James Welch

Fools Crow

  • 61-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 36 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a literary scholar with a Master's degree in English Literature
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Fools Crow Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 61-page guide for “Fools Crow” by James Welch includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 36 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Balance between Individual Desires and Community Needs and Coming of Age.

Plot Summary

James Welch’s Fools Crow (1987) is an historical novel that retells the Anglo conquering of the American West and, specifically, the events leading up to the Marias Massacre in Montana, in 1870, from the perspective of the Blackfeet (Pikuni) people. The novel chronicles the experiences of the Pikuni as they struggle to maintain their traditions in the face of smallpox, violent persecution, and shrinking numbers of buffalo as more white Americans–the Napikwans–move onto their lands. The novel centers on the coming-of-age of Fools Crow, a young Pikuni man who overcomes his unluckiness as a youth to become a well-respected leader in his community.

At the beginning of the novel, Fools Crow–then known as White Man’s Dog–has reached eighteen winters of age without having established himself as an important man in his community. When his friend Fast Horse invites him to take part in a raid to steal horses from the Pikuni’s enemies, the Crows, who are led by the warrior Yellow Kidney, White Man’s Dog is eager for the chance to prove himself but worries that his unluckiness will bring misfortune on himself and the raid. Before departing on the journey, he visits the Lone Eaters’ healer, Mik-api, who performs a ceremony meant to banish White Man’s Dog’s bad luck.

On the journey to the Crow camps, Fast Horse tells the party that he has dreamed that Cold Maker, the wind from the north, has told them that he will make their raid successful if the men remove rocks from an ice spring. By the time they reach the Crow camps, their leader, Yellow Kidney, has become skeptical of Fast Horse and fears that his arrogance and desire for personal glory will jeopardize the raid; at the same time, he has been pleasantly surprised by the levelheadedness shown by White Man’s Dog, whom he only allowed to come on the raid because of respect for Rides-at-the-door.

Although the men succeed in taking many horses on the raid, Yellow Kidney fails to rejoin the group, and the men return to the Lone Eaters camp without him. White Man’s Dog begins to receive more respect and attention from the community and becomes the apprentice of the medicine man, Mik-api. He also falls in love with Yellow Kidney’s daughter, Red Paint, whom he eventually marries. During the summer Sun Ceremony when all the Pikunis gather together, White Man’s Dog participates in the traditional torture dance and receives a vision of his animal helper, Wolverine, who promises to make him successful in battle. Soon after, White Man’s Dog succeeds in killing the Crow chief Bull Shield. This deed earns him the new name, “Fools Crow.”

While White Man’s Dog becomes increasingly respected, Fast Horse loses his prominence among the Lone Eaters and becomes sullen and withdrawn. Eventually, Yellow Kidney returns, but with his fingers cut off and his body scarred by pockmarks from “white-scabs disease” (smallpox). He explains that during the raid Fast Horse loudly taunted the Crows, exposing Yellow Kidney to danger; he was forced to hide in a lodge where, to his shame, he raped a young woman before realizing she was dying of smallpox. Soon after, he was captured by the Crows, who cut off his fingers before sending him out of the camp on horseback. After the Lone Eaters learn that Fast Horse’s arrogance caused Yellow Kidney’s capture, their leaders resolve to banish him. He sneaks away to join Owl Child’s gang, a group of Pikunis who have left their bands to take revenge on the white settlers.

White soldiers visit the Lone Eaters camp to tell the Pikunis that they are looking for Owl Child and his men because of their crimes against white settlers. They ask each of the Pikuni bands to send their chiefs to meet with General Sully, the officer in charge of “Indian policy” in Montana, to discuss new terms for the relations between the Napikwans and the Pikunis. Although the Lone Eaters do not trust the Napikwans, they decide to participate in the negotiations because the Napikwans are too powerful and too great in number for them to defeat. At the meeting, Sully tells the Pikuni chiefs that they must assist the American army in apprehending Owl Child and in returning all horses stolen from white settlers in the coming weeks if they want to avoid further conflict.

Meanwhile, smallpox starts to spread rapidly through the Pikuni camps. Around this time, Fools Crow receives a dream telling him to go on a seven-day journey. He rides away on horseback until he reaches a cabin, where he goes to sleep. He awakens in a dream world where he encounters Feather Woman, an important figure in Pikuni mythology. The drawings on the wall of her tipi come to life and reveal to Fools Crow what will happen to his people because of the Napikwans. He sees how many of them will die from smallpox and starvation as their buffalo go extinct, while others will be killed in attacks on their villages by whites.

After returning from his vision quest, Fools Crow goes out hunting with a few other men from the camp. During the trip, they encounter the survivors of a massacre inflicted on Heavy Runner’s band. Fools Crow rides through the camp to see the charred bodies of men, women, and children burned or shot to death. Despite the horrors of the massacre, however, the novel concludes with the Lone Eater community participating in a joyful ceremony honoring the Thunder Chief. Red Paint’s son has just been born, and the blackhorn can still be seen grazing in the distance. While Fools Crow is “burdened with the knowledge of his people, their lives and the lives of their children,” he knows that their traditions and beliefs will survive in the afterlife and the stories that will be passed down to future generations (390).

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Chapters 1-3