Printer Friendly

"A happiness that sleeps with sadness": an examination of "white scabs" in Fools Crow.

A prolific and popular writer, James Welch has captured the attention of both Native and non-Native readers since his first publication of poems, Riding the Earthboy 40, in 1971. Welch continued to dazzle and captivate his readers into the twenty-first century with several highly acclaimed novels presenting stories about tribal lives and culture in both the past and present until his untimely death in 2003. He mesmerized his audience through his ability to create a sense of participation of writer and reader, storyteller and listener. This was noted by prominent Native writer Louis Owens who commented that Welch was "the storyteller committed to rediscovering and preserving this lost [Pikuni] identity ... [and that] the role of storyteller is crucial to cultural and individual psychic survival, for stories confer meaning and identity in the Indian world." (1)

One of Welch's stories that is of particular interest to me as an academic researching Native Americans and health is Fools Crow with its epic representation of the lives of the Pikuni (Blackfeet), especially their contact with "white scabs" (smallpox). (2) The story of the coming of disease among the Pikuni in Fools Crow was not Welch's first literary focus on this topic, however. Welch's powerful poem "The Man From Washington," published in his 1971 book of poems, introduces his readers to the coming of disease and other destruction,
   The end came easy for most of us.
   Packed away in our crude beginnings
   in some far corner of a flat world,
   we didn't expect much more
   than firewood and buffalo robes
   to keep us warm. The man came down,
   a slouching dwarf with rainwater eyes,
   and spoke to us. He promised
   that life would go on as usual,
   that treaties would be signed, and everyone--
   man, woman and child--would be inoculated
   against a world in which we had no part,
   a world of money, promise and disease. (3)

This poem set the foundation for Fools Crow, for it tells of the ending of traditional Pikuni life through the coming of the "man from Washington" who signed treaties that promised a new way of life filled with opportunity and possibility, but in reality brought the destruction of traditional life, disease, and death.

Fools Crow begins with the introduction of the protagonist, White Man's Dog, a Lone Eater (a Blackfeet band) living in the Two Medicine Territory of Montana. White Man's Dog is "restless" and "not so lucky ... he had little to so show for his eighteen winters." (4) The story, which can be interpreted partly as a coming-of-age story, follows the life and transformation of White Man's Dog from a young man to be pitied to one who earns the new name Fools Crow and becomes a well-respected tribal member. Fools Crow is more than a coming-of-age story, however, because as the life of Fools Crow unfolds, so does a Blackfeet story of epic proportions.

Welch brings an emotional realism to Fools Crow and requires the reader to pay attention as he draws readers deeply into the Pikuni world. Mixing both real and imagined stories, people, and events, Welch brings readers a world filled with love, unity, disunity, conflict, death, and survival. The reader travels the Montana landscape of the 1800s with the well-developed characters. We, the readers, become attached to people who suffer trials and tribulations as they fight for their survival and way of life in the face of white encroachments, intratribal and intertribal conflict, and disease.

The multidimensional Fools Crow provides a wealth of information about the Pikuni and their representation of sickness. The story humanizes the impacts and devastation of illness, raises questions of morals and values, and illustrates the historical and cultural contexts of disease and care. Both Native and non-Native illnesses are presented in the novel. Although I will be focusing primarily on the introduction and impact of "white scabs" in this paper, it is worth mentioning briefly other forms of sickness and healthcare presented in the story.

The use of the term "medicine" throughout Fools Crow follows the definition that is commonly understood by tribal people. According to George Grinnell, a researcher among the northern Plains tribes, the "Indian calls [medicine] mysterious ... meaning that they are beyond his power to account for," and "the Indians translation of medicine, used in the sense of magical or supernatural, would be mysterious, inexplicable, unaccountable." (5) Medicine to tribal people signifies "an array of ideas and concepts rather than remedies and treatment alone." (6) It has also been found that medicine is closely allied to religious beliefs and mythology, and most internal disease is attributed to supernatural causes. Disease among the Blackfeet specifically, is viewed as being "caused by evil spirits, usually the spirits or ghosts of enemies slain in battle." (7)

Fools Crow presents an array of illnesses that the Pikuni attribute to supernatural causes that therefore require help from supernatural beings for healing. Bad luck, sullenness, bad dreams, and bad behavior are described as illnesses prevalent among the Pikuni. For example, Yellow Kidney, a prominent character in the text, states, "Bad luck, like the white-scabs disease, can infect others." (8) Fast Horse, a childhood friend of Fools Crow, is found to have a mysterious illness due to his sullen behavior and his wanting to be alone. (9) Reoccurring bad dreams are a sign of another sickness that can even result in death. As Fools Crow struggles with the recurring death dream that foretells the arrival of white scabs, the spiritual healer Mik-api has to perform medicine "to drive the spirit that caused the dream" from his body. (10) Mik-api also attempts to drive the illness from Fast Horse, whose sickness makes him "choose bad companions and do bad things." (11) Unfortunately, Mik-api is only able to heal his body but not his spirit because the sickness is too deep within him.

