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In His New Book, Stephen Graham Jones Explores The Idea Of 'Good Indians'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Stephen Graham Jones writes horror novels, and his latest starts with a provocative reworking of an old saying. The title is "The Only Good Indians."

STEPHEN GRAHAM JONES: The only good Indians are dead Indians from - you know, as ascribed to Teddy Roosevelt back in the 19th century. But it was kind of the bumper sticker that would have been on horses if horses had bumper stickers back then.

SHAPIRO: Jones is a member of the Blackfeet Nation, and in this book, a group of friends violates a tradition on the reservation and a vengeful spirit haunts them to the bloody end. I began by asking Stephen Graham Jones about the title, why he wanted to explore the idea of good Indians.

JONES: I wanted to interrogate what it means to even be a good Indian in 2020, you know? Does it mean, you know, subscribing old ways? Does it mean adopting other ways? How do you navigate the world when success in one arena is failure in another? And turns out, there's not a single way to be a good Indian. There are 7 million ways to be a good Indian.

SHAPIRO: Except in this book, there's a very clear way to be a bad one, and it results in this horror story of, like, vengeance, right?

JONES: It does, yeah. Yeah, these guys overstep their boundaries.

SHAPIRO: Tell us about that initial trespass. I mean, what is the violation here?

JONES: These four hunters - these four elk hunters on the last day of their elk hunt, they kind of consider that all bets are off. And they sneak into the elder section, which is saved for, you know, the elders of the tribe to hunt so they can have access to easier elk. And they sneak into the elder section and shoot a lot more elk than they need.

SHAPIRO: So what is it about this trespass of hunting elk in the section that is reserved for the elders and shooting more elk than you need that you think makes such a powerful, instigating event?

JONES: I think - I mean, you're basically taking food off of elders' plates. And that, to me, is no way to be part of a community, of course.

SHAPIRO: What made you want to center this around the spirit of the elk?

JONES: You know, I think the reason elk matter to me, it's - whenever I take an elk or I'm part of a hunting party that takes an elk, I feel like there's an ethical obligation to that animal to treat it with respect. And I feel that to every animal that I might take out in the field, of course, but generally, we're out after elk. And so, you know, if I were a rabbit hunter, then maybe this would be a novel about rabbits, you know? But I mostly go after elk, so this turned out to be an elk novel.

SHAPIRO: Is any of this an exorcism of your own guilt for elk that you've killed in your life and felt like you didn't do justice to?

JONES: A little bit, yeah. In 2008, I moved from Texas to Colorado and an elk I had got the previous year was - I still had some of her meat in the freezer. And when I moved away, I had to go door to door and give the elk away to my neighbors because I couldn't transport it, you know, up to Colorado and...

SHAPIRO: That scene is exactly in this novel.

JONES: It totally is.

SHAPIRO: That's a direct - yeah. Wow.

JONES: And I felt so guilty about that 'cause I had told her when I shot her that I'm sorry this had to happen, but I'm going to make use of you. You're going to do good for me and my kids, you know?

SHAPIRO: But the food wasn't put to waste. You did give it to people who - I'm trying to assuage your guilt, I guess, but, like, it sounds like you did the responsible thing.

JONES: I tried to. I just - I don't know what they did with the elk, you know? Hopefully, they all ate it and had wonderful meals and she just cycled back into the herd, you know?

SHAPIRO: Among the various stories of Native experience, what do you think a horror story adds to the mix?

JONES: You know, the marketplace or the critical establishment, they kind of want American Indian fiction or literature to stay close to what's considered, like, the main trunk of literature, I guess, where we don't get to go out on the branches and play in science fiction and fantasy and horror. And I think it's really important for us to run out on all the skinny branches we can and claim whatever we want, you know?

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Well, what is it about this particular skinny branch that you think bears fruit that another branch might not?

JONES: You know, for me, the slasher is a wonderful model of - it's a wonderful thing to believe in, really. It's wish fulfillment. The spirit of vengeance rising to punish the guilty, that presupposes a world in which evil is punished and - which is to say it presupposes a fair world. And that's not the world we live in. But I really like to engage slashers because they let me believe in that world for just a little bit.

SHAPIRO: The book has three sections. Section two is called "Sweat Lodge Massacre," so people can figure out for themselves how it's going to end. And one of the characters says nobody ever dies in a sweat, not even the elders. It's about the safest place in the Indian world. So how much of a transgression is it for you as an author to turn this sweat lodge into a bloodbath?

JONES: It is a little bit transgressive. At the same time, though, I think that - I mean, if any people who subscribe to traditional ways, like, call foul on me, then I think that's good. I think if you're making the traditionals nervous, then you're doing the right thing as an artist, you know?

SHAPIRO: That's so interesting because you're saying it's good to make people who follow tradition nervous, but at the same time, this is a book in which people who violate tradition get punished.

JONES: Correct. Yeah. Yeah. So there's value in the tradition, for sure. It's just if we lock tradition in place and freeze dry it, then that's the first step of killing it or dismissing it. You know, it has to adapt and change, which is why in that sweat - they're doing a sweat with - in their own ways. They're not singing the old songs. They're not doing it mechanically how it's supposed to be done, you know.

SHAPIRO: This brings us back to the question we started with of what makes a good Indian. Is it, like, blind adherence to tradition, or is it interrogation of tradition, or is it disavowal of tradition?

JONES: I think it's just charting your own, like, threshold for success and being happy, really. It's just - you know, really, it's just existing. We're not supposed to be around anymore. We were supposed to be erased at the 19th century, but here we are going strong. So I think if you're just around, then you might be a good Indian.

SHAPIRO: Stephen Graham Jones, I really appreciate your talking with us.

JONES: Thanks for having me. It was an honor to be here.

SHAPIRO: His new novel is called "The Only Good Indians." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.