Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Book Review: Kevin Plummer on Chamberlin, The Banker and the Blackfoot

We have a guest review by Kevin Plummer, former pillar of Toronto's Historicist blog, now living in New Westminster, BC., and author of Toronto Lives: Biographical Sketches from the Historicist Archives

J. Edward Chamberlin, The Banker and the Blackfoot: A Memoir of My Grandfather in Chinook Country (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2016)
reviewed by Kevin Plummer

J. Edward Chamberlin's hope in The Banker and the Blackfoot is that, to find a path to reconciliation in the present, we can look to the past. In the Foothills of Alberta, in the years between 1885 and 1905, Chamberlin finds a period of promise, when, as he puts it, "many people, native and non-native, tried to fashion a commonwealth in Chinook country that would accommodate Blackfoot sovereignty and new settlement and would give life to the spirit of the treaty made a few years earlier" (10).

At the centre of Chamberlin's account is the friendship between the author's grandfather, Jack Cowdry, a newcomer, and Crop Eared Wolf, a prominent Kainai (Blood) warrior. A prominent citizen at a time when Fort MacLeod—standing at the convergence of important transportation routes until being by-passed by the railroad—was a bustling town, Cowdry founded a bank, published a newspaper, established a ranching business, and served a couple of terms as mayor during his 26 years in the Foothills. Crop Eared Wolf, already famed as a warrior and horse-thief, would succeed his father, Red Crow, as head chief of the Bloods in 1900.

Upon first meeting on a Fort MacLeod street in the spring of 1885, the two individuals used a mix of words and hand signs to bridge language barriers, finding some common ground in conversing about horses. From that encounter, they forged a decades-long friendship. They shared life's joys—like a comical anecdote about the pair pulling up surveyor stakes to preempt settler incursion on reserve land—and consoled each other over the passing of loved ones.

The Banker and the Blackfoot shows how, by focusing on the seemingly modest stories of local—and even family—history, a skilled historian can illuminate much larger issues of national concern. At its worst, local history is mere civic boosterism that celebrates first settlers, early businessmen, or founding politicians in an unconscious act of erasing the contemporaneous presence of First Nations. Instead, Chamberlin intertwines these histories, showing the Blackfoot's active role in a changing Foothills region as Fort MacLeod was coming of age. In this era of Reconciliation, local historians should follow this example and engage more fully with the impacts had, and perhaps continue to have, on First Nations.

With the intention of focusing on the "people who are not included in the standard storyline" (308), Chamberlin places the Blackfoot, adapting and resisting, at the centre of Foothills history and city life in Fort MacLeod. To the influx of newcomers and the disappearance of the buffalo, they brought "centuries of craft and culture and statesmanship into conversation with new realities and new imaginings" (127). They signed, and upholding, a peace treaty as an alternative to war and, in many cases, adapted to ranching. But the treaty was never agreement to relinquish "their heritage—their religion, their language, their customs, their land" (179).

And, even faced with broken treaty promises, the "social engineering on a national scale" (290) of the Indian Act, and the malice of petty bureaucrats, Blackfoot leaders like Crop Eared Wolf fiercely resisted assimilation or isolation. Stories, both traditional and those adapted to their new circumstances, offered "an imaginative centre" (276) indispensable to efforts to maintain traditions and their sense of identity. "It was stories—boasting and toasting, civil and ceremonial—that sustained Blackfoot pride," Chamberlin writes, "and nourished Blackfoot prosperity during the dangerous years after the destruction of the buffalo" (362).

The nature of storytelling and its importance to humans' sense of self across cultures is a central theme in The Banker and the Blackfoot, and Chamberlin diverts into discussions of Oscar Wilde, John Keats, Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold among others. Chamberlin departs from the central narrative for long periods, and a few tangents—like one into virtual reality—don't seem essential. The book is at its strongest when these discussions are grounded in the specifics of MacLeod and the Foothills, and when Cowdry and Crop Eared Wolf are front and centre.

Importantly, Chamberlin moves beyond the written record to explore storytelling in "writing without words" (8) like beaded belts or carved and painted masks. In this case, the primary object of study is a ceremonial quirt, a riding crop with braided leather tail and decorated in traditional Blackfoot iconography, carved by Crop Eared Wolf and given as a gift to Chamberlin's grandfather. Having the quirt read by a Blackfoot ethnographer at the Glenbow Museum and by a Blood elder, Chamberlin is able to recount Crop Eared Wolf's life and the celebrated exploits in war parties and horse raids it records. It provides a way of recovering Crop Eared Wolf's voice—and keeping the book from being entirely through a settler lens.

