When the Legends Die

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When the Legends Die

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading

Hal Borland


Hal Borland's When the Legends Die, published in 1963, immerses the reader in two worlds, that of the wild West and that of wild nature, two topics with which Borland was quite familiar. Written in 1963, around the height of Borland's writing career, the story follows a young Native American boy as he struggles not only with the rite of passage to manhood but also with the harsh realities of the clash of his native culture and the modern white society. Having been raised in the traditional ways of his Ute ancestors, the protagonist of the story must first learn the "new ways" of the white people who dominate his world before he can create a clear identity of who he is and where he fits in his environment.

The novel was well received and eventually was produced by Twentieth Century Fox as a movie in 1972. When the Legends Die is often compared to Jack London's Call of the Wild (1914), which takes up the theme of the wilderness, and Conrad Richter's The Light in the Forest (1953), which deals with the clash of cultures in the West. All three books explore rite of passage or coming of age themes, and all three were produced as movies.

The story of Thomas Black Bull, the protagonist of Borland's novel, is one of constant transformation as a young boy searches for an identity. Symbolizing this most clearly is the fact that, throughout the story, Thomas's name is changed several times. He receives the name Little Black Bull from his parents, which is changed to Thomas Black Bull when a white minister baptizes him. Then, as he nears puberty, Thomas gives himself the name of Bear's Brother. When he becomes popular on the rodeo circuit, his fans dub him with the moniker Killer Tom. As he works out his frustration and anger from losing his parents before reaching puberty, being forced to enter a school to learn white society's ways, being used by swindlers and crooks as well as by people who need heroes, Thomas tries on many personas, but, in the end, he finds his way back home and is finally able to define his own identity.

Author Biography

Harold Glen (Hal) Borland was born on May 14, 1900, in Sterling, Nebraska, to William A. Borland (whose family had arrived in Nebraska via covered wagon) and Sarah Clinaburg Borland. The family later moved to eastern Colorado and settled on an arid, hostile, and isolated homestead.

Between 1918 and 1920, Borland attended the University of Colorado, but he dropped out of school to become an associate editor for his father's newspaper, Flagler News. After one year of working for this small newspaper, Borland set out for the big cities, stopping in New York City for a couple of years, then moving on to Salt Lake City, Fresno, San Diego, Philadelphia, and finally returning to New York. Along the way, he developed his writing skills, working variously as a reporter, editor, copyreader, publisher, and eventually taking on the role of columnist. Borland, a prolific writer, also honed his talents through a steady stream of longer works, with almost forty titles of collected essays, personal narratives, poetry, and novels to his name. He also wrote folk stories, book reviews, short stories, articles for encyclopedias, lyrics for songs, and scripts for radio, film, and stage. He states, in a brief biography published in World Authors, 1950–1970:

Early engineering training taught me to respect facts and logic. Newspaper years taught me to write straight sentences and build logical paragraphs, and fostered my work habits. A bent toward poetry gave me a sense of words and language that helped shape my style.

Borland's first book to be published, Heaps of Gold (1922), was a collection of poems. Then, in the 1930s, he wrote a few light-hearted Western novels under his pseudonym Ward West. During the following decades, Borland's fictional writing took a more serious bent as his subject matter focused on the harsh realities of pioneer life on the Great Plains. Included in this period was the publication of his When the Legends Die (1963), a novel that takes place at the turn of the century and tells the story of a young Native American boy's coming-of-age trials.

Some of Borland's most celebrated works were his autobiographical narratives, the award-winning High, Wide and Lonesome (1956), which recounts his youth in Colorado, and its sequel Country Editor's Boy (1970).

In 1945, Borland moved to New England, where he eventually bought a one-hundred-acre Connecticut farm that had, at one time, been the site of an ancient Indian village. This country setting inspired many of his subsequent nonfiction essays on nature. Borland's nature writings are often said to reflect a Thoreau-like quality. He was a self-taught naturalist who was interested in extracting, from his country surroundings, a philosophy about life.

Borland was twice married. His first marriage produced two sons. In 1945, he married his second wife, Barbara Ross Dodge, who shared Borland's interest in writing and contributed articles with him to several magazines. Both Borland's and his wife's writings are collected at the Beinecke Library of Yale University. Borland died in Sharon, Connecticut, on February 22, 1978.

Plot Summary

Part I: Bessie

When the Legends Die begins in the company town of Pagosa, Colorado, where the protagonist's father, George Black Bull, a Native American of the Ute tribe, works at a sawmill. George enters the scene running. He is being sought after because he has killed Frank No Deer, a common thief. George is afraid that he will be put in jail, so he tells his wife where he is going in the wilderness and tells her to follow him after dark. His wife, Bessie, when asked by the sheriff if she knows where her husband is, denies knowing. As she waits for nightfall, Bessie thinks back on how she and her husband and son ended up in Pagosa. Then, in the middle of the night, she packs a few belongings, wakes her young son, and takes a circuitous route to the location of the planned rendezvous with her husband.

In the wilderness, George and Bessie return to their traditional ways, capturing meat, finding seeds, and picking berries for food. They make clothes and a shelter from the natural materials that they gather. They sing songs and tell stories that their grandparents had taught them. At the end of the first year, before the winter has ended, George is trapped and killed in an avalanche.

Before the next winter, Bessie takes Thomas back to Pagosa to buy supplies. Bessie is an expert basket maker and trades her wares for the winter clothing and the utility items that she needs. She worries that the sheriff is still looking for her husband and might take her son away from her. A while later, when she returns to town, she feels more confident and asks the shopkeeper for details about the sheriff. Jim Thatcher tells her that the sheriff has decided that her husband acted in self-defense and that her family is free to return to the town.

Another winter comes, and Bessie becomes sick and dies. Thomas befriends the animals around him, including a small, orphaned grizzly bear cub. He becomes what he believes to be the bear's brother. One summer, Thomas ventures back into Pagosa, with the bear trailing behind him. When some of the citizens of the town threaten to shoot the bear, Jim Thatcher stops them.

Blue Elk, a man who one character states would sell anything to make a profit, including his own grandmother, befriends Thomas, who does not speak English, only to betray him. Blue Elk strikes a deal with the local minister, who believes that Thomas is not fit to live on his own and must be taken to the nearby Indian school, a place where Thomas can learn the ways of the white men. To get Thomas to agree to leave his wilderness lodge, Blue Elk tells Thomas that the other Native American children at the school need to learn the traditional songs and old ways of the Ute people. He suggests that Thomas go with him to Ignacio, the center of the Ute reservation, to teach the children the things that Thomas has learned. The bear cub tags along.

Part II: The School

Once he arrives at the school, Thomas quickly discovers that he has been tricked. His bear is chained and caged. Thomas is roomed with Luther Spotted Dog, a boy close to his age but who lives in world totally different from the one that Thomas is used to. Thomas dislikes the bed he is told to sleep on, the clothes he is told to wear, and the food he must eat. He lashes out in anger at almost everyone who demands that he must change.

The bear must be gotten rid of, so once again it is Blue Elk who schemes to get Thomas to return the bear to its natural surroundings. Thomas, who believes Blue Elk is taking him home, agrees to go with Blue Elk. However, once they arrive in the vicinity where Thomas used to live, Blue Elk blackmails Thomas by threatening to leave the bear chained to a tree to starve unless Thomas returns to the school.

Upon his return, Thomas does not fare much better than he had before. After a fight, he is put on restriction and locked in a small room. One night, he escapes and returns on his own to the lodge in the wilderness. When he arrives, little remains of his former dwelling. Blue Elk has ransacked his home, taking everything he can use or sell and burning the rest. Thomas, after discovering that Benny Grayback, one of the counselors from the school, has followed his trail, returns to the school, resigned to his fate.

Media Adaptations

  • When the Legends Die was made into a film in 1972 by Twentieth Century Fox. The movie starred Frederick Forrest and Richard Widmark and was billed as a sensitive story about two friends (making reference to Thomas Black Bull's and Red Dillon's relationship.)

