It’s natural to think of Blackfeet in generations for some reason. Beverly is of my generation or a bit younger. (She was born in 1950. I was born in 1939.) We’ve known each other about forty years, since she first showed up in Browning as the wife of Adolf Hungry Wolf. The last time I talked to her she was just leaving a teaching job at Piegan Institute. Her mother was not well and Beverly herself had been badly hurt in a car crash. I think this 1996 book was written after that. Her mother is gone, but so far as I know, Beverly has recovered. Adolf was in town last week, but I didn’t see him. He and Beverly are divorced now.
This book, “Daughters of the Buffalo Women: Maintaining the Tribal Faith” (Canadian Caboose Press, 1996. ISBN 0-920698-45-5) is self-published but high quality. The cover is graced by a wonderful double portrait done by Winold Reiss, reproduced through the courtesy of Winold’s son, W. Tjark Reiss. (Tjark was the same generation as Bob Scriver, born in 1914. Both are gone.) A title for the portrait is “Picunnie Pemmikan Makers” and the models are Cecile Boy, daughter of Bird Rattler and an aunt of Beverly’s mother, and an older woman, “Ragged Woman,” who was “the wife of a warrior and buffalo hunter named Bear Medicine.” Cecile Boy was the second wife of Theodore Last Star. The couple were in the movie I spoke of in the last post about a Sun Lodge ceremony.
Since this book is about “the tribal faith,” I will tell more. Theodore Last Star was the Keeper of a Beaver Bundle of considerable importance. Some time after his death and then Cecile’s death, Bob Scriver acquired that Bundle -- I think by purchase instead of transfer. When the Scriver Artifact Collection was sold to the Provincial Museum in Edmonton, that Bundle went with it. After the death of Bob Scriver, Ralph Klein -- the premier of Alberta -- returned this Bundle (with others) to the custody of the Blackfoot Old People on the Alberta side. He could not send it across the Canadian/American border. But the Blackfoot Confederacy is an international body and the Canadian elders gave this same Beaver Bundle to Bobbie Burns, a restaurateur and rancher in Babb. He paid them a high price and accepted the Bundle in a transfer. So far as I know, he is handling it in the traditional way. In the Fifties Bobbie Burns was employed by Bob Scriver and lived in his house.
The rest of the story is that this Beaver Bundle is claimed both by Theodore Last Star’s family from his first wife and his family from his second wife. There is a good deal of rancor over all this. But if you look at the cover of Beverly’s book, where Cecile is wearing a bright red dress and peacefully making pemmican, none of all that has happened yet. I knew Cecile late in life -- she was still poised and attentive in the Sixties.
This small book has 144 pages and seems at first reading to be a simple telling of the stories of her mother, mostly, as well as other older female relatives, and Molly Kicking Woman, the last of the old-time Montana Blackfoot Bundle Keepers. (There is a portrait of Molly in Bob Scriver’s sculpture of “The Opening of the Medicine Pipe Bundle.” She and her husband, George, were the same age as Bob Scriver.)
Beverly’s mother was a child in the 1920’s and remembers her grandmother, First-to-Kill, who was married to White Elk (Heavy Head), an old time warrior who was pierced in a Sun Lodge ceremony. The buffalo ended about 1880, and First-to-Kill (women were often given names according to their father’s war exploits) was ancient in the Twenties, so she was probably born about 1840 and grew up in a lodge made of buffalo hides. In the 20’s she would gather her grandchildren, paint their faces, pray over them and teach them to take their oldest clothes to sacrifice to the Sun by leaving them at a Sun Worship boulder. In the Twenties everyone thought that such practices were dying out and would soon be gone.
Unexpectedly the trend reversed and now all the Bundles that had been collected and stored in museums have been repatriated and Spring is full of ceremonies. One of the subjects Beverly is qualified to address is that of whether they are authentic ceremonies, whether they should be changed (as they are), whether the old people would approve. She emphasizes how intricate, rigid, and fraught with hazards the old standards were.
This is a family that has been very involved with natural medicine, old ways of doctoring and so on, but then was able to translate that so that Beverly’s mother, Pretty Crow Woman spent many years nursing.
As is usual in all the Hungry Wolf books, there are many photos but they are family photos -- not romanticized with props; just snaps of exceedingly handsome young men and shy women. Some of the most interesting are boarding school photos where the nuns wear full medieval regalia.
One of the funniest stories in the book is two trickster boys who stole nun outfits, dressed in them, and went out to walk back and forth in the yard, reverently reading from prayer books. The principal, a priest, became curious and went out to let them walk past him. He spoke to them in French. (One of the many ironies was that most of the Catholic religious were French-speakers from Quebec who had to learn English the same as their Blackfeet speaking students.) The nuns inclined their heads and said, “Oui, Monsieur.”
Again the priest spoke to them in French and they repeated, “Oui, Monsieur.” But it wasn’t the right answer this time. He looked closer and recognized the two boys, who hiked up their habits and ran for it. The priest pursued them, but the story goes that he was laughing so hard himself that he didn’t catch them.
This book isn’t high ethnographics nor is it a polemic. It is an earnest, sincere, and graceful memoir of and by real women in their real lives. Beverly was careful to read what she had composed here (since it’s drawn from many different interviews, letters, remarks, and even library research) back to the women she is quoting so they made sure she got it right.
There are two more generations after Beverly: one is fortyish and maybe going back to school as the house empties out -- just becoming a grandmother. The other is twentyish and just starting a family or maybe a career -- maybe college. And the next is still babies, coming into a world we can’t describe. But the two generations before Beverly have many good things to tell them and, thanks to Beverly, those things are here.