The Only Good Indians: The Hunters Become The Hunted
Updated: Dec 8, 2022
I was twenty pages into Stephen Graham Jones' The Only Good Indians when I was lurking around on the hellscape of Twitter, and someone asked, "what are you reading?" I tagged Jones and replied, "I'm reading The Only Good Indians. I'm not that far into it yet, but it's a horrifying, graphic tale where horrible things happen to very messy people." The second the author liked that response personally, I knew I'd keyed into an important part of this novel. Now that I've finished it, I can honestly tell you, dear reader: I was definitely right. This book has received accolade after accolade, award after award, and I can certainly see why. It isn't for everyone though; if you're a person with triggers for gore, violence, or murdered animals, you might want to sit this one out.
Truth be told, for all that I recognize the work for the masterpiece that it is, I had a really hard time getting through it. I have a deep love of animals, and the animals in this book were exclusively the first victims on both sides. Gore doesn't particularly bother me; I'm more a "what's lurking in the shadows" kind of girl. That said -- the real horror in this book comes from the actions of the characters, both human and supernatural.
The basic premise is as follows: four Native men of the Blackfeet nation go out hunting on a part of their reservation that's forbidden to them. There, they find the mark of a lifetime, and instead of hunting with honor and responsibility, they violate the land and the herd of elk by committing a slaughter of greed and opportunity, killing nine different elk in one go. Among this number is a young cow, not yet an adult, but just old enough to be carrying a calf. The spirit of this young elk cow materializes as a spirit who seeks to exact vengeance on Lewis, Ricky, Gabe, and Cass for this violation. The story that follows is one of revenge and regret, where the reader (at least me) is torn between feeling the abject rage at the irresponsible murder of these elk, and the understanding that vengeance can carry us too far, until it's its own many-headed beast that can no longer be controlled.
The prologue of the story covers Ricky's death in just a single scene. But the first part of the book is devoted to Lewis, who had the most cognizance and regret of the four, and had at least tried to make it right by using her meat to feed the elders of the tribe, even saving her hide and attempting to use every part of the cow to honor her death. What follows is a set-up that is almost Count of Monte Cristo-esque in its execution. The elk spirit is conniving, and she sets up his demise to be one brought on by his own guilt and hubris, rather than anything she has to do herself.
The rest of the story systematically goes through the perspectives of each of the participants in that day's hunt as they meet their demise a decade later, and the lengths the Elk Spirit goes to in order to exact her revenge. Innocent lives are absolutely lost in the process, and there are aspects at play here on morality and the nature of revenge that I'll discuss in a bit. I absolutely loved the ending, and I thought that the dramatic touch of mercy being what ends the cycle of violence was just what I needed in order to feel satisfied with this book.
The Morality of Hunting
I grew up in a rural area, in a hunting family. My birthday is during hunting season, and imagine being a five-year-old kid whose father constantly complains about missing the first week of the season because he had to celebrate his daughter. That said, while I despise guns, and I certainly don't have it in me to kill a creature that isn't harming me, I am not a vegetarian, and I recognize the value of responsibly hunting in order to provide your family and community with meat over the winter. The issue with what these four men did has nothing to do with the morality of hunting. Any hunter worth their salt will tell you to take what you need, and not a bit more. Many of them prefer to hunt bucks, to make sure that there aren't any repopulation issues for the next season. The idea of finding an entire herd of elk and poaching nine in one go, in a blood frenzy of hubris and good old-fashioned testosterone? It's unnecessary, it's wasteful, and it's disrespectful. And that's coming from me, who has skin tone the approximate shade of slightly rancid mayonnaise.
There are admittedly some aspects of this violation (this is Jones' word) that escape me, given that I don't have the background in the Native Nations to have been privy to the context of hunting on land reserved for the elders of the tribe, what extra connotations there are to the act of hunting within Native culture, et cetera. Jones does an excellent job of showing, not telling, but there's only so much one book can teach without spending too much time on didactics and not enough on telling the story at hand. So naturally, I recognize that there's only so much I can wax poetic about with any authority, given that I don't possess Native blood.
