Sunday, August 22, 2010


Remember that the takeaway idea from this panel is not dogs but “THE RENEGOTIATION OF THE BLACKFEET REALITY.” Often the audience laughed and nudged each other. Whenever I’ve spoken about dogs this has been true. It’s an automatic trigger like “commodity cheese.” So many dogs. A dog is an ongoing character in Bob Tailfeather’s cartoons in the Glacier Reporter. Often it’s the truth teller.

Darrell says we need the children because that is who takes us into the future. One of the things they do at Cuts Wood School is invent new words. They wanted a field trip to Pizza Hut in Cut Bank, so in order to convey that name, “Pizza hut,” they combined the name for rose hips (red berries), farina, and lodge. There has been a word for television for quite a while, but the word for computer hasn’t settled yet. New concepts as well as new objects demand new words.

The people move into the future as a tribe, revitalizing as it goes. They learn how to Google on their “Sarvisberries.” But they don’t discard the old ways. Yet when tourists come asking to see 19th century lodges and to meet elder ceremonialists, they don’t recognize what they see right in front of them: TODAY’s ceremonialists and homes. Darrell asks them, "Do you have a churn at your house?"

Those who really long to know more about the old days, should go to the website called: where much research is recorded. Rosalyn LaPier works hard on this as she earns her Ph.D. at the University of Montana. It can also be found by going to

So the subject here is the value of relationship and reflection about what that relationship is and what it might mean. The first demonstration of this was that two speakers, who knew about historical traditonal life in this tribe had to come from Canada because the governmental structure up there was one that protected old ways and the remoteness meant that the language persisted. The other side of that was they had to cross the border, which meant they were made late.

SPEAKER: MARTIN EAGLE CHILD, Kainai Elder and Cultural Leader
Martin says he does NOT like to be late! His practice is ALWAYS to be on time. He is a handsome older man carrying a big old-fashioned briefcase containing his papers. His iron-gray hair is in braids, his earrings are the big round shell kind, and his Burt Lancaster wraparound smile is brilliant.

Martin is both a Kainai (Many Chiefs) Elder and a Catholic server of communion. He is one of those Blackfeet men who naturally includes the spiritual of any kind in his life. (Joe Eagle Child, who has been gone a long time, was part of the original Pipe Bundle circle that Bob Scriver and I sat in.) His talk went back and forth between English sentences and Blackfeet sentences, each explaining the other. He often comes to Cuts Wood School to interact with the kids and is used to giving the audience questions to answer. But he also travels to other places and was recently with the Eskimo -- whom he confirms don’t like to be called Eskimo. Say Inuit or whatever else they want to be called. Sled dogs! His eyes lit up at the thought of them!

His own dog’s name is Apache. Apache is very fond of Chinese food, but needs to have sweet and sour sauce on it. He says he’s very good to Apache and makes sure he gets Chinese food twice a week. (In Alberta a good share of the restaurants are Chinese.) He remarks about the story about the dog who tattled on the unfaithful wife, that Apache would protect him from any harm, but Apache always sides with his wife! Apache would not tell about her lover, but she has none anyway.

He remarks on the many Blackfeet names that include “dog.” Dog Child (Imitahpoka), Richard Little Dog (that’s who gave Bob and I our names), Dog That Curls Up, and White Dog. (More about White Dog later.)

In his young days Martin drank. Every time he did and woke up throbbing and bleary with a hangover, he would pray to the Great Spirit, “Oh, get me through this! Help me out here and I’ll never drink again!” But he did anyway. One night he had a dream. He was sitting on a rock and a dog came towards him, intending to bite him and tried to tell him something. It took Martin a while to understand that the dog wanted to punish him for constantly making a vow and then breaking it. He realized what he was doing, that he deserved a dog bite, and he quit.

He mentioned the epithet “dog face” which means something like unreliable and deceptive. Imituskee. (One of the first Blackfeet words I learned!) And he said that dogs howling are unwelcome because the feeling is that they are announcing the coming of death, that they can sense it.

He spoke of a huge Okan or sacred event in Brockett this summer where there were eighty lodges and nine pipe smokes, all the people coming together to share their holy ways. He says “Sun Dance” is a wrong interpretation. His own sons took part in piercing (then his voice got low, because that was against the law for a long time). Quickly he changed the subject to the name of Darrell’s dog: “Destroyer.” It’s a female. (The India-Indian goddess of destruction is named Shiva, which means the same thing.)

For five years Martin worked with the police as an elder to get them to understand the people they were protecting. They used dogs as helpers and he told about a boy who ran away and how the dogs found his frozen body. He told about them figuring out murders, both finding who was killed and who did the killing. He went off on a short diversion about a friend of his who recently had a run-in with an insufficiently civilized cop when the friend was taking his Bundle back home. The policeman told him that all of his native religion was crap. The friend said he thought the officials would be surprised to hear that he thought that. The policeman said they were crap, too. Martin did not think this policeman’s prospects were very good in the future. Dogs might bite him.

