Friday, November 30, 2018

Q&A with J. Edward Chamberlin

J. Edward Chamberlin is the author of The Banker and the Blackfoot: An Untold Story of Friendship, Trust, and Broken Promises in the Old West. It tells the story of his banker grandfather Jack Cowdry's friendship with the Blackfoot leader Crop Eared Wolf in late 19th century Alberta, Canada. Chamberlin's other books include Horse and If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories?. He is professor emeritus of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto, and he lives near Vancouver.

Q: Growing up, how much did you know about your grandfather's friendship with Crop Eared Wolf, and at what point did you decide to write this book?

A: I knew my grandfather when I was a small child, and still remember the sound of his voice and the smell of his pipe as he told me stories.

After his death (at the age of 90) in 1947, I grew up with stories about his life told by my mother (who was born in 1899), as well as by my Metis godmother (who figures in my book), my father, and my cousins (who were 20 and 25 years older than me and knew my grandfather well.)

And stories were told to me over the years by friends from the foothills of Alberta, who knew a lot about the time and the place where he settled in 1885, and the history he was part of. So in some ways the book has been with me, even though it was not yet written, all my life.

I first thought about actually writing a book 15 years ago, when I did an hour-long interview with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) about my grandfather’s time in the Old West, where he first arrived as a homesteader in 1882.

They sent an interviewer to spend a week with me in the foothills around Fort Macleod, south of Calgary––Blackfoot territory––where my grandfather had settled in 1885, and had made friends with many of the Blackfoot, as well as with the ranchers and cowboys who were bringing cattle north from Montana to the grasslands north of the border along what was called the Whoop-Up Trail, and with the North-West Mounted Police who had come to the west a decade earlier to stop the whiskey that was being brought north by traders along the same trail and wreaking havoc in the Indian communities.

The police also came to make peace with the Indians, establishing what the government described as “law and order” on the prairies in order to make way for the railway which was being built across Blackfoot land and for the settlers who were beginning to arrive from eastern Canada and the United States.

In fact, the Blackfoot had lived in an orderly society with strict laws and stern punishments for hundreds of years, and for the next few decades their chiefs continued to “police” their people in ways that conformed to their own tribal customs, at the same time establishing a remarkably good working relationship with the North-West Mounted Police (the forerunner of the RCMP).

In the radio program, I told what I knew of the story of my grandfather and his friends, both native and newcomer, and of the dreams and disappointments of the communities that developed there; and I interviewed Blackfoot elders and chiefs about those earlier times.

But I came to this book––The Banker and the Blackfoot: An Untold Story of Friendship, Trust and Broken Promises in the Old West––much more recently, when I was thinking less about the past than about the present, and how division and distrust and disrespect have become so common and belief in the future so scarce around the world.

I was looking for a time and a place in the past that might offer hope for the future of our countries and our communities––and my grandfather’s life in the foothills of Alberta at the end of the 19th century seemed to offer that, and to provide an example of first peoples and new peoples living together in ways that defied the forces designed to pull them apart.

It certainly wasn’t a perfect time; but it was a time when many people were looking for solutions rather than problems and friendships rather than feuds, and included Sun Dances and social dances, bibles and medicine bundles, drums and piano recitals, horse races and polo matches, and rodeos and roundups to celebrate both the horse culture of the Blackfoot and the skills of the cattle range.

Also, it was a place full of remarkable characters and contradictions, which made it fascinating for a storyteller.

Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that particularly surprised you?

A: In writing the book, I tried to recall the stories I had heard and the ways in which they were told as accurately as possible, and to imagine my grandfather’s life and the complex and often contradictory lives of the people of the Old West where he lived, the friends he made and the challenges he faced and the ways in which storytelling shaped the lives of his fellow settlers and his Blackfoot friends, and offered common ground between them.

And then I talked with everyone else I could track down, including some who remembered him and the ranching community he supported. 

I read widely in the formal written histories of the period, and (as importantly for this book) in local reminiscences (of which I discovered a remarkable number,) each offering new insights into the period, its characters, its conflicts and its sense of community.

