Fools Crow

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Fools Crow

by James Welch


A novel set in western Montana in the late 1860s: published in New York in 1986.


Fools Crow, a young man who belongs to the Blackfeet Indian nation, struggles to help his people respond to the threat of encroaching white civilization.

Events in History at the lime the Novel Takes Place

The Novel in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

For More Information

Of mixed Blackfeet and Gros Ventre ancestry, James Welch was born in 1940 in Browning, Montana, the tribal headquarters of the Blackfeet Indian Nation. Educated at the University of Minnesota, Northern Montana College, and the University of Montana, Welch published his first novel, Winter in the Blood, to critical acclaim in 1974. Like Winter in the Blood (and like his 1971 book of poems Riding the Earthboy 40), several of Welch’s subsequent novels focused on problems of achieving cultural identity for Blackfeet living in modern Montana (e.g., The Death of Jim Loney [1979] and The Indian Lawyer [1990]). His most recent novel, The Heartsong of Charging Elk (2000), leaves the Blackfeet and Montana to follow a Lakota Sioux main character named Charging Elk, who witnesses the Battle of Little Bighorn as a child and subsequently travels to Europe with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show; the novel is loosely based on the life of an actual Lakota, Black Elk, whose story is told in John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks (1932; also in Literature and Its Times). Welch has also written nonfiction about the West and its history, notably (with Paul Stekler) Killing Custer: the Battle of Little Bighorn and the Fate of the Plains Indians (1994). In coauthoring this nonfiction work, Welch incorporated research that he himself had earlier conducted for Fools Crow, a novel that blends historical events and people with fictional ones to recount a pivotal period during the subjugation of the Blackfeet.

Events in History at the lime the Novel Takes Place

A band of Blackfeet

By the 1860s the Blackfeet Indians had enjoyed about a century in which they were the dominant power of the northern plains. Blackfeet lands stretched from southern Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada south into the uplands of western Montana, where some of these nomadic buffalo hunters made their winter camps in the sheltered valleys along the Marias, Teton, and Sun rivers. The Blackfeet were divided into three tribes:

  • The Siksika or Northern Blackfeet (also called the Blackfeet proper), located in Canada
  • The Kainah or Bloods, living south of the Siksika Blackfeet and ranging on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border
  • The Pikuni or Piegan Blackfeet, living mostly in Montana but also ranging on both sides of the border

The three Blackfeet tribes were politically independent, although they shared a common culture and a tongue derived from the Algonkian family of Native American languages. Within each tribe were further subdivisions into numerous bands, consisting of between about 150 and 250 people each, though they fluctuated both in size and number. Each band had both a band chief and a war chief charged with leading its warriors in battle; the most respected of the band chiefs became the leader chosen as head chief of the whole tribe.


A white observer in the middle of the nineteenth century called the buffalo “staff of life” for the Plains Indians because the large animals provided so many aspects of their subsistence (Vaughan in Ewers, p. 73). From flavorful meat to durable skirts used in clothing and tipis and sinew for bowstrings, virtually every part of the animal filled a practical need in Blackfeet camp life. Hunting the buffalo was made more efficient by the arrival of the horse, but Plains Indians continued to favor bows and arrows over guns in hunting by horseback, finding them easier to aim and reload during the case. By the middle of the nineteenth century, dressed buffalo skins had begun to replace beaver pelts as highly sought trade items by eastern whites, who used them as coats. Besides bringing them food, clothing, shelter, and durable goods, trade in buffalo skins also gave the Blackfeet and other Plains peoples access to luxury items such as kettles and axes, Once vast herds had filled the plains—in 1700 them were 15 million buffalo. But with the help of the U.S. government, white hunters would nearly extinguish them by the 1880s. From 1881–83, the government hired marksmen to kill the remaining 2.5 million buffalo, bringing to an end traditional life for the Blackfeet and other Plains Indians. Thus, at the time of Fool’s Crow, the demise of buffalo hunting was fast approaching.

