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Voix éthniques, ethnic voices. Volume 2

Claudine Raynaud

Native American Voices

The Cinematic Eye in James Welch's Fools Crow

Kathryn W. Shanley

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1In the last scene of Robert Altman's Buffalo Bill and the Indians, William Cody (a man who is reputedly "just a sleeper" not a dreamer) has a dream in which he is visited by Sitting Bull, who in cinematic real-time has just been murdered. Cody turns to Sitting Bull and says, "In one hundred years... in other people's shows... I'm still Buffalo Bill... star! You're still... The Injun!" (Rudolph, 1978, 141). Sitting Bull says nothing. He doesn't need to, since Cody, the dreaming non-dreamer, is essentially speaking to himself, to his image of the Sitting Bull he finds opaque in cinematic real-life time, to his image of the Sitting Bull he finds transparent and necessarily contrapuntal to his socially constructed Buffalo Bill self, and to the audience. Sitting Bull does not need to speak in Altman's self-conscious, parodic film about image-making, because the cinematographic medium captures the signifying essence of his silence, his non-presence in the cinematic dream-time of Cody's imagination. While Buffalo Bill becomes the site of conflicting codes of meaning, where we locate the historical figure — William Cody, the show-business creation — Buffalo Bill, and the signatures of all his makers, including the filmmaker — Robert Altman, Sitting Bull merely remains the familiar, mute but fertile ground of Indian kitsch.

2Much has been written about "the Indian" as the mute ground upon which Euroamericans inscribe an otherness which functions to define them to themselves. We do not have the time here to review that massive body of literature; except to say that, on the one hand, what distinguishes contemporary Indian image-making from that of former times is a perhaps more self-reflexive awareness, on the part of the Euroamerican filmmakers and audience, that "ways of seeing" differ. On the other hand, American Indian people have, to some extent, become speaking subjects as they have never before been. While films like Buffalo Bill, Blazing Saddles, and — more recently — PowWow Highway and Dances with Wolves succeed in partially deconstructing or de-coding the Western through parody, images of Indians nevertheless remain hopelessly codes as some sort of American alter-ego.

3As "internalizations of learned processes to which we adhere quite strictly", codes reduce complex and conflicting realities to psychologically short-sighted signs conducive to survival. Hence, as Bill Nichols notes, in Ideology and Image:

Our difficulty in "seeing" bracketed perception exemplifies the constraining power of these constructs, codes. The code itself, being unconscious, doesn't give a fig about the specific objectives we may assign ourselves... [T]hey are like algebraic functions where what is significant is not a particular value of x but a fixed relationship between variables (such as x = y2 + 5y + 6, or that doubling the pressure on the gas pedal increases the car's speed by a certain percentage). Hence codes differ considerably in character from the messages or behavior they govern. (Nichols, 1981, 28-29)

4In other words, filmic images of Indians today may seem to fit our "politically correct" agendas for promoting cultural diversity — "the specific objectives we... assign ourselves" — in that they acknowledge the injustices and oppression Indians have suffered and suffer, yet representations of "Indians" are essentially coded as they always have been. Thus, the "messages or behaviors they govern" — among non-Indians — go unchanged. In other words, it is questionable whether images of Indians translate into positive political change for American Indian peoples themselves.

5For example, while the tenacious, morally righteous underdog, Filbert in PowWow Highway (a humorous reincarnation of Ken Kesey's Big Indian, Mr. Bromden) may seem like a favorable portrayal, he is, in fact, functionally equivalent to the heinous pretend-Indian in Body Double or Mr. Taylor in Poltergeist II. Whether Euroamericans are reaching up or down their ideological chain of cultural evolution, for a spiritual guide or a bodybound Id to confront and subsume, "the Indian" continues to serve the purpose well. The only "real" character in PowWow Highway is the Viet Nam vet at the Easter PowWow. For he embodies the genuine longing most Indian people share — their desire to hold on to tribal ways, despite the obvious losses, difficulties, and compromises that it implies. In fact, he did not seem to be "acting" at all. Beyond the colorful, festive images of Indian ceremonial life used to promote tourism in the western states, most of non-Indian America regard Indian tribalism as nostalgic, as a kind of "holding on to" the past. It may work as a celebration of a rich heritage, but is is un-American if it means "to impose" that past upon the present.

