Monday, September 07, 2015


This post is about men who wish to be tribal people, that is, indigenous, or for you disingenuous folks, “Indians.” Out of this love they married Blackfoot women.  They are John Hellson, Adolf Hungry Wolf, Ryan Heavyhead, and Grey Owl (1888- 1938), an Englishman who married Anahereo and raised beavers.  The couple even had a hole in their floor over water so the beavers could come and go.  They traveled far and wide, talking about conservation.

Grey Owl and beaver

From the earliest days, especially in the context of empire and colonies, some people have “gone native.”  Fur traders, writers, artists and adventurers have gone to some foreign place, found it to their liking and decided to join the People.  If they went as academic anthropologists, they were less likely to do this because their obligations as objective record-keepers and interpret the results in reports interfered with direct participation.  

The white folks back home greeted these people with a range of emotion: envy, contempt, longing, and curiosity.  They are accused of being fakes.  Women and children who had been captured by tribes -- and had become wholly committed to that way of life -- were thought to be insane when they were grief-stricken.  Today they are still accused of being hoaxes.  As though it were fake to grow to love people not your own color.

In the Sixties two men who fit roughly into this pattern showed up in Browning and became a huge influence on Bob Scriver and, because I did what he did, on me.  One was Adolf Hungry Wolf and the other was John Hellson.  Next door to the Scriver studio was the federal Museum of the Plains Indian, established during WWII with the leadership of John Ewers, the first curator.  It was meant to encourage the Blackfeet to create artifacts for sale.  They were not seen as religious.  Ewers, Claude Schaeffer, and Tom and Alice Kehoe were curators there and friends of Scriver but he didn’t learn from them with the intensity and romance both Hungry Wolf and Hellson could convey.

Okan, Star, Adolf, Judy Armstrong, Iniskim, Wolf, Beverly

There are probably formal terms and descriptions of people who both participate in and explain a culture to which they were not born.  Both these two men are grandfathers now.  Sometimes I’m in contact with their families, both on the Canadian side and doing well with their own nearly grown families.  A person could call them “half-breeds” but I call them “double-breeds” and it would be better advised to call them “enrolled.”  For a while not so long ago Hellson's granddaughter, who was in high school, traded doggerel about the weather via email.  These were family relationships.  They brought their wives and kids and in summer we had Bob's grandkids.  I think rivalry kept Hellson and Hungry Wolf from being friends.  Their personal styles were quite different.

Adolf was Swiss/Hungarian, raised in California, educated in historical methods.   He is a careful, orderly man.  John was from Cornwall, England, and had been a pugilist.  He can get swept away.   Adolf and his wife, Beverly, composed and produced many books and booklets explaining Blackfoot culture from material objects to myths and legends.  John’s only written contribution was “Ethnobotany of the Blackfoot Indians.”  He was a man of oral culture, partly because of secrecy in religious matters, but also he is a trickster.

Adolf has a strong memory and knows ceremonies and songs that the People themselves have forgotten.  He began to collect old photos and to tote them around in a suitcase to pow-wows and villages, asking the old people what they could tell him.  Who were these people?  What were they doing?  Where are they in the photo?  He wrote it all on the backs of the photos, added much historical material, and produced four big books that included everything.  I call them the “Museum in a Box.”  I like to read the books late at night so the images and stories will enter my sleep.

Sleep-stories were crucial to the old Blackfoot People and much of their ceremonial life was guided by dreams  which is why there is a little Maltese cross representing the sleep moth at the back of the top of a lodge.  Messengers came to tell a person that going to war would be unlucky or that it was time for them to have a child or that they should become ceremonial leaders for the Thunder Pipe Bundles.  Sometimes they told a person to do what he wanted to do and sometimes they forbade it.  

Bob Scriver had a dream telling him to become a Thunder Pipe Bundle Keeper.  The result was chaotic, punishing, but fulfilling.  (The whole story is in “Bronze Inside and Out,” my memoir of Bob.  U of Calgary Press.  It's on Amazon.)  At his death that Pipe Bundle disappeared.  The old People say it will come back when it’s ready.  I agree.  There are a dozen Bundles active on the Blackfeet reservations today.  

John Hellson and Bob Scriver working on the individual portraits 
of Bundle Keepers for the composite circle of ceremonialists.

Adolf’s version of appropriation (much frowned on by educated indigenous people today) was to take on their “lifestyle.”  He and Beverly raised their children in a little cabin in the Rockies where the running water is a creek and a solar panel runs the computer as the only electricity.  He keeps the old-time regime of a morning cold water plunge and a several mile run, but Beverly, who is now divorced, went back to town and married a professor.  

Neither man grew rich.  But like Grey Owl early in the century and Ryan Heavyhead today, they spread indigenous knowledge, emphasizing the environmental attitudes of people like Bioneers.  These were men at the fundamental interface between the Real People and their ecologies, absorbing the sensory world as well as the “facts” (not always so factual) that would interest an ethnographer.  They became what they studied.

Part of the wariness and blame with these "interface" men is that the tribal folks themselves don’t always know their own culture.  At one time the penalties were harsh.  It’s easily understandable that they resent outsiders knowing more than they do and that they go to blood quantum as an entitlement since, in the case of displaced diaspora, that’s about all they’ve got.  Now, of course, the academic world has taken up tribal culture and many universities have programs and departments focused on Indians.  (If money gets tight, they may be the first to go, along with the arts.)  It becomes proprietary information, intellectual property. 

Narcisse Blood and Ryan Heavyhead

Ryan Heavyhead was a close friend of Narcisse Blood and often worked with him.  Narcisse was killed in a car crash, but Heavyhead, married to a tribal woman, goes on alone in the same context.  He is an oral culture presenter, posting many soliloquies on YouTube as he “repatriates” rattlesnakes and works out physical exercises.  His wife, Adrienne, maintains the Blackfoot Digital online, an exceptional source of information with a policy of inclusion, which was Narcisse’s way of doing things.

If we can get past the name-calling and gate-keeping, which I think some believe will increase their own value, the chances of preservation and renewal are much better.  

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