Below is a synopsis of the main events depicted in the novel.
***As the book opens, eighteen-year-old White Man’s Dog dreams of becoming a wealthy and respected warrior. His friends tease him because he has never been with a woman, and he is troubled by his desire for his father’s third wife, Kills-close-to-the-lake. When his friend, Fast Horse, announces that Yellow Kidney is planning a horse raiding party against the Crows, White Man’s Dog sees the raid as an opportunity to acquire horses and respect. Two years previously, he had gone to seek his animal helper, but receive ‘no song, no vision’. He sees himself, and is seen by the rest of his tribe, as being ‘without luck’ (p7). Though White Man’s Dog is eager to join the party, he admits to Fast Horse that he is afraid. He is reassured, however, by the offer of the Pikuni medicine man, Mik-api, to perform a ceremony which will make him brave. Though he is wary that White Man’s Dog’s poor luck might infect the rest of the raiding party, Yellow Kidney agrees to take the boy along out of respect for his father, Rides-at-the-door.
On their way to the Crow camp, Fast Horse tells the party of a dream he had in which he was visited by the fearsome Cold Maker. Cold Maker promises to help the party in their raid, if they will remove a rock that blocks a spring where he drinks. Regardless, they Fast Hors is now obliged to deliver two buffalo robes to Cold Maker’s daughters. Though there is an undercurrent of threat to Fast Horse’s dream, the party believe that by carrying out Cold Maker’s instructions, they will be successful. As the young warriors search in vain for the blocked spring, Yellow Kidney grows sceptical of Fast Horse.
Drawing closer to the Crows, White Man’s Dog also has a dream. For three nights in succession he dreams about a lodge in which he finds a number of young girls asleep in their sleeping robes. A ‘white-faced girl’ (p17) wakes and calls to him with a look of desire in her eyes. As he looks around the lodge, all of the girls wake and turn to him with desire. Each night, the dream has ended as he moves toward the white-faced girl. White Man’s Dog is troubled by the dream and though he doesn’t know how to interpret it, he ‘knew that there was danger’ in going to the girl (p18). Despite his concern about the meaning of the dream, he tells no one.
Over the course of the journey, Yellow Kidney gains respect for White Man's Dog and appoints him to lead a group of young warriors in stealing a herd of Crow horses. Although there are many horses, and only a few night-riders guarding them, White Man’s Dog is cautious and follows Yellow Kidney’s instructions, telling the others to take only ‘as many as [they] can safely drive’ so as not to draw the Crows’ attention (p29). As the horses are being driven away from the village, White Man's Dog kills a young Crow scout who has come to investigate. Seeing it begin to snow, the warriors believe that Cold Maker will protect them, by covering their tracks, as they flee with the horses. Meanwhile, Yellow Kidney, Fast Horse and Eagle Ribs sneak into the heart of the village to steal the Crows’ prized buffalo runners (fast and well-trained horses used in buffalo hunts).
All the next day, White Man’s Dog and the other young warriors wait for the others at a meeting place. Only Eagle Ribs has arrived, and as the snow deepens, he tells them of a dream indicating that Yellow Kidney has been captured or killed. On the second night, Fast Horse arrives. He has had another vision of Cold Maker, who is angry because he did not keep his vow to take buffalo robes to his daughters. His life is spared, but he must still fulfil his promise.
Believing Yellow Kidney to be dead, the men return home, where White Man’s Dog is praised for his part in the raid. Fast Horse, however, has grown sullen and distant and is angered when White Man’s Dog suggests that Yellow Kidney is not dead, but that Cold Maker is instead holding him until Fast Horse keeps his vow. Since the raid, Fast Horse has ‘become an outsider within his own band’ and though White Man’s Dog is now admired, Fast Horse is considered to be ‘a source of bad medicine’ (p70).
