As White Man’s Dog and the other Pikuni Indians live, hunt, and war on the western plains of the Montana Territory, they are surrounded by signs of encroaching white settlers. The white man, or Napikwan, first appeared on Pikuni lands years earlier—even Rides-at-the-door, White Man’s Dog’s father, “picked up [English] from a missionary” as a child—but by White Man’s Dog’s eighteenth winter, the white presence has increased considerably and presents new dangers. The end of the Civil War brings traders, ranchers, and prospectors, and with it the end of the Pikunis’ way of life. From small pox infections to the arrival of alcohol known as white man’s water, the Napikwans are everywhere, and they are supported by the United States government and the violent blue-coat seizers. As more Pikuni land is stolen by the Napikwans, it becomes clear to White Man’s Dog, later deemed Fools Crow, that his people cannot withstand the power of the seizers. Yet despite the odds, Fools Crow and his people, the Lone Eaters, are determined to carry on their way of life. Through the resistance and resilience of the Lone Eaters, Welch at once condemns colonialism and western expansion as forces of destruction while celebrating the strength of the Pikuni people to survive in the face of oppression.
The invading Napikwans affect the Pikunis in many ways, most of which are detrimental to their native way of life. The white settlers want the Pikunis to stop hunting blackhorn, or buffalo, and instead graze their “puny” whitehorn cattle. Not only do White Man’s Dog and his people prefer the meat of the buffalo, but “only the blackhorn can provide for all the needs of the family.” The Pikunis use the entire buffalo from the hair to the hooves, and the smaller whitehorn is a poor substitution. As the Napikwans bring in more whitehorn, the plentiful blackhorn population is pushed further away from Pikuni land, making them more difficult to hunt. The Napikwans also force the Pikunis to “dig and plant seeds in the breast of Mother Earth.” White Man’s Dog and his people are accustomed to foraging for berries and digging up wild turnips; they are not native farmers, and the meager vegetables the Napikwan teach them to grow do not go far in feeding the tribe. Thus, the Pikunis are forced to continue hunting the dwindling blackhorn population.
Additionally, of all the goods that the Pikunis have come to trade with the Napikwan, the many-shots gun is the most coveted. The repeating rifle changes the way White Man’s Dog and his people war and hunt, and with the arrival of the trading houses, hunting is no longer just for subsistence but also for profit. More prime buffalo hides bring more goods at the trading houses, and a single rifle can cost several hides. The Pikunis’ desire for the white man’s luxuries continues to thin the waning buffalo population, moving them even further away from their native way of life.
Despite the oppression and violence of western expansion, however, the Pikuni people continue to resist the invading Napikwan presence. The Pikuni entered a treaty with the Napikwans some thirteen years earlier, and in exchange for needed goods and supplies, they granted the Napikwans use of large areas of their land. One of the conditions of the treaty was that the Pikuni stop warring against enemy tribes, but when the Napikwans fail to uphold their end of the treaty, the Pikuni continue to war for horses and honor. Fox Eyes, a Pikuni warrior, claims, “[The Napikwans] spoke high words that day, but they proved to be two-faced.” The Pikunis refuse to give the dishonest Napikwans more land and won’t be forced live on the white man’s terms. Owl Child forms a gang of disgruntled outcasts and vows to “make the Napikwans cry.” The gang robs and kills the white settlers every chance it gets, and while these violent actions ultimately lead to the slaughter of many Pikunis as well, their resistance to the Napikwans is clear. Owl Child and his gang won’t give up their land and way of life to the white man, and they are prepared to fight no matter the cost. After Owl Child robs and kills rancher Malcolm Clark and the Pikuni chiefs must go to the Four Horns agency to negotiate peace with the “white chiefs” of the United States military, they send only minor chiefs as an insult to the Napikwans. The Pikuni chiefs have little faith that the Napikwans will honor any agreements for peace, and they know that the government will be slighted by the absence of their major chiefs. The Pikunis stand little chance against the seizers and their attack is inevitable, but by insulting the white chiefs, they resist the Napikwans the only way they can.
