Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Buckskin Brigades - Postscript - Hubbard, Blood-Brother of the Blackfeet

Buckskin Brigades is presented as a Western that finally tells the Indians' side of the story.  I think it's more accurate to say that it's a Western with an Indian(ish) protagonist.

See, while conventional Western adventures present the Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages and will kill dozens of them in action scenes without a second thought, here Hubbard... presents the whites as bloodthirsty savages and kills dozens of them in action scenes without a second thought.  It's a "fair" portrayal insomuch the roles have swapped, but he's still reducing one group to villainous caricatures and putting the other on a pedestal.

I'm not saying that what happened to the Native Americans wasn't disgraceful, I'm saying just because a group endured betrayal and genocide doesn't make them all saints and all their enemies devils.  Life is a bit more nuanced than that.  Some of those voyageurs and bullies and whatnot interacting with the natives during the booming days of the fur trade probably had no real problem with them, may even have respected the Indians for being able to survive in the wilderness.  But in Hubbard's world, these fur traders are all recruited from prisons and are murderous drunkards all too happy to find an excuse to kill a redskin.  Though ultimately victims of white imperialism, the real-life Native Americans were just as capable of conquest and doing nasty things to each other (frickin' Aztecs).  In the novel, we can at best infer this from a few references to the Blackfoot's fearsome reputation on the plains and the captives they've taken from other tribes, but the author repeatedly insists that they are both honorable gentleman and victims of baseless aggression.

Now, we can't expect every pulp Western adventure novel to care deeply about presenting a historically-accurate and balanced portrayal of each civilization involved in the story.  Sometimes you just wanna read about a sheriff plugging some outlaws, you know?  But in a work that's hyping itself as one that gives an accurate depiction of the American Indians, you might want to make the effort.

But that's all how the book handles the Indians in general.  In particular this story is about the Blackfoot, supposedly based on the time lil' Hubbard spent dancing around the tribal campfire and absorbing their history and culture with all the attention to detail that preschoolers are known for.  So what did we learn about what it's like to be a Blackfoot?

Not all that much, really.

We learned that one group called themselves the Pikuni, as a substitute for the name Piegan.  They thought beavers were sacred and didn't like to travel in boats.  If you read the book's glossary at the end you might learn that the Blackfoot counted "coups" or feats of bravery when determining a warrior's status.  Their afterlife is something called the Sand Hills.  Hubbard claims they called their scouts "Wolves" and could communicate to a degree with their namesakes.  He also thinks that families arranged marriages and Blackfoot women had no say in the matter, which conflicts with some sources I've found.

And... what else... they lived in lodges based on societies that weren't important to the story.  And I suppose they were peerless warriors and noble and honorable especially when compared to those scurvy whites.  We didn't learn where the name "Blackfoot" came from, as far as I can remember - I had to look it up and it has to do with moccasin color.  And of course the much-hyped "never pass the peace pipe across the lodge door" thing never came up.  Can't remember them even mentioning the peace pipe.

It's another failing that we see in both Hubbard's first book and his last.  Much like how we never got a sense for the goodness of Voltar in Mission Earth because he focused on the Apparatus-infested parts of it, in Buckskin Brigades we're introduced to the Blackfoot when they're in crisis, and then our viewpoint character runs off for a couple of years.  So we know what it's like to be a Blackfoot itching to join a war party before being called into a council meeting, who then travels to a fur trading post and spends the next couple of years alternatively barely getting along with, getting betrayed by, and fighting white folks.  Or more specifically, we know what it's like for a white guy raised as a Blackfoot to do this stuff.  Because for whatever reason the author decided the main character had to be a honky.

We miss out on the tribe's history, and most of its culture.  We don't see any festivals and just get hints of its religion.  The chapter spent summarizing Bright Star's activity at home is the closest we come to a look at normalcy for these people.  The most we can say about how the Blackfoot live is that they have lodges, wear buckskins, ride horses and hunt game.  Not a whole lot that distinguishes them from their neighbors, in other words. 

Now in our age of high-speed internet and online encyclopedias, we have to give the Ancients some credit for being able to assemble even basic facts from dead trees.  But Buckskin Brigades feels more like an elementary school report listing tribal trivia than a proper introduction to one of the First Nations.  The Blackfoot as presented are an otherwise generic ethnic group given some bare embellishments through the author's inclusion of names and terminology... which come to think of it could be said about those Canadian fur traders as well.  I mean, if Hubbard didn't call them voyageurs and bullies and whatnot, what would distinguish them from just another batch of white squatters?

In the end, Buckskin Brigades is an underwhelming adventure story and a shallow portrayal of a group of American Indians.  It's simple escapism with racist undertones in which a perfect hero is at war with a corrupt, irredeemable civilization.  It twists and disregards history to fit a particular narrative, and combines a minimum of facts with a good deal of fiction to try and present its author as some sort of expert or authority on a subject. 

It's a pretty good introduction to L. Ron Hubbard, in other words.

Back to an Envoi 

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