I’ve said before that the second volume of Scalped, Casino Boogie, marked something of a turning point in the series for me. Indian Country was a great read, but in my opinion it reads like a conventional crime thriller, well executed. With Casino Boogie, the series begins to truly find its voice. Some of the hallmarks of the series – the sprawling ensemble cast taking turns in the spotlight, dwelling on and revisiting a single pivotal moment, and, with the refusal to immediately follow up on the shocking murder of Gina Bad Horse that concluded Indian Country, that knack for upsetting conventional expectation – first come to light in this second volume. There is plenty to talk about in Casino Boogie as a whole, enough to probably fill a whole essay in itself, but for the purposes of this particular discussion I’m going to narrow my focus to the book’s second chapter, “Down on the Killin’ Floor”, where Red Crow takes centre stage for the first time.
With “Down on the Killin’ Floor”, Red Crow is given the distinction of being the first Scalped character (the first of many, as it would turn out), to narrate an issue. Bad Horse may have been our access character for the preceding 6 issues, but even so he remained a somewhat inscrutable protagonist. We follow him through his experiences, see his outward emotions, and even get a glimpse of his memories, but we don’t hear that voice in his head, and so are still, to a degree, kept at arm’s length. It would be issue 12 before Bad Horse finally took a turn at narration. As a result, the sudden appearance of narration in issue 7 is a bit jarring, but in a good way. Red Crow is demanding our attention, grabbing us by the throat and dragging us into his world. By not simply showing us Red Crow’s life and experiences, but having him tell us about them, Aaron is making it much harder to simply view Red Crow as the dragon that Bad Horse must slay. He is the hero of his own story.
One of the most striking aspects of this chapter is just how self-aware Red Crow is, and how little that helps him. He can think of how alcohol has blighted the lives of his family going back three generations, yet still obtains a liquor license for his casino, and downs whiskey himself. He thinks back on all the people who begged their lives before he killed them, and how futile that was, but that doesn’t stop him begging for his own life when he believes Catcher is going to kill him. Most tellingly, he is fully aware of how terrible some of the things he’s done over the years are, but never views them as anything other than completely necessary, as he pragmatically states on page 4:
His wasn’t the first life I ever took. Not the last, neither. It ain’t that I’m proud of that. I never took no joy in none of it. But I won’t apologize none either. I always just did what I had to do. If I hadn’t, then I wouldn’t be where I am right now. We as a people wouldn’t.
Red Crow’s sentiments here demonstrate one of the character’s key recurring motifs: this struggle between his desire to do great things for his people, and the terrible things required of him to achieve them. We get a potent sense of the toll this balancing act has taken on Red Crow’s soul with the chapter’s powerful closing image:
Here, we see Red Crow, sat amidst the ruins of his ransacked office with his head in his hands, clinging onto a symbol of his tribal heritage, bloodstains and wreckage all around him, alone. As such, we get a compelling visualisation of the hell Red Crow has made for himself: the harder he fights to protect his heritage, the more damage he seems to do to it. The closing words of narration that hang over this stark image – “my dreams might again outnumber my regrets” – summarise the dichotomy discussed above. Red Crow was once an optimist fighting for a noble cause, but amidst all the murk, the Faustian pacts and the murders, he is left questioning if the means truly do justify the end.
But “Down on the Killin’ Floor” leaves us with some degree of ambiguity over just how altruistic Red Crow’s intentions are. Has he spent his life striving to make things better for the Oglala Lakota in Prairie Rose, or for himself? In a conversation with Todd Jigger, the sleazy, corrupt Indian Agent who Red Crow bribed to assist him in the development of his casino, Jigger makes a telling remark:
You know your problem, Chief? You done spent too long playin’ the part a’ the poor, old pissed-off ‘skin who wouldn’t be caught dead workin’ for the man. ‘Cause now you are the man, and you don’t know what the hell to do with yourself… You won. This here’s what you was fightin’ for all that time. Welcome to the white man’s world.
