by Candace S. Greene
a 19th century Plains Indian artist drew a picture of a mounted warrior,
he started with the horse, carefully delineating it before turning his
attention to the rider. The resultant images appear like X-rays, with
the fundamental outline of the horse clearly showing through all subsequent
additions. In similar fashion, John Ewers chose the horse as the starting
point for his verbal picture of Blackfoot culture. In The Horse in Blackfoot
Indian Culture he works from the hoof up, taking readers from the fundamentals
of hobbling and shoeing through the intricacies of social status, political
organization, religion, and economic relations. The influence of the
horse is clearly visible throughout his treatment of Blackfoot culture,
society, and history, here and in subsequent works (1958).
in Blackfoot Indian Culture is a remarkable blending of two different
approaches to the study of culture. On the one hand it is a detailed
technological study, harkening back to classic studies of the late 19th
and early 20th century; on the other it is a nuanced analysis of social
differentiation and class structure, reflecting interests that would
engage anthropologists for decades to come. The successful integration
of these two differing approaches contributes to the lasting interest
of the book. Following its original publication by the Smithsonian in
1955 as Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 159, it was reprinted
by the Bureau in 1969, and subsequently issued again in 1980 in the
Classics of Smithsonian Anthropology series. This new digital edition
will make it readily available to another generation interested in Plains
Indian history and culture.
OF HORSE CULTURE
his later years, Ewers' often reflected that it would no longer be possible
to carry out the type of study that he had pursued in the early 1940s,
interviewing elderly people who were the last generation to have grown
up in a horse-based society. Ewers moved to Browning, Montana on the
Blackfeet Reservation in 1941 when he was hired by the Department of
Interior to build and oversee the new Museum of the Plains Indian. His
job brought him into close contact with Blackfoot people. During the
long winter months when the museum needed little attention, he interviewed
many members of the community with a leisureliness seldom available
to anthropologists making field trips from their university teaching
positions. Ewers sought out old people who remembered life in buffalo
days, but he also valued the contributions of the younger generation,
such as Calvin Boy, who prepared many of the illustrations appearing
in the book. The Ewers family became a part of the local community on
many levels. One of the illustrations in the volume is of a toy horse
made by a Blackfoot friend as a gift to Ewers' young daughter Jane.
The technological orientation of the book is a natural outgrowth of
Ewers' own interest in the material aspects of culture (cf. Blackfeet
Crafts, 1944) and his willingness to explore whatever the people he
interviewed were interested in. He found that they not only retained
an enormous interest in horse days, but also an enormous amount of detailed
technical knowledge. Through explanations of how horses must be watered
and pastured, trained and protected, how rapidly they could travel and
how much they could transport, he quickly came to appreciate that adoption
of the horse represented a substantial investment in a new technology.
Plains Indian ethnographers of an earlier generation had accepted but
not explored the many and far ranging implications of that change. Ewers'
examination of the details associated with that technology revealed
the extent to which horses placed significant demands upon their owners.
He defined three primary areas in which the horse had a major impact:
hunting, moving camp, and warfare. While the change to mounted hunting
had long been recognized as providing a richer yield and more certainty
of success, in this volume Ewers explores how bands had to balance the
needs of horses against the movements of the bison, as well as the impact
of mounted hunting upon the social structure of the tribe. In considering
the horse as a source of transport, he translates much of the material
culture of the Blackfoot into pounds per horse and calculates how many
horses would be required for the transport of tipis, dried meat, and
other camp supplies (p.138). Such calculations led directly to the conclusion
that support of the new horse-based technology created an enormous demand
for a continuing supply of horses, a demand that could only be met through
raiding the stock of neighboring tribes. Horses thus became a cause
of war as well as transforming the methods by which war was waged.