In the late 1860s the Blackfeet population stood at an estimated 6,000. The largest tribe was the Pikuni, with at least 15 bands; the Siksika and Kainah comprised about 10 bands each. Fools Crow follows one particular band of Pikuni Blackfeet, the Lone Eaters, who make their winter camp near where the Marias River flows east out of the Rocky Mountains in western Montana, before it joins the Missouri River north of Fort Benton. The Lone Eaters were a historical band of the Pikuni, but because the bands were either wiped out or broken up in the years following the white conquest, the Lone Eaters’ exact geographical setting in the novel, while plausible, remains speculative. Little is known of them beyond their name and their membership in the Pikuni tribe.

Fire and horse power

The Blackfeet rose to their position of strength by exploiting two novelties introduced into their world in the eighteenth century: the horse and the gun. Long extinct in North America, horses first came to the Plains Indians by way of the Spanish colonizers in Mexico and the American Southwest and then by way of the English colonizers of the United States. Guns were introduced to the Plains Tribes mostly by French trappers and traders who ventured into the continent from Canada. Isolated in the continent’s interior, the Blackfeet obtained both horses and guns after their neighbors. As the later recollections of Pikuni elders went, it was sometime around the 1730s that the Pikuni were dealt a severe defeat by their great enemies to the south, the Shoshoni (or as the Blackfeet called them, the Snakes). The Shoshoni warriors were mounted on huge, strange animals “on which they rode swift as a deer” to strike at the Pikuni (Ewers, p. 21). When the Pikuni turned for help to allies among the Cree and Assiniboine Indians to their northeast, they received assistance not just in the form of warriors, but also in muskets and ammunition. Instructed by their allies, they mastered the new weapons, using them to great effect against the bows and arrows of the Shoshoni.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Pikuni’s relentless attacks had pushed the Shoshoni across the Rockies, expanding the territory of the Pikuni Blackfeet to the south and west. From time to time, Blackfeet raiding par-ties crossed the Rockies to harry the Shoshoni or their neighbors the Flatheads and Nez Perce. The Blackfeet also conducted frequent raids against their enemies to the southeast, the Crow Indians, and even against their former allies among the Cree and Assiniboine Indians. In all directions, the only tribes safe from attacks by the powerful Blackfeet were their subordinate allies, the Sarsi and the Gros Ventre Indians. Like similar raids made by their enemies, the Blackfeet raids were executed primarily in order to seize the foes’ horses and often their scalps as well. Both horse-seizing and scalping brought honor to the warrior who performed these deeds, and young Blackfeet males eagerly sought to prove themselves in these ways on raiding parties. Occasionally a band or tribe mounted a larger, more concerted raid, usually to take revenge for an out-standing offense by the other group. Fools Crow prominently features both a horse-seizing raid and a larger revenge raid, the first mounted by the Lone Eaters and the second by warriors from all the Pikuni bands acting in concert.

Arrival of the Napikwan

Through the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries, the Blackfeet encountered only handfuls of whites, whom they called Napikwan, or Old Man People, because the whites’ pale skin color was like an old man’s snowy hair. The first whites the Blackfeet met were French traders, who took beaver pelts in exchange for guns, ammunition, and other useful metal goods, such as kettles and axes. When Canada fell to British control after the French and Indian War of the 1760s, British traders replaced the French ones. In 1803 the United States vastly extended its western territory by transacting the Louisiana Purchase, which included Blackfeet lands up to the Canadian border. Shortly afterward, President Thomas Jefferson charged the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804–06) with the task of exploring the West and seeking a water route to the Pacific. On its way to the Pacific, the expedition passed through Pikuni lands, naming the Marias River (which the Pikuni called the Bear) for Lewis’s cousin Maria Wood. American trappers began arriving in Blackfeet territory soon there-after, in competition with the British, who still ventured in from eastern Canada.

In contrast with the French and British, who mostly traded for pelts acquired by the Blackfeet, the Americans preferred to trap their own animals. The Blackfeet, angered by the trespassing and direct trapping, responded by killing American trappers whenever they could, which earned them a reputation as a warlike and bloodthirsty tribe. So wary of these Indians were the whites that when settlers began pouring west along the Oregon Trail in the 1840s, they chose a path well to the south of Blackfeet territory, even though a more logical route would have been to follow the Missouri River through Pikuni lands before crossing the Rockies.

