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Crow Testament by Sherman Alexie

Sherman Alexie’s “Crow Testament” is a symbolic poem about Native American history. Alexie alludes to a number of biblical episodes from the Old and New Testaments in order to depict how a symbolic “Crow”, representing Indigenous Americans, is treated in the past. This poem is chiefly about the loss of their culture, habitation, and above all cultural identity. Those who are familiar with Alexie’s poem “The Powwow at the End of the World” can easily understand the main idea of “Crow Testament”. Like the former text, it is also a poem of protest that implicitly agonizes over loss and suffering.

  • Read the full poem “Crow Testament” here along with the analysis section.
Analysis of Crow Testament by Sherman Alexie


Summary

“Crow Testament” is a metaphorical poem that presents a number of biblical allusions, from the episode of Creation to the Revelation projected in the New Testament. Though this poem is not about the Christian culture, it seeks references from their sacred text in order to create contrast and present similarities. There are a total of seven sections. Each of them details how a symbolic “crow” is treated in different scenarios.

In the first section, Cain uses the crow as a weapon to kill his brother Abel. According to Alexie’s speaker, it is just the beginning of the story. Then it is seen to be an innocent creature whose items are stolen frequently by powerful creatures such as falcons.

In the third section, Alexie talks about religion and how the crow’s Testament projects Gods that are alike the creature. Then he alludes to the Battle of Jericho where the crow was present. It lost its firstborn son there.

The fifth section is about the feud of crows. In the next section, the poem takes a contemporary turn. Here, Alexie depicts the crow as a beer-bottle collector. It finds bottles around a reservation and sells them at five cents per bottle.

In the end, the poet alludes to the episode of Revelation where the crow rides a pale horse and visits a powwow, a social gathering of Native Americans. None of them panics as if they have approached the end of the world. Here, the “crow” acts as a symbol of death.

Structure & Form

“Crow Yesterday” is a free-verse poem that does not contain a set rhyme scheme or meter. It consists of seven sections and each is different in respect to its subject matter. The overall poem is written in the manner of episodes of a larger body of work. What is ironic about the content is that Alexie has nothing more to add except a few lines in each section. It hints at how the European settlers destroyed the Indigenous American culture. The poet finds it difficult to recollect enough details to present in each section.

The overall text consists of several couplets and tercets. In each section, the poet first details the scene and then reveals what the crow’s life is damned. Besides, the poet uses a pellucid style and easy-to-digest lines to present the story of the crow. Regarding the meter, the lines are written in a combination of iambic-trochaic feet.

Poetic Devices

Alexie makes use of a number of poetic devices in “Crow Testament” that include the following ones.

  • Allusion: Alexie’s poem does not only contain several biblical allusions but also contains some contemporary references. The text begins with an allusion to Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve. Alexie alludes to the episode where Cain kills Abel with a stone. Then the poet alludes to the biblical accounts of the Battle of Jericho, Redemption, and Revelation or Apocalypse. The contemporary allusions include the building of the Grand Coulee Dam on the Colorado River, the First Salmon ceremony of the Native Americans, and their powwow.
  • Enjambment: It occurs throughout the poem. Alexie uses this device to internally connect the lines. For example, this device is used in “Cain lifts Crow, that heavy black bird/ and strikes down Abel.”
  • Repetition: The phrase, “Damn, says Crow” is repeated in the last stanza of each section. Besides, the poet uses the repetition of the word “crow” as this poem centers on the creature’s metaphorical testament.
  • Simile: It occurs in “The white man, disguised/ as a falcon” and “looks exactly like a Crow”.
  • Metaphor: In this poem, the “crow” is a metaphor of Native American people. Alexie also uses this device in “a million nests/ are soaked with blood”. Here, the poet compares the indigenous people’s habitation to “nests”.
  • Alliteration: It occurs in “Cain lifts Crow”, “black bird”, “steals a salmon”, “Crows fight Crows”, “beer bottles”, etc.
  • Irony: This device is used in a number of instances. For example, the lines “If I could swim/ I would have fled this country years ago”, “in all of the reliable Crow bibles/ looks exactly like a crow”, “so much easier to worship myself”, etc.


