Saturday, August 18, 2007


Yesterday was the Ninth August history conference sponsored by The Piegan Institute in the Cuts Wood School in Browning, Montana. The subject was “Aka: The Ancient Past.” This is the twentieth anniversary of the Piegan Institute, dedicated to the language and history of the Blackfeet People. The school takes up half a block on what used to be “white street.” Officially on the map it’s called “Popimi Street,” but no one knows what that’s supposed to mean. It’s not Blackfeet. Bob Scriver was born and raised in the house next door.

When I parked in front of the formerly Scriver driveway, there was a little girl crying as she swung on the garbage can rack. I thought she might be hung-up there somehow, her sundress snagged or one of her mismatched shoes wedged. Blackfeet are rather “dimorphic” (little women/big men) and little girls can be almost elfin as was this girl. I asked her what the trouble was and thought she said her puppy was hurt. Stricken by the worst possibility, I looked in the garbage cans but there was no fuzzy body in there. I asked her again. Was SHE hurt? Yes, she said. Where? “Me pohpee.” A moment of thought. Then I realized she meant her nose in Blackfeet. I asked, she pointed, I finally got it. The smoke from the forest fires was so strong that it was hurting her nose. Eyes, too. Mine, too.

Ten years ago little girls like that one would probably not have spoken Blackfeet, certainly not to a white person, and the white person wouldn’t have known that one’s “pohpee” was one’s nose anyway. Which is why I put this story in here -- Piegan Institute HAS made a difference. Many of the plans and goals they began with have been fulfilled.

An elder started us off with a prayer in Blackfeet. Our before-lunch prayer was chanted in unison by two Piegan students about nine years old, brother and sister. Both times I teared up, though I could barely recognize a word here and there, and so did Darrell Kipp, who has become a Blackfeet speaker and has put heart and soul into this Institute. Hugh Dempsey, the first speaker, remarked that everyone likes to look at Indians, see where they live. Not many ever have a chance to HEAR Indians in their own language.

The school rooms had just been newly painted in shades of terra cotta, adobe, peach and with the red light from the smoke coming in, we were tinted and blushing. I took notes as carefully as I could, but may have blundered, so corrections are welcome. Anyway, sometimes I got so absorbed I forgot to write anything down.

is an emeritus curator of the Glenbow Museum in Calgary and is married to a Blood Indian woman. His son is also a noted scholar. Dempsey is the author of many key books about the history of the Blackfoot nation esp. in Canada where most of the People still live. (Look for them by using Dempsey started us off with a review of what is known from word-of-mouth information that came from the dog-days. We’re talking pre-white contact and even pre-horse.

Weasel Tail, an informant born in 1859, was used by John Ewers in 1947 when he was working from the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning. Weasel Tail’s information came primarily from two women, Two Strikes Woman who was a hundred years old when he talked to her, and Victory Over All Woman. Both barely remembered the dog days and had heard many stories about them. So the dog days are only two lifetimes in the past. Ewers sketched out what he learned.

It wasn’t possible to move more than five or six miles in a day since the dogs carried what luggage there was and they didn’t always accept their burdens gladly or stick with the projected goal. Very little was carried, but their “stores” were all around them. There is some question about whether they used snowshoes. (The prairie here is so windswept that one can almost always find a bare ridge, so they may have been too much trouble.)

As to the reliability of oral information, Iron or Emiksis(?) said he would tell no lies because lies (including inaccuracies) would cause a person to die. Dempsey remarked that so long as the People were still speaking Blackfeet, accuracy was very high, but it suffered when the languages began to mix and Blackfeet faded. Partly this would have come of not knowing the exact right word and what it meant. Partly it had to do with who was listening.

Lodges in those days might have 5-6 bison hides -- divided in both front and back and pinned together with sticks -- and been transported by two dogs. (That would be BIG dogs with travois, I think. Picking up one bison hide, hair on, is about my own lifting limit.) With horses, tipis could be 12 to 15 hides, and there is evidence that there have been very much bigger ceremonial lodges. They were to some extent “modular” so that people could combine several tipi covers. Poles would have been much shorter so the lodges would not have been the high cones we’re used to seeing. The governing principle was practicality, not what “should” be done.

Dempsey described two methods for making pots. One was to dig a hole in the shape of the pot, grind up a slurry of the materials, pat a layer of this mixture inside the hole and then fill the inside with a fire to bake it. One neat little trick was embedding two knobby stones, one on each side near the top, for lifting the hot pot out. The other method was to make the shape and then put it inside a tipi of sticks which would be burned to bake the pot.

In the earliest days there was no metal at all.

