Monday, June 27, 2005

"The Blackfeet" by Theresa Jensen Lacey

“The Blackfeet” by Theresa Jensen Lacey is a good example of a steady stream of small books about Indians that are rarely even acknowledged by scholars, but constantly offered to the public. This one, again typically, is one book from a series, each devoted to a different tribe. This specific series, “Indians of North America” is generally edited by Frank W. Porter III, whose degrees are from the University of Maryland. The author of “The Blackfeet,” Ms. Lacey, is a descendant of Chief Quanah Parker (Comanche and Cherokee). She has a website with her photo and confides that when she began this book, her first baby was six weeks old. She researched for a year and talks as though she made at least one trip out to Blackfeet Country, probably to Lethbridge.

Lethbridge is a city of 200,000 in Alberta, Canada. (No city in Montana exceeds 100,000, except Billings -- some years -- if the surrounding county is included.) The University of Lethbridge is built like a wall across the mouth of a deep coulee, with a big space under it so it won’t become a dam. The hillsides roundabout are dotted with silhouettes of howling wolves, looking very realistic. Their Indian Studies program is well-developed and pretty much focused on the Blackfeet -- although they, being Canadian, generally use “Blackfoot.” Lacey is trapped by her title into using Blackfeet most of the time, but she usually uses the Canadian spelling of Piegan, which is Peigan. In fact, in a number of places she seems pretty influenced by Canadian views.

But maybe that’s what’s interesting about this book. It’s meant for juveniles, probably high school age, and strives to be colorful, exciting and (Lacey’s word) “amazing.” The photos are quite different from what we usually see. She managed to write the whole book without ever mentioning Napi! This book was published in 1995, so surely it wasn’t a matter of prudery, but it certainly COULD have been. It seems like a shame to deprive teenagers of a sex-obsessed trickster! The long creation story she quotes includes a lot of Christian notions plus intrusions from other tribes and modern science.

After a person has been exploring Blackft materials for a few years, one learns to look first at the index and the bibliography. The bibliography here reveals the problem: no Ewers and no Schafer, though they are the acknowledged experts on the American side. Hugh Dempsey, the outstanding Calgary historian, is there with three books. Grinnell’s “Blackfoot Lodge Tales” is referenced, rather than later more bold versions. or earlier more anthropological ones. One of Adolf Hungry Wolf’s books is present (“The Blood People”) but she spells Adolf’s name with a ph. Beverly Hungry Wolf’s book, “The Ways of my Grandmothers,” is on the list. She includes McClintock’s later and more minor book, “Old Indian Trails,” but not “The Old North Trail.” Happily, she found Malcolm McFee’s small but influential “Modern Blackfeet, Montanans on a Reservation.”

One book I don’t know at all: Ann Walton’s “After the Buffalo Were Gone: The Louis Warren Hill, Sr., Collection of Indian Art.” I assume that’s where Lacey found many of these excellent illustrations.

Two books I know very well indeed. One is Richard Lancaster’s “Piegan,” mostly about Old Jim Whitecalf whom Lancaster claimed had adopted him. I dislike Lancaster personally and cannot give you an undistorted opinion. My distorted opinion is that he was a nutcase and a patronizing ego-maniac.

The other is “The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains” which was written and personally published by Bob Scriver, to whom I was married and of whom I have an opinion highly biased in his favor. It is an inventory of the so-called “million dollar artifact collection” that was sold to the Provincial Museum in Edmonton, Alberta, in the midst of much controversy. Sacred objects in the book were returned to the Alberta Blackfoot tribes by Premier Klein. Other objects were intercepted at the border when being carried back and forth between Edmonton and Helena, Montana, where the Montana Historical Society is the guardian of the entire Scriver archive and body of work. The United States Federal Fish and Game authorities repatriated these materials to selected Piegan personalities, who kept the valuable items for themselves and sold the rest through an auction house that specializes in Indian artifacts. The collection in this book no longer exists as a unified entity.

Maybe this little run-through makes it clear why Lacey’s “The Blackfeet” is not considered a major reference. Nevertheless, it is appealing and as an introduction to the tribe for high school kids across the continent, it ought to do the job.

There is a whole photo section in the middle about modern Indian crafts, made new on the pattern of old examples. The closest to a photo of modern Blackft is a 1939 shot of King George and Queen Mary in Alberta -- Queen Mary’s fox-trimmed coat goes well with the ermine-fringed buckskin suits of the chiefs. The actual account of historical events is not inaccurate but not the usual narrative.

At the very least this book offers a kind of example or template for a compact book suitable for a unit on Indian studies. Maybe it could even be a model for a high school class sophisticated enough to compose and “publish” their own book on the computer, basing it on their own research. If McLaughlin’s high schoolers could produce a textbook using a mimeograph machine in the 1970’s, surely a good desktop publishing program and careful use of the internet could turn up more materials than Lacey had to work with. (I have a mental image of her in a library with her baby on her back.) The University of Lethbridge website would not be a bad place to start.

(“The Blackfeet” by Theresa Jensen Lacey. Frank W. Porter III, General Editor of the series “Indians of North America.” Chelsea House Publishers, a division of Main Line Book Co. Copyright 1995. ISBN 0-7910-2491-1 Paperback, 103 pages.)


summer said...

