Blackfeet Religious Traditions

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BLACKFEET RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS . The name Niitsitapiiksi, referring to the Blackfoot Native American people, means "Real People," as in honest, good, true beings. This is the general collective term that encompasses the different divisions of the Blackfoot Confederacy who presently reside on four different reservations, three of which are in Alberta, Canada, and one which is in northwest Montana. The Montana division is called the Southern Piegan or Blackfeet, Aamskaapipiikani, while the Northern Peigan, Aapatohsipiikani and Blood, Kainai and Siksika (the Blackfoot proper) divisions reside in Canada. The entire Confederacy can be referred to with Niitsitapiiksi or Blackfoot, so for simplicity, this chapter uses this designation. The term "Blackfeet" has often been attributed to accounts of stories about the burnt prairies that stained moccasins with soot, but the Blackfoot trace the origin of the name to a sacred story of a man with three sons to whom he gave each a gift. Present population of the entire confederacy has estimates that vary widely, generally falling somewhere between 25,00050,000 depending on how reservation resident status, enrolled vs. non-enrolled, official census tabulations, etc. are counted.

Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) religion is not so much a "religion" as a way of life, a collection of lessons, most learned from the natural environs, including plants, animals, the weather, the seasons, and the dimensions that involveor housethe spiritual and the spirits. The meanings and the semantics of terms typically used to describe religious life and belief are appropriate, in given degrees, only to the "way of being" expected of those who practice the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) spiritual traditions. The creation of the universe happened in a series of stages even though the central energy emanated from the central Giver-of-Life.

The Blackfoot Cosmogony: Between the Land and the Sky

Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) traditions consider that people have skills and attributes that allow them to survive, but people must learn to request assistance from those who have been here for much longer and therefore know the world well. The act of sacrifice has a key role in Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) spiritual life because the reciprocal and symbiotic relationships and properties that are the general rule of life apply to humans as well. Improving individual abilities to interact with the unseen forces of the universe means that an accumulation of information about this skill becomes part of the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) repository of skills. The complex of stories about the origin and continuation of the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) take place within the traditional homeland of the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) at specific locations. They bind the learning of each generation of Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) in the teaching the earth, the sky, and all of the elements in between offer. The stories anchor the people's history and identity in their surroundings, stellar and earthbound, where every aspect of the space and the beings in it is occupied by the Creator's energy.

Individual sites and locations, the keystones of the culture and religious or spiritual orientation throughout the traditional Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) homeland, provide the foundation for the spiritual and religious life of the people. These sites are coordinated with astral reference pointsstar beings in the skyand the exchanges recorded in the stories between them give rise to a complex matrix of relationships among elements, directions, beings, and forces that the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) must learn to understand and with which they must interact appropriately. The relatives that inhabit different sites within the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) homeland have over time offered assistance and encouraged the building of a life for the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) people. Protecting the homeland is important because these relationships took a long time to build and because they continue into the present and future.

Stories and Oral Tradition

Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) terms for persons that emphasize concepts central to the way of being that is reinforced in Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) traditions of the spirit include Sun (painted, with Sun Dogs), Creator, Life-Giver, World-Maker, Grandfather; Napi, Old Man; Moon(s), Night Light, Old Woman, Grandmother; Morning Star, Early Riser; Backbone of the World; Thunder; Rivers and Creeks (the water system and life within boundaries); Cold Maker; Winds (including the Chinook "Snow-Shrinker"); Celestial Beings (different constellations); Above Persons, Ground Persons, Below Persons; Ground of Many Gifts (that is, a homeland that is all alive, filled with persons in different shapes and forms); "Helpers" (when seeking pity and assistance); Dream (Nitsokan); Cosmic Clock (to which humans pace their lives); Energies (animate-inanimate, manifested-potential, earth-sky, shadow-light, life-death). All of these play central roles in stories about creation, as do Scarface, the Woman-Who-Married-the-Star, Blood-Clot, and others.

In the traditional context Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) spiritual traditions were taught initially and primarily as stories. Through these sacred narratives the young were introduced to the important roles of certain elements or energies that are deemed powerful or that contain or have access to even more powerful sources of energy. The Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) stories introduced the complex relationships of these energies and described their roles in the creation of the universe and world. Within the stories are multiple levels in an uneven and unpredictable hierarchy of powers, but constants are recognized as well and prayed to for guidance and strength. The stories orient listeners, beginning as young children, to the variable nature of the universe and tell of the long-standing observations of the cycles and patterns of nature in which they are rooted. In their observation as in their telling and retelling, the stories ground listeners in the natural surroundings and encourage them to remain sensitive to other dimensions or sources of existence intimately interrelated with their living selves in physical manifestations of being.

