Fool’s Crow by James Welch is, among other things, a story of one boy’s initiation into manhood, a tale that Joseph Campbell would call a “hero’s quest narrative.” At the beginning of the novel, White Man’s Dog is eighteen years old but thinks he has little to show for himself, only three horses and no wives. Throughout the course of the book he goes through a step-by-step initiation ritual that leads him to manhood.
First the hero must be separated from home and family. As a form of purification he enters a sweat with the many-faces man, Mik-api. Cleansed, White Man’s Dog paints himself with yellow pigment exactly as Mik-api instructed to “gain the strength and cunning necessary to be successful” (23). White Man’s Dog prays to Thunder Chief “whose long rumbling voice foretold the beginning of life and abundance on the ground of many gifts. He prays to Sun Chief, who watched over the Pikunis and all the things of this world” (27). Then he makes a vow that if he returns home successful he will sacrifice before the medicine pole in the next Sun Dance. As the young men begin their first warrior mission, stealing horses from the Crows, White Man’s Dog is ashamed of his fear and sings his war song in a low voice to regain his strength. He kills his first man, a young enemy who could ruin the mission. Later he feels guilty about this death. Because of his cunning and bravery, White Man’s Dog is successful in this step of his initiation and returns home with hundreds of horses.
Another phase of his growth toward manhood is the ability to hunt. The hunt in warrior cultures shows man’s respect for the animal and the compassion to provide food for his people. White Man’s Dog kills many animals on his “solitary hunts and he left many of them outside the lodge of Heavy Shield Woman” (47) because her husband Yellow Kidney did not return from the trip to Crow Camp.
Mik-api teaches White Man’s Dog the spiritual dimension of his manhood. After his return from the Crow raid they sweat together and pray together, “thanking the Above Ones for the young man’s return” (50). One day Mik-api asks White Man’s Dog to prepare the sweat lodge, “and that was the beginning of the young man’s apprenticeship” (50). He now holds Mik-api’s robe while listening to the old man sing and pray; he accompanies Mik-api to the sick person’s lodge “carrying the healing paraphernalia” (51). Mik-api helps White Man’s Dog interpret his dream and teaches him the power of animals. His conversation with Raven leads him to the power of Skunk Bear. Later, when White Man’s Dog tells Mik-api of his dream of the white woman, Mik-api performs a purification ritual to rid him of this spirit. When White Man’s Dog awakes, he fells “that he had been to another world and returned . . . he had dreamed of eagles and felt almost as though he had flown with them” (63). Gradually White Man’s Dog understands that he is to be the successor of Mik-api. Boss Ribs tells him, “once you commit yourself to such knowledge, there is no turning away” (199).
In spite of his troubling dreams and self-doubt, White Man’s Dog wants his own lodge and wife, another step toward adulthood. First he goes on another mission for his people, to ask approval for Heavy Shield Woman to become Medicine Woman at the next Sun Dance. On this trip he remembers the stories told by his grandfather of the origins of the constellations. “His grandfather had said those many winters ago that if you went to sleep with your palms out, the stars would come down to rest in them and you would be a powerful man” (93). White Man’s Dog is successful in this task and returns home thinking of marriage. He has his heart set on Red Paint and asks Mik-api to intercede for him. However, he must ask his family’s permission. After a discussion of the benefits and problems of such a union, White Man’s Dog receives permission to propose marriage to Red Paint and her family. The families get together to exchange gifts. “On the twenty-third day of the new-grass moon, Red Paint moved her things into the small tipi beside the big lodge of Rides-at-the-door” (107). White Man’s Dog feels awe at the “power of their lovemaking” (115).
Another step in his spiritual quest is the fulfillment of his vow to sacrifice at the Sun Dance. Mik-api and two other old men paint White Man’s Dog’s body “white with double rows of black dots down each arm and leg” (115). They place a wreath of sage grass on his head and bind the grass to his wrists and ankles. Together they pray that Sun Chief “would smile on him in all his undertakings” (115). As he feels the sarvisberry sticks being pushed under his skin he prays in thanksgiving, asks forgiveness for Kills-close-to-the-lake. Nearly collapsing in pain, he thanks Sun Chief for his fine new wife and vows to be good and true to all the people. He prays for strength to endure his torture. He dances to the beat of the drum and pulls against the lines attached to his breasts. At the end of the dance he caws, “think of Skunk Bear, your power,” and feels the other skewer pull free (117). After White Man’s Dog sleeps, his wife and father tell him how proud they are of his strength. Both he and Kills-close-to-the-lake dream of love and are cleansed by Wolverine.
As a final step White Man’s Dog, now named Fool’s Crow, dreams that he must begin a vision quest, a journey as a beggar. He asks Red Paint to pray for them and their unborn child and begins this trip alone. He paints his face with whitewash and charcoal-grey smudges, appearing like a mask of death (315). On his long journey he is alone; he feels “naked and vulnerable” (321). He feels fear and doubt but sings the power song Wolverine gave him to restore his strength. Eventually, in a green sanctuary between earth and sky, he meets Feather Woman, also called So-at-sa-ki, the woman he has heard about in stories. She tells him about digging too far in the earth for a turnip and becoming separated from her husband and child. Now she is in perpetual mourning for them, especially her husband Morning Star (350-52). She is painting designs on a skin that seem to come to life for Fool’s Crow. In the pictures he can see the future of his people, their suffering, the death of the buffalo, the death of their culture as he knows it. She tells him that he is a leader: “You can prepare them for the times to come. If they make peace within themselves, they will live a good life in the Sand Hills. There they will go on to live as they always have. Things will not change” (359).
When Fool’s Crow returns home he discovers that his vision is prophetic. Smallpox has attacked his people. Mik-api’s medicine is not able to heal all of the people and many die. Fool’s Crow tries to help Mik-api with the healing. At the end of the novel Fool’s Crow stand with Red Paint and their child, in the family cradleboard, watching the procession, a dance of hope and regeneration. “He knew they would survive, for they were the chosen ones” (390). The spring rain begins and the people enjoy a feast. The blackhorns return and all is as it should be.
Fool’s Crow is a true quest hero. He goes through the ritualistic initiation: separation, trials, encounter with mythic beings, transformation, and he returns to help his people. Like the journeys of Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed, his quest is spiritual. He experiences dreams and visions; he recites the cosmogonic myth; he suffers pain for his people. His transformation is a true apotheosis: he is elevated to a new level of consciousness and can share his vision with his