‘Crow Testament’ by Sherman Alexie speaks on the hardships of Native Americans through its seven sections. Each of these sections is divided into shorter stanzas that range from one to four lines. The poem has no regulated rhyme scheme, but it does following a specific pattern of words. In each of these sections, the reader will find that Alexie adds to the story of “Crow.”
The poem begins with the speaker describing a scene from Genesis in which Cain kills his brother Abel. In this section, Crow is being used as a weapon. Additionally, the presence of Cain and Abel in the poem sets the stage for an intricate commentary about the way white men and women treat one another and the role made for Native Americans in this narrative.
The narrative follows crow as he is taken advantage of by the white man in the form of a falcon, and abused by, and from within the wars that men wage.
The poem continues on, passing more commentary on the way that man uses the bible to justify his actions. Native Americans are placed in the battle of Jericho and are born into the ashes of the fallen city. This is their past and future, as further represented in the following stanzas.
Alexie’s speaker states that Crow is able, through the collection of beer bottles, to make 5 cents at a time. This pitiful amount is gained through the suffering of the population, many of whom are afflicted with alcoholism, and the suffering of Crow who is only able to take one bottle at a time.
‘Crow Testament’ concludes with Crow riding into a powwow on a pale horse. He is now representing Death, as portrayed in Revelations. No one is shocked to see him, it is as if it has been known from the beginning that “Death” is how their world would end.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Crow Testament
Cain lifts Crow, that heavy black bird
this is just the beginning.
In the first section of this piece, the speaker begins with the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain uses “Crow” to kill his brother Abel. Right from the beginning of the poem “Crow” is being used by the white man without his consent. In this case, Alexie has chosen to portray Crow as a weapon.
In the second half of the section, Crow exclaims, professing his understanding that his mistreatment is just beginning. Crow will stand in as a symbol for the Native populations of the Americas and Alexie will take the reader through varying symbols representing the white settlers, and the present white majority of America. Crow knows, from this first brutal action that,
This is just the beginning.
The white man, disguised
as a falcon, swoops in
Damn, says Crow, if I could swim
I would have fled this country years ago.
The second section is written in a similar fashion to the first in which Crow finds himself taken advantage of.
Alexie has chosen to portray the “white man” as a “falcon.” The embodiment of the white man doesn’t just appear as a falcon, he is “disguised” as one. This adds an additional level of cunning to the scene.
The flacon swoops down from the sky and steals directly from Crow’s hands, or “talons.” This theft is a clear reference to the endless damage down to Native Americans, from the theft of land to the mass exterminations that took place at the hands of the United States government and all leaders in North and South America.
In the shorter second half Crow reflects that if he was able to “swim” he could have “fled this country years ago.” If he had been born with this ability, he could have let himself be taken out to sea, and away from the damage, he is living in.
The Crow God as depicted
so much easier to worship myself.
The speaker takes a different approach in the third section in which he further reflects on the role of religion in modern society. The poet presents for the reader “The Crow God” that appears identical to the crows that worship him.
He then provides commentary that leads to an explanation of this shift. Crow is considering the absurdity of worshiping a god that looks like you. At the same time, he is pointing out the vanity in this depiction. Only the “White Man” would make a god such as this, as the familiar image makes worship,
so much easier…
Among the ashes of Jericho,
are soaked with blood.
In this section, the speaker continues to describe the place of Native Americans, through the Crow metaphor. The narrative is now expanding to include other events from the bible, such as the Battle of Jericho. During this pivotal Biblical moment, the Israelites destroy the city of Jericho. In Alexie’s narrative, the city stands in for the entire population of native people who were decimated by the arrival of the white man. In this case, the “ashes of Jericho” are home to the son of Crow” and,
…a million nests
…soaked with blood.
This destruction is their inheritance and is home to their futures.
When Crows fight Crows
Damn, says Crow, it’s raining feathers.
Not only does Crow have to be cautious of the white man in his many forms, Crow often “fights Crow.” It is in these instances that the most damage is done and the sky seems to “rain feathers.”
It is clear that any division between the Native peoples further hurts their chances of finding a way out from under, or a way to stand up against, the white man.
Crow flies around the reservation
and collects empty beer bottles
Damn, says Crow, redemption
is not easy.
The sixth section of ‘Crow Testament’ is the longest and takes the speaker into the present day in which the suffering of the Native American people has not abated, but only changed forms.
On a contemporary reservation, Crow, still seen as a representative of the Native peoples, is flying around searching for, “empty beer bottles.” The collection of these bottles provides him with a very limited income, but also serves as commentary on the health of the reservation. Alcoholism is one of the most rampant diseases on reservations and the poet’s choice to have beer bottles provide Crow with a small stipend, is quite poignant.
Crow battles through poverty, alcoholism, and even then, the transportation of the bottles is impossible. He is only able to carry one at a time, making his journeys back and forth endless.
Crow rides a pale horse(…)they already live near the end of the world.
In the final section of the poem, Alexie brings the narrative to a close-by referencing the end times as portrayed in Revelations. Crow rides into a “crowded powwow” on a “pale horse.”
In the scene, Crow has come to represent death itself. In Revelations, during the coming of the four horsemen, one rides a pale horse. This rider is Death who now finds himself within the body of a Crow. While in other circumstances this entrance would be shocking to all who observed it, in this case, “none of the Indian panic.”
None of the attendees are shocked to see this rider on his pale horse, it is as if they all knew what was coming and had learned to expect it a long time ago. Perhaps, as long ago as the days of Cain and Abel when Crow first understood his destiny.
About Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie was born in 1966 in Spokane, Washington. He is a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene tribal member and grew up on the Spoken Indian Reservation. After a childhood plagued with illness, he attended Jesuit Gonzaga University before transferring to Washington State University in 1987. It was here that he first began to write poetry and prose.
Alexie has published a number of prize winning books that detail the lives of Native Americans living on reservations. One of his most well-known works, the collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, won a PEN/Hemingway Award. Additionally, his poetic works earned him the World Heavyweight Poetry title, which he held for four years.