The joy at Yellow Kidney’s unexpected return stops suddenly when he holds up his fingerless hands. He tells how, during the raid on the Crows, he had just taken the buffalo runner of their old enemy, Bull Shield, when he heard Fast Horse shout out a boastful challenge: ‘Oh, you Crows are puny, your horses are puny and your women make me sick! If I had time I would ride among you and cut off your puny woman heads, you cowardly Crows’ (p73). As the Crows searched for the intruders, Yellow Kidney hid in a lodge where he found a number of people, apparently asleep. Hearing his pursuers outside, he climbed beneath the robes of a young girl, and lying next to her naked and feverish body, he became aroused and had intercourse with her. Afterwards, he saw that the girl and her companions were dying from the white-scabs disease (smallpox). When he tried to escape, Yellow Kidney was captured, and as punishment for his crime, the Crows chopped off his fingers and sent him out of the camp into a snowstorm. Later, White Man’s Dog tells his father about his recurrent dream of the ‘white-faced girl’ and how, by not telling Yellow Kidney, he believes he is responsible for what has happened. Rides-at-the-door, however, puts the blame on Fast Horse (p85) who exiles himself from the Lone Eaters’ camp, and joins Owl Child’s band of renegades in fighting the encroaching Napikwans (white people).
While Yellow Kidney was missing, his wife, Heavy Shield Woman, vows that she will be the Medicine Woman at the Sun Dance, if Yellow Kidney is brought home. This is an unusual request as "...most bands did not like to have a woman declare herself for this role; if she failed, it would bring dishonor on them and disfavor from Sun Chief himself..." (p44), and after Yellow Kidney's return, White Man's Dog is sent to obtain consent from the other bands of Pikunis. After he has gotten approval and returned home to the Lone Eaters, White Man’s Dog marries Red Paint, the daughter of Heavy Shield Woman and Yellow Kidney.
During the Sun Dance, White Man's Dog finally receives a vision of his spirit animal, Wolverine. Red Paint becomes pregnant and chooses the name Sleep Bringer for the baby after a Butterfly lands on her stomach and whispers the name.
White Man’s Dog joins a war party which sets out to avenge Yellow Kidney. As they travel to meet the enemy, there is an eclipse which he sees as a bad sign. When they come up against the Crows, White Man’s Dog is injured, but he is able to kill the Crow Leader, Bull Shields, and, encouraged by his father, takes the fallen man’s scalp. On his return, he receives the new name, Fools Crow, because he is said to have tricked Bull Shield into thinking he was dead. Though is feted as a hero, and himself boasts of his exploits to Yellow Kidney, Fools Crow knows the stories about him are wildly exaggerated. He is ashamed at the way his added to Yellow Kidney’s humiliation and he does not believe he has earned his new name. Instead, he worries that the bad spirit, which Mik-api previously drove out of him, has now returned.
As Fools Crow and Red Paint prepare to travel to the Backbone of the world (the Continental Divide), white soldiers arrive at the Lone Eaters’ village, looking for Owl child who they claim has killed the white trader, Malcolm Clark, also known as Four Bears. The Lone Eaters have little sympathy for either Four Bears or Owl Child, but resist the threats of the soldiers.
While they are in the Backbone, Fools Crow has another vision in which he is visited by Raven. Raven knows the truth about his part in the battle with the Crows, and again Fools Crow feels ashamed. Raven warns Fools Crow of ‘an evil presence’ in the Backbone, claiming that a Napikwan is killing many animals and leaving their carcasses to rot, and tells Fools Crow that he ‘must kill the Napikwan’ to stop the senseless slaughter (pp164-5). Fools Crow resists, knowing the consequences of killing a white man, but Raven says he has been specially chosen by Sun Chief to do this. Raven goes to the Napikwan as he sleeps and causes him to dream of Red Paint. Using Red Paint as a trap, Fools Crow is able to kill the white man.
On their return to their village, the chiefs hold a council. Fools Crow tells them what has happened. Expecting retaliation, some chiefs urge the Pikunis to form a war party to drive the white men from their lands, but Rides-at-the-door makes an impassioned speech, knowing that their survival, and that of future generations of Pikunis, depends on making peace with the Napikwans.
Fast Horse returns, dressed in Napikwan clothing, having been shot and critically injured. He is taken to his father’s lodge and nursed by Mik-api and Fools Crow. When Fast Horse begins to recover, Boss Ribs welcomes his son back home and plans for him to learn about the Beaver Medicine bundle, inheriting his spiritual position within the community. Fast Horse rejects the ways of the Pikunis and when he is well enough, leaves the village, ‘[t]his time for good’ (p192), and sets off to take revenge on the Napikwan who shot him. Boss Ribs asks Fools Crow to go after his son and bring him back, and as he is trying to find him, Fools Crow discovers the ransacked house of a Napikwan homesteader family which Fast Horse and his party have raided.
