The Hedgehog & the Fox is a new podcast showcasing interviews with university press authors from around the world. Podcast host George Miller recently spoke with author Rosalyn LaPier about her book Invisible Reality: Storytellers, Storytakers, and the Supernatural World of the Blackfeet (Nebraska, 2017). The following is a transcript of part of their conversation. You can listen to the complete interview here.
THE HEDGEHOG & THE FOX: I’d like to ask you to say a bit about Blackfeet cosmology, how their world divides into three different realms, about how those realms interpenetrate, interconnect with each other.
ROSALYN LAPIER: The Blackfeet believe that there are three separate realms, three separate worlds. Their translation of the names of those worlds are the Sky world, which is anything that is in the stars and constellations; the Below world, which is considered Earth; and the Water or Underwater world, so anything that happens underwater.
All three of those worlds are similar in the sense that there are people who live in all of them. There are also entities that sometimes are not people that live in all three of those worlds. There are monsters. So there are good characters and the bad characters that exist in those worlds. There are animals, plants, natural elements such as rocks, shells, dirt. So all of those things exist in all three of those worlds. There are towns, there are villages etc.
Humans live primarily on Earth, but humans and other entities from these worlds can go to other worlds with assistance. So to enter the Sky world, a human needs an ally from that particular world—like an ambassador—to bring them to that world. If they went to the Underwater world, the same thing is true. Humans can live in the Sky world and in the Underwater world, and people or entities from these other worlds can also come to the Earth.
So the Blackfeet believe that these three parallel worlds are permeable and their entire cosmology and belief system are centred around those three worlds of existence.
TH&TF: And am I right in understanding that their stories are not simply a way the Blackfeet use to explain how the world is, but they actually go further and explain how human beings can exert agency on the world, how they can affect the natural world in ways that they think are desirable by harnessing the power of the supernatural?
RL: Yes, part of the Blackfeet belief system is that much of what we see in what we would call the ‘natural world’ is not natural but part of the supernatural realm. So because there are different elements of the world that are part of the supernatural realm, that usually means that humans can interact with them and humans, again with an ally, can influence or change the world they live in.
Some of the examples that I share in this book are things like the Blackfeet don’t believe that anything related to weather is a ‘natural’ phenomenon. They are connected to the supernatural realm and some [types of weather] are supernatural entities or supernatural beings. So the Blackfeet are able to change the weather if they want or need to with the help of supernatural allies.
What this does is allow the Blackfeet to have a completely different understanding of their place in the world. They are not waiting for things to happen to them. They’re asserting their own agency on the world.
TH&TF: Your book is not just about the beliefs and the stories of the Blackfeet. It also
give us a picture of the huge amount of change that the Blackfeet experienced from the mid-19th century and into the 20th century.
One of the really arresting illustrations in the book, I thought, was a picture of your great-grandparents taken in 1921. I want to ask you to talk about both the circumstances of that picture and also to say a bit about what their life experience had been, because they had lived through some of the most tumultuous decades of Blackfeet history.
RL: One of the things I wanted to do with this book was start at the time when both of my grandparents were born: my grandfather was born in 1911 and my grandmother in 1914. So I start the story in 1910 and I tell what life was like then on the Blackfeet reservation. (I also tell the story of the early ethnographers and anthropologists who came to the reservation and collected these stories and the objects that ended up in museums.)
Both of my grandparents are raised by older members of the family; they end up being adopted out by other members of their family. So for example my grandmother is raised by two ‘grandmothers’: her grandmother and great-grandmother. My grandfather is adopted by his mother’s older relatives, who have lived through a time that encompasses the loss of the bison, a loss of a lot of land, a lot of disease.
My grandfather’s father—his adoptive father—cannot have any children, so he marries two women, which was common during those days. Polygamy was common. He marries two sisters and adopts those women’s children but also my my grandfather. The photograph from 1921 was taken by the United States government. They went through the entire reservation photographing different families.
It was part of what was called ‘an industrial survey’. They were doing a survey of all of the different families to provide the United States government with information as to the extent these particular families were assimilating or acculturating: from being native people to being Americans farmers. As part of the photographs, there’s also information about the house that they’re living in, the children who are living in the house, the farm that they have—very detailed information about each family that is part of this ‘industrial survey’.
TH&TF: They’re really being assessed and graded by the standards of the U.S. government…
RL: Yes, absolutely.
TH&TF: … which is a highly alien form of measurement.
RL: Oh, absolutely. They went from being people who were living on the northern Great Plains who had been bison hunters, who had been gatherers. They lived a nomadic life (by nomadic I don’t mean just wandering around; they were very strategic about where they lived). They lived in the same places year after year and went to the same places year after year until they were pushed from the northern Great Plains all the way to the west, to the mountains. So the Blackfeet are still in their same original territory but in a much, much smaller land base than previously.
One of the things that my grandfather’s parents had to deal with was figuring out how to take care of their family, have a different lifestyle that did not involve traveling, living in one house. Also eating completely different foods. Literally they went from eating one type of food, which was wild meats and wild berries and roots etc. to a completely Western diet that was entirely foreign to them: eating cows, growing vegetables such as potatoes and carrots and turnips and cabbages.
There was a lot of disorientation: being introduced to a completely alien religious belief system, different ideas about time and timeliness, and having their children learn a new language, being forced to learn a new language. My grandfather’s grandparents or parents never learned to speak English, but my grandfather did.
So all of this is going on during that early time period. And in the book I try to give a sense of this disorientation that is occurring while my grandparents are growing up, being raised by people who are older, who never learned to speak English, who never convert to a different religion, but are still struggling to figure out how to navigate this new place.
TH&TF: What you’ve described is sort of multiple assault on a culture and way of life. Is it your sense that the belief system of the Blackfeet was something positive that they could adhere to, that would help them, or was it something which was also being eroded because of these multiple assaults?
RL: I think for the older generation their religious belief system is what centered them. And they continued to practice their religion. They continued to believe in their understanding, their cosmology. None of that changed even though there was really an assault and an effort to assimilate and acculturate by the U.S. government.
The U.S. government realized quickly that they were not going to have a large impact on adults and that their method of change was going to be with children, which is why the boarding school system got started and why there was a large effort to make sure that children were speaking English.
Even though the U.S. government was creating a system that was difficult for the older generation to navigate, they just basically told the U.S. government they were not going to do certain things. One was they were not going to change their religion. They were not going to speak English and they didn’t. That really did center them and it also continued to give them a sense of hope and confidence in the world that they were living in.