Themes

Sherman Alexie explores some of the recurring themes of his poetry in “Crow Testament”. The main idea of the poem revolves around Native American culture and identity. It also taps on the themes of culture, identity, loss, and religion. The poet does not explore all these themes in their broad sense. Rather, he specifically points out how these themes apply to his own culture that is Indigenous American culture. Throughout this piece, Alexie reveals how white settlers affected their lives in several ways. It is not limited to cultural destruction. Rather they killed several innocent people, made them fight with one another, or used them for evil purposes. In the end, their lives are doomed as the crow states, “they already live near the end of the world.”

Line-by-Line Explanation and Critical Analysis

Section One

Cain lifts Crow, that heavy black bird

and strikes down Abel.

Damn, says Crow, I guess

this is just the beginning.

Sherman Alexie’s poem “Crow Testament” begins with a reference to a biblical episode. Alexie refers to the first two sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. In the book of Genesis, Cain murdered Abel, being jealous of the latter. Thus, Cain became the first murderer of humankind. He is considered to be the promoter of evil, violence, and greed on earth.

In this poem, Alexie alters the narrative and says that Cain killed his brother with a “Crow”, the “heavy black bird”. In the actual narrative, he used a rock to mortally wound his brother. So, here, the “Crow” acts as a symbol of death and destruction.

By alluding to this episode, Alexie metaphorically taps on a different idea. He talks about how the first violent act of human history can be compared to the settlement of Europeans in America.

The term “Crow” is personified by capitalizing the first letter. It is used as a proper noun that symbolically refers to the indigenous people of America. In each section, the speaker reads out the events, and the crow replies by repeating the expression “Damn” at the beginning of his remarks.

In the first section, the Crow ironically says that it is “just the beginning.” This “beginning” is the nod to human history that is stained with the blood of several innocent humans including the native Americans.

Section Two

The white man, disguised

as a falcon, swoops in

and yet again steals a salmon

from Crow’s talons.

Damn, says Crow, if I could swim

I would have fled this country years ago.

In section two of “Crow Testament”, Alexie compares white European settlers to a bird of prey, “falcon”. They disguised themselves as falcons and swooped in the land of native Americans. Here, the poet implicitly compares the settlers to treacherous falcons.

The falcon snatches the salmon from the Crow’s talons or claws. The reference to the “salmon” is important to understand. It is a symbolic reference to the first salmon ceremony of indigenous Americans. Due to building dams on the Colorado River, salmon could not enter the river from the sea. So, the natives could not get enough fish to observe this ceremony. Alexie references this idea through the image of the falcon snatching away salmon from the Crow’s talons.

In the following lines, the Crow replies in a similar manner by expressing his disgust that if it could swim it would have left this place as soon as possible. During the European settlement, the atrocities against natives hiked. They wanted to leave their land but for deep affection for their motherland, they could not do so.

The use of the word “damn” is important as the poet repeats the term in each section. The term denotes being condemned by God to suffer eternal punishment in hell. For indigenous people, their habitation turned into hell after the advent of whites. They infiltrated their lands, destroyed their culture, and affected their lives.

Section Three

The Crow God as depicted

in all of the reliable Crow bibles

looks exactly like a Crow.

Damn, says Crow, this makes it

so much easier to worship myself.

The third section of the “Crow Testament” begins with a reference to the orthodox Christian religion. Alexie depicts how the bibles depict God as a mere human being. It makes him think about the origin of religion. So, the Gods created by men are like them, greedy, opportunistic, and violent. The poet presents this idea by saying that the “Crow God” looks exactly like a Crow.

In the following lines, the Crow remarks that as its God looks like it, it is easier to worship itself. It means that human beings created their own version of God. So, it is easier for them to worship someone who shares their vices and virtues.

By referring to this idea, Alexie reveals the reality of institutional religion. He shows the inherent flaws of religion. After the advent of Europeans, they started to convert Indians into Christianity without bothering about their beliefs. In this way, they used religion as a tool of colonization. Here, Alexie tries to say that their religion serves their cruel motives.

Section Four

Among the ashes of Jericho,

Crow sacrifices his firstborn son.

Damn, says Crow, a million nests

are soaked with blood.

In this section, Alexie alludes to another biblical episode of the Battle of Jericho. This battle is mentioned in the Old Testament. It was the first battle fought by the Israelites to conquer Canaan. But, why does the poet allude to this battle?

