| Study Guide for Fools Crow by James Welch Written by Lowell Jaeger, Flathead Valley Community College
Fools Crow, James Welch’s third novel, quietly and persuasively nudges the reader to re-examine stereotypical notions of how the west was won. Indians in popular westerns attack without provocation and shot flaming arrows into canvas coveted Conestogas. They terrorize ranchers and destroy with a vicious “uncivilized” disregard for political or spiritual law. In short, Indians by this view had no idea of “right” and “wrong” beyond an animal instinct for survival, and thus settlers and soldiers could justify the extinction of these “heathen” savages. The only good Indian was a dead Indian.
The Indian as “noble” savage is an equally sentimental and popular stereotype, though polar opposite the heathen, amoral redskin. Noble savages live much like Adam and Eve; innocent of their own nakedness, they commune in perfect harmony with all creatures and at times walk with the gods. They embody natural wisdom in a guru-like way, forever making speeches full of memorable aphorisms concerning eagles and bears, and they would much rather smoke a peace pipe than harm any animal or human “brother.”
Both stereotypes, the heathen redskin and the noble savage, are false in that they portray humans as all “bad” or all “good,” when in reality each of us—of any race—is a complex mixture of both. Sometimes good and evil are not easily defined; persons on either side of an issue see themselves as on the “right” side, even “god’s” side, and in this way history is an intricate tale to tell because it must come to an understanding of both sides.
Fools Crow gives the reader an opportunity to listen to the Native American version of how the west was won. Author/historian Dee Brown (Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee) said Fools Crow may be “…the closest we will ever come in literature to an understanding of what life was like for a western Indian.” James Welch is a Native American of Blackfeet ancestry. While his first two books, Winter in the Blood (1974) and The Death of Jim Loney (1979), portray a troubling and often tragic account of what life is like for the contemporary Indian, Fools Crow tells what life was like for Welch’s Blackfeet ancestors. A central question the reader might keep in mind as he or she progresses through this book is: “What was life like for the western Indian of the mid-nineteenth century, and how does this picture differ from the stereotypes in popular westerns?”
Stereotypes are often hard to dispel because, although they don’t contain the whole truth, they may contain a part of it. Fools Crow includes evidence to support the stereotype of Indians as heathen savages. Owl Child and his gang of renegades do indeed murder and steal ruthlessly. We aren’t told much about Owl Chile except that he is a member of the band led by Mountain Chief, a powerful Pikuni leader. From the start, Owl Child is an outlaw feared by his own people. When Mountain Chief, who holds one of the most war-like attitudes among the Pikuni chiefs, agrees to seek a new treaty with the whites, saying, “My heart is not in this, but I will accede to the wishes of my people,” Owl Child suddenly whirls his horse and rides off with his gang. Here Welch is exposing a tear in the fabric of Pikuni society; Owl Child is acting on his own without respect to the wishes of the group. Throughout this book, and in many other Native American novels, this sort of independent self-centeredness brings trouble down on the entire tribe.
Fast Horse is perhaps the reader’s best explanation of how renegades like Owl Child are created. As the novel opens, Fast Horse, a respected young man, is expected to become the keeper of the powerful beaver medicine bundle. But Fast Horse is proud, boastful and impatient for the rewards of manhood. He accompanies Yellow Kidney on a raid to steal horses from the Crows. The raid is successful, though Yellow Kidney doesn’t return, and Fast Horse’s arrogant actions are blamed for Yellow Kidney’s capture. The problem is once again an individual who has acted more out of self-interest than out of concern for the welfare of the group. Moreover, en route to the Crow encampment, Fast Horse has a powerful dream in which Cold Maker (the wind from the north) asks for help from Yellow Kidney’s raiders and promises protection in return. Fast Horse is ecstatic over his dream because he believes it will bring him power and prestige among his fellows. When the dream brings Fast Horse only blame and disgrace, he begins to doubt the power of the spirits and questions the whole pattern of his tribe’s beliefs. He loses respect for his elders, isolates himself from the group, and acts more according to his own desires. When eventually he sings his death song and challenges Cold Maker to take his life and end his suffering, nothing happens, and Fast Horse decides his people’s beliefs have no power, especially against the encroaching whites. Fast Horse joins Owl Child’s gang because it seems more practical, more powerful than the tragic childishness of his people’s beliefs. He has lost faith and holds his individual identity to be of more worth that his tribal traditions.
