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book review

The Banker and the Blackfoot opens with a scene right out of a dime-novel western. As the winds rustle tall grass on the sunny Albertan foothills, our hero, John (Jack) Cowdry rides through the mean streets of Fort Macleod on horseback. Not a real cowboy per se, but close enough. And who should approach, but an Indian! Not just any Indian, but Makoyi-Opistoki – the adopted son of Mékaisto, head chief of the Kainai. Makoyi-Opistoki is wise and gently teasing, Cowdry is earnest and charming, and the two begin a friendship that becomes a lifelong bond. It is 1885, the plains are still full of buffalo and Treaty 7 is just a twinkle in a government official's eye.

In this lengthy memoir, J. Edward Chamberlin pieces together the exploits of his grandfather Cowdry – settling in the Prairies and sustaining a privately run bank through economic peaks and valleys. Cowdry's experience includes many pivotal moments in colonial Canadian history, including the signing of Treaty 7. Chamberlin has certainly done his research, but The Banker and the Blackfoot jumps the shark with its claim to offer new or useful insight into current conversations on reconciliation. Ally-ship is vital, but how much does yet another story told from a settler's perspective offer Canadians today?

The sights and sounds of historical Fort Macleod are richly detailed and entertaining. Anecdotes of spirited characters and settler customs bring the town to life. Tony La Chappelle ran the tobacco and candy emporium. Ned Maunsell was an ex-North-West Mounted Police, turned rancher. There are some recognizable names, including Francis Dickens – Charles's son, and the Sundance Kid. As Chamberlin relies heavily on settler historians for his material, the notable women of the era appear to be limited to Natawista, famous mostly for her fashion sense. But then, this is Jack Cowdry's story.

Chamberlin writes often that Cowdry was a major supporter of both the Métis and the Blackfoot people. He also draws a clear line between the amicable daily interactions of settlers and the Blackfoot, and the Canadian government's treatment of the Blackfoot after the treaty was signed. As he says: "… the people in the foothills of modern-day Alberta – First Nation and Métis, rancher and settler – respectfully set out to accommodate Blackfoot sovereignty and new settlement, before Canada broke its Treaty promises to the first peoples."

This statement is largely supported by anecdotes from the families of settlers and other prominent, non-indigenous sources. Chamberlin places a lot of faith in the concept of frontier goodwill and the "fundamental value" of "keeping one's word." While the bar-room brawl image of the West has no doubt been greatly exaggerated, how can one not be skeptical of Calgary Herald journalist L.V. Kelly's claim at the time that "… through the heyday of the best years of the ranching business, [Cowdry] never had a word of trouble from his customers"? This feels rose-coloured and simplistic, and maybe it doesn't matter whether Cowdry was ever rooked by his customers, but this generalizing becomes problematic when applied to Blackfoot culture. Chamberlin glosses over power imbalances between the settlers and the Blackfoot, armed only with platitudes:

"Some of these friendships were unequal, as friendships often are, with one party presuming superiority over the other. But the pride of the Blackfoot, nourished by leaders such as Red Crow … saw them through those harrowing times following the decline and fall of the great buffalo herds on the northern plains, and the new treaty with the upstart nation of Canada, and sustained their belief that they were the equal of anyone, and indeed superior to almost everyone."

Did the Blackfoot, generally, consider themselves "superior to almost everyone"? And did the Blackfoot resilience to years of racist government policy have its origins in pride? I didn't find any evidence in the text or the notes to directly support these claims. When compared with the local proximity reportage of Cowdry's experiences, statements such as this feel pretty vague. Especially considering the number of indigenous scholars currently available to comment on treaty history. How much can a historical memoir that summarizes elements of Blackfoot culture as an "… accumulation of capital in the form of medicine bundles and dances, as well as sacred and secular songs" offer to a contemporary discussion of indigenous rights?

Carleigh Baker is a writer who lives in Vancouver. Her short-story collection, Bad Endings, will be published in 2017.