Hugh G. Rection
, May 01, 2006
Fool's Crow -- James Welch
The year is 1870, and Fool's Crow, so called after he killed the chief of the Crows during a raid, has a vision at the annual Sun Dance ceremony. The young warrior sees the end of the Indian way of life and the choice that must be made: resistance or humiliating accommodation. "A major contibution to Native American literature."--Wallace Stegner.
Set in Montana shortly after the Civil War, this novel tells of Fools Crow, a young Blackfoot Indian on the verge of manhood, and his tribe, known as the Lone Eaters. The invasion of white society threatens to change their traditional way of life, and they must choose to fight or assimilate. The story is a powerful portrait of a fading of way of life.
From Publishers Weekly
Suspenseful and moving, written with an authenticity and integrity that give it sweeping power, Welch's third novel (The Death of Jim Loney is a masterful evocation of a Native American culture and its passing. From their lodges on the endless Montana plains, the members of the Lone Eaters band of the Pikuni (Blackfeet) Indians live in harmony with nature, hunting the "blackhorns" (buffalo), observing a complex system of political administration based on mutual respect and handing down legends that explain the natural world and govern daily conduct. The young protagonist is first called White Man's Dog, but earns the respected name Fools Crow for meritorious conduct in battle. Through his eyes we watch the escalating tensions between the Pikunis and the white men ("the Napikwans"), who deliberately violate treaties and initiate hostilities with the hard-pressed red men. At the same time, the feared "white scabs plague" (smallpox) decimates the Lone Eaters communities, and they realize that their days are numbered. There is much to savor in this remarkable book: the ease with which Fools Crow and his brethren converse with animals and spirits, the importance of dreams in their daily lives, the customs and ceremonies that measure the natural seasons and a person's lifespan. Without violating the patterns of Native American speech, Welsh writes in prose that surges and sings. This bittersweet story is an outstanding work.
From Library Journal
A portentous dream seems to overshadow the Lone Eaters clan of the Blackfeet Indians in the post-Civil War years. The slow invasion of the Napikwans, or whites, is inevitable and coincidental, however. As we follow White Man's Dog (later renamed Fools Crow), we see how some of his people try to follow the Napikwan ways, others rebel against them, and many ignore them. This alien force has both subtle and obvious methods of eliminating the tribal ways, and we watch individuals, families, and traditions crumbling. Welch's third novel ( Winter in the Blood, The Death of Jim Loney) is like finding a lifestyle preserved for a century and reanimated for our benefit and education. Recommended for anyone who wants to see what we have lost, and read a fine novel in the process.
Once you get the hang of the language he uses, you are absolutely transported to the plains where this coming-of-age story takes place.
What's unique about Welch is that he doesn't sentimentalize the plight of the Indians. He just tells a story, and a damn good one at that.
I don't want to give away the title and where it comes from, but I can sincerely say that this great story will give the reader a sense of the turmoil that was going on with Indian/white relations and perhaps give way to a new way of thinking.
It is hard to know what to say about this book. It is centered around the story of a young Blackfoot who journeys from the name White Man's Dog to Fools Crow. (If you don't understand that, but are intrigued--definitely read this book.)
The writing is done in third person, but with a twist. It is a Native American voice that tells their story, using their words and using their paradigms to describe the world and events going on around them. I think the strength of this book is the amount of questions it leaves in its wake. How could we do this to these people? Can we make amends? Should we? Is that just the way of the world? What does the future and present hold for Native Americans? Have we, the Napikwans, wrought a world so completely devoid of sprituality and the power of dreams? Can we change that? So many questions, but the reader is left to ponder the answers.
I disagree that this book is not what high school students need to be reading. Hogwash!! The fact that the book delves so deeply into the power of dreams (the line between real life and dreams is very thin, if not non-existent) and leaves the reader with so many questions, makes me think it should be required reading.
Who else believes so strongly in themselves and their dreams or is more open to question their reality than high school students?
No, this book is not an epic, but it is a good story about the things we lost and things we did as Americans on our way towards the 'Manifest Destiny'. I would recommend this book for those people who want to see Dances with Wolves from the other perspective.
Search for the Self: Fool's Crow
Fool's Crow by James Welch is, among other things, a story of one boy's initiation into manhood, a tale that Joseph Campbell would call a "hero's quest narrative." At the beginning of the novel, White Man's Dog is eighteen years old but thinks he has little to show for himself, only three horses and no wives. Throughout the course of the book he goes through a step-by-step initiation ritual that leads him to manhood.
