Hugh Dempsey

Dean of Alberta historians—and bridge between worlds

By Donald Smith

Hugh Dempsey has added greatly to our understanding of Alberta’s heritage. As a researcher, editor, writer and archivist, he has rescued many aspects of our history by collecting historical manuscripts and photos, and by recording the oral memories of First Nations people and non-Aboriginal Albertans. For 60 years he has edited Alberta History (formerly Alberta Historical Review), a major historical quarterly. He has written 22 full-length books and edited another 17. As a fellow historian and writer, I have known Hugh Dempsey for four decades. The dean of Alberta historians, I call him.

Hugh’s mother was an English war bride from Folkestone on the English Channel. In 1916 Lily Louise Sharp married Canadian soldier Otto Lionel Dempsey and became a farmer’s wife. The Dempseys farmed in central Alberta at Edgerton near Wainwright, where Hugh, the youngest of four sons, was born on November 7, 1929. The Depression and drought of the early 1930s forced the family off the land. They moved to Edmonton when Hugh was five. He remembers going barefoot in summer and wearing moccasins in winter with rubbers pulled over them and sealer rings to keep them from falling off. The Dempseys were poor in Edmonton, but the positive was that they now had electricity, running water and close neighbours.

Hugh enjoyed elementary school, particularly art. In his autobiography, Always an Adventure (2011), Hugh portrayed his mother as the major influence in his childhood. She “taught me to be independent and encouraged me to be creative.” He loved reading, particularly the British children’s magazines his maternal grandmother would forward each Christmas. His first summer job, at age 8, was as a milk wagon delivery boy. His pay was five cents a day and, if he was lucky, a bottle of milk. He shovelled snow, collected bottles. Later, he gardened and worked as a handyman.

Hugh Dempsey

Hugh Dempsey. (George Webber)

Hugh left high school in 1947 after completing Grade 11. Fortunately, after a few false starts, he obtained a job as a copy boy with the Edmonton Bulletin. Within days he realized he wanted to be a writer. He rose to junior, then senior reporter, and at the tender age of 21 became provincial editor.

As a reporter, Hugh attended an Indian Association of Alberta (IAA) convention in 1950. Meeting Pauline Gladstone, the daughter of IAA president and Blood tribe member James Gladstone, changed his life. He and Pauline began dating and felt at home together wherever they went. Hugh’s mother became a lifelong friend to Pauline, and Pauline’s father came to regard Hugh as a son.

When the Bulletin folded in 1951, Hugh became a publicity writer with the Alberta government. He and Pauline married in 1953. In Hugh’s biography of James Gladstone, The Gentle Persuader, he wrote, “I had become part of a close-knit extended family of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, and people whose exact relationship was uncertain. That is a wonderful thing about Indian families—blood lines are less important than a mutual acceptance of someone as ‘family.’”

Through Pauline and her family, Hugh gained an entry into the First Nations world, one completely unknown to most non-Aboriginal Albertans. At first there were many misunderstandings. In Hugh’s own words he “didn’t know his way around.” He learned, for instance, that at a pow-wow there are protocols. “The owl dance was for couples and three rules were that the women asked the men to dance, the men could not refuse, and wives could not dance with their husbands.” On his visits to southern Alberta reserves, he learned that traditional families laid out their houses in the same fashion as a teepee. “This meant that the fire, i.e., stove, was in the middle, the owner of the lodge was at the back, and his altar was in front of him. Female members sat on the south side of the room, and men on the north. …It was important never to go between a man and his altar, or between the altar and the stove.” In the Gladstone home Hugh also learned that “a son-in-law was not supposed to speak directly to his mother-in-law” and should “avoid even staying in the same room with her if this was possible.” Pauline’s mom lived in two worlds on this issue. She didn’t avoid Hugh, but “neither was she openly talkative and chatty.”

When Hugh married Pauline, he learned first-hand how the Canadian government would divide many First Nations families. Their wedding led them into the complications of the Indian Act. “When my wife married me,” Hugh said in a 1961 interview, “she legally became no longer an Indian. At the same time, her brother married a white girl, and the girl legally became an Indian. This gives us a situation where my wife, who was raised on the Blood Reserve and speaks the language fluently, is not an Indian, but her sister-in-law, who was raised in a white community and does not speak the language, is legally an Indian.” Parliament only altered this bizarre provision of the Indian Act in 1985.

Through his wife’s family, Dempsey gained entry into the First Nations world, one completely unknown to most non-Aboriginals.

