The bear plays a significant role in the themes of the novel and in Tom's character development. His relationship with the bear at any given moment in the novel corresponds to the strength of his connection to his Ute heritage during that particular phase of his life. Early in the novel, after his father's death, Tom names himself "Bear's Brother" because of his feeling of connection to the bears in the wilderness. After his mother's death, a bear cub who has also lost his mother becomes his best friend. However, as Tom becomes a bronco rider he loses this connection, and it is only at the end of the novel that he interacts with bears once again. Borland also draws similarities between the situations of the bear and the boy. For example, when Tom and the bear stay in Pagosa, they both feel emotionally and physically imprisoned by the townspeople there.
During the climatic scene of the novel in which the All-Mother appears to Tom, colors play a significant symbolic role. White, blue, yellow, and black appear to dance in the sky before becoming men who perform the bear dance. White plays perhaps the most important symbolic role in this part of the novel. After the All-Mother claims Tom as his son in Chapter 48, Borland writes, "Then he wakened, and the white was all around him, the white light of truth and understanding." White represents the "All-Mother," as well as the spiritual life in general. The multiple scenes with the All-Mother and Tom's rebirth through the bathing ritual mark his growing spiritual maturity and his acceptance of the old ways.
Tom's character represents the Native American population in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. Displaced from their homes in the wilderness, Native Americans must live in an unfamiliar, materialistic world. They must also endure continual abuse and exploitation from the white population. In a broader sense, Tom also represents all those who have lost or forgotten their heritage, as well as all those who have struggled to define their role in society.