The protagonist Thomas Black Bull has several important traits that result as a consequence of his life circumstances. First, he develops an acute sense of anger and aggression from a very young age. After he leaves his life in the wilderness, he will never forget the way in which Blue Elk tricked him into his attendance at the local reservation school nor the poor treatment he receives from teachers and bosses during this phase of his life. While he first exhibits signs of this anger outwardly, by picking fights and making scenes, he soon begins to repress this anger and hostility, which only serves to worsen the emotional damage. Especially after his separation from his bear brother, Tom's spirit has suffered significant and irrevocable damage. Having learned that his outward aggression has only brought him further trouble, Tom retreats into himself and engages in further isolation and cruelty.
Borland also characterizes Tom by a continual resentment and distrust toward authority figures. However, his experiences with these authority figures justify his behavior toward them. They have deprived him of the lifestyle of his heritage and treat him with prejudice because of his status as a Native American. Tom also feels as though these authority figures continually attempt to control his life in various ways. They exploit his abilities for their own material gain or for their own sense of worth. Tom's resentment of authority becomes so pronounced, however, that it sometimes causes him to distance himself from people who may genuinely try to help him, such as his nurse Mary Redmond.
Inextricably linked to Tom's search for his own identity is his search for his true home. Bald Mountain and the surrounding wilderness provide Tom with a sense of home and of belonging during his childhood years. Even in the painful time following the death of his mother, Tom lives peacefully in the wilderness, befriending the animals with whom he shares the woods. However, when Blue Elk persuades him to leave the woods and enroll in the local reservation school, Tom first experiences the acute pain of displacement and will continue to experience it for most of his life, until he returns to the wilderness at the end of the novel. As Tom's teachers and bosses become increasingly frustrated with his inability to complete certain tasks or with his passionate will to return to his old ways, they send him from place to place. As a result, Tom does not feel welcomed in any environment or by any individual. When he begins his career as a bronco rider, this pattern only perpetuates itself, as his competition takes him to many cities across the country. He lives a life on the road with no sense of attachment to place or people. While he hungers for the comfort and ease a sense of home provides, he know not how to seek it until his return to the mountains.
In the process of his self-exploration and his search for a sense of identity toward the end of the novel, Tom begins to understand the extent of his cruelty and isolation. His treatment of the broncos he rides represents the classic defense mechanism of projection. Projection occurs when a frustrated individual channels his anger in a way that society finds acceptable. In fact, Freud believed that individual frustration arises when external or internal barriers prevent the type of behavior that might directly remedy the frustration. In Tom's case, his Ute heritage provides an internal barrier; discouraged from living in the old Ute ways, he desires acceptance from his peers. People like Blue Elk, Benny, Albert Left Hand, and Red provide external barriers and take advantage of Tom's low self-confidence.
Bessie, Tom's mother, serves as an incredibly influential force in Tom's life, beliefs, and behaviors. Her wisdom, courage, and love, demonstrated by her love for her family and her abilities in the wilderness, provide a positive model for Tom during his childhood. She carefully imparts her knowledge of the old Ute ways to her son and emphasizes their importance. Predicting that Blue Elk will attempt to lure her son from the wilderness and from the lifestyle in which she believes, she warns Tom of the threat Blue Elk presents immediately before her death. Bessie also reappears throughout the novel in Tom's thoughts and dreams, as a reminder of the past that he has abandoned.
George Black Bull, Bessie's husband and Tom's father, has a profound love for his family. Honest and hardworking, George works in the mill in Pagosa to support his family. Although he longs to return to live by Ute custom in the wild, he feels trapped by debt and remains in town. After his family's escape to the mountains following the killing of Frank No Deer, George Black Bull takes great effort and care in informing Tom of Ute traditions. He also teaches him the essential skills of survival such as hunting. After his death in an avalanche one winter day, Tom must adopt his role as the man of the family and perform the requisite duties.
An unscrupulous, greedy Ute who lives in the town of Piedra, Blue Elk tricks Tom into first attending school on the reservation and into entering the civilized town of Pagosa. Blue Elk embodies a complicated set of circumstances. While he shares Tom's heritage, he has rejected it for the new ways of civilization. And Blue Elk seeks to force Tom to believe that these new ways represent an improvement on the old Ute ways. He constantly manipulates and exploits Tom and others and rarely, if ever, demonstrates a moment of selflessness. However, Blue Elk's visit to Tom's mountain lodge in the beginning of the novel speaks to a very different aspect of his personality. He becomes emotional as he reminisces about his life as a Ute, crying upon hearing the old chants. He represents the Native Americans who have lost their sense of heritage and have submitted to the white values concerning materialism and nature.