• Karl Thunemann

3 Outstanding Papers About Blackfeet

by Mary Strachan Scriver


The exploding knowledge about everything has focused particular interest in human beings: how they developed from the hominins, where they were and whence they traveled, how they adapted to change and travel, and how to understand their mosaic today. The information has come from fossils through new analysis; study of the development of language; DNA; material culture in ancient camps; and — less helpfully — written records over the millennia.


Among the many papers I’ve downloaded over the years and never settled down to read are three I just recently read that were particularly impressive. They are listed here.


From Archeological Method and Theory: Dec. ’08 by Maria Nieves Zedero (U of Arizona)


“Bundled Worlds: The Roles and Interactions of Complex Objects from the North American Plains” by Maria Nieves Zedeno. In 2019 Plains Anthropological Society.


“McKean in the Northern Rocky Mountain Front: Economic landscape and ethnogenesis.” by Lanoe, Zedeno, Soza, Jansson, and the Blackfeet THPO.


“Guiding Pronunciation of Blackfoot Melody” From “Honoring Our Teachers” by Naatosi Fish and Mizuki Miyashita.


Looking at the third paper first, discussion goes deeply into the language pronunciation which is often distorted by people who know the words by reading them rather than hearing them. Naatosi (“Sun”) Fish may be a descendant of Louis Fish, who was a participant in the Bundle Opening ceremonies of the Sixties who tolerantly let Bob and me participate.


The premise of the writers is that this early “Archaic” period meant that there was a basically uninhabited space, gradually filled by humans, which formed them into a particular kind of grouping of people which became tribes

Mizuki Miyashita is one of several people who might be called Asian, which is the most basic DNA type of the North American indigenous people. Sometimes American Indians can “pass” as Asian. Other aspects of the indigenous culture and physiology can have traces of its far origin, and so some scholars find cross-Pacific influences interesting. Miyashita is one of them, using lullabies as examples to explain pitch variation in pronunciation.


“McKean on the Northern Front” turns out not to be about a character named “McKean” but about a designated part of a defined area. It is an area formed by mega-geological events: the repeated up-rising of the huge cordillera forced by folding due to plate tectonics crashing under the continent; the volcanic action of the Pacific Northwest, particularly the vast explosion of Mt. Mazama now marked by Lost Lake; and the melting of the continent-covering glacier of 10,000 years ago, which interacted with a warming period just afterwards. Over the next few thousand years, the area went from empty to being repopulated.


The configuration of weather patterns caused by the mountains and the catabatic winds from the jet stream coming from the Pacific Ocean has persisted and means a particular kind of place without enough rain to support trees — so the plains are grass — but also storage of water over winter in the form of snowpack on the mountains which feeds streams in the coulees dug by the millennial glaciers. These coulees offer shelter and trees.


The premise of the writers is that this early “Archaic” period meant that there was a basically uninhabited space, gradually filled by humans, which formed them into a particular kind of grouping of people which became tribes. Two sites out of 28 known locations provide detailed information: Billy Big Spring’s ranch dig and the area around Many Glacier. Discussions are about remnants of campsites but also about hunting mountain sheep, including the ridge routes they take in their annual pattern of occupation, and cairns, which I once saw near Starr School. These ideas are much more complex than the simplified versions we hear about hunting buffalo on horseback or forcing them over cliffs.


The third paper, called “Bundled Worlds: The Roles and Interactions of Complex Objects from the North American Plains” treats the Bundles as a ritual response to the ecosystem over a broad area, not just McKean. It is sympathetic and explanatory without trying to invoke superstition or the supernatural.


Most of what I know about Bundles comes from the Sixties when some of these authors may have not been born yet. The knowledge came from conversation, often with a couple of shady characters who were white and often resisted. They had married Blackfeet women as well as doing library research and spending a lot of time in Blackfeet country.


Bob Scriver occupied a peculiar sociological position as an interface between white and indigenous people, particularly the local Blackfeet and Metis. The latter had nothing to do with Bundles and didn’t usually speak the language. They began as landless mixed blood people and then spread out along a continuum of white-to-red so that some were assimilated and others were true to their usually Cree mothers. This has somewhat muddled the story.


Scriver was from a high-status white family but had much more sympathy with his school peers, who were mostly Blackfeet. He was wicked enough to be asked to leave the Masons, but was for years elected Justice of the Peace and City Magistrate. He welcomed the knowledge of Adolph Hungry Wolf and John Hellson about Bundles. Not many people were even aware that they existed, which suited the Old People who continued to use them in ceremonies that were technically illegal, thus now highly secretive.


Whites have been artifact collectors, mostly arrowheads, or went for the elegant and colorful beaded buckskin clothing now worth thousands of dollars. They concentrated on horse culture, though the People had been a walking dog people from first venturing into the McKean from the South or East. The Bundles, judging from the contents. were ways of carrying reminders of place which then became embellished by trade materials like beads, satin ribbons and brass falconry bells. The real value was not in dollars but in the record of the ordering principles of the world. It is a kind of embodiment religion, but the bodies were of the creatures’ place and the body of the place. The Bundles were both Bible and Hymnal.


This approach to the world is beautifully captured in this paper, not least because it was written with the help and guidance of the Piikuni, notably John Murray. It’s easy for those of us living in “McKean” to forget this approach. (John Murray was a senior in the English classes I taught.) It was so distinct from the kind of Christianity carried in by missionaries and assumed by whites, that it went unrecognized in large part and therefore was not stamped out as thoroughly as the language or the bison.


One could organize a “course” from these three papers. Some of them and others like them are available at Academia.edu or Researchgate.com. Or directly through using search engines on services like Google.


Mary Strachan Scriver is a retired Unitarian minister who lives in Valier, MT.