And of course I spent time there; and even though it was over a century since my grandfather lived there, many of the sounds and the sights and the beauties of the grasslands and the foothills and the mountains–-from sacred Chief Mountain in Montana to the Rockies in Alberta, called by the Blackfoot “the backbone of the world”––took hold of me, as I believe they did my grandfather.
One thing that particularly surprised me, and forms the storyline of my book, was the friendships that developed there.

For the Blackfoot, it was an extraordinarily difficult time––with the buffalo, upon which they had relied for their spiritual as well as material well-being for as long as anyone could remember, now gone from the northern plains; with settlers coming into their territory in increasing numbers; and with new diseases devastating many of their communities.

But they responded not by looking for whom to blame, but for what to do next; and although they were fierce warriors they made peace with the newcomers, because they trusted them. Within a couple of decades, that trust turned out to be sadly misplaced when the government broke almost all of its promises; but for a time––and with the surprising support of the newly arrived North-West Mounted Police, some of the missionaries, and many of the rancher and others who had settled in the foothills communities––they established friendships and shared their hopes for the future.

Those friendships were often remarkable, and went across all the lines that sometimes separate us, with black ranchers like John Ware becoming a respected friend to almost every cattleman in the territory and a legendary hero to all the rodeo cowboys who tried (almost always unsuccessfully) to better him in riding and roping.

At the local bar in the Macleod Hotel the lawyer Fred Haultain, first and only premier of the North-West Territories, would rub shoulders with cowboys like Harry Longabaugh, who had come north on a cattle drive from a spell in jail in Sundance, Wyoming to work on one of the foothills ranches, before becoming restless and returning to his old habits and haunts south of the border...this time as the Sundance Kid.

Q: You write in the book about the riding crop that Crop Eared Wolf gave your grandfather. What do you see as the significance of that gift, and how would you characterize their relationship?

A: The biggest surprise for me was the friendship that developed between my grandfather Jack Cowdry (who opened the first private bank in the territory, was first mayor of Fort Macleod, and was also known as Sorreltop Jack, after the colour of his hair and his favourite horse) and Crop Eared Wolf (son of the great Blackfoot warrior and peacemaker Red Crow and his successor as chief of the Blood tribe).

Their friendship started with a chance meeting, as friendships often do; it was nourished when Crop Eared Wolf looked after him when he became snow-blind after a winter Chinook raised the temperature by 50 degrees overnight and brought out a bright morning sun shining off the ice and snow near Crop Eared Wolf’s home on the reserve; it flourished when they shared a mischievous escapade in defence of the Blood land; and it was confirmed by the gift of a ceremonial quirt (or riding crop) that Crop Eared Wolf had carved and painted.

The quirt celebrated the remarkable story of Crop Eared Wolf’s heroic exploits in war parties against old enemies such as the Sioux, the Shoshone, the Cree and the Crow, and his courage on raids to bring home their best horses, which he did with such flair and finesse that his exploits were admired by the same officers of the North-West Mounted Police who were trying to wipe out that venerable plains Indian tradition.

It also represented the traditions of storytelling both in words and in the “writing without words”––the woven and beaded belts and blankets, carvings and paintings, dancing and drumming––that sustained the Blackfoot and gave them pride in their heritage in those difficult times of challenge and change, offering a powerful counterpart to the insistently triumphant storytelling of the newcomers.

Perhaps most importantly, it symbolized the generosity of the Blackfoot, who had welcomed strangers into their territory when they signed a treaty with Canada in a sacred ceremony in which both sides made promises. They kept theirs. We broke ours.

Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?

A: I hope they take away a sense of hope and possibility for all of us today as we try to find ways of bringing diverse traditions and ambitions together within a sense of community––local, regional and national.

I believe such achievements always begin locally; and this story, taking place in a time and place which had just experienced one of the greatest environmental disaster in human memory, the collapse of the great buffalo herds once numbering in the tens of millions; when the migration of people to the west was transforming not only the landscapes but the lives of the first peoples of the plains; and with everyone facing challenges from each other and as well as from the always unpredictable weather–-the spring round-up in the foothills after my grandfather arrived became known as the Big Die-Up because of the winter losses of cattle, many ranchers losing over half their herds.

But they carried on in the next season, helping each other and hoping for better times and not wasting any energy on figuring out who to blame. They had learned a good deal about that from the Blackfoot.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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