Welch describes another form of illness that resulted from being bitten by a wolf, which were plentiful in Blackfeet country. It was believed that if a crazy wolf bit a person they would go mad. Healing the malady was based on the belief that profuse sweating would cause the disease to leave the body when all of the water in the body was gone. (12) Fools Crow applies this ancient healing method to help a young character, One Spot. He rolls him up in a green buffalo hide and leaves him in a fire until the hide begins to dry and burn and One Spot begins to sweat. (13)

Throughout the text Welch brings to life traditional medicines, illnesses, and healing. Healing occurs from using a variety of approaches including direct help from a healer, using a power object, requesting help from supernatural beings, and possibly a ceremony. Fools Crow presents an array of objects and beings with the power to heal. The Above Ones, Beaver Medicine bundle, dreams, wolverine, raven, Thunder Chief, Medicine Woman bundle, Sun Dance Ceremony, Medicine wolf, songs, Underwater people, Old Man, Sun Chief, medicine pole, Napi, Boss Ribs, and Mik-api are just a few of the people and objects with the power to heal. Underwater people, for example, confer to others the medicine needed to heal. Mik-api, an important character in Fools Crow, and whose name is derived from a famous Blackfeet warrior, is deemed chosen to be a healer when the Underwater people give him the medicine to heal. (14)

As presented in Fools Crow, and reflecting actual traditions, medicine bundles are very powerful among the Blackfeet. Welch shares with his readers a story of an important source of power that can be used to heal--the Beaver bundle. The Beaver Medicine bundle is the "oldest and holiest" of Pikuni medicines and it includes songs, "a headdress, an eagle-bone whistle, and a sacred tobacco planting stick, along with the knowledge of roots, herbs, leaves, bark, paints and ritual used for healing the sick." (15) The Beaver bundle is considered the largest and oldest type of medicine bundle found among the Blackfeet and is used to heal individuals and communities. (16) The stories of the origin of the Beaver Medicine bundle tell how it "will be a benefit to us while we are a people now, and afterwards it will be handed down to our children, and if we follow the words of the beaver we will be lucky." (17) In Fools Crow, Boss Ribs, the owner of the Beaver Medicine bundle, is hoping to pass the knowledge of the medicine to his son, and explains to him, "There is great power in that bundle. We will open it, and I will teach you its ways. There are four hundred songs that you will have to learn. There are stories and proper ways of acting them out. I do not expect you to learn it all at once, but the power of the bundle will heal your spirit." (18)

The approaches to healing by Native Americans were, of course, unable to withstand the onslaught of the diseases introduced by contact. The destructive power of the new diseases among tribal people is indicated by the dramatic population drop from approximately five million Natives in 1492 to a low of about 250,000 around 1900. (19) Europeans and Africans brought with them many deadly diseases that not only spread among Native people and killed them initially, but also surfaced again and again. It is estimated that from the early sixteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century as many as ninety-three serious epidemics occurred among Native people causing a significant number of deaths and reoccurring approximately every four years. (20)

Of the various diseases impacting tribal lives, smallpox was one of the most deadly. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries smallpox brought massive destruction, at times killing whole tribes. By the 1800s smallpox no longer destroyed whole tribes but continued to wreck havoc. Mortality rates were still between 55 percent and 90 percent. (21) In addition to the many deaths, smallpox caused devastation by resulting in the loss of leaders, knowledge, and a way of life.

The history of this disease is embedded in the minds of many tribal people today and in stories of the past. The legacy of the fear and devastation has become even more apparent after September 11, 2001. A close Native friend, for example, suggested that I focus my research on smallpox rather than HIV/AIDS. Other friends and academics have emphasized that if smallpox becomes a problem again, tribal people must be the first to be vaccinated because of the previous impact of smallpox on Native Americans.

Smallpox was introduced in different ways to tribes. Some tribes were exposed inadvertently through trade. The Blackfeet were devastated by the disease in the 1830s as a result of trade. The disease "originated in infected clothing carelessly placed aboard the American Fur Company's steamer in St. Louis," and through trade the Blackfeet contracted the disease. By the end of the epidemic some camps had only "two old women as survivors," and it is estimated that approximately "six thousand persons, or nearly two-thirds of the entire Blackfeet population, succumbed." (22)

For others the history of the introduction of smallpox is much more sordid. Some stories tell about the intentional introduction of smallpox. For example, Francis Parkman, who has written extensively about the American landscapes and Indians, presented letters from Sir Jeffrey Amherst and Colonel Henry Bouquet regarding the best approach to subdue Natives. In one letter Amherst asks, "could it not be contrived to send the Small Pox among those disaffected tribes of Indians? We must on this occasion use every stratagem in our power to reduce them." Bouquet replied "I will try to inoculate [infect]--with some blankets that may fall in their hands, and take care not to get the disease myself:" Their correspondence continued, "you will do well to try to inoculate the Indians by means of blankets, as well as to try every other method that can serve to extirpate this execrable race." In commenting on this correspondence Parkman notes that there "is not direct evidence that Bouquet carried into effect the shameful plan of infecting the Indians, though a few months after, the small-pox was known to have made havoc among the tribes of the Ohio." (23)