6Moreover, because American ideology so rapidly and deftly coopts counter-cultural movements and heroes, expecting one minority writer to de-code images which misrepresent his or her heritage or experience is unreasonable. I would, nonetheless, argue that James Welch does attempt to deconstruct, reappropriate, and transform pop culture images of Indians for Indian people themselves. For as Robert Berkhofer, Jr. notes, "Whether as conception or as stereotype, however, the idea of the Indian has created a reality in its own image as a result of the power of Whites and the response of Native Americans" (Beckhofer, 1982, 3). The stuff of Cowboy and Indian films informs all of Welch's novels, as do dreams and visions. But whereas Randolf Scott "plugs" the protagonist "dead" in Winter in the Blood and Jim Loney is killed by lawmen in a shoot-out in the hills in The Death of Jim Loney, Fools Crow, the protagonist in Welch's third novel, survives. Fools Crow appeals to Indians themselves, who have for decades been inundated with images of their individual and collective deaths and of bastardized versions of their worldview. Welch's techniques sometimes work and sometimes don't. They represent a compromise between historical realism and Indian kitsch; nevertheless, the overall recuperative impact of the book is significant.

7In a recent interview, James Welch restates what he has said many times before, in regard to his reasons for writing as he does from an Indian point of view: that Indian people recognize themselves and their lives in his work, "If Indian writers have any kind of common goal, I think it would be to communicate with the Indian people, to make them say, 'that's the reality of it, that's the way it really is'" (Loy, 1980, 37). Of Fools Crow, Welch says elsewhere, that he observes "some deepseated defeat in... people [on the reservation]," but that he had "never tried [until he came up with the idea for the book] to really find out... how this came about, what made them what they are today." Fools Crow is his attempt, he claims, to have that person on the street who questions how he came to be as he is today find out — at least, in part — from reading his novel.

8Early on in the novel, we are introduced to Pikuni life through the perspective of White Man's Dog; a small group of Pikuni men, White Man's Dog among them, are preparing for a raid on the Crows. The honor/shame social contract which motivates them, the way dream-visions inform their actions, and the impending conflict with the Napikwans, (whites) — all figure into our initiation as readers into their way of seeing. Regardless of whether or not the purposively made -other language of the text seems historically "authentic," it sufficiently captures the human complexity of thought behind the characters' actions to grant them a purpose and being (in short, a dignity) beyond that of most western movies and novels. For example, after a troublesome dream in which White Man's Dog sees himself entering a tipi full of naked girls who seem to be seducing him, he awakens before succumbing to temptation and thinks to himself, "he had had many dreams of desire, he welcomed them, but this one was different. This one was a sign, and he didn't know how to interpret it. He wanted to go to the white-faced girl but knew that there was danger in that direction" (18). Here Welch captures the moral ambivalence desire can engender. As stereotypes go, sexual depravity is, for the most part, reserved for Blacks; a pristinely honorable Indian makes for a worthy foe, even or especially when he is coded for defeat.

9As the raid on the Crows progresses, we look down upon the camp as if through the eyes and language of the Pikuni men:

Night Red Light showed her face through the thin clouds as the three men lay on their bellies on the crest of the hill overlooking the Crow encampment. Seven Persons was at its highest point and the camp was darker and less active than it was on the previous night. But there was enough light for Eagle Ribs to point out the lodges, the white trader's camp and, downstream, the horse herds. (28)

10In the passage quoted above and the scene which follows in the text, the image of the "skulking" Indians which dates back to colonial America becomes reversed; we understand their motives and methods, and recognize their enemies — those Indians who deal with the Napikwan. Yet, the Crows are first and foremost traditional enemies.

11Many aspects of the scene are familiar; we are told that, "White Man's Dog moved quietly among the horses. Some shied away but most stood still, regarding him with little interest" (29). And just as we would expect, one of the horses he is stealing whinnies, alerting a camp scout to his presence. This scene is, in fact, so familiar it's hard to place exactly, as is the way he kicks his horse in the ribs to accelerate an attack on the camp scout and his subsequent killing of the man; what is not familiar is his remorse at killing one so young — an act he sees as dishonorable, if not cowardly. Elsewhere, the author does not spare the savage detail in depicting the vengeful murders of Napikwan settlers by Owl Child's gang (216). Although their actions are unacceptable to many Pikuni and certainly would be to readers, the narrator makes their motives clear in the cultural terms already provided in the text through Yellow Kidney's mutilation and the party who revenged him:

But Fast Horse was not happy. He had wanted the Napikwan to die more, piece by piece. He had been cheated by his own rage. He tucked the red hair into a pocket of his buffalo coat, which was tied to the saddle behind him. Then he wateched Owl Child and the others leave the bare-earth yard and ride toward him. Under Bull and Bear Chief started the horses. "Sonofabitch." He had done it too fast. (217)