These words are spoken amidst a scene of excess and decadence, the rich white clientele being plied with drinks and women. Red Crow has become the very thing he was fighting against: a rich man exploiting Indians for profit. In the various shots of the Crazy Horse Casino (even the name is offensive, trivialising the memory of the famed Oglala Lakota war leader), the place seems overblown, tacky even. And in the second page of the chapter, we see that, once away from the cameras and the eyes of the public, he’s aware of how shallow it all is. Various indicators throughout the chapter suggest that, after all his years of work, the casino is destined to be a flop, and that all the money invested in it could be in danger of going down the drain. And through it all, we see the locals of the Rez, none the richer, sealed off from the ostensive show of prosperity by wire fencing. In the end, he might have left them worse off than before.
In spite of all this, however, I do believe that, in his own mind at least, Red Crow genuinely believes he is acting for the greater good, and in the service of the Oglala Lakota. His development in Casino Boogie confirms to us that he’s more than just a villain. But at this stage he’s not quite ready to be called a hero. He’s aware of his failings, where he is going wrong, but is unable or unwilling to do anything about it. It would take something drastic to stir Red Crow to action.
Dead Mothers seems to mark Red Crow’s moral awakening, the death of Gina Bad Horse proving to be a catalyst that has propelled Red Crow forwards ever since. Now, I’ve already gushed about this third volume of Scalped at length, so I’ll try to keep this fairly brief. The primary arc of the “Dead Mothers” storyline is Bad Horse losing himself in the case of the murdered prostitute, in turn delaying having to fully confront the death of his mother. While Bad Horse is making a great effort to not get involved in Gina’s murder, all around it seems that nobody else is interested in getting to the bottom of the case, as Red Crow states to Falls Down on page 10 of “Dead Mothers, Part 5”:
Nobody else seems to care much about seeing this case get solved. My advisers tell me to bury it. Tribal council tell me to find a patsy. FBI don’t give a shit either way. Everybody else just figures I killed her myself.
The appraisal is an accurate one. Throughout the entire storyline, it seems that just about every scene with Red Crow involves some new obstacle thrown up in his way, some other character telling him why he shouldn’t care about seeing Gina’s killer brought to justice. But despite all this, despite the fact that he might be acting against his own best interests, Red Crow perseveres, and continues to do all he can to find justice for Gina, from reaching out to old enemies the FBI for assistance in the case to giving Falls Down carte blanche to follow all avenues of inquiry to find the killer, no matter “who gets pissed or who gets hurt.” While every other character – even the sympathetic ones like Bad Horse – is more concerned with their own agendas and obsessions, it is left to the “villain” Red Crow to crusade for what is right.
So, what is it about Gina Bad Horse’s death that triggered this change in Red Crow? Obviously, the deep personal connection comes into play. Red Crow loved Gina, and so he wants to do right by her, as well as making whoever killed her pay the price. But I think there’s also something more than that at work, tying into the history of the Rez and the overarching struggle of the series. In the flashbacks to 30 years ago, we see that Lincoln Red Crow, Gina Bad Horse, Catcher and Lawrence Belcourt were the central founding members of the Dog Soldier Society. They tirelessly fought for the rights of the Oglala Lakota of Prairie Rose and indigenous tribes across America. But with Lawrence in prison, Catcher lost to drink and madness and now Gina dead, Red Crow could see himself as the last one left. He tells himself he has always been fighting for his people, but at least part of him doubts how in touch with them he has truly remained. Gina, however, never lost touch. To the end of her life she was fighting the establishment and campaigning for the rights of her people at a grassroots level. With her gone, perhaps Red Crow sees the responsibility falling on him to be that leader his people can rally round and look up to. But he looks at himself, and finds himself wanting in the requirements to fill such a role. Hence his ongoing struggle to try and be a better person. That struggle takes centre stage in The Gravel in Your Guts, the fourth volume of Scalped.