By the end of the novel, nearly two hundred innocent Pikunis are slaughtered by the seizers despite having been promised protection by the United States government. A vision quest further reveals to Fools Crow that his way of life won’t survive the invasion of western expansion and that his people will have to leave their ancestral lands. Joe Kipp, a Pikuni half-breed, notes, “the [Pikuni] people have not changed […] but the world they live in has,” yet it is the Pikunis’ willingness to change that ultimately ensures their survival. Many of the Lone Eaters are hesitant to move north to the land of Siksikas because there are no blackhorns there. Not only do the Pikuni people revere blackhorns and prefer the wild meat above else, they are scornful of those who eat fish, the primary food of the Siksikas. After all, Red Paint fashions a bone hook while she and Fools Crow are away at the Backbone so that they can taste the flesh of “silver creatures” away from the judgement of the tribe. Moving north means adapting to this diet, and this is implied when the Lone Eaters leave their ancestral lands at the end of the novel. Through this willingness to change on their own terms, the Pikuni people resist near annihilation by the United States government, and it is with this resistance that Welch suggests that the Pikuni people can survive anything.
Colonialism and Western Expansion ThemeTracker
Colonialism and Western Expansion Quotes in Fools Crow
Yellow Kidney watched the young men as they chopped down some small spear-leaf trees. These are good human beings, he thought, not like Owl Child and his bunch. His face grew dark as he thought this. He had been hearing around the Pikunis that Owl Child and his gang had been causing trouble with the Napikwans, driving away horses and cattle, and had recently killed a party of woodcutters near Many Houses fort. It would be only a matter of time before the Napikwans sent their seizers to make war on the Pikunis. The people would suffer greatly.
[White Man’s Dog] pulled back the entrance skin and saw several dark shapes around the perimeter of the lodge. As his eyes adjusted, he saw that the shapes weren’t breathing. Then, opposite him, of the shapes lifted its sleeping robe and he saw that it was a young white-faced girl. She beckoned to him, and in fright he turned to leave. But as he turned away he looked back and saw that the girl’s eyes desired him. Then all the dark shapes began to move and he saw that they were all young girls, naked and with the same look in their eyes. The white-faced girl stood and held out her arms and White Man’s Dog moved toward her. It was at this point that he would wake up.
“I have had a bad dream and it troubles me. I came and went so fast, I could make little of it. In my dream I saw a small white horse wandering in the snow. Its hooves were split and it had sores all over. It was wearing a bridle and the reins trailed after it. But it was the eyes. I looked into the eyes and they were white and unseeing. As I drew closer I saw across its back fingers of blood.”
But [White Man’s Dog] killed many animals on his solitary hunts and he left many of them outside the lodge of Heavy Shield Woman. Sometimes he left a whole blackhorn there, for only the blackhorn could provide for all the needs of a family. Although the women possessed kettles and steel knives, they still preferred to make spoons and dippers out of the horns of the blackhorn. They used the hair of the head and heard to make braided halters and bridles and soft-padded saddles. They used the hooves to make rattles or glue, and the tails to swat flies. And they dressed the dehaired skins to make lodge covers and linings and clothes and winding cloths. Without the blackhorn, the Piknuis would be as sad as the little bigmouths who howled all night.
“It surprises you that I speak the language of the two-leggeds. It’s easy, for I have lived among you many times in my travel. I speak many languages. I converse with the blackhorns and the real-bears and the wood-biters. Bigmouth and I discuss many things.” Raven made a face. “I even deign to speak once in a while with the swift silver people who live in the water—but they are dumb and lead lives without interest. I myself am very wise. That is why Mik-api treats me to a smoke now and then.”