In the next episodes, Thomas dons the white man's clothes, has his braids cut off, and tries to learn the skills of farming and the language of his oppressors. He learns to ride horses and herd and sheer sheep, skills that will be of benefit to him in the future. One day, while visiting a nearby city to sell sheepskins, a cowboy tries to tease Thomas by promising to give him money if he can find his horse and ride it into town, knowing that his horse does not like strange riders. Thomas, thinking that the moneymaking proposition sounds easy, follows the man's instructions and rides the horse. Disbelieving that the boy can repeat his success, the cowboy offers Thomas more money to bring yet another horse to him. The next horse is even meaner than the first, but Thomas is successful.

Red Dillon, an old bronco cowboy who has followed the rodeo circuit, sees a promising financial future in Thomas. Red promises to teach the boy to ride bronco style and takes him to his cabin in New Mexico.

Part III: The Arena

Once they arrive at the cabin, Red introduces Thomas to Meo, a Mexican cowboy who has been somewhat crippled by his rodeo-riding days. The two men teach Thomas everything he has to know about riding wildly erratic horses. Soon, Red believes that Thomas is ready to go to the small rodeo held in the nearby town of Aztec.

Red has big plans for Thomas, but those plans do not always match the ideas that Thomas has conceived. For instance, Red tells Thomas when he is to win certain matches and when he is to lose them. Red knows that Thomas is good enough to win almost all of the events in which he participates, but, to increase the gambling odds in Red's favor, he has Thomas purposefully foul out of certain matches. Although their winnings are small, Red is encouraged by Thomas's potential. Meanwhile, Thomas learns how to cheat. Some of their plans do not always meet Red's expectations: Thomas is tired and loses matches because he cannot concentrate; sometimes the people who lose money on their bets suspect that Red has cheated them, and Red and Thomas must quickly run out of town.

Thomas often wins, and at one point he rides one horse so hard that the horse dies in the arena. This makes Thomas feel sick. Red offers Thomas alcohol to ease his pain. Most of Red's winnings are spent on alcohol. The little money left over buys food and cheap hotel rooms.

The pace increases, and Thomas ends up riding in a rodeo at least once a week and then riding his own horse to the next town. He gets hurt and feels exhausted. After one big win, Red and Thomas decide to go home and rest until the following spring.

Two years down the road, Red sets Thomas up for a big rodeo event. The stakes are high, and Red is anticipating taking home pockets full of money. In the final round of this rodeo, however, Thomas's horse breaks its neck and then falls, trapping Thomas beneath him. Thomas's leg is broken. Having anticipated winning, Red has bought an old Cadillac. Drunk, Red drives Thomas home. In the fall, Thomas and Red are at it again.

During this time, Thomas has grown into a young man. He quarrels with Red more often, unafraid of the repercussions because he knows he can take care of himself. He decides that he is no longer going to throw any rides. He is going to ride them clean and win all that he can. He and Red part.

Thomas does well on his own, but he gains a reputation for riding his horses so hard that he often kills them. When he rides, Thomas feels like he wants to punish the horses, trying to seek revenge for some unrealized pain. One day when he returns to the cabin, Meo tells Thomas that Red is in town, sick and almost dead. Thomas goes to get him, but it is too late. A few rodeos later, Thomas again returns to find out that Meo, too, has died.

Thomas's reputation as a mean rodeo rider grows. He is known by several different nicknames. One of them is Killer Tom; another is Devil Tom. All of them refer to his vicious riding. During a rodeo at Madison Square Garden in New York City, Thomas is crushed by his horse and ends up in the hospital. He has a broken pelvis, several cracked ribs, a broken thighbone, punctured lungs, and a concussion. He spends six weeks in the hospital convalescing. His nurse, Mary Redmond, pays special attention to Thomas, half hoping that he will come home with her to complete his recovery. Thomas heals faster than expected and leaves New York, Nurse Redmond, and the hospital behind. He decides to gain his strength back in the Colorado mountains.

Part IV: The Mountains

Thomas travels back to Pagosa. While eating lunch at a cafe, he coincidentally runs into a man who needs someone to herd his sheep. The sheep are grazing in the mountains where Thomas used to live. Thomas needs time, fresh air, and some way to earn a living while he is recuperating, so he and the man strike a deal.

While in the mountains, memories slowly creep back into Thomas's consciousness. When a grizzly bear attacks his sheep, Thomas's anger builds, and he is driven to hunt the grizzly down and kill it. Thomas waits for the bear to reappear, and when he sees it and raises his rifle to shoot it, something happens inside of Thomas that makes him stop. Through a series of dreams, Thomas realizes that all along the thing that has driven him to kill horses and try to kill this bear is really a subconscious urge to kill something inside of him. He goes on a fast and a vision quest. Finally, he recognizes that it is the pain and anger inside of him of which he wants to rid himself. With this new vision, he realizes that he has come home, not only to the land and to his beginnings but to himself.


Bear's Brother

See Thomas Black Bull

Killer Tom Black

See Thomas Black Bull

Bessie Black Bull

Bessie is Tom's mother. After her husband runs to the mountains to escape jail, she waits until the middle of the night, then packs up a few items of clothing and utensils, takes her young son, and follows her husband into the wilderness. When her husband dies, she teaches Tom all the old stories and songs of his native culture.

Bessie gathers seeds and berries for food. She also is a basket maker and sells her wares in town in exchange for blankets and winter clothing. During one winter, Bessie becomes sick. When her condition worsens, she tells Tom to "Sing the song for going away." She dies shortly thereafter.

George Black Bull

George Black Bull is Tom's father. In the beginning of the story, he gets into trouble for having killed the thief Frank No Deer. Afraid that he would be sent to jail, George tells his wife to follow him; then he runs into the wilderness. In the mountains, George builds a lodge and lives off nature, providing his family with food, shelter, and clothes made from animal skins. One winter while hunting, he is killed in an avalanche.

Little Black Bull

See Thomas Black Bull

Thomas Black Bull

Thomas is the protagonist of the story. He is the son of George and Bessie, who take their son to the wilderness and raise him there until their deaths. Although barely a teenager, Thomas is able to physically provide for himself upon his parents' deaths. However, he is forced to go to the nearest Indian Service school to learn the ways of the white people.

Thomas spends most of his youth learning what other people think is best for him. In the process, he becomes a man who has little awareness of his own identity. He endures many hard-ships and abuses along his path to physical maturity and learns to suppress his emotions. Of all his emotions, anger is the first to express itself, and it comes out in deadly bursts of energy. As a rodeo cowboy, he takes out his frustrations on the horses, many of which die in their efforts to throw Thomas off their backs. Thomas does not escape his own wrath, as his body suffers from multiple bone fractures, punctured lungs, and concussions.

When his body reaches the point at which it cannot endure the physical abuse that Thomas's riding demands, he is subconsciously led back to his emotional source, the wilderness. At first Thomas barely remembers what it felt like to live in nature, but something holds him there. Slowly, as his body heals, so do his mind and his emotions. He learns to reflect on the events of his life, untangle the feelings that he has been hiding, and make decisions that are based on his welfare.

Blue Elk

Blue Elk is a Native American man who makes a living swindling other people, mostly people of his own tribe. His famous line, which is often repeated in defense of others, is "my people do not lie." Blue Elk, however, lies all the time.

Blue Elk is responsible for George and Bessie Black Bull ending up in the sawmill town of Pagosa. Probably paid off by the sawmill boss, he was responsible for George and Bessie's owing money to the tribal council for hunting without permits. He then lies to them, promising that if they work for the sawmill, they will soon be out of debt and have plenty of money left over. However, the sawmill owners make sure that George and Bessie stay in constant debt to them so they will never be able to leave.

After George kills Frank No Deer, Blue Elk later lies again, telling them that it was because of him that George no longer is a wanted man. He tells Bessie that she owes him something for this favor. When she refuses to pay him, he steals from her. After Bessie and George die, Blue Elk misleads Tom into believing that the people at the Indian Service school of Ignacio need Tom to teach them the "old ways," to get him to leave his life in the wilderness and go to the school. For his efforts, Blue Elk receives a few dollars. Later, Blue Elk lies to Tom again to get Tom to take his bear cub off the school grounds and leave the bear in the wilderness. When Blue Elk does not get paid for his efforts, he returns to Tom's lodge in the woods and steals everything that Tom has left there.

