Although the events narrated by Rayona in her narrative section of the novel take place within a brief span of time, perhaps only six months, we learn a lot about this fifteen-year-old girl. Hers is the story of a young woman trying to find her place in the world, trying to discover a personal identity that embraces her family's history. One of the biggest factors driving this classic search for identity is Rayona's dual-race heritage: Her mother, Christine, is Indian; her father, Elgin, is black.
From the outset of the novel, Rayona is unsure of herself. Her uncertainty is based in part in the apparent role-reversed relationship that she has with her mother. In the hospital scene in Chapter 1, Rayona seems more like a mother to Christine than Christine does to Rayona. For example, note that Christine cheats at cards, but Rayona lets her. Traditionally, we would expect a child to cheat at cards and a parent to chastise the child. What we as readers do not realize — until Christine's narrative section — is that Christine wants Rayona to catch her at cheating.
Rayona and Christine's playing cards is symbolic of their relationship throughout most of the novel. Christine's actions, including wanting to kill herself apparently because of her destructive marriage to Elgin, are those of an irresponsible teenager. But Rayona is present to help her mother. She never questions Christine's actions except to say that Christine is making mistakes in how she's running her life. For example, following Christine's abortive suicide attempt, Rayona is stunned that her mother would want to stop and rent videos before the two women leave Seattle for the Montana reservation on which Aunt Ida, Rayona's grandmother and Christine's mother, lives. Again, however, like the episode in which Rayona and Christine play cards, Rayona misperceives Christine's motives for renting the videos: For Rayona, it's a waste of time, but for Christine, the videos symbolize the memory of herself that she wants Rayona to have of her. Misperceptions drive many of the characters' actions in Dorris' novel.
Rayona's brief, initial stay on the reservation emphasizes the thorny issue of her mixed racial heritage and the psychological effects that this heritage has on her. For example, when she is first introduced to Foxy Cree and Annabelle Stiffarm, she perceives that they will reject her as a friend; she is the proverbial outsider trying to gain acceptance. And she is right. Foxy says to Rayona, "You're Christine's kid. . . . The one whose father is a nigger." Foxy calls Rayona "Buffalo Soldier" and leaves derisive notes in the Africa section of her school geography book, asking her when she's "going home" to Africa.
To these racially motivated taunts that she receives, Rayona reacts by pulling away from all human contact. "I make my mind a blank," she says. When Father Tom, a priest on the reservation who later apparently sexually assaults Rayona, constantly makes Rayona's dual heritage an issue that he wants to discuss with her, he unknowingly reinforces the stigma of race that Rayona feels. For example, when Father Tom says to Rayona, "It's not easy being a young person alone at your age . . . when you're different," Rayona responds, "I'm not different." She wants to be accepted and fit in without her Indian/black heritage being an issue. However, the problem is that everyone seems to make her heritage an issue.
Only when Rayona meets Evelyn and Sky at the state park does she finally find people who accept her without making her heritage an issue. Sky doesn't even acknowledge her skin color, and Evelyn's first comment when she meets Rayona — "He didn't mention you was Black" — is the only acknowledgment that she makes. To Evelyn and Sky, Rayona's race is unimportant. Rayona as an individual, as a person trying to make her way through life, is what's important. Evelyn emphasizes this last point when she tells Rayona why she's helping the young girl: "Because somebody should have done it for me." Rayona is accepted as the person who she is. She no longer needs the false, illusory image of a perfect Ellen DeMarco. By the end of the rodeo, she's more sure about herself and is ready to once again face Christine and — by extension — herself. Her narrative section ends on a positive note in that she and Christine are again communicating with each other. Rayona's future can only get better.