Alberta author Hugh Dempsey remembered for chronicles of First Nations history

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Alberta writer and historian Hugh Dempsey died Tuesday at the age of 92. (Submitted by Dempsey family - image credit)
Alberta writer and historian Hugh Dempsey died Tuesday at the age of 92. (Submitted by Dempsey family - image credit)

Writer and historian Hugh Dempsey, who worked with Indigenous elders to help chronicle the stories of First Nations people, died this week. He was 92.

The Alberta-born storyteller began his career as a journalist and became one of the province's leading historians, later named chief curator emeritus of the Glenbow Museum. He was also a recipient of the Order or Canada and regarded by some as the dean of Alberta historians.

His family says he cherished the honour bestowed upon him by the Kainai Nation when he was made an honorary chief.

"He had lots of other accolades … and they're all really important to him in different ways," his son, John Dempsey, told CBC News on Wednesday.

"But certainly his love of First Nations, his love of the Blood people. I think when they made him an honorary chief, that was something that [he] just relished."

Dempsey's passion for First Nations issues began when he was a reporter with the Edmonton Bulletin in 1949, according to his son.

"He attended a meeting of the Indian Association of Alberta — just as a reporter — and found a real love for … the stories that were being told and saw a gap in how the media was reporting on First Nations issues," said his son.

It was at one of those meetings that Dempsey also met his future wife, Pauline Gladstone, the daughter of James Gladstone, who was member of the Kainai Nation, a rancher, senator and Indigenous rights activist.

"James had brought his daughter along, Pauline, to a couple of the meetings, and they just they just hit it off. And it led to a more than 70-year-long love for both of them," said John Dempsey.

Submitted by Dempsey family
Submitted by Dempsey family

They married in 1953, and through the relationship, Dempsey was introduced to Indigenous culture on the Blood reserve. After listening to the many stories and histories shared by Blackfoot elders, he wanted to make sure they weren't lost to time.

"I think what he saw is that he needed to reflect the words of the elders themselves," John Dempsey said.

"He wanted to document the experiences of First Nations people who witnessed these key events in history and then tell the story, but trying to tell it as close to the person's voice as he could."

Dempsey was made an honorary chief of the Kainai Nation in 1967.

Former Blood Tribe chief Charles Weaselhead acknowledged his work in 2019 when announcing Dempsey would receive an honorary degree from the University of Lethbridge.

"Hugh Dempsey has played a very important role in the history of our province and more specifically, that of the Blackfoot people," Weaselhead, the university's chancellor, said in a statement at the time.

"Through his stories and his dedication to capturing the history of First Nations peoples from the elders themselves, he has helped preserve a proud culture for future generations."

Among his many books are The Amazing Death of Calf Shirt and Other Blackfoot Stories: Three Hundred Years of Blackfoot History, Red Crow: Warrior Chief and Tom Three Persons: Legend of an Indian Cowboy.

Dempsey's long association with the Glenbow Museum began in the 1950s. He was key to designing and managing the Glenbow Archives. He also served as its acting director before retiring in 1991.

In retirement, he was named chief curator emeritus of the Glenbow Museum.

Author and historian Rob Lennard, director of education and outreach at the historic Bow Valley Ranche in Calgary, called Dempsey both a friend and mentor.

Lennard, also known as the History Wrangler, said he'll remember Dempsey as "Mister Alberta History."

"He had an absolute, undying passion for Alberta history," said Lennard, adding that Dempsey was like a "kid in a candy store" when surrounded by historic books and artifacts.

"He was just an absolute wealth of information and certainly a wonderful gentleman."

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