Red Dillon

Red is a former circuit rodeo rider who likes to gamble and swindle people. When he sees Tom ride a horse for the first time, he realizes the potential Tom has for making money at the rodeos. So he takes Tom away from the school and teaches him how to ride at his squatter cabin in New Mexico.

Red sets up bets at each of the rodeo events, telling Tom when to win and when to fake a loss. He does this to increase the odds in his favor and is often run out of town when the bettors discover that they have been swindled. He feeds and clothes Tom but seldom gives him any of their winnings.

As Tom grows older, stronger, and more skilled, he tells Red that he is going to win as many events as he can. Tom had grown tired of losing on purpose. Red, an alcoholic, does not take the news well, and Tom must bail Red out of jail. A few months later, Meo and Tom hear that Red is in the nearby city of Aztec. He is dying. Tom goes to get him, but Red dies in the hotel bed.

Rowena Ellis

Rowena is an English teacher at the Indian Service school. She is in her forties and acts as a surrogate mother to the children who live at the school. Rowena speaks several of the Native languages and is able to communicate with Tom in Ute. She tells him that he must learn the new ways. When Tom returns to the school after having sent the bear back to the wilderness, Rowena suggests that Tom be given a private room. She describes Tom as "an unusual boy, exceptionally reserved and self-sufficient."

Benny Grayback

Benny is a thirty-year-old Ute who lives at the school. He is a vocational instructor. Benny wears his hair short and dresses in the white man's style, but he still remembers how to speak his native tongue, so he translates for Tom. Thereafter, Benny tries to condition Tom for his life in the world of white people. In one attempt to discipline Tom, Benny locks Tom in a small room.

Charley Huckleberry

Charley is a council member on the Southern Ute Reservation in Arboles, Colorado. The fact that Charley belongs to the council makes Tom's mother and father trust that when they go fishing and hunting without the required official permits, they will not get into trouble. However, Blue Elk reports them all to the council, and they are forced to pay a penalty. Since they have no money, they are tempted into going to work at the sawmill. That is how Bessie and George Black Bull end up being trapped in the town of Pagosa, perpetually in debt to the owners of the mill. Charley tried to warn them not to go, but the money they were promised sounded too good.

Albert Left Hand

Albert is the owner of a herd of sheep, and Tom is sent to him as an assistant. Albert is described as a short, fat man who constantly berates Tom for being lazy. It is when Albert takes Tom to Bayfield to sell his sheepskins that Tom meets Red Dillon, who takes him away from the school and into the world of rodeos.


Meo works at Red Dillon's place. He is an old man by the time Tom meets him, but Meo used to ride in the rodeos. Meo cooks and tends the garden. He also helps Red teach Tom to ride horses. Several years later, when Tom returns to the cabin, he notices that the garden is run over with weeds. He goes into town and discovers that Meo has died.

Frank No Deer

This is a minor character; however, he plays a pivotal role. He often stole money, food, and other things from Tom Black Bull's father, pushing him to the point of getting into a serious fight in which Frank No Deer ends up dead. It is because of this death that Tom Black Bull's father, George, runs into the wilderness, with his family eventually following him.

Mary Redmond

Mary is a nurse in the New York hospital where Tom is taken after he suffers a very serious fall during a rodeo in Madison Square Garden. She is described as a plump woman in her thirties who has a strong urge to nurture and take care of people.

Mary is single, and it is implied that she would like to take Tom home with her to help him recuperate. She is a good healer, but Tom suspects that she, like everyone else in his life before, will force him to live his life the way she wants him to, not the way that is best for him. Mary encourages Tom's healing, but she also tries to thwart his progress in order to keep him dependent on her longer.

Luther Spotted Dog

Luther is Tom's first roommate at the Indian Service school. He is fourteen and wants to grow up to be like Benny Grayback. Tom and Luther get into many fights, and eventually Tom kicks Luther out of the room they share. Later, Luther joins in with other students to tease Tom, calling him a girl because he is very good at weaving baskets.

Neil Swanson

Neil is a teacher at the Indian Services school. He tries to teach Tom how to farm. When Tom gets into a fight with some of the other students, Neil beats him. This causes Tom to run away. It is through Neil's efforts, however, that when Tom comes back to school, he learns to ride horses and herd and shear sheep.

Jim Thatcher

Thatcher is a store owner who befriends Bessie and Tom. He tells Bessie not to worry about the sheriff because George is no longer being hunted as a murderer. He also offers Bessie decent prices for her basketry. He is honest and often generous with her. When Tom brings the grizzly bear cub to town, Thatcher stops the other townsmen from shooting it.



From the very beginning of the story, the theme of alienation is apparent. George Black Bull is on the run from the law. From that point until the conclusion of the novel, the underlying theme is one of isolation.

Thomas's family is forced to leave the community and find their way in the wilderness. The family finds peace in the forest, but, by a twist of fate, Thomas is yanked from this environment and is forced into another strange setting. Again Thomas feels alienated. He is not comfortable with his new surroundings, and because of his unusual background, he becomes estranged from the people around him. Everything about the new people he must live with is different from Thomas: their language, clothes, beliefs and visions of the world, and even the type of food they eat. His life follows this pattern, taking him from one strange environment to another. In each new environment, he always feels like the stranger, the alienated one.

In the end, it is Thomas's alienation from himself that he must face. Although he seeks out his homeland on a subconscious level, it takes him awhile to remember that this is the place of his roots. At first, he believes that he has come home to recuperate from his accident. Slowly, it dawns on him that he has truly come home. In the last moments of the novel, Thomas learns to bridge the alienation that exists in his own head.


One of the main causes of the underlying theme of alienation in this story is the dishonesty of the people around Thomas. Blue Elk, a fellow Ute, pretends to befriend Thomas and his family in the beginning of the story. However, Blue Elk's intentions are always selfish and usually mercenary. Blue Elk first leads Thomas's family to Pagosa's sawmill and away from the reservation by filling their heads with the idea that they would make a lot of money. Instead, the family becomes ensconced in chronic debt. Blue Elk lies to Thomas to get the boy to leave his wilderness lodge. Blue Elk then steals all the boy's possessions.

Red Dillon is also dishonest. He teaches Thomas to throw rodeo events so that he can up the ante on bets. His cheating often causes the two of them to get into trouble such that they must strategically hide their horses for sudden getaways from the small Western towns in which Thomas rides in rodeos.

Rites of Passage

The other overall theme of this novel is the rite of passage. This is portrayed through Thomas, who must learn to negotiate his way from childhood to adulthood down some very complicated roads. First, Thomas learns to find his way through the wilderness. He becomes completely self-sufficient in nature, learning not only to kill for his food and to make his own clothes but to communicate with the wild creatures there.

Then Thomas must learn to deal with his peers. He is not very successful in this arena. The only way he can deal with them is to isolate himself from them or to beat them up. The school environment in which he must face his peers is also a challenge because it is ruled by the ways of the white society. This means that Thomas must surrender his traditional ways, even though his peers are fellow Utes. He does eventually acquiesce to the school environment, accepting the clothes and food and trying to learn farm skills.

Thomas's rites are not over, however. He has more things to learn before he reaches manhood. He is taken in by Red Dillon and is taught how to ride tough horses. He learns how to take falls. He becomes very familiar with constant, physical pain. He also learns how to cheat. Eventually, he gains enough confidence to free himself from Red.

The effects of all the hardships that Thomas has endured stay with him as he continues down his road toward maturity. He takes his anger out on the horses, torturing them, as he has been tortured. He is filled with anger and frustration. His final lessons begin when he is crushed under the weight of a fallen horse. During his recuperation, Thomas experiences the final rite, the passage which forces him to face himself.

