We are stronger, wiser for having read Jim Welch
By Michael L Umphrey
Fools Crow, by James Welch. Published by Penguin Books, 1987.
We have many books about the individual pursuit of success and significance. We have fewer that explore the practical and spiritual realities of belonging. Of these, we have none better than Fools Crow. James Welch died on August 4, 2003. He was the author of many books, including Fools Crow, The Indian Lawyer, and Killing Custer.
Through the summer I have been re-reading James Welch’s books, because there were things there I wanted to feel again and think about some more. I wanted to continue being taught by this gifted writer. I urge other Montanans to remember him in part by giving some time and attention to his work.
Montana is at a critical juncture, and we have all sorts of important decisions to make that will have ramifications long into the future. At such times, nothing is more useful than the right stories, because the right stories educate our desires. Our best writers teach us what we need to consider to live well, and James Welch stands among our best writers.
At the beginning of Fools Crow, the young man who has not yet earned his name is longing for a vision and a song that he cannot find. But he believes in visions, and he desires one. Desire supports him, sustains him, and guides him through all manner of trouble.
The book is a story about the education of that desire. Fools Crow lives at a time of great change, when learning is critically important. The old ways are beginning not to work. His people are facing fundamental choices. Though the destiny of the people as a whole is at stake, all the choices must be made by persons, one by one.
Some turn their backs on their people, choosing the adventure of pursuing individual rewards. Fools Crow’s childhood friend, Fast Horse, chooses to set out on his own, and in so choosing looks back on the village. It has come to look small and insignificant in the blue snowfield. As he moves farther and farther away, Fast Horse comes to despise the old economy of his peopleits rewards seem too hard-earned and meager. “The thought of hunting, of accumulating robes, of the constant search for meat seemed pointless to him. There were easier ways of gaining wealth.”
The new economy offers easier money, but its cost is that he must renounce his family’s values. He can no longer be among them, even when he sits his horse at their Sun Dance. At one point, while searching for him to ask him to return, Fools Crow understands what attracts him. It was freedom from responsibility, from accountability to the group. . .As long as one thought of himself as part of the group, he would be responsible to and for that group. If one cut the ties, he had the freedom to roam, to think only of himself and not worry about the consequences of his actions.
We see that Fast Horse’s freedom is full of deception. His actions become increasingly desperate, until he and his comrades provoke the retaliation known to history as the Baker Massacre, where nearly 200 of his people were killed by the U.S. Army.
The last we see of Fast Horse, he is riding north toward whiskey country, toward the companionship of solitary men and the faint comfort of prostitutes, as lonely and hopeless as Boone Caudill in A. B. Guthrie’s The Big Sky or the regulars at the White Sulphur Springs bars in Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky.
Though Fools Crow also desires some of the benefits of the new economy, such as a many-shots rifle, and though he too tries to figure out what adjustments he needs to make, he decidesnot once and for all but over and over through crisis after crisisחto face these troubles in ways that keep his family and his tribesmen together. He submits himself to the demands and worries and disciplines of living fully with other people.
Even when he acts against a violent man who is stalking his wife, he goes directly to the council of old men and relates the story in its entirety, so they can discuss it and come to agreement about what it means and what they should do. He submits himself to judgment. His self-defense affects the community and thus requires community deliberation and judgment. Through arguments and stories, various individuals and subgroups slowly negotiate their way toward a temporary understanding. It is not clear but it is all they can do and, doing it together, it is enough.
Fools Crow learns and teaches that the important thing is not winning honors or gaining wealth. The important thing is staying together. Because of this, it is not his honors or his accomplishments as a warrior that come to matter to him. Rather, it is his fulfillment of his roles as husband, son, father, and friend. He comes to assess himself as a blackhorn hunter, a provider of meat and skins, nothing more. But again, it is enough.
Welch helps us see that beyond the realm where horses go lame, where warriors miscalculate, and where violent intruders enter ones lodge at night lies another realmwhich we first learn of only through stories told by those who have visited it. In this realm, despite sorrow and heartache, we catch insights that help us understand things are as they should be.
We have many books about the individual pursuit of success and significance. We have fewer that explore the spiritual and practical realities of belonging, of becoming members. And of these, we have none better than Fools Crow.
I imagine that James Welch as a young man dreamed, like Fools Crow, of finding a vision and a song. He did find them. I know because I, like many others, have been made stronger and wiser by what he saw and sang.