Books about Blackfeet Written by Whites That I Missed on Earlier Lists

These are books by whites that are about Blackfeet but that I missed on earlier lists. I’ll begin with two that are reviled one way or another.

“Piegan: A look from within at the Life, Times, and Legacy of an American Indian Tribe as seen through the story of the Chief” by Richard Lancaster tries to do what Adolf Hungry Wolf did by using “Young” Jim Whitecalf (over a hundred years old at the time) as a hero and point of attachment. He failed. The whole project was bogus, supported by fantasies, braggadacio and mythic stereotypes believed by the public. Hungry Wolf was sincere and involved. Lancaster, who was at least once hospitalized, did damage to the families he mooched off of, got most of his “research” from books, and was one of many grandiose narcissists (to use another public stereotype) who victimized the Blackfeet and others. Yet his book is given prizes and still put on lists of recommendations. He is deceased.

“A Schoolmaster with the Blackfeet Indians” (1963) by Douglas Gold is quite different. Rev. James Gold came to the rez in 1912 as the Presbyterian minister, sent by people who believed that Browning was a kind of natural and stressless place where he could recover from a kind of nervous crisis “Doug” Gold was his son, who joined the family as a new college grad and was just in time to develop the Browning school system, including building the earliest schoolhouse with tribal labor. Bob Scriver attended this school with is best friend, Jim Welch (the father of the novelist), and the two terrorized Gold with their mischief, things like hiding smelly cheese in the ventilation system. Gold’s career extended through advanced degrees and jobs.

In Missoula his 1934 thesis proposed that tribal people were not as smart as white people because their IQ scores were not as high. He was not sophisticated enough to realize that an IQ test is culturally based and only works on people from that specific culture. Worse, IQ tests only test how people score on IQ tests, which are meant to find out who is suitable for specific jobs. This opinion made Gold no friends once the Blackfeet began to succeed at the U of Montana and looked up the thesis.

The book itself is a collection of popular speeches Gold gave to groups, esp. groups of bankers. They are mostly folk jokes about one culture being misunderstood by another, like building a fire in an electric oven because of not understanding how it worked and not having electricity anyway.

Wayne Ude’s slender book called “Buffalo and Other Stories” (1991) is fiction short stories and more centered on where he grew up on the Fort Belknap rez, which is where Welch’s mother was enrolled. An academic, he’s better known for “Coyote Becoming” and has taught writing for a long time, recently on Whidbey Island near Seattle. He was part of the wave of outstanding authors centered on Missoula at the beginning of the MFA program that kicked off the idea of “Montana writers.” It has pretty much dispersed now.

Late in the Missoula context is William E. Farr “Blackfoot Redemption: a Blood Indian’s Story of Murder, Commitment and Imperial Justice” (2012), expanded a story related elsewhere by researching it. He is a professor of history. Some versions go back to the daughter of Malcolm Clark, half-Blackfeet, who was employed by the US government. She visited St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital and recognized that this man was Blackfoot, confirmed by singing him a tribal lullaby. “Spopee” or Turtle had been incarcerated because he was found wandering on the prairie and couldn’t speak English. Farr’s version is far more detailed and credible, and includes Spopee’s return to the rez.

If you are curious about the Clark family, the book to get is “The Red and the White: A Family Saga of the American West” (2013) by Andrew R. Graybill, another history academic. There is still lots to tell about this family, including the story of John Clarke, acclaimed woodcarver, who was made mute in childhood by an infection. When we ate supper in East Glacier in the Sixties, John would be there and he and Bob would tell dirty stories in sign language, sometimes at my expense.

Sam Gill’s most recent book is not about Blackfeet but is still relevant and interesting. “Native American Religious Action: A Performance Approach to Religion” (1987) Gill was probably the most powerful investigator of the idea of “performance” which includes song and dance but also the idea of “presenting” an ideal rather than actuality and what that means culturally.”

“The Sun Dance People: The Plains Indians, Their Past and Present” (1972) by Richard Erdoes (1912–2008) is another entry in a series that takes its cue from the most famous of the Plains Indian ceremonies. It includes many illustrations. Erdoes was in ethnic background an Austro-Hungarian like Adolf Hungry Wolf. Towards the end of his writing career he was in NY City but involved in AIM.

Oscar Lewis: Anthropological Essays” (1946 through 1970) (Lewis himself was born in 1914 and died in 1970. His original name was Lefkowitz.) This book is a compilation of some very influential essays. One of the most notable is entitled “Manly-Hearted Women Among the North Piegan” (1941) In the language, “ninauposkitzipxpe”. Ruth Lewis helped with this research in 1939 at the Brocket Reserve. It is not about sexual desire so much as about gender-assigned roles, and has been inspiring to women in today’s military.

The other influential essay is “White Contact Upon Blackfoot Culture” (1942) which is detailed and powerful, excellent material for historical novels. You’ll note that he says “Blackfoot” because he’s referring to the Canadian side. Typical of Lewis is his long bibliographies and his attention to linguistics.

The overlay about language research, genetic research, and recorded history has been powerful in revealing patterns and time-lines. Often it’s clear that we’ve been mistaken, responding to what we expect or what we knew last time. In our times Oscar Lewis’ interest in the global phenomenon of poverty is highly relevant.

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.