Fools Crow is a novel about the lives of fictional members of the Blackfoot nation and about events that occurred in the late 1800’s affecting these people. The novel was written in the mid 1980’s by James Welch, a member of the Blackfoot nation. The novel presents a view of the life of an average man in one of the tribes of the Blackfoot. Fools Crow, the young protagonist, is introduced as “White Man’s Dog”. The novel takes the reader through the next few years of this young man’s life as he metamorphoses from the meek young White Man’s Dog into the wise but tormented Fools Crow. Fools Crow presents the religion of these people in a matter-of-fact manner. The reader is left to judge the effectiveness of the religion and the ceremonies of the people, but Fools Crow also presents the visions and dreams of its characters as true events that are as realistic as the day-to-day live of characters. The reader’s belief is assumed. In a modern novel, why would a writer do this? Today’s skeptical readers would not believe that these events are real or actually have an effect on the events of the story. James Welch wants his story of Fools Crow to be viewed as a modern legend. The stories of Fools Crow and the events surrounding his life are myths about a sad time in the history of the Blackfeet; they recount this time of upheaval in the traditional Blackfoot manner of legends about mortal men and their interactions with gods. These supernatural stories give the reader a basis for understanding the point of view of the Pikunis; they tell the reader the values that the Pikunis hold, and provide insight into why the Pikunis choose the path of least resistance regarding the white men. Welch introduces the influence of the supernatural with the warrior Fast Horse. Fast Horse dreams of the god Cold Maker and of a command to find a spring prior to an attack on a rival tribe. A tragedy occurs during the attack, and Fast Horse is blamed for the tragedy. The tribe and the war party feel that if Fast Horse had found the elusive spring then the attack on the Crow rivals would not have been as costly to the attackers. The character Yellow Kidney would not have been injured. With this introduction, Welch throws the reader into a world where every dream has a meaning, society determines causation after the fact, and people twist random events to match their religion. Even blameless dreamers are indoctrinated into this belief.
Fast Horse recounts, “It was then that Cold Maker joined me in that den. He said, ‘You foolish one, you mean to forget the vow that you made to Cold Maker. For this, I punish not only the Crows but you as well.’” (p38) This self-punishment on the part of Fast Horse displays the prevailing belief in the supernatural of the Blackfeet. Later though, Fast Horse rejects this belief as he moves closer to the White Mans’ ways. “I do not need you-or anybody. I am a man and have done no wrong.”(p50) This rejection of responsibility represents Fast Horse’s rejection of his people’s ways. In the eyes of his people, he has become the scapegoat for the loss of Yellow Kidney and he rejects this role by exclaiming that he had done no wrong. This role was handed to him by the gods; therefore, he is denying the gods’ control over his life. Publicly denying the gods of one’s surrounding society generally leads to banishment as it does with Fast Horse.
Fools Crow is the obedient and good Pikuni. He obeys the gods, he meditates over his dreams, he takes part in the ceremonies, and he seeks visions. Fools Crow would never question the gods as does Fast Horse. Yet, the reality of the impending destruction of his people versus the reality of the ways and beliefs of his people tears Fast Horse into different directions. At one point when smallpox is overtaking the Pikunis and a White Man visits to warn them of the disease and to notify them of prevention Fools Crow doubts his own peoples’ ways. “For an instant he doubted the power of the Pikuni medicine, of Mik-api and Boss Ribs’ medicine and of his own puny efforts.” This internal struggle to prevent himself from falling into the trap of discarding the Pikunis’ ways while staying alive in the real world becomes stronger and stronger throughout the book.(p306)
Welch has written a story or a myth from the view of Fools Crow or from the view of a Pikuni who believes in the religion, the myths, the visions, and the dreams. Would a modern reader believe this? No. However, Welch wants to change the modern reader. Welch wants the reader to view the events surrounding the Baker Massacre as would an 1870’s Blackfoot. Why would he force the reader to view the events as a Blackfoot?
The actions of the White Man in this historic era are well known. The motivations behind the actions of the White Man can be guessed easily: greed, desire for land, fear of unknown cultures, desire to conquer, and feelings of superiority may have motivated the White Man. The reading public does not need to know the motivations of Goliath; but the motivations of David as he resigns himself to defeat do make an interesting novel. Why did this proud nation roll over and allow itself to be defeated? Why did it pride itself on defeating the Crows but not try to defeat the Napikwans? To understand why the Pikuni did not fight harder for their land and for their way of life, the reader must understand the values held by the Pikunis.