Although Parkman was unsure of the veracity of the correspondence and whether such a horrible act actually took place, many tribal people have stories of such acts. Stories told among tribal people as they bore witness to the mass destruction caused by smallpox include the intentional spreading of this deadly disease. The Ottawa chief Andrew J. Blackbird, for example, presented a unique smallpox story that he received from the elders. Their story told of a smallpox epidemic during the French and Indian war in the 1750s. In Helen Jaskoski's analysis of Blackbird's smallpox story she tells of the way the elders believed the disease was introduced. According to the story, "This smallpox sold to them shut up in a tin box, with the strict injunction not to open the box on their way homeward, but only when they should reach their country; and that this box contained something that would do them great good, and their people!" (24)

One of Fools Crow's strongest assets is its ability to educate its readers about a real story that is important but has received little attention--smallpox and the Pikuni people. In 1845 the Blackfeet were overcome with smallpox, and from them it moved to neighboring tribes. A second epidemic appeared in the winter of 1857-58. As the epidemic raged in the Blackfeet area an employee at Fort Union noted that "the Indians died there in such numbers that the men of the fort were kept constantly at work digging trenches in which to bury them, and when winter came, and the ground froze so hard that it was no longer practicable to bury the dead, their bodies were stacked up like cord wood in piles to await the coining of spring." (23)

Mention of smallpox in Fools Crow appears briefly early in the text when it is noted that, "Bad luck, like white-scabs disease, can infect others." (26) We, the readers, are asked to think about a disease that does not have a Western name. Welch then introduces smallpox again, through one of White Man's Dog's dreams. In the dream he sees a "young-white-faced girl. She beckoned to him," and although "he wanted to go to the white-faced girl he knew that there was danger in that direction." (27) This dream appears many times throughout the story without the reader understanding its significance until later. Another dream that alludes to smallpox is Eagle Ribs's dream where he "saw a white horse wandering in the snow. Its hooves were split and it had sores all over." (28)

As White Man's Dog continues to have the same dream it becomes considered an illness that needs to be healed. Mik-api "burned some sweetgrass and passed it over the body, he sang the purifying song, the gentle hooting, of the ears-far-apart. Finally he blew several shrill notes over his patient with his medicine whistle, and a yellow paint dripped from the end of it onto the forehead of White Man's Dog," then he "fell back on his haunches and said, 'It is done.... I have driven the bad sprit that caused your dream from your body.'" However, foreshadowing more problems to come, Mik-api warns, "I could not kill it." (29) The spirit of the dream, the disease itself, does not take a prominent role in the story until much later.

Another important character in Fools Crow central to the theme of smallpox is Yellow Kidney, an experienced war leader who takes White Man's Dog on his first raid. White Man's Dog is perceived as having "bad luck" although this concept is more complex than on the surface, (30) When Yellow Kidney agrees to take him on the raid against the Crows he does so because of his close relationship with his father, Rides-at-the-door. Yellow Kidney is also an important character because it is through him that the reader sees the introduction of white scabs to the Pikuni.

Bruce Murphee has provided an interesting approach to the character of Yellow Kidney, arguing that his journey closely follows the Blackfeet legend of Seco-mo-muckon, found in chapter 21 in Fools Crow. Murphee maintains that Yellow Kidney is "Awuanna ... a brave warrior whose reputation is destroyed by the carelessness and avarice of a fellow tribesman." (31) Through the boasting of another character, Fast Horse, Yellow Kidney is captured, tortured, mutilated, and contracts white scabs--all of which leads him to become a pitiful man who is unable to take care of himself and his family. Fast Horse does not take responsibility for Yellow Kidney's capture and disease, but Fools Crow does because he had a previous dream of a sick girl and he blames himself for not telling Yellow Kidney. Rides-at-the-door, however, is clear about responsibility and notes that the world is out of balance, which in tribal terms means that sickness is already present or that things can occur because "the nexus where vision and everyday reality meet is volatile." (32)

One of the most powerful moments in the book is when Yellow Kidney contracts white scabs. As Yellow Kidney is fleeing from the Crows he ducks into a lodge. He later relates that
   I had no choice but to try to hide so I crept over
   to the girl, put my hand over her mouth and crawled
   into the robe with her.... I began to feel a stirring
   of excitement for this hot girl ... when I had had my
   pleasures, I rolled away, and that's when it hit me that
   she hadn't moved, hadn't made a sound.... I became
   afraid.... There on her face and chest were the dreaded
   signs. I had copulated with one who was dying of the white
   scabs disease. (33)

