Remembering Hugh Dempsey, Alberta Storyteller and Historian

Unforgettable storyteller helped secure Alberta’s place in history

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Hugh Dempsey was an unforgettable storyteller and historian who helped ensure that Alberta’s history would be more fully and richly remembered. Not only was he emeritus chief curator of the Glenbow Museum; he also wrote over 20 books with a favorite subject being that of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Dempsey – who had a passion for history, education and learning – died on Tuesday aged 92. The following excerpt is from an article by Don Smith that was recently published by Alberta History magazine.

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By Don Smith

The first time I heard Hugh Dempsey speak was at the University of Toronto in June 1974. A few weeks earlier, I had obtained a teaching position in Canadian history at the University of Calgary, starting this fall. Hugh’s contribution to the Canadian Historical Association panel was based on Crowfoot, his remarkable biography of the famous Chief Blackfoot. The Alberta historian spoke of the Plains First Nations as “inside” in terms of flesh and blood. As a graduate student, I had been studying Indigenous Canadian history for five years, but never before had I heard the subject come alive.

Years later, I asked Hugh about his attendance at the conference. The dedicated journal keeper checked his journals and found this entry: “Friday, June 7 [1974] Toronto: This morning I was part of a three-man panel discussing the writing of Indian histories at the meeting of the Canadian Historical Association. It went very well. Tonight I started a week of vacation, during which I want to research Charcoal.

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He was already on the trail of other Aboriginal history topics.

In Calgary that winter and in the years that followed, the popular historian assisted the new instructor from Ontario with numerous research projects and provided him with valuable writing tips. For over a third of a century, Hugh has given my classes guest lectures on topics such as Crowfoot, Red Crow and Big Bear. These interviews were delivered using a scrap of paper, usually an old envelope with a few pencil notes on it.

Over seven decades, Hugh has contributed greatly to our understanding of the heritage of the Canadian prairies. What initially contributed to his future pursuit of Alberta’s past? His mother, English war bride, Lily Louise Sharp, deserves much of the credit. Hugh portrayed his mother in his 2011 memoir, Always an Adventure, as the major influence on his childhood in Edmonton. She taught him “to be independent and encouraged him to be creative”, he writes in this book. . . After a few false starts, (Dempsey) got a job as a copyist at the Edmonton Bulletin. In a few days, he realizes that he wants to become a writer. He became a junior and then a senior journalist, and at the age of 21 he became a provincial editor. In the process, he learned the skills of a seasoned popular writer, such as the importance of the opening sentence, the value of being concise.

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A life-changing event occurred in early February 1950. As a reporter, Hugh attended an executive meeting of the Indian Association of Alberta (IAA). It changed the whole direction of his life. There he meets Pauline Gladstone, the pretty daughter of the president of the IAA, James Gladstone. . . Hugh and Pauline were married in 1953. In James Gladstone’s biography The Gentle Persuader, Hugh writes: “I was part of a close-knit extended family of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins ​​and people whose exact relationship was uncertain. . It’s a wonderful thing about Indian families – bloodlines are less important than mutual acceptance of someone as “family”. “Pauline fully supported him in his work. With a family of five children in the 1960s, both young parents were extremely busy. In their order of priority, family came first.

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Through the Gladstone family, Hugh entered the First Nations world, a world totally unknown to most non-Aboriginal Albertans. . . . Hugh became a valuable bridge between worlds, imparting invaluable knowledge about the Indigenous world to non-Indigenous Albertans. . . . In 1956 Hugh joined Calgary’s new Glenbow Foundation. He was archivist from 1956 to 1967, then curator/director from 1967 to 1991. . . . During these years, Hugh’s quest for Aboriginal oral history reached its peak. He began writing about the Blackfoot (Siksika) and Blood (Kainai) nations, aided by his stepfather’s skills as an interpreter. His stepfather had a thorough knowledge of modern and ancient words in the Blackfoot languages. “In speaking to me, (James Gladstone) gave me all that was said, including the conversations. . . . battles, the supernatural and the accomplishments of great leaders.

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Hugh Dempsey has written over 20 books;  his favorite subject was the Blackfoot Confederacy.
Hugh Dempsey has written over 20 books; his favorite subject was the Blackfoot Confederacy. Photo by Postmedia file

In 1990, Hugh took early retirement from Glenbow, ending a 35-year term, becoming Chief Curator Emeritus. . . . He received an honorary doctorate from the University of Calgary in 1974 and the Order of Canada the following year. . . . Perhaps Hugh’s greatest reward was being inducted as an honorary leader of the Bloods. At this ceremony, he was given the name Blackfoot de Potaina, or Flying Chief, after Pauline’s grandfather.

The tireless Alberta historian continued his writing and research during his retirement. . . . Several new titles were released after his seventieth birthday. . . (and) in the fall of 2016, Hugh published The Great Blackfoot Treaties, a summary of much of his work on the history of the Blackfoot Confederacy and the Stoney Nakoda of southern Alberta. Of his role as a historian, Hugh told George Melynk in a 1995 interview that he considered himself “a writer who has entered the realm of history. I tried not to be an academic writer. When you write something, you should try to communicate to your audience, whoever it is.

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It speaks volumes of this devoted Albertan’s commitment to the history of his province that he edited the magazine that began life as Alberta Historical Reviewbecoming later Alberta history, for sixty-three years. His remarkable tenure as editor did not end until he was 91 when he retired after the publication of the fall 2020 issue. What a career, what a contribution to Albertans’ knowledge of their past.

Author’s note: I am very grateful to Alberta Views for publishing my previous article, “Hugh Dempsey. Dean of Alberta history — and bridge between worlds,” January/February 2016, p. 426. It was a great pleasure to work with Alberta author Fred Stenson, who superbly edited my memoir.


Don Smith taught Canadian history from 1974 to 2009 and is now professor emeritus of history at the University of Calgary. A longer version of this article appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Alberta History, the quarterly journal of the Historical Society of Alberta (www.albertahistory.org) which Dempsey edited from 1958 to 2020.

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