I have often been asked how I became interested in Blackfoot history.
I grew up in Waterton Lakes National Park in southwestern Alberta, Canada. From my youngest recollection I was aware of “The Old Indian Trail” as it was called. It was a trail that was said to have been used by “the Stoney Indians” to go into the mountains to cut lodge poles from forests of, logically named, Lodgepole Pine. The "Stoney Indian Trail" was more commonly known as the trail to South Kootenay Pass, as it is called today. When I was very young, in the 1950’s, I recall seeing a maze of lesser paths through the forest between Red Rock Canyon and Blakiston Falls. I often wonder if those weren’t a remnant of the route taken by, not Stoney Indians (though maybe…) but more frequently by Blackfoot and Kootenay indigenous peoples.
In the early 1990’s, I had occasion to be hiking on the other side of the Continental Divide, west of Waterton, in the Kishinena valley of British Columbia. There, while bushwhacking, not following any trail at all, I came upon what appeared to me to be an ancient trail. Almost completely overgrown, with lots of deadfall laying across it, it had the appearance of having been used in relatively recent times. Some of the deadfall had been cut. But the size and impression of the trail suggested to me that it was one that had been in use since before people had saws. I asked Eric Goble, whose family had been hunting, trapping, and prospecting in that area since the early 1900’s. He asked me to carefully describe where I had found the trail, and he confirmed to me that it was probably the “Old Indian Trail” that had been used by the Indigenous peoples since before the Europeans arrived.
That got my blood going! I went back to it again and again, just to stand on it and realize that Indigenous peoples had been using that trail for a very long time. How long? Well, as I began to research it, I ran across the many writings of Dr. Brian Reeves, Professor Emeritus at the University of Calgary, Department of Anthropology and Archaeology. I had known of “Barney” Reeves, as he was then known, as a young archeology student, digging up old “Indian sites” all over Waterton when I was a boy. Well, Barney was now Dr. Brian Reeves, and he is a world-renowned authority on Aboriginal history, particularly Blackfoot. As I read his research, I found out that the trail I had found had not been used for hundreds of years, as I had thought. No, it had been used for thousands of years! Ten thousand years, as a matter of fact. Knowing that, now when I stand on that trail, it takes my breath away!
The more I began to research the history of that particular trail, the more I learned. The more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew and how horribly wrong most of what I thought I knew actually was. For starters, I learned that “the Stoney Indian trail” was used not so much by the Stoneys as the Blackfoot and the Kootenay. The Kootenay called it “the buffalo cow trail” and used it to traverse the Continental Divide from their homeland in the East Kootenay region of what is now British Columbia to the plains of southwestern Alberta to hunt buffalo. The Blackfoot, I came to know, did not like anyone coming into their territory hunting their buffalo, so the Kootenay and the Blackfoot were frequently at war with one another. The Blackfoot called that same trail, “the Place Where the Kootenay go up", and they would use it to go and hunt Kootenay!
Fascinating! And, the more I learned about the Blackfoot and all their neighbours, the more interested I became. The more interested I became, the more I read. The more I read, the more I came to the realization that almost everything that I had ever learned about the Blackfoot—in school and growing up and in life was wrong. They were a magnificent, if primitive, people! Their culture was vibrant! Without the wheel and without anything but the most rudimentary technology, they had formed complex trading patterns and a rich culture. They had strong family and tribal bonds. They were a hardy and resilient people who had thrived for thousands of years in a hostile environment. Their stories are filled with interesting and noble characters. I was ashamed of what I had been led to believe about them and wanted others to know what I had learned. Never having seen myself as a writer, suddenly I was 150 pages into my first novel.