Photographer Norman Caple checked his equipment for one last photo at Gleichen, Alberta on a cold spring day in 1894. His resulting picture left us with something of a mystery.
Caple photographed the Blackfoot extensively in the late 1800s and was partnered with Vancouver photographer R. H. Trueman. He was a stickler for authenticity and did not use props or backdrops. The main subject of this photo was a Blackfoot scout with the North West Mounted Police southern Alberta detachment named Dog Child, also known as Winnipeg Jack. Dog Child was known for tracking horse thieves that ran stock across the U.S. border.
Behind the scout stands his wife named The Only Handsome Woman. She is wearing a buffalo hide dress with fringe and baubles and partially covered with a heavily beaded shawl. The beading is a blend of traditional patterns with a Christian cross on both arms. Her dark skirt is held in place by a beaded waistband with matching anklets over her moccasins. The horse she holds is small, unshod and carries some winter coat. He wears a cowboy saddle and bridle typical of the time, perhaps the standard issue for NWMP scouts.
Dog Child’s equipment appears to come from no single source and his outfit is a composite of various styles and origins. His bowler hat is decorated with several feathers while his hair is long and tightly braided. He appears to wear shiny discs, possibly as earrings. A bead and shell choker hangs around his neck partially covered by his buffalo fur coat. These coats were issued to the RCMP into the 20th century and were warm but very heavy. Dog Child carries a holstered revolver, “Hickok style” which is secured on a large, linked chain. It was the custom of the North West Mounted Police to secure their revolvers with a white lanyard in a manner somewhat similar to that used by Dog Child.
In short, from the picture, all seems just about as it should be, except for one piece of equipment?—?a Japanese Katana or Samurai sword! Two questions come to mind; why does he carry such a weapon and where did he get it?
The Katana is characterized by a curved, slender, single edged blade, with a circular or squared guard. It has a long grip for two hands. Known for their sharpness and strength they are associated with the Samurai of feudal Japan. Dog Child probably wore his sword on special occasions rather than for everyday use. He probably would not have been trained in the methods of the two-handed sword, nor have much opportunity to use the weapon. A scout was supposed to locate and interpret, but arrests were made by the accompanying constables.
The sword itself is similar to the type used by the Japanese Ninja. It is simple, undecorated and lacks any distinguishing marks. Traditionally the Ninja were viewed as black-clad warriors who were masters of illusion as well as the martial arts. One style of Ninjutsu was developed by mountain mystics in the Iga area of Japan as a means of self-protection.
Japanese immigration into the Canadian Northwest had begun around 1877, but earlier scattered contacts are recorded. As feuds in Japan may have been carried over with Japanese settlers, Ninja may have been drawn to Canada. There is no record of Caple having brought the sword with him, and in any case all of his other photographs of the Blackfoot are noted for their realism.
About Dog Child himself?—?little is known but there are several photos of him. He appears on the 1896-98 Blackfoot Band Annuity pay lists, but no date of birth or any personal data is given.
The actual events surrounding Dog Child’s acquisition of the sword may never be known to us. Did two warriors, one Japanese and the other Blackfoot, battle somewhere on the plains, with the latter becoming the victor who gained the sword as a prize?
Possibly the sword was obtained in trade. The question then arises as to what it was traded for and from whom it was obtained or what eventually happened to it. It is likely that Dog Child’s Samurai sword will remain just another mystery from the history of the Canadian West.