In this Battle, Israelites invaded Cannan and killed every man and woman irrespective of their age. What the Bible says is that they killed several innocent humans by following “God’s law”. Is their version of God partial to their cause? Does the creator of humankind promote ruthless killing?

What they did after the conquest is more shocking. Their leader Joshua cursed anybody who tried to rebuild their city with the deaths of their firstborn and youngest child. This curse was eventually fulfilled. Does not this battle echoes to the history of native Americans?

When the settlers came, they did the same thing as the Israelites did by following “God’s law”. In this way, greedy men used “God” and man-made laws, terming them as “God’s commandments” to fulfill their evil wishes.

Alexie refers to this biblical story in the first two lines of the fourth section. In the following lines, he describes millions of “nests”, symbolically representing native Americans, are soaked with blood. This brutal image hints at the ruthless killings of innocent tribes.

Section Five

When Crows fight Crows

the sky fills with beaks and talons.

Damn, says Crow, it’s raining feathers.

The fifth section of “Crow Testament” depicts how Crows fight. Here, the poet implicitly hints at the tribal feud. The Europeans conspired against their unity and made them fight with each other.

Furthermore, the poet depicts how their sky gets filled with Crows’ beaks and talons. This imagery can be interpreted in another way. Here the “Crows” stand as a symbol of European settlers. They came into their land and started fighting for supremacy. Some of them also raged wars against the native tribes.

In the last line, the speaker remarks that in their feud, only the “Crows”, this time used as a symbol of natives, are affected. The “raining” of “feathers” depicts the loss of their cultural values. Each feather symbolically represents its value and custom. A crow’s identity is its black feathers. Likewise, their values are tied with their cultural identity. The settlers plucked their feathers and implanted their European values. 

Section Six

Crow flies around the reservation

and collects empty beer bottles

but they are so heavy

he can only carry one at a time.

So, one by one, he returns them

but gets only five cents a bottle.

Damn, says Crow, redemption

is not easy.

In the sixth section, Alexie talks about the building of reservoirs and dams on the habitation of Native Americans along the Colorado River. These imperialist developments uprooted them from their birthplace. Not only that, it had severe ecological effects.

Alexie says that now the Crow flies over those reservations and collects empty beer bottles. Here, the “beer bottles” hints at the growing alcoholism in native Americans. Being unable to channelize their anger, they become addicted to alcohol.

According to the poet, the Crow cannot carry the bottles all at one go. It carries them one by one and sells them for five cents per bottle. Here, Alexie depicts how the indigenous people live now. Previously they depended on nature for a living. Now, they are made to live on the leftovers of the settlers.

The Crow finds it difficult to redeem its community from this heinous cycle of suffering. This ironic remark “redemption is not easy” also hints at the poet’s hopelessness regarding the future of his people.

Section Seven

Crow rides a pale horse

into a crowded powwow

but none of the Indian panic.

Damn, says Crow, I guess

they already live near the end of the world.

The last section of “Crow Testament” alludes to one of the horsemen of the Apocalypse. Alexie depicts the crow as riding on a pale horse. In the book of Revelation, the fourth horse that is pale green stands for death. So, here the crow is depicted as a messenger of death or one of the horsemen of the Apocalypse. In the biblical narrative, this fourth horseman is shown as a destroyer of an empire.

The crow rides the horse into a crowded powwow. A powwow is a traditional, social gathering of native Americans. According to the speaker, none of them panic as the formidable horserider enters into their occasion. It seems they are happy with its advent as it is going to hack the empire from its very roots.

In the last two lines, the Crow ironically remarks that they are not showing signs of fear as they know that the apocalypse is near. The last line also alludes to Alexie’s other poem “The Powwow at the End of the World”. In this poem, he depicts how the dead Indians would observe a powwow at the end of the world. They would gather to see how the torturers are punished at the end.

Symbolism

Alexie’s “Crow Testament” is a symbolic poem regarding the destruction of native American culture and their sufferings. The first symbol that is used in the poem is the very title itself. It refers to the testament of native Americans. Let’s have a look at some important symbols that are used in the poem.

