Firewater:

The Impact of the Whisky Trade on the Blackfoot Nation

By Sid Marty

by Hugh A. Dempsey
FIFTH HOUSE PUBLISHERS 2002/$24.95/248 pp.

One of the many Canadian communities hit hard by the ongoing fentanyl debacle is Standoff, Alberta, headquarters of the Kainai (Blood) First Nation, where a state of emergency was declared in 2015 to try and get control of the crisis. It is sadly ironic that Standoff should make the news in a story involving Indigenous people’s death and degradation from a substance foreign to their culture. It brings to mind Firewater, Hugh Dempsey’s in-depth look at the effect of a much earlier intoxicant on the Blackfoot people. Standoff, Dempsey explains, was a place name invented in 1871 by a party of American whisky traders. Trading alcohol to the “Indians” was made illegal in the US in 1834, and discontinued by the HBC in Canada by 1862, but there was no law and no law enforcement in the North West Territories until the arrival of the mounted police in 1874.

The Americans, we learn, didn’t invent the idea of trading booze for valuable pelts and hides in Canada. French and English fur traders began plying their customers with brandy and rum beginning in the 18th century. The Blackfoot were some of the last First Nations to succumb to the lure of booze and would not, at first, trade furs for “Napioheke,” the “White Man’s Water.” The traders seduced them into its delusional delights by offering it as a gift to induce them to trade. What saved the nation at first from this alien brew, Dempsey reveals, was their distance from Fort Edmonton; they could only get booze during their biannual trading trips to the post. That changed in the 19th century when Montana-based traders began running liquor across the border.

Firewater describes the origin of the riverboat town of Fort Benton, which was crucial to the pioneer economic history of southern Alberta, and moves on to the terrible period of 1870–1875, when the Blackfoot suffered hundreds of casualties as people died “…either killed in drunken quarrels, shot by whisky traders, frozen to death while drunk or felled by the poisonous effects of the whisky itself.” Many of those proud, healthy people were reduced to “…ragged mendicants, with no horse to hunt the buffalo, no warm robes to cover themselves, and no lodges to protect them from the winter storms.”

Dempsey, an honorary chief of the Blood Tribe, has written a brilliant addition and update to Paul F. Sharp’s seminal 1955 work Whoop-Up Country. Well researched and illustrated, Dempsey’s book has the rich anecdotal quality and authenticity of his earlier Charcoal’s World. Readers interested in Alberta/Montana history will find it riveting. And those who believe there was no “wild west” in Alberta are in for a revelation.

Sid Marty has written five books of poetry and five of non-fiction.

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