Fools Crow Historical and Cultural Background
Map in the back of the novel
From Goebel, Bruce A. “Fools
Crow and the Nineteenth Century Blackfeet” in
Reading Native American Literature: A Teacher’s Guide.
Fools Crow follows an adolescent’s journey from boyhood to
becoming a warrior, medicine man and tribal leader, with the looming demise of
the Blackfeet tribe’s traditional way of life as the backdrop. The novel focuses
on the character White Man’s Dog, a teenage Blackfeet boy who is anxious about
his social status, especially in comparison to his popular friend Fast Horse.
Both boys hope to establish themselves as respected men through hunting ad
acquiring wealth through trading and participating in raids on Blackfeet
enemies. They are also both faced with how to best respond to the threat posed
by the settlers who have come into their territory. How these two boys respond
to this challenge is the core of the novel.
Buffalo Economy of Northern Plains explains growing conflict between Plains tribes and settlers
2. Relationship of Blackfeet to buffalo began to change with advent of repeating rifle, profits offered by fur traders, encroachment of settlers from east
Hides: tepees, robes, bedding, containers for storage, travel and cooking
Bones: tools, needles
Hair: rope (combined with plant fibers)
Rifle, fur traders, trading posts (early-mid 19th century)
Could now kill more than for subsistence; enticed to kill buffalo to trade for cloth, guns and ammunition, flour, coffee, alcohol
1) undermined communal nature of tribe; acquisition of wealth began to compete with communal respect for health of tribe
2) depleted buffalo herds and caused tribes to range father at time settlers claiming more land.
Understanding how rapid, complete, and culturally traumatic this transformation was from subsistence hunting to harvesting for profit to the loss of the buffalo helps place Fools Crow’s trials in a broader context; protagonists’ struggles are between individualism and communal responsibility in the face of cultural change.
Seasonal Rounds: bands (80 to 160 people per band) would move camp about 20 times a year in careful cycle to harvest buffalo, plants, and berries, winter shelter, trading post visits.
More than other Plains tribes, Blackfeet resisted incursions of whites. Seldom allowed traders to come into their territory, and killed dozens of trappers who threatened the beaver.
1869-70 timeframe of novel follows 3 decades of rapid
change; disruptive presence of fur traders, Jesuits make 1st
permanent white settlements and other missionaries arrive; 1855 first treaty
Northern Plains Tribal Values European American Values
Respect for earth and animals nature/animals to be owned/conquered
Rule by consensus rule by hierarchy
Focus on the present focus on the future
Native spiritual beliefs Christian
Social Structure: 3 Tribes: Bloods Siksikas, Pikunis; composed of bands of 80-100 people
Political Structure: democratic, decentralized, nonbinding; lead by respect for leadership; individual bands free to dissent and act on their own
Marriage: most marriages monogamous, men with sufficient wealth and status were allowed more than one wife; rise in polygamy: labor division, where men hunt, women process animals; hunt and intertribal warfare took toll on men so many more women than men; polygamy functioned as social safety net that offered economic support to women who were displaced by the loss of a husband or lack of available men. Second white was usually sister of 1st wife which east social tension of such relationships. Marriages were patriarchal; some gender complementarity.
Dreams and vision quests: Dreams could foretell the future, contain gifts of knowledge, explain events, answer questions and suggest courses of action. Taken very seriously. Vision quests were more deliberate; someone seriously troubled might embark on quest, alone to fast up to 4 days to elicit visions and guidance. Fools Crow embarks on 3 quests that include visions.
Sacred Stories: Welch incorporates Blackfeet sacred stories in the novel, especially those of Napi/Old Man, Feather Woman, and Scarface
Na’pi/Old Man Creator/Trickster
Na’pi’s creative acts are sometimes random or accidental and at other times conscious problem solving through trial and error. Sometimes the humor and penchant for gambling in Blackfeet culture reveals itself in the way Na’pi decides whether people should die for only four days or forever.
