About the poet- The poet of this poem is Sherman Alexie. He is a Native American novelist, short story writer, poet, and filmmaker. His writings draw out his experiences as an Indigenous American. His best-known book is The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (1993), a collection of short stories. His first novel, Reservation Blues, received a 1996 American Book Award.
Summary- To summarize shortly, The Crow Testament talks about the struggles of the Native Americans in their own land while being exploited by the Europeans. Alexie represents these struggles in seven stanzas through the symbolic use of a ‘Crow’.
The poem begins with the story of Cain and Abel (sons of Adam and Eve). The speaker here depicts a scene from Genesis where Cain kills his brother Abel in a fight. Here, the speaker represents Crow as a weapon, which Cain uses to murder Abel. From the beginning of the poem, ‘Crow’ symbolizes the struggle of the Natives in America. “I guess this is just the beginning” , the poet implies that it is just the beginning of representing the Natives’ struggles, as he will take the readers through the struggle in detail with the symbolical use of Crow.
In the second section, the poet talks about the exploitation caused by the Whites just like in the first section. Here, Crow is being taken advantage of by the falcon. ‘Crow’ represents the Natives who have been used by the cunning Whites, here represented as ‘falcon’. In fact, they are ‘disguised’ as a falcon. Through this, the poet tries to show us the level of manipulation that white men caused. The falcon dives from the sky and steals directly from the hands or ‘talon’ of the Crow. This is a reference to the damage done by the exploiters, like the theft of land from the indigenous Americans.
In the third section, the speaker takes a different turn. Here, he reflects upon the topic of religion in the society. The poet presents ‘The Crow God’ that appears very identical to all other Crows that worship him. Here, the poet argues about the absurdity of humans in worshiping a God that is completely identical to themselves. Metaphorically, the poet actually talks about how the White exploiters have started to integrate with the Native society. They are weaving their Christian belief system into the existing Indigenous culture of America, causing issues and confusion.
The speaker, in the fourth section makes a Biblical reference. He continues to use Crow as a metaphor. The poet makes a reference to the Battle of Jericho; where the Israelites had destroyed the city of Jericho. In this poem, the city directly refers to the entire population of Natives who are torn down by the arrival of the White Europeans. Rebuilding the city of Jericho had costed lives of many, and similarly saving the Native Americans from these White colonizers would cost generations of Native families. The ‘ashes of Jericho’ will be home to ‘the son of crows’, which imply that the upcoming generations will suffer the most while trying to rebuild their lost culture.
In the fifth section, the speaker says that times have changed, now Crow has to be cautious not only of the White men, but also from its own kind. It denotes that natives have now started fighting among themselves. “When Crow fights Crows” it rain feathers; when natives fight among themselves, instead of fighting their enemy, all it leads to is bloodshed and destruction. It is a sign that the end of Native culture is near, as Whites have started winning by creating a division among the Indigenous people.
In the sixth section, the poet visits the present day scenario. This is the longest section of the poem, where Alexie explains that the woes and pain of Natives have not banished completely, but only taken another form. Here, ‘Crow’ is seen to be collecting ’empty beer bottles’ to extract an income to satisfy his hunger. Through this the Crow, referring to a Native, earns a very thin amount which is not adequate to live a healthy life. Also, the poet refers to the issue of Alcoholism, which was a rampant issue then. Nothing much is left on the Native land now, except a few empty beer bottles. The poet had an issue of drinking himself, so these lines seem to be personal to him. Alcoholism is one of the most serious diseases of the reservation, and its importance here is quite significant. Crow suffers from poverty and alcoholism and is unable to carry a lot of empty bottles at once. He moves slowly with one bottle at a time, which doesn’t provide him enough income. Similarly, the natives are suffering endlessly even now, when nothing is left.
In the final section, the poet reflects the end of times, as shown in Revelations. Here, the Crow is riding on a ‘pale horse’ and enters a ‘crowded powwow’ (a celebration of American culture in which indigenous people gather for the purpose of dancing, singing, and honouring the traditions of their ancestors). Here, Crow demonstrates the Death itself, in its final stage. In the book of Revelations, four horsemen enter, where one who is riding a pale horse signifies Death. Even though this scene might be surprising to the audience, none of them is actually shocked to see Death at their doorstep. The Natives have long endured many hardships, famines throughout this long journey, and now not even Death is able to surprise them. They are not concerned of what is to come next, as they have already lost everything, and Death now seems the most logical result.