Fools Crow also contains evidence to support the stereotype of Indians as noble savages. Mik-api the medicine man and his apprentice, Fools Crow, do indeed seem to have supernatural powers; they talk with the animals and walk with mythological beings. Fools Crow’s rise in stature throughout the book is in direct contrast to Fast Horse’s decline, and the reader can learn important lessons about tribal life by examining the actions and outcomes of these two characters.
What’s behind Fools Crow’s success? In the opening of the novel, Fools Crow is named White Man’s Dog, a name that was given to him in jest. Unlike Fast Horse, White Man’s Dog has little status; he’s ignored by the girls and teased unmercifully by almost everyone. More importantly, White Man’s Dog seems to have been ignored by the gods. He prays and stays faithful to the religious traditions that knit his society together, but his efforts go unrewarded. He is a “nothing man” until Yellow Kidney allows White Man’s Dog to accompany him in raiding the Crows. White Man’s Dog performs his humble duties on the raid faithfully and with regard to the welfare of the group. He brings home some horses for himself and in that way achieves a small amount of status. When Yellow Kidney fails to return, White Man’s Dog selflessly provides Yellow Kidney’s family with meat, and this eventually leads to his marriage to Yellow Kidney’s daughter, Red Paint. Now White Man’s Dog has gained more status; he has a wife and proves himself to be a competent and reliable provider. He begins to provide also for the aging medicine man, Mik-api, and this leads Mik-api to take White Man’s Dog as an apprentice healer. Through Mik-api, White Man’s Dog also becomes acquainted with his animal-helper, Wolverine. Eventually White Man’s Dog avenges Yellow Kidney’s torture by taking the scalp of Bull Shield, chief of the Crows. Now White Man’s Dog is given the name Fools Crow. With this new name, his horses, his selfless deeds and his commitment to the welfare of the group, Fools Crow has arrived at the greatest blessing of manhood: Red Paint is pregnant.
If Fools Crow contains evidence to support both the stereotype of the heathen savage and the noble savage, it also refutes both of these simplistic notions. It’s difficult for the reader not to have some sympathy for Fast Horse when his dream about Cold Maker brings him shame. He is boastful, but he doesn’t seem to be a bad person otherwise. Why does the dream fail? Dot eh gods favor some persons more than others? Chief Three Bears answers this question by saying, “The spirits can be cruel,… but in their way there is a teaching.” What should Fast Horse have learned from the failure of his dream? Even in his arrogance and self-centered actions with Owl Child’s gang, Fast Hors is tortured by guilt, self-doubt and shame. Fast Horse is not without a conscience, not merely a reckless, heathen savage, and this he proves finally by returning Yellow Kidney’s body to his people.
On the other hand, with all of Fools Crow’s powers and spiritual connections, what does he accomplish? Fools Crow’s first dream might have saved Yellow Kidney much suffering, but Fools Crow failed to share the dream until it was too late. He is named Fools Crow mistakenly because the story of his exploits in the Crow encampment get twisted and exaggerated. None of Mik-api’s medicine will save his people from the white scab disease. Not even the vision Fools Crow is given by Feather Woman will prevent the ensuing bloodshed.
What does Fools Crow accomplish? Mostly this: he keeps his tribal traditions alive. Some readers may feel the close of this novel to be too bleak, tragic. If these are noble savages, then they inhabit a very difficult Eden. But Fools Crow is a success story, and that’s a difficult point for non-Native Americans to understand. In the final chapter, Fools Crow’s son has been born and there’s a traditional naming ceremony in progress. Chief Three Bears is dead of the white scab disease, but Fools Crow’s father has been appointed to lead, thereby indicating that Fools Crow himself may one day be chief. This novel contains much individual suffering and failure, but the Pikuni was of life, the tribe, has triumphed and survived.
Questions for Discussion:
1.) What code of conduct do the characters follow? What makes a Pikuni feel pride? Shame? What behaviors are honorable and dishonorable? Think of specific examples from the book.
2.) Wallace Stegner praises the story for the “inevitability of its events.” Were the events truly inevitable? What might have changed the outcome? Use specific situations in the book to discuss this. How about the raid on the Crows? How about the Pikuni’s failure to listed to the white medicine man?
