Rosalyn 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. Her book Invisible Reality: Storytellers, Storytakers, and the Supernatural World of the Blackfeet (Nebraska, 2017) is a finalist in the High Plains Book Awards.
Since my book Invisible Reality came out, I have heard the critique or casual sarcastic remark: “Of course, there is a tipi on the cover!”
People think that since it is a book about the Blackfeet, a northern Great Plains tribe, that a stereotypical image of the plains—the image of a tipi—was chosen because it would attract more readers.
People want to point out that they will not be so easily fooled. At book talks I have been questioned, “Why does every book about an Indian got to have a tipi on the cover?” Or they have my back, ready to storm Nebraska headquarters, “Roz, why did they put a tipi on your book cover?”
Hold your horse folks! I selected the image on the cover. That is right. I did.
I selected this image for several reasons. First, this is a photograph of the “Big Rock” tipi owned by my great-grandparents Aimsback and Hollering in the Air, and my grandparents and my mother and her older siblings lived in that tipi in the summer and on special occasions. Second, this is a photograph taken at the O’kan or sundance in Heart Butte, Montana in 1944. And finally, because to me this image symbolizes the thesis of my book in one image. (But you will not understand that until after you have read the book.)
Environmental historian Theodore Binnema described Invisible Reality in his review:
“This is a multifaceted book. In presenting and defending her central argument, LaPier also sheds considerable light upon Blackfeet history (particularly during the early reservation era between 1880 and 1920), and upon those outsiders (including James Willard Schultz, George Bird Grinnell, Walter McClintock, Clark Wissler, Truman Michelson, and C.C. Uhlenbeck) who sought and recorded Blackfeet stories during that period. The evidence upon which the argument is based is derived from stories, knowledge, and history that the author heard or acquired from her own family (some of them acquired from her grandmother who was herself raised by her grand-mother and great grandmother), elders, and other knowledgeable members of the Blackfeet community, and from extensive research in no fewer than eleven archives located as far afield as New York, Washington, DC, Pasadena, and Edmonton. While the author is herself rooted in Blackfeet society, the presentation is scholarly, unromantic, and remarkably dispassionate without losing its insider perspective. LaPier playfully punctuates the academic prose with dry and ironic humor.” (My emphasis.)
Lakota journalist (and my good friend) Rita Pyrillis said it more succinctly after reading Binnema’s review: “In other words: she got street cred, academic chops, and is funny as hell!”
“Multifaceted” is probably the best word to describe Invisible Reality. Similar to other environmental historians my goal is to understand relationship the between humans and the natural world. I decided to write about the Blackfeet, where I grew up and where I am an enrolled member, and try to describe for “outsiders” how “insiders” understood their relationship to the natural world. I used multiple sources to tell that story. I shared stories or vignettes from my own families history, oral history from tribal elders and conducted in-depth archival research.
I selected the “Big Rock” tipi owned by my great-grandparents Aimsback and Hollering in the Air as the cover of Invisible Reality because I thought it is a great example that sheds light on the Blackfeet relationship to natural world.
A Blackfeet a tipi’s design is more than just a pretty picture, it is a narrative of their “history of the universe” and “their relationship with the supernatural” which informed their relationship with the natural world. (31)
The cover of Invisible Reality is not just the photo of a tipi. It is itself a story of a relationship between humans and the natural world, painted on a tipi “for all to see, know, remember and tell.” (31)