Na’pi of the Blackfeet Genesis God of the Old Testament Genesis
Creates while living on the earth Creates from afar
Creates out of playfulness, artfulness Creates with a master plan
Makes mistakes, but usually corrects them Is infallible
Lives among his chosen people Looks down on this chosen people
Teaches practical and spiritual things Offers spiritual commandments
Is firm in judgment but leaves people to Is stern and quick with punishment
The consequences of their actions
Has a sense of humor Has no sense of humor
Likes to play Has no sense of play
Is capable of greed Has no apparent material desires
Is capable of being foolish Is all-knowing and infallible
Na’pi and the Sun seem to overlap in responsibility for creation. Most sacred stories, especially those referring to genesis, tend to defy formal logic and literal interpretation. Na’pi and Sun might be best thought of as alternate representations of the same creative spirit, somewhat analogous to the way the same God is represented in each of the separate parts of the Christian Trinity.
This is a story of love and an archetypal quest. Its importance lies in its explanation of the origin of the medicine lodge, its definition of appropriate masculinity, and as an introduction to the sky deities who also play a role in the story of Feather Woman. On the surface, Scarface’s task is to gain permission from the Sun to marry the beautiful girl; however, embedded within this challenge is the further task of proving himself worthy of favor in the eyes of the Sun. Compared with the young men who define their worth by fancy dress and dancing and who treat the poor with taunts and laughter, Scarface offers a quiet integrity that proves far more effective not only for him but also for the entire tribe because it brings them the gift of the medicine lodge and ritual of the sacred-vow woman.
FeatherWoman or So-at-sa-ki
Feather Woman plays a major role in helping Fools Crow become a leader and a healer for his people. Her act of disobedience leads directly to a series of consequences that affect her and her people. In disobeying Sun, he banishes her from his home, separating her from her husband, Morning Star. Morning Star is frequently visible in the sky, so she is in a continual state of loss and mourning, always longing for a return that will not happen. In addition, her actions bring disfavor on her people. But Feather Woman is also responsible for introducing Poia (Scarface) to her people; teaching them the story of her time among the Sun, Moon, and Stars; as well as bringing elements and tools of the Sun Dance. She guides her people in the proper way to respect and praise the Sun, helping to mitigate the disfavor she has brought on them. Feather Woman is a perfect representation of the state of guilt, mourning, and hope that pervades the ending of Fools Crow.
Important Dates on Northern Plains/Fools Crow
1781 1st smallpox epidemic decimates northern Plains tribes
1806 Meriwether Lewis’s party kills 2 Blackfeet men
1833 Blackfeet population exceeds 20,000
1837 2nd smallpox epidemic reduces the population by more than ½
1855 First treaty with whites encourages Blackfeet to take up farming and allows for
construction of roads and garrisons; Blackfeet cede land in return for
1869-70Third smallpox epidemic, again reduces population significantly
seeking revenge for the murder of a European American rancher married to
Pikuni woman. The band was led by cooperative Chief Heavy Runner, yet 15 men,
90 women, and 50 children under the age of 12 were massacred.
Northern Reservation formed—Blackfeet are forced onto reservations; ends
their economic relationship with buffalo.
Allotment Act—divides communal land into 160 acre plots to each head of
household. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) insists on farming allotments, not
ranching, and makes individual sale of tribal property possible, resulting in land
acquisition by non-natives. Last few decades of 19th century and well into 20th,
Blackfeet denied the right to worship in their native way, denied burial traditions,
and forced to send their children to boarding schools, where they were allowed to
speak only English and forced to become Christian and learn “civilized” ways.
Today, the Blackfeet are, like most tribes, impoverished.
But they are experiencing a cultural resurgence, sustaining their native
language, running tribal colleges, and developing a tourism industry on the east
Names and Terms Used in Fools Crow
Black Paint People—Nez Perce
Dirt Lodge People—
Entrails People—Gros Ventre
Spotted Horse People—
Blackhorn runner-a hunting horse
Sticky mouth—black bear
Elk dog—outdated term for horses
Little big mouth—coyote
Swift silver people—fish
Na’pi/Old Man—creator, trickster
Sand Hills—where the dead go
Night Red Light—the Sun’s wife
Morning Star—the son of the Sun
Poia/Star Boy—Jupiter, Saturn, or another planet traveling in conjunction with Venus
Seven Persons—Big Dipper
Dusty Trail—Milky Way