Fools Crow Historical and Cultural Background

 

See Homelands 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. Urbana, ILL: National Council of English Teachers, 2004.

 

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

1. Buffalo pervasive in daily Blackfeet life

2. Relationship of Blackfeet to buffalo began to change with advent of repeating rifle, profits offered by fur traders, encroachment of settlers from east

 

Buffalo used for food, shelter and clothing

            Hides: tepees, robes, bedding, containers for storage, travel and cooking

            Sinew: thread

            Bones: tools, needles

            Hair: rope (combined with plant fibers)

            Hooves: glue

            Horns: ladles

            Chips: fuel

 

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

Effects:

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 with US government; 1858 gold discovered on reservation, brought tens of thousands of settlers to Montana; 1860s, stockmen began driving cattle from Texas to the Montana territories, crossing tribal territories. When 2 cultures collide, distrust, misunderstanding and misrepresentation abound:



Northern Plains Tribal Values                                                         European American Values

Communal                                                                                           individualistic

Mobile                                                                                                 sedentary

Polygamous                                                                                         monogamous

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


War
:  US idea of war completely foreign to most tribes; for Blackfeet, war was for wealth (horses) and masculine honor. Point of war was to acquire more horses, not to annihilate enemy. Run encroaching tribe away. Hit and run tactics with small causalities. Counting coup—touch enemy to gain honor from courage.


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

     And randomness

Makes mistakes, but usually corrects them                             Is infallible

Lives among his chosen people                                               Looks down on this chosen people

from afar

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.

 

Scarface/Poia

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

 supplies/protection

 

1869-70Third smallpox epidemic, again reduces population significantly

 

1870                     Baker Massacre—A U.S. Army force assaults a Pikuni camp on the Marias River,    

                       seeking revenge for the murder of a European American rancher married to a
                       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.

 

1873             Great Northern Reservation formed—Blackfeet are forced onto reservations; ends
      their economic relationship with buffalo.

 

1887             Dawes 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 side of Glacier National Park.

 

Names and Terms Used in Fools Crow

 

Blackfeet Nations

Kainahs (Bloods)

Siksikas (Blackfeet)

Pikunis (Piegan)


Other Nations:

Black Paint People—Nez Perce

Crow

Cutthroats—Assiniboine

Liars—Cree

Dirt Lodge People—Mandans

Entrails People—Gros Ventre

Flatheads—Salish

Parted Hairs—Sioux

Snakes

Spotted Horse People—Cheyenne

 

Animals

Big ears—jackrabbit

Bighorn—bighorn sheep

Blackhorn—buffalo

Blackhorn runner-a hunting horse

Prairie runner—antelope

Real-bear—grizzly bear

Skunk bear—wolverine

Sticky mouth—black bear

Ears-far-apart—owl

Elk dog—outdated term for horses

Little big mouth—coyote

Long leg—elk

Swift silver people—fish

Wags-his-tail—white-tailed deer

Whitehorn—cattle

Wood-biter—beaver

 

Religious Terms

Na’pi/Old Man—creator, trickster

Nitsokan—dream helper

Sun-creator

Sand Hills—where the dead go

 

Astronomical Terms

Night Red Light—the Sun’s wife

Morning Star—the son of the Sun

So-at-sa-ki--Feather Woman

Poia/Star Boy—Jupiter, Saturn, or another planet traveling in conjunction with Venus

Seven Persons—Big Dipper

Lost Children—Pleiades

Star-that-stands-still—North Start

Dusty Trail—Milky Way