The horror of his action becomes apparent when he throws back the various robes and "saw by the light of my fire stick that they were all young girls, dead and covered with the white scabs." (34) This event explains White Man's Dog recurring dream and clarifies for the reader what white scabs refers to. The impact of smallpox is also clarified in Yellow Kidney's description of his personal suffering, "I was tortured by red sores which were bursting all over my body and I was terrified of dying such a horrible death. This went on for how long I don't know because I was out of my head. I saw many things during my ordeal, things that would drive a healthy man out of his mind." (35) Fortunately for Yellow Kidney he is taken care of by a medicine woman and two other tribal men who "had lived through the last plague of white scabs." (36)

In this story it is possible that Welch is relaying a historical fact of how the Piegan (Pikuni) contracted smallpox in 1781 through obtaining ill-gotten gains from their enemy the Shoshone. Not understanding the strange disease, the Piegan believed that "a bad spirit had destroyed their enemies" and their situation was the result of the Good Spirit forsaking them. By the end of the epidemic "more than half the people perished." (37)

Yellow Kidney recovers from smallpox, and while reflecting about the disease he presents the reader with a Pikuni understanding of the world. He believes that he acted badly and so was severely punished. He explains, "There in that Crow lodge, in that lodge of death, I had broken one of the simplest decencies by which people live. In fornicating with the dying girl, I had taken her honor, her opportunity to die virtuously. I had taken the path traveled only by the meanest of scavengers." (38) Yellow Kidney is fully aware of the impact of his behavior on others and how that behavior can weaken, maintain, strengthen, or destroy the interdependency of all things and, hence, bring sickness to the world.

Yellow Kidney's rape of the Crow woman who is dying of smallpox would have been unacceptable even if she was not diseased. In many tribal communities women were highly honored, and violence was considered a crime against the tribe and disruptive of the balance of relationships which are critical to survival. (39) Women, in Blackfeet culture specifically, were extremely important, and author Barbara Cook has noted that in Fools Crow Welch "reflects the integral role women play in the tribal culture and gives life to the relationships between men and women." (40) Although her focus is women and economics within Blackfeet culture her argument is clear, Blackfeet women in Fools Crow "perform the jobs that give the tribal community the ability to exist on the plains [and] there would be no survival without their attention to the day-to-day necessities of life." (41)

Although Yellow Kidney's story is intriguing, white scabs is still not the center of Fools Crow at this point, and it does not appear again until Mik-api reminisces about his Black Paint (Nez Perce) wife who "lay naked on the robe, the runny red eruptions on her swollen belly. She didn't even have a medicine man he had died already of the white scabs disease," and Mik-api further remembers how she had died an "agonizing death." (42) His wife's lather had taught Mik-api many healing ways, but despite the fact that the Black Paint people were "renowned for the effectiveness of their healing ceremonies," the Black Paint people were unable to deal with the ravages of white scabs. (43)

As the novel progresses white scabs is alluded to at various times, mixed within a broader story of great turmoil. Welch begins to show the slow deterioration of the Pikuni through their relatives, the Black Patch Moccasins. The Black Patch Moccasins in the beginning of the novel are strong and one of the "most powerful bands" of the Pikuni, but, a third of the way through the text they become a destitute people. Through their relationship with the Napikwans (whites), who convince them to turn to the "white-man's way," their economy and social structures are destroyed. Later, the Black Patch Moccasins thought "the Napikwan would leave us alone, for we had tried their way and it was no good." This allegiance to the Napikwan eventually results in the killing of their leader who was believed to have "put the interests of the Napikwan before those of the Pikuni." (44) This betrayal results in the Black Patch Moccasins becoming a pitiful people. In many Native traditions a pitiful people can be created through illness and the illness found among the Black Patch Moccasin was having no balance--"no center."

The internal and external conflict and devastation due to Napikwan encroachment becomes apparent as the novel progresses. As tribal allegiances begin to shatter and people take sides for and against the Napikwans, the ability to live in the traditional manner begins to unravel. Halfway through the novel the Lone Eaters are portrayed as a people that "have not changed ... but the world they live in has." Welch demonstrates how the Pikuni were being forced to contend with renegade Natives who were killing, harassing, and refusing to assimilate, and with Napikwans who did not want peace but punishment. He notes, "They wanted to run these red Indians right off the face of the map, push them into Canada, or failing that, kill them like wild animals." (45) As the Pikuni attempt to deal with tribal renegades they communicate to General Sully:
   As you know, already it has been a difficult winter--much snow
   and cold. It is difficult to hunt, and many of our people are cold
   and hungry. We have been promised food and blankets by your people,
   but we do not see these things. Some of our people grow impatient
   because of their suffering. Some of them, the young ones, take
   matters into their own hands, and then the trouble begins, again.

