Thursday, June 15, 2006

“Fossil Legends of the First Americans” by Adrienne Mayor

When I was reading Mary Eggermont-Molnar’s wonderful book called “Montana 1911” about Uhlenbeck, the Dutch linguist, and his records of Blackfeet legends, I kept running onto the term “Water Bull” which seemed to be a powerful figure that sometimes intervened in affairs in a supernatural way. I asked Darrell Kipp what this might be and he said that in his mind’s eye he tended to see an Asian water buffalo, but he had asked Jack Holterman what he thought and Holterman suggested a relationship to the word “stumik” which appears to be so old that it might date back to dawn times, even to mastodons.

Since Bob Scriver’s dad’s Indian name (a gift-name -- he was white) was “Medicine Bull,” the formulation “Stumik-sah-toe-see” was familiar. The original Medicine Bull was a small man, as can be seen from William Farr’s photo book, and I suspect that’s why the name came to Thad Scriver rather than any suggestion he was like a mastodon. Bob thought the name was because Thad was good at guessing the weather.

Next I asked Reid Farmer, a paleobiologist who often posts to Stephen Bodio’s blog, Querencia. (<>) He recommended the book this posting is really about: “Fossil Legends of the First Americans” by Adrienne Mayor, Princeton University Press, 2005. ISBN 0-691-11345-9. The cover shows an artist’s version of a raging battle between a “water monster” and a “terrible bird,” both of which show up in Blackfeet mythology and which are here portrayed as a pterodactyl and a dinosaur in water.

This book is pretty fascinating just to glance at, but I haven’t read it yet. So what I’ll do here -- for the sake of others who are as interested as I am -- is just note the Blackfeet entries. Later I’ll post more. For a while the tribal members themselves went bonkers over dinoes and a Canadian company actually had a fossil-buying headquarters in Browning.

p. 51: “ the mid-1800’s, the French explorer Jean L’Heureux reported that the Blackfeet revered dinosaur fossils in Alberta, Canada, as “the grandfather of the buffalo.”

p. 166: “The Blackfeet of the northern plains made regular forays into the land of the ‘Many Bracelets People’ (the Navajo) and the vanished Cliff Dweller people of the SW and Mexico, to make war, to raid Spanish horses, to trade and to obtain Spanish “shirts of mail, and big knives.” It appears that on at least one trip they took along fossil jawbones to trade.

p. 224: “In the summer of 2000, I had come to the ancient battlegrounds of the Thunder Birds and Water learn how the Sioux, Crow, Blackfeet and other people of the northern plains had viewed these extraordinary remains...”

p. 226: “On that first day at Crow Creek, my boots crunched over glinting expanses of fossil shells, pearly spirals now turned to stone, opalescent sea-worm tubes, coiled and straight ammonites, rippled clam and oyster shells, and other marine fossils on the ridge tops. I examined some cylindrical fossils with complex fractal patterns -- baculites. Because the internal structure and patterns of these cephalopod marine fossils sometimes resemble bison shapes, the Blackfeet, Cheyenne, and other Plains tribes invested baculites with an ability to summon buffalo herds. Buffalo-calling stones, known as Iniskim among the Blackfeet bands of northern Montana and Alberta, have also turned up in archeological sites across the Dakotas, Montana, and Canada, indicating that the Iniskim tradition goes back at least a thousand years.

“According to Blackfeet legend, the sacred power of the fossil with the form of a buffalo was first discovered long ago by Weasel Woman, who was picking berries at a constantly eroding cut bank called ‘Falling off without Excuse,’ probably the big fossil deposit on the Bow River now known to rock hounds as ‘Baculite Beach.’ After she taught the ritual of the curiously shaped stone to her husband, Chief Speaking, Blackfeet and other northern tribes began to collect the fossils, which they rubbed with red ocher and placed in medicine bundles. Iniskim were used to draw buffalo herds over the cliffs before the arrival of horses. As Chandler Good Strike -- a Gros Ventre artist at Fort Belknap Reservation, Montana -- told me later that summer, “We used to collect the fossils to call the buffalo each spring.” People also kept personal Iniskim fossils for luck, healing and other powers. Charlie Crow Eagle, a Piegan (Blackfeet band of Canada) [sic], owned an interesting buffalo-skin medicine pouch in about 1880. It originally held nine Iniskim: two Baculites compressus, four Placenticeras ammonites, an Acanthoscaphites ammonite, a Paleozoic coral, and a Corbicula clamshell, all coated in red pigment.