Hugh became involved in the IAA, attending annual conferences and helping write resolutions. Calgary schoolteacher John Laurie, a great admirer of the First Nations, became a friend of Hugh’s. After Laurie’s death in 1959, Hugh took his place as honorary secretary of the IAA for six years. Pauline fully supported him in his work, and James Gladstone remained an invaluable ally. Hugh became a bridge between worlds, communicating invaluable knowledge of the Aboriginal world to non-Aboriginal Albertans.

Hugh joined Calgary’s Glenbow Foundation in 1956. He served as archivist from 1956 to 1967, and then as curator/director from 1967 to 1991. He kept a diary and began to gather notes on historical events and interesting Albertans. Hugh began writing about the Blackfoot (Siksika) and Blood (Kainai) nations, assisted by his father-in-law’s skill as an interpreter. “In speaking to me, he gave me everything that was said, including the conversations. That was one thing I noticed about Blackfoot storytelling. Even though an incident might have occurred two or three generations earlier, the informant would speak as though he had been there, complete with conversations.” The old people, speaking in Blackfoot with his father-in-law, told of buffalo hunts, battles, the supernatural and the accomplishments of great chiefs.

In the late 1950s Hugh began an in-depth biography of Crowfoot, the most important spokesperson for the Blackfoot Confederacy at Treaty Seven. Hugh completed the book in 1958, but was told by the publishers he approached that there was no market for Canadian history. Macmillan of Canada offered to bring the book out if cut by two-thirds and rewritten as a children’s book. When finally published in 1972 by University of Oklahoma Press (with a Canadian edition from Hurtig Publishers of Edmonton), Crowfoot did very well in both sales and reviews, and Hugh was well on his way to a successful career as a writer. After Crowfoot he published a new book almost every year for the next 20 years. The next of his books to appear were The Best of Bob Edwards (1975) and The Wit and Wisdom of Bob Edwards (1976), collections of Edwards’s humorous writings from his satirical newspaper The Calgary Eye Opener.

After the Edwards books, Hugh returned to First Nations subjects. In Charcoal’s World (1978), he focused on a Kainai holy man who shot and killed his wife’s lover in 1896. Charcoal had found the duo in the act of adultery. As Hugh wrote: “The white men who ruled their lives said it was wrong to do these things. The police had the guns; they had the rope; they had power. Even to kill a fornicator who broke the unwritten rules of the tribe was now wrong. The Indian laws meant nothing; only the white man’s laws counted. When he had violated these, Charcoal knew he would soon die.” To prepare for his entry as an honoured warrior into the spirit world, he resolved to kill an important person whose spirit would announce his coming. For months he eluded police patrols, thwarting attempts to entrap him. He killed one of his attackers, a Mountie, just a few days before his capture in mid-November. He was tried and hanged in March 1897. The whole incident, Dempsey argues, reveals the dilemma of a clash between two cultures, “neither completely understanding what was motivating the other.”

After Charcoal’s World, Hugh began a biography of Red Crow, head chief of the Bloods, another of the most important Plains First Nations chiefs in the late nineteenth century. Red Crow: Warrior Chief came out in 1980, and in its preface Hugh thanked his late father-in-law “who was my interpreter… and added his own knowledge of the chief.” Senator James Gladstone had died in 1971.

The Dempsey family, Calgary, March 1961.

The Dempsey family, Calgary, March 1961. (Glenbow Archive NA-5093-954)

Next, in 1984, came Big Bear: The End of Freedom. Based again on written and oral testimony, the Big Bear biography remains the authoritative source about this important Plains Cree leader. Hugh’s biography of his father-in-law was published in 1986. In search of solitude for the arduous task of writing The Gentle Persuader, he prepared much of the Gladstone biography in the seclusion of a foothills cabin.

The first time I heard Hugh Dempsey speak was at the University of Toronto in June 1974. Just a few weeks earlier, I had accepted a position at the University of Calgary. That fall I would be paid to teach what had always been my passion—Canadian history.

The panel Hugh was part of was at the annual meeting of the Canadian Historical Association. I even remember where: Sidney Smith Hall. Crowfoot had come out two years earlier and Hugh’s contribution to the panel was based on that book. What he said was a revelation to me. He spoke about the Plains First Nations from the “inside,” in flesh and blood terms. As a graduate student I had been studying North American history for five years, including First Nations history, but I never heard the topic come so alive.

He spoke about the Plains First Nations from the “inside,” in flesh and blood terms. I’d never heard the topic come so alive.

Years later I asked Hugh about that panel. He checked his diaries and found this entry: “Friday June 7 [1974] Toronto: This morning I was part of a three-man panel discussing the writing of Indian histories, at the meeting of the Canadian Historical Association. It went off very well. This evening I started a week’s holiday, during which time I want to do some research on Charcoal.”

