- Language as ImmersionThe Blackfoot Mode of Experience in James Welch’s Fools Crow
American Indian linguistics, precolonial perspectives, word calques
To read James Welch’s Fools Crow is to enter the nineteenth-century Blackfoot world, a world where Morning Star greets the dawn and Cold Maker brings winter storms, where the men hunt the blackhorn with their many-shots guns and the Backbone of the World rises above the plains. The character names too take decidedly Native American forms: White Man’s Dog, Red Paint, Owl Child, Rides-at-the-Door, and others. Unlike Welch’s previous novels, Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney—which take place in the modern era and use a less stylized narration—Fools Crow’s narration feels intrinsic to its historical and cultural context. The novel’s language embodies a distinctly Native American tone that approximates for readers, in a comprehensible literary form, the Blackfoot perspective before the coming of the white men. Most critical responses to the novel mention Welch’s word choices at least in passing, though scholars are mixed in their judgment of their efficacy. Andrea Opitz, who translated the novel into German, speaks positively of the novel’s naming system, writing that “the text changes the way we perceive reality and makes clear that we need a different language in order to experience a different culture.”1 Mary Jane Lupton writes that Welch is faced with the difficult question of “how to make the language and customs of the ancestors intelligible to a post-colonial relationship” but acknowledges that “modern readers may be bewildered by Welch’s renaming of characters and places.”2 William Bevis too admits that “we cannot enter an alien world in a comfortable manner,” and Robert Gish goes so far as to call the novel’s vocabulary “silliness,” remarking that “such naming can be frivolous, especially when these presumably archaic labels bump up against more contemporary vocabulary.”3
Though Welch’s Blackfoot translations may distance those encountering them for the first time, his word choices grant us access to [End Page 167] the cultural atmosphere of the presettlement Blackfoot era better than modern-day English could on its own, and their effectiveness justifies their sometimes arcane difficulty. In this essay, I’ll explore Welch’s use of both directly translated Blackfoot words and a prose style that together approximate an English version of the Blackfoot language, along with the linguistic and historical models that influenced the novel’s consistency with earlier Blackfoot tales written in English. Such stylistic choices evoke the Blackfoot way of life for modern readers while anchoring Fools Crow among a tradition of other Blackfoot accounts.
Linguistic, Spiritual, and Anthropological Precedents
In his quest to capture the presettlement way of life, Welch faces the predicament of how best to narrate a novel through characters whose grasp of European phenomena is limited, whose language differs widely from English, and who view the Montana ecosystem through a complex set of spiritual relationships. In their article “A Conceptual Anatomy of the Blackfoot Word,” Leroy Little Bear and Ryan Heavy Head show how these spiritual relationships are manifested through the Blackfoot language itself, which, rather than describing concrete objects acting upon other objects as English does, conveys interrelated events occurring in a state of change.4 The English-language novel, with its conventions of prose, character, and plot, is both a recognizable way for Welch to reach readers and the medium best suited for him to communicate his story. However, the conventions of the modern novel—and those of the English language itself—have the potential to distance readers from an indigenous perspective, since English’s organization of reality into distinct objects situated in time and space differs so radically from the way Welch’s Blackfoot characters view the world. The Blackfeet did not write novels, they told stories, and they told them in Blackfoot, not English.
Ron McFarland points out that Welch unites these two perspectives by presenting the Blackfoot language to English readers through calques, loan words that directly translate Blackfoot concepts into English, such as “Yellow Kidney” or “white man’s water.”5 However, Welch...