Publishers and authors have the right to define their books by genre as they please—a book of poetry in this case. But to my eye and ear, the text of Walter Hildebrandt’s Blackfoot Country is more like an outline for a non-fiction history than a book of poetry, although it does rise to the level of docu-poetry on occasion. Hildebrandt, an historian and consultant on Treaty 7 issues, certainly knows this material well, although I take exception to assertions such as “Eagles [were]… not hunted.” The Piikani did hunt eagles to obtain their feathers, using pit traps to conceal the eagle hunter.
One of the problems I have with this book is the voice or persona employed by the author. The book is a requiem for Narcisse Blood, an esteemed artist and cultural leader of the Kainai people, who is presented in the introduction as the main informant of this history. But Narcisse Blood spoke articulate and eloquent English, while the speaker here employs a form of truncated, broken English. At times this mask slips and the author’s voice intrudes: “civilization savagery/ paradigm prevails,” which is out of tune with the main narrator’s voice.
The prevailing voice contributes to the disjointed nature of the prosody, with text scattered across the page at random, interrupted for no apparent reason by a swath of blank page, as if the narrator had taken a tea break in mid-sentence, or else it’s laddered in an arbitrary manner that looks poetic at first glance, but is echoed in disjunctures or omissions in the narrative. Napi, the trickster creator figure who is central to Blackfoot culture, appears suddenly on page 22, but is not explained for the benefit of the uninitiated reader. At other times, the text becomes merely a list of places or plants, useful or sacred to the culture, e.g., “wild onion/ a delicacy, saskatoon berries/ mixed with dried meat,” which is at least interesting to students of ethnobotany or geography, but in another place it becomes just an alphabetical list of hardware items that Fort Benton traders brought up to Rupert’s Land, such as “…kettles/ knives/ lamps/ matches” which is, once again, interesting to historians but, in my opinion, fails even as documentary poetry.
The persona Hildebrandt uses is most effective when we get into the meat of the book, which centres on how the Blackfoot were cheated out of treaty land by corrupt Indian Agents and Liberal politicians. We feel we are hearing about these injuries from a Blackfoot point of view, for once. Hildebrandt provides a list of the actual culprits, “The Players,” with their positions and titles, so we know exactly who was responsible for these ignoble acts of theft. For more detailed explication on these issues, however, readers might search out the author’s prose works.
—Sid Marty is the author of five poetry and five non-fiction books.