Three Bears turned to Fast Horse. “We do not want trouble with the whites. Now that the great war in that place where Sun Chief rises is over, the blue-coat seizers come out to our country. Their chiefs have warned us more than once that if we make life tough for their people, they will ride against us.” He pointed his pipe in the direction of Owl Child. “If these foolish young men continue their raiding and killing of the Napikwans, we will all suffer. The seizers will kill us, and the Pikuni people will be as the shadows on the land. This must not happen.”
But all that had changed now because Fast Horse had changed. He had become an outsider within his own band. He no longer sought the company of others, and they avoided him. The girls who had once looked so admiringly on him now averted their eyes when he passed. The young men considered him a source of bad medicine, and the older ones did not invite him for a smoke. Even his own father had begun to look upon him with doubt and regret. As for Fast Horse, the more he stared at the Beaver Medicine, the more it lost meaning for him. That would not be the way of his power. His power would be tangible and immediate.
White Man’s Dog looked into the wrinkled face and tried to read the emotions there. For while the lips were curved into a smile, the eyes had become wet. It was as though Mad Plume remembered Little Dog both fondly and sadly. Yet there was something else there, something in the way the lips trembled, as though he wanted to say something more. White Man’s Dog remember the reason given for the killing of Little Dog, and now he wondered if some part of Mad Plume not only understood that reason but perhaps condoned it. The killers of Little Dog felt the head chief had put the interests of the Napikwans before those of the Pikunis. It was he who betrayed the people.
“It is good to see you again, brother,” [Skunk Bear] said. “I have got myself caught again and there is no one around but you.”
“But why is it so white, Skunk Bear?” White Man’s Dog had to shield his eyes from the glare.
“That’s the way it is now. All the breathing things are gone—except for us. But hurry, brother, for I feel my strength slipping away.”
[Red Paint] sat back on her heels and watched the slippery swimmer that had stationed himself in an eddy behind a yellow rock. […] She had been tempted for three days now to catch him and taste his flesh. Her own people scorned those who ate the underwater swimmers, but she had a cousin who had married into the Fish Eaters band of the Siksikas, and he had become fond of the silver creatures. […] Today she would make a bone hook. She would catch him for Fools Crow. In the solitude of the Backbone they would taste the flesh of this swimmer together.
These people have not changed, thought Kipp, but the world they live in has. You could look at it one of two ways: Either their world is shrinking or that other world, the one the white man brought with him, is expanding. Either way, the Pikuni loses, and Kipp—well, Joe Kipp is somewhere in the middle—and has a job to do. He slipped a big gold Ingersoll from his waist-coat pocket and sprung the lid. One o’clock. He could deliver his message to the Lone Eaters and make the Hard Topknots’ camp by nightfall.
“We will lose our grandchildren, Three Bears. They will be wiped out or they will turn into Napikwans. Already some of our children attend their school at the agency. Our men wear trousers and the women prefer the trade-cloth to skins. We wear their blankets, cook in their kettles, and kill the blackhorns with their bullets. Soon our young women will marry them, like the Liars and the Cutthroats.”
“I do not fear for my people now. As you say, we will go to a happier place, far from the Napikwans, this disease and starvation. But I grieve for our children and their children, who will not know the life their people once lived. I see them on the yellow skin and they are dressed like Napikwans, they watch the Napikwans and learn much from them, but they are not happy. They lose their own way.”
“Much will be lost to them,” said Feather Woman. “But they will know the way it was. The stories will be handed down, and they will see that their people were proud and lived in accordance with the Below Ones, the Underwater People—and the Above Ones.”
“We must think of our children,” [Fools Crow] said. He lowered his eyes to the red puppy and it was quiet all around. The few survivors stared at the red puppy, who had rolled onto his back, his front legs tucked against his chest. They had no children.
From the fires of the camps, out on the rain-dark prairies, in the swales and washes, on the rolling hills, the rivers of great animals moved. Their backs were dark with rain and the rain gathered and trickled down their shaggy heads. Some grazed, some slept. Some had begun to molt. Their dark horns glistened in the rain as they stood guard over the sleeping calves. The blackhorns had returned, and, all around, it was as it should be.