Fools Crow

This essay has a total of 2121 words and 8 pages.

Fools Crow

We turn back the clock as Welch draws on historical sources and Blackfeet cultural stories
in order to explore the past of his ancestors. As a result, he provides a basis for a new
understanding of the past and the forces that led to the deciding factor of the Plains
Indian tribes. Although Fools Crow reflects the pressure to assimilate inflicted by the
white colonizers on the Blackfeet tribes, it also portrays the influence of economic
changes during this period. The prosperity created by the hide trade does not ultimately
protect the tribe from massacre by the white soldiers. It does, however, effectively
change the Blackfeet economy and women's place in their society. Thus, it sets the stage
for the continued deterioration of their societal system. Although their economic value is
decreased, women still represent an important cog in the economic structure. Indeed, women
are central to the survival of the Blackfeet tribal community that Welch creates and in
many ways this strength and centrality provide background for the strength of the women
depicted in his more contemporary novels. Welch's examination of the past leads to a
clearer understanding of the present Blackfeet world presented throughout his work.

James Welch relies heavily on documented Blackfeet history and family stories, but he
merges those actual events and people with his imagination and thus creates a tension
between fiction and history, weaving a tapestry that reflects a vital tribal community
under pressure from outside forces. Welch re-imagines the past in order to document
history in a way that includes past and future generations, offers readers insight into
the tribal world-views of the Blackfeet, examines women's roles in the tribe, and leads to
a recovery of identity. Welch also creates a Blackfeet world of the late 1800s--a tribal
culture in the process of economic and social change as a result of the introduction of
the horse and gun and the encroachment of the white invaders or "seizers" as Welch
identifies them.

Significantly, Welch deconstructs the myth that Plains Indian women were just slaves and
beasts of burden and presents them as fully rounded women, women who were crucial to the
survival of the tribal community. In fact, it is the women who perform the day-to-day
duties and rituals that enable cultural survival for the tribes of the Plains. Through
Fools Crow, we enter a centuries-old society that was altered by the introduction of the
horse and gun to the Plains Indians in the mid-1700s and by the devastation of two
epidemics of the "white scab" disease. The novel is set in the late 1860s, and the
Blackfeet have "now regained their strength and are a powerful and confident people." More
specifically, women's economic place in the community was affected by the introduction of
the horse to the Blackfeet, which occurred around 1720 and changed the nature of buffalo
hunting. Before the horse and hide trade, the life of Plains tribes was closer to the
margins. When American Indians hunted on foot with bow and arrows, the killing of the
buffalo or "blackhorn" was a community effort--an effort that offered women an equal role.
The large-scale methods of hunting were the most successful and also included a large
number of people, resulting in solidarity within the tribes and bands. These collective
hunting methods affected the economic and political system and resulted in collective
ownership of the hides and the goods traded for them. With the horse, hunters could travel
to the buffalo, and their efficiency was increased. Thus, hunting was increasingly
individualized. Social dynamics and the role of women changed, as hunting became primarily
the work of young men. The horse was both a technological factor and a commodity. These
changes affected not only women's economic status but also the dynamics of individual and
communal relations. The women were necessary to process the hides that the men needed for
trading, but horses were necessary for hunting the buffalo to obtain the hides in the
first place.

By the opening of Welch's novel, the horse is the center of Blackfeet society. Welch's
protagonist, Fools Crow, assesses his wealth and status in life: "He had little to show
for his eighteen winters. His father, Rides-at-the-door, had many horses and three wives.
He himself had three horses and no wives. His animals were puny, not a blackhorn runner
among them". Because of the importance of the hide trade to the welfare of the Plains
Indians, the two vital elements that a man's wealth and personal status depended on were
the accumulation of wives and horses. Welch underscores the importance of the horse to the
Blackfeet early in the novel. Fools Crow participates in a raid on a Crow village in order
to strengthen his personal power through stealing horses and increasing his wealth. He
earns twenty horses in the raid, and although he gives five to the medicine man, Mik-api,
he feels "that his change for fortune was complete. Mik-api's prayers in the sweat lodge
for him had been answered. The yellow painted signs were strong, and he had been strong
enough in his endeavor. He had not taken a buffalo-runner but he was satisfied". That
Welch describes this raid in great detail signifies the importance of raiding to the
Plains Indians. According to Klein, raiding represented a secondary institution to
hunting. Since the Plains tribes did not breed their horses, the main way they obtained
them was by stealing them from other tribes or whites during a raid. Other goods were
taken as well but most importantly, all the goods taken in a raid became privately owned
and since the raid was an essentially male activity, horses became the private property of
men. Although in Fools Crow, Rides-at-the-door has three wives, Fools Crow has only one,
Red Paint. In the novel, she initially tans hides as well as works on crafts such as her
beadwork. She takes special pride in the work that will bring her personal ownership of
trade goods and she is valued for the quality of her beadwork. She helps support her
family by taking up "beadwork for other people, particularly young men who had no one to
do it for them. She was good and her elaborate patterns were becoming the talk of the
camp." She exchanges the beadwork for skins, meat, and cloth to help her family. Hunting
is a man's job and she realizes that "without a hunter, they might have to move on to
another band, to the Many Chiefs, to live with her uncle, who had offered to take them
in." Later, after her marriage to Fools Crow, she does not complain of the intensive labor
required for the hide tanning, but Welch depicts the toll the work has taken on her youth:

"Red Paint had fleshed and scraped the blackhorn hide and now sat waiting for the stones
to heat up. In a pot beside her, she had mixed the grease and brains with which she would
begin her tanning. She looked at her hands and was surprised to see how red and rough they
had become. They were no longer the hands of a girl. Her knuckles seemed larger and the
fingernails had dark crescents of grease beneath them."
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