If a dog dies, one should not grieve too much but rather be grateful to the dog, because sometimes dogs will die in order to take the place of one of your family members who was supposed to die.

Wolves are closely related. When one goes on the war trail, one sings a wolf song. He sang it for us. He told about a man-dog song in which a mother dog and her pups come to a man in a dream and ask to come into the lodge by the fire because it is very cold. The words are like “have pity on me, pity on my poor pups. Then I will help you sometime.” And Marvin sang us that song with the help of a drum. The beat was a quick trembling one.

Last summer the Piegan kids had a camp at Buffalo Lake so they could look for buffalo stones, or iniskim. Martin was there. Then he told us about a very earnest man who really wanted to sing Indian, so he learned all the words to a song and sang them alone at a ceremony. The only thing he got wrong is that he accidentally changed the last line slightly so that he sang, “I make babies!” That won't be forgotten!


Eldon brought along a slide show to illustrate his talk and used his own dog as an example but it was hard to imagine his dog pulling a travois: it’s a Yorkie! Eldon is a big guy. He says the dog was intended to keep his wife company while he out-of-town, but the dog decided to be his -- though he has to be careful not to step on it. His name is “Omi,” the Japanese word for rain.

He told us the story of the Lost Boys who had been put out of the tribe because there wasn’t enough food because of drought. (Eldon points out that this probably happened repeatedly. He did not say it was the boys who were put out because the girls could make new tribal members later and because boys are resourceful enough that they might survive on their own.) The dogs pitied the boys and they prayed to the Moon (howled) asking her to speak to her husband the Sun and persuade him to let the waters return. This strategy worked and the drought ended. He repeated that people don’t usually like to hear a dog howling because it means spirits coming to take someone away.

Eldon told a real life story about when he was a boy. (He’s sort of young adult now -- everyone looks young to me.) They lived out in the country and used soft sage plants as wipers in the outhouse. One day he, his mother, and their dogs were gathering more sage. He was very small, maybe four years old, and he had to move his bowels. So his mother got him properly arranged. When his droppings hit the ground, the dogs darted in and ate them, which surprised him very much. Why was that? Then his mother told him the old story about why dogs can’t talk. This time the wife’s lover was a man, whom the husband killed, but this time the wife shoved shit into the dog’s mouth as his punishment and that’s what he barks to cough out. And yet he got a taste for the stuff and eats it when he can. (This is one of the duties of “pye dogs” or pariah dogs in Third World countries -- to clean away excrement and dead things.)

Then Eldon shifted to formal archeology. The skeletal and material records of the direct association between people and dogs goes back 14,000 years. If you Google “Blue Fish Cave” on your Sarvisberry, you’ll find many valuable references. A dog skeleton 12,000 years old was found there.

He explained to us “DNA archeology,” which means working in the lab to analyze both nuclear DNA and mitochondrial DNA, which is actually more useful because it doesn’t change except by mutation. (The whole point of nuclear DNA is to recombine during sex to create a new individual.) The current thinking is that dogs departed from whatever common ancestor was there between themselves and other canids probably 135,000 years ago. This means that dogs became a separate species before they took up with humans. Previously, humans thought that they caused the split into dogs. (Humans think they cause everything. This is a Napi quality.) Dingos, when looked at through DNA, turn out to have developed out of the dogs who went to Australia with humans and then turned feral.

It is an open question whether humans domesticated dogs or dogs domesticated humans. The relationship long predates the change from nomads to farms and villages (about 10,000 years ago) and many dogs still live on the boundary of that change, going back and forth, in and out.


Tom Shawl is a third handsome man who looks young to me. His father was Assiniboine (Crazy Bear) and his mother was Blackfeet (Lone Walker). He came to Browning to get to know his mother’s family and ended up falling in love with a Blackfeet woman and marrying her. He said he had asked Darrell to provide a couple of husky bodyguards for him because through history the Assiniboine and Blackfeet clashed hard. His specialty was accumulating stories about a real person named “White Dog.”

A number of people were at this seminar because they love the 19th century romantic horse-people stories and this was right down their alley. Tom sketched out the history behind it. The Assiniboine were actually a segment of the Sioux nation, in sign talk named by drawing one’s finger across one’s throat: “Cut Throat,” also called the Nakota because their dialect drifted in a way that substituted N for the D we are used to in Dakota states.

Indian warfare before the horse and even before the Euros, was patchy and band-on-band rather than tribe-on-tribe. At any given time probably seventy-per-cent of the people were not at war while the other thirty per cent busied themselves with daily work. War was with shields, arrows and spears and as much a ceremony as a destruction. He spoke of Assiniboine shields, very big, so many of them that every man had one to stand behind, and Assiniboine armor, several layers of leather with sand quilted in between. Heavy but effective. Assiniboine were related to and allied with Cree, in a similar way to the Gros Ventre, who are the buffer group between Blackfeet and Assiniboine, usually allied to the Blackfeet. For a long time the bands had worked out their boundaries, as though they were jigsaw pieces fit together.