Two methods were used to kill bison. The first was the dramatic piskun which meant that the animals were enticed and driven over a cliff that would kill or cripple them. A corral had been built at the bottom so that boys could relatively safely kill the cripples that survived.

The other method we don’t hear so much about. The women went to some spot on the open prairie downwind of some buffalo and there they made a fence, a blind corral, out of their travoises by tying them together upright. Then the men walked out and pushed the bison into that “surround.” If they were lucky and skillful, they could get the bison confused enough to mill around and around while they were shot with arrows. (This practice is echoed in the Horn Society ritual when the women put up their travoises to make a private place for their ceremony. I used it for a plot point in “Dogwoman” when the women -- some with dogs and some with horses -- had trouble putting the travoises together because of the size difference.)

When there was a kill, the leader of the hunt (which might include several bands) divided up the animals among the people. Women would appeal for hides to make new lodges since they lasted only three or four years.

Women did the camp work. When old people felt they had become a burden, they would ask to be “set out” and left behind when the band moved on. A very valuable and respected person was called an “apo,” a person who could call buffalo.

There were two sorts of “warfare.” One was almost like European war when two lines advanced on each other and exchanged fire. The foot warriors in those days had big shields, wide enough to get behind, which protected them from arrows, but to shoot their own bows meant that they had to put the shield down for a moment -- then they were vulnerable. Sometimes they would work in pairs, so that one person kept up the shield while the other one shot, then traded places. Also sometimes, if things were going badly, they could prop up their shields and sneak away without the enemy realizing they were gone.

The other kind of war was one of total annihilation, when they swooped down on an enemy village and killed everyone. When camp was moved, people were very wary of possible ambush, esp. if they had to pass through a narrow place.

Dempsey told an amusing tale about the First Peoples trying to figure out white people, who seemed to have mystical powers of some kind. The first signs some saw were a lot of cut trees, so they assumed they were dealing with a kind of giant beaver. Then when they saw the people in big woolly winter garb and with huge bushes of hair hanging out of their faces, they thought maybe bears. They seemed to have some relationship with water that allowed them to travel with it. This mystical dimension led them to be called “Napi-kwan” -- Napi being their Creator/Trickster figure who had magical powers. When the first black men came, they were called “Black white men” because it was clear they were not Indian and came with whites. And it was a constant puzzlement as to where the white women were. For a while they thought that the beardless youths were women.

John Monroe remembered via Running Chief that at first the white people were thought to be few and relatively weak. Some wanted to crush them. But then a few chiefs were taken on the train to Winnipeg and realized that there were just too many of those strange people.

Dempsey was specifically scornful about a book called “Blackfoot Physics” by F. David Peat. In the first place, he says, it’s based on Sioux information. (I barely started to read it and then put it aside. “Blackfoot” appears to be a metaphor for a kind of physics that is not so rigorously scientific and tries to find legitimacy through identification with indigenous cultures.)

ELDON YELLOWHORN is Piikani, born and raised on the Peigan Reserve, now known as the Piikani First Nation, in Alberta. (The spellings are different because the Canadian and US translations of Blackfeet have never been reconciled.) His undergrad degrees are in geography and archaeology, he has an MA in archaeology from Simon Fraser University and a Ph.D. in anthropology from McGill University. He is now a faculty member at Simon Fraser in Vancouver, B.C. He has published in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology, Native Studies Review and Plains Anthropologist. He is a co-author of “First Peoples in Canada,” from Douglas & McIntire. None of this captures his personality, which is exceptionally lively and friendly. (It often occurs to me that the main difference between white and red peoples working in these fields is that most whites are very solemn and stiff, nit-picking over details, while the reds are working with huge relish and glee, excited about the Big Picture.)

Red Crow (1880-1950) was Eldon’s ancestor and was born in Fort Benton. One of Eldon’s projects has been excavating that man’s homestead: a log house and some acreage. He said that he’d gone back to his reserve without much hope of finding clues of old-timers, but soon discovered that the people themselves could point out all sorts of locations.

His thesis subject was “Oral Narratives” and how they can be used to extract time-line estimates, which are of concern to archaeologists. He asked “can mythology be organized to be chronological, especially stories that are a thousand or five thousand years old?”

He told the horse origin myth: how they were a gift of the Thunder Beings (not whites) and how the People walked around a lake, as instructed in a vision, then walked east a bit, and the horses appeared out of the lake.