3.) Blame for Yellow Kidney’s troubles is laid on Fast Horse, but Yellow Kidney also blames himself. What conduct did Yellow Kidney think he is being punished for? “The spirits can be cruel, Yellow Kidney, but in their way there is a teaching,” says Three Bears. What does he mean? What lesson does Yellow Kidney learn? How about White Man’s Dog? Did Fast Horse learn something during and after the raid? Or did he fail to learn?
4.) So much of the Pikuni’s life is ruled by spiritual matters pertaining to animal, plants, the sun, the moon, the stars, and mythological beings. Much of this may seem merely “superstitious to the non-Native American. How do other religions differ from the spiritual practices of the Pikuni? Do beliefs shape cultures? Or do cultures shape their beliefs according to practical or physical needs?
5.) Why do the Pikuni pay such close attention to their dreams? Where do the Pikuni believe knowledge and power come from? Where do members of the dominant American culture believe knowledge and power come from?
6.) In many Native American cultures the idea of “balance” is a central religious goal. Bad things happen when the world is thrown out of balance, and ceremonies must be preformed to set things right again. (See Leslie Silko’s novel, Ceremony.) How does this notion of balance affect the lives of the Pikuni?
7.) When Heavy Shield Woman wanted to be the Sacred Vow Woman for the Sun Dance, she is cautioned by Chief Three Bears, “If you are successful, the Pikunis will prosper and enjoy favor with the spirit world. If you fail, if you are not strong or virtuous enough, great harm will come to us.” In other words, one person’s errors or misdeeds can cause suffering to everyone. How does this notion guide individual conduct? Use specific examples from the story.
8.) Among the Pikuni, what are the uses of teasing? Look at the exchange between Mik-api and White Man’s Dog on pages 104-105. Then look how Double Strike Woman argues against White Man’s Dog’s marriage on page 106.
9.) Especially in the west, American culture has been shaped by the notion of “rugged individualism.” Contrast this idea with Boss Rib’s admonishment to his son, Fast Horse: “This is how we Pikuni live. We help each other, we depend on each other, we fight and die beside each other. There is no room for the man who despises his fellows.” Throughout the book Fools Crow gains stature while Fast Horse drifts further into separation and even banishment from his people. Contrast Fools Crow’s personality and deeds with that of Fast Horse.
10.) In the early 60’s the host of a television show called “G.E. Theater” routinely repeated G.E.’s motto, “Progress is our most important product.” The host, twenty years later, became President of the United States. Contrast this attitude toward progress with Chief Three Bear’s words: “But the day will come when our people will decide they would rather consort with the Napikwans (whites) than live in the way our long-ago fathers thought appropriate. But I, Three Bears, will not see this day. I will die first.”
11.) In Fools Crow and in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, the characters are at times in supernatural communications with animals and spirits or mythological beings. To the non-Native American these events may seem implausible. Discuss the reality of such events within the context of Native American cosmology and way of life. And these events at all similar to the experience of other world religions? What elements of non-Native American culture make it difficult for people to believe such events are possible?
12.) Sometimes non-Native Americans say, “Why should I feel guilty about he deeds of my ancestors? I didn’t take away the Indian’s land.” How would you guess Native Americans would feel about the deeds of their ancestors? Does this help to explain why Native Americans might expect non-Native Americans to bear the guilt for what happened generations earlier?
Questions from Professor William Bevis:
1.) Dee Brown, author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, said Fools Crow may be the closest we’ve come to entering the life of the plains Indians in the buffalo days. Do you agree?
2.) Does the book support the impression of traditional Native American life like that which you received from Plenty-coups?
3.) Was the book successful for you as a story, a “good read?” Why? Comment on characters, relationships, animals.
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Henry Holt, 1971.
Ewers, John C. The Blackfeet: Raiders of the Northwest Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958.
Schultz, John Willard. My Life as and Indian. New York: Doubleday, 1907.
Supplemental Reading from The Last Best Place:
James Willard Schultz: Selections from My Life as an Indian (pages 341-352)
Walter McClintock: Selections from The Tragedy of the Blackfeet (page 612)
Percy Bullchild: “The Twelve Moons” and “Napi and the Sun’s Leggings” (page 668)