BRAVO, I have to agree with your statement about Richard Lancaster. Old Jim Whitecalf was my family. Sadly he has passed away. But for us, we do not know of any QUOTE {adoption) by him to Richard. If he is telling the truth which I doubt, he can contact me to prove it. Otherwise it is a lie on my family which we all

ron jones said...

I have reread Lancaster's Piegan many times. It is one of my favorite books. Mr. Lancaster may be everything you say he is, but his recording of Jim Whitecalf's life is invaluable, unless you believe it to be inaccurate and or phoney. I thought Lancaster's portrayal of Jim Whitecalf one of the most moving stories I have ever read.I would appreciate your thoughts on that.

prairie mary said...

Ron, Let's see if I can deconstruct my opinion of Lancaster.

I assume you read Summer's comment.

Many works of art that are greatly valued were created by monsters.

In this instance, the book is playing into a common fantasy of white people, esp. males of a certain age, who imagine they can come to a reservation and be part of a family. Lancaster was writing more about this fantasy than about the reality of his presence, though he pretended to be writing a journal. Some readers WANT it to be true. He did hang around a lot.

Since Lancaster sometimes used our phone to communicate with his editor (female, Eastern), I assure you that she was controlling and altering the story all the way.

In short, the book is not real, but mostly fiction. If it were not for the statute of limitations, the author would be in jail for some very ugly offenses.

If you want to defend and protect him, I recommend that you go to the streets of Spokane, find Lancaster, and write HIS life story. I'd be very interested to understand what made him what he is.

If, on the other hand, your interest is in Jim White Calf, you might want to wait for Ray Djuff's book about the whole Whitecalf family, including Old Jim's father who was the truly influential chief. Ray is Canadian and the book is not yet published. When it is, I'll review it.

Prairie Mary

Anonymous said...

Hi Interesting blog. Mr. Lancaster passed sometime this month. What made him? I don't know. Some fact - some fiction? May he rest in peace.

prairie mary said...

Anonymous, I thank you very much for this news. It is a great relief to more than a few people.

Prairie Mary

Benny Nota said...

I'm in Missoula researching a book (NOT about the Blackfeet) but got interested after a drive up to Glacier NP on the east side. When I got back, I looked over the shelves in Bird's Nest here (great little bookshop), and found Lancaster's 'Piegan'. I should have read the first few pages, because then I wouldn't have wasted the $5 I handed over for this loud-mouth's tripe.

The first page tells of his meeting with a "retarded" child - well, okay, this is a book from the sixties, so clench my "moss and lichen overgrown gums" and read on.

Second page and the words I've never come across start popping up: "iotacism". Did this bod use a Thesaurus to write?

His overwrought descriptions of the "gin-mill" in Browning on the other hand are laugh-out loud bad - so bad, they're actually worth reading.

So, I really wish I'd found this blog entry before I went down to Bird's Nest. On the other hand, maybe when I get onto page 5, it'll continue to be bad enough to be worth reading on...

prairie mary said...

Benny, if you have "noted well" my info on the blog, you will see that you can download pdf's from that will give you quite a bit of historical information on Blackfeet for free.

Adolf Hungry Wolf's account of Jim Whitecalf is closer to truth.

Prairie Mary
(Mary Scriver)

Benny Nota said...

Mary, many many thanks for this. I also have Paul Rosier's book which is excellent at what it sets out to do. However, my first view of the GNP was from an point overlooking Two Medicine (where there are two memorial crosses for members of the Webber family). This is a very powerful spot... I bought Piegan, thinking its stories might help explain the power of the place. I guess I was also influenced by Lancaster's photo on the back of the dust jacket - he's staring down at Two Medicine with what I think is Rising Wolf Mountain in the background.

Again, many thanks for your generous help. Just an aside, I see that your Valier Seasons is "in the tradition of May Sarton". She is one of my favourite authors (along with another very undervalued writer I can read over and over again, Jane Rule). When I get home to Wales and can get out of research-and-write mode, I'll order a paper version. I still can't give up paper for digital!

Take care, Benny

prairie mary said...

Yes, Rosier is very helpful.

Two Med is crossed by highway in several places and then, of course, there is Two Medicine Lake in the park, very photogenic.

The story is that one year there were two separate Sun Lodge ceremonies on the Two Med River. Also, of course, Holy Family Mission is in the Two Med valley and one edge of that valley is a buffalo jump, as well as the quarry where they got the sandstone for the mission buildings. When the buildings were burned down, the sandstone blocks were used to make bases for the four sets of "guardians" of the rez at the four compass points of entry.

I wrote a story for "Twelve Blackfeet Stories" about a man/woman who tries to combine two medicines, Blackfeet and Catholic, because he/she falls in love with a priest whom he/she thinks is a man in a dress. You can buy "Twelve Blackfeet Stories" at or Amazon. I don't usually give it away.

I believe in the both/and, like my character in "Two Medicine."

Wales is also a place full of mystery and religion! And tough old women with stories to tell!

My email address is on my blog master page.

Prairie Mary