Remembering Hugh Dempsey, an Alberta storyteller and historian

The unforgettable storyteller helped ensure Alberta’s place in history

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Hugh Dempsey was an unforgettable storyteller and historian who helped ensure Alberta’s history has been more fully and richly remembered. Not only was he chief curator emeritus of the Glenbow Museum; he also wrote more than 20 books with a favored subject being that of the Blackfoot Confederacy. Dempsey — who had a passion for history, education and learning — died Tuesday at age 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. Just a few weeks earlier, I had obtained a teaching position in Canadian history at the University of Calgary, to commence that fall. Hugh’s contribution to the Canadian Historical Association panel was based on Crowfoot, his outstanding biography of the famous Blackfoot chief. The Alberta historian spoke about the Plains First Nations from the “inside,” in flesh and blood terms. As a graduate student I had been studying Canadian Indigenous history for five years, but never before had I heard the topic come so alive.

Years later I asked Hugh about his participation in the conference. The dedicated diary keeper checked his journals of him 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 off very well. This evening I started a week’s holiday, during which time I want to do some research on Charcoal.”

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He was already on the trail of additional Indigenous history topics.

In Calgary that winter and in the years that followed, the popular historian helped the new instructor from Ontario with numerous research projects and provided invaluable writing tips. To my classes over a third of a century Hugh gave guest lectures on topics such as Crowfoot, Red Crow and Big Bear. These talks were delivered with the aid of a scrap of paper, usually an old envelope with some penciled notes on it.

Over seven decades Hugh has added greatly to our understanding of Prairie Canada’s heritage. What initially contributed to his future pursuit of Alberta’s past? His English war bride mother of him, Lily Louise Sharp, deserves much of the credit. Hugh portrayed his mother in his 2011 memoir, Always an Adventure, as the major influence in his Edmonton childhood. She taught him “to be independent and encouraged him to be creative,” he wrote in that book. . . After a few false starts, (Dempsey) obtained a job as a copy boy with the Edmonton Bulletin. Within days he realized that he wanted to be a writer. He rose to junior then senior reporter, and at the tender age of 21 became 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 altered the whole direction of his life from him. There he met Pauline Gladstone, the attractive daughter of IAA president James Gladstone. . . Hugh and Pauline married in 1953. In Hugh’s biography of James Gladstone, The Gentle Persuader, he wrote, “I had become part of a close-knit extended family of brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins ​​and people whose exact relationship was uncertain . That is a wonderful thing about Indian families — blood lines are less important than a mutual acceptance of someone as ‘family.’ ”Pauline fully supported him in his work. With a family of five children in the 1960s, both of the young parents were extremely busy. In their order of priorities, family came first.

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Through the Gladstone family, Hugh gained an entry into the First Nations’ world, one completely unknown to most non-Indigenous Albertans. . . . Hugh became a valued bridge between worlds, communicating invaluable knowledge of the Indigenous world to non-Indigenous Albertans. . . . In 1956, Hugh joined Calgary’s new Glenbow Foundation. He served as archivist from 1956 to 1967, and then as curator/director from 1967 to 1991. . . In these years, Hugh’s pursuit of indigenous oral history peaked. He began writing about the Blackfoot (Siksika) and Blood (Kainai) nations, assisted by his father-in-law’s skill as an interpreter. His father-in-law had an extensive knowledge of the Blackfoot languages’ modern and ancient words. “In speaking to me, (James Gladstone) gave me everything that was said, including the conversations. . . . The old people, speaking in Blackfoot with his father-in-law, told of buffalo hunts, battles, the supernatural and the accomplishments of great chiefs.”

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Hugh Dempsey wrote more than 20 books;  his favorite subject was the Blackfoot Confederacy.
Hugh Dempsey wrote more than 20 books; his favorite subject was the Blackfoot Confederacy. Photo by Postmedia file

In 1990, Hugh took early retirement from the Glenbow, ending a tenure 35 years long, 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 award was to be inducted as an honorary chief of the Bloods. At this ceremony I received the Blackfoot name of Potaina, or Flying Chief, the name of Pauline’s grandfather.

The tireless Alberta historian kept up his writing and research in retirement. . . . Several new titles came out after he turned seventy. . . (and) in fall 2016 Hugh published The Great Blackfoot Treaties, a summation 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 saw himself as “a writer who has entered the field of history. I tried not to be an academic writer. When you write something you should try to communicate to your audience, whoever that audience happens to be.”

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It says so much for this dedicated Albertan’s commitment to his province’s history that he edited the magazine that originated as the Alberta Historical Reviewlater becoming Alberta History, for sixty-three years. His remarkable tenure of him as editor only ended at age 91 with his retirement of him after the publication of the Autumn 2020 issue. What a career, what a contribution to Albertans’ knowledge of their past.

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


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

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