The writing journey
I have often been asked how I became interested in Blackfoot history.
I grew up in Waterton Lakes National Park. 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 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 and early 1960’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 an ancient trail. Almost completely overgrown, with lots of deadfall laying across it, it was apparent that it was a trail that had been used in relatively recent times. The size and impression of the trail suggested to me that it was one that had been in use for a long, long time. 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 exactly 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. He confirmed to me that it still existed, at that time, and from what he knew of it, it sounded like I had run across it.
That got my blood going! I went back to it again and again, just to stand on it and realize that Indigenous people 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 Stoney Indians 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 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.
This gives me goose bumps! When I began writing my first book, The Larks Don’t Sing in the Valley, I had to come up with names for my characters. One of my main characters is a 14-year-old Blackfoot boy. Right out of the blue, I gave this boy the name, Badger.
I was several chapters into the book, writing about Badger and Andy, when, unrelated to my writing, I met a fellow by the name of Pat Provost, from the Piikani Nation (Blackfoot). Pat was running an organization called the Horse Spirit Youth Society, a youth horseback riding club on the Piikani Nation, near Pincher Creek, Alberta. I was the organizer of Pincher Creek’s annual parade and wanted to invite his group of young riders to ride in it. He had me come down to the arena one night, where the kids were riding, so we could talk about it. While I waited to speak with him, I watched the young riders. Some were tiny, sitting on the front of their parent’s saddle; others were older, all the way up to teens, boys and girls. One young man stood out from the others. He looked about 14, rode well, good-looking, and had long, black braids. That’s Badger, I said to myself. I had never seen him before and did not meet him that night. But afterward, whenever I wrote about Badger in my book, I pictured that kid.
Fast forward a few weeks. I was in my office with Pat to finalize plans for his kids to ride in the parade. As we visited, I mentioned my book, and I told him about the kid I had seen at the arena. I told him that was who I imagined as I wrote about my character, Badger. Pat recognized who I was speaking about and got a wry grin on his face.
“That’s my son, Ty!” he said to me.
“That’s cool!” I responded.
“You know what his Indian name is?” Pat asked.
I answered, “No.”
“His Indian name is Míísinsski. It means Badger.”
Whoa! No way! Yup, Badger! After that, I had to meet him! I actually met Ty Provost out on the set of the Steven Spielberg mini-series Into the West, a couple of months later. Ty appeared in a few roles in that 6-part series. While on set, I got to see him jump off a cliff in the buffalo jump scene in Part 1. He is now a success coach at the local high school, takes the occasional movie role, and is working with his dad doing great things with Native kids in a group called Horse Spirit Therapeutic Horsemanship.