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Blackfeet

BLACKFEET

BLACKFEET. The Blackfeet live on what remains of their ancestral homeland: one reservation in northern Montana and three reserves in southern Alberta, Canada. This Blackfoot Confederacy is made up of three distinct nations who share a common language and a common history: the Kainai or Blood, the Siksika or Blackfoot, and the Northern and Southern Pikuni or Piegan. The Amskapi Pikuni or Southern Piegan live on their reservation in the United States and are known as the Blackfeet.

Blackfeet ancestral territory extends along the east side of the Rocky Mountains from the Yellowstone River in southern Montana, north to the North Saskatchewan River in Canada. Anthropologists believe that the Blackfeet originated in the northeast and migrated to their present location only a few centuries ago, while archaeologists think that their residence reaches back thousands of years. The Blackfeet believe they have always lived in their present location, and their complex mythology speaks of their origin and continued intimacy in this area of North America. The Blackfeet believe that within the earth, the water, and the sky reside a great variety of natural and supernatural beings. Within Blackfeet territory live not only the Niitsitapi—the original people—but also the Suwitapi, the underwater people and the Spomitapi, the sky people.

The Amskapi Pikuni divided themselves into dozens of bands of related families who lived together. Buffalo played a central role in the religious life of the Blackfeet as well as being their major source of food, clothing, shelter, and tools. In addition to the buffalo, the Blackfeet relied on plant roots and berries for subsistence and medicinal plants. Although often described as nomadic, their travels throughout their territory were strategic. The Blackfeet had extensive knowledge of the land and its uses.

The introduction of the horse (roughly 1725–1750) allowed the Blackfeet to travel greater distances, access a wider range of trading partners, and accumulate more food and material goods. Horses also enabled the Blackfeet to become more effective in controlling access within their territory. The earliest recorded contact between non-Natives and the Blackfeet is by David Thompson, an explorer who spent the winter of 1787 to 1788 with the Piegan in southern Alberta. He recorded that the Piegan had guns, metal pots, and other European objects for at least fifty years before his arrival. After initial contacts with traders, the Blackfeet attempted to control European access to their territory, in order to limit their enemies' access to guns, and to ensure they did not become overly dependent on Europeans themselves.

From the sixteenth century through the nineteenth century, European diseases such as smallpox and consumption wreaked havoc with the Blackfeet and diminished their ability to control their territory. Up to 18,000 Blackfeet died from smallpox during the 1836–1837 pandemic. Throughout this time the Blackfeet attempted to live autonomously and to pray for missaamipaitapiisin, a long life.

The Fort Laramie treaty of 1851 and Lame Bull's treaty with the United States (1855) began to define on paper Blackfeet territory. About thirty years later, the buffalo disappeared from the Great Plains. The loss of buffalo destroyed Blackfeet independence. They suffered a debilitating winter in 1883 and 1884 during which many Blackfeet died of starvation. The Blackfeet were forced to sell land on their eastern and western boundaries in 1888 and 1896 for food and moved onto what remained of their homeland.

As the twentieth century began, the Blackfeet needed to find a new livelihood and began to worry about their future, something they had never done before. The buffalo, the key element of their history, religion, and subsistence, were gone. The Blackfeet attempted to cooperate with the U.S. government but consistently struggled for control over their land and themselves. The government


wanted the Blackfeet to convert to Christianity and outlawed many Blackfeet religious practices. The government also started numerous agricultural programs on the reservation. These were paid for by the Blackfeet and over the years either failed or had limited success. The government forced Blackfeet children to attend American schools either on or off the reservation. These institutions suppressed the use of the Blackfeet language and lifeways.

In 1915, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council (BTBC) was created. The BTBC had limited authority and jurisdiction over the reservation but struggled to be heard in federal decision making. In 1934, the Blackfeet voted to accept the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), which empowered the BTBC to incorporate and manage tribal property and income. Although the IRA system gave the Blackfeet more authority, it also introduced a foreign government structure into Blackfeet society.

The Blackfeet of the early 2000s are dramatically different from their ancestors. The Blackfeet continue to be extremely religious people, but the majority of Blackfeet are Christian, with most belonging to the Catholic Church. A small minority of Blackfeet join Blackfeet religious societies. English is the first and only language of most Blackfeet; less than 3 percent are fluent in the Blackfeet language.

Despite these changes, many Blackfeet values remain the same. Blackfeet are strongly connected to their homeland and revere their family bonds. The most important value in Blackfeet society, though, remains generosity. Generous people are held in high esteem and individuals are ridiculed if they accumulate wealth without the intention of sharing their good fortune. Blackfeet people continue to pray for good fortune and a long life, not for themselves, but to share with those around them.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Duvall, D.C., and Clark Wissler. Mythology of the Blackfeet Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995. Originally published in 1908 by the American Museum of Natural History.

Ewers, John C. The Horse in Blackfeet Culture: With Comparative Material from Other Western Tribes. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Farr, William E. The Reservation Blackfeet, 1882–1945: A Photo-graphic History of Cultural Survival. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984.

Grinnell, George Bird. Blackfoot Lodge Tales: The Story of A Prairie People. Williamstown, Mass.: Corner House Publishers, 1972. Originally published in 1892 by Charles Scribner's Sons.

Holterman, Jack, et al. A Blackfoot Language Study. Browning, Mont.: Piegan Institute, 1996.

McClintock, Walter. The Old North Trail; or Life, Legends and Religion of the Blackfeet Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1968. Originally published in 1910 in England.

Rosier, Paul. Rebirth of the Blackfeet Nation, 1912–1954. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.

RosalynLaPier

See alsovol. 9:Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 .

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Blackfeet

Blackfeet: see Blackfoot.

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Blackfeet

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