Owing to their warlike reputation and their remoteness, the Blackfeet were the last of the Plains Indians below the Canadian border with whom the U.S. government negotiated a treaty. Not until 1853, a half century after the Louisiana Purchase, did the U.S. open talks with the Blackfeet, the most distant inhabitants of that huge ceded region. In 1855 the government signed a treaty with the Blackfeet. The treaty declared perpetual peace between the Blackfeet and the United States, and confirmed that the lands of the “Blackfeet Nation” in the United States consisted essentially of north-central Montana above the Musselshell and Missouri rivers, from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the confluence of the Milk and Missouri rivers in the east. As with other tribes, the government appointed an agent to manage its relations with the Blackfeet, and the Blackfeet were told to go to this agent, who would be headquartered at the major trading post of Fort Benton, if they had “any trouble” (Ewers, p. 226).

Despite the good feelings generated by the treaty, relations between the Blackfeet and the Napikwan deteriorated steadily during the 1860s. In the first years of that decade, the Civil War (1860–63) monopolized the attention of the U.S. government. For the most part, the office of agent was either left unfilled or was occupied by inept or inexperienced men. In 1862, at the height of this neglect, gold was discovered at Bannock, in Blackfeet hunting grounds along the eastern base of the Rockies in Montana. Responding to the ever attractive call of gold, would-be prospectors now began streaming through Blackfeet lands, a rush that was accelerated by the end of the Civil War in 1863. Only a few years earlier the Blackfeet had been skeptical about whether the Napikwan even existed in large numbers. Now more and more Napikwan miners, traders, missionaries, soldiers, woodcutters, and finally settlers seemed suddenly to materialize on Blackfeet territory. The Blackfeet grew increasingly anxious about retaining their ancestral lands, an anxiety that is echoed by Pikuni characters in the opening chapters of Fools Crow.


Brought to North America by Europeans, smallpox kills nearly half of those it infects. Over the centuries, the disease played a central role in decimating American Indians, who lacked immunity to the virus. The Blackfeet suffered thousands of deaths in two major smallpox epidemics during 1781 and 1837. Some 6,000, almost two-thirds of the Blackfeet population, died in the 1837 epidemic. After each outbreak, it took decades for the population to recover. Fools Crow portrays the historical epidemic of 1869–70, the third and last major epidemic of the so-called “white-scabs disease” to strike the Blackfeet.

Massacre on the Marias

Fueled by illegal whisky traders who plied their low-grade liquor to the Indians around Fort Benton, violent incidents between the Blackfeet and the Napikwan mounted in the late 1860s. Typically, small groups of Blackfeet would be killed by whites as they visited Fort Benton, while small parties of whites would be killed by the Indians after ven-turing away from the security of the fort. In 1865 a new treaty ceded Blackfeet lands south of the Teton River, which white settlers wished to occupy, in exchange for yearly payments of cash. Although the settlers arrived, the yearly payments promised the Blackfeet did not, since Congress never ratified the treaty.

The sporadic but ongoing violence began to reach a peak in the fall of 1869, when whites at Fort Benton gunned down the brother of Mountain Chief, the new head chief of the Pikuni. Enraged Pikuni warriors reacted by attacking and killing a well-known settler, Malcolm Clark, de-spite Clark’s being married to a Pikuni woman. On January 1, 1870, General Alfred Sully, the new Blackfeet agent, met several Pikuni chiefs to discuss the rising tensions. As part of the climax of Fools Crow, James Welch fictionally recreates Clark’s murder and the chiefs’ meeting with Sully, as well as the tragic events that followed. Sully ordered the chiefs to find Clark’s murderers and turn them over to him, dead or alive, or face open war with the U.S. Army. Among the chiefs was a friendly Pikuni band chief named Heavy Runner, and the lot of them agreed to try. Giving the chiefs two weeks, but knowing that they might not have the power to comply, Sully prepared an attack on Mountain Chiefs band, to be led by Colonel E. M. Baker.