Tobacco entered about the time of the organizing of the Beaver Bundle and the myths are entwined. This was a particular kind of tobacco, “something? ‘attenuata’”, that was grown earlier (800 AD) by Great Basin and Missouri River people. It would not be surprising that it would travel up the river to the Blackfeet, maybe through the Sioux. The custom was to plant it in the soft wet earth near beaver dams, which would help the association with that animal. The idea was to plant in spring the seeds, which are smaller than poppy seeds, then leave them undisturbed until it was time to come back for harvest. The story was that “little people” took care of the plants and when the planters returned, they brought little clothes and gifts for them. Someone would be sent ahead to warn the little people to hide, for you didn’t want to see them. They were very mischievous, like leprecauns or pixies. Eldon joked that they’ve been making a lot more trouble lately because no one grows tobacco that way anymore and they are unemployed. Everyone knows that unemployed people make trouble, so we should plant tobacco to keep them busy. (There are two tubs of ornamental nicotiana -- tobacco -- on my doorstep!)

Eldon said he got curious about tobacco and grew several kinds on his patio in Vancouver. Not only did they supply him with plenty of ceremonial tobacco (he doesn’t smoke), they replanted themselves as volunteers even after he had given away the seeds. Gotta be little people. (I grew a tobacco plant in my window box in Portland which got so big that it looked like someone climbing in my window. I brought it with me to Browning on a trip and left it in Bob’s studio, sitting in a chair like a person.)

When Anthony Hendry, one of the first Hudson’s Bay people to come (1754), arrived at the camp of Little Deer, Little Hill and Sentinel, he brought along Virginia tobacco and before alcohol this was always a good trade item. He wanted them to come to the trading forts on the Bay to trade, but they hated to go over there, partly because they hated eating all that “nothing food” like birds, fish and maybe deer. So a small group would accumulate some furs, take them over to the fort, convert them into metal objects and so on, then come back and use the objects for the winter. In spring they traded their used knives and hatchets for more furs and made the round trip again to buy new.

The Frenchmen were more willing to take goods out to the prairies and the Blackfeet called them “the first White Men.” Sometimes the tobacco was too unfamiliar to be palatable. Indian tobacco was often mixed with red osier dogwood cambium (inside the bark) and bear-berry (kinnikinnick), which was probably what they smoked before the advent of tobacco. In 1775 Mathew Conkling found Blackfeet tobacco gardens in October. David Thompson said the last tobacco grown was in 1800. After that the source was trade. Now there seems to be less interest in smoking pipes than in ceremonial smudging. (The leaves are also good for keeping bugs out of bundles.)

Perhaps you have noticed that on the two “ears” or smoke flaps of a lodge there are patterns of circles. On one side is the Big Dipper (not called that) which indicated the important compass of the north star. On the other side is what we call the Pleides, a cluster of stars. The Blackfeet story is that long ago there was a buffalo hunt and some young boys who had asked for yellow calf hides to make new clothes didn’t get any. So they got mad and went to live in the sky. They disappear when the calves are born and yellow, to show how offended they are.

Eldon related this to the sidereal season indicators: which stars are above the horizon at which times of the year. These change over millenia, so the important indicator now at the spring equinox is Aquarius -- we are living in the “Age of Aquarius.” But moving towards Pisces. (A sign of global warming when the seas rise and we all have to learn to swim?) Two thousand years ago, that star sign was the Pleiades and it was the sign for the really huge communal buffalo harvests. The story must be that old. It was the reason they COULD gather at the same time, guided by that same sign.

Buffalo stones, iniskum, have been marked scientifically as 5,000 years old. (That would be ceremonially indicated stones, not the original creatures that give rise to the fossils, which are much, much more ancient.)

(mother was a Running Crane) is a 1998 Browning High School graduate and has a U of Montana Bachelors from 2004. She’s proceeding on to a Master’s in Archeology and has done work at the Battle of the Bighorn plus now in Glacier Park where a team is re-locating campsites originally found by Barney Reeves so they can be marked with GPS. Much of her talk was photos of that work. We were just happy looking at her bright face, both she and we full of pride that she’s done this.

, is an emeritus professor at the University of Calgary, now at Lifeways of Canada. His work has been paleoarcheology and he’s a great favorite among the Blackfeet because he is providing the back-story to contradict David Thompson’s notion that the Blackfeet had moved to this area from the Great Slave Lake. (Once a theory like this is propounded, it is repeated again and again because of the academic emphasis on documents instead of raw evidence.)


Thompson’s “Narrative” (1799) was written when Thompson was aged and was no longer here. Other writers who said that the Blackfeet were “always here” included Chief Crawford (interviewed in 1860- 80 by Father LaCombe). Pikuni elders between 1880 and 1910 told recorded stories asserting the same.

There are two great early accounts: “Nitzitahpi Ethnogenesis” (the development of the three major subgroups of the nation) and “Splitting of the Nitzitahpi and Arapaho.” These seem to be entwined somehow with the geological event of the last glacier withdrawing 10,000 years ago and the repopulating of the area with plants, animals and people.

