Texts by and about Natives: Texts

17. James Welch, Fools Crow: A Novel

From James Welch, Fools Crow: A Novel, (New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1986), 387-91.

IT WAS THE MOON of the first thunder and Mik-api sat in his lodge alone and prayed. He wore only a breechcloth and a pair of winter moccasins. He sat cross-legged, his back hunched and narrow. His hair was gathered in a lump just above his forehead. He prayed out loud, but his words were scarcely a whisper in the gray light of the lodge. As he prayed his mind wandered and he remembered the day he had acquired the Thunder Pipe bundle. Forty winters had passed since that day; yet Mik-api remembered it well, for it was the day before his Black Paint wife had died of the white-scabs. The man who transferred the bundle had taught Mik-api the many songs and prayers and dances that went with the bundle. After seven days of such ceremony, Mik-api, who had paid with all his possessions, was the owner of the sacred bundle. He had vowed to acquire it because his wife was sick and he had thought the power of the ceremony would restore her health. She died the next day, but Mik-api did not doubt the power of the bundle. He doubted only his own.

In the years since then, he had become a heavy-singer-for-the-sick and his medicine was strong enough to instill faith and respect and even awe in his people. Those times his medicine didn’t work, the people said the bad spirits had already claimed the body of the sick one. When the medicine succeeded, they said Mik-api had the greatest power of all the many-faces. For many winters he did possess a great healing power. He could cure anything from a broken leg to a broken spirit. Rare was the affliction that Mik-api couldn’t ease. But now he felt the weight of his years and knew that he would not see the snow of the next

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winter. His dreams brought him closer and closer to the Sand Hills. He had been ready for some time and he welcomed each dream, for it was his Black Paint wife who appeared most often and filled him with a shyness that he had not felt for some time. They had spent only two years as man and wife before she died. Although he had grown old and had experienced many things, he did not find a woman to take her place. And so he dreamed of this reunion, dreamed with the shy pleasure of a young man who had much to look forward to.

He felt it more than he heard it when it happened. His prayers and thoughts had taken him from his lodge, but now he felt the long slow rumble of the many drums enter his body and his heart beat faster. The camp crier stuck his head into the entrance and said, “It is time.”

Mik-api murmured his assent and the camp crier left to get the others. Mik-api said a prayer of thanks to Thunder Chief for coming once more to the country of the Pikunis. Then he untied the bundle. It was wrapped in the skin of the real-bear and decorated with eagle feathers and ermine skins.

When his assistants were seated, Mik-api unwrapped the Thunder Pipe stem and held it aloft. He said the prayers to the Above Ones, the Below Ones, the Underwater People. Then he fitted the sandstone bowl to the stem and filled it with tobacco. He smoked to the four directions, then placed new tobacco in the bundle. Perhaps Fools Crow will smoke this tobacco next thunder moon, he thought. The drumming and singing began. Mik-api stood and acted out the part of Real-bear, growling, thrusting his head this way and that, sniffing, making clawing gestures in the air. The assistants sang horse songs, owl songs and blackhorn songs, each time acting out the gestures of the animals. When they were finished with the long ceremony, Mik-api lit the pipe and offered the smoke again to the sacred beings, as well as the four directions. After his offering to Thunder Chief, 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, all the things that grow in the ground-of-many-gifts. They prayed that the blackhorns would be thick all around them

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and nourish them as they had nourished the before-people.

The procession began, Mik-api in the lead, holding up the Thunder Pipe for all to see. As they paraded through the camp, others joined them, singing and drumming. There were fewer of them than in previous years, but the drumming and singing seemed louder, as though they sought to make up in enthusiasm what they lacked in numbers.

Fools Crow and Red Paint stood outside their lodge, waiting. He had painted his face and he carried a feathered shield and a bow. His braids were wrapped with ermine skins and tied with red yarn. Red Paint wore a dress of elkskin trimmed with several rows of elk teeth. Her cheeks were rouged and she stood shyly. The cradleboad was on her back. Not too many winters ago it had held Red Paint, then Good Young Man and One Spot. The blue, white and red quillwork designs were slightly faded, but the skin was as soft as ever. Butterfly had been sleeping, but as the procession approached and the drumming and singing got louder, he opened his eyes and looked at the pegs holding the front of the lodge skins together. His eyes were large and dark as he watched the butterfly fan his wings on a peg. Fools Crow stepped back and made a face at him, and Butterfly looked back with calm curiosity.

Then the procession was passing the lodge and Mik-api gave them a quick look. In his glance, Fools Crow saw a glint of almost youthful energy, a bright flame of pride that made the younger man smile. Mik-api’s assistants danced behind him, now reserved and tall, no longer the men and women who had acted the animal roles in the lodge. Next came the elders, Rides-at-the-door and Double Strike Woman among them. Several small children danced behind them, the quick steps of a scalp dance. One Spot, his face painted and an owl feather in his hair, danced with the fury of a strutting grouse. Fools Crow and Red Paint fell in with the younger people. A clown, dressed in the fur and headdress of a little-wolf, danced behind Red Paint, making faces and yipping at Butterfly.

The procession managed a grave dignity as it wound its way through the camp. Only the few old people whose frail bodies

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would not allow them to join watched without getting up. But they too sang, and they remembered many hopeful springs when they had danced through camp, and they prayed that, after the sad winter they had lived through, there would be hope and joy this spring.

Fools Crow listened to the faraway rumble of Thunder Chief and felt his step become lighter. He felt in his heart, in the rhythm of the drum, a peculiar kind of happiness—a happiness that sleeps with sadness. And the feeling made his head light and he was removed from the others, dancing alone, singing a song that had to do with his life in this world, and in that other world he had visited in his vision. And then he saw the white lodge and the pale blue light and the woman sitting across from him. He knew that she was here, someplace, watching him, watching the procession, and he saw her smile in the blue light and he smiled. For even though he was, like Feather Woman, burdened with the knowledge of his people, their lives and the lives of their children, he knew they would survive, for they were the chosen ones.

A drop of water stung his head and he saw the hard drops falling all around him. He heard the drops bounce off the taut skins of the lodges, and he saw the drops gathered on the bare earth that countless feet had trampled smooth over the winter. He felt Red Paint’s hand slip into his and he raised his face.

That night there was much feasting in all the Pikuni camps. Winter was over and the men talked of hunting, of moving the camps out of the valleys, of moving on. The women prepared their meager feast and fed their men, their children, their relatives and friends. They knew that soon the meat pots would be full and the hides would be drying in the sun. Outside, the children played in the rain, chasing each other, slipping and skidding in the mud. They were Pikuni and they played hard.

Far from the fires of the camps, out on the rain-dark prairies, in the swales and washes, on the rolling hills, the rivers of great

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animals moved. Their backs were dark with rain and the rain gathered and trickled down their shaggy heads. Some grazed, some slept. Some had begun to molt. Their dark horns glistened in the rain as they stood guard over the sleeping calves. The blackhorns had returned and, all around, it was as it should be.

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