On the bitterly cold day of January 23, 1870, after the two-week period expired, Baker attacked the winter camp not of Mountain Chiefs band, but of the friendly Heavy Runner’s, which he came across first. Already decimated by smallpox, and with many of its younger men away hunting, the demoralized camp on the Marias River consisted mostly of women, children, and old men. According to a later Army investigation, of the 173 Pikuni killed in the resulting massacre, 90 were women and 50 were children under 12. Evoking a public outcry among Americans further east, the massacre on the Marias also marked the abrupt end of Blackfeet resistance to whites. With the people ravaged by disease and deeply demoralized, the Blackfeet leaders—led by Mountain Chief—decided that they had no chance against the great numbers and power of the Napikwan, and that their very survival depended on peaceful cooperation. The events leading up to the massacre on the Marias, and the massacre itself, thus form the pivotal episode in modern Blackfeet history. They also constitute the historical core and the climax of Fools Crow. Reconstructing these events in fictional form, the novel recounts their unfolding as the Pikuni may have perceived it.

The Novel in Focus

The plot

Throughout Fools Crow the omniscient narrator uses language in a way that most readers will at first find unfamiliar, but that has the effect of immersing them in the Blackfeet world from the novel’s opening lines:

Now that the weather had changed, the moon of the falling leaves turned white in the blackening sky and White Man’s Dog was restless. He chewed the stick of dry meat and watched Cold Maker gather his forces.

(Welch, Fools Crow, p. 3)

The narrative focus stays primarily on White Man’s Dog, an 18-year-old Pikuni warrior, whose father, Rides-at-the-door, is war chief of the Lone Eater band. A respected leader, Rides-at-the-door has three wives and many horses. His son habitually follows an older man called Victory Robe White Man around the camp like a dog; only later will readers learn that White Man’s Dog’s name comes from this childhood habit. By this point, nearly halfway through the novel, White Man’s Dog has become Fools Crow, taking his new name from an exploit during a raid on a Crow village in which he is thought to have tricked an enemy Crow by playing dead.

When the novel opens White Man’s Dog has a reputation for bad luck among the Lone Eaters. His accomplished friend Fast Horse ridicules him for his awkwardness with girls, and his younger brother Running Fisher seems to hold more promise of becoming a successful warrior and thus securing an enviable position within the band. However, when Fast Horse and White Man’s Dog join a raiding party against a Crow village, the boastful Fast Horse arrogantly lets out a war cry that alerts the Crow Indians and results in the capture and maiming of the party’s leader, an experienced warrior named Yellow Kidney. White Man’s Dog, by contrast, quietly but competently carries out the tasks that Yellow Kidney has assigned him, and his status is enhanced by his killing of a Crow warrior. The raiding party marks the beginning of White Man’s Dog’s rise within the band. It also leads to Fast Horse’s eventual alienation from the Lone Eaters, as he takes up with the renegade Pikuni Owl Child, whose roving band of warriors carries out bloody attacks against the encroaching whites, or Napikwan.

Another outcome of the raiding party is that White Man’s Dog starts hunting to help Yellow Kidney’s family, supplying them with food after Yellow Kidney’s maiming at the hands of the Crow. White Man’s Dog’s personal wealth has been established by the horses he won during the raiding party. He is thus ready to marry, and chooses Yellow Kidney’s young daughter, Red Paint, who becomes pregnant soon after they wed. At the same time, White Man’s Dog begins having visions that lead to his initiation into the spirit world of the powerful old healer, Mikapi. Under Mik-api’s supervision, and with a talking raven as his guide, White Man’s Dog is led to a wolverine or skunk-bear that has been caught in a Napikwan trap. After White Man’s Dog frees the wolverine, the raven tells him, “Of all the two-leggeds, you alone will possess the magic of Skunk-Bear” (Fools Crow, p. 58). In Blackfeet religious terms, the wolverine thus becomes White Man’s Dog’s animal helper.

