Fools Crow

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For the traditional Lakota leader, see Frank Fools Crow.
Fools Crow
Fools Crow.jpg
Author James Welch
Country United States
Language English
Genre Contemporary American Fiction, Native American
Publisher Viking
Publication date
Media type Print (Hardback & Paperback)
Pages 391 pp (Paperback edition)
ISBN ISBN 0-14-008937-3 (Paperback edition)
OCLC 15366761
813/.54 19
LC Class PS3573.E44 F66 1987

Fools Crow is a novel written by author James Welch. Set in Montana shortly after the Civil War, this novel tells of White Man's Dog (later known as Fools Crow), a young Blackfoot Indian on the verge of manhood, and his tribe, known as the Lone Eaters. The invasion of white society threatens to change their traditional way of life, and they must choose to fight or assimilate. The story is a powerful portrait of a fading way of life. The story culminates with the Marias Massacre of 1870 in which the U.S. Cavalry knowingly slaughtered innocent Blackfeet.

Plot summary[edit]

The novel takes place in 1870 in the lives of the southern Blackfeet people. The main character, White Man's Dog, joins his friend Fast Horse in a night-time raid against the Crows. White Man's Dog is portrayed as weak and powerless compared to the others. Because of that, he visits the medicine man. Yellow Kidney appoints White Man's Dog to lead the other young warriors in stealing a herd of horses. White Man's Dog is at first a little scared that he has been chosen, but he sings his warrior songs to gain courage. As they drive the horses away from the village, a scout appears. White Man's Dog rushes in and kills the scout before the alarm can be raised. Fast Horse shouts out and awakens the village and the Crows begin searching for the intruders. As Yellow Kidney attempts to steal the buffalo runners he is seen. He does whatever he has to, to stay hidden. Yellow Kidney hides in a lodge where he finds a number of apparently sleeping figures. When he hears his pursuers outside, he hides beneath the robes (sleeping bag) of a young girl. Pressed against her naked and feverish body, he becomes aroused and strokes her breasts and vagina and has sexual intercourse with the girl before he realizes that she and her companions are dying of a disease called White Scabs. As he tries to escape, Yellow Kidney is shot in the thigh and captured. As punishment for his crime, the Crows cut off his fingers before tying him to a horse and sending him out of the camp into a driving snowstorm.

White Man's dog returns to his tribe where he gains respect for his success in the raid. Feeling responsible for Yellow Kidney’s loss because he did not reveal the full contents of a recurrent prophetic dream, he begins to provide Yellow Kidney's family with food and supplies. After some time, Yellow Kidney returns to the camp and tells the story of Fast Horse's foolishness. Shamed by his actions, Fast Horse leaves the tribe and joins Owl Child and his band of renegades in killing the encroaching Napikwans (white people).

During the time he was missing, Yellow Kidney's wife, Heavy Shield Woman, makes a vow that should Yellow Kidney return, she will be the Medicine Woman at the Sun Dance. This is an unusual request as "...most bands did not like to have a woman declare herself for this role; if she failed, it would bring dishonor on them and disfavor from Sun Chief himself..." (p 44), and upon Yellow Kidney's return, White Man's Dog is sent to obtain consent from the other bands of Pikunis. After his return, he marries Red Paint, the daughter of Heavy Shield Woman and Yellow Kidney.

While at the Sun Dance, White Man's Dog gains his first spirit animal, by releasing Wolverine from a trap. He also partakes in a ceremony in which he cuts his breasts open and implants pegs attached to a medicine pole. He dances around the pole until the ropes snap and he passes out. He does this to purify himself from feeling sexual desire for his father's third wife, Kills-close-to-the-lake. He has a dream where he finds her along a stream, naked, and they confront each other about their sexual tension. She leaves with him a white stone the size of a finger. He wakes up to find this rock beside him. Towards the end of the ceremony, Kills-close-to-the-lake tells him she sacrificed her finger to purify herself from the same sexual desires. Red Paint becomes pregnant and they decide to name the child "Sleep Bringer". The name Sleep Bringer derives from a butterfly which Red Paint saw at the exact moment she was starting to think she was pregnant.

White Man's Dog earns his name, Fools Crow, after he goes back to the Crow tribe and is able to scalp their chief, Bull Shield, by pretending to be dead. Rumors spread that he had used his good medicine to confuse the Crows, hence the name Fools Crow. In his second dream, Fools Crow is ordered by the raven to kill a mountain man who has been hunting animals for fun and leaving their bodies to rot. In the culture of Pikunis, this is seen as a heinous act. Fools Crow uses Red Paint as bait, but then the hunter realizes this. Fools Crow knows this, and rushes in to kill him, but the Napikwan puts up a tough fight. In the end, Fools Crow is able to kill the foe, but he is injured by a spear wound. However, the scalp that he gets is of a wolf. Fools Crow is slated to take over Dry Bones and learn the Beaver medicine.

