We turn back the clock as Welch draws on historical sources and Blackfeet cultural stories in order to explore the past of his ancestors. As a result, he provides a basis for a new understanding of the past and the forces that led to the deciding factor of the Plains Indian tribes. Although Fools Crow reflects the pressure to assimilate inflicted by the white colonizers on the Blackfeet tribes, it also portrays the influence of economic changes during this period. The prosperity created by the hide trade does not ultimately protect the tribe from massacre by the white soldiers. It does, however, effectively change the Blackfeet economy and women’s place in their society. Thus, it sets the stage for the continued deterioration of their societal system. Although their economic value is decreased, women still represent an important cog in the economic structure. Indeed, women are central to the survival of the Blackfeet tribal community that Welch creates and in many ways this strength and centrality provide background for the strength of the women depicted in his more contemporary novels. Welch’s examination of the past leads to a clearer understanding of the present Blackfeet world presented throughout his work.
James Welch relies heavily on documented Blackfeet history and family stories, but he merges those actual events and people with his imagination and thus creates a tension between fiction and history, weaving a tapestry that reflects a vital tribal community under pressure from outside forces. Welch re-imagines the past in order to document history in a way that includes past and future generations, offers readers insight into the tribal world-views of the Blackfeet, examines women’s roles in the tribe, and leads to a recovery of identity. Welch also creates a Blackfeet world of the late 1800s–a tribal culture in the process of economic and social change as a result of the introduction of the horse and gun and the encroachment of the white invaders or “seizers” as Welch identifies them.
Significantly, Welch deconstructs the myth that Plains Indian women were just slaves and beasts of burden and presents them as fully rounded women, women who were crucial to the survival of the tribal community. In fact, it is the women who perform the day-to-day duties and rituals that enable cultural survival for the tribes of the Plains. Through Fools Crow, we enter a centuries-old society that was altered by the introduction of the horse and gun to the Plains Indians in the mid-1700s and by the devastation of two epidemics of the “white scab” disease. The novel is set in the late 1860s, and the Blackfeet have “now regained their strength and are a powerful and confident people.” More specifically, women’s economic place in the community was affected by the introduction of the horse to the Blackfeet, which occurred around 1720 and changed the nature of buffalo hunting. Before the horse and hide trade, the life of Plains tribes was closer to the margins. When American Indians hunted on foot with bow and arrows, the killing of the buffalo or “blackhorn” was a community effort–an effort that offered women an equal role. The large-scale methods of hunting were the most successful and also included a large number of people, resulting in solidarity within the tribes and bands. These collective hunting methods affected the economic and political system and resulted in collective ownership of the hides and the goods traded for them. With the horse, hunters could travel to the buffalo, and their efficiency was increased. Thus, hunting was increasingly individualized. Social dynamics and the role of women changed, as hunting became primarily the work of young men. The horse was both a technological factor and a commodity. These changes affected not only women’s economic status but also the dynamics of individual and communal relations. The women were necessary to process the hides that the men needed for trading, but horses were necessary for hunting the buffalo to obtain the hides in the first place.
By the opening of Welch’s novel, the horse is the center of Blackfeet society. Welch’s protagonist, Fools Crow, assesses his wealth and status in life: “He had little to show for his eighteen winters. His father, Rides-at-the-door, had many horses and three wives. He himself had three horses and no wives. His animals were puny, not a blackhorn runner among them”. Because of the importance of the hide trade to the welfare of the Plains Indians, the two vital elements that a man’s wealth and personal status depended on were the accumulation of wives and horses. Welch underscores the importance of the horse to the Blackfeet early in the novel. Fools Crow participates in a raid on a Crow village in order to strengthen his personal power through stealing horses and increasing his wealth. He earns twenty horses in the raid, and although he gives five to the medicine man, Mik-api, he feels “that his change for fortune was complete. Mik-api’s prayers in the sweat lodge for him had been answered. The yellow painted signs were strong, and he had been strong enough in his endeavor. He had not taken a buffalo-runner but he was satisfied”. That Welch describes this raid in great detail signifies the importance of raiding to the Plains Indians. According to Klein, raiding represented a secondary institution to hunting. Since the Plains tribes did not breed their horses, the main way they obtained them was by stealing them from other tribes or whites during a raid. Other goods were taken as well but most importantly, all the goods taken in a raid became privately owned and since the raid was an essentially male activity, horses became the private property of men. Although in Fools Crow, Rides-at-the-door has three wives, Fools Crow has only one, Red Paint. In the novel, she initially tans hides as well as works on crafts such as her beadwork. She takes special pride in the work that will bring her personal ownership of trade goods and she is valued for the quality of her beadwork. She helps support her family by taking up “beadwork for other people, particularly young men who had no one to do it for them. She was good and her elaborate patterns were becoming the talk of the camp.” She exchanges the beadwork for skins, meat, and cloth to help her family. Hunting is a man’s job and she realizes that “without a hunter, they might have to move on to another band, to the Many Chiefs, to live with her uncle, who had offered to take them in.” Later, after her marriage to Fools Crow, she does not complain of the intensive labor required for the hide tanning, but Welch depicts the toll the work has taken on her youth:
“Red Paint had fleshed and scraped the blackhorn hide and now sat waiting for the stones to heat up. In a pot beside her, she had mixed the grease and brains with which she would begin her tanning. She looked at her hands and was surprised to see how red and rough they had become. They were no longer the hands of a girl. Her knuckles seemed larger and the fingernails had dark crescents of grease beneath them.”