Yellow Kidney, not wanting to be a burden, leaves the Lone Eaters to go to the camp of the Spotted Horse people to die. After six days, during which he has found that he is capable of doing more things with his damaged hands than he had previously thought, ‘if he did them deliberately and without haste’ (p240), he ‘no longer felt pitiful and worthless’. He makes up his mind to return to his own village ‘to watch his sons grow up’ and to grow old with Heavy Shield Woman (p244). As he rests in a war lodge, Yellow Kidney is shot by a Napikwan, who is eager to kill an Indian in revenge for the settlers killed by Owl Child and Fast Horse.
One Spot, Red Paint’s younger brother, is attacked by a wolf with ‘whiteness around his mouth’ (p258) and contracts rabies. Each night, after the attack, the boy dreams about the wolf. At first, the wolf attacks him again, but after Fools Crow assures him that the wolf is not his enemy, the dreams become less violent. On the eighth day, One Spot appears to be recovering from his wounds, but that evening he begins having symptoms of rabies. As Mik-api is not in the village, Fools Crow takes on his role as medicine healer, and drives away the bad spirit that has taken over the boy’s body.
After a visit from soldiers, looking for Owl Child, Rides-at-the-door accompanies a party of Pikuni and Kainah chiefs to meet with the Napikwans at the agency. There, they meet the Napikwan General Sully, who is considered by many to be an ‘Indian lover’ for his ‘moderate stance’ and wants to avoid ‘the great conflict’ with the Blackfeet (p277). He is disappointed by the small number of minor chiefs who have come, and believes that without a larger representation, and more major chiefs, this meeting will be fruitless. He knows, however, that the government wants Blackfeet land to be made available for white settlement, and that ‘[e]ven if all the chiefs had shown up, it would not have changed the simple fact that the Blackfeet were to be eliminated by any means possible, or at least forced into a position they would never peacefully accept’ (p 273). He gives the chiefs the conditions for peace: the arrest of Owl Child, Bear Chief and Black Weasel for the murder of Malcolm Clark; the immediate return of livestock stolen from homesteaders and the government; and the cessation of hostilities against the Americans. Though he believes these conditions will be impossible to deliver, Rides-at-the-door knows what is at stake if they do not comply. He tells Sully that they will find and kill Owl Child themselves, and ‘will return as many of the Napikwan horses as we can find’ (p281). Sully urges Rides-at-the-door to tell the other Pikuni chiefs of the conditions and to stress upon them that unless the conditions are met, ‘war is imminent [and] [t]heir people will be killed like so many buffalo’ (p283).
The Lone Eaters’ camp is visited by a group of Pikunis travelling with a Napikwan doctor named Sturgis. They tell the Lone Eaters that an outbreak of smallpox is spreading among neighboring bands and Sturgis, whose Pikuni wife has recently died of the disease, warn the Lone Eaters that they must avoid contact with Napikwans and people from other villages. Fools Crow wonders if these men can be trusted and considers that Sturgis may actually have come to infect the Lone Eaters, rather than to save them. As the men smoke Three Bears’ ceremonial pipe, he voices his distrust of Pretty-on-top, a Pikuni who has adopted Napikwan ways. Mik-api, however, thinks the strangers should be trusted, as they have already suffered the loss of loved ones. The Lone Eaters weigh up their options. They do not want to be faced with shooting relatives who come to them for help, but neither do they want to become infected. They consider whether it would be better for them to travel across the Backbone, or go north across the Medicine Line to their relatives, the Siksikas.
This meeting takes place after Rides-at-the-door has met with other Pikuni chiefs, to discuss the Napikwan demands. He had been unable to convince them to accept Sully’s conditions, and this, ‘coupled with the immediate threat of the white-scabs disease, made their world seem hopeless’ (p309).
As the council weighs their options, Fools Crow enters a restless sleep. When he wakes, he tells Red Paint that Nitsokan, his dream helper, has told him he must make a journey, which will last for seven sleeps. Though he doesn’t know where he is going, he is told that he must travel without stopping for three days and three nights, arriving at his destination as a beggar. Travelling through wide open country where Napikwans live, he fears being seen, but Nitsokan keeps him hidden by covering him and his horse in frost. He arrives at a small log house where he finds a woman with pale blue eyes and the cropped hair of one who mourns. During a vivid dream, he follows Wolverine, his animal helper, through a dark tunnel and out into a valley of lush meadows and warm summer sun.
