Fool's Crow by James Welch - Book Review
The Pikuni people of James Welch’s novel Fools Crow were motivated by a number of interrelated and often complementary priorities, among them personal honor, collective strength, spiritual harmony and power, family relationships, and individual desires. Often, an individual’s pursuit of a good life improved the community’s fortune and status. The collective Pikuni society, in turn, valued the community’s long-term health and viability, and the happiness of individual tribal members. Fools Crow best characterized this symbiotic relationship with his dual quest for personal fulfillment and tribal survival. Other times, individual desires were at odds with good of the larger community, as were those of Kills-too-close-to-the-lake, or dangerous to the existence to the Pikuni people, as was the case with Fast Horse. Using these three examples, this paper will examine the ways personal values and motivations intersected with the greater good of the Pikuni society, and probe more deeply into what it meant for a Pikuni to live a good life at this time.
White Man’s Dog’s desires for status, wealth, and family matched his tribe’s need for accomplished men with strong medicine that was evident through their success as warriors, hunters, and husbands. White Man’s Dog’s desire for horses and a lodge of his own led him on a warrior’s path, and exaggerated tales of his bravery during the raid on the Crow brought honor and prestige to the Lone Eaters and White Man’s Dog, and transformed him into Fools Crow. Fools Crow did not need to lose his own identity to that of the Lone Eaters, but instead worked within the social space of the tribe to achieve personal and collective satisfaction. For example, he rejected his father’s choice of Little Bird Woman as a wife, even though the marriage would have benefited his family, and added to the status of the Lone Eaters, and instead pursed the emotional and physical attraction he felt for Red Paint. However, his marriage to Red Paint was also a union of his own personal desires and the greater good, he was able to marry for love while also supporting Yellow Kidney’s family, and the integrity of the tribal collective.
A vital aspect to Fools Crow’s conception of a good life was his growing spiritual power and understanding, and his medicine contributed to the tribe, both as a practical augmentation of the Lone Eaters’ prestige, and as a conduit of warning and wisdom that could prevent the extinction of the tribe. Fools Crow recognized how his own choices and values merged with the needs and motivations of his tribe. As he searched for Fast Horse, he understood the appeal of individualism, of finding his identity and happiness outside of the layers of responsibility he had to his tribe, but he continued to find his personal satisfaction within his pursuit of the greater good of his people.
Kills-too-close-to-the-lake could not find her personal satisfaction within her ability to contribute to the strength, status, or health of the Lone Eaters. As a third wife, she had fewer opportunities to improve her position than did Fools Crow, and far less space in her family or tribe to find a way to live a good life. Perhaps motherhood would have bought her happiness and allowed her to satisfy her needs and desires, while also benefiting Pikuni society. Instead Kills-too-close-to-the-lake experienced a destructive kind of loneliness that prompted her to seek emotional and physical connection with her husband’s sons. Her choices were at odds with the motivations of Pikuni society, and instead of building the next generation, she risked the disgrace of Rides-at-the-door, and the potential divisions this could foster within the tribe. However, Kill-too-close-to-the-lake’s self-centered choices were understood by her husband as a reflection of his own failings as a spouse and tribal elder who sought to display his wealth by taking a third wife. Ultimately, Kills-to-close-to-the-lake was given a second chance to return to her family and seek both personal happiness and a position within her community, illustrating the ability of Pikuni society to negotiate the tension between individual and collective priorities.
Fast Horse chose to engage in behavior that endangered Pikuni society. His violence against whites threatened the safety of his people, his rejection of Pikuni values deprived the Lone Eaters of a warrior and husband, and his life with Owl Child deeply hurt the people who loved him. His inability to integrate his desires for individual acclaim and personal pride into a community-oriented set of motivations and values manifested during the raid on the Crows, when his vision undermined the confidence of the war party and his boasting compromised the safety of Yellow Kidney. After he left the Lone Eaters, Fast Horse lived a life without accountability, as Fools Crow had imagined, yet his values and choices remained linked to his Pikuni community. His hatred of whites sprang from his need to resist the threat that the Napikwans posed to future generations of Pikuni people, and he shared this motivation with other Pikunis, Like Mountain Chief. Fast Horse did not reject the Pikuni understanding of a good life as much as he reflected the growing powerlessness of Pikuni people to live a good life in the face of massacres, diseases, and settlements. He recognized the harm that could come to the Lone Eaters as a result of his actions, but there was no tribal mechanism in place to bridge this chasm and bring him back into the community. The love, family and friendship that Fools Crow offered Fast Horse could not mend the damage Fast Horse’s destructive choices had wrought.
In many ways, the cleavage between Fast Horse and the Lone Eaters reflected the divisions within the larger Pikuni society in the wake of white encroachment. The congruous relationship between the motivations of Pikuni society and the values of individual Pikuni people was not fragile, as shown by Fools Crow’s transformation and growth, and Kills-too-close-to-the-lake’s second chance at a good life. Yet the balance between the individual and the collective was ultimately compromised by the invasion of the “seizers”, and the opportunities for Pikuni people to combine community responsibility with personal satisfaction in order to achieve a good life were diminished and complicated, but not destroyed. Fools Crow demonstrated the ability of individual Pikunis to pursue survival as an expression of both self and collective, and provided hope that the intricate system of Pikuni values and motivations would survive.