Throughout the stories there are warnings, examples, and notifications of helpers and sources of strength. Various types of beings communicate with each other, and they help the child learn that the world, this combination of sources of life energy, existed long before humans were brought into it and that attention to the details of the powers that were interacting and balancing each other before humans arrived is essential for continued survival. The stories, in their retelling, take the listener into the time of the original occurrence described and allow the listener to experience firsthand, as the first person to experience the story would have. Not only does the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) language have the grammatical structure to accommodate such movement in time, it also requires it, because the spoken form of the stories conveys firsthand experience to the listener, who becomes a participant. This ability to have the listener essentially relive the experiences of those who came before is why storytelling is not simply about relating events or emotions as experienced by someone else but is the act of placing the listener in the role of the actor and protagonist, the main player in the story, the focus of the event.

The Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) origin stories essentially encapsulate the rules for proper living within an extensive but not unbounded moral universe, where everyone has intention, emotion, action, and choice about how to interact. The spiritual-religious levels reinforce the moral code laid out in the stories. The stories tell of physical challenges that are also understood to be spiritual journeys and relate seemingly individual experiences that are understood to comment on the broader communitywide level. Most significantly the stories codify layered interpretations that range from the most basic of human needs and desires to the complex workings of the natural world, such as the rhythms of the celestial beings, which in turn guide the systems and cycles of creation that humans map themselves into and ties these altogether. Patterns are attended to, cycles observed, and distinctions made between the usual and the unusual, but all are included in the interrelated stories. The stories keep in order the songs that are the communicative force among the elements, persons, and levels of the universe. It is a universe that communicates with all, sometimes directly, sometimes through intercessors and intermediaries, and listens.

The stories reveal relationships that are important to attend to, that make up a whole, an extended description of the timeless and reiterating, returning nature of nature itself and of our connection to it. They remind one to try to live in sync with those patterns set by the earlier relatives before one's arrival. They show that the physical dimension or aspect of who one is constitutes, mirrors, or reveals opportunities for growth at that unseen level and that in life these energies must be balanced. The stories that bind the bundles are a bound bundle themselves, held together by links and transfers that make their most recent participant the recently initiated.

Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) Language

In physical culture the language communicates a visual picture, a perception, or a description of action that takes place in the moment of speaking, the full meaning of which is explained by the physical context. The language shares these descriptive duties by separating inanimate and animate beings, classified by some as having gender, although they then have to place nouns as being either animate or inanimate. Celestial beings, together with plants and animals, are animate.

The sign language used by the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) also makes use of spatial orientation as a foundational principle, as does the syllabary system. The writing on rocks also relates stories. The placing of stones in particular shapes tells stories, which can then be read, telling of significant events that affect the entire community, that is, they are told by the community members to signal that some important event took place there. The orthography of lodge paintings and other expressions of the universe's forces also expresses this localizing order. A rich vocabulary is contained in each. All action has boundary and orientation, which is how one knows what happened. Above Ones, Below Ones, and All Four Directions, the origin stories, are based in the same rules. Patterns are sought and utilized in visual dimensions, with these depictions rooted in the oral patterns that set rhythm and segment, order and beauty to the storytelling. In songs and prayers, the vibration of creation is repeatedly re-created.

Dreams, Visions, and Acknowledgment of the Invisible Universe

The stories that have formed over a long period of varied interactions the foundational structures and values of the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) way of being have several sources. One essential source is in the people's communications through times of increased awareness, which are also of varied forms and of different degrees. Whether they are classified as dreams, visions, or near-death experiences, they can occur under several possible conditions and, depending upon the reasons, are difficult to even see as belonging to any specific category defined by the English language. It is more accurate to simply say that the ways the sacred forces of the universe communicate to or through people are unique and not entirely predictable. Given this general observation, precedenteven when established generations ago by a third partyis granted great weight in such considerations. The observations of innumerable individuals who have lived an experience with the sacred powers that surround us and inhabit the entire universe are naturally recorded and repeated so the rest of the people might get a chance to grow from that experience. The stories frame the boundaries, physical and nonphysical, that form the basis of the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) way of being in life and create a backdrop upon which to interpret the slightest significance of the movements of the natural world. Interpreting energies (for example, light and dark), the roles of the celestial beings, and the cycles of the life system within which the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) were created was traditionally recognized as a highly valued skill that not everyone had the abilities for, but that was nonetheless respected and encouraged.

