Frank Bird Linderman has always been a bit of a puzzle to me for three reasons: sharing the middle name “Bird” with George Bird Grinnell (they also both died in 1938 and both wrote books of Blackfeet legends) made me mix up their identities, Linderman is also the name of a famous rodeo family we came to know rather well, and Linderman’s territory was the Flathead Valley -- I don’t go on that side of the Rockies. I stick to Blackfeet and the east slope. In addition, “his” tribe (He was white, but knew this group well) appears to be the Chippewa/Cree and the Metis diasphora created by the failure of the Riel Rebellion in Canada which sent refugees down into Montana. He knew many of these landless and destitute people, was even partners with a few of them. But the two books for which he is best known were about Crow people: Plenty-Coups and Pretty Shield.
I suspect that F. B. Linderman is extraordinary enough to confuse anyone. Beginning as a kid trapper, something like James Willard Schultz and Charles Marion Russell (in those days everyone had three names, so I’ve rather gone back to that practice myself), he moved on to mining instead of cattle ranching, learned to be an assayer, then did a sidewise jump to newspaper editor, and got his parents started in a local furniture store -- surefire in a growing area with families moving in. (Same principle applies today.) But he made his real fortune by selling insurance statewide. The money allowed him to build a house on Goose Bay and live in it while writing about the early days. (His account of saving it from a forest fire could have been written this summer!) When the writing didn’t go so well, he bought a hotel in Kalispell, made a success of it and sold it for enough money to go back to writing. For a while he was a legislator and his greatest achievement was probably securing the creation of Rocky Boy’s Reservation for those Cree/Chippewa and Metis people.
This strange assortment of trades, businesses and occupations was always backed by confidence acquired in the earliest days of settlement when all a man needed was a rifle, intelligence and a good reputation to live prosperously where ever he was -- like an Indian. Of course, this became more problematic once he married a pretty 97-pound woman he called his “Frau” in those innocent years before world wars, and acquired three little girls. They managed. In fact, I sat at a table across from the daughter of one of those little girls at a luncheon at the CM Russell Museum not long ago.
I’ve just finished reading “Montana Adventure: The Recollections of Frank B. Linderman” which was edited by H.G. Merriam, whose wife I knew in Missoula. Merriam is the original force behind the idea of Montana literature as a sort of privileged genre. Now it is clear to me just who Frank Linderman was, why he was important, and how it was that he was able to do so many things so well. Clearly he had an ability to analyze the forces within a situation. He had no preconceptions about anyone’s origins -- trying always to look through race and so on to the character of the individual. Perhaps because of this he made strong friendships based on respect for his integrity, which was of high value to him. And he was persistent as well as diligent. If one way didn’t work, he thought of another way. Also, he was a GREAT storyteller among others of the same sort. There was a keen feeling that much was disappearing that ought to be remembered.
The times from 1885 when he arrived to 1938 when the Depression was replaced by WWII were changing so rapidly from promise to disaster to triumph that everything was constantly dislocated, rather like now. And it is not really any comfort to me that his books, well-written and historically valuable as they are -- elegantly illustrated by his friend Charlie Russell and others -- did not make enough money for him to feel a success. He had a hard time finding a publisher who understood what he was doing and, anyway, interest in the frontier years was fading. Eventually, his friendship networks nudged him into the right circles and he wrote many “Indian legend” books -- the kind that remain the definitive Indian literature to many people, though few wrote with as much authenticity as Linderman. The equivalent on the Blackfeet side would be Walter McClintock. (Dunno where McClintock’s middle name went to! To give you a feel for the time period, Bob’s dad knew McClintock and Bob knew James Willard Schultz. Bob was twelve when Charlie Russell died, twenty-four when Grinnell and Linderman died. Bob’s daughter Margaret was born that same year, 1938. I was born in 1939. When Linderman died, he was a year older than I am now.)
Now that Linderman’s gone, of course, he is considered one of the great wise personalities of the Montana scene -- one of the 100 most notable citizens of the state, according to The Missoulian. Because of his illustrators, the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel has found him and his books are an excellent investment if you can find any of the first editions. I don’t think I’ve read any of them except this autobiography, which Merriam considered below his usual standard. Since I found this one pretty rewarding with its rich detail and wry asides, I’ll have to get around to the others.
I’ve ordered Linderman’s Blackfeet legends book, though I really am not fond of that genre these days. Once I swallowed them whole, one after another, but now I’m more interested in either fiction like Jim Welch’s or historical narrative like Montana Adventure. I suppose that's at least partly because of the contentiousness over which are "right."
I haven’t been paying attention to the talk about where Linderman’s papers and artifacts are -- supposedly in the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, but now I begin to have a livelier interest because it is clear that time passes quickly, what seems like the monotonous Now soon becomes the exciting Yesterday and I may have produced enough papers myself to need a reliable repository -- if there is such a thing.