Abel, recently back from service in World War II, returns to his home in the small rural town of Walatowa, New Mexico, in 1945. It is late July, and Abel stays with his grandfather Francisco, who is a farmer. Abel meets a young white woman named Angela through the town priest, Father Olguin. He chops wood for her and they eventually have an affair.

Abel's return to his home brings up many different memories for him, about his brother, mother, and his membership in the Eagle Watchers Society. Father Olguin is also highly cognizant of memory, obsessed with one of his predecessors at the mission. Father Olguin also eventually develops another interest, Angela. He stops in her house the same day that Abel chopped wood for her, and invites her to the town's feast of Santiago. During a contest that reenacts a historical event in the life of Santiago, Angela witnesses a brilliant horseman, an albino, ceremonially smear Abel with the blood of a rooster.

In the beginning of August there is a festival and a large storm. A bull runs through the streets, chased by the townspeople people, and Francisco engages in a ceremony with many of the other elders. That night, after drinking at the bar, Abel seemingly inexplicably kills the albino man with a knife.

Seven years later, Abel is released from prison and placed under the care of an Indian Relocation program in Los Angeles. He begins to work at a factory where he meets Ben Benally, who offers to share his apartment with Abel. (Many of these details unfold out of chronological order, only pieced together in the last several chapters.)

Much of the section "The Priest of the Sun", the first portion of the novel set in Los Angeles, is written from the point of view of Abel. The present moment of the chapter is a night when Abel has just been beaten up by unknown assailants and left almost dead on the beach. One of the poignant threads to Abel's past resurfaces in this section—his memory of Milly, a social worker, who would come around to the apartment and spend time with Abel and Ben. Eventually, Abel gets to know Milly socially and they become lovers.

In contrast with Abel's daily existence are the sermons that the Priest of the Sun, John Big Bluff Tosamah, delivers in this same section of the novel, the last weekend of January 1952. The sermons contain several stories of the Kiowa people, such as how the Kiowa came to be and how the Big Dipper was formed in the sky. Tosamah also delivers a sermon that gives the history of the last days of the Kiowa as a sun dance culture, titled "The Way to Rainy Mountain." At the end of the sermon, Tosamah tells of his own experience visiting the grave of his grandmother at the base of Rainy Mountain.

The next section of the novel, set in February of that same year, is told from the point of view of Ben Benally on the day that Abel leaves for Walatowa. At the hospital and during a ceremony with the Priest of the Sun, both Ben and Abel make a pact to meet some day to sing the ceremonial song "House Made of Dawn." Ben recounts the events leading up to Abel's disappearance: working at the factory, drinking, more drinking, an altercation at Tosamah's, the visits of Milly, and a trip to the beach one afternoon.

By that point of the trip to the beach, Abel has lost his job and spends most of his time at the bars. One night, Ben and Abel are mugged when they are returning home from the bar. A week later, Abel's alcoholism leads to further aggression on his part towards Ben, who refuses to take Abel's behavior any more. The two men have a fight and Abel leaves, not returning until three days later, when he shows up at the apartment badly beaten and seemingly near death. It is never revealed what has happened to Abel during these three days of absence: all we can surmise from the previous chapter is that Abel is badly beaten by a group of men and left on the beach.

Not long after his beating, Abel returns to Walatowa, where he finds his grandfather, Francisco, on the verge of dying. Francisco remembers the first time he felt he became a man, when he returned from his first bear hunt. He also remembers taking Abel to the place where the race of the dead took place each year, at the old wagon road near town.

That night, Francisco passes away and Abel prepares him and leaves him with Father Olguin before dawn. Abel then quickly goes to the old wagon road until he approaches the field where the race of the dead used to take place. As the first light of dawn strikes the slopes of the valley, Abel watches the runners whip by him and he follows, regardless of his body's pain, and runs after them.