Summary: Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield
Opal works for the Postal Service as a mail carrier. When she delivers mail, she starts with the odd-numbered side of the street first. This is one of a series of superstitions she holds to, to offset all of the unpleasant events from her life (Ronald, Alcatraz, her mother, group homes and foster care). Opal knows she didn’t cause any of the tragedies in her life, but feels that she must’ve deserved them nonetheless. Her superstitious rituals, such as stepping over cracks and knocking on wood, give her a sense of control.
Opal regularly searches her adopted grandsons’ phones while they are sleeping. She found a video of Orvil, her oldest grandson, doing a powwow dance in the Native American regalia from her closet. The regalia is from Lucas (Dene’s uncle), whom she met at a group home when she was younger. Lucas and Opal were in love before Lucas suddenly left for Los Angeles without telling her. He came back twenty years later to film an interview for his documentary and gave her the regalia they made together.
When Orvil told Opal about the spider legs in his leg, she remembered the time that she also found spider legs in a lump in her leg. It was soon after her mother died, while she and Jacquie lived with Ronald. Ronald came to the girls’ room and started touching Jacquie while she was sleeping. Opal hit him in the head with a baseball bat, and the two girls ran away to a shelter. A year later, Jacquie disappeared from Opal’s life when she was arrested for an unknown reason.
For a long time, Opal wondered if she had killed Ronald, and this weighed heavily on her conscience. One day, she Opal told Lucas everything about her life, including what she did to Ronald. Opal and Lucas decided to go to Ronald’s house to see if he was alive. They waited for several hours, then Ronald pulled up and walked the stairs into his home. Opal felt conflicted: she was relieved that she had not killed him, but was also upset that Ronald was still alive.
Back in the present, Opal is delivering mail when a pit bull with no collar or leash growls at her. She is scared, not just for herself, but for her three grandsons who would have nowhere to go if she were killed. The dog’s owner appears and calls the dog. Opal recognizes how the dog flinches at the sound of its name from years of abuse. Opal gets in her mail truck and drives away.
Summary: Octavio Gomez
Octavio rides his bike home to his grandma Josefina’s house. He feels very sick, so Josefina puts him to bed. She asks him if he knows anything about curses. Josefina’s own father cursed her when she was eighteen years old after he found out that she was pregnant and had no plans to keep the baby or marry the baby’s father. Josefina’s father put a braid of hair under her bed as a talisman, and then her mother made Josefina move out of their house. Josefina got an abortion when she arrived in Oakland, then became sick. This sickness lasted for a year, and Josefina thought it was a result of her father’s curse.
Octavio remembers his father’s death. Octavio’s older brother, Junior, and his uncle Sixto had stolen drugs. The people that they stole from shot up Octavio’s house, killing his father. Per Josefina’s suggestion, Octavio started spending time with his cousins Daniel and Manny. Octavio witnessed his cousins’ abuse at the hands of their father. One night when they discovered Daniel and Manny’s father beating their mother, Manny fought his father, slamming him on their glass table. When his father went unconscious, Manny and Octavio dropped him off at the door of the hospital and drove away.
After the fight between Manny and his father, Octavio spent more time with his cousins. One day, Manny and Octavio went to downtown Oakland and stole a car. Octavio marveled at how easy it was to get away with theft in plain sight. Back at his cousins’ house, Octavio received a call from Josefina who said Uncle Sixto was driving drunk and got into an accident that killed Junior and Octavio’s mother. Sixto was sent to jail, but got out with just a DUI. Josefina warned Octavio not to visit Sixto and get revenge.
Octavio went to Sixto’s house anyway, planning to beat him up after getting him drunk. Sixto let Octavio into his house, and after speaking with Sixto, Octavio recognized how badly Sixto felt about accidentally killing Junior and Octavio’s mother They drank for a while and Sixto took Octavio to the basement and showed him his medicine box. He completed some sort of ceremony, lighting a plant and blowing a handful of powder into Octavio’s face. Octavio immediately felt ill and went home to Josefina’s.
Josefina drives Octavio out to a field and catches a badger. She makes Octavio grab a handful of its fur so that he can make his own medicine box. She tells him that he will need to learn to stay deep inside himself and ignore any feelings that he is “something wrong.” When Octavio tells her that he does not know what he should do and he cannot get his family members back, Josefina replies that he is not supposed to know such things.
Summary: Daniel Gonzales
Daniel has been working on 3-D printing as a hobby since his brother Manny was killed. When Manny worked for Octavio, the family had plenty of money, but after Manny’s death, Daniel’s mother became depressed and stopped interacting with other people. When Daniel shows a 3-D printed gun to Octavio and Manny’s old friends, they become very excited. Octavio offers Daniel $5000 for six 3-D printed guns and tells Daniel about the plan to rob the powwow. Daniel remembers his father telling him that he and Manny were Indian, but he does not have happy memories of his father, so Daniel is not bothered by the thought of Octavio robbing the powwow.
Daniel sends an email to Manny, even though Manny is dead. He tells Manny that he has taught himself computer coding and has learned quite a bit online, including the 3-D printing. He describes a dream he had in which Manny was in a cave with a shopping cart of pit bulls, and as he handed the pit bulls to Daniel, Manny kept duplicating the dogs. When Daniel first heard about 3-D printing, he thought of this dream. Daniel regrets not talking to Manny more before his death.
Daniel leaves $3000 in an envelope for his mother, like Manny used to. He then buys a drone and a virtual reality headset. As a test, he flies the drone into the Oakland Coliseum, which is within operating range. When he gets too near to Bill Davis, Bill hits the drone with his trash grabber before Daniel flies the drone to safety. Daniel plans to watch the powwow robbery from his drone. When Daniel’s mother finds the money he left in the envelope, she starts apologizing to Daniel. Daniel believes she is apologizing for everything that happened to them. Daniel tells his mother that it’s okay and apologizes to her, too.