Culture Clashes

There are two different types of culture clashes going on in this novel. First, there is the clash between the Native American culture and that of the white people. Then there is the clash between the traditional and nontraditional Indians.

The clash between the Native American culture and the white people is evident in the way that Thomas and his family must live on the Ute reservation. They are not allowed to go fishing or hunting when they are hungry without first receiving permits. This system, although supervised by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), is the direct result of having had their land confiscated by the U.S. government and then partially reissued as reservation land, with strict boundaries and prohibitive rules.

The other aspect of this clash between the divergent cultures is demonstrated at the school to which Thomas is sent. The school is run by white people, whose philosophy demands that Native children must look and act like white people to get along in the world.

Topics For Further Study

  • Controversy surrounds contemporary rodeo shows. Research the history of rodeos up to current times, including all the pros and cons of this contentious topic, then organize a class discussion. Be prepared, being as objective as possible, to stimulate the dialogue with interesting and well-examined data and anecdotes.
  • Study the history of the Ute tribe. Then present your findings using graphs, maps, and transparencies. Cover a variety of topics, such as the tribe's loss of land, the spiritual and cultural rituals, and the effects of the U.S. government's attempts at assimilating these people to white society.
  • Research the contemporary topic of multiculturalism, with a strong focus on cultural assimilation. How have the techniques, the philosophies, and the effects changed since the beginning of the twentieth century? Subjects that you might want to research are bilingualism, the surge in the publication of multicultural literature, and current discussions of multiculturalism in the nation's public educational system.
  • Borland's When the Legends Die encompasses the story of a young man finding his way through the challenges of maturing from a dependent boy to a self-sufficient man. Write a short story about one of the contemporary challenges that a young boy or girl might face as she or he experiences her or his own rite of passage to adulthood. The story does not have to be fictionalized. It could be written as a memoir.
  • Research three or more of the state lottery systems that are in current use. Do an analysis of how the money that the states collect is used. What are the benefits of using a lottery? Which income bracket of the population most often supports the lottery? What other choices are available to states to create revenue? Conclude your paper with an examination of the effects of gambling caused by the lottery on the population.

The clash between traditional and nontraditional Native people is shown in the way many of the Utes look at the Black Bull family when they return to town, dressed in their native clothes. It is also seen in the attitudes of the Native American children when they react to what seems strange to them, as when Thomas refers to the ancient songs and stories of the Ute people. The nontraditional Native Americans are only vaguely aware of these traditions, if they are aware of them at all. Thomas's relationship to nature, in particular to the bear cub, is yet another unusual aspect that the nontraditional Native Americans do not understand.



When the Legends Die takes place in the West at the turn of the twentieth century. It begins in Pagosa, Colorado, a real-life, small-town location that currently boasts of its tourist attraction of healing spring waters. At the time of this novel, however, the town was not much more than a sawmill town, probably with only the Native Americans being aware of the healing springs.

The story then moves to Ignacio, Colorado, the heart of the Ute reservation in southern Colorado. In creating the school to which Thomas is sent, Borland could be making reference to the Indian school that once was housed at Fort Lewis near the boundaries of Ignacio. The fort was set up in an attempt to "control" the Native American population. Part of this effort concentrated on educating the Native American children in the ways of the white settlers, thus stripping them of their traditional culture.

While Thomas travels the rodeo circuit, his home base is in Red Dillon's cabin that sits on land outside of Aztec, New Mexico, another actual small town in the West. Most of the small towns that sponsored the rodeos at the time of the novel still hold these annual events today.

The wilderness area to which Thomas's family retreats, and later to which Thomas returns, is land in the San Juan Mountain Range. It is through these mountains that the Piedra River runs, the same river that is mentioned when Bessie and George first run away from Pagosa. This area was part of the traditional home of the Ute tribe, and artifacts can still be found there. Evidence of Native American camps in the San Juan Range are estimated to go back to 6000–2000 b.c. Today, much of this land is still uncultivated and belongs to the U.S. forest system. Thomas's family probably built their lodge somewhere between seven and eleven thousand feet in elevation.


The story is told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator. This narrator is privileged to see the unfolding of the tale through several different characters. This gives the story a well-rounded but sometimes shallow perspective. Though the reader is witness to many variations of opinions, none of the characters is revealed in depth.

The omniscient narrator tells the story in a very straightforward manner. There is only one flashback and that occurs in the beginning of the story; the rest is told in a linear time line. The narration is simple, with minimal descriptions offered about the landscape, the way people look, the colors of clothing, or, on a nonphysical level, the way people feel.

There is very little use of symbol or metaphor in the narration. Rather, the tale unfolds through a series of actions, with almost half of the story involved with the activity at rodeos.

Historical Context

The Utes

The people known as the Utes once inhabited most of the land of present-day Utah (which takes its name from the Utes), Colorado, and New Mexico. They were a hunter-gatherer society and were comprised of seven different groups, or bands, in ancient times. They lived in temporary shelters and moved with the seasons, following the animals and the harvesting time of the wild fruits and nuts that were their staple foods.

The history of the Utes is filled with their struggle for land and their desire to maintain their traditional living. The Spanish were the first Europeans to make contact with the Utes in the 1630s. With the Spanish came horses, a factor that would change the lifestyle of the Utes. Horses allowed them to hunt buffalo, evade their enemies, transport goods, and go farther to hunt for food. Because of these advantages, the Utes ceased their practice of breaking the tribe into smaller family groups, and, in its place, they created larger, more permanently settled units that were then ruled by powerful leaders.

Amidst battles with the Spanish as well as intertribal battles with other Native Americans, the Utes fought to maintain their rights to food and land. With the approach of the white pioneers, the trappers, the gold miners, and the inevitable U.S. military, the Ute people and their land began to dwindle. Between 1859 and 1879, the Ute population decreased from an estimated eight thousand to two thousand people. The cause of this decrease was blamed on disease and a lack of food. Ute land was taken away in huge chunks. By 1868, the whole tribe was confined to the western third of Colorado. In 1873, they were forced to concede another fourth of their land. In 1880, the tribe was living on a reservation that measured fifteen miles wide and one hundred miles long. Having access to smaller and smaller areas of land, the Utes eventually became dependent on the military, who rationed food to them.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1800s: Cowboys show their skills at roping calves and riding wild horses during the large spring roundup of cattle out on the plains.
    1900s: Cowboys follow a rodeo circuit across North America that includes over two thousand shows a year. Most performers belong to an organized group called the Cowboys Turtle Association (CTA).
    Today: Cowboys have a large following of fans (estimated at over 13 million) who either watch them perform live at rodeo arenas across the United States and Canada or see them on weekend broadcasts on television.
  • 1800s: The Ute Indians roam the San Juan Mountains in search of food and stop at the Pagosa (which is Ute for "healing waters") springs to cure themselves of the pains of rheumatism and other health problems.
    1900s: The U.S. government sets up a fort near the Pagosa springs and a white settlement called Pagosa Springs is incorporated. Cattlemen and lumberjacks soon roam through the mountains.
    Today: Tourism is the largest industry of Pagosa Springs. The small town of a little over two thousand residents is the starting point for white-water rafting, fishing, and backcountry camping expeditions. Median income of its residents is $19,000. Median price of a home is a little less than $200,000.
  • 1800s: Legalized gambling in the United States sees the emergence of government-sponsored lotteries to help finance local and national projects. However, due to many scandals, such as sponsors absconding with the money collected, gambling is outlawed in all but three states.
    1900s: The Great Depression causes a resurgence of gambling. Looked at as a way to stimulate the economy, states rescind their antigambling laws. Capitalizing on a crackdown on illegal gambling, Nevada and New Jersey are the first to welcome gambling with the construction of gaming houses. State lotteries soon follow.
    Today: To help combat the chronic poverty on many reservations, over one hundred Native American tribes build gambling casinos on their reservation land. Many states argue about how to tax the tribal gambling earnings, which some estimate to be between $2 and $8 billion a year.

