First published in 1990, this is a thoughtful and suspenseful novel by a Native American writer from Montana. I had previously read his Winter in the Blood (1974) and The Death of Jim Loney (1979). All three novels concern the complexities of living as an Indian in a white-dominated world.
Unlike the struggling social cast-offs in the earlier novels, the protagonist of The Indian Lawyer has by all appearances successfully assimilated to white culture. Sylvester Yellow Calf has parlayed statewide recognition on the high school basketball court into a university education and law school. He is now one of the rising members of a high-end law firm in Helena.
With influential friends, he may well rise further from his humble origins on the Blackfeet reservation, where he was abandoned by parents and raised by a grandmother. Early in the novel he is approached by a member of the Democratic national committee to run for Congress.
His pleased but almost diffident response to that offer signals something not quite substantial in the identity he has assumed as a promising young lawyer. Beneath his confident surface is an uncertainty that the reader suspects and that he is mostly unaware of. The break from his reservation past has left him without either real roots or clear ambitions. Despite his achievements, he remains an outsider.
|Blackfeet reservation, Montana|
Single, he has known a good many women in his short life, and his current girlfriend is the daughter of a rancher and former Senator. While she is ready for a deepening relationship with Sylvester, he remains tentative, conscious of the disapproving glances of whites when the two are out together in public.
He lets her slip away, as he has done earlier with a high school counselor he was once fond of. Sliding into what seems to be an old groove, he violates all professional standards by allowing himself to be sexually intimate with a new client. It may be an old groove for him, but it’s also thin ice.