Yellow Kidney decides to leave the tribe, seeing how distant the whole world seems to him after his injury. While out alone, he decides to go back and name Red Paint's offspring Yellow Calf. He accepts the facts of what has happened to him and realizes that he is still able to live normally without the use of his fingers. However, before he can go back, he is shot by a Napikwan who had vowed to avenge a farmer, whose family was terrorized by Owl Child's gang.

Running Fisher is caught having an affair with his father's third wife, Kills-close-to-the-lake. Rides-at-the-Door's second wife alerts him of this, and he banishes Running Fisher to another tribe and sends Kills-close-to-the-lake back to her family. However, he is not strict nor very vengeful.

Red Paint's younger brother contracts rabies after being bitten by a rabid wolf. Fools Crow has to cure him, because Mik-api is away, healing another tribe. Fools Crow has transferred roles from a warrior to a healer. This shows that he has learned to fill whatever role society needs of him.

Fast Horse comes upon Yellow Kidney's body and decides to bring it back to the tribe. However, he does not return to Owl Child's gang and decides to go north and live alone.

The book ends with Fools Crow visiting the Feather Woman, the wife of Morning Star and mother of Star Boy. Fools Crow watches a "yellow hide" and notices that images are forming within the hide. The yellow hide reveals four different visions to Fools Crow. One is the vision of the destruction of Heavy Runner's camp from the seizers (white soldiers), the second is a vision of Indian children attending a boarding school with their hair cut off, the third is a vision of the spreading of smallpox within his camp and the number of dead bodies stacked on a platform, and the last is a vision of lifeless land all around the region; not one animal can be found in the vision. Feather Woman tells Fools Crow to prepare the Pikunis for what is to come and to pass on the traditions of the Pikunis. She tells him that he would do much good for the Pikunis and that he will pass on the stories. Fools Crow returns to his tribe, and is unable to prevent the disaster he foresaw. Fools Crow meets Native Americans being forced to migrate north and accepts the fact that the Napikwans are swarming over the land. They must change their way of living, including changing their diet to fish. The book concludes with Welch detailing the culture of the Pikunis represented by the animals, showing that although their lifestyles were changed, their culture still lives on.


  • Pikunis – A clan of the Blackfeet tribe.
  • Napikwans – Term used to refer to White people.
  • White Man's Dog/Fools Crow – Main Protagonist. Will eventually lead his tribe.
  • Rides-at-the-Door – Fools Crow's Father. Becomes chief after Three Bears dies.
  • Double Strike Woman – Fools Crow's Mother and Rides-at-the-Door's wife.
  • Striped Face – Second wife of Rides-at-the-Door.
  • Kills Close to the Lake- Third wife of Rides-at-the-Door. She is only 17 years old. She is raped by and then voluntarily continues an affair with Running Fisher.
  • Running Fisher – Fools Crow's brother.
  • Fast Horse – Fools Crow's friend. Son of Boss Ribs. Turns away from tradition, but eventually atones by returning Yellow Kidney's body.
  • Yellow Kidney – Leader of the horse raid. Father of Red Paint and father-in-law of Fools Crow. Rapes a dying young woman in a Crow camp. Captured by the Crow tribes and eventually killed by the Napikwans.
  • Heavy Shield Woman – Wife of Yellow Kidney.
  • Red Paint – Daughter of Yellow Kidney. Marries Fools Crow.
  • Mik-Api – Medicine man of the Blackfoot. Teaches Fools Crow the traditional songs and medicines.
  • Owl Child – A Pikuni rebel who plans on waging war on Napikwans. Makes situations worse for the Pikunis because his actions enrage the Napikwans.
  • Mountain Chief – Pikuni chief who aligns with armed struggle rather than compromise. (Not historically accurate. Mountain Chief was the final leader of the Blackfeet tribe, not Rides-at-the-door, who is a fictional character.)
  • Heavy Runner – Pikuni leader who, in contrast to Mountain Chief, was more co operational with government will. (The tribe under Heavy Runner would ultimately take the fall in the Massacre on the Marias.)


Fools Crow received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize,[1] American Book Award,[2] and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award.[3]


  1. ^ The Los Angeles Times (4 October 1987). "The Los Angeles Times Book Prize, 1987 : FICTION PRIZE". Retrieved 1 May 2013. 
  2. ^ "Cool Montana Stories- James Welch". Retrieved 1 May 2013. 
  3. ^ "Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Award". Retrieved 1 May 2013. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Whitson, Kathy J., Native American Literatures: An Encyclopedia of Works, Characters, Authors, and Themes ABC-CLIO Inc, Santa Barbara, 1999
  • Little Eagle, Lionel, Greengrass Pipe Dancers - Crazy Horse's Pipe Bag and a Search for Healing (Naturegraph Publishers, 2000, ISBN 0-87961-250-9)
  • Lowie, Robert H.: 'Ceremonialism in North America', American Anthropologist 16:4 (1914), 602-31., accessed 11/04/2008 17:34
  • Lupton, M.J.: James Welch: A Critical Companion. Westport CT: Greenwood, 2004.