Education of Native Americans

Up until the 1960s, numerous Native American children were taken from their homes and their parents and placed in boarding schools to be trained in the "new ways" of American white culture. Often under the auspices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), social workers, who may have believed they were doing the right thing for these children by assimilating them to modern society, were in fact making many of the children miserable. Many of these children died from diseases against which they had no natural immunity. Some people claim that other children died of heartbreak. Even the children who survived the schools often discovered, upon graduation, that they neither fit into their old traditional way of life, because they had changed too much, nor into the white society, because they had not changed enough—white people still looked at them as nonwhites, no matter how well educated they were.

Not all schools were this miserable; some schools were even established on the reservations with the blessing of the tribes. There was also the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which encouraged the teaching of Native history and culture in BIA-sponsored schools. Much later, in the 1970s, after a period of cultural upheaval in the United States that included the fight for civil rights among the Native American population, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act of 1975 and the Education Amendments Act of 1978, which together gave more power to Native American tribes to operate and determine the type of education their children would receive in all BIA and reservation schools.

Fort Lewis, the school to which Thomas was most likely taken in Borland's When the Legends Die, began as a military post from which the U.S. government hoped to control the Utes. It was first located in Pagosa but later moved closer to the center of the Ute reservation in Ignacio. The fort eventually was converted to a boarding school for the Ute children and in 1911 became the state high school of agriculture. The school continued to evolve, becoming a junior college, and, in 1962, it began to offer a four-year liberal arts degree program. Today, it honors its roots by offering free tuition to all Native Americans.


The term rodeo is a derivative of the Spanish word rodear (pronounced "ro-day-are"), which means "to surround." The Spanish occupied most of the Western lands of the United States at one time, and it was they who brought the horses and cattle into that part of the nation. As pioneers and homesteaders began pressing into the West, the new American cowboys learned their skills from the Spanish.

Before fences crisscrossed the Western lands, cattle roamed wide expanses of land and were only rounded up once a year, at which time they were branded and taken to large stockyards where they were slaughtered. It was during these large roundups that cowboys would gather together in camps on the open plains, and, after their work was done, they would demonstrate their skills in impromptu competitions.

In the latter part of the 1800s, it is guessed that the first official rodeo took place in Cheyenne, Wyoming. As trains and other modern inventions eliminated the need for the large roundups, cowboys, still anxious to show off their skills, began performing in front of small audiences. The custom caught on, and the audiences, as well as the prize money, grew. Thus, the modern tradition of rodeos was born.

Today, rodeos are often protested by animal activist groups, who contend that the sport causes unnecessary and cruel punishment for the cattle and horses involved in these events. Instead of riding wild horses, bronco riders sit atop horses that have flank straps wrapped around their groins and pulled tight enough to cause irritation. Cowboys are also allowed to wear spurs on their boots. This further increases the bucking of the horse, as the star-shaped wheels on the spurs are dug into the horse's sides.

Veterinarians attending rodeo animals have claimed to see injuries such as broken necks and backs, broken legs and ribs, as well as internal hemorrhaging. Despite these reports, rodeos continue to draw large audiences, both at live performances and on television.

Critical Overview

Although not seen as a classic work of literature, Borland's examination of the effects of white culture on the life and psychology of a young Native American man has been used in studies of the problems of assimilation and culture clash in the United States. Recently, Borland's book became the focus of a study compiled by Dr. Mitch Holifield, a professor in the Department of Educational Administration and Secondary Education at Arkansas State University. In his article "When the Legends Die: A Point beyond Culture," published in Education, Holifield states that Borland's novel "realistically portrays the deculturalization of Native Americans." Holifield, using Edward T. Hall's Beyond Culture (1977), analyzes When the Legends Die, concluding that an understanding of this story and the effects upon the protagonist, Thomas Black Bull, could significantly change the way educators deal with the challenges of multiculturalism in American society. He writes, "Understanding Tom's metamorphosis suggests questions and answers for helping America's schools be a more positive force for humane treatment for all people and for the positive coexistence and appreciate of diverse cultures."

When Borland's novel When the Legends Die was first published, it was received without much

fanfare. Although sometimes criticized for his overly sentimental tone in relationship to Native American culture, Borland, as a writer, is often commended for his overall philosophy of living simply with a respect for nature, a theme that prevails throughout this novel as well as most of his other writings.


Joyce Hart

Hart has degrees in English literature and creative writing and writes primarily on literary themes. In this essay, Hart examines the mother figure in Borland's novel as portrayed by his four female characters.

Borland's When the Legends Die is mostly a man's story, in that the main focus of the novel is on the development of a young boy into manhood, and, in the process of his growth, the main voices heard are masculine. However, there are minor female characters. The least significant of these female roles are the flirtatious young women or prostitutes who are used mainly to indicate to Thomas that he has emerged from puberty. More noteworthy are four more prominent women who represent various aspects of mother figures. Each of these four women appears in a well-defined and separate time frame and reflects the various stages of maturity as the protagonist Thomas Black Bull progresses from youth to full adulthood.

The first chapter of When the Legends Die is titled "Bessie," referring to the biological mother of Thomas Black Bull. Bessie is a strong woman. She is also a Native American who is familiar with the traditional ways of her tribe. Although she has adjusted to reservation life, as well as to life in a small white community, she is capable of self-sufficient living in the wilderness. Bessie raises Thomas in his earliest years in an environment that is affected by a mixture of Native American culture and white society. However, when Thomas's father gets into trouble with the law, Bessie teaches Thomas how to live in nature without the benefit of relying on others to provide him with the rudimentary elements of physical survival, such as food and warmth, or without the more light-hearted enjoyment of psychological pleasures, such as social education and entertainment. Thus Thomas learns to hunt and gather wild berries in order to satisfy his hunger, to build a protective lodge and maintain a fire to endure the bitter cold, to memorize the ritual songs and stories of his ancestors to improve his mind, and to make friends with the animals to provide a sense of kinship.

Bessie nurtures Thomas both physically and emotionally. She creates his foundation. By teaching him to survive in nature, she has given him a home to which he can always return. Bessie has also provided Thomas with a history, a connection to the past. Through the songs and the stories that she teaches him, Bessie provides Thomas with roots that give him a sense of self. Thomas's mother also teaches Thomas respect for life. Through her, Thomas learns to honor the plants and animals that provide him with nourishment. To waste life frivolously, Bessie shows him, is the worst crime of all. Bessie is his birth mother. She establishes in Thomas a sense of self, his first identity.

Unfortunately for Thomas, Bessie dies while he is still very young. Although he is more capable of taking care of himself than most young people his age, the elders who live in the social communities around Thomas believe that the young boy needs guidance. Whether it is because the men do not themselves know how to survive in the wilderness or because they want the boy to conform to the society in which they live, the men conspire to take Thomas from his wilderness home and bring him back to the enclave dominated by white society. Although Thomas is self-sufficient, he is not physically strong enough to rebel against these men, nor is he savvy enough to understand their motives. With his mother gone, Thomas has no one to explain these new developments to him. So he is cast into a world of men who want to socialize and baptize him, as well as to capitalize on him.

Thomas is taken to a school organized by white people to educate, and thus control, the native population. He is tricked into coming to this school by Blue Elk, a fellow Ute tribesman, who tells Thomas that the children and other people at the school need and want to learn the traditional ways that Thomas's mother taught him. When Thomas arrives at the school, of course he discovers that this is not true. The school is there solely to teach Native American children how to exist in white society. Thomas's anger explodes in fistfights with anyone who comes near him. His world has been quickly transposed from one of balance and mutual respect to one of aggression and common distrust. On a symbolic level, he is taken from the feminine and forced into the masculine.

The world of the school is not devoid of women. There is one teacher, Rowena Ellis, who is Thomas's English teacher. She is one of the few people at the school who speaks Thomas's native language. Rowena, the narrator states, is also the supervisor of the girls' dormitory. She is described as unmarried, gray-haired, plump, and in her forties, and she represents an "unofficial mother to every shy, homesick boy and girl in the school." In other words, Rowena is the universal surrogate mother. Her full figure and gray hair even push her into the realm of grandmother, a sort of double-cast mother figure.