White Man’s Dog successfully undergoes painful ritual torture at the Sun Dance, the yearly ceremony at which the Pikuni bands gather together to honor their leading deity, the sun or Sun Chief. Afterward White Man’s Dog falls asleep, and the wolverine appears to him in a dream, giving him a slender white stone and a song to sing for power in battle. The wolverine


Traditionally, a Blackfeet warrior would find an animal helper during dreams in which the animal appeared to him and instructed him in assembling a medicine bundle. This collection of personal articles was imbued with power and symbolized the assistance that the animal helper gave the warrior, often in the form of prowess in battle and hunting. Medicine bundles could be passed on or sold from one owner to an-other. The novel’s Boss Ribs, Fast Horse’s father, hopes to pass his powerful beaver bundle on to Fast Horse. Beaver bundles—those assembled with the assistance of a beaver helper—were the most potent medicine bundles for the Blackfeet. In the late nineteenth century there were several beaver bundles famous among the Blackfeet for their power.

departs, and White Man’s Dog sees his father’s youngest wife, Kills-close-to-the-lake, who is his own age, and with whom he has felt a mutual attraction. They make love in the dream, and after he wakes up White Man’s Dog realizes that this dream act has purged him of the shameful desire he had felt for his father’s wife in waking life. As he awakes, he finds the slender white stone in his sleeping robe. Later Kills-close-to the-lake tells him that she has had a dream that echoes the details of White Man’s Dog’s. In an important subplot, it is White Man’s Dog’s younger brother Running Fisher, disgruntled at his brother’s success, who later risks dishonoring the whole family by seducing Kills-close-to-the-lake.

The Pikunis decide to mount a large revenge raid on the Crow village where Yellow Kidney was maimed, and if possible to kill the Crow


The summer ceremony of the Sun Dance, during which the tribe’s various bands assembled together at a large encampment, was the major religious festival of many Plains Indian tribes, including the Blackfeel. In the Blackfeet version the leading role in the ceremony was played by a woman whose virtue was unquestioned, and who assumed the responsibility by making a sacred vow to take this role at a time of personal crisis during the previous year. A successful outcome to the crisis—the recovery of a loved one from illness, or the safe return of a husband or son from a dangerous raid, for example—meant that the sun had answered her prayers. Her band then sent out word of her vow to the rest of the tribe in preparation for the coming test. During the ceremony itself, she took responsibility for the correct performance of the complex rituals; if anything went wrong, it reflected badly on her virtue. In Fools Crow, Heavy Shield Woman, the wife of the maimed warrior Yellow Kidney, makes such a vow in exchange for Yellow Kidney’s safe return from the novel’s raiding party on the Crow.

Likewise, White Man’s Dog makes a vow to the sun in connection with the raiding party. It is in fulfillment of this vow that he undergoes ritual torture in the novel’s Sun Dance. Such vows were made with deadly seriousness, since neglect of a vow resulted in sure misfortune. In the novel, the ostracized warrior Fast Horse’s troubles are presented as stemming from his failure to fulfill a vow to Cold Maker, the bringer of wintry weather.

chief, Bull Shield, who maimed the Pikuni warrior. In the heat of battle, White Man’s Dog pre-pares to attack Bull Shield, but is shot in the side and falls. Losing consciousness, he regains it just in time to see the Crow chief advancing on him, and he manages to fire his own rifle three times, killing Bull Shield. Urged on by his father, Rides-at-the-door, White Man’s Dog (who is not seriously wounded) takes the fallen chiefs scalp. “My fine son, this day you are a brave!” Rides-at-the-door declares (Fools Crow, p. 147). It is this exploit, magnified into a deliberate stratagem in the reports of the other warriors, that gives White Man’s Dog his new name, Fools Crow. He is now firmly established as a rising leader in the band, “a man of much medicine” (Fools Crow, p. 151).

Shortly after Fools Crow receives his new name, the Lone Eaters’ camp is visited by a column of blue-uniformed seizers, as the Blackfeet call the Napikwan soldiers. The seizers are guided by a half-breed scout and trader named Joe Kipp, who acts as a translator. Their commanding officer announces the murder of a nearby white settler, Malcolm Clark, and says that Clark’s children have identified Owl Child and his band of renegades as the killers. The seizers are pursuing Owl Child, known to be a member of Mountain Chiefs band. As a result, the whole band, including Mountain Chief, leader of the Pikuni tribe, has to flee the seizers. Later Fools Crow reflects that war between the Pikuni and the increasingly aggressive Napikwans seems inevitable.