  • Crow: The crow is used as a symbol of native Americans. It also stands for humankind as a whole.
  • Cain: In the biblical narrative, “Cain” is a symbol of crime, brutality, and vice. He is the first murderer of humankind. Here, the poet uses this reference to symbolically hint at the Europeans.
  • Falcon: It is a symbol of cruel and greedy settlers.
  • Salmon: It acts as a symbol of native American culture.
  • Crow God: This is an important symbol. It refers to God that is made by men for fulfilling their evil motives.
  • Ashes of Jericho: This symbol refers to the large-scale killing of innocent men and women. It is a symbol of death and destruction.
  • Beer Bottle: It symbolizes alcoholism among native Americans.
  • Pale Horse: This convention symbol stands for death and destruction.


Justification of the Title “Crow Testament”

The title of the poem is an allusion to the biblical narratives of the Old and New Testaments. To understand the meaning of the title, readers have to find out what the term “Testament” means. It denotes something that serves as evidence of a specified event. So, the biblical “Testament” is evidence of the early history of humankind. It bears the story of the course of humankind from as early as the Creation of the world to its end. In this poem, the poet depicts the course of a Crow’s life. The “Crow” is a symbolic reference to indigenous Americans. Alexie points out the similarities between the crow’s story and the actual biblical narrative. So, the title bears the term “Testament”. In this way, the title aptly reflects the subject matter of the text.

“Crow Testament” as a Critique of Christianity

Alexie’s “Crow Testament” is an ironic representation of the biblical narrative. The poet refers to a few episodes from the Bible, especially those revealing the negative side of humankind. There are some episodes that reflect how religion promotes violence in the name of “God”. One such episode is the Battle of Jericho, mentioned in the Old Testament. Not only that, in the third section of the poem, Alexie shows how the settlers used religion as a tool of colonization. The inherent flaws of institutionalized religion and religious narratives are portrayed to show how innocent humans are killed from earlier times. Throughout the text, the poet critiques Christianity from the perspective of an outsider (an indigenous American) on whom Europeans imposed it.

Historical Context

“Crow Testament” is written by the Native American poet Sherman Alexie Jr. In his poems, he draws on the experiences of Indigenous Americans. The major themes of his works include despair, poverty, violence, and alcoholism among Native American people in modern times. He also explores the history of indigenous people in order to express his disgust for the Europeans who distorted their cultural identity. Alexie started publishing his poetry in the 1990s. In “Crow Testament”, one of his best-known poems, he explores the flaws of Christianity, the destruction of his own culture, and the suffering of indigenous tribes after the advent of white settlers.

Questions and Answers

What is the poem “Crow Testament” about?

Sherman Alexie’s “Crow Testament” is a poem of protest written using the symbol of the crow. This piece explores the history of the indigenous people of America after the settlement of Europeans. Alexie implicitly showcases their history by referring to a number of biblical episodes.

What does the poem “Crow Testament” symbolize?

The poem “Crow Testament” symbolizes the history of Native Americans. In the text, the “Crow” is a symbol of the indigenous people who were mistreated by the falcons or white settlers.

What is the theme of the poem “Crow Testament”?

Alexie explores the themes of cultural loss, identity, suffering, and flaws of religion in his poem.

When was “Crow Testament” published?

The poem was published in 1992. It appears in Sherman Alexie’s first collection of poetry I Would Steal Horses.

What does the “falcon” symbolize in “Crow Testament”?

In this poem, the “falcon” symbolizes the white settlers. They treacherously snatch the native Americans’ resources away.


Similar Poems about Culture & Identity

  • “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways” by Louise Erdrich — This poem describes the suffering of children admitted to Indian Boarding schools meant for civilizing indigenous children.
  • “Butter” by Elizabeth Alexander — In this poem, Alexander shares one of her childhood memories and comments on the predominant European culture on African-Americans minds.
  • “Aboriginal Australia” by Jack Davis — This piece records the atrocities of colonizers on Aboriginal Australians throughout history.
  • “Dreamtime” by Oodgeroo Noonuccal — In this poem, Noonuccal expresses her wish to get out of a land that does not belong to them anymore due to the destruction of their indigenous culture.
  • “I, Too, Sing América” by Julia Alvarez — In this poem, Alvarez presents how she wants to see America. She advocates for inclusiveness and acceptance.


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