Connecting Rowena more strongly to a mother figure, Borland, in one of the first few words that Rowena and Thomas share, has Rowena encouraging Thomas to learn English by saying, "Your mother would tell you to learn these things." A few sentences later, Rowena asks Thomas to tell her about his mother. During a conference with some of Thomas's other teachers, Rowena is the only one who acknowledges Thomas's emotions. While the men see a defiant child, Rowena tells them that Thomas is doing well, learning more than he lets on. She also tells them that he is an "unhappy boy and hard to reach, but he learns fast."

Thomas rebels even more drastically, and eventually he runs away from the school. Once he arrives at his old lodge in the mountains, he discovers that Blue Elk has burnt his place to the ground. All that remains of Thomas's past is ashes. He returns to the school resigned to his fate in the world of white people. Upon reentering Rowena's class, she notices a change in him and praises his determination to learn the language of the white people. It is through Rowena that Thomas is given the most important tool in dealing with the new world around him. As his mother taught him how to "talk" with nature, Rowena teaches him how to talk with the society that has taken over his world. She has given him the skills that allow him to communicate with the men who will soon introduce him to yet another world. Whereas Bessie introduces Thomas to the natural world and to the world of his ancestors, Rowena prepares Thomas to enter into the social world and into the world of the dominant culture.

Thomas next enters the rodeo world, a place that his mother, Bessie, would be diametrically opposed to. In this world, not only does Thomas learn to cheat and swindle, he becomes very abusive toward animals. His actions go against the natural world. The horses he rides are not naturally mean or wild; they are frustrated and hurt. They harbor feelings similar to the ones that stew inside of Thomas. His mother taught Thomas to love and respect the natural world, but the rodeo, as well as the cattle industry behind it, is about money, oppression, and greed. This is a mean world, and Thomas is forced to leave it a broken man.

At the end of his career as a bronco rider, Thomas suffers a terrible accident. He wakes up in a hospital under the care of the nurse Mary Redmond, who becomes the third mother figure. Mary is also plump, as was Rowena, a description that Borland uses to imply a motherly figure. Her personality is bubbly and her first impulse upon Thomas's regaining consciousness is to get him to eat, a typically maternal act. Mary is a healer. She helps Thomas regain the feelings in his body. She massages his limbs, encouraging the flow of blood. Symbolically, Mary attempts to restore Thomas's humanity. Thomas has become numb in more ways than just physically. His emotions, like his body, have been stomped on, kicked, bruised, and battered. The more cheerful Mary is, the more despondent Thomas becomes. He resents her because she makes him aware of his need for her. He cannot eat unless she brings him food. He cannot clean himself. He cannot get out of bed unless she helps him.

Although Borland portrays Mary as a mother figure, he also hints that she has something else on her mind. Mary is a caretaker, but she would like to have Thomas need her so much that he will come home with her when he is well enough to leave the hospital. This makes Mary a type of crossover female figure. She is both mother and temptress, mother and potential lover. However, Thomas is not attracted to her. He is forced to accept her help as a healer, but he feels suffocated by her need for a lover. Thomas deals with Mary only on the mother level, but even that gets old, as Mary, unlike Thomas's real mother, does not encourage him to be strong. Mary would rather that Thomas remain dependent upon her. She believes that this is the only way she can keep a man. So, once again, Thomas rebels. He quickly moves beyond the parameters that Mary sets for him and heals himself on a schedule that is more efficient, more to his own liking. As soon as he is capable of walking, he leaves the hospital and Mary and, without knowing why, heads home to the place where he last saw his real mother.

Thomas goes back to the wilderness. He thinks he is going there to recuperate from the physical beatings he has endured while working the rodeo circuit. His plan is to find an easy way to earn a living that allows him to be outdoors. By coincidence, he meets a man who needs a sheepherder, and Thomas takes the job. One day while tending the sheep, a grizzly bear attacks and carries away one of the lambs. This angers Thomas, who feels that the bear has personally stolen something from him. Shortly thereafter, Thomas seeks revenge.

As if having completely forgotten everything about his childhood, even the close relationship that Thomas had with a grizzly cub when he himself was a child, Thomas hides and waits for the bear's return. Thomas has a rifle in his hands and the bear's death on his mind. At this point, Thomas still believes that he is in the mountains only to heal himself so that he will be strong enough to return to bronco riding. His mind remains in a fog, not knowing for sure who he is and not caring to find out.

While awaiting the bear, Thomas falls asleep but is awakened by an awareness of another being's presence. At first he thinks it is the bear, but it is not. What Thomas sees is a woman. He cannot see her clearly, "but he knew, something deep inside him knew, who she was. She was the mother, not his own mother but the All-Mother, the mothers and the grandmothers all the way back to beginning." This mirage of woman, this archetype of motherhood, begins to chant, much like Thomas's real mother had done. Thomas chants, too. Then he recognizes the chant. It is the bear chant, and that is when he sees the bear.

While chanting, Thomas tries to shoot the bear, but he cannot. Every time he tries, he asks himself, why? Why does he feel this need to kill the bear? When he finally realizes that it is not the bear that he wants to kill, he, through this vision of the All-Mother, knows that he must go on a vision quest. He has questions that must be answered, and only through the traditional ways that his mother has taught him will he know how to answer them.

Thomas goes on a fast. He climbs to the top of a mountain and settles himself in a cave, where, out of hunger, thirst, and fatigue, he has several dreams. In one of them, he tells himself that he has forgotten who he is. He also admits that what he has been trying to kill is not the bear but rather his past. Before the dream ends, the mountain asks Thomas who he is. Thomas is incapable of answering. That is when he hears a voice. It is the voice of the All-Mother, who tells the mountain, "He is my son."

Thus, the journey of Thomas is complete. Although throughout the story Thomas's biological mother is not there to guide him, Borland creates other mother figures to nurture Thomas during his passage from boyhood to maturity. Each mother has a specific goal. Each goal, when reached, teaches Thomas something new about the world and about himself. The mother figures give Thomas skills to deal with life. They also give him reasons to reflect on the meaning of his life. In the end, Borland sums up all the mothers by creating a spiritual figurehead. She, the All-Mother, is the one who brings Thomas back to himself. She makes him feel at home. It is through the All-Mother that Thomas is able to reclaim not only his childhood but his heritage and his culture, everything that his real mother had presented to him, everything that all the mother figures along his path have taught him.

Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on When the Legends Die, in Novels for Students, Gale, 2003.

Mitch Holifield

In the following essay, Holifield interprets Tom's maturation in Borland's When the Legends Die.

Hal Borland's novel When the Legends Die vividly portrays the evolution and resolution of an identity crisis. The protagonist Tom Black Bull, a Ute Indian, finds himself caught between the old Ute culture and that of white America seeking the assimilation of Indians. Tom undergoes a somewhat circular metamorphosis by moving from a child's notion of his identity as a Ute, to a repression of that identity as a survival response, and ultimately to a reaffirmation of his Indian heritage.

Although Edward T. Hall's Beyond Culture is not a literary explication of Borland's novel, at the crux of Tom's identity crisis lurk several covert elements of culture as described in Hall's book, which expose an array of these universal, cultural elements. In what might serve as a thesis statement, Hall writes, "Beneath this clearly perceived, highly explicit surface culture there lies a whole other world which when understood will ultimately radically change our view of human nature." This "other world" is so subtly interwoven into cultural fabrics that its discovery necessitates a treacherous journey into the nether regions of Freudianism, sociology, and biology. Being so integrally founded upon these elements of this other world, cultures have paradoxically become blind to their forceful presences.

The more notable subsurface forces impacting Borland's protagonist concern what Hall defines as synchronous movement in monochronic and polychronic time systems, bureaucratic irrationality, cultural bases of education, and the cultural identification syndrome. These forces exert tremendous tensions against Tom, who must in response ask the ageless question, "who am I" or, as Hall might put it, "to what should I attend."