That winter, after further bloodshed, in which Owl Child and Fast Horse are implicated, the seizers propose a meeting between their chiefs and the Blackfeet chiefs. Mountain Chief—still on the run—does not attend, and in the end only a few chiefs make their way to meet the Napikwan. Among them are the well-respected pair Rides-at-the-door and a Kainah band chief named Sun Calf. Three more Pakuni band chiefs accompany them—Heavy Runner (whom Ridesat-the-door privately finds too conciliatory to the whites), Big Lake, and Little Wolf, all of whom carry little weight with the younger braves. They meet with the new Blackfeet agent, General Sully, who presents a warrant for the arrest of Owl Child and several of his men and demands that the Blackfeet turn them over, dead or alive. The chiefs agree to do their best. Before leaving, Heavy Runner and then the other chiefs request written statements from Sully that they and their bands are at peace with the whites. Sully signs the statements, which are dated January 1, 1870.

Some time later at their winter camp, the Lone Eaters get word that several Pikuni encampments further down the Marias River have been stricken with white-scabs disease. Many Pikuni are dying. Furthermore, at a full tribal council Rides-at-the-door has failed to persuade the other Pikuni chiefs to accept Sully’s demands. Even Mountain Chief, forced by the younger braves’ intransigence, refuses to turn Owl Child over. In an extended series of mystical experiences, Fools Crow meets So-at-sa-ki, or Feather Woman, a mythological figure. In Blackfeet legend she lives between heaven and earth, outcast by her husband, Morning Star. Feather Woman imparts to Fools Crow several visions of his people’s future, including “the end of the blackhorns [buffalo] and the starvation of the Pikunis,” along with the sight of a forlorn handful of Pikuni children amid happy white youngsters in a Napikwan school (Fools Crow, p. 358).

Soon afterward smallpox strikes the winter camp of the Lone Eaters, spreading rapidly. In two weeks, when nearly 40 of the band have perished, Fools Crow and the others spot a small, ragged group of Pikuni approaching the camp on foot. They are the stunned remnant of Heavy Runner’s band, whose camp further down the Marias has been attacked by a large group of seizers. Heavy Runner is dead, shot down while waving his signed paper at the approaching soldiers, and the camp has been virtually wiped out.

The narrative jumps forward in time to that spring, when the healer Mik-api leads the remaining Lone Eaters in the Thunder Pipe ceremony, which celebrates the season’s arrival. Fools Crow thinks of Feather Woman and the visions she gave him, and he knows that his people will at least survive. After describing the feasting and children’s’ games in camp that evening, the novel closes as spring rains glisten on the buffalo that stand humpbacked and dark on the prairies around the camp: “The blackhorns had returned and, all around, it was as it should be” (Fools Crow, p. 319).

Rationalizing defeat and conquest

In its fictional depiction of historical events, Fools Crow suggests that a major stumbling block to mutual understanding between the Pikuni and the Napikwan lay in the different conceptions of power and authority of the two cultures. In political terms, the Blackfeet’s loose, consensus-based power structure, based on personal influence, contrasts sharply with the whites’ tighter, more hierarchical power structure, in which authority is vested in political office or military rank. In the case of the Owl Child, for example, the white officers hold Mountain Chief accountable for the young brave as they themselves would be responsible for a soldier under their command. This expectation baffles the Pikuni:

It angered them that the seizers thought he [Mountain Chief] could control Owl Child, as one hobbles a horse that has a tendency to wander. Now the seizers were determined to make Mountain Chief pay for the crimes of Owl Child. That was like shooting one gopher because another gopher had bitten a child’s finger.

(Fools Crow, p. 159)

As with authority, the Pikunis’ approach to religion is diffuse rather than hierarchical. In the Pikuni world, any dream carries religious import, regardless of the dreamer’s status. Also, unlike a priest, the medicine man Mik-api does not practice in a different realm from his fellow Pikunis. He simply has greater skills in a realm with which they too are familiar.

