The first of three sections in A Yellow Raft in Blue Water is titled “Rayona,” and Rayona narrates it. As the story begins, Rayona is sitting in the Indian Health Service (IHS) hospital in Seattle with her Native American mother, Christine. The two are playing cards, and Christine wins a hand just as Rayona’s father, a black man named Elgin, appears. Christine tries to shoo Rayona away, but Elgin asks Rayona to stay, wanting to have a look at her. Rayona, who is very tall and skinny, suddenly feels self-conscious about her appearance.
Elgin has come to the hospital to drop off Christine’s car, a Volaré, but Christine insists that Elgin use the car to pick her up when she leaves the hospital. Elgin protests, saying that Christine really does not look that sick. Secretly, Rayona shares Elgin’s views on Christine’s health. Christine becomes quite angry when she hears Elgin claim she is not as sick as she thinks. As Elgin tries to shoo Rayona from the room, Christine tells him to go back to his “little black girl.” Elgin goes, leaving the keys to the Volaré with Rayona, who also makes a hasty exit.
Rayona starts to think about her mother’s history at the hospital. Christine visits the hospital frequently, always after long nights of partying and drinking. When Christine gets home, however, she is ready to start partying again and the cycle repeats. Her best friend, Charlene, frequently cautions her that her body cannot take so much punishment, but she always shrugs off such warnings.
As Rayona wanders the hospital, her thoughts drift back to her father and she wonders where he might be. Her mother has always claimed that she and Elgin separated because of their racial difference, but Rayona has heard this too many times to believe it. Rayona has tried every trick she knows to get her father to notice her, but they almost never see each other.
Rayona goes to the parking lot to find the Volaré, but when she reaches it, a hospital worker is trying to open the door with a coat hanger. Rayona accosts the worker, only to discover that it is her mother dressed in nurse’s clothes stolen from the hospital. Christine, feeling oppressed by her troubles, says that she has decided to crash the car so that Rayona can benefit from the insurance payments.
Rayona explains that Christine frequently makes similar threats, saying she plans to go to the place where Elgin proposed to her to kill herself. However, she never does. Skeptical, Rayona forces her way into the car, and they drive off. When they near their destination, Christine pulls over and tells Rayona to get out. Rayona dares her mother to go, but the car stalls when Christine tries to start it. The car is out of gas. After a short argument, Rayona and Christine set out for a gas station a few miles down the road. By the time they get there, Christine is in a good mood again.
From Rayona’s point of view, Christine is acting irrationally and absurdly in this chapter. Her actions seem to be all an act, a show put on to gain Rayona’s and Elgin’s sympathy. However, neither is willing to give Christine what she wants, and from the information that Dorris shares with us in this first chapter we do not find it difficult to share Rayona’s skepticism regarding her mother’s illness. Dorris tells us, for example, that Christine’s partying frequently puts her in the hospital but that she is too irresponsible to calm down. Dorris also shows us that even though Christine accuses Elgin of having left her for a black girl, she has made this accusation so many times that it is not credible. Finally, when Christine appears in the parking lot, she is wearing clothing that makes her unrecognizable to her own daughter, as if her very personality were camouflaged and hidden. Although Rayona never expressly tells us not to trust Christine, Rayona’s confusion and mistrust of her mother are evident in the facts she chooses to relate and the skeptical way in which she tells them.
From the very beginning of the chapter, Rayona is isolated from both her mother and father, and strong familial ties are missing. Her irritation with her mother prevents Rayona from taking her mother seriously and from enjoying their time together. Elgin appears rather disinterested in both Rayona and Christine. Unlike Christine, Rayona does not react to Elgin’s indifference overtly. However, as Rayona articulates her inner thoughts to us, it is easy to tell how hurt she is, not only by Elgin’s show of apathy at the IHS but also by the course of her life in general.
Rayona’s odd appearance compounds her outsider status and awkwardness with her parents. Nearly everyone notices Rayona’s lankiness: even her father focuses his gaze on her size and weight when he enters the hospital. Rayona is so accustomed to comments about her frame that she is acutely sensitive to any comments she receives that are about some other aspect of her. In addition to her physical awkwardness, Rayona is somewhat self-conscious of her skin color. With a black father and Native American mother, Rayona feels like an outsider to both races, and the color of her skin makes her outsider status impossible to hide. We see Rayona’s racial self-consciousness in the frequent comments she makes about the difference between her skin tone and that of either of her parents.
Rayona also pays particular attention to popular culture, making special note of the songs she hears on the radio and the brand of car her mother drives. Rayona also frequently works pop culture into her analogies, metaphors, and similes, which is not surprising for a girl her age. These repeated references to popular culture remind us that Rayona desperately wants to fit in.