WEATHER ALERT

Long Lance’s story was short on truth

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In the 1920s, Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance (1890–1932) presented a welcome positive image of the First Nations in Western Canada.

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Opinion

In the 1920s, Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance (1890–1932) presented a welcome positive image of the First Nations in Western Canada.

After service overseas in England and France, the Canadian Expeditionary Force veteran took his discharge and went to work for the Calgary Herald. After three years as a journalist at the Herald, he left in search of opportunities to write about the Indigenous peoples, first in British Columbia, and then Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

He explained the urgency of his task in a piece that appeared in the Winnipeg Tribune on Feb. 10, 1923: “While historical societies are daily springing into existence all over the West in a concerted endeavour to preserve the early history of this broad country before all of the old-timers have passed away, the aboriginal history of the Canadian west is silently passing into oblivion, unnoticed by the hurrying crowds who are yet but pioneers in this territory.”

Long Lance wrote a series of feature articles about the First Nations in Manitoba throughout the late winter of spring of 1923.

The travelling journalist searched out important stories, including those relating injustices against the First Nations. In a March 3, 1923, article, for instance, he reviewed the 1907 land sale at St. Peter’s, at Selkirk, north of Winnipeg. “As a result of a series of cloudy transactions” and “considerable crooked work,” the First Nations “sold” their good agricultural lands at St. Peters and moved to their present location, an isolated spot with inferior soil at Fisher River northwest of Winnipeg: “Here they live today, harbouring considerable discontent over the manner in which they were treated in this deal.”

The Tribune liked his smooth and popular writing style. They assigned him other stories, not always on Indigenous topics. Winnipeg became his home base for the next four winters, before he decamped to New York City. He also started selling stories to other newspapers and magazines across North America.

Handsome, well-dressed and articulate, Long Lance travelled in all social circles in Winnipeg, the largest city on the Prairies. He was at ease at the podium, and spoke to gatherings of authors, to church and local service clubs. Rumours of Long Lance and his accomplishments raced through the city. In May of 1923 the Tribune described him as “the youngest chief west of the Great Lakes and one by blood inheritance.”

Garnet Clay Porter, a.k.a. “The Colonel,” a senior journalist at the Tribune at the time, reported Long Lance had two university degrees. Long Lance himself convinced Prof. W.T. Allison of the department of English at the University of Manitoba, and the Tribune’s literary editor, that in the war he had won the Italian War Cross as well as the Croix de Guerre.

In an article in the Vancouver Sun on Aug. 27, 1922, he had clearly identified his Indigenous background in his reference to his “own country, the Plains” and his “fellow tribesmen the Blood Indians of Alberta.” The Blood (Kainai), with the Blackfoot (Siksika) and the Peigan (Piikuni) are the three Blackfoot-speaking nations in the Blackfoot Confederacy.

In 1928, the Cosmopolitan Book Corp. published Long Lance, his autobiography as Blackfoot or Blood in the last days of the buffalo. Two years later he starred in a major feature film about the First Nations in northern Canada before the arrival of the Europeans.

At the height of his fame, Long Lance’s stature as a public figure began to decline. Rumours began to circulate that he was not who he claimed to be.

After his death in 1932, his story began to unravel. Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance was neither Blackfoot nor Blood Indian from the Plains of Montana and Alberta, but rather a man of mixed heritage: European, Indigenous and African-American. He was born Sylvester Clark Long, and he was raised in the factory town of Winston-Salem, N.C., where the state classified his family as “coloured.”

Looking back, one of Long Lance’s early talks in Winnipeg — perhaps the first he gave in the city, exactly 100 years ago this week, on Jan. 15, 1923 — deserves particular attention. On that occasion, at a Canadian Authors Association (CAA) meeting at the University of Manitoba, then on Broadway in downtown Winnipeg, Long Lance met clergyman Rev. John Maclean, who knew southern Alberta well.

In the 1880s, Maclean had lived among the Bloods for nine years as a Christian missionary. He was fluent in Blackfoot, their language.

In their conversation at the CAA talk, Long Lance mentioned that he belonged to the “Blood tribe of Indians,” but casually introduced that “his mother was of the Cherokee tribe.” He indicated she belonged to the Cherokee Nation to explain his own lack of fluency in Blackfoot.

To Maclean, something seemed to be, well, not quite right. But on account of his two jobs and legal studies, even if he had wanted to, had no reserve of energy left to investigate this interesting disclosure. Only after Long Lance’s death did the truth become known.

His invented Plains Indian identity notwithstanding, Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance made a positive contribution to non-Indigenous Canadians’ perceptions of the First Nations of Canada. As the late Alberta historian and museum curator Hugh A. Dempsey noted, Long Lance conducted “valuable field work at a time when few ethnologists, and even fewer journalists, were concerned about the history of the Indian.”

Donald B. Smith will be making a public presentation on his book Seen But Not Seen: Influential Canadians and the First Nations from the 1840s to Today, winner of the 2022 JW Dafoe Book Prize, on Tuesday, Jan. 17, at 7 p.m. at Hanley Hall, St. Paul’s College, at the University of Manitoba.

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