“Magic Fox” pictures the destruction of the traditional life of American Indians, especially the northern plains tribes, resulting from corruption by the European American culture. It is the opening poem in Riding the Earthboy 40 by James Welch, an American Indian of Blackfeet and Gros Ventre descent—his first book and only collection of poems.
Welch’s family leased forty acres of land from their neighbors, the Earthboy family, where James rode his horse when he was a boy. Riding the leased land may be symbolic of the American Indians’ traditional relationship to the land—they were stewards, not owners. That the lease was limited to forty acres may represent the nineteenth century restriction of the American Indians to reservations. “Magic Fox” and the other poems in the collection can be best understood in terms of the reality to which the title Riding the Earthboy 40 points.
In “Magic Fox,” truth by which American Indians once lived has slipped into the unreality of nightmare. In the first stanza, the speaker in the poem describes men “that rattled/ in their sleep,” having snored so loudly that they shook down leaves. Kenneth Lincoln in Three American Literatures (1982) suggested that “the death chant, to meet the rattling darkness, has been transformed into the sounds of elderly men snoring leaves off the sun dance tree of life.” In this state of affairs “Truth became/ a nightmare to their fox”—the sleepers’ magic or spirit animal—and the fox transformed their horses into fish. The dreamlike character of the transformation is emphasized by the speaker following the statement “He turned their horses into fish” with a series of questions: “or was it horses strung/ like fish, or fish like fish/ hung naked in the wind?”
The second stanza begins with an image of stars falling on their catch—the fish, presumably, since “catch” usually refers to fish. Yet, abruptly in the second line, the speaker introduces a blond girl whose dancing drew the men around her skirts, and whose magic turned “fox and grief” into nightmare in their sleep. The poem ends with a declaration that the fish are stars “that fell into their dreams.”