Yet both cultures share a need to link worldly power with religious devotion and to rationalize political outcomes in religious terms. After the massacre of Heavy Runner’s band, Fools Crow remembers the visions of his people’s future that Feather Woman has given him. He realizes:

that his father had been right all along—the Pikunis were no match for the seizers and their weapons. That the camps were laid low with the white-scabs disease did not even matter. The disease, this massacre—Sun Chief favored the Napikwans. The Pikunis would never possess the power to make them cry.

(Fools Crow, p. 383)

Elsewhere the Pikunis wonder if their sacrifices to the Sun Chief have been inadequate in some way, since their deity has seen fit to bestow greater power on the whites. As in other cultures, they reach for religious explanations for defeat.

Fools Crow portrays a proud people struggling to come to terms with defeat. It thus offers a mirror image of white Americans in the nineteenth century, who saw their rising fortunes as the “manifest destiny” of a godly people to expand across the continent and, by logical extension, to impose their superior culture on savage Indians along the way. Some early Christian missions among the Blackfeet are mentioned in passing in Fools Crow. The novel also briefly touches on their secular equivalents, the whites’ largely unsuccessful attempts to induce the as-yet unconquered Pikuni to adopt white farming techniques and attend white schools. Fools Crow’s visions clearly foresee the next step, which will be the fast-approaching U.S. government campaign to force the Blackfeet to abandon their traditional culture. By ending the story where he does, James Welch recreates in fictional form the last historical moment before his people had the biting suspicion of cultural inferiority pressed upon them by their more numerous Napikwan conquerors.


Welch relied on published accounts of Blackfeet life as well as on his own family’s oral tradition in constructing the fictional version of historical events in Fools Crow. James Willard Schultz (1859–1947), a white man who lived for many years with the Blackfeet and married a Pikuni woman, wrote a number of colorful magazine articles about Blackfeet life, social customs, and legends. Collections of Schultz’s articles include My Life as an Indian (1907) and, more recently, Why Gone Those Times? (1974). Another source Welch, used, Blackfeet Lodge Tales (1962), was compiled from Schultz’s work by George Bird Grinnell, the magazine editor who published much of Schultz’s material originally. Welch also read John Ewers’s authoritative account The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains (1958), which drew on the memories of Blackfeet informants who lived during the 1850s and 1860s.

Additionally, as Welch relates in an interview, his great grandmother was alive at the time of the novel, and she herself actually lived through the massacre on the Marias:


Historical FiguresNames Used FictionallyFictional Characters
• Heavy Runner, a Pikuni band chief killed in the massacre on the Marias.
• Mountain Chief, chief of the Pikuni.
• Malcolm Clark, white settler (and ancestor of James Welch) killed by Blackfeet in 1869.
• General Alfred Sully, Blackfeet agent.
• Joe Kipp, a mixed-blood (Indian-white) trader and scout.
• Owl Child, in the novel a renegade, but in real life a well-known Blackfeet farmer in the 1880s and 1890s.
• Rides-at-the-door, an actual Pikuni warrior’s name.
• Mik-api, or “Red Old Man,” the novel’s medicine man, is the name of a great chief from Blackfeet mythology mentioned in Blackfeet Lodge Tales.
• Fools Crow
• Red Paint
• Kills-close-to-the-lake
• Yellow Kidney
• Fast Horse

She and a small group of people managed to sneak up the river. . . . That’s how they escaped. She is one of the survivors Fools Crow comes upon. She told my dad many stories of life during that time. He told those stories to me. A lot of them form the basis for parts of the book.

(Welch, “Interview”)

Welch portrays some genuine historical figures in the novel, using their real-life names. For other characters, he appropriates genuine names from Blackfeet history and applies them to fictional figures, and some characters he invents completely:

Events in History at the Time the Novel Was Written

The Blackfeet in the 1980s

In 1874 the government established the Blackfeet on a large reservation occupying the area north of the Marias River and of its tributary to the west, Birch Creek. By the 1880s the buffalo had nearly vanished from the plains. Many Blackfeet faced starvation and disease, while those who survived struggled to make their way as farmers. In 1888 and 1896 the Blackfeet further ceded the bulk of that territory north of the Marias and Missouri Rivers, so that today’s smaller Blackfeet reservation lies north of Birch Creek in Montana.

