My interest – nay, obsession – with historical Native American life and culture in North America has recently been enriched by a number of marvelous books. That lovely development is a direct result of deeper readings into Dr. Larry Len Peterson’s acclaimed historical treatise American Trinity: Jefferson, Custer, and the Spirit of the West.
Dr. Peterson, who keeps his own lodge fires burning not far from the Figure 8, has accomplished a brilliant study of the combined historical, political, and religious forces that helped shaped prevailing American attitudes — and government policies — toward what Canadians more intelligently refer to as “First Nations” people.
The research to carry off such a study was impressive, and I found myself inexorably drawn to explore some of the source material cited by Dr. Peterson. Which is how I stumbled onto the trail of Walter McClintock, whose books and photographs so richly detail the time he spent among the Montana Blackfoot.
McClintock’s life began out east, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was born the son of a prosperous merchant in the carpet and curtain business, and his mother was the former Clara Courtney Childs, daughter of a “prominent Pittsburgh businessman whose successes extended to retail, banking, insurance, and milling interests.” McClintock was ultimately a Yale graduate, and in 1895, after a bout of typhoid, travelled west to take the waters while passing through North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.
Enraptured by the country, in 1896 he joined a US Forest Service survey led by Gifford Pinchot, who was looking for help with forest measurements and photography for the National Forest Commission.
Later in ’96, while working for the Commission, McClintock befriended Siksikakoan, or William Jackson, a Blackfoot who had served at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
At the Little Bighorn Siksikakoan was enrolled as a Scout under Major Reno’s command and had been in the thick of Reno’s disastrous attack on the southern end of the village. He was accompanied by Lieutenant De Rudio, the interpreter Girard, and Private O’Neal when they were cut off from the rest of the command in the thick cottonwood and willows on the banks of the river during Reno’s innebriated, ignominious, and disorderly retreat.
“Under cover of darkness, Siksikakoan ventured upon the battle-field and stripped from the dead Sioux sufficient leggings, moccasins and blankets to disguise themselves. Then, in the dead of night, on the 26th, he led his companions safely through their sleeping enemies, to the bluffs north of the river, to which Major Reno had retreated for safety. During the movement Siksikakoan answered the challenges of the Sioux by giving satisfactory replies in the Sioux language.”
That discovery alone was illuminating for this student of the fight on the greasy grass, as it adds precious detail to the narrative, and rounds out the story of how DeRudio made it back to his command. Running Iron’s readers may recall that DeRudio’s near miraculous escape was originally attributed to the sound of beavers slapping the water and disguising his escape with noise. There is virtually no mention of Jackson’s role.
By invitation, and where The Old North Trail, Life, Legends and Religion of the Blackfeet Indian begins, McClintock rode with Siksikakoan (which translates as Blackfoot Man) over the northern Rockies, crossing with pack-horses at what is today known as Cutbank Pass. It is possible, by following McClintock’s written descriptions, to follow the path they travelled on Google Earth, and to develop some measure of appreciation for the rugged ferocity of the country – known to Blackfoot as “the backbone of the world” — and its attendant hazards.
Following the Cutbank River, McClintock and Siksikakoan eventually passed out of the mountains and onto the dry grass prairie, deep in the heart of the Blackfoot nation – and within a few days had ridden into a Blackfoot camp where great herds of horses were feeding and where “smoke from the evening fires was rising from the lodges.”
McClintock’s ulterior motives for living amongst the Blackfoot are discussed at some length in Lanterns on the Prairie, The Blackfeet Photographs of Walter McClintock — and include such amusing larks as a driving desire to write an opera based on Blackfoot legend and music –but nevertheless he was ultimately adopted by the Blackfoot Chief Mad Wolf, and given the name White Weasel in a sacred Beaver Bundle ceremony in the Chief’s lodge. Mad Wolf explained to McClintock his reason for wanting to adopt him as a son:
“The snows of two winters have now passed since you first came to live in my country. I have been watching you continually from the time when you first arrived, and my heart feels warm towards you. I have never taken a son from among the white men, but I now wish to adopt you as my son, because I believe that some day you will become a chief among your people. I am growing old, and it is probably that I will go before you to dwell with the Great Spirit, for you are still a young man. When I am gone you will then be left to help and to advise my people. My lodge is out there on the plains…Come to my lodge tomorrow, when the sun is high. My relatives will be there; I will hold a ceremonial, in which I will paint you with the sacred red paint, and in their presence adopt you as my son.”
McClintock’s meticulous preservation of that ceremony, and of his subsequent life in the camp, offer a very rare and engaging first-hand peek into the daily practices and beliefs of a proud and once dominant native culture.
Over the next fifty years McClintock returned often to visit with the tribe, and to document in photographs, on early wax cylinder recordings, and on paper, the lives, stories, and beliefs of a culture pushed off of the plains forever.