First the hero must be separated from home and family. As a form of purification he enters a sweat with the many-faces man, Mik-api. Cleansed, White Man's Dog paints himself with yellow pigment exactly as Mik-api instructed to "gain the strength and cunning necessary to be successful" (23). White Man's Dog prays to Thunder Chief "whose long rumbling voice foretold the beginning of life and abundance on the ground of many gifts. He prays to Sun Chief, who watched over the Pikunis and all the things of this world" (27). Then he makes a vow that if he returns home successful he will sacrifice before the medicine pole in the next Sun Dance. As the young men begin their first warrior mission, stealing horses from the Crows, White Man's Dog is ashamed of his fear and sings his war song in a low voice to regain his strength. He kills his first man, a young enemy who could ruin the mission. Later he feels guilty about this death. Because of his cunning and bravery, White Man's Dog is successful in this step of his initiation and returns home with hundreds of horses.
Another phase of his growth toward manhood is the ability to hunt. The hunt in warrior cultures shows man's respect for the animal and the compassion to provide food for his people. White Man's Dog kills many animals on his "solitary hunts and he left many of them outside the lodge of Heavy Shield Woman" (47) because her husband Yellow Kidney did not return from the trip to Crow Camp.
Mik-api teaches White Man's Dog the spiritual dimension of his manhood. After his return from the Crow raid they sweat together and pray together, "thanking the Above Ones for the young man's return" (50). One day Mik-api asks White Man's Dog to prepare the sweat lodge, "and that was the beginning of the young man's apprenticeship" (50). He now holds Mik-api's robe while listening to the old man sing and pray; he accompanies Mik-api to the sick person's lodge "carrying the healing paraphernalia" (51). Mik-api helps White Man's Dog interpret his dream and teaches him the power of animals. His conversation with Raven leads him to the power of Skunk Bear. Later, when White Man's Dog tells Mik-api of his dream of the white woman, Mik-api performs a purification ritual to rid him of this spirit. When White Man's Dog awakes, he fells "that he had been to another world and returned . . . he had dreamed of eagles and felt almost as though he had flown with them" (63). Gradually White Man's Dog understands that he is to be the successor of Mik-api. Boss Ribs tells him, "once you commit yourself to such knowledge, there is no turning away" (199).
In spite of his troubling dreams and self-doubt, White Man's Dog wants his own lodge and wife, another step toward adulthood. First he goes on another mission for his people, to ask approval for Heavy Shield Woman to become Medicine Woman at the next Sun Dance. On this trip he remembers the stories told by his grandfather of the origins of the constellations. "His grandfather had said those many winters ago that if you went to sleep with your palms out, the stars would come down to rest in them and you would be a powerful man" (93). White Man's Dog is successful in this task and returns home thinking of marriage. He has his heart set on Red Paint and asks Mik-api to intercede for him. However, he must ask his family's permission. After a discussion of the benefits and problems of such a union, White Man's Dog receives permission to propose marriage to Red Paint and her family. The families get together to exchange gifts. "On the twenty-third day of the new-grass moon, Red Paint moved her things into the small tipi beside the big lodge of Rides-at-the-door" (107). White Man's Dog feels awe at the "power of their lovemaking" (115).
Another step in his spiritual quest is the fulfillment of his vow to sacrifice at the Sun Dance. Mik-api and two other old men paint White Man's Dog's body "white with double rows of black dots down each arm and leg" (115). They place a wreath of sage grass on his head and bind the grass to his wrists and ankles. Together they pray that Sun Chief "would smile on him in all his undertakings" (115). As he feels the sarvisberry sticks being pushed under his skin he prays in thanksgiving, asks forgiveness for Kills-close-to-the-lake. Nearly collapsing in pain, he thanks Sun Chief for his fine new wife and vows to be good and true to all the people. He prays for strength to endure his torture. He dances to the beat of the drum and pulls against the lines attached to his breasts. At the end of the dance he caws, "think of Skunk Bear, your power," and feels the other skewer pull free (117). After White Man's Dog sleeps, his wife and father tell him how proud they are of his strength. Both he and Kills-close-to-the-lake dream of love and are cleansed by Wolverine.
As a final step White Man's Dog, now named Fool's Crow, dreams that he must begin a vision quest, a journey as a beggar. He asks Red Paint to pray for them and their unborn child and begins this trip alone. He paints his face with whitewash and charcoal-grey smudges, appearing like a mask of death (315). On his long journey he is alone; he feels "naked and vulnerable" (321). He feels fear and doubt but sings the power song Wolverine gave him to restore his strength. Eventually, in a green sanctuary between earth and sky, he meets Feather Woman, also called So-at-sa-ki, the woman he has heard about in stories. She tells him about digging too far in the earth for a turnip and becoming separated from her husband and child. Now she is in perpetual mourning for them, especially her husband Morning Star (350-52). She is painting designs on a skin that seem to come to life for Fool's Crow. In the pictures he can see the future of his people, their suffering, the death of the buffalo, the death of their culture as he knows it. She tells him that he is a leader: "You can prepare them for the times to come. If they make peace within themselves, they will live a good life in the Sand Hills. There they will go on to live as they always have. Things will not change" (359).
