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Magical realism and James Welch's Fools Crow

Updated on August 23, 2011

Honored Traditions

"Once you understand, it becomes easier."

A necessary component of fiction is the authors ability to persuade the readers to suspend their disbelief in order to relate to the characters in their own contextual world. Magical realism, found in works ranging from Shakespeare to Tolkien, initiates the reader into a world where the laws of nature are very different from what might be considered "realistic." But realism is a highly subjective idea, bearing as much on individual cultural heritage as on any universally agreed upon criteria. James Welch's style and voice in Fools Crow blends the English language with indigenous concepts to create a unique glimpse into a magical world based in the circular cosmology of the Lone Eater band of the Pikuni people.

The language of Fools Crow connects the contemporary reader with the more sensual world of White Man's Dog. The physical world is described in its functional context, a context provided by the history and stories of the Lone Eaters. The moon becomes "Night Red Light," the bison becomes the "blackhorns," and the beaver becomes "woodbiter." The "Backbone of the World," represent both the Rocky Mountains and the place where "the blackhorn skull pillows of the great warriors still lay" (Welch, pg. 3). As Robert Gish points out, there is "not only much of magic realism in all this, but something of fable and fantasy as well" (Gish, pg. 352). The language of the novel builds a sense of intimacy with the Lone Eaters and their world, natural and supernatural, literal and metaphorical.

The metaphorical world in Fools Crow also provides a context for the larger story of communal identity and survival. A good example of this is the situation surrounding the first raid on the Crow. Fast Horse tells the group about his dream of Cold Maker and the need to fulfill the gods mission to ensure a safe and profitable raid. But the band is unable to find the stream that Cold Maker wants cleared, a bad sign for the prospects of the raid. Yellow Kidney ignores the sign and is punished by mutilation for defying the gods. Fast Horse, whose actions during the raid resulted in the capture of Yellow Kidney, is offered a chance at redemption through another dream of Cold Maker. Fools Crow wants to help Fast Horse fulfill his offering to Cold Maker because he understands how the loss of Yellow Kidney has negatively effected the entire band. But Fast Horse, thinking only of his own embarrassment and dishonor, discards the chance at redemption selfishly. He leaves the Lone Eaters to join up with the marauding nomadic band led by Owl Child, the very personification of individualism over community.

An important issue the novel deals with is the relative importance of personal freedom and communal obligation. The seductive power of the wealth that the Napikwans represent is contrasted with the dependence of the bands on individual members during the journey of Fools Crow to announce the role of Heavy Shield Woman at the next Sun Dance festival. His last stop is at the camp of the Black Patched Moccasins, a camp that is rotting from within. Mad Plume explains to Fools Crow that the young men of the band "are off hunting for themselves, or drunk on the white man's water, or stealing their horses. They do not bring anything back for their people. There is no center here" (Welch, pg. 97). The young men are blinded by the exotic wealth of the Napikwans, but in their pursuit of its pleasures they destroy themselves and their people. As Fools Crow observes near the end of the novel, "what good is your own power when the people are suffering, when their minds are scattering like horses in the four directions" (Welch, pg. 314)

Clearly, the highest good in Fools Crow is the survival of community. Individual prestige revolves around contributions to the good of the community. Many of the young Blackfeet of various bands are being seduced by the draw of fast wealth, alcohol and white women. But there is an interesting passage where Fools Crow is searching for Fast Horse to tell him of Boss Ribs desire for his return so that he might learn the way of the Beaver medicine bundle. Fools Crow, alone on his quest, suddenly feels the power of the life that Fast Horse has chosen to lead. He senses the freedom "from accountability to the group" where he would not have to "worry about the consequences of his actions." (Welch, pg. 211) Fools Crow was enjoying his time alone, with no one else to take care of and no other worries but to find Fast Horse. There is a kind of power in what Owl Child and the others are doing. But it is also the power of the whites, who are recalled as never being together, presumably because they cannot stand one another. Owl Child and Fast Horse have adopted the white ways by stealing from and killing those who have done them no wrong. In seeking to destroy the invaders, they have become the invaders - interested in the invaders ideas of wealth and value.

Fools Crow is related to western literature in its mythological depiction of what Joseph Campbell called the quest for the Grail. The many journeys of Fools Crow play the major role in determining who and what he becomes. They are transformative and instructional, teaching Fools Crow about his world and himself. And as John Purdy pointed out, Fools Crow's "journeys become progressively mythical in nature" (Purdy, pg. 137). His initial quests commend his personal identity within the Lone Eater band. But in his final quest he represents the entire band in searching for their future. Fools Crow journey to the fallen Feather Woman is a communal vision quest, the answers he seeks respond to communal questions. Up to this time, the potential options for the Lone Eaters is rebellion or surrender, options that seem only to spell the end of the band. Fools Crow is frightened by the images he sees in the Yellow skin created by Feather Woman, visions of disease and starvation, and particularly the schoolhouse containing Pikuni children dressed in whites cloths huddled together during recess. But Yellow woman reassure him that if the Pikuni "make peace within themselves, the will live a good life in the Sand Hills" and the "stories will be handed down, and they will see that their people were proud and lived in accordance with the Below Ones, the Underwater People - and the Above Ones" (Welch, pg. 359). As for many of us, the real answers we search for lay within.

Leslie Marmon Silko talks about the layering of stories in the oral tradition of the Pueblo people as "something like a spider's web - with many little threads radiating from a center, crisscrossing each other" (Charters, pg. 1573). In Fools Crow, the center radiates from Fools Crow himself, and the threads that crisscross his story are those of Owl Child, Cold Maker, the wolverine trapped in the Napikwans trap and the origin of the world and the Lone Eaters, to name but a few. Fools Crow's narrative encompasses a period of profound change for the Lone Eaters and their way of life, an ending of the familiar way of life and the beginning of a new way of life. The past and the future are connected through the journeys, dreams and visions of Fools Crow.

The Lone Eater clan of the Pikuni people are part of the land that surrounds them. Their culture is adapted to the particular vagaries of their region, from its climactic variation to the complex relations with neighboring clans and tribes. White Man's Dog lives in a world where dreams are a source of knowledge and a connection to the universe, and the health of the community stands in the balance of individual actions. The element of magical realism in the language of Fools Crow creates a thread that traverses the natural and the supernatural worlds seamlessly. The central coming-of-age story of White Man's Dog winds through the larger story of cultural identity, responsibility and survival. It is a universe where ravens converse with people, where dreams and animal helpers help provide solutions to personal and communal dilemmas.

Works Cited
Charters, Ann. The Story and its Writer: An Introduction to Short Fiction. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, Fourth Edition, 1995.
Gish, Robert. "Word Medicine: Storytelling and Magic Realism in James Welch's Fools Crow." The American Indian Quarterly Fall 1990: 352.
Purdy, John. "He was Going Along": Motion in the Novels of James Welch." The American Indian Quarterly Spring 1990: 137.
Welch, James. Fools Crow. New York: Penguin Books, 1986.


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