What distinguishes many of the photographs is that they were accomplished on colorized plates, and so at last reveal some notion of the vibrancy of color often missing from black and white photography of the era. A photograph, then, of the “Painted Tepees” under Montana skies, with the snowbound Rockies in the distance, jumps suddenly to new life and perhaps gives us a better indication of what the camps may have looked like to someone riding in from the other world.
McClintock on the Painted Tepees:
“At first it was hard to find out anything about the Painted Tepees—about their symbolic declarations, ceremonies, and the legends of their origin. The owner believed that the divulging of the secrets weakened their supernatural power. Each Painted Tepee had a sacred bundle and a separate ceremony. The pictures on the tepee cover and the ceremony that went with them could not be separated. They came originally through a dream and belonged exclusively to the founder, who might transfer them to another; but no one could copy them. They were believed to have protective power for the owners and their families. Both men and women made vows to them in time of danger and in behalf of the sick…If the tepee cover with its decorations wore out, a new one with the same pictures took its place. But the old one was sacrificed to the Sun—destroyed by spreading upon the surface of a lake and sinking it under the water.”
The stories contained with McClintock’s work are far too numerous and rich to detail here, but readers of Running Iron Report will find in them a wealth of historical bounty. That is particularly true if you are at all interested in Blackfoot culture, whose reputation was always for raw ferocity over complexity, an impression probably not helped by the travels of Lewis and Clark.
In July of 1806, on the return trip from the Pacific coast, Lewis and Clark split up the expedition after passing through the worst parts of the Rocky Mountains. Clark took the majority of the party south to explore the Yellowstone country while Lewis, with nine men, headed west toward Great Falls where he split the party yet again. Taking three men with him, Lewis headed toward the Marias River.
The Marias was Blackfoot country. Nevertheless, Lewis maintained some hope that he could meet and make peace with members of the tribe — who he admits some trepidation in ever encountering — and, as ever, he hoped to encourage their cooperation with the still-fledgling United States.
On the 26thof July, while scouting hills close to the river, Lewis’ tiny survey ran into a party of Blackfoot. He wrote:
“…scarcely had captain Lewis reached the high plain, when he saw about a mile on his left, a collection of about thirty horses. He immediately halted, and by the aid of his spy-glass discovered that one half of the horses were saddled, and that on the eminence above the horses, several Indians were looking down towards the river, probably at Drewyer. This was a most unwelcome sight. Their probable numbers rendered any contest with them of doubtful issue; to attempt to escape would only invite pursuit, and our horses were so bad that we must certainly be overtaken; besides which, Drewyer could not yet be aware that the Indians were near, and if we ran he would most probably be sacrificed. We therefore determined to make the best of our situation, and advance towards them in a friendly manner…As soon as they did see us, they appeared to be much alarmed and ran about in confusion, and some of them came down the hill and drove their horses within gunshot of the eminence, to which they then returned, as if to wait our arrival. When we came within a quarter of a mile, one of the Indians mounted and rode at full speed to receive us; but when within a hundred paces of us, he halted, and captain Lewis who had alighted to receive him, held out his hand, and beckoned to him to approach, he only looked at us for some time, and then, without saying a word, returned to his companions with as much hast as he had advanced. The whole party now descended the hill and rode toward us.”
~Journals of the Expedition
The meeting between the Blackfoot party and Lewis’ own small detachment did not end well. The following morning several of the Blackfoot – according to Lewis – crowded around the campfire and stole a number of rifles, including those belonging to Drewyer and Lewis himself. A chase ensued in which there was a fight, and R. Fields stabbed a Blackfoot through the heart with his knife. The fight then was general – as other Blackfoot were attempting to steal horses — and ended when Lewis shot a Blackfoot in the belly in an exchange of fire. It was a close run thing, and Lewis wrote that he had “felt the wind of the (Blackfoot’s) ball very distinctly.”
It’s likely that that incident, which nearly spelled the end of Lewis, also colored perceptions of the Blackfoot for centuries to come.
But McClintock’s books do much to push the door open wider, and to give us a glimpse into the life of a marvelous people who once raided from Canada as far south as Mexico. I highly recommend gathering your friends and family around a good campfire, preferably in the mountains, and settling in to retell some of the Blackfoot stories that McClintock learned and documented. Stories of origin, or of hunts, or old battles, told by remarkable men with even more remarkable experiences — men who befriended McClintock despite their circumstances, and who are now nearly lost to history – warriors, holy men, and storytellers like Little Plume, Mountain Chief, Cream Antelope, Mad Wolf, and Brings Down the Sun.
You may not find a better way to pass an evening all summer long.
Author’s Note: Dr. Larry Len Peterson, award-winning author, and scholar of the American West, will be the featured guest on a forthcoming episode of the Running Iron Podcast.