When Fool's Crow returns home he discovers that his vision is prophetic. Smallpox has attacked his people. Mik-api's medicine is not able to heal all of the people and many die. Fool's Crow tries to help Mik-api with the healing. At the end of the novel Fool's Crow stand with Red Paint and their child, in the family cradleboard, watching the procession, a dance of hope and regeneration. "He knew they would survive, for they were the chosen ones" (390). The spring rain begins and the people enjoy a feast. The blackhorns return and all is as it should be.
Fool's Crow is a true quest hero. He goes through the ritualistic initiation: separation, trials, encounter with mythic beings, transformation, and he returns to help his people. Like the journeys of Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed, his quest is spiritual. He experiences dreams and visions; he recites the cosmogonic myth; he suffers pain for his people. His transformation is a true apotheosis: he is elevated to a new level of consciousness and can share his vision with his people.
At the beginning of Fools Crow, the young man who has not yet earned his name is longing for a vision and a song that he cannot find. But he believes in visions, and he desires one. Desire supports him, sustains him, and guides him through all manner of trouble.
The book is a story about the education of that desire. Fools Crow lives at a time of great change, when learning is critically important. The old ways are beginning not to work. His people are facing fundamental choices. Though the destiny of the people as a whole is at stake, all the choices must be made by persons, one by one.
Some turn their backs on their people, choosing the adventure of pursuing individual rewards. Fools Crow?s childhood friend, Fast Horse, chooses to set out on his own, and in so choosing looks back on the village. It has come to look "small and insignificant in the blue snowfield." As he moves farther and farther away, Fast Horse comes to despise the old economy of his people?its rewards seem too hard-earned and meager. "The thought of hunting, of accumulating robes, of the constant search for meat seemed pointless to him. There were easier ways of gaining wealth."
The new economy offers easier money, but its cost is that he must renounce his family?s values. He can no longer be among them, even when he sits his horse at their Sun Dance. At one point, while searching for him to ask him to return, Fools Crow understands what attracts him. "It was freedom from responsibility, from accountability to the group. . .As long as one thought of himself as part of the group, he would be responsible to and for that group. If one cut the ties, he had the freedom to roam, to think only of himself and not worry about the consequences of his actions."
We see that Fast Horse?s freedom is full of deception. His actions become increasingly desperate, until he and his comrades provoke the retaliation known to history as the Baker Massacre, where nearly 200 of his people were killed by the U.S. Army.
The last we see of Fast Horse, he is riding north toward whiskey country, toward the companionship of solitary men and the faint comfort of prostitutes, as lonely and hopeless as Boone Caudill in A. B. Guthrie?s The Big Sky or the regulars at the White Sulphur Springs bars in Ivan Doig?s This House of Sky.
Though Fools Crow also desires some of the benefits of the new economy, such as a many-shots rifle, and though he too tries to figure out what adjustments he needs to make, he decides?not once and for all but over and over through crisis after crisis?to face these troubles in ways that keep his family and his tribesmen together. He submits himself to the demands and worries and disciplines of living fully with other people.
Even when he acts against a violent man who is stalking his wife, he goes directly to the council of old men and relates the story in its entirety, so they can discuss it and come to agreement about what it means and what they should do. He submits himself to judgment. His self-defense affects the community and thus requires community deliberation and judgment. Through arguments and stories, various individuals and subgroups slowly negotiate their way toward a temporary understanding. It is not clear but it is all they can do and, doing it together, it is enough.
Fools Crow learns and teaches that the important thing is not winning honors or gaining wealth. The important thing is staying together. Because of this, it is not his honors or his accomplishments as a warrior that come to matter to him. Rather, it is his fulfillment of his roles as husband, son, father, and friend. He comes to assess himself as "a blackhorn hunter, a provider of meat and skins, nothing more." But again, it is enough.
Welch helps us see that beyond the realm where horses go lame, where warriors miscalculate, and where violent intruders enter one?s lodge at night lies another realm?which we first learn of only through stories told by those who have visited it. In this realm, despite sorrow and heartache, we catch insights that help us understand "things are as they should be."
We have many books about the individual pursuit of success and significance. We have fewer that explore the spiritual and practical realities of belonging, of becoming members. And of these, we have none better than Fools Crow.
I imagine that James Welch as a young man dreamed, like Fools Crow, of finding a vision and a song. He did find them. I know because I, like many others, have been made stronger and wiser by what he saw and sang.
This historical novel is an departure for someone whose poetry and fiction have been so relentlessly contemporary and uniformly pessimistic. Although the story ends tragically, with the massacre of the Blackfeet on the Marias River (a key incident of their subjugation which figures in both of the earlier novels), the picture of the Blackfeet world, rendered from a vividly imagined inner perspective, is a feast for the mind and the mind's eye. Animals talk, and it is not hokey. We are in a Blackfeet world, and white people speak a bizarre gibberish that makes no sense. People change names as their personalities grow and evolve, and they become new people. The novel provides the reader with puzzles, but they are stimulating rather than frustrating, and the final effect is to feel that we have been allowed, perhaps for the first time, to see the world as the special people of this gone time might have seen it.