Chamberlin characterizes Fort MacLeod, in its early days, as "a good place—not perfect, but full of promise" (236). He acknowledges that the Foothills were home to their share of cattle-rustlers, ne'er-do-wells, and residents with retrograde attitudes towards First Nations. But he focuses his attentions on more positive experiences of those, like his grandfather, who sought understanding and good relations with their Blackfoot neighbours, like the missionary who admiringly considered Blackfoot songs and stories in an early speech for the town's literary society, or the merchants who welcomed Blackfoot customers because they knew their businesses depended upon their purchases with annual Treaty Day payments.

However, Cowdry, Chamberlin's grandfather, does seem exceptional. On the town's incorporation in 1892—at which time he was elected its first mayor—Cowdry insisted that "fort" be dropped from its name. "This territory and this town are not the frontier," Cowdry is quoted as explaining, "but a homeland we are trying to share with the Blackfoot, with whom we have signed a treaty. Macleod is a treaty town." (240) A post-script Chamberlin doesn't mention is that such sentiment was forgotten by 1952, when the name reverted to Fort MacLeod, presumably as a means of celebrating one aspect of its history—while simultaneously erasing other aspects.

In time and on the strength of federal immigration policy, of course, more settlers poured into the Foothills. Where earlier ranchers and merchants often recognized "that their lives and livelihoods depended upon cooperation with the Blackfoot" (42), the newcomers didn't see themselves as treaty peoples. It was—and it remains—easier to see the promises of the treaty were something for the government, not average citizens, to address. The solidarity of an earlier generation was lost.

Although it perhaps falls outside of Chamberlin's focus on positive relationships which can serve as a model today, it feels like there's something crucial that is being under-explored. If there was indeed a critical mass of allies among the MacLeod population, why wasn't there more success in educating newcomers about their own lived experience of cooperation and friendship?

Cowdry certainly tried. He ran for mayor again in 1898 specifically because he was distressed by the rising tide of discriminatory attitudes towards his friends as many townspeople desired to keep the Blackfoot out of town because they were Indian. Whether in his role as banker, mayor, or rancher, Cowdry believed "that he could do something, however modest, to make his town, and the territory, a good place to live for everyone," Chamberlin writes. "A place where everyone's stories mattered, as long as they were told with craft and conscience" (234).

Cowdry is certainly a role model we can learn from today. But how many more of his fellow townspeople instead took their cue from the Gazette newspaper, whose editor, Charlie Wood, promoted "the stereotype of primitive savages and civilized Christians" (280)? And if, with time and changing demographics, some mixed marriages were dissolved so the men could seek new wives, how deep did that early sense of solidarity really go? Chamberlin hints in passing at the pressure to comply with colonialist norms, but doesn't fully grapple with whether or why some of these early allies broke their word.

Stories and storytelling were central to the Blackfoot's sense of place. But, in time, their stories came to be eclipsed by the stories of the newcomers. Whether in novels like The Virginian, Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier thesis, cowboy songs like "Home on the Range," or Buffalo Bill Cody's reenactments of battles on the American plains, the settlers' stories perpetuated a dangerous and false contradiction: that the plains and foothills were simultaneously empty, unproductive, and ready for settlement, yet full of dangerous, uncivilized Indians needing to be controlled with a firm hand. The false contradiction—Chamberlin labels it as "sheer idiocy" (217)—nevertheless became the story newcomers told themselves, effectively erasing First Nations presence and justifying all manner of bureaucratic interventions in their lives.

And Chamberlin offers a powerful example of why the loss of one's stories can be so devastating in the real world. A significant contributor to the trauma and violence of residential schools was that this system "changed the stories, and the storylines, that had held First Nations communities together for generations and had been hard won by their ancestors and hard-wired into their consciousnesses. To change the story was to change the languages and the lives and the livelihoods and the lands...and to replace them with ones they couldn't believe." (274) That system's victims, he argues, were violently robbed of their autonomy to imagine, and build, their own world.

Chamberlin's grandfather accepted the quirt from Crop Eared Wolf, not really knowing why it was given. But Cowdry did not see it as a mere curio or trophy to display on a shelf, but rather a burden of responsibility to a friend. "And the gift signalled something else, my grandfather thought, something about respecting the promise of the past in order to redeem the future. It marked a moment when he realized his friend knew that the future they believed in was in danger of being lost; and the gift was a reminder that together they not forget the promise" (253-254). Cowdry kept the quirt close after moving to Vancouver in 1911 and later into the nursing home where he died in 1947. And, in his very worthwhile The Banker and the Blackfoot, Chamberlin, who inherited the quirt from his grandfather, seeks to continue to honour that obligation and share their experience to inspire action towards recovering the word and spirit of the prairie treaties.

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