Representations of the Blackfoot: Carolyn Pogue’s “West Wind Calling”

The Legends Project is a CBC podcast venture dedicated to enlivening legends and stories from Canada’s Inuit and First Nations people. Recorded in both English and native languages at Red Crow College, these dramatic oral tales lend a welcome hand in preserving native histories and rituals left buried with ancestors or vulnerable to misrepresentation.

One episode of particular interest is Legends of the Kainai: Stories from the Blackfoot people of southern Alberta. Contributors to the episode include artist Faye Heavyshield and Red Crow College academic Marvin Calf Robe. Robe also heads the Blackfoot Digital Library, a project of Red Crow College whereby years of documentary footage and records are archived online for younger generations.

This podcast on the Kainai (Blackfoot) is intriguing for its parallels to the historically fictional characters in Carolyn Pogue’s West Wind Calling, the second novel in Pogue’s Gwen series. Tying together the five vivid stories illustrated in this episode and Pogue’s representation of the Blackfoot are themes of community, self-sufficiency, and the responsibility of story transfer.

Story transfer is an important concept to understand when listening to these tales — a kind of “ritualized process” through which stories and knowledge are imparted to the listener. The teller performing the knowledge transfer has the right and responsibility to pass on their knowledge, while simultaneously embodying all that it represents.

Such a process would take place under certain conditions, and a specific atmosphere would have to be created by the elders and the eager listeners. In West Wind Calling, when Gwen first encounters Big Tom, a member of the Blackfoot tribe, she expresses her desire to learn from him, at the same time acknowledging that any transfer would be dependent on Big Tom:

Big Tom eats in silence, but I can see he is alert to the sounds around us. He is not like anyone I have ever met. I can see that I can learn a lot from him if he will teach me.West Wind Calling.

The third story on this Legends podcase is about two brothers who are faced with the test of coexisting with their natural environment. The two brothers essentially end up in a situation where they must fend for themselves. The older brother is betrayed by his younger brother and left stranded on an island. He soon “realized he must not be sorry for himself. He hunted and provided everything he needed.” The older brother eventually returned the favour, and left his younger brother stranded on the very same island.  When spring returns, the older brother goes back to retrieve his younger brother, but finds no trace of him when he reaches shore. The shelter he designed is untouched; his younger brother has passed away: “Oh brother, if only you had known how to help yourself. If only you had known.”

Big Tom and and Grand  Mary of the Blackfoot community in West Wind Calling are equally self-sufficient. They hunt, make their own clothes, and built the reserve they live on, which reminds Gwen very much of a drawing she sees in Pauline Johnson’s White Wampum.Big Tom is also attuned to his surroundings, and even risks his own life to save three young boys caught among dangerous river currents. Gwen learns that if she simply looks around her environment, nature will share everything that is necessary for survival.

One Blackfoot contributer on the podacst discussed the importance these legends hold in promoting a certain way of life:

Our stories, our ceremonies…the purpose they serve, there’s different ways to say it. Life, our living life, as the way it’s intended. Those people that own those items, they’re obligated, that’s part of their responsibility, to transfer that knowledge so people can help themselves…to gain tools and understanding of how to live life the way it’s intended. Legends of the Kainai.

West Wind Calling very much respects the cultural history of the Blackfoot, Pogue ensures her representations of native culture are free of Western influence, a warranted fear among natives who don’t want the moral notes of their stories to be distorted. Of course variations in stories are a prominent characteristic of story transfer, a quality that will endure as long as histories and legends are shared through human connection.

“…My grandmother told me the story as long as i wanted to hear it. she told this to me many times, which is why i remember it.” – Legends of the Kainai.

West Wind Calling is now available on our website where you can check out an exclusive excerpt from the novel.

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