When the Euros hit the east coast, they pushed the jigsaw pieces so that they buckled and disengaged all across the continent. Then they added the de-stabilizers of horses, guns, metal goods, fabric -- all things that kindled greed and created gradients between haves and have-nots, all of which started wars. The tribal histories tell of fighting the Iroquois, but then less than a hundred years later they had been pushed so far West that they were fighting the Sushwap tribe in British Columbia. Their relations are sometimes called Stoneys. (Shawl counts Hugh Monroe among his ancestors, as do more than a few Blackfeet.) The Assiniboine were so widespread that they became middlemen who disseminated material goods. Their territory extended from Texas to the Bow River. They fought Comanche/Shoshone whose sign was a snake, a wiggling motion across with the finger, going one way for Comanche and the other way for Shoshone.

At one point there were seven Assiniboine warriors and three Cree who came to help the Blackfeet because their backs were up against the Rockies and they needed to learn new techniques. Two Assiniboines stand out in more recent history (1820’s and 1830’s). One was “Left Hand,” noted for his military genius, to the point where whites called him “the Wild Bonaparte.” These men could muster huge forces of warriors, from 500 to 1,000 men at once time. In 1836 a huge force of 3,000 gathered to attack the Blackfeet, but the leader, “White Dog,” for some reason changed his mind and decided not to attack after all. The reason is not recorded. It was not typical because White Dog was one of the few who had a categorical vendetta against all Blackfeet. He would ride to a ridge overlooking camp and scream sexual insults at the men. In their own language!

White Dog was a shape-shifter who, when he was cornered, became a huge grizzly. He could reconstitute himself and there are many stories about how he was killed and who killed him (one can start a bar fight over whose great-grandfather managed the deed). He had a sweat lodge that he would go into, stay in for days, and emerge with fresh scalps dripping from his belt, brandishing captured weapons, all Blackfeet. Evidently it was a teleportation “worm hole.”

(My notes say that “David-Rodnick” is the source of this next, but I don’t think that’s the right name.) In 1935 “Returning Healer” went to war alongside White Dog. Two parties set out but “Returning Healer” had a dream that though horses would be succesfully stolen, someone would die, and he didn’t want that to happen so he turned around and went back home. But some of his warriors still wanted to go on, so they joined White Dog. He had the same dream, but his reaction was, “So? The dead person might be me and I want to continue.”

He decided to make medicine and sent someone out to find a buffalo skull on the prairie. He took a bit of this and powdered it. His medicine caused the skull to become a living bull bison that snorted and pawed the earth. He had an enchanted buffalo robe and a war shield both of which could repel bullets and arrows. One man swore that he saw a bullet bounce off White Dog’s forehead, leaving him unharmed. He specialized in stealing women right out of their lodges and also horses so valuable that at night they were tied to the owner’s wrist or ankle. (Tom said once he himself had a car so new and beautiful that he considered doing that, tying his ankle to his car with a rope out the window. But that then he realized that the consequence would probably be that he was dragged out the window behind the car the thief was driving away!)

Probably it was the Blackfeet who killed White Dog in the end, though they don’t agree on the place. Mary Ground says it was here but Schultz identified a place farther away. Shawl did find one Blackfeet elder and then again an Assiniboine elder who was a nephew of White Dog’s, and they told the same story. The night before he died, White Dog rode around the village on his horse, singing his war song, which went this way: “My relations, it is a hard thing to lose someone but only the earth lasts forever.” The Blackfeet took this song and they still sing it as a victory song when they take the state basketball championship.

Shawl is trying to establish whether White Dog was with Custer on the Greasy Grass and says he was with the band that surrendered with Sitting Bull. But that’s about the facts.

The more interesting story is that one of the features of White Dog's exploits with women was that many of them fell in love with him. He taught them the magic spells that would reconstitute him if he were chopped into parts, which those who tried to kill him were intent on doing. But he was mean to these women and sometimes beat them up. So the last time he was chopped into pieces, the women came together with their parts of the ceremony to reassemble him and then got to talking. They became jealous and angry and some refused to perform their part of the ritual. Therefore, parts of White Dog remained severed and he stayed dead. In fact, some time later, he was dug up and his corpse was mostly together, but parts were missing. (Do you know the Egyptian story of Osiris?)


Add comments or make corrections as you see fit.

1 comment:

Mary Scriver said...

I had a conversation with Darrell Kipp on the phone this afternoon and cleared up a few things. The boy who takes mother dogs home to give birth in his warm bathroom is not named Gerald. He is Charro Trombley. If he adopts you one of pups and you mistreat it, he comes and takes it back.

Also, the name of the animal angel group translates to "the four-leggeds who run amongst us."

Prairie Mary