- Genre, History, Ecology:James Welch's Fools Crow and the Reagan Anti- Environmental Revolution
James welch's fools crow (1986) is known for the revisionist force of its historical realism. The titular Pikuni brave in Fools Crow (originally named White Man's Dog) takes his adult name after defeating the chief of the rival Crow tribe. Despite the title's origins in an episode of violence, the novel centers on the peaceable lifestyle of a Blackfoot community threatened by the expansion of the American nation-state. The local violence between the Pikuni and the Crow contrasts sharply with the industrial-scale conflict, social and economic disruption, and ecological consequences of the conquest and settling of the Montana territory. The juxtaposition between these forms of violence, as Sarah Martin argues, subordinates Welch's “aspiration to recover historical voices” to “the more urgent and contestatory attempt to reverse historical silencing and confront the reasons for [the contemporary] resistance to understanding Native American experience in American culture” (91). Welch's account of the expansion of the American state and the consequent displacement and decimation of the Blackfeet maps a contested historical terrain—one that more accurately represents American myths regarding westward expansion.
The novel contributes to revisionist accounts of American expansion not only through documenting atrocities committed against indigenous tribes in the Montana territory but also through its engagement with formal problems in genre and literary history. Critics including Barbara Cook, Joseph L. Coulombe, James J. Donahue, Sean Teuton, and Alan Velie have explored realism and the historical novel as [End Page 37] literary traditions that Welch adapts to contest the hegemony of American or Western colonial history. This line of reading of Fools Crow as a revisionist iteration of the historical novel is both illuminating and apropos to Welch's intentions for the book. In an interview given the year before Welch completed the novel, he says,
I'm trying to write from the inside-out, because most historical novels are written from the outside looking in. My main character is a member of a particular band, and I'm talking a lot about camp life and ceremonial life, those day to day practical things that they did to survive—and to live quite decently as a matter of fact. […] The white people are the real strangers. They're the threatening presence out there all the time.(McFarland 4–5)
The inversion of the historical novel's conventional perspective defamiliarizes history, or at least as history is often oriented around European and American civilization. In Welch's turn on the historical novel, the representatives of the American nation-state become a strange, threatening presence, spectating from somewhere on the narrative's outskirts. Welch thus frames Fools Crow in such a way that denies the nation-state its place at the center of the novel.
Given this complex and critical use of historical realism, it is not surprising that Welch also draws on other conventions common to the Western literary tradition. In particular, Fools Crow employs certain bildungsroman tropes in order to examine the concepts of citizenship and national belonging implicit in the narrative arc of education or maturation. Even as historical realism conventionally takes white civilization and the nation-state as its orienting terms, the classic bildungsroman, as Jed Esty explains, “stabilizes the protagonist's aging process within and against the backdrop of the modern nation” (40). The nation provides an anchorage or site of collective mooring for the subjective development of the hero, and as such Esty argues that the protagonist in the classic bildungsroman follows a trajectory dependent upon narratives of modern progress, the possession of property rights, autonomous subjectivity, and the social responsibility required by the obligations of mature citizenship. This trajectory comes under scrutiny in Fools Crow as many [End Page 38] of these tokens of “education” or modern formation are foreclosed to the novel's protagonist. Indeed, Welch's novel suggests that the bildungsroman's logic of citizenship relies historically and culturally on the exclusion of indigenous peoples.
This revisionist work provides a venue for considering the historical conditions of both American expansionism and indigenous resistance, particularly in terms of the environmental...