Promises to Keep

  • J. Edward Chamberlin
    The Banker and the Blackfoot: A Memoir of My Grandfather in Chinook Country. Knopf Canada (purchase at
Reviewed by Heather Macfarlane

J. Edward Chamberlin’s landmark book, If This Is Your Land, Where Are Your Stories? Finding Common Ground, made a huge impact on my academic life, and shaped my theoretical approaches to literature. I didn’t hesitate, therefore, to agree to review his latest book, The Banker and the Blackfoot: A Memoir of My Grandfather in Chinook Country. I wasn’t quite as prepared for the almost four-hundred-page hardcover that didn’t fit in my mailbox, and I confess that I was a little put off by the idea of reading that many pages about what the title seemed to indicate was the memoir of a settler banker in Alberta. The title is an odd choice, given that Chamberlin sets out to accomplish much more than tracing family history. This book, like his others, demonstrates the importance of the local, or the personal, in understanding the universal, and it is precisely this focus on place and the personal that makes his prescriptions for the future feasible.

The book details twenty years in the life of Chamberlin’s grandfather John (Jack) Cowdry following the signing of Treaty 7 by the Canadian Government and five Plains First Nations. At the heart of the text is the story of the friendship between Cowdry—a settler newly arrived in the foothills from Ontario—and Blood Chief Crop Eared Wolf. This relationship between settler and Blackfoot captures the spirit of the years between 1885 and 1905, which, Chamberlin argues, offers the key to future Indigenous-settler relations, and is symbolized by the quirt, or riding crop, that Crop Eared Wolf gave Cowdry as a gift. The quirt, carved and painted by Crop Eared Wolf, is covered in Blackfoot iconography, and tells stories of heroic exploits and Blackfoot history. Chamberlin explains that the quirt is much more than a gift between friends, but rather a testament to the responsibility of recognizing and honouring Blackfoot stories. The book, Chamberlin writes, is his way of keeping alive “the obligation that came with that gift and flowed from that friendship.”

Just as these motives extend far beyond the personal, this impressively researched book extends far beyond the life of one man. John Cowdry’s stories dictate the time and place, and are the colourful material of Western movies, complete with stick-ups and saloons, but also loyalty and suffering, and a focus on the real lives and histories of the Blackfoot. Those concerned with fact might well question some of the fiction that goes into creating a good story and into Chamberlin’s romanticization of his grandfather, a selfless, courageous, and magnanimous rancher-turned-banker. This is how the author imagines the story, however, and how he manages to create a hero—or in this case two heroes—who can serve as an example for settler-Indigenous relations. Chamberlin reminds us that we are “all treaty people,” and that it is modest or local stories such as his that recall “a place of promise and a time when good people . . . believed in keeping promises.” This is perhaps what sets this book apart from a historical account. Chamberlin highlights the importance of imagining the real, and the significance of stories to creating what he calls a way forward. The text includes his trademark philosophical discussions of stories, home, the imagination, horses, and ultimately finding common ground, and the author uses writers and poets such as Oscar Wilde, John Keats, and Charles Dickens along with the Carter family, Johnny Cash, and cowboy poets to illustrate the narrative.

Those years between the signing of Treaty 7 and the turn of the twentieth century—the years when people kept their word, as Chamberlin puts it, and respected the treaty—are what offer hope. Far from seeing the world through rose-coloured glasses, however, Chamberlin chooses this story to imagine a solution, and doesn’t shy away from tragedy. In the first half of the book he references the disappearance of the buffalo—devastating for plains peoples—on almost every page. He describes residential schools as “institutionalized holocaust,” refers to reserves as refugee camps, and accuses the government of withholding clean water from reserves to punish Indigenous peoples for resisting authority. Remarkably, however, he is still able to imagine a future where there is hope for reciprocity between Indigenous and settler cultures, and he manages to do this without ever encroaching on Indigenous autonomy. Offering up his grandfather’s story as an example, he imagines a Canadian nation that keeps its promises and recognizes Indigenous sovereignties.

This review “Promises to Keep” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 138-139.

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