Because he is the narrator, the reader knows more about Chief than any of the novel's other characters. The book takes its title from a nursery rhyme Chief learned from his Native American grandmother. His heritage aligns Chief with the natural world, a world that his white mother conspired to destroy when she influenced Chief's father to sell his tribal lands. This sale enabled the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Columbia River, representing Chief's first experience of the victory of mechanization over the natural world. He remembers that his mother kept getting "bigger" while his father "shrunk" into alcoholism and despair. Insult is added to injury when Chief is forced to adopt his mother's white name, Bromden, rather than his father's Indian name.
Chief played high school football, which enabled him to travel to different areas. During one out-of-town trip, his team is given a tour of a factory where he meets a young African-American woman who begs him to take her away with him.
Fully grown to 6'7", Chief enters the Army during World War II. In the Army he learns about the electronics that he will later schizophrenically hallucinate as part of the Combine. The Combine is the invention of Chief's paranoia; a large mechanized matrix that enforces its control over humankind by making it conform to rigid standards of behavior. Chief believes he can hear the mechanized gears of the Combine behind the walls and beneath the floors of the hospital where he has been living as a deaf-mute since the war.
As the novel progresses, Chief's delusions decrease. He no longer witnesses the fog that the Combine would regularly emit on the ward, and he even begins to communicate verbally with McMurphy and the other ward patients. A strong man who doubts his own powers, Chief's confidence is returned by McMurphy's program to "blow" the deflated Chief back up. His salvation is completed when he performs a mercy killing on the lobotomized McMurphy and escapes from the hospital. The victory of his escape, however, is undermined by the novel's first chapter in which the Chief appears to be telling the story from the hospital ward. "But it's all the truth even if it didn't happen," he writes, leading the reader to doubt the success of McMurphy's rebellion.