“Strike Them Hard”: Marias Massacre Representations in Fools Crow and Traditional Textbook Sources
Introduction Fools Crow, a novel written by James Welch in 1986, explores life of the Pikuni people in the 19th century. While most characters and situations are fiction, there are also many descriptions that are based on historical people, places and events. This paper explores a massacre that Welch describes in Fools Crow, and compares and contrasts various accounts of the massacre. The Marias Massacre is an important part of American history and is not portrayed in most textbooks, and when it is, it is a different representation than that in the book Fools Crow.
The Marias River Massacre, also called the Marias Massacre, the Baker Massacre and the Blackfeet Massacre- simply the number of names of the massacre is worth a discussion- took place on January 23rd, 1870. While there are many different explanations of the circumstances leading up to the event, and are much too complicated to relate here, it is generally clear that the village that the U.S. Army were supposed to attack, Mountain Chief’s, was 17 miles away, and the camp that was attacked, Heavy Runner’s, was an ally to the United States Army. Meanwhile, the United State’s Army’s intended victim, Owl Child, lay dying of smallpox in Mountain Chief’s village (Calloway 106).
Each of the names for the massacre points to a different understanding of the event. Baker refers to Major Eugene Baker, sent by General Philip Sheridan to make war with Owl Child and Mountain Chief. “Strike them hard,” is the famous quote by Sheridan in relation to this massacre. Blackfeet is the name of one of the tribes in the Blackfoot Nation, which was incorrectly named by white authorities. However, the Pikuni nation is what is described in this particular massacre, so neither “Blackfeet” nor “Blackfoot” makes sense. Marias River refers to the river that Heavy Runner’s village, the village attacked in this massacre, lays next to.
Fools Crow Representations
The explanation in Fools Crow is from the point of view of the main character, a Pikuni from a neighboring village named Fools Crow. Survivors of the Marias Massacre, who escaped along a riverbank, surprise Fools Crow as he encounters them during a hunting party. He asks what happened and one of the survivors says, “It was the seizers. They sneaked up on us while we were still asleep. There was only a little light, just enough to see by, and they shot us in our lodges. Pretty soon, our people were running in all directions and still they shot us. Many of us were killed,” (Welch 378). Fools Crow feels guilty because he saw visions of the massacre in a yellow hide and did nothing to warn them, so he rides to the camp to see the destruction for himself. There, one of the first things he sees among the smoke is the body of a burned infant on the ground, which makes him sick. He finds more survivors at the camp, who tell their stories of how they survived. Bear Head says that he was away from the camp and watched many men swarming the camp with guns. Curlew Woman says that Heavy Runner, the chief, had a treaty signed by both parties, but they shot him.
An important thing to note about how the massacre is portrayed in the book is that it is in the last pages of the book, and has closing remarks such as “This world has changed and we do not belong to it,” (Welch 385). It is as if the readers, and the story, die with the people in the village. Another is its focus on individual’s stories and it’s importance of Owl Child. One of the survivors relates his frustration and wish for revenge for Owl Child, which is interesting because it was Owl Child who Baker and his men were after before mistakenly attacking Heavy Runner’s village. It is also made clear that the people killed were women and children because most of the men were on a hunting party. The last important note is that it doesn’t discuss white people at all. No mention of Baker, his men, who they were, why they might have done this or where they came from are included in this story- only that of Indians.
Traditional Textbook Representations
A majority of textbooks do not include information about the massacre at all, including The Native Peoples of North America by Brue E. Johansen, even though critics named it “an integral part of Native American history,” (Johansen 1). A simple look through the library in the Indian history section shows that few indexes include any of the names for the Marias massacre, including Plains Indian Raiders by Wilbur Nyeand Man of the Plains: Recollections of Luther North 1856-1882 by Donald Danker. A very short reference is included in a list of massacres in Warpath and Council Fire: The Plains Indians Struggle for Survival in War and Diplomacy, which ends by saying, “Indians have been much criticized for taking vengeance on innocent parties, but the troops consistently did the same thing,” which shouldn’t have to be said as an afterthought, but should have been portrayed accurately throughout the book (Campbell 27).
There have been many different accounts of the massacre, despite its lack of accounts in traditional textbooks. A play written by Ramona Big Head at the University of Lethbridge in 1996 portrays Baker as obviously drunk and slurring his words, drinking whisky throughout the massacre and instructing men based on drunken ideas that don’t make sense (Big Head 115). This is one possible explanation as to why Baker struck the wrong camp.
The main difference between the Fools Crow reference to the massacre and other books is that the books do not talk about the aftermath of the incident or how people might have reacted. The other is that it is generally shown from the perspective of the United States army. For example, some books refer to it as a “smashing victory” with only one white casualty (Getty 230). It can’t be viewed, however, that the event was a “smashing victory” from the side of Heavy Runner’s village. Most historical accounts say that nine people escaped (Dunn 529), but in Fools Crow it is suggested that it is more, with the Fools Crow first encountering “three old people, two young women, a youth…and two children,” (Welch 377) and later “Fools crow saw a figure standing motionless…then another figure emerged…two more figures came forward, and they too were old,” (Welch 381). They say that they saw three women and their children hide behind trees to escape the massacre. Assuming that each woman only had one child, at the very least Fools Crow suggests that 18 people survived. This may suggest that textbooks of the account wanted to emphasize the victory of the United States Army, or it may be that Welch chose to make his book more optimistic for audiences saddened by the massacre story. All accounts seem unsure about whether captives were taken. This is not represented in Fools Crow or most textbook sources, but one online site suggests that 140 captives were turned loose the same day (Gibson 2).
We know that textbooks portray the Marias Massacre differently, but the question is why these discrepancies exist. Perhaps the most similar account to the story in Fools Crow is in Our Hearts Fell to the Ground: Plains Indian Views of How the West Was Lost by Colin G. Calloway. Most strikingly similar, it describes Heavy Runner being shot down as he walked toward the soldiers, waving his “identification paper,” (Calloway 106). Perhaps it is portrayals of the U.S. Army similar to this- of slaughter of innocent, peaceful people- that keeps textbook writers hush about this incident.
Fools Crow is an important piece of literature because of its explanation of a little-known massacre, which includes ideas from the point of view of the survivors. Few textbooks relate the massacre at all, and when they do, it is not in the same way as Fools Crow.
Big Head, Ramona. “’Strike Them Hard’ The Baker Massacre Play.” University of Lethbridge. Mar. 2009. ULETH. Web. 9 Mar. 2011. .
Calloway, Colin. Our Hearts Fell to the Ground: Plains Indian Views of How the West Was Lost. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, Inc, 1996. Print.
Campbell, Walter Stanley. Warpath and Council Fire. New York, NY: Random House, 1948. Print.
Dunn, J.P. Massacres of the Mountains: A History of the Indian Wars of the Far West. N.p.: Kessinger Publication, 1958. Amazon. Web. 9 Mar. 2011. .
Getty, Ian, and Antoine Lussie. As Long as the Sun Shines and Water Flows: A reader in Canadian native studies. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 1983. Google Book Search. Web. 9 Mar. 2011. .