TITLE: The Only Good Indians
AUTHOR: Stephen Graham Jones
PUBLISHED: July 14, 2020
PURCHASE LINKS: Amazon
MOBILISM LINK: Mobilism
I remember a time in the mid-’90s to around the early aughts, when slasher films became immensely popular. Movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer, the Scream series, Urban Legend, and Final Destination were in the pop culture zeitgeist when I was in late elementary to early high school. Despite their near-ubiquity, though, I wasn’t really interested in them. It might be because I really wasn’t all that interested in the horror genre, period (not least because I’m a self-confessed scaredy cat), but even afterwards, when I did begin to engage with the horror genre, I’ve only ever considered the slasher genre with passing interest. I suppose it’s that they just never really seemed all that scary to me – or at least, not in the way that I prefer. A slasher movie might be scary while I’m watching it, but that fear doesn’t really stick around after the credits roll.
Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians is entirely different, even though it would definitely fall under the slasher category if it were turned into a movie. It tells the story of four Blackfeet men, who did something they really shouldn’t have ten years ago. They get caught, but they go on with their lives, thinking they can put the event behind them. But that isn’t quite true: the past has come back – not to haunt them, but to hunt and kill them. And it won’t stop hunting them until it exacts its revenge.
While I’m still not very interested in slasher films, I’ve glimpsed enough of them that I’m familiar with the tropes and conventions of the genre. Most slasher films focus on a killer who relentlessly pursues and murders their victims in graphically gruesome ways – all except for one: the “Final Girl”, or sometimes the “Final Boy”, the last one standing who confronts the killer and lives to tell the story (after a fashion). Different slasher films from different decades riff and play with these tropes and a whole host of others, but for the most part, these are the tropes that remain the same across most of them, and may therefore be said to define the genre.
The Only Good Indians definitely has those tropes: four young men who commit a terrible act are hunted down to the last by a vicious killer who is connected to that terrible act. It also has a “Final Girl”: the daughter of one of the four men. This is unsurprising, as Jones deliberately built the novel to be “a slasher, but in the way a slasher hasn’t been done before”. And Jones certainly manages to accomplish that.
The first notable distinction is the emphasis on questions of tradition and identity. While it’s not something that’s put at the very forefront of the narrative, questions of what it means to be Blackfeet in specific and American Indian in general permeate the novel. Take the following excerpt:
“I’ve never done one at night,” Gabe says then, leaning back in Jo’s chair, the chair not quite bending. Yet.
“A sweat?” Cassidy says.
“There’s nothing, like, against doing it at night, is there?” Gabe asks.
“Let me check the big Indian rule book,” Cassidy says. “Oh yeah. You can’t do anything, according to it. You’ve got to do everything just like it’s been done for two hundred years.”
They laugh together.
While it’s treated as a lighthearted moment, the above excerpt does ask a few interesting questions about tradition and heritage, and how those play into contemporary life. While there’s something to be said about preserving traditions, it’s also true that it’s important to live in the here-and-now, to adjust to the realities of the world and of life as it exists right now. The way the Blackfeet live now is vastly different from the way the Blackfeet used to live – to say nothing of how people’s values, both as individuals and as groups, have shifted over the generations. How much can one bend tradition without losing the essence of said tradition? How does one even define the essence of a tradition anyway? These are hard questions, ones that are not restricted to just the Blackfeet.
It’s a similar question that the individual characters in the novel ask about the lives they’re leading. Of the four young-men-now-grown, two still live on the reservation: Gabriel, or Gabe, and Cassidy, or Cass (or whichever new nickname he’s decided he prefers). The other two live off the reservation. One of them, Lewis, is married to a white woman named Peta. Take a look at the following excerpt:
… “She finally figure out you’re Indian, enit?”
What Cass and Gabe and Ricky had told him when he was running off with Peta was that he should get his return address tattooed on his forearm, so he could get his ass shipped back home when she got tired of playing Dr. Quinn and the Red Man.
“You wish she’d figure it out,” Lewis tells Cass on the phone, … “She even let me hang my Indian junk on all the walls.”
“Like Indian-Indian,” Cass says, “or Indian just because an Indian owns it?”
The headline flashes through his head: INDIAN MAN HAS NO ROOTS, THINKS HE’S STILL INDIAN IF HE TALKS LIKE AN INDIAN.
