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Crowfoot: Chief of the Blackfeet (Civilization of the American Indian) Paperback – August 1, 1989
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"Crowfoot is presented with imagination, evokes pathos and deals with universal problems." (The Historian)
"Ably written and well illustrated." (Dallas Texas News) --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Originally a journalist, HUGH DEMPSEY worked for the government and later as an archivist for the Glenbow Foundation. He later became Director of History and Associate Director of the Glenbow Museum. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Dempsey has done a splendid job with this engaging biography of the important leader of the Blackfeet tribe. “Crowfoot”. He not only produces a good portrait of “Crowfoot” – the most important Blackfeet Chief in the transition years of the 1860s – 1880s, but also gives the reader very interesting material about season-to-season tribal rhythms, Blackfeet social structure, and an organized down-to-Earth picture of inter-tribal relations. And since most of the Blackfeet nation operated in Canada just north of Montana (Alberta and Saskatchewan) the reader is treated to an eye-opening view of Canadian frontier History and the contrast between White/Indian relations between Canada and the U.S.
Most definitely recommended!
Crowfoot, Chief of the Blackfeet is not so much a biography as a history written with one character at the center. Though there is more history here than biography, there is no shortage of facts concerning Crowfoot. The details of his person and life are abundantly supplied. He who became Crowfoot, chief of the Blackfeet was a Blood before that, Crowfoot is short for Crow Indian’s Bigfoot, and previous to that name he was known as Shot Close, Bear Ghost, and Packs a Knife, in that order. The author explains the reasons for tribal exchange and name changes, which alterations, like in the Bible, were due to tradition or circumstance. This is more reasonable than changing your name on a whim, which is what we do today. And it is far more reasonable than changing your name on account of a false prophecy to do so, which is what some charismatics do in order to feel special. Crowfoot was a warrior for a short period of time (‘hacked the scalp from the Cree’s head,’ p. 18.) Most of his labors and years were spent mediating between tribes and between Indians and Whites generally.
Though his relations with the white man were mostly positive, Crowfoot sympathized with Riel’s rebellion, refusing to join it only because he knew that it was a losing venture (pp. 161, 190.) “By 1884, the government, Mounted Police, and settlers were firmly in control of the Canadian prairies” (p. 155.)
That era in the west was not exactly as the westerns portray it. But reading this book has made me realize that the days of ‘cowboys and Indians’ are not that far past. An aged man’s grandfather, for instance, might have been eyewitness to the creation of ‘reserve boundaries’ (p. xii), famine in the Blackfeet camps in the late 1870’s (pp. 111, 112), the laying down of transcontinental railway (p. 93), and ‘the last big buffalo herd’ in 1881 (p. 127.)
The religion of the Indians was about what we’d expect. They worshipped the sun (p. 21), were superstitious (p. 46), and engaged in self-harm to mourn (p. 213.) What surprised me was their sense of dignity. ‘Handsome young men’ from the Piegan tribe, rather than suffer disfigurement from disease, killed themselves (p. 60.) Indian vulnerability to ‘firewater’ is legendary. Pitiful anecdotes about that are not lacking (pp. 74, 78, 81.) No history of Indian tribes would be honest and complete without them. Alcohol is still the besetting weakness of the Indian today. And it is largely due to the weakness of Indian will that the ranchers’ epithet from 1881 about the red man remains befitting: ‘pets of the government’ (p. 127.) ‘The great mother’ (the queen, p. 90) still coddles and nourishes the irresponsible Indian over a hundred years later.
This book is not only candid, but because of its limited scope (a time period of a few decades), it is more intensive than your average textbook. I unequivocally recommend it. It relates great moments of compassion (pp. 9, 62, 65), sadness (p. 8), and wisdom (p. 211.) It relates things as they were, without disdain. For example, when Blackfeet men met with dignitaries, their “women and children stood respectfully in the distance” (p. 177.) It includes about thirty pages of pictures and drawings. And in spite of being written in 1972 by a Canadian, it exhibits a more than tolerable style sometimes: “the Canadian Pacific trains, belching sparks as they thundered past” (p. 196.) Frequent summation occurs too, a gift that is about as difficult to manufacture as it is a joy to receive. Pity that more authors won’t bother. There is a summary of the times under review (p. xi), a summary of what decided Crowfoot on the position he took regarding the rebellion (p. 193), a summary of the white supremacy that followed the rebellion (p. 194), and a summary of Crowfoot’s legacy: “a man of his era, successfully leading his people from a nomadic life to their reserve without bloodshed” (p. 216.) The title of the last chapter sums up the whole book in four words: End of an Era. The Albertan will be delighted to encounter words like Lacombe and Hardisty in this volume, which are not just persons anymore, but places named after them.
Unlike wannabe novelists, author Hugh Demsey gives us an acceptable reason as to why he narrates history by reproducing conversations (which he sparingly does.) ‘Native informants’ gave their history out that way when interviewed (p. 8.) Though Blackfoot exploits were often mixed with legend when told (p. 13), I have some confidence that Hugh Dempsey did his best to give us the facts. Crowfoot, Chief of the Blackfeet feels like a piece of actual history.