In order to point out the tension inherent in Tom's identity crisis, we must first come to a basic, elementary understanding of the old Ute cultural concept of time which Hall describe's as polychronic. A polychronic time system is not linear, segmented, or dependent on rigid adherence to arbitrarily set schedules and is characterized by many things happening at once. Such a system is demonstrated when a group of Utes, including Tom's family, leaves the reservation and the confines of the cornfields to fish and hunt:

They stayed there a week. Then they went up the river another day and found a place where there were more berries, more fish. And the men killed two fat deer which had come down to the river to drink. The venison tasted good after so much fish, and the women told the men to go up on Horse Mountain and get more deer and they would dry it, the old way, for winter. There were many deer on Horse Mountain and they made much meat. Nobody remembered how long they were there because it didn't matter. When they had made meat for the winter, they said, and had smoked fish and dried berries for the winter, they would go back to the reservation.

In this context, the activity and inter action, not time, are valued.

The Ute culture's notion of time and one's part in nature can be further explored in "the roundnessof-life" motif, a key cultural gestalt. Nature is cyclical as demonstrated in the rhythms of day and night, seasonal changes, birth and death, the regular "path of the stars," lunar phases, etc. Such contextual rhythms serve as the basis of the Utes' concept of time continuance and determine collective tribal activities and perception. Being in sync with this system is viewed with more importance than that given it by the white culture. The Utes are not as far removed or extended from their immediate dependence on nature by the implements of progress which demands that the tribal members not only act in sync with one another but with the cosmic clock of nature as well.

Borland demonstrates this synchronization symbolically in the guise of the Ute chants. The chant seems to be a microcosmic interaction of the Indians' culture, personality, intellect, and even intuition with the mystical forces and laws of nature. Trivial as well as monumental occurrences are experienced within the "magic" of the chants. For example, after Tom, his mother Bessie, and his father George escape from the sawmill, George, using a bow and arrows, goes on an unsuccessful deer hunt. Bessie reminds him that they had not sung the deer chant. After singing the chant the following afternoon, George kills a doe. The chant, then, seems to be a key in affecting a union with an underlying harmony and subsequently to invoking providence.

Additionally, the Indians' perception of one's part in the "roundness of life" and this underlying

harmony is much like the Bergsonian intuitional view of duration or "stream of life." This is at least implied in Borland's use of Bessie's metaphorical explanation of the chipmunk stripes:

These stripes, she said, were the paths from its eyes, with which it sees now and tomorrow, to its tail, which is always behind it and a part of yesterday … They are the ties that bind man to his own being, his small part of the roundness.

In contrast to the polychronic time system in the "roundness of life" as perceived by the Utes, the American white culture into which Tom is forced mainly functions according to what Hall labels as monochronic or M-time. Ruled by metaphors of saving, spending, wasting, running out of, and making up time, M-time systems implement and religiously adhere to rigid schedules which have as side effects segmentation and narrower perceptions. Hall explains:

M-time can alienate us from ourselves and deny us the experience of context in the wider sense. That is M-time narrows one's view of events in much the same way as looking through a cardboard tube narrows vision, and it influences subtly and in depth how we think—in segmented compartments

Such a time system is not necessarily conducive to personal creativity and biorhythms, for at the core of M-time is scheduled attendance to one thing at a time as exemplified by the schedule and curriculum at the reservation school. The window to which Tom withdraws from class participation graphically symbolizes the narrowness and segmentation. In this case, the institution literally "boxes him in."

Tom's first memorable introduction into the cultural paradigm of American white bureaucracy is initiated by the well-meaning preacher who discovers that the boy he once christened as Tom Black Bull is now living in the old Ute fashion as Bear's Brother. Fulfilling what he interprets as his Christian duty, the preacher pays Blue Elk to take the boy to the reservation school, a prime exemplar of what Hall designates as institutional irrationality.

Hall views institutions as self-serving in order to nourish their own existences: "Established to serve mankind, the service function is soon forgotten, while bureaucratic functions and survival take over." For Tom, the reservation system is inherently evil in that its purpose is primarily to imprison, conditionally modify, and assimilate the Indians—all for the good of the white culture. If in this context Hall's thesis concerning bureaucratic irrationality is given credibility, one can then deduce that the reservation's bureaucratic survival is maintained even to some degree at the expense of the service it is to yield the white culture. To compound the matter, the bureaucracy is inherently more sensitive to the goals of white culture than to the Utes. Hence, the Indians are doubly jeopardized.

Tom's best interests are interpreted within the perspective of the institution; he is "served" whether he shares in this point of view or not for the bureaucracy "knows best" and must control. In the chapter "Cultural and Primate Bases of Education," Hall writes the following bias:

Another guiding principle is that the American system of education is assumed to be the best in the world and equally applicable to all people and must therefore be imposed upon them … without regard to their own culture.

This principle is stereotypically mandated by the Indian agent's judgmental sentencing when he orders, "He (Tom) will go to school here and learn the things he should know." Tom reconciled to such imposition with the archetypical lament, "I do not need these things."

The methodology and curriculum at the school seem to support Hall's notion that America's educational system is over-structured, is basically geared to teach who is boss, and limits man's innate need for physical activity with "sacred" schedules and confinement to desks. Tom is forced into a cultural context much in the same manner that a square peg is whittled to fit a round hole. He is imprisoned in the dormitory, corporally punished, mocked by peers, forced to forsake his pet bear whom he considers a brother, and robbed of his possessions by Blue Elk, who loots and burns his lodge.

Furthermore, nature and Tom's mother are replaced as instructors by Indian teachers already acclimated to the expectations of the culture and the institution. The curriculum emphasizing nature, practical arts, and the "roundness of life" is usurped by the school's highly compartmentalized three R's: woodworking, sheep herding, and basket-weaving. In the different cultural paradigm, new aspects demand Tom's attention; and intelligence is judged primarily in regard to how well and exhaustively that attention was given.

Regarding methodology, Hall believes that one of the primate bases of education is that man is a "playing animal" but that many educational practices contradict and frustrate this basic nature. Ironically, Tom, while playing yet breaking the school rules against riding the unbroken horses in the herd, gains the skills of what later is to be his occupational "claim to fame" as a rodeo bronco rider. The acquisition of these skills makes leaving the reservation system possible.

Borland uses Luther Spotted Dog, who remains in the system, as an example of the product or output of the reservation school. Upon returning to Pagosa to recuperate after his rodeo accident, Tom finds Luther, his one-time roommate, sitting on the curb and looking like a "skid-row character." The contrast between Tom and Luther seems to echo Hall's premise that education is "… a game in which there are winners and losers, and the game has little relevance to either the outside world or to the subject being taught." The conclusion drawn from the contrast is perhaps that by eventually leaving the school via Red Dillon's greedy intent to use Tom in the rodeo circuit in gambling schemes Tom achieves more "success" than did Luther, who remained. Such is Borland's comment on what Hall deems as bureaucratic irrationality.

As previously noted, Tom's transition from the Ute culture is abruptly violent. In the new environment Tom eventually denies his inner-being nurtured by the Ute cultural heritage, for only in the denial and disassociation does he find a tolerable degree of ease from tensions inherent in the change of cultural context. Upon returning to the school after having escaped only to find his lodge looted and destroyed, Tom begins to conform by cutting his braids, wearing the school uniform, uninterestedly attending classes, and perhaps most significantly speaking only English.

Yet, Tom's ultimate submission occurs after he must, in order to save it from being shot, drive off his bear when it returns to the school after hibernation. The bear by this point has become a symbol of Tom's Ute identity:

The boy backed away. "I do not know you!" he cried. "You are no longer my brother. I have no brother! I have no friends!"

"Go away," the boy said. "Go or they will kill you. They do not need guns to kill …"

What Do I Read Next?

