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A Pencil to the Past

March 18th, 2009 · 11 Comments · Adirondack Life

Silly me.  Had a meeting on Saturday – typical blah, blah, blah.  K. was nice enough to provide some meeting supplies.  Always count on a schoolteacher to have plenty of pads and pencils.  Of course, I immediately become fascinated with the pencils (sorry folks!).  I gotta get out more, as some might say, because I had never seen these before.

The Blackfeet Indian Pencil

The Blackfeet Indian Pencil

The Blackfeet Indian Pencil 2

“Hey, what’s up with these pencils?”  It seems that K’s father was also a schoolteacher who used to supply his kids with these pencils.  “Really, is that the box?”  The box was in prime, unopened condition.  She mentioned something about 25 years ago…maybe that’s when her dad passed?  Anyway, full-box, all nicely pointy.

These aren’t your typical cheap big-box brand pencil.  Note the tight grain and elegant finish.  The rubber on the erasers was useless after all these years, but you can imagine how nice they must have worked.  A little research got me this:

Blackfeet Indian Pencils

The pencils were made in Browning, Montana by the Blackfeet Indian Writing Company as part of a tribal owned economic initiative.

The Blackfeet Indian Pencil revisited

The company was founded in 1972, and sold by the Blackfeet Nation to a private firm in 1992. In 1997, sales were a mere 27,000 pencils [1]. That’s probably a minuscule fraction of the number sold by the large firms. I’m not sure when they folded, but it seems to be around 2000.

Well, that’s pretty dang interesting.  Gone forever is the means to produce these writing instruments.

According to Pencils.com (heh),

Due to the unique brand position given the social and economic benefits gained for a time by the Blackfoot tribe from these operations the Blackfeet brand developed a somewhat loyal customer base. Part of their orginal market advantage was that the Blackfeet factory received a special designation for US government bids. Eventually, this factory lost its competitiveness in this arena to the Industries of the Blind pencil operations located in Milwaukee.

On a side note, any vending operations at “the Center” must remit a percentage “off-the-top” to some kind of association for the blind.  Thus, we have no vending.  The pencil business sounds pretty rough.  But how rough?  Read on for some really interesting and scary history:

All this is fine and good, a happy story of a poor tribe using good judgment and business sense to get along in a white man’s world. Except for one little flaw…

Back in the early 1800’s, when the Native Americans still owned most of the central, northern, and western United States, the Blackfoot were hellacious warriors and all-around troublemakers in the Plains Indian world.

They were renowned for their tracking capabilities, their skill at hunting, and their apparently genetic hatred for anyone who was not another Blackfoot. This included other Indians and all white people. Abraham Lincoln’s short tour of duty in the Army was spent fighting Blackfoot war parties.

The Blackfoot were so deranged and violent, in fact, they were among the first of the western Native American tribes brought completely to heel by the Army, and only then after nearly thirty years of hard fighting.

A Sioux war-party raid on the factory!

From there they broke into a silent, single-file trot for the massive pencil factory. There had not been a Sioux war party in living memory, and the lack of practice soon made itself evident. Things went awry immediately. Having broken into the darkened pencil factory the drunken Sioux first realized no one had brought a flashlight. Then a member of their war party tripped over a five gallon bucket of yellow pencil paint, startling the rest, and a fist fight broke out. This was only brought under control when someone turned the factory lights on. This alerted the lone 81 year old night-watchman at the far end of the plant. He did not know who was fighting whom at the far end of the factory, but his eyes were sharp enough to see that they were Native Americans, some in war paint, and that he didn’t recognize any of them. The ancient Blackfoot gene kicked in, and he sounded the factory whistle. Lights came on in homes all across the reservation.

By the time the furious and liquored-up Sioux came to their senses and discovered they’d been fighting each other in the dark, hordes of Blackfoot workers and tribal policemen were rushing towards the building carrying everything from fire extinguishers to truncheons to antique cap-and-ball pistols which had been hidden from the damned white men for over a century.

Alas, these were not “war pencils”.  Just the regular, black ferrule type.

Finally, allow me to draw your attention to the illustration on the box.  It’s a Remington!

A fantasy from the Pony war dance

Here are some more links to assist you in your pencil musings:

Frederic Remington Art Museum

Frederic Remington | The Color of Night

Frederic Remington – The Complete Works

Could Blackfeet Become the Next Blackwings?

Humdog on Native pencils.

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11 Comments so far ↓

  • Small Pines

    Oooh … good Adk connection too – Remington and all.

  • TourPro

    I admit it was a thin connection, but hey, our meeting did happen in the Adirondacks.

  • Kathy

    I think this is the most productive thing to ever come out of one of our meetings!

  • TourPro

    Thanks Kathy….I think.

    Meetings are always….meetings, and we are no different. However, I think we managed to cover some important issues and things are coming together.

    We are a diverse group, that’s for sure, but we have excellent energy! Plus, I learned some really interesting trivia which I have completely bored my family with. “Are you a pencil-geek too?”

  • adkmac

    This is interesting to me since I am part Blackfoot Indian. I’ll have to ask my grandma about this…

  • TourPro

    Please do, I’d love to hear some more stories. None of the “older” ladies around my office remember seeing these ever.

    Glad you stopped by, I think I’ve missed your blog along the way somewhere…

  • Chicago neurosurgery

    This is really interesting! I had no idea about any of this. I am extremely interested in Native American history since the entire U.S. tried to forget all about it. Regards!

  • corin

    I remember my father having these pencils when I was very young. I think they came from his father’s house and coincidentally his mother was a teacher. I recall them working very well and it was a bonus that they were already sharpened to a nice point. They were in the same box. I remember wondering how the “blackfeet indians” actually made pencils. Cool post.

  • Native American Humor

    Somewhat sad, but humorous story. I do applaud the Blackfeet for starting their enterprise back in 1972 before tribes started any form of businesses for their people. Still laudable in an age when tribes sell primarily vices- tobacco and gambling.

  • Vince

    I used to buy these pencils from the Coldwater Creek catalog. I was saddened when they disappeared forever. I still have a few cedar boxes of them at the house, but they are off limits to everyone – my personal prized possessions.
    Thanks for the post, though it took me years to find it!

  • TourPro

    Glad you enjoyed Vince.

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