Fools Crow chronicles the coming of age of White Man’s Dog, later Fools Crow, a member of the Blackfeet tribe of Indians during the 1860s. As they live and hunt along the western plains of the Montana Territory, the Pikuni people face harsh conditions and daily challenges, and each individual decision must be weighed against the good of the tribe. The communal nature of Pikuni life leaves little room for self-interest or greed, and when members of the tribe behave selfishly or ignore the needs of others, it often means trouble for the Pikunis as a whole. Through this representation of tribal life, author James Welch argues the importance of native community and the need to always balance personal desires with the greater needs of the group.
Throughout Fools Crow, the Pikuni people often forego their personal desires or needs for the sake of the tribe. After Yellow Kidney, a Pikuni warrior, disappears during a horse raid against the Crow, White Man’s Dog begins to hunt for Yellow Kidney’s family. Without Yellow Kidney, his family has no way to feed themselves, and White Man’s Dog takes on this responsibility in addition to his own hunting to ensure their survival. When Heavy Shield Woman, Yellow Kidney’s wife, fulfills the role of Sacred Vow Woman, a spiritual ritual which brings good luck and prosperity to the Pikuni people, she does so at great personal risk. In addition to fasting for several days and embarking on an arduous journey across the plains, Heavy Shield Woman must sell all her possessions to obtain the supplies needed for the vow and her success is not guaranteed; if the spiritual world deems her not powerful or virtuous enough, great harm will come to the Pikuni people, and she will be cast out despite her efforts.
Once Fast Horse, another young Pikuni warrior, is found to be at fault for Yellow Kidney’s capture and torture, the tribal elders must convince Boss Ribs, a respected member of the tribe and Fast Horse’s father, to banish his own son. Three Bears, the chief of the Lone Eaters, claims Fast Horse must be banished “for the good of his people,” as well as for the young man’s own safety. He fears retaliation by other tribal members for Fast Horse’s actions, and his presence in camp causes widespread unrest. To calm this conflict, Boss Ribs must turn away his son for the good of the people.
Lastly, as white settlers continue to encroach on Pikuni land, several tribal members wish to fight. Rides-at-the-door, White Man’s Dog’s father and a respected war chief, insists they stand down, fearing the violence of the United States military. Rides-at-the-door knows that his people won’t survive an attack by the seizers, stating, “If we treat wisely with them, we will be able to save enough for ourselves and our children. It is not an agreeable way, but it is the only way.” Rides-at-the-door too wishes to fight for their land, but for the good of the tribe, he must quell his desire and instead encourage peace with the white settlers. Each of these instances underscores the value of working towards the collective good.
Conversely, when members of the tribe act in self-interest, there are often dire consequences for all. Owl Child, a young Pikuni warrior, ignores his elders’ warnings to avoid the advancing settlers and begins to kill Napikwans (white settlers) and steal their horses. His behavior is an act of resistance, but it also serves to increase his own wealth, and Three Bears fears that 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 of the land.” Owl Child’s greed and vengeance thus endangers them all.
Similarly, it is Fast Horse’s boastful behavior that directly leads to Yellow Kidney’s capture and mutilation. When the Pikunis enter the Crow camp during a horse raid, Fast Horse loudly scoffs at the Crow and gives away the Pikunis’ location. Subsequently, Yellow Kidney is captured, and his fingers are savagely chopped off as a warning to future Pikuni who wish to rob the Crow. Fast Horse’s excessive pride effects not only Yellow Kidney, but the future of the tribe as well: without his fingers, Yellow Kidney can’t pull a bow or a trigger, and he won’t be able to hunt game or war enemies.
After Yellow Kidney returns to the Lone Eaters’ camp, White Man’s Dog is ordered by the chief to alert the outlying bands. As he approaches the camp of the Black Patched Moccasins, White Man’s Dog learns that the band’s chief, Little Dog, has been murdered by his own people. Little Dog had befriended the Napikwans and “put the interests of the Napikwans before those of the Pikunis.” Little Dog’s lone actions threatened the tribe’s way of life, and while the men who killed him certainly betrayed him in death, “it was [Little Dog] who betrayed the people.” The Black Patched Moccasins killed their chief for the good of the tribe and their sacred way of life.
Ultimately, it is Owl Child’s selfish actions that lead to the senseless massacre of nearly two hundred Pikuni. After Malcolm Clark, a local rancher, catches Owl Child stealing his horses and slaps him, humiliating him in front of his people, Owl Child kills Clark to save face. Owl Child’s violent revenge further strains the already tense relationship between the Blackfeet and the United States government, and the military responds by opening fire on the camp of Heavy Runner, a Pikuni chief who had previously been promised protection by the government. It is not long after the massacre, known historically as the Marias Massacre, that the Lone Eaters are forced to move north and abandon their ancestral lands. While Owl Child’s self-interest is surely not to blame for westward expansion, Welch implies that had Owl Child not sought revenge on Malcolm Clark, perhaps Heavy Runner’s camp would have been spared. Owl Child fails to act in the best interest of his people, and it is in this way that Welch argues the importance of the tribe over the importance of individual desire.
The Individual vs. the Collective Good ThemeTracker
The Individual vs. the Collective Good 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 had settled down into the routine of the winter camp but there were days when he longed to travel, to experience the excitement of entering enemy country. Sometimes he even thought of looking for Yellow Kidney. In some ways he felt responsible, at least partially so, for the horse-taker’s disappearance. When he slept he tried to will himself to dream about Yellow Kidney. Once he dreamed about Red Old Man’s Butte and the war lodge there, but Yellow Kidney was not in it. The country between the Two Medicine River and the Crow camp on the Bighorn was as vast as the sky, and to try to find one man, without a sign, would be impossible. And so he waited for a sign.
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.
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.
He had hated White Grass then, and it had been this hatred which gave him the strength to kill him. Now he felt a mild regret that his old enemy was no longer around. With his victory, Fox Eyes had lost something, the desire to make his enemies pay dearly, to ride among them with a savage heart. He had lived forty-three winters, and he wished to live forty-three more in peace.
[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.
The thought came into [Fools Crow’s] mind without warning, the sudden understanding of what Fast Horse found so attractive in running with Owl Child. It was this freedom from responsibility, from accountability to the group, that was so alluring. As long as one thought himself as part of the group, he would be responsible to and for that group. If one cut ties, he had the freedom to roam, to think only of himself and not worry about the consequences of his actions. So it was for Owl Child and Fast Horse to roam. And so it was for the Pikunis to suffer.