Throughout his narrative, Lewis has to contend with questions of what it means to be a Blackfeet living outside the reservation, and what that means for himself as a person and his connection to both his past and his future. There is a moment in the story when he thinks about children, and how Peta decided she didn’t want any:
The headline kicks up in Lewis’s head…: not the FULLBLOOD TO DILUTE BLOODLINE he’d always expected if he married white…but FULLBLOOD BETRAYS EVERY DEAD INDIAN BEFORE HIM. It’s the guilt of having some pristine Native swimmers…cocked and loaded but never pushing them downstream, meaning the few of his ancestors who made it through raids and plagues, massacres and genocide, diabetes and all the wobbly-tired cars the rest of America was done with, those Indians may as well have just stood up into that big Gatling gun of history, yeah?
According to this website, there are 17,321 members of the Blackfeet Nation living in the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in northern Montana. That isn’t a lot of people at all, even if one counts Blackfeet who live outside the reservation. But that population is one of the larger ones for American Indians – a group that makes up roughly 2% of the total population of the United States. When one considers these numbers, and remembers the violent and tragic history that American Indians suffered at the hands of white colonists, then Lewis’s guilt makes a lot of sense – and, again, poses some interesting questions about heritage, bloodlines, and how that intersects with history.
In the case of Ricky, the other member of the quartet who lives outside the reservation, his narrative confronts issues of racism, and the microaggressions that American Indians have to deal with, like in the following excerpt:
… Ricky ran away to North Dakota. His plan was Minneapolis…but then halfway there the oil crew had been hiring, and said they liked Indians because of their built-in cold resistance. It meant they might not slip off in winter.
Ricky…had nodded yeah, Blackfeet didn’t care about the cold, and no, he wouldn’t leave them shorthanded in the middle of a week. What he didn’t say was that you don’t get cold-resistant because your jackets suck, you just stop complaining about it after a while, because complaining doesn’t make you any warmer. …
While Ricky’s story is brief compared to Lewis’s, his story is, perhaps, the one that most graphically illustrates the kind of violence that American Indians must deal with from white people – both the physical and nonphysical kind – throughout history.
This introduces the second element that distinguishes this novel from the slasher stories that inspired it: it’s about specific kinds of guilt, and how the four characters deal with it. Here is how Lewis views it, when he thinks about the moment when everything changed for him and his friends:
… That craziness, that heat of the moment, the blood in his temples, smoke in the air, it was like–he hates himself the most for this–it was probably what it was like a century and more ago, when soldiers gathered up on ridges above Blackfeet encampments to turn the cranks on their big guns, terraforming this new land for their occupation. Fertilize it with blood. …
In the moment that he and his friends do the thing that will come back to hunt them ten years later, he compares the incident to the many massacres that white colonisers perpetrated on American Indians, stealing land, resources, and lives to exercise their authority from the East Coast to the West. In the moment this event happens, Lewis identifies, not with his ancestors, but with those who murdered his ancestors – and that weighs on him, becomes the albatross around his neck for the next ten years, compounding with his own guilt about leaving the reservation to marry a white woman and not have children.
But this is only how Lewis, specifically, frames the fateful event. The others have their own guilts to bear (or run away from, as the case may be), and not all of them are even directly related to the events of that night, so they frame things differently as laid out in their respective narratives. But what is clear, is that what happened ten years ago altered the trajectories of their respective lives, and now that it’s coming back to get them, they have no choice but to face the reality of what they have done, because it is intertwined with who they are, the people around them, and everything they have become.
While The Only Good Indians turns an excellent spotlight on the themes I’ve mentioned, I do find myself wishing that some thought had been given to the theme of feminism in the context of the American Indian experience, both past and present. While the fact that the Final Girl is a daughter of one of the four who participated in the instigating event says some very interesting things about generational guilt and how young women tend to pay the price and bear the consequences of it, I think it would have been nice to get a little more development for the killer – who is, in fact, a woman. The importance of this is difficult to explain in full, given that to do so would require diving into spoilers, but suffice to say that I wish more time had been devoted to really fleshing her out as a character – though I suspect that, given her nature, there is only so much characterisation that can actually be done, and Jones has done what he can without sacrificing the other aspects that make this novel such a good read.
Overall, The Only Good Indians is a truly chilling horror novel, which starts out slow and creeping before slowly gaining speed until, by the last few chapters, the reader will hurtle through the pages at top speed to get to the conclusion. It will likely occur to readers to compare The Only Good Indians to the film (and the book) I Know What You Did Last Summer. The comparison is warranted; after all, both play with themes of guilt, doing what is morally right, and dealing with the consequences of one’s actions. But the themes of tradition, identity, and a very specific type of guilt distinguish The Only Good Indians from I Know What You Did…, and the other slasher films that inspired and inform it, so that it stands very well on its own as a fine example of its genre.