The Only Good Indians

When I was in middle school, I think around age 12, I went hunting for whitetail deer with my father in Maine. We’d go out early in the morning to get settled into a spot before dawn, and we’d also hunt in the few hours before sunset. My father would scout locations, use trail cameras, and keep track of how many deer were moving on a trail, and when they happened to be there. On a very rainy afternoon we were sitting in the woods, soaked to the bone, when my father tapped on my leg and whispered, “turn slowly to your right.”

There was a huge 8-point buck (4 points on each antler). It looked right at us for a bit, and then began making a scrape(?) – I don’t really remember what it’s called but it’s when the deer rubs their antlers on a tree trunk and up in low lying branches to mark their territory. Then it began walking towards the snowmobile trail we had positioned ourselves near. The plan was that the deer would be walking in this direction on this trail at this time of day, and when they stepped into the trail I would have a clear shot. I would have to be careful to wait until the deer stepped forward, to aim my shot when the shoulder blade had moved out of the way. It was important to make sure the shot was good so the deer didn’t suffer.

Everything happened just as it was supposed to. The deer left a clear blood trail that we were able to follow in the slowly darkening woods, and we found it dead not far from where I shot it. Problem was that we had to get this deer out of the woods and into the bed of the truck, and all the tools for that were out in the truck, so father had to leave me alone, in the woods, with the dead deer, while he walked back along the snowmobile trail to the truck. I was instructed to sing or talk or whatever so when he got back he could find us again.

When he was gone I got down on my knees and talked to the deer. I thanked it for providing food for my family. At the time this was the one activity my father and I did together where it felt like he was proud of me, so I thanked the deer for that. I sang it songs, I remember that when my father found us again I was singing something. We had to disembowel the deer and left the innards for other animals to eat. We rolled it onto a tarp, I think, and then worked together to drag it out of the woods. When we drove away I didn’t feel like I had murdered something, I felt like I had honored what had happened, we had met on the deer’s turf, our methods had been fair. We would use every part of the meat, I think we even tanned the hide. My father had the head mounted but I had to save up to pay for it myself.

When I read this book, the haunting of these men by the spirit of the elk mother reminded me of that time. It also made me realize that I do believe in a spirit system of some kind, even if my intellectual mind understands that it isn’t true. Angry spirits do not care if you grew up, they don’t care if you’re sorry, they don’t care if you tried to honor them. All that matters is that you failed, and they will take what is owed to them. The more years since payment was due, the more is owed, and in this novel, Elk Head Woman is going to get what is owed. What you took will be taken back tenfold.

The way that this novel pays tribute to Native American traditional beliefs while illustrating all the ways that Native Americans try to exist in a world that has only ever wanted to drive them to extinction is truly excellent. I also enjoyed the detail of how different tribes interacted with each other inside of the traditions, specifically Crow and Blackfoot. The ending, which I will not spoil for you here, brings everything back to honor and recognition, and links a desire to move on with a desire to look back. The Only Good Indians shows us that we can honor our traditions while moving forward and away, as long as we are willing to pay the price.

This book was terrifying, mysterious, and informative. It was also a short read, which in this current reality, is such a relief. It will take you out, make you sweat, and then hang you out to dry. If you’re looking for an edge of your seat, devastating thrill ride, go pick this one up. You won’t be disappointed.


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