The Line Between Vengeance and Slaughter
One of the fascinating parts of this book was the perspective of Elk Head Woman, the creature hunting these four men and everything they've ever loved. Her perspective is exclusively told through the second-person point of view, ("you",) perhaps to give the reader an inexorable sense of connection to the antagonist, while everyone else is in third-person, ("he/she/they".) Jones is very descriptive with the collective memories she shares with her herd, the memories of that fateful day, and her motivations in doing what she does. She is immensely purposeful and remorseless about killing as many bystanders as it takes to get the job done. (Seriously. Just as a warning: the number of characters who make it through the book alive is not high.)
What I find fascinating is the justification she uses for her actions. The four hunters engaged in needless slaughter. They destroyed her, her unborn calf, and a good portion of her herd without reservation. Why should she do any less? She doesn't want to just kill them. That's not good enough. She wants to take absolutely everything from them: their pride, their families, their respect, their sanity. And while there were points where I certainly saw her perspective (kind of like Killmonger in Black Panther, if I'm being honest) there is a point where I, as the reader, sat back and went "okay, so they committed an unforgivable sin against that herd. But these other people really did nothing, and now they all have to pay." It brings blatant poignancy to the nature of vengeance and, indeed, war. Genocide.
In some ways, I found lines to the nature of racism, where a person will justify any action in the name of vengeance against someone they hate, even if they don't know why they hate them. Or anyone who looks like them. It crosses the line really fast from "vengeance" to "slaughter" and Jones is a powerhouse at bringing light to that slippery slope.
And, at the risk of spoilers, the slaughter does end. It ends because at the moment when the last remaining survivors realize there's nothing more to be gained, they choose mercy instead of perpetuating the cycle of violence. That was the most powerful way this book could have concluded, and it touched me to my core.
The Writing Style
There is a reason Stephen Graham Jones wins every award in the world for his works. He is a phenomenal storyteller. He writes in third-person (and second-person, as I mentioned before) present-tense, so the reader has the constant impression of watching the tragedy as every event unfolds. He has such a distinct voice, more than almost any writer I've ever come across. If I had to blind-read a work of his I'd never seen before, I feel fairly confident that I could walk away and say "yeah. That's definitely Stephen Graham Jones." It's so effortlessly casual, so eccentric in the best way, and that lured me into a false sense of security. By the time the plot went sideways, it was as if I were a frog being slowly boiled in a pot. I'd been hyped up on basketball and sweat lodge ceremonies, and suddenly oh right. I found the murder.
Jones sweeps his readers up into the experience of being Native. The perspective of a modern-day Native population living out their days on the rez, the nature of this last vestige of stolen land "magnanimously" given by white men -- this is something every white American needs to see. While horror may not be your bag, and that's understandable, I've seen few Native writers be so encompassing about the realities of Indigenous life. More than that, how they see themselves, from their own perspective, and not just how white media tells the story.
This is why I do what I do. We have a lot of white voices at the table. At every table. We rigged the tables to be that way. But these stories, these experiences -- they make us better. They are valuable and deserve to be told. And in November, Native American Heritage Month, let's all make the effort to find a Native writer and hear those stories. Just please. Not Sherman Alexie. (See the link for why.)
For a list of current books by Native authors to get you started, try this link from Goodreads.
This book is definitely a hard read. It's not hard to read. Every writer I know is envious of his storytelling ability, his plot growth, his ability to keep the plot moving even while he's giving the reader a moment to catch their breath. But there are many atrocities committed in this book, and they're graphically depicted (and yes, every dog in the book dies horribly, so don't get attached.) Even the title is, by far, the most remarkable I've seen in a while, a quote from Theodore Roosevelt. The second I read the title, I knew what the book was about, because I could finish the quote in my head. "The only good Indians... are dead ones." I would love to ask Jones someday about the significance of using a white man's quote as the title for his book, that was so obviously rooted in racial hatred of an entire nation of people. Maybe that's the whole point.
The book itself is exceptional, and if you can handle the darkness of it, I consider it a must-read for anyone into the genre, or anyone looking to read more Native writers and hear their stories.
Stephen Graham Jones has written a straight masterpiece, and it's gritty and horrible. But it's also a genuine thing of beauty. I hope you pick it up.
Purchase This Book:
https://www.demontheory.net (Jones' site)
Or buy/order from any local indie bookstore, or even borrow from the library! They'll love to have your business.
(Taken by my wife, which explains why the photo is better than normal.)