Welch drew on real historical facts and placed them into an imagined world. In the Starvation Winter of 1883-88, for example, an estimated six hundred died, and sadly "with no game to chase, no robe trade to absorb the impact, the Blackfeet hungered and waited for the Indian agent ... to distribute the goods and rations owed them by treaty arrangement. Even this last resort failed. The rations were not delivered and the bewildered Blackfeet, often plagued by small pox too, starved gruesomely." (47)

Welch effectively shows how the already poor conditions of the Pikuni deteriorated when their camp encountered white scabs. While meeting with General Sully they agree to "rub-out" one of their tribal rebels, Owl Child, but they state that "It will not be easy because my people are weak with hunger and cold. And, now, some of the Pikuni bands farther down the Bear River are again touched by the white-scabs disease ... many have gone to the Sand Hills. Many are sure to follow." (48)

Asking for help, the Pikuni explain to Sully, "white-scabs catch us when we are weak ... we must have food and blankets if we are to survive. We must have 'coffee' medicine." The response is telling. As General Sully pulls on his wispy beard he laments, "You have my sympathy ... but I'm afraid that will not be possible--until you fulfill the requirements of these court orders. The sooner you do these things, the sooner you will receive your food and blankets--and medicine [emphasis mine]." (49) The shameful response is, sadly, based on historical fact.

Scholar Russell Thornton noted that smallpox among Native Americans was such a problem in the 1800s that the government did make efforts to control it, including vaccinating tribal people. However, assistance was slow in coming and at times tied to governmental requests. For example, the "United States government treaties sometimes provided for smallpox vaccination, as well as medicine and physicians ... as [long as] the Indians remained where the government claims that they belonged--on the reservation." (50)

Thornton also found that some tribal people were leery of the vaccinations, thinking that it was a trick to take advantage of them. This skepticism is displayed in Fools Crow when the Lone Eaters are visited by a white man, Sturgis, and a relative, Pretty-on-top. Pretty-on-top and Sturgis, considered a "heavy-singer-for-the-sick," come to inquire about white scabs in an effort to help. Having been married for several winters to Blue Grass Woman, "the daughter of Take Gun and Otter Women of the Black Patched Moccasins," Sturgis learned the Pikuni language as well as a love for tribal people. His wife's death from white scabs was a major reason he wanted to extend his knowledge of healing to tribal people. He describes how for four days Blue Grass Woman lived in torment, "her tongue and throat were swollen so that she could take not water" and she had "red sores on her forehead and under her hairs," and eventually she became "feverish and delirious." (51) Sturgis was healer of the seizers (whites) prior to his marriage to Blue Grass Woman, and he tries to explain vaccinations to the Lone Eaters as a "juice, a juice that keeps them safe from this disease." (52)

Boss Ribs, a healer among his own people, acknowledges the strength of white scabs and tells how he has "lost kin because my medicine is not strong enough to keep my own family safe." He therefore questions why Sturgis did not give his wife the medicine she needed to live. Fools Crow also briefly has concern and doubts about Sturgis and wonders, "Suppose this Sturgis had come to infect the Lone Eaters?" Fools Crow also thinks, "He did not bring the Napikwan medicine [vaccination].... Perhaps he brought the sickness instead?" (53) Sturgis lessens some concerns when he tells them that "this medicine does not cure the white scabs disease, it prevents it from entering the body," and that "the destroying juice does not possess any healing power, once the bad spirit enters. For those already afflicted it is too late to do them any good." (54)

An interesting aspect of this story is the concern about migration of the disease. Thornton found that people usually "migrate away from disease-ridden areas, as did the Arikara of the northern plains after a late eighteenth-century smallpox epidemic." (55) It is this movement of people who come from an infected area that Sturgis fears, and he asks the Lone Eaters to
   keep yourselves from contacting any of the other bands until the
   destroying juice arrives ... there must be no trading, no contact
   with the Napikwans ... and I know that you have relatives in the
   other camps and some of them will come to you, to seek shelter. You
   must not let them into the camp of the Lone Eaters, even if they
   appear well. Many of the older Pikuni will not become sick because
   they lived through the last outbreak. But they can carry the bad
   spirit. It will ride with them, on their clothes, their skin, even
   their horses. You must turn them away! (56)

Sturgis and the Lone Eaters know that the disease is moving all around them, and Sturgis guesses that it emanated from the Many Houses Fort. Sturgis also tells them that it is among the neighboring Dirt Lodge People (Mandans) and the Crows.

Sturgis's request is in conflict with the ways in which tribal people treat each other in health and sickness. Respect and reciprocity are critical aspects of Native culture, and the proper treatment of relatives is crucial to balance and community wellness. The dilemma facing the Lone Eaters is clearly presented when they engage in private conversation after their meeting with Sturgis:
   The men sat silently staring at the small fire. All of them had
   relatives in the afflicted camps ... each wondered who among his
   own kin would not appear at the Sun Dance ... and when the first
   survivors would find their way to the camp of the Lone Eaters.... All
   would face hunger, perhaps starvations. And if the survivors
   brought the white-scabs. (57)

They know that "without their relatives the Lone Eaters would be nothing more than a small wandering band with no home," and so family obligation, coupled with deep concern over the survival of themselves and their young ones, requires a decision. (58) The difficult dilemma facing the Lone Eaters is clear, and they must decide whether they will turn away their relatives and possibly save their people. They choose to move the camp north to escape the white scabs and the seizers. The decision does not come easily and the Lone Eaters know that "if their own medicine had worked against this white scabs disease, the fierce arguing would not have been necessary." (59) However, they are under tremendous pressure due to the loss of land, poor Indian/white relations, depletion of the buffalo, and the immediate threat of the white scabs disease, and their world seems hopeless.

