) Many more have limited access to grocery stores and/or fresh food. But somehow alcohol is usually always available.
All of it combined is enough to make you feel invisible. After all, you’re more likely to see a space alien or a made-up monster in movies and TV than an indigenous character. I was 11 before I saw a native onscreen who wasn’t a racist cartoon or a dead warrior. Most of the time, the only representation is an ugly mascot.
But while indigenous life can be hard, that’s not to say that it can’t also be beautiful. To be native is to know that “you are the result of the love of thousands,” as Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan said. And while it can veer into inspirational slogans (“They tried to bury us,” etc.), it also bleeds into everyday life. We’re from the land, it made us strong. Just existing is a political act.
Every Native born into this world is a victory against colonialism & attempted genocide. You are the resistance. You are hope made flesh.
— Ruth Hopkins ⚡️❤️⚡️ (@Ruth_HHopkins) May 20, 2015
The Only Good Indians Review
And sometimes it can feel like a weighty responsibility. As one of Jones’s characters muses about the prospect of having children with a non-native, the guilt comes rushing in. After all, if he goes through with it, then “…the few of his ancestors who made it through raids and plagues, massacres and genocides, diabetes and all the wobbly-tired cars the rest of America was done with, they may as well have just stood up into that big Gatling gun of history, yeah?”
However, while the characters in this book do struggle with guilt over various misdeeds, they’re not just lumpy sad sacks. Jones fully fleshes out his characters, making them not just compelling to follow, but real. I don’t know these guys, obviously, but I’ve known guys like them. So it hurts to watch them mess up and it hurts more to watch them face danger.
And they face a lot of danger. Each man has varying degrees of awareness of what is coming after them. But they’ve got so much on their plates already. They struggle with being good men, being good fathers, and being good natives. The last one is a struggle to which many natives can relate. Whether you’re reconnecting, an urban native, or too rez for you, bro, life can sometimes feel like a balancing act between tradish and just trying to thrive.
And that’s all without having something hunting you down. To that end, the book at its core is a fairly simple story. However, Jones, whom I’ve not read before, is immensely talented at coloring in vivid details. There’s a game of 21, for instance, that reads as gripping and as suspenseful as anything I’ve read before. (If that seems unusual, it’s not. Natives love basketball.)
The monster at the end of this book (and the beginning and the middle) is no snooze, either. It’s awesome, in the older sense of the word, sympathetic, and wholly original. So even as you feel for the men, you also feel for their stalker. That’s quite a trick to pull, but Jones pulls it off.
Overall, as you might have guessed, I loved this book. It’s not traditional horror–I cried at the end and it didn’t give me nightmares like Aftermath of an Industrial Accident–but it is a bloody masterpiece. And beyond the violence, just like the bigger story of natives, it’s a bright and moving portrait of a people who didn’t crumple, who still fight, who still live and love. If you’ve never read Stephen Graham Jones before, as I hadn’t, then this is the perfect time to start.
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featured image via Saga, Simon & Schuster
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.