Blue is Jacquie Red Feather’s first daughter. She was adopted by a rich, white family in the Oakland suburbs. When Blue turned eighteen, her parents told her that Jacquie was her birth mother. Blue always knew she wasn’t white; she has brown skin and was called racist insults in school by kids who thought she was Mexican. Despite her knowledge that she wasn’t white, Blue was raised by privileged white parents and always felt white, so she had difficulty accepting her Native heritage.
Blue eventually got a job at the Indian Center in Oakland, where she found a sense of belonging. Later, she found a similar job in Oklahoma and moved there. She married her boss Paul in a Native American ceremony and received her Indian name, Blue Vapor of Life. She shortened it to Blue and stopped going by the name her adopted parents gave her: Crystal. After Paul’s dad died, Paul started to beat Blue, and she made a plan to escape, securing a role as the powwow coordinator at the Indian Center in Oakland.
Blue plans to hitchhike to Oklahoma City and then travel by Greyhound to Oakland. The day that she is supposed to leave, however, her friend Geraldine finds her on the road and offers Blue a ride. Geraldine’s brother, Hector, is passed out in the back seat, due to a combination of alcohol and pain meds. Geraldine reprimands Blue for hitchhiking, telling her about how many Native women go missing each year. They drive to Oklahoma City.
When they arrive in Oklahoma City, Hector wakes up and grabs the wheel, causing the car to crash near the Greyhound station. Paul calls Blue and asks her what she is doing in Oklahoma City. Geraldine thinks that Hector must have texted Paul about Blue’s whereabouts. Blue hangs up and runs to the bus station. She hides in the women’s bathroom and buys her ticket to Oakland on her phone. Paul calls and texts her, having figured out that she is somewhere in the Greyhound station. When Paul comes into the women’s restroom to look for Blue, an old woman in the stall next to Blue tells him to leave. After he is gone, the old woman says that she will walk Blue safely to her bus. After thirty minutes, the two leave the restroom and Blue gets on the bus.
Summary: Thomas Frank
When Thomas Frank was in the womb, he moved in time to whatever beat he heard: his mother’s heartbeat, his father’s drum, the music in the car. As soon as he was born, Thomas began tapping on surfaces all the time, making beats out of mundane objects like tabletops and silverware. Now, he works as a janitor for the Indian Center in Oakland. A year after he began working the Indian Center, Thomas heard a drum group called Southern Moon practicing on the first floor, Bobby Big Medicine invited him to join. At first, Thomas did not want to sing while drumming, but Bobby convinced him to be patient and find his voice.
Thomas’s father is a medicine man from a Native American reservation and his mother is a white evangelical Christian. There were conflicts between his parents’ two belief systems, and now each family member lives in different states. Thomas feels conflicted about his half-Native, half-white body, and realizes that he comes from both a lineage of both the oppressed and the oppressors. Thomas walks with a limp he inherited from his father, and, also like his father, Thomas becomes an alcoholic. When Thomas drinks, he tries to enter “the State,” which is the nickname he gives to the ideal state of mind he achieves when he drinks the right amount. Thomas finds that drumming also brings him to the State.
At work, Thomas’s boss, Jim, asks him to remove a live bat from the Indian Center. Thomas chases it out of the conference room, but when it bites him, he crushes and kills it with his hands, unknowingly in front of everyone. Jim tells Thomas that the gruesome incident could be forgiven, but because Thomas always smells like alcohol at work, he is fired.
Thomas travels to the Big Oakland Powwow. On the train, he thinks about his broken family and mourns for them. He thinks about his mother who fell in love with his father in Indian ceremonies she later called demonic when she converted to Christianity. Thomas remembers when his sister DeLonna came home with what seemed like demon possession after a bad drug trip.
Thomas arrives at the coliseum for the Powwow and hopes he does not see anyone that he used to work with. At the Powwow, Bobby Big Medicine gives him a spot around the drum. Thomas prays to no one in particular, then clears his mind to drum. His prayer will be the song itself. He holds his breath as the dancers arrive and prepares to drum.
The three new characters introduced in these chapters are all searching for something or someone. Daniel seeks for connection with his dead brother, Manny. Blue wants to understand her Native identity and her birth mother, and Thomas Frank yearns to find stable ground between the divergent belief systems of his white evangelical mother and his Native father. All three characters look in the wrong place, however. As they return to the reservation, or the internet, or the bottle, each character confronts the limitations of trying to find meaning by a too-narrow focus on the past. This is most obviously true of Blue, who is trapped in an abusive marriage. There is a fine irony in the fact that her return to Oakland, where she felt her identity was uncertain, allows her to find comfort, stability, and, eventually, her birth mother.
Across two of these chapters, technology proves to be more of a problem than a solution for the characters. Blue’s husband, Paul, uses it to track her location as she flees, and its ringtone almost reveals her hiding place. Manny’s savvy with technology could perhaps have offered him a way out of cycles of poverty, but instead he uses his talent to connect with Octavio’s gang even though his brother would not have wanted this life for him. Manny’s knowledge of technology challenges stereotypes that would locate Native Americans mainly in the past, but it also makes him complicit in violence against his people.
Like Bill Davis, Thomas is a custodial worker who tries to knock a flying object from the sky. But where Bill attacked Manny’s drone, Thomas kills a bat in the Indian Center. From different generations, the characters echo one another in multiple ways, and it is not hard to imagine that Thomas depicts a different outcome of Bill’s story. Thomas’s dedicated quest for the “State,” a suspended version of reality to which he always seeks to return, is uniquely his as is his special gift for drumming. When Thomas is not in the “State,” he becomes miserable, which explains why escape is necessary.