Fools Crow Summary

James Welch

Fools Crow

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Fools Crow Summary

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Fools Crow is a 1986 novel by James Welch, a member of the Blackfeet Indian tribe. A work of historical fiction, the novel follows the life of a young Native American man, White Man’s Dog, in Montana in the 1860s. The novel culminates in the Marias Massacre of 1870, an infamous event in which the U.S. Cavalry mistakenly killed a band of unarmed Blackfeet Indians. Critically praised for its authentic portrayal of Native American culture, the novel earned the Los Angeles Times Book Award in 1987.

At the beginning of the novel, 18-year-old White Man’s Dog dreams of becoming a renowned warrior. The teenager is a member of the Lone Eaters, a Blackfeet Indian tribe. Feeling weak, White Man’s Dog visits his tribe’s medicine man, Mik-Api, and asks him to perform a ceremony to help him gain courage. He is offered the chance to earn respect from his tribe when Yellow Kidney, another tribe member, appoints him leader of a night raid to steal horses from the Crow Indians, an enemy tribe. A Crow scout tries to stop the Blackfeet warriors as they herd the stolen horses away from the Crows’ camp, but White Man’s Dog kills him.

Yellow Kidney, Fast Horse, and Eagle Ribs go back to the Crows’ camp to try to steal more horses, while White Man’s Dog and the other warriors agree to meet them the next day. The warriors are eventually reunited with Fast Horse and Eagle Ribs, but are told that Yellow Kidney has been captured and presumably killed. In Yellow Kidney’s absence, his wife, Heavy Shield Woman, promises to perform the Sun Dance ceremony as a medicine woman if he ever returns.

To everyone’s surprise, Yellow Kidney does eventually return alive to the Lone Eaters’ camp. He tells the tribe that he, Fast Horse, and Eagle Ribs had just captured the horse of Bull Shield, the Crow chief, when Fast Horse shouted out a challenge to the Crows and tipped them off to the warriors’ presence. As the Crows searched for the intruders, Yellow Kidney went into a lodge full of sleeping people and hid under the blankets next to a young, nude girl. While lying next to her, he became aroused and raped her before realizing that she was dying from smallpox. When the Crows find him, they chop off his fingers, tie him to a horse, and drive him out of camp into a snowstorm as punishment.

Fast Horse is blamed for Yellow Kidney’s capture. He exiles himself from the tribe and joins a band of Blackfeet Indians led by Owl Child to fight the Napikwan, or white men, who have been invading the Blackfeet’s land. As promised, Heavy Shield Woman performs the Sun Dance as medicine woman. White Man’s Dog participates in the Dance, and receives a vision of his spirit animal, the wolverine. He decides to subject himself to a physical trial in order to cleanse himself of his sexual desire for his father’s third wife, Kills-close-to-the-lake. At the end of the ceremony, Kills-close-to-the-lake admits that she sacrificed her finger in order to rid herself of the same desire.

White Man’s Dog marries Yellow Kidney’s daughter, Red Paint, who becomes pregnant. They name their child Sleep Bringer because a butterfly landed on Red Paint’s stomach while she was pregnant and whispered the name to her. The Lone Eaters decide to form a war party to invade the Crows’ camp and avenge Yellow Kidney’s mutilation. During the battle, White Man’s Dog manages to kill Bull Shield and take his scalp. Rumored to have killed the chief by pretending to be asleep, White Man’s Dog is lauded as a hero by the rest of his tribe and given the nickname Fools Crow. However, he feels a little guilty and undeserving of the praise since the story of his defeat of Bull Shield is largely exaggerated. Meanwhile, a band of white soldiers comes to the Lone Eaters’ camp seeking revenge against Owl Child for killing their leader, Malcolm Clark, otherwise known as Four Bears. The Blackfeet Indians refuse to help them locate Owl Child.

White Man’s Dog is visited in his dreams by Raven, a powerful messenger god who tells him that a white man has been killing animals for fun on a nearby mountain and leaving their carcasses to rot. Since it is against Blackfeet culture to slaughter animals without a purpose, Raven urges White Man’s Dog to kill the man responsible. White Man’s Dog is hesitant at first, but Raven tells him that he was been specifically chosen by the Sun Chief to carry out the deed. White Man’s Dog goes to the mountain and successfully kills the white man by luring him with a vision of Red Paint.

Fearing retaliation from the Napikwans, the Lone Eaters hold a council to discuss whether they should fight the white men or try to make peace with them. Meanwhile, Yellow Kidney, who had left the tribe out of shame for his mutilated hands, is killed by a Napikwan as revenge for the white soldiers killed by Owl Child’s band of warriors. White Man’s Dog begins to study Beaver medicine. When Red Paint’s younger brother, One Spot, is bitten by a rabid wolf, White Man’s Dog uses the techniques he has learned to drive the evil spirit out of the infected boy.

After having a dream about her, White Man’s Dog goes to see the mystic Feather Woman, the wife of Morning Star and mother of Star Boy. She paints a tanned calf hide and shows him a series of visions forming on the hide. In the first vision, White Man’s Dog sees the Lone Eaters dying of smallpox. In the second vision, he sees a band of friendly Blackfeet led by Heavy Runner being killed by white soldiers in the Marias Massacre. In the third vision, he sees a barren landscape with no Indians or animals left in sight. In the final vision, he sees Indian children attending a boarding school with their hair cut short, assimilating into white culture. Soon afterwards, members of the tribe begin to die from smallpox. White Man’s Dog is now burdened with the knowledge of what will come to pass for his people, but is completely powerless to prevent it.

The main themes of Fools Crow include sacrifice, retribution, dreams and visions, mysticism, violence, and culture clash. The novel paints a picture of a dying culture under assault by various forces, both natural and man made. As their way of life begins to fade, the Blackfeet Indians must decide whether to stand their ground or adapt to the changing world around them as a means of survival.