New forces seem to be at work in Blackfeet history. For a while now there have been enrolled people with solid academic backgrounds who have organized conferences, produced papers, attended workshops and so on. They bring family stories and an experienced context to what they say.
Piegan Institute has been archiving materials for more than twenty years, always keeping them accessible. Blackfeet Community College and the Museum of the Plains Indian also have records. From early times white people have been interested, some of them mixing history and historical books into their business of artifact trade which they value because the material culture gives them daily reminders of old times.
As materials located in Europe but about Blackfeet have begun to be translated by people like Mary Eggermont-Molenaar, a whole trove has been revealed like glaciers melting back to reveal long-lost bodies. The letters of Jesuits, like Father Philip Rappagliosi edited by Robert Bigard, are an entire library.
(The Pope could make important reparations to religious boarding school victims by underwriting the wholesale translation of all those papers into English.)
Ray Djuff started out to discover everything about his beloved Glacier National Park and is now accumulating information about the Two Guns Whitecalf family. Andrew Graybill is closing in on the final manuscript about the Malcolm Clarke family, marveling at the fact that Helen Clarke, Malcolm’s Blackfeet daughter, was the first Montana school superintendent while the present Montana Superintendent of Schools, Denise Juneau, is also Blackfeet. Greg Hirst is working on the Chief Heavy Runner family tree, which includes him. My book about Bob Scriver, who was white, draws in a lot of local history. Jack Holterman’s books, many published privately and now out-of-print, are among my most reliable reference works.
Almost all of these people share a special interest in the 19th century Blackfeet. Local Blackfeet often say to me, “I’m going to write a book of Napi stories and get it published.”
They don’t know that the whole industry of publishing is in the midst of chaos, unsure what to do. But they are even less aware that the anthropological and ethnic tales of the early 3-named white writers (James Willard Schultz, George Bird Grinnell) have given way to the newer academically based writers like John Ewers, Clarke Wissler, and Adolf Hungry Wolf or even tribal members like Percy Bullchild — and those in turn have given way to a wave of reconstructing writers like Ted Binnema, Roslyn LaPier, Dave Beck, and Jack Brink plus a horde of enrolled scholars from Canada who are deeply invested both in early history and contemporary technology that reveals subtle traces of all practices. Many of the older historians around small-town Montana are still clinging to the tales of the Indian wars, the forts and whiskey trade, and the earliest white settlers — often because those were their relatives.
Just recently, seining the web for information about my co-writer, Tim Barrus, I pulled in an old argument between David Treuer, an Ojibwa writer whose work I don’t know http://www.davidtreuer.com, and Sherman Alexie http://www.fallsapart.com who has managed to become the first contemporary pop Indian writer. Sherman quickly jumped on the platform for allowing only Indians to write about Indians, on grounds that it is:
a) privileged information (the old anthropological gold standard)
b) the value of it should accrue to Indians since their lives have been so exploited by fictions.
There are auxiliary corollaries, like the idea that only an Indian could properly understand or that there is an Indian “way” to write. Treuer’s argument is that Indian writers should be held to the standard of any other writer, free to create any style or point of view that is aesthetically valuable and coherent. (I’m unclear as to whether he defends the cynically sentimental and pandering “Education of Little Tree,” written by a white racist and still such a best-seller that the University of New Mexico Press can’t afford to stop selling it.) It’s like a wrestling match between a fox and a hedgehog view of Indians, the former valuing many approaches and the hedgehog sticking to his one “true” view.
This is relevant to Blackfeet history because there are two similar views: one is that only the 19th century ecology-based pre-contact buffalo culture of the people identified with this tribe is “real,” and the other is that any concern about or by the people associated with this tribe is by identification “Blackfeet.” The latter group asks, “Where are the books about the twentieth century’s successful middle class on or off the reservation?” And then they ask, “Where are their books, the ones they wrote?”
Here’s my answer: they are on tape. Yesterday’s novelist is today’s videographer. After all, video has two strong characteristics that are quintessentially Blackfeet: the camera loves the land and pulls it into the story on every side and videos are a media most often collaborative among a people that is suspicious of the lone genius. Whether it’s Piegan Institute’s ground-breaking “Transitions” about re-learning the language, or “A Dream for Water” their collaboration with Native Waters through Montana State University, or John Hall’s “Rez Dogs” through the film program at University of Montana or even a curious collection of unedited videos that Paul told me about late last night at American Indian Film Gallery: The Films (http://www.jfredmacdonald.com/aifg/ ) — this is all “writing,” making a record.
Here’s Eloise Cobell, so young I barely recognize her even though I knew her then. She is now history in a way she could never have anticipated and neither could anyone else. Suddenly, footage of her carefully explaining her job as the Tribe’s treasurer is invaluable.
So we’ve got three changing forces here: a mutating media, an evolving people, and a challenged understanding of what “writing” or “publishing” or even “history” really are. If there is so much happening in so many ways, how can anyone — even Sherman Alexie — suggest that it ought to be — or could be — fenced, “owned,” restricted in any way?
We are challenged just to understand what is happening while we are making new history.