Ceremonial Bundles and Ceremonies

The many inhabitants of the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) homeland continue to offer support and relationship with the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) by serving as intermediaries, keeping the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) reminded of healthy pathways in life. The stories that literally ground the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) to the homeland and explain the history of the first relationships between the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) and the rest of the natural forces of the universe are housed in groupings that were gathered together in the form of bundles. All bundles, even those known to only their individual keepers as personal bundle with unique obligations and regulations, have in common the practice uniting various dimensions through their contents. Each article has a role and a story that are part of the larger Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) narrative. Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) religious-spiritual traditions were created in a specific physical context and environmental setting, where animal forms from each of the relevant realmsunderwater, earth, and skyall relate to one another and interact with human forms as well. The energies that form the bundle function as a condensed conduit for communications and exchanges between the living, physical world and the unseen dimensions.

Bundles can range from a single individual's personal bundle, which may not necessarily ever be transferred, to larger community-held bundles that circulate among, and are cared for by, different members of the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) community. There are also society bundles kept by individuals and transferred to new society members and cared for by different members of the ever-changing society membership. Some examples of the larger bundles include the Sun Dance (Turnip) Bonnet Bundle, the Beaver Bundle, and the Medicine Pipe Bundle. There has always been a variety of types of bundles, all simultaneously created and used to express the spiritual life of the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot).

The Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) View of the Universe

The Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) origin stories, which are replete with detailed encounters of life with the celestial beings recognized as having played key roles in the creation of the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) world, are recorded in several ways throughout the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) lifeways. The constant transfer of energy between celestial and other beings on earth and through the flow of the cosmos has been charted and recorded by bundle keepers, a tradition based on a close watch of the transitions, directions, risings, respective speeds, and patterns of movement in the celestial realm. To better observe these celestial movements and messages, observatories are located within the traditional homeland. Such sites are not ideal for habitation but are specifically associated with the observatory purposes of Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) bundle keepers and ceremonial leaders. Their observations and experiences became the focus of the central ceremonies and religious rites practiced by the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot).

The definition of the earthbound physicality of human nature was originally designed from the earth, given form, purpose, and its source of identity in the relationship with the earth as proof of a conjoined past and of sustenance for a similar future. Because traditionally there is no strict separation between the sacred and everyday realms, the sacred could be seen depicted and represented all over sacred and everyday items as reminders of sacred pacts, covenants, and obligations with those powers. Several examples include patterns depicted in the oldest-known forms in rock art distributed throughout the homeland (such as in Writing-on-Stone), in picture writing in the rocks (patterned after the sign language), quill and beadwork designs, feathers and other articles used in headdresses, body paint, lodge-cover designs, and designs on ceremonial items. These designs demonstrate how the structure of the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) universe and the order of powers within it are simultaneously hierarchical and fluid, structured and unpredictable, multidimensional and seemingly simplistic to the uninitiated. The origin stories are inextricably linked to the explanations of the ceremonial and establish a clear familial and kin relationship to the people, so every Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) is aware of the human's connection to the rest of the creative forces of the universe. The stories and the ceremonies and celebrations they support help humans connect to the underlying consciousness of the universe. The articles, objects, and structures used in the ceremonies are tools and memory devices to assist this endeavor. The universe's energies expect recognition, respect, and reciprocity. Attention is paid to the sources of power, such as the sun, and to those who are endowed with the same power, spread throughout various dimensions and elements, and offer it to humans to use, who then have the power to decide whether it will be used to heal or hurt, to extend a productive and vibrant way of life, or to pursue directions that weaken and kill. These forms work together to help humans maintain harmony with the spirit world in their work through the renewal of commitments and vows.

Practice as a Way of Life: Cycles, Paradigms, and People

Following an introduction through stories and storytelling, children were traditionally encouraged to witness and to be active participants in the religious-spiritual life of the community. Numerous religious-spiritual-social societies that incorporated youngsters on through to those well advanced in age were also rooted in stories and in the practices indicated by them. Formal initiation is still a prerequisite. Individual children are selected to receive special pipes or other articles, which they hold, in formal ceremonies. Therefore even as a more informal, familial setting was and still is a source of religious training and exposure, the traditional social structure of the community includes formal recognition and practices, areas and contexts where spiritual protocols are taught in settings that emphasize the interrelatedness of purposes and the compound lessons to be acquired in order to live life well. These societies are based on the observation that learningspiritual and otherwisetakes time. The group authorizes individual members. Some of these include the Horns, the Brave Dogs, the Buffalo Women's Society, the Prairie Chickens, the Doves, the Mosquitoes, and several others that traditionally include young children.