12In Pikuni cultural terms, grief and lost honor call for and are completed emotionally by revenge. Renato Rosaldo's discovery (about his own worldview as well as that of the tribal Ilongots of the Philippines) in exploring the adaptation of their head-hunting practices to new laws might suggest something about the way other tribal people — in this case, Pikunis — socially construct acceptable grieving behavior:

I has missed the point: what the man in fact sought in the new religion was not the denial of our inevitable deaths, but a means of coping with his grief. With the advent of Martial Law, headhunting was out of the question as a means of venting wrath and thereby lessening his grief. Where he to remain in the Ilongot way of life, the pain of his sorrow would simply be too much to bear. (Rosaldo, 1984, 181)

13Grief also figures into what I see as the most startling image of Indian kitsch that appears in the novel: Welch's rendering in prose the 1915 sculpture by James Earle Frazer entitled "End of the Trail." Not only is that paradigmatic image popular among non-Indians, it appears with great frequency in beaded belts and on the t-shirts sold at powwows. In Fools Crow, Yellow Kidney's broken body emblematically astride an equally dejected horse evocatively re-presents an "End of Trail" variation on the theme of Indian melancholy:

The horse was small and white, with dark scars showing through the hair. It walked with a slow, awkward gait, as though it had been ridden into the ground at one time and had never recovered.
When the figure was a short distance from the camp, he slid his right leg over the horse's neck and jumped off. The horse lowered its head and began to eat the spring grass.
Fifty paces from the group the thin figure stopped and shook his head. The blanket fell away from his face, and the woman beside Fast Horse sucked in her breath. The face was gaunt, the skin stretched tight over the bones and deeply pocked. The man held his blanket over his arms in front of him. The people stared silently. (71)

14Significantly, Yellow Kidney eventually recovers his will to live and to contribute again to the life of his people; equally significant is the fact that just as he begins to recuperate spiritually, his life is senselessly taken by a Napikwan who needs no provocation to kill.

15Fast Horse, upon discovering Yellow Kidney's body, builds a travois to take him back to his people. Since the responsibility for Yellow Kidney's capture and subsequent mutilation at the hands of the Crow fundamentally rests with Fast Horse, whose bragging led to the Crows' discovery of Yellow Kidney's presence among them, he takes responsibility for returning the dead man's body. Although Fast Horse's false pride prevents him from remaining among the Pikuni and ultimately leads to his renegade behavior, his complex motivations become clear. And as Fast Horse watches the travois move toward the camp riders, he replaces Yellow Kidney as the defeated figure in the "End of the Trail" image. For the narrator tells us, as Fast Horse rides away: "Now he was a solitary figure in the isolation of a vast land" (330). His defeatedness results from his lost kinship ties rather than from Euroamerican devaluation of his life in declarating "open season" on Indians because of him. He thus becomes more than the renegade Indian of western movies; like the renegades in Welch's poem "The Renegade Wants Words", who "burned homes for heat", "painted [their] bodies in blood", Fast Horse and his gang of renegades expect "no gratitude, no mercy on [their] heads" (Welch, 1976, 41). Inasmuch as their interpretation of how the rage resulting from helplessness and grief ought to be lived out is an extension of acceptable tribal mores, they accept responsibility for their actions.

16The last image I would like to discuss involves Fools Crow's killing of the Napikwan, who — in his fringed jacket and leggings, with his wolf headdress, his bushy beard and hair — stereotypically draws to mind images of frontiersmen (traders and trappers) from Daniel Boone to Grisly Adams. In addition to the fact that he "leaves his kill" — that is, kills without purpose anything which treatens him in "the wilderness" and does not use the animal for his livelihood — he lusts after the beautiful Indian maiden, Fools Crow's wife, Red Paint. But in Welch's almost flat characterization of this monster, it is the Napikwan who is drawn into Pikuni time and space. For Raven commissions Fools Crow to revenge his four-legged brothers and to end the carnage, and through his mythic powers guides the Napikwan toward his demise. Though riddled with fear and self-doubt, Fools Crow heroically brings the man down:

The weapon Was in his hands, against his cheek, and he watched it travel through the air, between the trees, and he saw it enter the Napikwan's forehead above the startled eyes, below the wolfskin headdress, and he squatted and watched the head jerk back, then the body, until it landed with a quivering shudder in the bear grass, the lupine, the windflowers. Then the sound was no more. Fools Crow's death song had ended. (171)