Women’s roles are illustrated throughout the novel as he refers to their cooking kettles and bowls and spoons and dippers made out of the horns of the blackhorn. The women utilize every part of the buffalo that the men bring home: “They used the hair of the head and beard to make braided halters and bridles and soft padded saddles. They used the hoofs 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.”
The women in Fools Crow perform the jobs that give the tribal community the ability to exist on the plains. There would be no survival without their attention to the day-to-day necessities of life.
Welch also paints a portrait of human behavior as he explores the relationship between women in the polygamous marriage of Rides-at-the-door. His first wife, Double Strike Woman, convinces Rides-at-the-door that she needs help around the lodge. Although she is glad he had taken Striped Face for his second wife, she felt strange the first time he had gone with Striped Face to her smaller lodge.
Double Strike Woman and Striped Face have a warm relationship, but there is more distance between them and the third wife, Kills-close-to-the-lake. Rides-at-the-door had taken her in as a wife as a favor to a man who had been unlucky and poor all his life. As she left her father’s lodge with Rides-at-the-door and his two wives, she had felt bitter and was later unhappy in his lodge. She brought a tension to his lodge and saw herself as “little more than a slave to the two other wives.” Kills-close-to-the-lake desires a man of her own and attempts to seduce both Fools Crow and his brother Running Fisher. She ultimately sleeps with Running Fisher and when discovered, Rides-at-the-door sends her back to her father and banishes Running Fisher to the relatives of Double Strike Woman. In the actions of Kills-close-to-the-lake, Welch depicts a woman’s resistance to both polygamy and the subservient position often created within a marriage arrangement under the new economic system of the nineteenth century.
In Fools Crow, Welch’s tribal community is not entirely patriarchal in nature but leans slightly to a bilateral position of power between men and women. The economic changes in the nineteenth century saw a slight shift in the gender balance in favor of male economic roles. Although in Fools Crow, men or councils of men make all major decisions, women are listened to and not ignored. For example, in the decision to banish Running Fisher from the community, his mother, Double Strike Woman, has no input; however the importance of her happiness to her husband is depicted as she mourns for her two sons–one banished and one missing for many sleeps–and it is “only by much talking and soothing that Rides-at-the-door can convince her that it was not time to mourn, that both were still alive and both would return to her.” He goes with her into the winter night to pray to Sun Chief for their safe return. He also takes partial blame for Kills-close-to-the-lake’s infidelity, and he tells her:
“I have wronged you, my young wife. I brought you into my lodge and then neglected you. I allowed my other wives to treat you badly. And now I caused you to commit this bad thing with my young son. I ask you to forgive me–but I do not forgive you. You bring dishonor into my lodge.”
Rides-at-the-door’s concern for the emotional health of his wives reflects the hidden economic power the women held within the family as well as genuine concern for his wife’s emotional well being.
Just as Fools Crow reaches back to the past in an effort to provide for Yellow Kidney’s family, he looks to the future near the end of the novel and tells the survivor of the massacre at Marias River: “It is good you are alive. You will have much to teach the young ones about the Napikwans.” He remembers Feather Woman’s vision of Pikuni children, “quiet and huddled together, alone and foreign in their own country” and says, “We must think of our children.” Transcending time through imagination leads to a unification of past and present, and reflecting on the roles women fulfilled in the past and their relative position of balance in contemporary Blackfeet society leads to the conclusion that it is the day-to-day functions they performed that enabled cultural survival. Tribal world-view demands attention to everyday tasks to achieve the balance needed for survival and it was the women who were grounded and provided the center for the community. The theme that James Welch has presented to us about a Blackfeet world “endangered but intact where men and women know who and where they are.” Plays a big part in our own lives; we all need to find our self in this world and act upon it.