But the heart of the novel The Indian Lawyer, by James Welch, is not the prisoner Jack Harwood. It is, of course, the Indian lawyer, Sylvester Yellow Calf. Reading about his life is powerfully interesting and thrilling and sad, a human drama you won’t want to miss.
The predicament Yellow Calf faces is strongly existent, long before Harwood steps into the picture. In high school, Yellow Calf was a star basketball player—a picture of success and promise. At the same time, he was living on a Native American reservation that was struggling economically and in many other ways. Yellow Calf was raised by his grandparents, his own parents being absent for seemingly disreputable reasons.
In his senior year, a journalist writes an article about Sylvester Yellow Calf’s basketball career, singling him out for particular promise in life. Yellow Calf would have preferred that the journalist give the entire basketball team due credit. Instead, he is thrust above everyone else. He is thrust out of the usual “vision” of Native Americans who leave high school with distinction, only to descend into poverty, substance abuse, or crime. Here’s how his teammates feel about the article:
“The more they thought about it the more they realized that Sylvester had been exempted from that vision, that he was a ‘winner’ who would go on to better things.”
This put intense pressure on Yellow Calf to succeed, while also setting him apart from his peers: a double whammy of stress and loneliness. Going to law school and becoming a lawyer only increased these feelings of strain and separation. He did not fit in on the reservation anymore; but he also didn’t fit in as the only Indian lawyer at work.
This is a classic conundrum that faces many Native Americans, as well as people who grow up out of the mainstream in other ways. You can’t stay, but you also can’t leave. James Welch’s The Indian Lawyer is one of the best novels I have ever read on this topic.
Welch does an excellent job of understating the problem. You’re reading along, engaged by the exciting action of the story and thinking Jack Harwood’s antics are the problem. But as you keep reading, and reading, you slowly come to realize that the problem is much larger than little old Jack Harwood. Sylvester Yellow Calf has to do some major soul searching at several points throughout the novel, and the reader comes away slammed by the realization that we are what society makes of us . . . plus a little more. . . .
What will become of Sylvester Yellow Calf? And by extension, what will become of all of us who are ultimately slave to both society and ourselves?