17His death song has ended, indeed! Moreover, he has avenged countless "skulking" Indians whose songs ended at the hands of just such a frontier hero of television and movie depiction. For again, the image of the lone, innocent, benevolent frontiersmen who has "good Indians" for friends, but who is attacked by an incorrigibly savage stray Indian, is so familar it is difficult to place exactly. As an added bonus, Fools Crow has preserved the honor of an Indian-Princess-like figure and saved her life. Although one might argue, quite rightly, that the scene is not ultimately rescued from Kitsch or — worse — that it is its own brand of racism and sexism, I can imagine an American Indian movie audience for once having something to cheer about. That Fools Crow must account for his actions to the Pikuni leadership adds a further dimension to situate the happening within Pikuni time and place, and more importantly, within Pikuni values and imperatives.

18I do not have time here to explore the most consequentially recuperative aspect of the text: Welch's intricate weaving together of diachronic and synchronic time in Pikuni thought, as history seemingly tramples their way of seeing to the ground. Like the dream that leads Sitting Bull to join the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show in order to have audience with the President of the United States, Fools Crow's power as a dreamer enables him to understand that his people will endure. As he rides away to Canada at the end of the novel, we are left with the impression that his powerful vision — and the vision of his people — cannot be ultimately destroyed, that the power to dream Indian-way persists.

19Although I seriously doubt that America's need for an alterego in the Indian can be deconstructed by Indian literature alone or even by more accurate historical accounting, I do believe that American Indian people can be somewhat empowered by recognizing themselves in purgative and hopeful ways in artistic media. The crucial changes in American Indian lives will come about through economic, legal, and political gains — in short, through enhanced tribal sovereignty. Nevertheless, works which restore a positive valent to the cultural coding equation will support the revitalization of American Indian ceremonialism.

20"Oral traditions," Sam D. Gill notes, "are performed and gain their life and vitality, indeed their meaning, from the response they make to specific cultural situations, both historical and existential" (Gill, 1982, 61). For better or worse, cinematic and pop culture images figure into contemporary American Indian cultural situations. James Welch, in Fools Crow, follows the transformation of Pikuni people (Blackfeet) from relative cultural sovereignty to near defeat, in the span of a few years in the late ninetenth century. The "actual" and "mythic" (historical and existential) time, depicted in Welch's fictional oral tradition, blend as Euroamerican encroachment increases and with it, the sense of impending disaster; yet dream-visions, central to the perspective of the novel as well, mitigate the sort of ultimate defeat that the harsh realities of events alone would insist upon. In his attempt to capture the Pikuni cultural mind in a way that speaks to today's readers, Welch both utilizes and deconstructs the images and language of the Celluloid Indian.



Berkhofer, Robert F., Jr. The White Man's Image. New York: Vintage Books, 1978.

Gill, Sam D. Beyond the Primitive. NY: Prentice Hall, 1981.

Loy, Dana. "James Welch: Finding His Own Voice." Four Winds. Austin, TX: Hundred Arrows Press, Spring 1980: 35-39.

Nichols, Bill. Ideology and the Image: Social Representation in the Cinema and Other Media. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.

Parks, Rita. The Western Hero in Film and Television: Mass Media Mythology. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1982.

Rosaldo, Renato I. "Grief and a Headhunter's Rage: On the Cultural Force of Emotions". Ed. Edward Bruner. Text, Play & Story. American Ethnology Society, 1984: 178-195.

Rudolph, Alan, and Robert Altman. Buffalo Bill and, the Indians. New York: Bantam, 1976.

Self, Robert T. "Author, Text, and Self in Buffalo Bill and the Indians." Ed. Hans P. Braendlin. Ambiguities in Literature and Film. Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1988: 104-116.

Welch, James. Fools Crow. New York and London: Penguin Books, 1986.

—. Riding the Earthboy 40. New York: Harper & Row, 1971, 1976.


Kathryn W. Shanley teaches American Indian Literature at Cornell University. She is the author of a forthcoming book (University of Oklahoma Press) entitled 'Only An Indian': Reading James Welch. She is a Nakota (Assiniboine) scholar from the Ft. Peck Reservation in Montana. Recent publications include an article, "Blood Ties and Blasphemy: American Indian Women and the Problem of History" (University of Minnesota Center fo Advanced Feminist Studies) and "The Lived Experience: American Indian Literature Since Alcatraz" (Smithsonian Institution)

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 1996

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