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Fool’s Crow (James Welch)

December 14, 2009

As I read this novel, I was continually distracted by the fact that the characters were Pikuni (Blackfeet), and they were inevitably going to be decimated by novel’s end. Since the text is set in 1870, I knew that westward expansion and broken treaties where going to leave a mass of destruction in their wake. I feared Welch was going to go in a morbid happily-ever-after direction and make his characters all die so they could reunite in the Sand Hills (afterlife location), but instead he surprised me. Thirty pages to the end of the novel, he had Fools Crow come to the realization that his people were doomed, and that there was no way to defeat the Napikwans (whites). However, Fools Crow determined that it was not time to give up; instead, he insisted on the importance of making sure that the culture didn’t die with his generation. This idea of passing on the cultural heritage becomes the central focus of the novel’s message — even though the Pikuni are going to be killed by the Napikwans, they must never forget that they are the chosen people and their children will need their culture as much as they do. I’m not sure how I feel about this message. On the one hand, it’s certainly better than the ending I feared (one where death offers the only possibility for happiness if one happens to be Pikuni); on the other hand, it’s lacking in many ways. It might be misconstrued as suggesting compliance and the-path-of-least-resistance in some ways, because Fools Crow seems to have no urge to fight. In fact, when he visits the camp of the Pikuni band that was ambushed, he sits down and weeps. I’m not saying he should hop on his horse and go shooting up the Napikwans in a suicide mission, but the weeping and the speaking of hollow words (he tells some survivors who have lost their children that it’s important for them to pass the culture on to their children) isn’t exactly a positive message. It’s a bit defeatist, actually. The very last chapter has more to offer. This chapter, in which Fools Crow and Red Paint are joyously participating in the naming ceremony for their newborn son, offers a glimpse of life continuing on in a beautiful manner. While it’s slightly marred by “a peculiar kind of happiness–a happiness that sleeps with sadness” (390), the chapter is lovely. At the same time, the last paragraph is about the blackhorns (buffalo) and how their presence and return indicates that all is as it should be. Since it’s painfully obvious that this return is going to be shortlived, since buffalo are all but exterminated now, I’m not sure how to take this ending. On one hand it offers hope through the continuing of a lifestyle and a culture. At the same time, this hope has a time limit — an expiration date. What does this say about Blackfeet in today’s world? Are they practically extinct like the buffalo? That’s hardly a productive reading. Are they continuing to live on, resisting elimination and thriving within their culture? I’d like to believe that’s what Welch is saying, but I don’t particularly think there’s room for that reading. So what’s Welch’s point? That’s the question I’m struggling with. He did such a beautiful job of creating complex and interesting characters, and of illustrating through them the various reactions to and ways of dealing with the Napikwans. Unfortunately, until I figure out what I think this ending is trying to say, I’m not sure what to do with all the other stuff. I think it’s too complex to be justified in saying it’s meant to provide an ethnographic portrait of Blackfeet life and culture in 1870, but I’m having trouble translating its message to contemporary American life. I’ll have to continue thinking about this one….

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