Myths, folklore, and supernatural events provide the modern reader with insight into the values of the Pikunis. Obedience is shown as a value in the story of the Feather Woman. Feather Woman explains, “Moon exclaimed, ‘you foolish girl, you have done the one thing you were not to do.” The sun god “became very angry and told me I must leave his house, for I would never be happy there again.” Later she agrees with the sun when he chastises her, You have brought upon yourself your own misery.”(p352)
The Raven shows that reality, truth, and honor are to be subjugated to the needs of the many when it promises to keep the secret of the fooling of Bull Shield. “I don’t think you fooled him do you? The one you got your name for…Ah, but you see how it turns out? The people don’t know that, and so they speak your name with admiration. It makes them feel good that one so brave walks among them. It increases Pikuni power. I’ll never tell.” (p163)
The Raven also shows that a symbiotic relationship with nature is important. Describing the White Man, “Then he swore in this peculiar language and walked away, leaving his kill…He killed a long-tail, a bighead, three real-dogs and five wags-his-tails…for many moons now the hunter kills animals until they become scarce. I fear he will kill us all off if something isn’t done.”(p164)
The story of Akaiyan and the beaver shows that treachery leads to death, but also that knowledge of old ways must be maintained. As Nopatsis’ wife lies to him and induces Nopatsis to strand his brother Akaiyan on an island, Akaiyan becomes a great medicine man and Nopatsis ends up dead on the island. The beavers gift knowledge and medicine to Akaiyan who hands it down through generations of medicine men.
The Raven keeps Fools Crow in check though and shows that bravery tempered with personal humbleness is important, that respect for elders should be maintained, and that the accoutrements of wealth in Pikuni society are horses and wives. “You will fear nothing, and you will have many horses and wives. But you must not abuse this power, and you must listen to Mik-api, for I speak through him, that good many-faces man who shares his smoke.”(p58)
The wolverine is Fools Crow’s personal god. In its second appearance, the wolverine visits Fools Crow at the Sun Dance festival and cleanses Fools Crow of his lust for Kills-close-to-the-lake. In this manner the wolverine shows the readers that coveting and incest are frowned upon by the Pikunis.
Late in the story Welch gives the reader a view of the feelings of the Pikuni in the thoughts of Fools Crow. As he is leaving Feather Woman, Fools Crow thinks, “And the misery was only beginning. But she was a good woman; her only sin was one of loneliness, then and now and forever. She had been punished and the people were being punished for a reason that Fools Crow could not understand. The people had always lived in harmony with their sacred beings. Always they had performed the ceremonies to the best of their ability. They sacrificed often and without stinginess. And yet they were being punished.” This passage sums the stance of the Blackfeet for the reader. The events that contribute to the destruction of the Blackfeet are beyond the control of the Blackfeet. They feel that they have performed in accordance with their gods’ wishes and have been good human beings. They feel that they have lived honorable lives. Like most religions that attempt to answer the question, why do bad things happen to good people, the Pikunis’ belief system leads them to feel as Fools Crow does at this point. The Pikunis have done nothing wrong, but are subjugated to the gods’ wills, if the gods wish the events that will cause the downfall of the Pikunis to occur then the Pikunis can do nothing to stop the inevitable. Earlier in the story this view is alluded to as well as Fools Crow has killed a buffalo. “He felt a mild tingle of fear in his backbone. To question Sun Chief was not good, but he couldn’t help the feeling that came over him, the thought that had been growing in his head. Perhaps Sun was angry with the Pikunis and meant to strike them all down. Hadn’t Rides-at-the-door, his own father, said that Sun Chief no longer cared whether the people lived or died…Why had Sun Chief deserted the people?”(p 180)
Welch presents the myths and the supernatural events in a matter-of-fact manner to imbibe into the reader the viewpoint of a 1870s Pikuni. The reader sees Fools Crow responding to supernatural events as if they were real and sees the entire society believing in the validity of the supernatural. By setting the stage in this manner, the inevitability of the fate of the Pikunis is real in the readers’ minds. This inevitability is not completely due to the encroachment of the White Man. The coming-together of at least three events contributed to the downfall of the Pikuni: the migration and hunting-out of buffalo, the encroachment of the White Man, and the decimation of population due to smallpox. The Pikunis recognize this fate and are resigned to it, but they are resigned to it because of their beliefs as illustrated to the reader by supernatural events, not due to a wide view or to worldly knowledge.