26 April 2017

Mudeater: An American Buffalo Hunter and the Surrender of Louis Riel
by John D. Pihach
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$27.95 ISBN 9-780889-774582

It’s significant when an illustrious individual appropriates an ancestry, ie: Archie Belaney reinventing himself as Grey Owl. Frontiersman Irvin Mudeater had Grey Owl beat: Mudeater switched back and forth between Indian and European ancestry each time he crossed the 49th Parallel. Born to a Wyandot Chief in Kansas, Mudeater’s story encompasses buffalo hunting, stage coach driving, the Civil War, and criminal activity that saw him flee to Canada in 1882 and become “Robert Armstrong,” the white man who settled in Prince Albert and was credited (with two others) for bringing Louis Riel into custody in 1885.

Yorkton writer John D. Pihach became fascinated with Mudeater/Armstrong’s Wild West and Canadian stories after learning that his neighbor was the great-grandson of the famous man, and that Armstrong had written an accessible and unpublished memoir. Considering Armstrong’s storytelling penchant, “some of his claims relating to certain historical events appear unconvincing,” but Pihach believes the “savage nature” of his “Indian” encounters are reliable. The result is the book Mudeater: An American Buffalo Hunter and the Surrender of Louis Riel, which includes the memoir, photographs, and reports concerning Riel by reporters and others.

Mudeater’s great-grandfather was found as a starving and abandoned Caucasian child by a party of Wyandots; the boy was eating riverbank mud to survive. The Wynadot’s adopted him and christened him Mud Eater. Irvin Mudeater’s father was politically active, serving as a longtime Wynadot chief and council member who helped establish Kansas, and led his beleaguered nation from Kansas to Indian Territory in Oklahoma. Interestingly, there’s no mention of Mudeater’s own Indian ancestry in his memoirs, thus avoiding a conflict of cultural interest when he aided in Riel’s arrest.

Mudeater’s spectacular experiences included nearly losing his life to Cheyenne warriors while driving a freight wagon over the Sante Fe Trail; “[practicing] scalping on dead bodies” after a battle; joining Buffalo Bill’s crew to supply meat for railroad workers; making pets of an eagle and panther; and killing a man “while on a drunken spree” in Wallace, Kansas.

In 1883 Mudeater was living in Prince Albert, captivating folks with his Wild West tales (including the killing of 126 buffalo in one day), and transporting settlers from Qu’Appelle to Prince Albert. During the 1885 conflict he became a chief scout for General Middleton, then a hero upon Riel’s capture. Post-1885, Armstrong became a family man but kept things colourful re: shenanigans that included shooting the toe off a man, and returning to live in the US with two of his daughters before retirement in Calgary, then a final return to the US.

Mudeater’s sometimes rough and often boastful memoir (“at the age of fifteen years, I had a man’s experience and I had almost said a man’s strength”) and the articles and oral accounts concerning him sketch a captivating portrait of the pioneer, but Pihach admits that much of the hot-tempered hero’s life remains a mystery. Anyone who enjoys tales of the Wild West and/or the Riel Rebellion – and wishes to hear them straight from the horse’s mouth – will find much to chew on in this entertaining book.


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