The sense of hopelessness intensifies as Fools Crow goes on a spiritual journey where he sees the future. At one point he looks
   Inside the lodges and he saw the agony of the sick ones, the grief
   of the mothers and fathers, the children and the old ones. And he
   saw the bundled bodies of the dead, slung across the painted horses
   being led from camp. He saw inside the lodges of all the Pikuni and
   he saw suffering and crying and wailing. He saw mothers mutilate
   themselves, men rush from lodge to lodge, clutching their young
   ones, the elders sending up their futile prayers, and he thinks,
   the white scabs has reached us. (60)

At another time he sees in the midst of Pikuni country, people "huddled in worn blankets. Some had scarves tied around their heads. Many had scraps of cloth tied around their feet. They were a pitiful people"; and then he sees boxes which contain the dead, and there are too many to count. The most dreadful aspect of his vision of the future is when he begins to see familiar faces, and "many were marked by the pocks of the white scabs; many were too hollow to be recognizable." (61)

This ability to see the future was given to Fools Crow from So-at-sa-ki, Feather Woman, a mythic figure in Blackfeet lore who was banished to a lonely place by the Sun to live in mourning for transgressions that brought misery to herself and her people. Feather Woman believed that the sickness, hunger, Napikwans, and war that her people confronted were brought on by her bad deeds, and she was attempting to bring balance back to her life and to make it so that her "people will suffer no more." (62) What she gives Fools Crow are the words and guidance needed to create a sense of hope and a vision for a future. In many ways her gift can be seen as a way to heal and a way to become a viable people again. She soothingly tells him, "much will be lost to them, but they will know the way it was. The stories will be handed down, and they will see their people were proud and lived in accordance with the Below Ones, the Underwater People--and the Above Ones." (63) At the same time, Fools Crow ponders the statements and wonders about the mysteries of life. He also considers that the people did live with harmony with their sacred beings, but they were still being punished. This explains white scabs as, in part, a punishment for not following a way of life that creates harmony.

The powers of the vision and dreams cannot be understated. In developing a deep reading of the smallpox story, visions and dreams are found throughout as integral components of Native healing and health. Visions and dreams can give an individual the power of medicine and the power to heal through revelations. It is Fools Crow's vision that allows him to return to the village sadder, yet wiser about their fate.

The disease, like many others, enters the Lone Eaters camp through the weakest, an infant who dies a "drawn-out death, full of agony and grief," and then it moves among the village quickly. (64) When the epidemic hits it is too late to move camp. They are forced to face the disease the best they can.

Not having access to Western medicine, the camp's healers begin to apply Native healing methods. Mik-api and Boss Ribs
   went from lodge to lodge performing curing ceremonies ... Fools
   Crow, stayed busy too, conducting purifying sessions in the sweat
   lodge ... in between sessions he mixed medicines and took them to
   the two many faces men ... he built up the fire, heated stones,
   sweated, prayed and even tried his own healing on two members
   [but] soon after the ceremonies the two were dead. (65)

When the smallpox was actually raging among the Blackfeet, "they used the sweat lodge daily and hundreds of them, sick with the disease, were unable to get out of the river, after taking the bath succeeding a sweat, and were carried down stream by the current and drowned." (66) Fools Crow acknowledges that "the ceremonies are futile--the healing and purifying were as meaningless as a raindrop in a spring of river. Even if the healing worked, by the time the ceremony was over, twenty others would come down with the sickness." (67)

Smallpox challenged tribal communities through the death of many healers and the failure of Indian medicines to stop the dreaded disease. Blackfeet elders spoke of their helplessness "in the face of this strange plague ... their medicine men had no cure for it ... and in their desperation they sacrificed feathers, branches of trees, and sweetgrass to the Bad Spirit, imploring it to leave them alone." (68)

The challenge faced by tribal healers was difficult and Welch has allowed readers to feel their frustration. Boss Ribs's sense of desperation is apparent when he stares aimlessly at the powerful Beaver Medicine bundle that he feels has lost its magic. Boss Ribs is unable to find a ceremony or song that could help, and he tells Fools Crow that their medicine is powerless against the white scabs and furthermore, he believes that the suffering and dying will only end when the Above Ones see fit. Fools Crow acknowledges the strength of the disease and that it "takes the strong as well as the weak, the young, the healthy ones, just as easily as the old and the sick. Whole families have perished." (69) This comment accurately portrays the impact that smallpox had on tribal communities, as history has recorded the death of whole tribes from smallpox and that the disease "came, spread, and killed again and again and again." (70) As the disease begins to lessen among the Lone Eaters, Rides-at-the-door fears that they are not fully sate yet because "the time before, the disease hit three different times, just when it would appear to be over, a new wave of sickness would visit the people." (71)

