“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.)