Rosalyn R. LaPier offers an account of the Amskapi Pikuni people and their transition from traditional life precipitated by Western incursion into the northern Great Plains in the latter nineteenth century. The account recalls the buffalo extirpation and the following decades of increasingly restrictive relegation to reservation life. This is LaPier’s insider account of her own people, the south Piegan or Blackfeet, now living within a geographic area in central Montana extending north to the Canadian border.
LaPier introduces the reader to her immediate kin. There are several important reasons for her to do so. This is an important practice within Blackfeet culture: one introduces oneself by introducing all four grandparents and the creek or river specifically designating their place of origin. This establishes one’s degree of kinship and connectedness with new acquaintances. This practice serves an important purpose within LaPier’s overall presentation. Her employment of this practice here also establishes her identity and integrity as one who can now credibly extend her span of reliable access to the history of her people, through firsthand and trustworthy information, back to a time before the great “starvation winter” of 1883-1884. This was the historical “moment” when the bison disappeared from the northern Great Plains. LaPier’s genealogy also connects her reliably to the web of informants who provided the initial accounts of traditional life to the adventurers, historians, ethnographers, and anthropologists who traveled west to record the lives and ways of the southern Piegan people. LaPier establishes that the sharing of stories, traditional beliefs, and information with this first wave of outsider “storytakers” was undertaken as a deliberate endeavor by her ancestors.
Invisible Reality is of interest historically and ethnographically insofar as LaPier provides a review of the Western-oriented scholarship and ethnography up until the early 1940s, clarifying the manner in which early attempts to employ informants and translators has been, in places, problematic, inaccurate, and incomplete. For those particularly interested in the broader historical situation of the Blackfeet—specifically interactions with government and the administration of the reservation lands—LaPier includes general background within which she situates the family history and some details that have been reliably conveyed to her. There is sufficient information contained within this book to guide scholars to the major sources for this area of study or to frame further academic investigation into indigenous interactions with the earliest settlers and the range of acculturative processes that followed. We get a compelling glimpse into the resilient adaptive capacity of the Blackfeet worldview in assimilating the incursive Western calendrical events of Easter and the Fourth of July into the two primary Blackfeet collective ritual observances regulating the features of indigenous ecology and religion.
Having established her credibility in relating the details of Blackfeet history and culture, Lapier next describes the worldview and religious practices of her forebears. There is substantial background regarding the Blackfeet cosmos and the primary transcendent characters, their interactions with humans and their manner of visual depiction on Blackfeet lodges. This is ultimately recorded as an account of the “two times” and the “three worlds” of the Blackfeet. In this “below world” inhabited by humans, time is divided in terms of winter and summer—the closed and opened seasons presided over by great powers of thunder and wind. There are also other very real beings animating the three worlds and wielding various abilities within the universe.
LaPier also describes the unexpected Blackfeet orientation to the environment. While there is a general understanding among LaPier’s people that the rhythms of life were grossly constrained by the seasons, various individuals acquired and maintained the capacity to control the winds, the rain, and the snows for the purposes of hunting and warfare, and to ensure the proper meteorological conditions for major ritual events. We gain fascinating but limited biographical background into specific leaders and practitioners who exercised these abilities. Particularly elusive to non-indigenous scholars is LaPier’s knowledge about the ongoing discipline of individuals in wielding and maintaining supernatural powers to control the elements. This includes a range of traditional practices ranked as being prior and necessary to the activities occupying the daily lives of the Blackfeet—including the cultivation of tobacco—the only crop actively cultivated by this people until their widespread transition to life as farmers on their reservation around the end of the nineteenth century. This brings us to the sacred economy of LaPier’s ancestors: an economy wherein the ability to control the great elemental forces could be given, inherited, or even bought. This probably runs counter to most Western notions about indigenous ecology, adaptation, religious practice, and conventions governing the transmission of knowledge, power, and authority. I cannot do justice to the range of religious and cosmological detail provided by LaPier here but the reader is left with the hope that she will write more about these aspects of the traditional Blackfeet worldview in future.
We also gain insight into LaPier’s personal familiarity with Blackfeet botanical expertise and the manner in which such knowledge would have been inculcated through traditional interactions with kin. This is of some scholarly importance, as LaPier points out, as previous ethno-botanical volumes published by Western scholars have failed to document the range of plants known to the Blackfeet and their methods of collection, storage, and use.
In short, LaPier orients us to a critical era of Blackfeet history and to a worldview that sustained her people throughout this time. It was a great pleasure to read this account and I suspect that there is information contained here which can now be found in no other living source.
Robin Nurnberger is a Doctoral Candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa.
Date Of Review:
December 29, 2017
Rosalyn R. LaPier is an associate professor in the environmental studies program at the University of Montana and a research associate at the National Museum of Natural History. She is the coauthor, with David R. M. Beck, of City Indian: Native American Activism in Chicago, 1893–1934 (Nebraska, 2015).
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