The degree of Pikuni survival after the epidemic of white scabs varied from camp to camp. In the Hard Topknot camp over half had been "carried away." (72) Their story was destined to be remembered because a tribal member, Crow Foot, spoke "the names of the dead ... he told of the suffering and the desertions and the falling apart of the band." (73) The condition of the Lone Eaters was not much better, but they too would be remembered in story. The disaster was ordained to be, foreseen by Feather Woman and Fools Crow. Heavy Runner's camp was devastated. Already laid low with the white scabs disease they were also hit with a massacre of brutal dimensions. The seizers attacked the camp at their weakest point, slaughtered women and children while the men were out hunting and smallpox was present. There was no meat in the camp so "those who weren't dead or sick with the white-scabs" were out looking for food. (74) To visit a tribal camp stricken with this deadly disease with further death and destruction, instead of healthcare, speaks to the brutality experienced by tribal peoples.

Of special note is Welch's incorporation of actual events. In 1870 General Sully met with Native leaders to ask that murderers of a white man be turned over to them. In this tense time of Indian/white conflict the cavalry accidentally attacked the friendly band of Heavy Runner, burning the lodges and camp equipment and killing 173 men, women, and children. The shock of this event was compounded because it was a friendly camp with many "victims of the smallpox epidemic." (75) This true story of what is known as the Marias River Massacre had been passed on to Welch since childhood. His great-grandmother, who was shot in the leg, "was one of a small group of women and children who manage to slip away." (76) This story passed on in Welch's family for generations helped him to fully imagine the world of the past.

The recurring disease which resulted in the loss of land, leaders, healers, and youth did not bring the Lone Eaters to total annihilation, but those who remained were changed people and in many ways were a stronger people. Through a conversation of passion and truth Fools Crow speaks of the changing times and the future, "this is the land of the Pikuni. This is where the long-ago people were born and lived and died. They would be angry with us if we just gave it up. They would say the Pikuni had become puny, that we would not fight for this land that they left us." (77) The destruction encountered by the Pikuni through the colonization process, particularly white scabs, eventually led to a sense of integrity and strength. And the Pikuni are still with us in the twenty-first century.

Drawing on the history and culture of the Blackfeet, Welch appropriately ends the story with the Thunder Pipe Ceremony which is sacred and of great importance. After surviving the horrid disease whose effects were compounded by poverty, starvation, and loss of land and people, the much smaller number of Pikuni gathers for the Thunder Pipe Ceremony. The pipe is offered to the sacred beings, four directions, and Thunder chief, and
   the people smoked and prayed for good health, abundance and the
   ability to fulfill vows. They prayed for long summer grass, bushes
   thick with berries, and all the things that grow in the
   ground-of-many-gifts. They prayed that the blackhorns would be
   thick all around them and nourish them as they nourished the
   before-people. (78)

The Pikuni knew that their medicine could not prevent or cure white scabs, yet they did not give up their concepts of wellness and how to obtain it. One of the pipe's functions is "to bring health," and its most sacred component is the stem which was given to the Pikuni "long, long, ago by the Sun." (79) The stem is considered so sacred that it is "frequently unrolled for the benefit of the sick ... for prayers for the general health and prosperity of the people, and for a bountiful supply of food. (80) The Pikuni smoke, dance, sing, and pray, and Fools Crow "knew that they would survive, for they were the chosen ones," and it was the faraway rumble of Thunder Chief that made it all worthwhile because he healed them. (81)

The book ends with "a happiness that sleeps with sadness" because the cost of survival (happiness) was the death of many relatives and the loss of a way of life (sadness). (82) In a deeper reading one can argue that that the Pikuni remain happy because they have survived intense cultural, social, economic, and spiritual devastation, yet Fools Crow had seen the future. A future where there are no longer buffalo and where the children do not know the life of their people, and they have lost their way--this too is a happiness that sleeps with sadness. (83) Through this journey of devastation and survival, Welch has provided many of his readers with solid knowledge about tribal concepts of sickness, healers, medicine, and the impacts of new diseases on Native populations.


(1.) Louis Owens, Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 164.

(2.) James Welch, Fools Crow (New York: Penguin Book, 1986).

(3.) James Welch, Riding the Earth Boy 40 (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1997), 35. "The Man From Washington" is reprinted with permission from Penguin Books, a division of the Penguin Group.

(4.) Welch, Fools Crow, 3.

(5.) Virgil J. Vogel, American Indian Medicine (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970), 24-25.

(6.) Vogel, American Indian Medicine, 24-25.

(7.) George Bird Grinnell, Blackfoot Lodge Tales: The Story of a Prairie People (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913), 281.

(8.) Welch, Fools Crow, 12.

(9.) Welch, Fools Crow, 48.

(10.) Welch, Fools Crow, 85.

(11.) Welch, Fools Crow, 186-87.

(12.) Grinnell, Blackfoot Lodge Tales.

(13.) Welch, Fools Crow, 265-68.

(14.) Welch, Fools Crow, 68.