One story is near-European. A man sends out his three sons. The one with the most powerful hunting medicine, symbolized by the color black, becomes the founder of Siksika. The one who returns with many scalps of chiefs becomes the Kainah. The one who comes back with a bright spotted robe is Pikani.

One likely premise is that the Blackfeet and Arapajo were one Algonquin tribe that split apart. Traveling Blackfeet were surprised that they could talk to the Arapajo and understand them. Grinnell and Schultz both repeated a story about the people crossing a huge lake or wide river on ice that split, dividing the groups. This would maybe have been the Missouri River, which has remained the natural divider.

Reeves’ idea of the approximate ceremonial dates are:
Medicine Pipe Bundles -- 3,000 years ago
Beaver Bundle 2,000 years
Natoas 1200 - 2000
Okan -- 1200
Iniskim -- 1200
Vision questing 5,000 - 9500 years old. (There are 250 vision quest sites -- rock “beds” -- between Two-Med/Badger and Crowsnest Pass. This practice is very old around the world.)

In the indigenous story of the creation when the “fourth animal” -- sometimes a duck and sometimes a muskrat -- dives to the bottom of the water and brings up primordial mud, the Blackfeet version says Napi walks north and creates everything as he goes. This might be an account of the glacier withdrawing.

McClintock mushed two stories -- Okan and Scarface -- into one. Both stories were connected to the Sweetpine (Sweetgrass) Hills.

The earliest iniskim was found with a Medicine Circle at the Bow River. Originally -- before people dug it apart -- that cairn was, in Blackfeet, “A Big Cairn on the Hill.” An elk rib taken from the cairn was 5,000 years old. It was 12 feet in diameter and six feet high. The Bow River (“The Place of Falling Off”) is associated with the iniskim origin story.

In the late 19th century there was a movement to find the relationships among languages. Horatio Hill suggested an Eastern origin of Algonquin language which then migrated West. After all, that’s what HE did!

Alfred Kroeber was inclined to think that because there was a small and very ancient group in the West that spoke Algonquin-related language, that the origin was near there and migrated east. Truman Michaelson, 1911, working for the Smithsonian and Edward Sapir (1913 and 1916) tended to believe Kroeber. The genetic studies were in the 1980’s.

These studies seem to find relationships between Blackfeet and Cree.

Dick Forbis excavated the Ross Site and the Women’s Buffalo Jump. Tom and Alice Kehoe (Alice was present) dug up the Boarding School Buffalo Jump and the Ethridge ware (pots). Brian Reeves did the Head-Smashed-In series of buffalo jumps. Bill Byrne dug the Trout Creek Sites in SW Alberta.

“The Old Woman Phase” is what the period from about 800 to 1800 is called and represents pre-contact culture, but there are medicine circles going back to 5,000.

Barney, whom Darrell rightly described as "effervescent," was sceptical of the more famous medicine circles and their relationship to the calendar in the way asserted by people who knew about some of the Celtic stone circles. Some question arose from the audience about whether tipi circles were really about tipis at all, and Alice Kehoe stepped to the front to say that they used the stones to weight down the liners more often than the perimeter of the tipi itself. Mary Ground, who took great care to be traditional, did this at Indian days. (Tom Kehoe had written about the possibility that tipi circles with radiating lines were accounts of journeys taken, the length of the line being the distance traveled. I used this idea in the story called “Eats Alone.”) Reeves talked about big circles of stone into which buffalo skulls were piled for ceremonial purposes, but that the skulls were taken and ground up in the prairie-wide bone-gathering times early in the 20th century when they were needed for fertilizer and gunpowder.

His final story was about a cave found with a thick layer of horse dung that dated scientifically to 1130! That’s before Columbus if I wrote the date down properly. In his opinion there were individual non-”Indians” roaming around all the time and the Kennewick Man is white. What a great guy to sit with by a campfire in the mountains on a fall evening!

Driving back through smoke with the pickup lights on, the landscape was so veiled it looked like a special-effects dream sequence from a movie, maybe about the old days. Then I drove through a patch where the temperature dropped ten degrees and there was misty rain drawing rich earth and vegetation smells out of the fields. It was like an awakening: a new consciousness.

This painting is a contemporary version of ledger art in which an image is painted onto a page from an old BIA or tribe record page. Sometimes one can recognize the people listed.


Max Dashu said...

Always interesting to read your stuff. Who's the artist of the ledger picture?

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

That would be Terence Guardipee, who is Darrell Kipp's nephew. Pretty well-known work by now.

Prairie Mary