Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Old North Trail

In 1891, Walter McClintock graduated from Yale, with plans to join his father’s prosperous carpet making business in smog-choked Pittsburgh.  Luckily, he was spared from a dull job by getting very sick with typhoid fever.  To recover, he took a trip to North Dakota, where he fell deeply in love with the west.  He worked as a photographer for a forest survey project, and became friends with the team’s Blackfoot scout, Siksikakoan.  Later, Siksikakoan introduced him to the elderly chief Mad Wolf.

Once Mad Wolf came to trust McClintock, he adopted the young lad as his son.  Mad Wolf hoped that if his people had a white leader, they would receive better treatment from the incoming settlers, many of whom were not skilled at behaving with common decency.  McClintock spent lots of time with a number of elders, listened to many stories, and several years later wrote The Old North Trail.  He also took more than a thousand photographs, many of which illustrate the book.  Today, a century later, Amazon lists his book as a best seller.  It’s fascinating and easy to read.

The Blackfeet lived on the plains east of the Rocky Mountains, from Montana up into Alberta.  When the painter George Catlin met them in 1832, he said they were the happiest Indians or all.  The Old North Trail was an ancient footpath that passed through their territory.  In places, old ruts are still visible.  Today, some suspect that it may have been 2,000 to 3,000 miles long, linking Canada and Mexico.  Because many tribes used the trail, travel was dangerous.  It was a common place for ambushes and tribal wars.

In the old days, the Blackfeet used dogs as beasts of burden.  Sometime before 1750, they acquired horses, triggering radical change.  Horses greatly increased their ability to hunt, feed more people, wage war, haul trade goods, and zoom across the plains at superhuman velocity.  Corn farmers became highly vulnerable to horse-mounted raids by neighboring tribes, forcing many to abandon their fields and become nomadic.  After 1780, the Blackfeet were hammered by wave after wave of deadly diseases.  Their population dropped by maybe 90 percent.

By 1883, white folks had succeeded in nearly exterminating the buffalo, and this made the traditional Blackfoot life impossible.  The tribe was forced onto reservations, given ration tickets, treated like dogs, and were not allowed freedom of travel.  Missionaries introduced them to sin, hell, damnation, guilt, and submission.  Teachers taught youths the ABC’s of civilization, using the English language.

By the time McClintock arrived, many young Blackfeet were disoriented victims of cultural genocide, largely indifferent to their tribe’s customs, traditions, and religion.  During important ceremonies, many would be drinking, gambling, or horseracing.  Only the elders still remembered the traditional ways, and their days were numbered.  McClintock wanted to record the story of these people, before their culture ceased to exist.  The Blackfeet people fascinated McClintock, and he described them in a respectful manner.

His book is a magical 500-page voyage into another time and place.  Readers can soar away from the spooky nightmare world of automobiles and cell phone zombies, and imagine living in wildness and freedom.  The Blackfeet elders shared fond memories of a way of life that was far more in balance with the circle of life.  In the good old days, “the mountain slopes abounded in beaver, wapiti, moose, mountain sheep, and grizzly bears, while immense herds of antelope and buffalo roamed over the plains.”

One night, McClintock awoke to discover a huge grizzly bear stepping over him to finish off his dinner leftovers.  Grizzlies were still common.  Wolves and coyotes often howled passionate serenades under the stars.  Humans were not the dominant species; they were delicious two-legged meatballs.  Modern folks, obsessed with glowing screens, would not have lasted long in a reality where man-eating carnivores were never far away.  To survive, folks actually had to pay careful attention to reality, and behave in an intelligent manner.  Imagine that!

The people wore clothing of animal hides, and lived in tipis, in an ecosystem of scorching summers and long blast-freezer winters.  Powerful storms could race across the plains at astonishing speed.  On a pleasantly warm November day, McClintock noticed distant turbulent clouds that were rushing across the plains in his direction.  Danger!  The temperature sharply dropped, howling winds pounded him, and a whiteout blizzard commenced.  He lost all sense of direction, and freezing to death was a strong possibility.  He managed to return to camp.  The storm lasted ten days.

McClintock wrote, “The Blackfeet subsisted mainly upon buffalo meat, when it could be secured.  They also used sarvis berries, wild cherries, buffalo berries and vegetables such as camas, wild turnips, wild onions, wild potatoes, bitter root, and wild rhubarb.  They secured wild ducks and geese by striking them over the head with long sticks.  Beaver tails were considered a great delicacy.”

A vegetarian would soon starve on the plains.  The Blackfeet survived by killing and eating their animal relatives.  When natives died, their corpses were returned to the circle of life.  The dead were placed upon scaffolds built in trees, called death lodges (like THIS or THIS).  The Blackfeet did not arrogantly interrupt the circle dance of life with buried caskets or cremation.

McClintock was amazed by how well the Blackfeet lived without thrashing their ecosystem.  Whites did amazing things with science and industry, but the Blackfeet were superior in terms of their personal integrity.  In no Blackfoot community could you find the “depravity, misery, and consuming vice, which involve multitudes in the industrial centers of all the large cities of Christendom.”  By thriving in a lifestyle with few wants, they did not deteriorate into infantile consumers.

The last chapter in the book has pissed off many reviewers.  The preceding thirty-eight chapters did not provide, in any way, a flattering impression of settler society.  In 1910, respect for savages was politically incorrect, and publishers were not fond of risky projects.  The Blackfeet were hopelessly screwed.  Whites were here to stay.  Happy endings sold more books.

So, the story concludes with a jarring shift.  McClintock praised the integrity of the Blackfoot people, and was proud of their heroic advance toward Christian civilization.  “The industrious are rapidly becoming self-supporting.  Some of them live in well-made and comfortable houses, and own ranches, with large herds of cattle and horses.  They wear white men’s clothes, purchased from the trading stores, own high priced wagons and buggies and make use of modern farming implements.”  Hooray!

Anyway, the book provides readers with a wonderful peephole into a way of life that was not insane.  Children were raised in a land that was wild, free, and thriving — grizzly bears, not teddy bears.  The good power (Great Spirit) was everywhere, in everything — mountains, plains, winds, waters, trees, birds, and animals.  Everyone was on the same cultural channel, free from the friction of diversity and wealth inequality.  They grew up in coherent communities where it was rare to see a stranger.  [Cool excerpt]

McClintock’s book described how a healthy culture disintegrated into incoherence over the course of just one generation.  Beliefs got us into this mess, not genes.  I’m very optimistic that the coming decades of resource depletion, climate change, and the collapse of our economic system will provide a miraculous cure for consumer fever.  Survival will require paying careful attention to reality, and behaving in an intelligent manner.  Radical change in one generation is not totally impossible when the time is ripe.  Think positive!

McClintock, Walter, The Old North Trail, MacMillan and Co., London, 1910.

A free download of the book is HERE.  Over 1,400 of McClintock’s photos are HERE (click “View all images”).

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