Hugh Dempsey is one of those fortuitous interlocuters between cultures who does not conform to the conventional partisans, but uses both heart and head to soften collisions and gather information. A self-taught historian, he married Pauline Gladstone, Blood Tribe Indian “royalty” who never made a big deal about being an Indian princess. She was the daughter of James Gladstone, president of the Indian Association of Alberta, an influential leader among the Blackfoot tribes of which the Blood are a sub-group. Pauline was a bi-cultural person who functioned as both a traditionalist who knew the old ways and also as a modern women active in many “white” political and business contexts. A spectacular smile and endless energy claimed the love of Dempsey. They raised five children together.
I’m unclear how Jack Gladstone, the singer and ambassador on the Montana side, fits into this family in terms of begats but he may be the most famous Montana version of this family force for education and harmony. Curley Bear Wagner was also related.
Those who study “boundary lands” will find this book fascinating. It is particularly interesting to me because I spent a decade in this same time/place frame in the Sixties when the expansion and interweaving of white/Indian life paid little attention to the 49th parallel. I was on the Montana side. Dempsey was kept busy on the Alberta side as he struggled to maintain his main organizations including the tumultuous Glenbow Foundation, the Historical Society of Alberta, and the nascent tendrils of the University of Calgary plus a host of event-based committees and his own vital historical research and writing. While others searched for mineral wealth, Dempsey recognized the enormous value of preserving the wealth of the old-timer memories and records just disappearing from the high prairie. Often the research he did led to political reform and legal remedies. Sometimes he had to literally snatch documents out of bonfires.
The most interesting chapter for me was the one about acquiring ceremonial objects, though he never mentions Bob Scriver. He does talk about Phil Stepney who acquired the Scriver collection of Indian artifacts for the Royal Alberta Provincial Museum, and he mentions the names of three men who trafficked in Indian materials. Still do, except for Richard Lancaster (deceased) whom he does not comment on, evidently not knowing his private behavior. But he briefly notes two, Adolf Hungry Wolf and John Hellson. There are probably a half-dozen others he either didn’t know about or chose not to comment upon. They are like shadows of the scrupulous Dempsey, moving ceremonial or otherwise valuable artifacts back and forth across the border, which inevitably involves the unenlightened officials of the Ports of Entry who use the law on eagle feathers as a weapon.
Protocols and principles were only just beginning to develop when the Indian Empowerment movement, mostly fronted by AIM, descended on the scene, taking everything to high levels of emotion without much enlightenment. Dempsey does a pretty good job of noting factors that romantic outsiders can’t see: the influence of missionaries, the impact of alcohol, family fractures, NA political strategy, and so on. His main guide was whether a ceremonial object were actually in use. If it were, he would not buy it. It was not a particularly useful guide when things went in and out of various hands. Somebody is always in a position to buy and somebody is always willing to sell.
Though these political matters had deep, even life-threatening, impact on Bob Scriver, the Glenbow Foundation was the Big Break that every artist hopes for. When they bought the entire spectacular rodeo series, Bob was catapulted into a new category. Eric Harvie was one of those idealistic but capricious zillionaires who expressed much of his interest in Indians by collecting in the manner of a big vacuum machine. I described much of what we saw in the mid-Sixties in my bio of Bob Scriver, “Bronze Inside and Out,” also published by the University of Calgary. Harvie was old and ailing, but Dempsey seemed able to negotiate the rough waters.
More difficult were the sequence of directors of the Foundation, who had their own problems with Harvie’s interventionist whims. Every art/culture-based institution I know, particularly the ones with museums, seems subject to the same tumult of reorganizing staff, reallocating funds, maintaining consistent goals. Not all of them have to respond to a single man who provides the funding and therefore calls the tune (though many began with Big Man fortunes), but the ones who must answer to government irrationalities also suffer, and those who must raise funds privately are constantly endangered by the fickle public, esp. now that urban bicoastal culture seems not to realize that there IS anything on the high prairie, always portrayed as windswept and inhabited only by a couple of bison and maybe a grizz. To them, cowboys and Indians are only in Hollywood.
Dempsey was a force for stability that Montana has lacked. A sort of gypsy class of executives moves among institutions, a few years here and a few years there, always with an eye on status and power. Their qualifications are negotiable. Part of Dempsey’s survival was due to Eric Harvie’s fiat that Dempsey be allowed to publish outside the Glenbow and put his own name on what he wrote. But much was also due to his warm and rewarding extended tribal family and his close bond with Pauline’s father. He had good offers from other places, but always remained in Calgary.
As a good historian, Dempsey gives many names -- I was sometimes reminded of old movies of ancient local Blackfeet carefully naming everyone in a hunting or war party. He is diplomatic in that English conservative sort of polite tradition that still clings in some corners of the world. The Southern Piegan Blackfeet scholars have been more influenced by this dignity -- thank goodness -- than the cowboy historians of Montana who like to ponder the wicked and rowdy.
Highly personal but carefully working towards the greater good, Dempsey is pictured on the cover of “Always an Adventure” sitting on an outcropping near the top of Chief Mountain. He’s earned the right to be there -- after all, one of his honors is an honorary chief of the Kainai Blackfoot! But he’s no triumphalist or conquerer planting a flag on the summit. Instead he is part of a dynasty of respectable and contributing people without regard to racial stereotype.