“The Indians who collected fossil shells on the plains recognized them as water organisms and correctly concluded that, in the words of Bull’s Dry Bones, an Assiniboine (Sioux) holy man, ‘The whole surface of the earth was at one time covered with water.’

p. 242: “One of the petalodontiform chondrichthyians from the Upper Mississippian Bear Gulch limestone, in Montana, was named Siksika ottae by R. Lund in 1989. Siksika, literally “black foot,” is the name for the Blackfeet nation, including the Piegan and Blood tribes.”

There are photos of baculites and an Iniskim bundle.

p. 260: Culbertson and his Blood wife, Medicine Snake Woman, collected fossils in 1840.

p. 272: “Two Crow elders, Big Medicine Rock and Spine, claimed that their bacoritse could summon bison, like the baculite buffalo-calling stones treasured by the Blackfeet...”


“The medicine bundle of the Blackfeet warrior Many Tail Feathers (b. 1835), for example, contained buffalo-calling stones along with many other heavy items, perhaps fossil bones. ‘It made a bundle that was a load for a horse!’ recalled his friend Bear Head.”

P. 290: “The Blackfeet bands in Montana and Alberta, Canada, were also very aware of the bones of enormous creatures. Traditional painted designs on tipis, handed down over generations, included images of giant lizards that resemble dinosaurs, according to Blackfeet councilman Jim Kennedy in Browning, Montana. Kennedy believes that the images may have been influenced by his people’s observations of fossil skeletons of pterodactyls, mosasaurs, and dinosaurs.

“The Canadian Blackfeet storyteller Percy Bullchild recounted his tribe’s traditional explanation in 1985. The first creatures were many kinds of snakes, some with legs. These reptiles abounded and ‘became overgrown,’ says Bullchild, ‘big, big in their form. Tall and long.’ These creatures were dinosaurs, he added, updating the old tradition. Great floods caused the massive dinosaurs to sink ‘down into the soft mud-mire’ while others took refuge on hard-surfaced places, but even those places tipped the animals into the mud. The great reptiles were covered with mud ‘so fast...that they were found, in these days, intact.’ Bullchild’s traditional explanation closely parallels the fossilization process along Cretaceous lakeshores described by scientists.”

p. 318: “A true fossil homecoming was celebrated recently on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, where significant dinosaur specimens had been collected by the AMNH, the Smithsonian, and the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Canada, beginning in about 1910. In 1995, a Blackfeet rancher named Dale Fenner had discovered a nearly complete dinosaur skeleton. Jack Horner, curator of the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, identified it as the smallest, youngest tyrannosaur fossil ever found, ‘an absolutely exquisite specimen that every museum in the world would love to have.’

“The creature was about two years old when it died and was covered with mud in a stream flowing from the fledgling Rocky Mountains about 74 million years ago, a scenario that matches the Blackfeet storyteller Percy Bullchild’s traditional story about giant reptiles sinking into mud so fast that their whole skeletons were found.

“In 1998, the tribe sent the baby dinosaur to the Museum of the Rockies to be prepared, with the understanding that it would be returned to the Blackfeet Reservation. As Horner told me in early 2003, the Blackfeet tribe ‘could request possession of the skeleton at any time and they may decide to sell it to the highest bidder.’ That would be regrettable for science, observed Horner, but as ‘part of their cultural heritage, it is their right to dispose of it as they wish.’ As many others have pointed out however, Indians who choose to sell important fossil assets disregard their own cultural heritage, but in this case, the Blackfeet are eager to build a museum for the prize specimen.

