Throughout protagonist White Man’s Dog’s transformation into Fools Crow, he and the other warriors of the Lone Eaters band of the Pikuni Indians frequently war with enemy tribes. Warring holds great significance within Pikuni culture, and it provides warriors with wealth in the form of horses and power; Pikuni society is patriarchal, and authority over other men—and women—is obtained through warring. Only successful warriors have many horses and wives, which leads to higher social standing. The Pikuni people war to defend their honor and win bragging rights, and they war to defend their land from invading white settlers. Despite the cultural importance of war, however, the Pikuni warriors are often destroyed by the fighting and grow to regret previous attacks on their enemies. Welch’s representation of war and its spoils in Fools Crow places its violence in a critical light and suggests that the devastation of westward expansion is hastened by the warring of both the United States and the Pikuni people. In this way, Welch questions the usefulness and morality of war. War may present a momentary means to honor, power, and glory, but constant warring is ultimately an untenable and destructive way of life.
War is central to Pikuni life, and it is a means to various ends for the Blackfeet Indians. When Fools Crow is first introduced as White Man’s Dog, he has only “three horses and no wives,” and he hopes that joining a raiding party against the enemy Crow with Yellow Kidney, an experienced Pikuni warrior and horse thief, will turn this misfortune around. Fools Crow looks to war to gain wealth and respect. After Yellow Kidney is captured and tortured by the Crow during the raid, Fools Crow and the other Lone Eaters vow revenge. They plan to attack the Crow camp and target Bull Shield, the chief of the Crow and the warrior who mutilated Yellow Kidney by chopping off his fingers. The Pikunis pledge that Bull Shield’s head “be cut off so that our friend Yellow Kidney may sleep well in his lodge.” The Crow have stripped Yellow Kidney of his honor, and the Pikunis plan to retrieve it through war.
As white settlers continue to move west, and the United States government pushes the Pikuni people from their native lands, Owl Child and Fast Horse, two young Pikuni warriors, begin warring against the white settlers. With the help of a small gang of fellow Pikuni outcasts, the young warriors rob and kill the white settlers as frequently as they are able, to resist continued westward expansion and avenge the theft of their land. Each of these instances reflects the importance of war within Pikuni culture to secure wealth and honor, and to resist oppression.
However, as the Pikunis continue to wage war in various forms, the aging warriors lose their taste for violence, often becoming embittered by this tribal responsibility. After the raid on the Crow camp, in which he is forced to kill a young Crow night-rider to avoid being discovered, Fools Crow is haunted by his decision to take the young warrior’s life. This disillusionment and distaste for war is deepened after Fools Crow’s marriage to Red Paint, Yellow Kidney’s daughter. By the time she becomes pregnant with their child, he no longer wishes to risk his life for wealth and glory. “I have never had such responsibility,” Fools Crow says to Red Paint, “and it makes me cry to think of you alone.” Fools Crow’s growing family causes him to question the act of war.
As Fox Eyes, a respected and experienced war chief, readies the Pikuni warriors to attack the Crow and avenge Yellow Kidney’s dishonor, his heart isn’t in it. Fox Eyes reflects on a previous war in which he killed White Grass, a famed warrior of the enemy Entrails People, and now he feels “a mild regret that his old enemy is 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.” Fox wants to live the remainder of his life in peace, and when he is killed in the war with the Crow, his own questions over the act of war become much more powerful.
After Fast Horse is found to be responsible for Yellow Kidney’s misfortune, and subsequently banishes himself and joins Owl Child’s gang of outcasts, his own distaste for war grows with his body count. Surprisingly, Fast Horse too is affected by the all the death, and when he finds Yellow Kidney shot dead by a white settler, Fast Horse delivers his body back to the Lone Eaters’ camp and heads north to Canada, never seeing his people again. Despite his initial excitement for war, even Fast Horse cannot tolerate the repeated violence.
Unlike the Pikunis, the United States military strives for utter destruction during war. The blue-coat seizers are not interested in horses or honor; instead, they are concerned with the deadly pursuit of the Pikunis’ ancestral lands, and in their desire for more, the government justifies the genocide and forced assimilation of countless Blackfeet Indians. The relationship between the United States government and the Blackfeet people further deteriorates as the Pikunis’ continue to war with enemy tribes and Owl Child’s gang responds to white settlers with violence. While the Pikunis are certainly not responsible for the heinous acts of the United State military, Welch suggests that the Marias Massacre, the slaughter of nearly two hundred innocent Pikunis in response to Owl Child’s violence against the white settlers, may have been avoided with less readiness to turn to mass violence. In the Pikunis’ case, the risks of war certainly outweigh the benefits.
War Quotes in Fools Crow
[White Man’s Dog] had never touched the body of a woman. His friends teased him and called him dog-lover. […] [A friend] offered White Man’s dog some of his Liars’ Medicine to make himself attractive but it did no good. Even the bad girls who hung around the forts wanted nothing to do with him. Because he did not own a fine gun and a strong horse they ignored him.
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] prayed to Sun Chief, who watched over the Pikunis and all the things of this world. Then he dropped his head and made a vow. He vowed that if he was successful and returned home unharmed, he would sacrifice before the Medicine Pole at the next Sun Dance. Finally, he sang his war song, his voice low and distinct. When he lifted his head he saw that the other men had painted their faces. Yellow Kidney had painted the left half of his face white with a series of small blue dots in a familiar pattern. Seven Persons, thought White Man’s Dog.
“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.”
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.”
“[…] It was there, that day while looking at my scars and my hands, that I knew why I had been punished so severely. As you men of the warrior societies know, in all things, to the extent of my ability, I have tried to act honorably. But there in that Crow lodge, in that lodge of death, I had broken one of the simplest decencies by which people live. In fornicating with the dying girl, I had taken her honor, her opportunity to die virtuously. I have taken the path traveled only by the meanest scavengers. And so Old Man, as he created me, took away my life many times and left me like this, worse than dead, to think of my transgression every day, to be reminded every time I attempt the smallest act that men take for granted.”
In six days White Man’s Dog would ride with the war party against the Crows. As she rubbed her neck and looked off to the Sweet Grass Hills, she felt again the dread that came whenever she allowed herself to think. She had tried to stay busy, but even a momentary lapse in concentration allowed that dreaded thought to steal through her whole body. She knew that war parties were part of a man’s life and she knew that she should be proud that White Man’s Dog had been selected to count coup on behalf of her father, Yellow Kidney. But it was because of Yellow Kidney that she felt so fearful.
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.
White Man’s Dog stood and watched the burial and thought of the afternoon a few days before when Sun Chief hid his face. And he thought of Fox Eyes riding down on Bull Shield instead of taking the simple shot that would have killed the Crow. White Man’s Dog couldn’t shake the feeling that Fox Eyes knew he was going to die, perhaps even wanted to. Only great chiefs died when Sun hid his face.
“You saw our war party attack the camp of Bull Shield!”
“Oh, yes. You killed twenty-three men. Alas, you also killed six women and one child.” Raven sighed. “Such is war.”
“Then you saw me kill the two warriors!” Fools Crow exclaimed. “You saw me trick Bull Shield!”
Raven reached down and picked at the silver bracelet. It jingled on the rock, the tiny sound echoing around the basin. “I don’t think you fooled him, do you? The one you got your name for?”
Fools Crow felt his face grow hot with shame. “I fell,” he said weakly. “I thought I had been shot. I had been shot, but…”
“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.