The protagonist of the novel. Tayo struggles with a sense of belonging in his family throughout his childhood and of belonging in his community after his return from World War II. Educated in white schools, Tayo has always maintained a belief in the Native American traditions. Painfully aware of the social realities surrounding Native American life on and off the reservation—and Native American participation in World War II—Tayo is able to make use of his double consciousness (of white and Native American life) to cure himself and his community.
Read an in-depth analysis of Tayo.
The medicine man who guides Tayo through his ceremony. Betonie lives on the edge of the Navajo reservation, on a cliff overlooking the white town of Gallup. Feared and mistrusted by many for his eccentricities and for his contact with whites, Betonie comes from a long line of medicine men and women who struggle to create a new ceremony that will answer to the needs of the contemporary world. His wisdom is a key element in Tayo's cure.
Read an in-depth analysis of Betonie.
Tayo's aunt. As the eldest daughter in her family, Auntie is in charge of running the household and caring for the family. Although she performs her duties diligently, Auntie is a proud and spiteful woman. She is largely responsible for Tayo's sense of exclusion from his family. In addition to following the old Native American traditions almost blindly, Auntie is a devout Christian who thrives on martyrdom.
Read an in-depth analysis of Auntie.
Tayo's uncle. Josiah is the person who teaches Tayo the Native American traditions and makes him feel most at home in the family. Although he adheres strongly to tradition, Josiah is not afraid of change, falling in love with the Mexican Night Swan and following her advice to undertake raising a herd of Mexican cattle crossbred with Herefords.
Tayo's childhood friend. Harley returns from fighting in World War II apparently less troubled than Tayo but with a severe alcohol addiction. Harley tries to be a good friend to Tayo but is impeded by his alcoholism.
Tayo's cousin and adoptive brother. He represents for Tayo and his family the perfect success of a Native American to integrate white society. Much to everyone's dismay, Rocky dies in the Philippines during World War II.
Tayo's grandmother and the matriarch of the family. Already old and wise when Tayo is just a child, Grandma intervenes at key moments in Tayo's life to bring him to the medicine men or to provide tidbits of advice in the form of seemingly random comments.
Josiah's girlfriend. Night Swan is a strong, smart, sexy, self-aware woman. She is the first of two Mexican women who appear in the novel to represent an aspect of the contact between white and Native American cultures. A former cantina dancer, she also seduces Tayo in order to teach him his first lesson about miscegenation and change.
The Laguna medicine man. A very traditional medicine man, Ku'oosh does not have the wherewithal to invent the new ceremonies needed to treat the new diseases. He does, however, possess the wisdom to send Tayo to see someone else and to embrace Tayo when he returns with the completed new ceremony.
A childhood acquaintance of Tayo's. Emo has always been critical of Tayo for his mixed race and been full of an undirected rage which only increases as a result of his fighting in World War II. Like the other war veterans, he is unable to find a place for himself on his return, and spends his time drinking and reliving idealized memories of his army days. When Tayo criticizes Emo's idealization of his army days, Emo's rage becomes directed at Tayo.
Auntie's husband. Robert is a mild-mannered quiet man who has little power in the family. He generally minds his own business, adhering to the old traditions. Robert shows his deep caring for Tayo as he welcomes him home from the war and as he warns him of Emo's impending attack.
A sacred figure in Laguna cosmology incarnated as Ts'eh to help Tayo in his ceremony. Ts'eh appears at three moments in Tayo's journey to help him with the cattle and to teach him about wild herbs, love, and evading his pursuers.
Betonie's grandfather. Along with the Mexican woman, Descheeny, a medicine man, began the creation of the new ceremony that would be able to cure the world of the destruction of the whites. He was the first of his people to recognize the need for collaboration between Native Americans and Mexicans.
Betonie's grandmother. As a Mexican woman, like Night Swan, she represents the miscegenation of white and native American cultures. Wise even as a young girl, she begins the new ceremony along with Descheeny. She raises Betonie and ensures that he gains the tools he will need to continue the ceremony.
An animal spirit sacred to the Native Americans. He appears to Tayo in both his animal and his human forms to help him catch Josiah's cattle.
A childhood friend of Tayo's. Harley's drinking buddy who fought in the war with him, Leroy is Harley's sidekick.
A childhood friend of Tayo's. Emo's drinking buddy and sidekick. Pinkie is eventually betrayed and killed by Emo.
Tayo's mother. Unable to negotiate the conflicting lessons she learned at home and at school, Laura became a victim of the contact between white and Native American cultures. Consumed by alcoholism, she conceived Tayo with an anonymous white man and, by the time Tayo was four years old, she was completely unable to care for him.
A woman Harley and Leroy pick up in a bar. Helen Jean represents all of the young Native American women who went to the white towns looking for a good job and end up being dragged into prostitution and alcoholism.