“Horner’s staff worked for three years to partially release the skeleton from extremely hard rock, and in September 2003 the baby dinosaur curled in its plaster cradle was returned to the reservation. The returned fossil was viewed as ‘a victory by the Blackfeet, who saw past treasure-seekers plunder their rich fossil cache.’ Blackfeet school children named the little T. Rex Cameron, and the tribe takes great pride in their fossil. In a reversal of the Diplophosaurus story, the actual specimen is now on display in the Blackfeet Heritage Center in Browning, whle the Museum of the Rockies retains a cast. ‘If you want to see that baby dinosaur, you’re going to have to go to Browning,’ said Horner, who hopes the Blackfeet will be able to fulfill their dream of a museum. ‘I think it’s very important to keep the fossil on the reservation.’”

p. 349: Note #15. “...when I asked the Blackfeet historian Curly Bear Wagner about the cultural significance of dinosaur bones in Blackfeet traditions, he replied that he himself had not researched that aspect of his people’s history, but commented that elders’ stories about dinosaur fossils exist in recordings in Blackfeet Reservation archives in Browning, Montana. Wagner, per. com. August 16, 2003.”

p. 377: “The Plains tribes routinely traveled very long distances. For example, the Blackfeet knew ‘practically all of the great West from Mexico north to Saskatchewan’ and regularly traded in the Southwest. Schultz, 1962, 351.”


Peculiar said...

“The Blackfeet of the northern plains made regular forays into the land of the ‘Many Bracelets People’ (the Navajo)"

What epic trips those must have been! Do you know any more about the practice? What route did they use? How were their interactions with Shoshone, Utes, other tribes on the way?

prairie mary said...

Dear Peculiar,

So far, all I've read has been the index so I'm not prepared to say more. I suspect they were horse trips, and therefore later, though the early dog people walked everywhere. I'm sure they went down the Old North Trail, since that was the main travel path. My theory would be that they were less friendly with the closer tribes, since they had to keep them out, and more friendly towards the more distant tribes.

I did write a fiction story, imagining a pair of buddies who went into the SW. In the story one of the men marries a woman there, but she is killed, so he comes back to the Blackfeet. His perspective on the world is much changed by his experience. It's posted on this blog, but I don't know what date. The story is called "Eats Alone."

Prairie Mary

Dave Lull said...

"Eats Alone" is here

Reid Farmer said...

Knew you'd love that book, Mary! I'm glad it came quickly.

I am an archaeologist, but can't really take credit as a paleobiologist.

I really look forward to reading more from you about Blackfeet and fossils. With your depth and breadth of knowledge of their culture, Mary, you are ideally poised to take Mayor's starting points and expand them.

It is intriguing to think about those epic trips. That reminds me of a journal article that I will scan in and send to you. An archaeologist working in a Hopewell period burial mound in Ohio has recovered remains of big-horn sheep horns. He builds a pretty convincing case that at about 200 BC, a group of Hopewell Indians journeyed from Ohio to the Wyoming Rockies and back to obtain that and other material. I think you'll like it.

prairie mary said...

It's only on the marginal edge for me, Reid. The reason you think I know a lot is because the people who REALLY do are mostly not blogging or even not alive. But I do think it's important to keep alive a sense of what the early life here was like. The scientists insist that the Blackfeet are recent -- probably came over here to escape Chris Columbus, that trouble-maker. The Blackfeet themselves say they were always here. Don't try to pull that "simply earlier immigrants" stuff on THEM!

People constantly say, "Well, of course, the Indians didn't realize that. Of course, they had no idea. Naturally they had no names for such things." The assumption is STILL that they were "primitive" and "child-like" and didn't understand the world they lived in. My position is that they had a FAR sharper understanding, since their lives depended upon it. Most of what I say is extrapolated from projecting myself into their -- uh -- moccasins? Sandals? Wrapped feet?

Nevertheless, I really like hearing about all the old bones -- like today's story about the early grebe and that funny tetrapod halfway between a croc and a fish. He's sorta cute.

I think that when Blackfeet started out, maybe in a big group and maybe in pairs, they were going in very much the same spirit and with the same time frame as, say, Chris Columbus. They must have been gone for years and people must have died both at home and on the road. Many probably never returned, either because they died or because they were tired of snow -- same as today. One of their strong taboos was never saying goodbye. (Whether or not they were in love.)

I'm also a bit of a fan of Jim Whilt, an old guide, doggerel writer and fibber who used to live around here. He was ancient when I came in 1961. He said that in HIS youth, the bighorns had horns so big that they finally took to tucking little pairs of wheels under their chins so they could get around. Unfortunately, that kept them from going up to the crags they loved and made them easy prey for early trophy hunters. Thus, they no longer exist.

It IS a little strange when the "elders" (Curley Bear and Jim Kennedy) are people who were in my English classes when they were in high school

Prairie Mary