Walter McClintock, photographer of Blackfeet
These four McClintock photos are not in “The Old North Trail” or “Old Indian Trails.” I just checked my copies, looking for the stories that often go with McClintock’s photos. Since I couldn’t find them, I’ll just “wing it.”
There are many ways to approach 19th century tribal life: through the idea that they are vanishing; from indignation about the many injustices forced upon them; from the question of descent, whether via molecular strategies of their genome, metaphorically called “blood”; from the artistry of their material culture; or — my favorite — through an ecological lens which allows so many aspects of the land itself. Since I came here in 1961, I have accumulated many sense memories of “place” on the land.
If you are new to the prairie, what impresses your eye is the vast flat dazzle of grass everywhere. These two men are indulging in a great pleasure of Blackfeet, which was to sit up on a high ridge or butte, watching the people from a distance. Partly it was like the one alert pronghorn antelope or Canada goose that stays alert while the others are sleeping or grazing. Vigilance. Partly it is the illusion of being close to the sky. And partly, as remains today, the pleasure of quiet and being alone.
The prairie invites walking and many friends enjoy going along together, chatting without being overheard. This photo is of McClintock and his good friend who is explaining something about the encampment. Since a group this big only met in late spring when there was enough water and grass close enough to supply the horses, an old tradition structured around ceremonials and courting, I’m assuming this is a late May or early June afternoon. I suspect these two came up here on horseback because a buffalo skull is heavy to carry, and McClintock was using a big camera with a wooden tripod nearly the size of a stepladder. His negatives were heavy glass. My guess is that he often used a little mechanical self-timer so he could be in the photo or maybe there was a long cable to the shutter that is hidden in the grass. The sun is hot satin on their shoulders, but a breeze may be bringing scents of many growing things.
The encampment is a great circle, though that doesn’t show in this photo. The people put up their lodges in the same segment every year, the same as they keep order inside the lodges by putting things in the same part of the circle as they have for centuries. If you rode in at night, you could find your lodge and your bed. But if you were a stranger, you would need a guide.
One year at Indian Days Larry Reevis sold t-shirts with maps on them showing where each family located itself. This was helpful for Blackfeet who lived off the rez in the diaspora. This is the sort of thing that casual visitors couldn’t see but which is vital to orderly lives. In the years when so many people were missing because they had died, there were gaps in the circle until they were gradually filled in again — visible grief.
McClintock (1870-1949) and Clark Wissler (1870-1947) were contemporaries who reached the Blackfeet at about the same time just after 1900, but McClintock was able to return summer after summer, bringing crates of supplies on the Great Northern railroad. He never married, had no children, and there are no clues otherwise, except that his good friends included both men and women. He enjoyed the camp with the kids and dogs.
Later in the summer, and especially when the berries began to ripen along the streams, the people moved down near the water at the bottoms of the coulees created by the great deluge of melting glaciers ten thousand years earlier and fed by snowpack on the Rockies ever since. Mosquitoes were a problem but the smoky fires helped. Early in the morning before the insects flew, the people went down to the shore to bathe and bring back cooking water. Because of the water and because the coulees are sheltered from the hot winds of late summer, willows, cottonwoods and chokecherries grew in abundance , providing both shade and supplies. Now was a good time to cut green withes for weaving or making backrests.
If the mosquitoes grew too tormenting, a person could go up high on a ridge for a while to get relief. Maybe take along a little handwork like flintknapping or sewing moccasins or beading.
Some say that the Blackfeet feared and hated water and therefore it was taboo to eat fish even if starving, but this bold little girl is not afraid a water monster will rise up and grab her. Is there a kid in the world who can resist a raft? On the other hand even now Blackfeet children drown in the prairie potholes or fast mountain streams of ice water. The tribe built a modern swimming pool where they could be taught to swim.
This looks like a summer stream, maybe Cut Bank Creek, but even it has deep places where a person could drown, esp a lousy swimmer like myself. Once Bob had to pull me to safety by grabbing my hair. At least there are no sharks, but there are suckers on the bottom. These days there are too many people everywhere to be able to go skinny-dipping, which is a shame. The smells are mint and clover. Watch for bees.
There’s also another element which is the kinship with beavers, which gave rise to many stories and a reluctance to trap them for the fur trade. As long as there were buffalo, trading dry meat and hides was better. Beavers sort of “own” water with their stick engineering. They say their tails are almost solid fat, which is good to add to lean venison or even beans, but I wouldn’t know what that tastes like and have no curiosity about it.
The Great Northern Railroad crossed the Rockies from Havre to Washington State between 1900 and 1903. That is a landmark achievement far more important here than the calendar turn of the century because the rail line came through Blackfeet Country, bringing much more material goods, including heavy steel things like wagon axles. The Metis had successfully used wheels on the prairie by making huge wheels and wooden axles which set up a terrible screeching as they went. But a light wagon like this one lurched along with no road or on a primitive road without the racket.
It was essentially a running gear with a box attached. If you took the box off, it was a good way to transport big wood, like logs or boards for houses. It was a pickup for the prairies, but also a van since it made shade to stretch out in and maybe a place to shelter from rain. “Buckboards” were a little more primitive than a spring wagon, which had steel springs like a modern car. Buckboards, poetically named for the experience of riding in them, tore themselves apart on the rough high prairies. My copy of this photo is small and blurry, but I think there may be an infant hammock rigged under this wagon. Not for use while the wagon is moving, of course.
In some ways a travois was better on the prairie than anything with wheels and early pioneers used what my homesteader grandpa called a “stoneboat” which was built like a sled with wooden runners. In fact, he used it to haul stones out of his fields so he could plow. A good plow needed steel for its nose. The industrial revolution came to the reservation intermixed with the agricultural revolution, not least the railroad’s ability to ship out large quantities of crops like wheat. There were a lot of new things to figure out.
But this is just a simple wagon with a family taking a little break in the shade on the way to somewhere.