All maintenance and the schedule-keeping at my house came to a halt today because Rosalyn LaPier's book, "Invisible Reality: Storytellers, Storytakers, and the Supernatural World of the Blackfeet", arrived in the mail and I put everything down to read it. I remember when Rosalyn joined the Piegan Institute and the leap in quality she brought. Darrell Robes Kipp was very proud, esp. with the success of the summer seminars she organized.
Now what? I don't believe in reviewing such books but it won't sell unless there are reviews. I'll try to explain.
First, I am a year older than Rosalyn's mother and came to Browning in 1961 which was before Rosalyn was born. I married a white man twice my age, who was the second son of the founder of the Browning Mercantile, which is mentioned in the beginning of this book as an early memory. The store still sold horseshoes and carpet beaters, but Rosalyn as a child was after penny candy. Everything stayed the same with its oiled floors swept daily with a compound sprinkled ahead of the broom. String for packages unwound from a little harness suspended over the counter and brown paper came from a roll at the end.
Finally the store burned down. I was divorced, teaching in Heart Butte at the time, heard on the radio what was happening, drove the miles to Browning, and stood with my mouth hanging open while the last of the embers crashed together and into basement pit. The chief of the fire department, Stu Miller, came over in his big waterproof coat and put his arm around me. He had been in the first class I taught, designated the best kids. By now he has died. For me this is a place of endings, but while things existed they were more intense, more meaningful, more inevitable than in other places.
Rosalyn's book is a reconciliation between her own family memories and stories and the materials collected by a certain class of men who focused on recording the 19th century Plains Indians, epitomized by Blackfeet. What I write ("Heartbreak Butte") was not published but rather posted as a blog:
Though I have academic training, it is not academic -- no footnotes, index, photographs. "Invisible Reality" is illustrated with 19th century photographs including portraits of the author's ancestors. I taught their descendants, who were very different.
Rosalyn draws on the usual white guys: Ewers, Grinnell, Schultz, McClintock, Uhlenbeck without his wife or female translator. A later white female historian excoriated them all for being politically incorrect. I have a pretty good collection of books, including almost all of these people.
Yet my own knowledge comes from an oral culture among white people of the Sixties, told to a group while hanging around Scriver Studio where Bob Scriver and I lived. Two were Napi-types with Canadian Blackfeet wives: John Hellson and Adolf Hungry Wolf. They got their information from old-timer Siksika people in Canada. Hellson's only book is about botany, published on the Canadian side. Hungry Wolf's wife, Beverly, collaborated on books. The children of these people identify as tribal. Hungry Wolf's four-volume set called "The Blackfoot Papers," dwarfs all other sources on either side of the border.
Alice Kehoe, anthropologist married to Tom, also an anthropologist, guided and recorded our Scriver adventures into "Buffalo Indian" ceremonies as best we could follow old practices in new days. There were other writers and academics, but this is not really the place to name them. I was close to Darrell Robes Kipp and watched while Dorothy Still Smoking prodded him to teach the language and Shirlee Crowshoe sifted through the tapes and papers in the archive that was originally part of the Piegan Institute. Some were in Blackfeet. Speakers of the language who listened often laughed at what they heard.
My own writing is necessarily a shadow or complement to Rosalyn's book. "Bronze Inside and Out" is about Browning. I knew the white people in Browning and the ranchers nearby. They had very little awareness or interaction with the people Rosalyn talks about. Until "Indian preference" was begun, most whites worked for the government. Many were white veterans after WWII or the Korean War and aged out at the end of the Sixties -- locked the door of the business and left for a warm place. By then the children of the ranchers were half-tribal.
But there's another difference. Bob Scriver was a taxidermist who could never keep from trying to adopt wild pets. Rosalyn came to the Piegan concepts through plants, but I came through animals, including their terrain which is where they merge with plants. To have had one's hands inside big animals, seeing how their organs are wrapped in membranes almost like Saran wrap, running hands through the fur of a grizzly or turning up its lip to see its worn scummy teeth, holding a squirmy badger or even playing with a hand-wrestling gopher on the living room carpet so it squeaks and its tail frizzes out -- that's a different thing to know that one shares with old-time hunters and outdoor dwellers. They do indeed talk to one in dreams.
There are slight differences in the contents of the stories or the meanings of symbols on tipis, but I think it is a mistake to fuss over this or that as though it were contentious Christian theology, because some variation was just human and because it takes away from the larger significance of a skin-cone on the prairie or in a sheltering coulee and how it would be to sleep there at night, smelling fires and looking up through the smoke hole at stars. What would it be like to come out in the morning to find the world under snow or muffled by fog or flooded with intense sunlight?
The relatives of Rosalyn that I knew best were in my first high school English class: Francis Wall and Shirley O'Brien. Francis, married to Shirley, worked for twenty years at the aluminum mill on the other side of the mountains and then went to the Institute of American Indian Arts and began an outstanding career. His brother, Thomas, who made his living as a meat-cutter and barber, joked that Francis went to a fancy school to learn how to paint like a little kid, because Francis works as an abstract and surreal artist, as Rosalyn's mother, Valentina LaPier, does. You could Google. So far there is a lot to be said about the Metis and both the Walls and Rosalyn have a stake in that. In Canada they are counted as First Nations.
"Invisible Reality" is only a quick slice into a rich source. I look forward to many more books.
Correction: Valentina is Roz's aunt, her dad's sister.
Correction: Valentina is Roz's aunt, her dad's sister.