Romancing the Blackfeet -- Blackfeet and Buffalo: Memories of Life among the Indians by James Willard Schultz / Blackfoot Lodge Tales: The Story of a Prairie People by George Bird Grinnell / Old Indian Trails by Walter McClintock

By Dempsey, Hugh A. | Natural History, April 1992 | Go to article overview

Romancing the Blackfeet -- Blackfeet and Buffalo: Memories of Life among the Indians by James Willard Schultz / Blackfoot Lodge Tales: The Story of a Prairie People by George Bird Grinnell / Old Indian Trails by Walter McClintock


Dempsey, Hugh A., Natural History


BLACKFEET AND BUFFALO: MEMORIES OF LIFE AMONG THE INDIANS, by James Willard Schultz (Apikuni). University of Oklahoma Press, $12.95; 384 pp. BLACKFOOT LODGE TALES: THE STORY OF A PRAIRIE PEOPLE, by George Bird Grinnell. Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press, $7.95; 311 pp. OLD INDIAN TRAILS, by Walter McClintock, Houghton Mifflin Co., $10.95; 400 pp., illus.

In the late nineteenth century, people's romantic ideas about the Wild West focused on explorers like Lewis and Clark, Indian wars, gunfighters, and Texas cattle drives. But as the West became more settled by the turn of the century, the nation began to discover the rich heritage of its original inhabitants, the Native Americans. Confined to reservations and fast disappearing through disease and neglect, they seemed to typify the freedom and grandeur that had once been part of the western mystique.

Books on the Blackfoot Indians of northern Montana and southern Alberta were among those that gained instant popularity during this period. The public seemed to have an insatiable appetite for stories about the people they had dispossessed, almost annihilated. Some of this interest was academic, as evidenced by the work of anthropologist Clark Wissler, who produced six important monographs on the Blackfeet for the American Museum of Natural History between 1908 and 1918. During the same period, ethnolinguist Christian C. Uhlenbeck undertook major Blackfoot language studies, the first being published in the Netherlands in 1911.

But the people who reached the broadest audiences and brought the Blackfeet to international prominence were those who wrote in a popular vein. And leading this parade were three men who had lived and traveled with the Blackfeet--James Willard Schultz, George Bird Grinnell, and Walter McClintock. Their books presented the Blackfeet as real people with whom the public could identify. Today, each of these authors has one or more works in print.

Like many North Americans, my first exposure to the Blackfeet in literature was through the writings of James Willard Schultz, a man who in the 1870s and 1880s had lived with the Piegans (one of the three tribes of the Blackfoot nation). At the time, I was living in Edmonton, Alberta, and dating the Blackfoot girl I later married (we've now been married for thirty-nine years). She was from another Blackfoot tribe, the Blood, so I already had some knowledge of the people. Yet when I read Schultz's classic My Life as an Indian, I was captivated by his romantic view of the idyllic life Native Americans had led before they were forced to settle on reservations. Only later did I discover that Schultz was simply a storyteller, and that what he created best was atmosphere, not history.

In my view, Schultz wrote only two works of nonfiction--Signposts of Adventure and, with Jessie Donaldson, The Sun God's Children. My Life as an Indian and its companion piece, Friends of My Life as an Indian, are really in the realm of semifiction. His more than thirty other books are purely fiction, even though they may be loosely based on historical fact.

But what fiction! Writing primarily for young boys, Schultz had the ability to bring Indian life into the hearts and imaginations of his readers. Often the hero was a young Blackfoot or white boy with whom the readers could immediately identify. When the hero was rescuing a stolen horse or galloping wildly in pursuit of a stampeding buffalo herd, the readers were right there with him.

Since Schultz's death in 1947, several books have been published that bring together the many stories he wrote for boys' magazines, newspapers, and other publications. They are vintage Schultz, filled with all the romance and adventure of his earlier books. Blackfeet and Buffalo, a recent reprint, ranges from buffalo hunting to exploring with George Bird Grinnell in what is now Glacier National Park.

Like Schultz's other books, it is a curious mixture of fact, fiction, and semi-fiction, all seemingly presented as true. …

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