Friday, September 04, 2020


White people who write about Blackfeet subjects, like Howard Harrod writing about religion, are still turning up and will be added to the paper I started to make a proper category, breaking up the dichotomy between those who are “Indian” writers writing about “Indians” as opposed to white people writing about “Indians.”  In fact, there are many ways for different people to write about each other and it’s worth looking at their points of view as well as their genome or tribal status.  (I’ll come back to Harrod, who is worth a whole post.)

Here are half a dozen books that will broaden the outlook of those writing about Blackfeet.  They are not just about this tribe, which is sometimes crippled by a tendency to be too specific, without context that would help relate this group to the “big picture” nationally or even globally.  The specifics ARE important and I don’t want to devalue them, but there are larger forces as well.

“The Hako: Songs, Pipe, and Unity in a Pawnee Calumet Ceremony” by Alice C. Fletcher (1838-1923), “assisted by James R. Murie (1862-1921)”, shocked me but not as much as it would have if I had not studied in seminary the accretion and morphing of Christianity.  The University of Chicago Divinity School emphasizes the history of religion, esp. “syncretism” when two religious systems meet and meld.  When looking at materials in this way, one realizes that ideas and practices change to respond to their situations over time.  The book was published in 1904.

I had thought that Medicine Pipe Bundle ceremonies were unique and privileged, though I knew that the content included Euro items like falconry bells, silk ribbons, and even taxidermied birds including a rooster with glass eyes — the three-foot long “calumet” itself was sometimes made with the technology of rifle boring.  Clearly the physical objects were made after Euro materials were available.  It is not unusual for ceremonies to appear and grow in times of culture crisis like the genocide of the prairies.  The book traces the progress of the ceremony across the prairie, much like the Ghost Dance thought to help survival which led to the first massacre at Wounded Knee because whites interpreted it as a “war dance”.

A second book of enormous insight is “Common and Contested Ground: a Human and Environmental History of the Northwestern Plains” by Theodore Binnema, a British Columbia professor.  This is the dust cover description: “The real history of the northwestern plains between a.d. 200 and 1806 was far more complex, nuanced, and paradoxical than often imagined. Drawn by vast herds of buffalo and abundant resources, bands of Indians, fur traders, and settlers moved across the northwestern plains establishing intricate patterns of trade, diplomacy, and warfare. In the process, the northwestern plains became a common and contested ground.”  DRK used to call this the “hydraulics of the tribes” as they pushed against each other and the conditions imposed by the land.

The third book is “Hunting and the American Imagination” by Daniel Justin Herman, another professor, this time in Washington State.  This book explores what early Americans thought they were doing when they went hunting — mostly putting meat on the table — and how that gradually turned into war against the indigenous People, in short, hunting the indigenous People.  

The next book may seem most irrelevant.  Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier” by Jeffrey A. Lockwood, a Wyoming professor.  This might appear frivolous until one knows that when locusts endangered the lives of farmers in the Midwest, the US government diverted reservation commodities to them, leaving the tribes to starve.  The farmers were “citizens” who paid taxes while the “Indians” were — well, some thought, not fully human.

Another book I overlooked earlier is Paul C. Rosier’s “Rebirth of the Blackfeet Nation, 1912-1954”, a remarkable research project that looks at the most supposedly boring self-government as it responded to major forces.  Rosier had access to primary materials like letters and files.  He is a professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania and should not be confused with another man with the same name.  Be careful to include the middle C.

I also failed to note “Blackfoot Religion and the Consequences of Cultural Commoditization” by Kenneth Hayes Lokensgard, an academic in Washington State who takes on the thorny problem of repatriation of Bundles meant to be religious but acquired by whites for their monetary value.  To me this is a personal book because it centers on the sale of the Scriver family collection of artifacts that were sold to the Royal Provincial Museum in Edmonton.  The collection was rumored to be worth a million dollars, which was the insurance value.  Later, the Bundles were returned to the care of Alan Pard, much quoted here as a respected elder.  He is deceased now.

Lokensgard’s parents met in Glacier Park and on the Blackfeet rez so they already had opinions about Bob Scriver.  Lokensgard's father was the pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Helena while I was serving there as clergy for a circuit-riding UUA ministry.  There was awkwardness among the Presbyterians, so maybe that accounts for Lokensgard’s wariness which he shared with William F. Farr, whom he also quotes.  The white academics of the University of Montana in Missoula, the designated humanities university, tended to accept the position that whites always take advantage of tribal people.  Farr was critical of Scriver in “Montana, the Magazine of Western History” and I fired back at him.

Lokensgard knew who and where I was, but avoided me, never quoted me, made contact only by accident.  There’s a feminist issue here as well as a failure to be thorough, since I was an integral part of the argument that Bob and I became Bundle Owners as a religious commitment on the terms of Blackfeet elders as much as making the materials into commodities.  Bob was old and a bit erratic by the time Lokensgard was interviewing him, but I am much younger with an MA in Religious Studies.  On the other hand, I’m the third of four wives, the only surviving wife, which gives me a strange status.

William F. Farr’s book is “The Reservation Blackfeet, 1882-1945”, a photo book that Gary Schmautz, then a social studies teacher at Browning High School, helped collect.   The book was work by white men on photos of Blackfeet.  Lots to think about, but often a useful book, though the Hungry Wolf books have far more photos.

More to come.

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