Fools Crow learns that the woman is So-at-sa-ki, the wife of Morning Star and mother of Star Boy. He watches her paint a village scene on a tanned calf skin, then sees the village come to life. He recognises the people as ‘the Hard Top Knots, the Never Laughs, the Grease Melters, [and] the Many Chiefs’ (p354), and sees they are dying of the white-scabs disease. In a second vision, he sees an army of seizers, led by an unfamiliar seizer chief and the scout, Joe Kipp, heading toward the Pikunis. A third vision shows him a landscape he knows well, but which is devoid of blackhorns, long legs, big horns, wags-his-tails, and prairie runners. ‘It was as if the earth had swallowed up the animals’ (p356). In this scene, he sees lodges set up around an agency compound and many ragged and pitiful people. The skin has shown him ‘the end of the blackhorns and the starvation of the Pikunis’ (p358).
Meanwhile, Fast Horse finds Yellow Kidney’s body in the war lodge and, strapping it to a travois, returns it to the Lone Eaters. Because of the life he has chosen, he knows that his break with his people is final. He cannot bring himself to enter the village, but watches from the edge of the woods as the horse carries Yellow Kidney’s body home.
Rides-at-the-door learns that his younger son, Running Fisher, and his third wife, the eighteen-year-old Kills-close-to-the-lake, have been having an affair. He asks forgiveness from his wife for neglecting her and for denying her the chance of a life with a younger man. She has dishonoured his lodge, however, and he cannot forgive her, but because he feels partly to blame, he sends her back to her father’s village rather than take retribution by mutilating or killing her. He also banishes his son, but Running Fisher tells his father how he has ‘danced in my own way’ and ‘painted my arrows with a pigment I alone possessed’ (p344) as a way of setting himself apart from his people. Like Fast Horse, he was full of pride and self-importance, wanting only wealth and admiration. He sees that he too has dishonoured his people and accepts his punishment.
Moved by Running Fisher’s confession, Rides-at-the-door offers his son the possibility of redemption, suggesting that he might return one day, after he has gone to the Siksikas and purified himself with their medicine pipe keeper.
On the night that Fools Crow returns from his meeting with So-at-sa-ki, a baby is the first victim to die of the white-scab disease. Others quickly follow. Fools Crow and the two many faces men, Boss Ribs and Mik-api, conduct healing ceremonies, but they soon realise their efforts are futile. Many people die, including Three Bears and Red Paint’s brother, Good Young Man. Her youngest brother, One Spot, recovers from the disease, just as he did from his rabies infection.
Fools Crow joins a hunting party which comes upon the winter camp of the Hard Topknots. The camp has been decimated by the white-scabs, as in the visions played out on the yellow calf skin. Later, the hunters meet a group of women, children and elderly Pikunis travelling on foot. They tell how their village was attacked while they slept. Fools Crow travels alone to their camp, knowing already what awaits. He finds the village burnt, with the bodies of the dead thrown onto the smouldering lodges.
As he takes in the scene of devastation, a small group of survivors emerge from their hiding places. They tell Fools Crow about the massacre and their wish that they too had been killed so that they could be with their loved ones in the Sand Hills. Fools Crow feels helpless and ‘wishes for the presence of his father. Rides-at-the-door would say some words that would make them all see a reason to go on’ (p386). Seeking his father’s words of comfort and strength, he says simply “We must think of our children” though when he looks around, there are no children left.
In the final chapter, Mik-api leads the Thunder Moon ceremony, imagining it to be his last before he goes to join his Black Paint wife in the Sand Hills. In the forty years that he has been in possession of the Thunder Pipe bundle, he has become a highly respected heavy-singer-for-the-sick, credited with having the power to heal ‘anything from a broken leg to a broken Spirit’ (p387). Now, though, having been without her for forty years, he dreams only of a reunion with his wife.
In the Thunder Moon ceremony, the people form a procession through the camp, dancing and praying for ‘long summer grass, bushes thick with berries and all of the things that grow in the ground-of-many-gifts’ (p388). They pray that ‘after the sad winter they had lived through, there would be hope and joy this spring’ (p390).
The novel ends with a hopeful tone. Though Fools Crow is ‘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’ (p390). Spring is coming, and ‘[t]he blackhorns had returned and, all around, it was as it should be’ (p391).