Like other Indians in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century America, the Blackfeet were expected to give up their traditional culture and adopt the ways of the dominant white majority. Blackfeet children were taught exclusively European and American subjects in school, and were punished if they spoke a native language. This repressive policy began shifting in the 1940s, as white authorities began gradually to acknowledge that Indian culture and history possessed a rightful place in their lives and classrooms. But many Blackfeet have felt dispossessed and uprooted in modern America. Reservation life has presented difficult challenges and often bleak prospects in a world far from conducive to the age-old Indian sense of tribal life.

To Indians tribe means family, not just bloodlines but extended family, clan, community, ceremonial exchanges with nature, and an animate regard for all creation as sensible and powerful. Tribe means an earth sense of self, housed in an earth body, with regional ties....

(Lincoln, p. 8)

In the 1980s about 6,000 Blackfeet, most of them Pikuni but many of mixed descent, lived on the Montana reservation, while some 9, 000 Pikuni, Kainah, and Siksika lived on similar reservations in Canada.

Native American Renaissance

Around 1960, there began a resurgence of American Indian culture and identity that scholars have called the Native American Renaissance. This revival has economic, political, artistic, and academic dimensions. Its literary side is commonly viewed as beginning with Native American author N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn (1969; also in Literature and Its Times). James Welch’s first novel, Winter in the Blood (1974) is often cited as the movement’s second landmark. Since then a profusion of American Indian authors has burst on the U.S. literary scene, many of them women, such as poet and novelist Leslie Marmon Silko and Louise Erdrich (see Silko’s Ceremony [1978] and Erdrich’s Love Medicine [1984] and Antelope Wife [1998], also in Literature and Its Times). Together they have developed “a written renewal of oral traditions translated into Western literary forms” (Lincoln, p. 8). The literary works them-selves span a wide range of themes and settings. Like Fools Crow, a number of the works incorporate supernatural elements as part of the daily lives of their Native American characters. Critics have suggested that these fictional depictions of the supernatural represent a vital component of recent Native American literature, in that they imaginatively attempt to recreate traditional ways of experiencing the world. As with Fools Crow, such portrayals may combine anthropological re-search with the author’s own background and experience to achieve a feel of authenticity. At issue in the Native American Renaissance has been the use of the white man’s language to portray Indian life. Some have objected to Indians’ employing English to explore native identities and concerns, even though only a few people are able to read native languages. Others have celebrated the racially mixed audiences that these writers have attracted by doing so.


While not accorded the critical and scholarly attention given to Welch’s earlier two novels, Fools Crow enjoyed fine sales and received positive reviews, winning the 1987 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction. Writing for The Los Angeles Times Book Review, scholar Louis Owens called Fools Crow “a painful, stunning act of recovery” that “marks an important step . . . toward a maturation of both style and vision” in the American Indian literary movement (Owens, Review, p. 1). Critic Peter Wild has objected that Welch’s attempts to recapture the phrasing of the Blackfeet language in English come off as stilted and unconvincing. (Welch himself knew the Blackfeet language as a young child but no longer speaks it) Others, however, have seen Welch’s unusual style in Fools Crow as a strength, a feature that adds both beauty and a vivid sense of reality to the story. In his discussion of American Indian novels, Louis Owens echoes these sentiments. He argues further that “Welch, more fully than any other Native American novelist, explicitly seizes control of the language of the Blackfeet’s oppressors,” thus subtly using language to subvert the very conquest that the novel describes (Owens, Other Destinies, p. 157).

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Ewers, John C. The Blackfeet: Raiders on the North-western Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958.

Grinnell, George Bird. Blackfoot Lodge Tales: The Story of a Prairie People. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962.

Lincoln, Kenneth. Native American Renaissance. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

Owens, Louis. Review of Fools Crow. The Los Angeles Times Book Review, 14 December 1986, 1.

_____. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Schultz, James Willard. Why Gone These Times? Blackfoot Tales. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1974.

Trigger, Bruce G., and Wilcomb E. Washburn. The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. Vol. 1, North America. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Welch, James. Fools Crow. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Welch, James, and Kenn Robbins. “An Interview with James Welch.” South Dakota Review. 1990. Literature Resource Center, (27 May 2002).