Shortly after I came west to take up my teaching position, I got in touch with Hugh at the Glenbow. A friendship began that has now lasted more than four decades. Our strongest bond may be a common interest in the lives of people. We are both historians and biographers. My first book was Long Lance: The True Story of an Impostor, about a man who claimed to be a Blackfoot in the early 20th century. Hugh taught me a great deal about Blackfoot history and culture for that book. My expertise then and now is primarily in the First Nations in Central Canada, but I was eager to learn about the First Nations in the West. Hugh put me in touch with important individuals who had known Long Lance well in his Alberta years, in particular George Gooderham, a former Indian Agent on the Blackfoot (Siksika) reserve, and Mike Eagle Speaker of the Blood (Kainai) First Nation.

In those days I wrote my drafts without indicating right away the footnote references. Diplomatically Hugh pointed out how short-sighted this was. It made trying to find them later impossibly difficult. He was right, and I changed my technique! Hugh also has the 95 per cent rule. That is, when you have almost all the material collected for your project, don’t hold off writing, just begin—more good advice.

To my classes he gave lectures on Crowfoot, Red Crow and Big Bear. These talks were delivered with the aid of a scrap of paper, usually an old envelope with some penciled notes on it. In the fall of 1980, after six years of being a professor, I audited his interdisciplinary studies course on Aboriginal Canada at the University of Calgary.

One of my treasured objects is a copy of Red Crow that Hugh gave me. It is inscribed “With kind regards to Don Smith, who shares my interest in native peoples.”

In 1991 Hugh took early retirement from the Glenbow, becoming chief curator emeritus. The reading room at the Library and Archives has been named after him. Many other honours have come to him over the years. One of the greatest was to be inducted as an honorary chief of the Bloods. At this ceremony he received the Blackfoot name Potaina, or Flying Chief, the name of Pauline’s grandfather. He would later receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Calgary in 1974 and the Order of Canada the following year. Other honours and awards for his outstanding contributions to Alberta history include this province’s prestigious Sir Frederick Haultain Award.

In retirement Hugh Dempsey kept up his writing and research. One of his post-retirement books, The Amazing Death of Calf Shirt and other Blackfoot Stories (1994), recreated the world of the Blackfoot Confederacy in a series of tales containing rich cultural observations. Several new books came out after he turned 70, including Firewater: The Impact of the Whisky Trade on the Blackfoot Nation (2002), and The Vengeful Wife and Other Blackfoot Stories (2003). To write the biography of mid-19th century Cree chief Maskepetoon, Hugh conducted interviews and carried out research in Cree country. Maskepetoon: Leader, Warrior, Peacemaker was published in 2010, shortly after Hugh turned 80.

In addition to writing, Hugh constantly helps others—including me. For my last book, Mississauga Portraits (2013), Hugh presented me with notes he had taken on a talk by former Alberta Lieutenant Governor Ralph Steinhauer about his great-uncles Egerton and Robert Steinhauer, both Methodist/United Church Cree ministers. Hugh had made the notes at a meeting of the Historical Society of Alberta in Edmonton in 1955.

Last fall Dempsey brought out The Great Blackfoot Treaties, a summation of much of his work on the history of the Blackfoot Confederacy and the Stoney Nakoda of southern Alberta. Of his role as a historian, Hugh told George Melnyk in a 1995 interview that he saw himself as “a writer who has entered the field of history. I tried not to be an academic writer. When you write something you should try to communicate to your audience, whoever that audience happens to be.”

Hugh Dempsey loves what he does and he loves to work. Imagine completing a major book at the age of 85 and at the same time continuing his editing duties, as he has for nearly six decades, for Alberta History. He has said, “There’s never been a year when I wasn’t employed in some capacity.” For him, this means since the age of 7.

Born in Toronto, Donald Smith taught Canadian history at the University of Calgary from 1974 to 2009.


Crowfoot Comes Home

Herman Yellow Old Woman was asleep in his home on the Siksika reserve east of Calgary on April 7, 2020, when the phone started ringing at 5:30 a.m. It was Alison Brown, a professor of anthropology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. She told Yellow Old Woman that Exeter City Council ...

Hugh Dempsey

Hugh Dempsey has added greatly to our understanding of Alberta’s heritage. As a researcher, editor, writer and archivist, he has rescued many aspects of our history by collecting historical manuscripts and photos, and by recording the oral memories of First Nations people and non-Aboriginal Albertans. For 60 years he has ...

100 Years of Oil: The legacy of oil at Turner Valley

In the presence of royalty yesterday,” the Calgary Daily Herald reported July 29, 1914, “Dingman Discovery well spouted like an inexhaustible gasoline fountain 40 feet high until driller Hovis, at the direction of managing director A. W. Dingman, ordered the remarkable well turned off.” Princess Patricia had urged people to keep ...