  • Rising Voices: Writings of Young Native Americans (1992) is a collection of poems and essays written by young Native Americans about their identity, their families, the rituals that have been passed down to them, and the difficulties of their daily lives.
  • N. Scott Momaday is an award-winning and very respected Native American author. His book House Made of Dawn (1968) tells the story of a young man who feels lost and displaced in white America. The novel follows his journey through many difficult challenges, ending with his gaining some insights into his self-proclaimed identity.
  • Talking Leaves: Contemporary Native American Short Stories (1991) is a good place to find an introduction to many of the most celebrated contemporary Native American authors. Included are Louis Erdrich, Michael Dorris, N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, and many others.
  • A collection of myths and legends of various Native American cultures has been put together by Paula Gunn Allen in Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women (1989). The collection includes tales that are both traditional and contemporary and focus on the lives of Native American women.
  • Lame Deer, Seeker of Visions (1972) tells the life story of John Fire Lame Deer, a traditional medicine man who was a respected elder of his Lakota tribe. The book is a must-read for those interested in exploring the philosophy and spiritual beliefs of the Lakota people. Many people outside of the Native American community have found this book helpful in their own spiritual quests, regardless of their culture.
  • James Welch is a talented writer who focuses on Native American culture. In his Fools Crow (1986), he tells the story of the effects of white encroachment on the Blackfoot tribe in Montana during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The main character of this story is a young man who chooses a spiritual path, eventually becoming a medicine man of his people.
  • Borland's The Amulet (1957) was written six years prior to his When the Legends Die and shares a similar Western tone. This story of young love is set on the plains of Missouri during the Civil War.
  • Borland is most famous for his collections of essays. Included in this genre are his books The Enduring Pattern (1959), Sundial of the Seasons: A Selection of Outdoor Editorials from the "New York Times" (1964), and Borland Country (1971). Borland, a self-taught naturalist, often writes about the environment and reflections of his life in the countryside. His essay writing has been described as Thoreau-like.

Triggered by the repression and denial, Tom enters Hall's cultural identification syndrome. Hall writes:

Part of the frustration can be traced to anger at oneself for not being able to cope with a dissociated aspect of one's personality and at the same time to defeat from being denied the experience of an important part of the self.

Being denied his Ute way of life and disassociating himself from the behavior patterns implicit in that life style prompt Tom's frustration. From the rhythms of the "roundness of life," Blue Elk betrays him into the structure of the reservation system where Tom's denial of his heritage begins as a response to the tension exerted by being between cultures. The denial continues as Tom tries Red Dillon's way in the rodeo circuit within which Tom's life settles into the pattern or segmentation of hopping from one town to the next, from one gambling spoof to another—all the while with Red being the boss. But perhaps the denial deepened when Tom rebels and leaves Red to become the legendary Killer Tom Black, the killer of rodeo horses.

The horses become symbols for all the hurts Tom had experienced at the hands of Blue Elk, Red Dillon, and school personnel such as Benny Gray-back, Neil Swanson, and Rowena Ellis. To the amazement but sadistic thrill of the crowd, he rides the horses to their deaths to be the boss over all the memories he sought to kill. Tom's mania is symptomatic of the identification syndrome in that he views the loss of self as purposed by forces or personalities outside himself. The most intense segment of his daily life is the ten-second mastery over the horse. This is monochronic time fragmentation and narrowness of perspective epitomized to the point of mania.

Still, Tom can not totally deny his Ute heritage. During his recuperation on Horse Mountain, Tom finally confronts the grizzly which had once been his pet. Here he plans the ultimate denial of his heritage by killing the bear symbolizing the old Ute ways. Yet, when the "moment of truth" comes, Tom can not kill the bear; instead comes the reaffirmation of his heritage:

He closed his eyes, fighting with himself. I came to kill the bear! His throbbing pulse asked, Why? He answered, I must! And again his pulse beat, Why? He answered, To be myself: And the pulse asked, Who … are … you? He had no answer. The pulse kept beating the question at him. Angrily he said, This bear has made trouble: The question beat back, To … whom? And his own bitter answer, To me! Then the question, as before, Who … are … you? (italics in original) And he, having no answer he could face, said, whispering the words aloud, "This bear did not make trouble. The trouble is in me." And he lowered the rifle.

Upon realizing that the trouble is in himself, Tom takes the first step in resolving the identity crisis. In the chronology following this insight, Tom subjects himself to various Ute rituals for purification. Finally in the last of a series of dreams, he rediscovers his part in the roundness. The All-Mother, symbolizing not only all the mothers in Ute history but nature as well, claims Tom as her son.

By understanding himself, he can now understand and accept others. Hall writes:

The paradoxical part of the identification syndrome is that until it has been resolved there can be no friendship and no love—only hate. Until we can allow others to be themselves, and others to be free, it is impossible to truly love another human being; neurotic and dependent love is, perhaps possible, but not genuine love, which can be generated only in the self.

This explains why Tom cannot accept Mary Redmond's friendship offered before his reaffirmation of himself as a Ute and viewed as another form of entrapment. After this reaffirmation, Tom plans a return to Pagosa to learn what happened to Blue Elk and what motivated his betrayal of the Utes. Tom also wants to visit the reservation school and try to understand the system. However, he has no need to return to the rodeo arena because the legendary Killer Tom Black was no more; the person rediscovered on Horse Mountain is Tom Black Bull, a Ute.

In summation, reading Hall's Beyond Culture as a companion book to Borland's When the Legends Die reveals cultural axioms that provide some explanation as to the causes and resolution of Tom's identity crisis which to some extent can be a paradigm. In Hall's exposure of monochronic and polychronic time systems, bureaucratic irrationality, the cultural bases of education, and the cultural identification syndrome is found clarification of man's response to his finitude in that these very gestalts are in part the parameters of that finitude.

Source: Mitch Holifield, "When the Legends Die: A Point beyond Culture," in Education, Vol. 120, Issue 1, Fall 1999, pp. 93–98.


Holifield, Mitch, "When the Legends Die: A Point beyond Culture," in Education, Vol. 120, No. 1, Fall 1999.

Wakeman, John, ed., World Authors, 1950–1970, H. W. Wilson, 1975.

Further Reading

Bass, Rick, The Lost Grizzlies: A Search for Survivors in the Wilderness of Colorado, Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Rick Bass, a gifted writer of novels, short stories, and nature essays, tackles the mystery of the grizzly bears in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado. Many people continue to claim they have seen grizzlies in these mountains where the bears have been officially declared extinct. Through his lyrical prose, Bass recounts his adventures in an attempt to finally put the questions to rest.

Borland, Hal, Country Editor's Boy, Lippincott, 1970.

This book recounts Borland's life story as he matures into a young man. Borland tells the story by describing his relationships with his parents, friends, and neighbors.

——, High, Wide and Lonesome, Lippincott, 1956.

This is an autobiography about Borland's youth. It is told through Borland's constant vision of the landscape around him.

Brown, Dee, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970.

This highly praised account of the Western expansion as witnessed by Native Americans is a powerful testimony to the fortitude of the native peoples of America. Brown covers such controversial and sorrowful topics as the Long Walk of the Navahos, the constant struggle and fight over the last herds of buffalo, and the founding of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Eisler, Kim Isaac, Revenge of the Pequots: How a Small Native American Tribe Created the World's Most Profitable Casino, Simon & Schuster, 2001.

Eisler tells the story of how the descendents of the Pequots, a small tribe in southern Connecticut, turned oppression into advantage by using the laws that the U.S. government had created to ensure their financial success, becoming the wealthiest Indian tribe in the history of North America. The irony of this story surrounds the fights that ensued when rights of the Pequots to claim themselves as an official tribe were challenged, something that no one bothered to argue until this tribe was about to reap the benefits of a profitable gambling casino.

Hirschfelder, Arlene, ed., Native Heritage: Personal Accounts by Native Americans, 1790 to the Present, Macmillan, 1995.

The book contains a collection of personal essays, written or told during two hundred years of transition in Native American culture. The stories focus on the effects of these changes on Native American families, language, land, education, traditions, and spirituality.

Wroth, William, Ute Indian Art and Culture: From Prehistory to the New Millennium, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 2001.

This is a beautiful collection of photographs and essays on the Ute culture, an often overlooked or totally ignored subject. Wroth, a former curator of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, has brought together an assembly of old clothing, jewelry, and other artifacts in an attempt to tell the story, through pictures and words, of the history of these people.

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