The Wades in the Waters

In late September, 1918 a 3-year-old Blackfeet child, Woodrow Lazyboy, collapsed with fever. After a long and difficult night, he died as the sun rose. His parents would not be the only Blackfeet to lose a loved one.

The Amskapi Piikani had lost many to smallpox over the previous century. Tuberculosis further decimated their numbers during the first two decades of the twentieth century. They would not stand by and allow another epidemic to tear at the fabric of their culture.

Seeking both traditional and modern solutions, Amskapi Piikani leaders invited the Red Cross to set up a chapter in Browning. Among them were Under Owl Woman (Julia Wades in the Water) and her husband, Wades in the Water. The Medicine Owls, the Last Stars, the Wolf Tails, Mrs. Bull Calf, Mrs. Champine, and Mrs. Powell also joined the chapter.

Mrs. Medicine Owl, Mrs. Last Star, Mrs. Louise Champine, Wades in the Water, Julia Wades in the Water, Wolf Tail, Mrs. Wolf Tail, Mrs. Bull Calf; Blackfeet Red Cross Chapter, Browning, MT; Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LOC), Prints and Photographs Division.

Wades in the Water was one of the last old-time tribal leaders; he championed many causes for his people.

Billings Gazette (September 21, 1947)

Wades in the Water was the son of Running Crane and his wife Light Over the Hill, a leading family of the Blackfoot Confederacy.

Wades in the Water in traditional regalia (1910), Photograph by Edward S. Curtis, Courtesy of LOC, Prints and Photographs Division.

When federal agents wanted to form a tribal police force on the reservation, Blackfeet elders advised them to talk to the Crazy Dog Society. Traditionally, the Crazy Dogs functioned as peacekeepers in daily life. They encouraged people to resolve conflict through apology, compensation, or a change in behavior. The Crazy Dogs also helped ensure the proper performance of spiritual ceremonies.

Wades in the Water in police uniform with badge, Courtesy of LOC, Prints and Photographs Division.

As tribal police, the Crazy Dogs continued their traditional role. By 1905, Wades in the Water was Chief of the Blackfeet Tribal Police. He appointed his wife, Julia, to the tribal police force as well. They would serve on the force until the mid-1930s. Julia was the first Indigenous police woman in the United States. Wades in the Water was one of the last traditional chiefs of the Blackfeet Nation.

Blackfeet husband and wife teams sometimes took up community responsibilities together. Some couples shared the care of medicine bundles, learning and teaching the ceremonies that came through these sacred objects. Others shared civil leadership. The Wades in the Waters did both.

Julia Wades in the Water and Wades in the Water, Courtesy of Montana State University.
Julia Wades in the Water wearing beaded dress. Photographed by Herbert Titter. Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society (MHS) Legacy Photograph Collection, Siksika.

Julia Wades in the Water managed the jail in Browning and assisted with female suspects. Dolores Racine, her great-granddaughter, said,

“She was very strong and well respected.

“She (Julia) was deeply invested in maintaining the values and safety of the Blackfeet community… No one… was in jail for long, and propriety covered up a lot of suffering that visiting whites never saw.

Dolores Racine, great-granddaughter of Julia Wades in the Water

Julia Wades in the Water (1938). Photographed by William Yale. Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, MT.

When influenza struck, the Wades in the Waters rallied support for the Red Cross. Wolf Tail and his wife donated $50.00 to the Browning chapter. The Blackfeet Red Cross educated people about mask-wearing and quarantine.

Wades in the Water and Chief Bull in traditional regalia with tipi in Glacier Park (1933). Courtesy of the MHS Legacy Photograph Collection, Siksika.

As the epidemic faded, the Wades in the Waters remained active, promoting both traditional values and innovations. They greeted tourists in Glacier National Park wearing full regalia, a proud statement of their culture. They used their relationships with influential people who came to the reservation and Glacier National Park to advocate for the Blackfeet Nation.

The Wades in the Waters were committed to the cultural traditions and spiritual practices of the Amskapi Piikani, a web of ceremony and connection that had guided, healed, and strengthened their people for thousands of years.

Julia Wades in the Water wearing stand-up headdress. Courtesy of the Blackfoot Digital Archive, Kanai Studies Archives, Alberta, Canada.

The influenza pandemic revealed that in Blackfeet country, cultural tradition and innovation were not at odds when the Amskapi Piikani chose how to combine them.

Still, Native people in Montana died of the flu at alarming rates compared to white Montanans.

Children at boarding schools were especially vulnerable, crowded together in dorms and stressed by separation from their families, military discipline, and assaults on their cultural identities. This film will explore how indigenous people strategized to protect their families and communities.