was quick to recognize that this transformative technology was not equally
available to all members of Blackfoot society, although all were inevitably
affected by it. The Blackfoot expressed a commitment to equal opportunity,
an emphasis upon egalitarianism, but the reality was that a family without
horses was at a distinct disadvantage once others had them. Social structures,
such as the carefully policed communal hunt, preserved the "fiction
of equal opportunity" (p.305), but actually best served those with
the best horses. He concludes that, "Probably the most distinctive
new trait of the Horse Culture Period was social rather than material
in nature. The adaptation of horses to the Plains Indian economy brought
about a change from a relatively classless society to a society composed
of three classes..." (p. 338). Brilliantly painted tipis, fine
clothing richly adorned with bead embroidery or quillwork, multiple
wives, ownership of medicine bundles, even participation in religious
ceremonies were all the prerogatives of the wealthy. As he notes, "Failure
to recognize the existence of these classes has in the past, resulted
in an idealized portrayal of Plains culture based primarily upon the
activities and attributes of the wealthy" (p.339). Blackfoot society
was not a monolithic entity, and throughout the volume Ewers explores
the differing social and material strategies open to members of society
based on personal circumstances.
the European-introduced horse was the catalyst that sparked these changes,
in Ewers' view the changes were largely internally driven. He assigns
major agency to Blackfoot people themselves, asserting that American
fur traders and the advancing frontier did not have a significant impact
upon them until after the establishment of an American Fur Company post
in their territory in 1831. This is a study of culture change but not
two directions of inquiry in this volume correspond with changes in
20th century anthropology at the Smithsonian and elsewhere in the United
States. Early anthropology in this country was largely museum-based,
with important centers at the Smithsonian Institution, particularly
within its Bureau of American Ethnology, and at the American Museum
of Natural History. Both museums produced important publication series,
which provided critical and still heavily used sources of descriptive
as well as analytical information about the Indians of the Americas.
Throughout the early years of the century they focused on "memory
culture," capturing a record of a vanished way of life with little
attention to people's current ways of living. In some ways The Horse
in Blackfoot Indian Culture is a worthy heir to that tradition,
fitting comfortably on the shelves alongside BAE publications of 50
years previous. It relies heavily upon fieldwork with elderly informants,
it preserves a wealth of meticulous detail that can be applied to further
studies, and it makes that information readily available. Yet it is
also clearly vested in the new directions in which anthropology had
turned by mid-century.
Ewers (1992: x) described the 1930s, his own period of graduate training,
as an era of great ferment in Plains Indian studies. Archeological investigations
in the region, especially the work of William Duncan Strong, had increased
awareness of the long occupation of the region and had stimulated thought
about its dramatic cultural changes over time. Ewers was particularly
impressed with the wealth of early documentary material David Mandelbaum
had been able to meld with his work on the Plains Cree (1940), and he
applied the same method here to extend historical information received
from living people back into the pre-horse era, working in what is now
a well-established ethnohistorical method.
foundation of basic descriptive ethnographic accounts was available,
many scholars of Native American tribes turned to finer grained analyses
of the internal workings of these societies. Ewers' asserted that an
individual's level of participation in cultural practices as described
in much of the earlier literature was dependent upon personal wealth.
His interest in social differentiation resonated through a number of
contemporary studies of Plains tribes, many published in the American
Ethnological Society monograph series (e.g. Mishkin 1940, Richardson
1940; Goldfrank 1945). And his firm belief that Blackfoot people have
always played an active role in shaping their lives and culture is a
fundamental assumption of modern studies of American Indian history
Blackfeet Crafts. U.S. Indian Service. Indian Handicrafts
Series, No. 9.
The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains. University
of Oklahoma Press: Norman.
Introduction to the Bison Books edition. Changing Military
Patterns on the Great Plains, by F. R. Secoy.
Hair Pipes in Plains Indian Adornment. Bulletin (Smithsonian
Institution. Bureau of American Ethnology). 164. 4, pp. 29-85, pls.
13-37. (1957). Digital Edition. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution
Changing Configuration in the Social Organization of the
Blackfoot Tribe During the Reserve Period (The Blood of Alberta, Canada).
Monographs of the American Ethnological Society, No. 8.
The Plains Cree. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological
Paper No. 37, pt. 2.
Rank and Warfare Among the Plains Indians. Monographs
of the American Ethnological Society, No. 3.
Law and Status Among the Kiowa Indians. Monographs of
the American Ethnological Society, No. 1.
Changing Military Patterns of the Great Plains. Monographs
of the American Ethnological Society, No. 21.
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