Tuesday, June 20, 2006


It appears that I left out one of the passages about Blackfeet in Adrienne Mayor’s exciting book, “Fossil Legends of the First Americans” when I transcribed the index references. The neglected paragraphs are thus:

“In some places in Alberta, there were so many bones of dinosaurs you couldn’t help stepping on them, exclaimed one early fossil hunter, Jean L’Heureux, a Frenchman who lived with the Piegan (Blackfeet) bands in Alberta in 1860-90, wrote a survey of the geography and Indian customs. The Piegans collected iron oxide pigments near drifts of fossil shells in the Red Deer River and Bow River valleys, the same area where the Blackfeet tradition said the first Iniskim baculite or buffalo-calling stone was discovered. The Piegans also frequented Flint Knife Hill for its hot springs, lignite and other minerals, and numerous fossil remains.

“L’Heureux accompanied his Piegan friends to an ancient lakebed and a three-hundred-foot high coulee near the Red Deer River, where the Indians came to honor earth spirits. Among the tumbled rocks, they showed him many great bones of a “powerful animal” whose enormous vertebrae measured twenty inches in diameter. This fossil site was marked with numerous offerings of cloth and tobacco and the Natives told the Frenchman that the “grandfather of the buffalo” lay buried there.

“Like the Shawnees and Delawares who called mastodon remains “the grandfather of the buffalo,” the Piegans associated the curious bones with the largest animal they knew. Their interest was spiritual, notes Canadian paloeontologist David Spalding, but their interpretation was ‘scientific’ in that they recognized the fossil animal’s ‘antiquity and possible relationship to a living descendant,’ an insight that might have gained George Gaylord Simpson’s approval. [Simpson didn’t think Indians could be scientific.] In this case, the massive bones visited over centuries by the Piegans belonged to huge dinosaurs, the ceratopsians, duck-billed hadrosaurs, ankylosaurs and theropods first scientifically collected by William Dawson in 1874. Dawson was followed by Tyrrell, Charles Sternberg, and many others in what is one of the most productive dinosaur locales ever studied; the Red Deer River Canyon is now Dinosaur Provincial Park. In the park, archeologists have found a Piegan vision quest and an effigy figure overlooking the fossil-laden valley.

“In the Hell Creek and Judith River formations of Montana, dinosaur species include the thirty-foot-long tyrannosaurid Albertosaurus, the seventeen-foot-long ceratopsian Chasmosaurus, Tyrannosaurus Rex, hadrosaurs, and other gigantic reptiles. In 1995, on the Blackfeet Reservation in the Two Medicine area, a Blackfeet fossil hunter discovered a baby T. Rex, one of the youngest and best-preserved dinosaur fossils ever found. As I drove from Bozeman to the Fort Belknap Reservation, just north of the Missouri and Judith River Badlands where Hayden, Charles Sternberg, and Cope had discovered troves of dinosaur fossils, I stopped for a view of the Little Rocky Mountains, where the Blackfeet, Assiniboines, Crees and Gros Ventres came to seek visions. Bill Snell, an Assiniboine of Fort Belknap who knows that area, told me that his tribe used to collect fossils near a warm springs on a bare hill covered with shells. A terrible water monster called Bax’aa was fabled to lurk at a spring there.”

What follows is a picture of a sculpture by Bob Scriver that shows Scarface fighting off the "terrible birds" who had been killing the sons of the Sun, Natoosi, leaving only Scarface's friend "Morning Star." Various versions of the story say the birds are cranes, or some have guessed condors, but I notice that -- consciously or not -- Bob's version of the birds looks a bit like pterodactyls. It's interesting that the story includes a detail about Scarface taking to the Sun the heads of the birds, so that he would believe in the destruction. No doubt the fossil skulls of bird-like pterodactyls were first to attract the attention of Indian observers, who might then look for the bones of the bodies.


Adrienne Mayor said...

It's fascinating that Bob Scriver's sense of the terrible raptors came out looking like pterosaurs. Anyone who came across skulls (and skeletons) of huge pteranodons (with 20 ft wingspans) would immediately think of the old stories of frightening giant raptors (which could have been based on ancestral memories of living giant condors and teratorns of the Ice Age). Observations of the impressive fossils may have contributed to the old traditions. There is a startling photo of a pteranodon skull next to a modern bison skull in my book. I tried to insert the jpg here, but it didn't work, be happy to email it to anyone who's interested.

Cowtown Pattie said...

Fascinating! I love the sculpture. And the story behind it is icing on the cake. Thanks!