(15.) Welch, Fools Crow, 195, 197-98.

(16.) John C. Ewers, The Blackfeet: Raiders of the Northwestern Plains (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958), 169-70.

(17.) Grinnell, Blackfoot Lodge Tales, 124.

(18.) Welch, Fools Crow, 187.

(19.) Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492 (University of Oklahoma Press, 1987).

(20.) Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival, 45.

(21.) Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival, 45.

(22.) Ewers, The Blackfeet, 65.

(23.) Francis Parkman, Parkman: The Oregon Trail, the Conspiracy of Pontiac (New York: Library of America, 1991), 648-49.

(24.) Helen Jaskoski, "A Terrible Sickness Among Them: Smallpox and Stories of the Frontier," in Native American Perspectives on Literature and History, ed. Man Velie (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995), 27-28.

(25.) Grinnell, Blackfoot Lodge Tales, 287-88.

(26.) Welch, Fools Crow, 12.

(27.) Welch, Fools Crow, 17-18.

(28.) Welch, Fools Crow, 35-36.

(29.) Welch, Fools Crow, 64.

(30.) Kathryn Shanley, "Lady Luck or Mother Earth? Gaming as a Trope in Plains Indian Cultural Traditions," Wicazo Sa Review 15 (2000): 93-10l.

(31.) Bruce Murphree, "Welch's Fools Crow," Explicator 52 (1994): 186-87.

(32.) Nora Berry, "'A Myth to Be Alive': James Welch's Fools Crow," MELUS 17 (Spring 1991-92): 3-20.

(33.) Welch, Fools Crow, 74-75.

(34.) Welch, Fools Crow, 76.

(35.) Welch, Fools Crow, 80-81.

(36.) Welch, Fools Crow, 80.

(37.) Ewers, The Blackfeet, 27-28.

(38.) Welch, Fools Crow, 81.

(39.) Esther Pan, "Medicine Wheel: A Federal Program That Actually Works," Washington Monthly 32 (2000): 26-30; and Irene S. Vernon, "Violence, HIV/ AIDS, and Native American Women in the Twenty-First Century," American Indian Culture and Research Journal 26 (2002): 115-33.

(40.) Barbara Cook, "A Tapestry of History and Reimagination: Women's Place in James Welch's Fools Crow," American Indian Quarterly 24:3 (2000): 441-53.

(41.) Cook, "A Tapestry."

(42.) Welch, Fools Crow, 248-49.

(43.) Welch, Fools Crow, 247-48.

(44.) Welch, Fools Crow, 96-97.

(45.) Welch, Fools Crow, 277.

(46.) Welch, Fools Crow, 280.

(47.) William E. Farr, The Reservation Blackfeet, 1882-1945: A Photographic History of Cultural Survival (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984), 8.

(48.) Welch, Fools Crow, 282.

(49.) Welch, Fools Crow, 282.

(50.) Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival, 100-102.

(51.) Welch, Fools Crow, 303-4.

(52.) Welch, Fools Crow, 304.

(53.) Welch, Fools Crow, 306-7.

(54.) Welch, Fools Crow, 304.

(55.) Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival, 54-55.

(56.) Welch, Fools Crow, 305.

(57.) Welch, Fools Crow, 307.

(58.) Welch, Fools Crow, 314.

(59.) Welch, Fools Crow, 313.

(60.) Welch, Fools Crow, 354.

(61.) Welch, Fools Crow, 357-58.

(62.) Welch, Fools Crow, 352.

(63.) Welch, Fools Crow, 359-60.

(64.) Welch, Fools Crow, 365-66.

(65.) Welch, Fools Crow, 366-67.

(66.) Grinnell, Blackfoot Lodge Tales, 283.

(67.) Welch, Fools Crow, 366.

(68.) Ewers, The Blackfeet, 29.

(69.) Welch, Fools Crow, 367.

(70.) Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival, 45.

(71.) Welch, Fools Crow, 372.

(72.) Welch, Fools Crow, 375.

(73.) Welch, Fools Crow, 375.

(74.) Welch, Fools Crow, 383.

(75.) Ewers, The Blackfeet, 250.

(76.) James Welch, "The Far North People," in Heart of the Land: Essays on the Great Places, ed. Joeph Barbato and Lisa Weinerman, 127-35 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1994), 129.

(77.) Welch, Fools Crow, 385.

(78.) Welch, Fools Crow, 388.

(79.) Ewers, The Blackfeet, 173; Grinnell, Blackfoot Lodge Tales, 276.

(80.) Grinnell, Blackfoot Lodge Tales, 277.

(81.) Welch, Fools Crow, 390.

(82.) Welch, Fools Crow, 390.

(83.) Welch, Fools Crow, 359.
COPYRIGHT 2005 University of Nebraska Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Vernon, Irene S.
Publication:The American Indian Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
Previous Article:The elimination of indigenous mascots, logos, and nicknames: organizing on college campuses.
Next Article:Interview with James Welch (1940-2003): November 17, 2001.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |