STORIES ABOUT SPOTTED EAGLE

ONE OF FOUR BOOKS ABOUT PIKUNI BLACKFEET

Myths and assumptions are more powerful than reality, but in other ways they completely miss the real story. For instance, looking up the revered figure of Spotted Eagle means discovering that he was a half-breed. The popular image of half-breeds is that they are sort of half-human, misfits. (I persist in calling them “double breeds”.) The popular assumption, promoted by classy people, is that the best people only bond with others as high class as themselves. Whether that is whites with whites (subtly borne out in “Dances with Wolves”) or indigenous with indigenous according to the blood quantum deal of pure blood. Spotted Eagle is an example of successful double breeds.

Looking at the situation realistically, it’s far more likely that a white man with the responsibility of trading in the early 19th century, often a man from the tough islands to the sea side of Britain, would have the wit and drive to be prosperous. Without any Victorian nonsense about love, such a man would welcome an alliance that would lead to surviving sons, who had an advantage. It worked for Culbertson and his Blackfeet wife and for the “White Headed Eagle” John McLoughln and his indigenous wife. These were business/economic pairings, effective for both parties.

(My aunt used to teach her daughters that it was just as easy to love a rich man as a poor man. In real life it worked for some cousins better than others. Sometimes they weren’t rich after all for good reasons and sometimes a surprise like cancer derailed the whole plan.)

Looking at old-time families, the names can seem pretty funny and quite distracting. Bear in mind that Euros imposed their own naming systems according to actual birth while the indigenous system might call all sisters the “mother” of someone gestated by one of them. Even more salient is that the names we normally see are translations, only approximately like the indigenous names.

Looking at Hungry Wolf’s massive books, Spotted Eagle’s real name — at least one of them — was “Pitau-kishtsippimi”. Pitau means eagle and appears as Peta Street in Valier. Frantz’ “Blackfoot Dictionary” suggests that kishtsippimi means pinto, or spotted. You’ll notice that the word follows the continental word order in which the adjective follows the noun, rather than the English idea of the adjective first.

A spotted eagle is a young golden eagle which becomes solid later. Unlike the “white headed eagle” which lives on carrion and fish, a golden eagle is a prairie bird that seizes small mammals, sometimes babies of predators and sometimes ground squirrels, everybody’s prey. In the days of the buffalo, the predator bird was the condor. I don’t know what the Blackfeet word for “condor” might be.

Dr. John McLoughlin, who once ruled the NW territory as an ambiguous representative of England in a quasi-Canadian territory, was called the “White Headed Eagle” as part of the eventually successful struggle to keep the PNW for the United States represented by the white headed (bald) eagle. (He did have white hair in his later years.) Spotted Eagle’s father, a Fort Benton trader, was not named in anything I’ve seen. SE didn’t seem to have an advantage with other traders because of his father, but he was a great success with his mother’s people.

Spotted Eagle did have two recorded “wives” but I don’t know whether they were a sequence as in the modern custom or simultaneous as in older customs. Maybe because he was a celebrated and revered ceremonialist, both of the wives sponsored summer Sun Lodge Ceremonies. Maybe this is the source of the name of the “Two Medicine” river and area. His two wives were sisters, “Beaver Woman” and “Giving Back.” They were the daughters of Many Tail Feathers, who told his people that the period of piskuns, drive-over cliffs, should end. The brother of the two girls, also named Many Tail Feathers, was also a famous warrior.

Polygamy was common in the very old days because men’s lives were dominated by hunting and war meant that they were likely to die young. Often men accepted the wives of their brothers or happily accepted sisters together so that they would have the same way of doing things, avoiding wrangles and power struggles. Polygamy protected women from abusive men since they acted as a unit. Their ultimate resort of defense was their brother. In some groups the “uncle” was more involved with the children than their biological father was. Marrying a white man broke these safeguards. Nevertheless, knowing full-blood women today, I would advise caution to offending them.

Spotted Eagle was known for his sense of humor and had a habit of making a yelp whenever something startling happened. Then he smiled, winked and looked around the group to see whether they were amused. He was fond of the original Napi stories which were often obscene and scatalogical, which “scientists” carefully hid by calling the penis a “lariat” or writing in Latin, since women and children were presumed not to speak the language.

Blackfeet usually went into water at the beginning of the day and were supposed to say a little prayer beforehand. McClintock kidded SE for failing to do so, because the omission was supposed to cause bad weather but it was a beautiful day. Sure enough, a thunderstorm came up! McClintock’s guide grumbled, “I do not see why he could not have sent the storm in some other direction.”

In 1909 Duvall, the informant and recorder for Clarke Wissler. recorded SE telling about going up to the top of Heart Butte, building a “dream bed” and lying down in it to have visions. One dream was about the disappearance of the Thunder Bird, which some people connect to the condor.

SE’s younger wife was “Giving Back” or “Payotokuta” and told a story to Edward S. Curtis in about 1900. She said that SE was very ill and she both vowed according to her virtue and called on Curley Bear, another ceremonialist to help her. It seems to have worked. (In the Sixties Clarence Wagner was my student who took the name of Curley Bear and became a historian and ceremonialist. He’s gone now.)

SE took the role of Weather Maker in the Sun Dance, who was assigned to dance in a sort of booth in the big lodge. When he gave it up, he turned over the role to Medicine Bull or Stumiksatosi which was the honorary Blackfeet name given to T.E. Scriver, Bob Scriver’s father. Bob thought it meant his father had power with the weather, but he was actually given the name because he was quite small, like the original Medicine Bull. The Trickster is never far away.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Mary Strachan Scriver

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.