Adolf Hungry Wolf
April 07th, 2008
BC BookWorld: Can you pinpoint where the process for The Blackfoot Papers (Good Medicine $300) began?
Adolf Hungry Wolf: Right after high school, in 1962, I was at an estate auction of an anthropology teacher where everybody wanted pottery and furniture. Nobody bid against me for one box of old photos. There were a few hundred of them, mostly old scenes of the Blackfeet, though I didn’t know that at the time. There was hardly any info with the prints. I didn’t know much about the Blackfeet then. I didn’t have any plans to join them. I was making my second photo-history book on railroads. It occurred to me I might do something similar with these “Indian” photos but I never dreamed it would take me 44 years. I just figured I’d get as many of the images identified as possible. By the seventies, I realized it would have to be a very large and well-done book. I’m half Swiss. [Laughter] Precision and accuracy are in the genes!
BCBW: Not to mention perseverance.
AHW: Absolutely. All through the years I envisioned one book, but reality made me split it up. Four is our special number, ceremonially. So it became four volumes. And there are 400 numbered limited editions. There are 44 single volumes without numbers, which I’ve been giving to those who helped most, plus my family. The first three volumes explain the tribal history, culture, lore, dancing and ceremonies, etc. The fourth one contains the biographies. It’s the most popular so far. No surprise about that.
BCBW: What are some of your best discoveries you’ve made over the years?
AHW: The photos of people I’ve come to know personally. Photos from the early 1900s. Even the late 1800s in a few cases. I’m talking about elders, of course. Almost always they have never seen these photos of themselves. They were usually taken after someone came to a Sun Dance camp, a pow-wow, or whatever. They took some shots, then went back wherever they came from. A handful of these elders are still living. All of them got free books with their photos and stories. Every time I call them they seem to be browsing, reading, finding more stuff they never knew, photos they never saw before, and people they remember.
BCBW: Do you see anybody doing similar work to what you’re doing? The American filmmaker Ken Burns, for instance?
AHW: I’ve never heard of Ken Burns. I don’t see my work in relation to anybody else’s. I still don’t take much part in many book-related activities, except the Frankfurt Book Fair. And this interview. I rarely read books. I never think of myself as a loner, though that’s probably what I am. At least in regards to the literary world. BC BookWorld is about the only place I can think where I might feel I belong.
BCBW: As the proverbial white guy doing Indian stuff, do you get more flak these days from First Nations intellectuals or from the Indianology academics?
AHW: I don’t know and I don’t really care. My daughter Star says there have been enough hatchet jobs done over the years that I could do a book by just replying to them all. But that would be boring and useless. The last one was from some German professor. My eldest son and Star did get me to respond to some of the attacks in an upcoming autobiography, but that’s mostly so my grandkids will get to hear my side of the story. There were some assassination attempts back in the seventies, but I don’t have much dealings with the “Native intellectuals.” I don’t know what they think of me. I don’t care much. I lead a couple of the most important medicine bundle rituals for various traditional families within the Blackfoot Confederacy and I do care what those people think.
BCBW: Some of your kids have started making books and films. Can you tell me about what they’re up to? And where they live?
AHW: Star and her husband, who is a member of the Kootenay tribe, are now the keepers of the Thunder Medicine Pipe bundle that Beverly and I cared for 28 years. They live in Cranbrook, near his reserve. Right now she’s busy raising baby daughter Natanik, working for her husband’s tribe and immersed in her cultural duties. Star was the Sun Dance woman once, over ten years ago, and she was recently the “holy grandmother” for Sun Dance for the sixth time. She ran the woman’s part of the lengthy ritual, initiating the “holy woman” for the Sun Dance.
BCBW: And what about Okan, your eldest son?
AHW: He was just the “holy person” a few weeks back, for the fifth time, for a Sun Dance on the Blood Reserve. It’s the most traditional and conservative of the four Blackfoot divisions. Okan and his “holy partner” have vowed another Sun Dance for next summer, and he vowed to spend the year in-between riding his Spanish mustangs through traditional Blackfoot country, from the Red River to the Yellowstone, camping in his tipi. He normally lives in his great-grandma’s little cabin, without plumbing and electricity, on the Blood Reserve. As we’re talking, he is crossing the Rockies with five of his horses, three of them packed, from the Blood Reserve to our guiding camp which is next to Waterton National Park. He plans to document his journey with a video camera and he might try to do a book, as well. My other three kids respect our culture. They attend family ceremonies. But so far they are not leaders like those two.
BCBW: You’ve worked all this time without funding, but you must have had some support along the way.
AHW: The book designing was done over a two-year period with Diane Jefferson and her computer. And I have had a fantastic relationship with David Friesen at Friesen Printing in Manitoba. Without him, these books could not exist. I gave him every penny I owned in cash, which was about one-fifth of the total cost. David flew me to Winnipeg, showed me the plant, put me up. He introduced me to everyone there, then said he believed enough in my project to bring it out. He knows my debt-paying from doing business together for twenty-some years. So that’s it. It’s just Friesen’s and me. There is no advance announcement, no planned public relations.
BCBW: Assembling that amount of material must have been equally daunting.
AHW: I felt like the conductor of an orchestra. I knew what I wanted, and Diane knew how to put my wishes into the computer. We got uptight with each other a few times, but mostly it just flowed. I did all the writing on my solar-panel-powered IBook. I would have been crazy not to. But it’s packed away again. I’m back to the trusty old typewriter.
Essay Date: 2006