There was traditionally no "religious" consciousness separate from that of a moral philosophy that allows younger generations to live in good relations with each other and to be good people. Preferably training involved a combination of the individual and the community on the levels both of the religious-social societies and of the larger Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) community. Instead of strict adherence to a doctrine, Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) spiritual traditions encouraged unique contributions and awareness that, when brought back to the group, strengthen the overall knowledge and awareness of the larger community. Individual attainment of access to knowledge or spiritual gifts, such as those revealed in unique visions or dreams (among other ways) are brought into the matrix, to the already extant and fully operating intricate web of spiritual communications and exchanges. Exchanges can be mediated by representatives from the natural, nonphysical world who might reveal themselves in the form of an animal or a storm, among other things. The process of learning to be a contributing member of the societies includes creating a fully human being who understands that the world is composed of a balance between the physical manifestations of life and the nonphysical powers that are in constant communication and sharing. Through the accumulation of lived experiences over an untold amount of time, a number of interactions occur that let the people know what and with whom the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) share their home. A complete existence is one that acknowledges the balance of the universe. Humans are powerful enough to recognize and even manipulate this balance.

There is redundancy and coupling and pairing, repetition and recycling, and returning and refreshing in all Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) spiritual-religious practices. There is emphasis placed on actions of participation in the spiritual life instead of on the question of faith itself. There is the imperative to repeat, renew, and refresh instead of establishing completion. There is a focus on caretaking and the well-being of the group. There is careful consideration and selection of individuals who would accept the duties and put the needs of the community in a place of priority. There is agency and purpose in those energies that inhabit the space all share. The orientation offered by the stories and the ceremonial life underscores the imperative to seek connections to the larger order of things. Humans live in a unique position of having the ability to seek to understand the cycles of the world or to ignore and destroy the cycles and themselves in the process. The spiritual life of the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) people, just as for each individual Niitsitapii person, is part of a longer, more extended life of the spirit world that cycles and recycles all its energies. There are circles within circles that extend out into the natural world from humans. The visible manifestations of vibrations in water and the invisible that move through the air as sound waves are the sorts of energies that the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) met through re-creations of the same shapes surrounding the traditional homeland and into which every aspect of the world was tied. Being attentive and sensitive to the rhythms of the universe and learning to live within them is the traditional Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) focus. The circular formation of the growth pattern of a small plant, for example, would be emulated in the shape of the family dwelling and then in a camping arrangement, in a dance pattern, and in the largest community gathering during the most sacred celebrations and in innumerable ideals and protocols in Niitsitapii life. There is an order to the world; what matters is how good one is at learning to live with its apparently unpredictable and predictable aspects and the delicate balance that results.

Challenges and Constants

Since the arrival of the Europeans, the traditional Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) religious-spiritual life has suffered a great deal though it has been continued and carefully maintained through the determined efforts and constant struggle of those Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) knowledgeable about the traditions. Whether trader, missionary, military, or otherwise, the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) resistance to incursions into the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) way of being in life has been well documented and has historically been a notable characteristic of the people. Before policies to exterminate then rehabilitate the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) and before the combination of government and military forces with diverse economic interestsfurs, gold, precious metals, water, land, and a variety of natural resourcesthat initially spread diseases and justified massacres, the nonnatives that visited the Blackfoot were interested in capturing the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) soul. The killing and abduction of those who continued to practice the traditions were seen as a necessary step in ridding the future of "heathens" and "devil worshippers" who were and are presently considered morally corrupt. They were supported by the outlawing of ceremonies and the societies that sponsored them and by the imprisonment of Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) who refused to give up the old way of life into modern times. State-supported denominations have long vied for membership and control, resulting in the splitting of familiesand by extension the entire communityinto several distinct religious factions. Intermarriage for the sake of gaining economic and political advantage, false representation in negotiations with governments, violated and ignored treaty guarantees, and the forced indoctrination and relocation of the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) people from the traditional homeland have compounded this initial negative effect on the traditional life.

Despite the numerous challenges to the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) spiritual-religious traditions, there are those for whom, through their continuing practice and the accompanying sacrifices, the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) way of life survives. The Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) way is not concerned with instructing a fixed perception of the sacred in which one must believe; it is precisely about seeking the best routines and awareness that enable one to experience firsthand the sacred powers of the universe. Knowledge of the Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) language teaches an orientation in the world that is rooted in the land, location, and spatial orientation in unique ways. It binds the landscape of the traditional homeland to those living in it and to the recognition of the traditional Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) observations.


The works that speak to Niitsitapii (Blackfoot) religious-spiritual orientations and concerns come from a range of disciplines, levels, and specialties and are of varying quality.

Bullchild, Percy. The Sun Came Down: The History of the World as My Blackfoot Elders Told It. San Fransisco, 1985. Contains many versions of Creation stories as told by a Blackfoot and is controversial because of influences from other religious beliefs.

Calf Robe, Benjamin Augustine, Adolf Hungry Wolf, and Beverly Hungry Wolf. Siksika: A Blackfoot Legacy. Invermere, British Columbia, 1979. The story of Ben Calf Robe's life. A Siksika elder, he relates information about his education, life, and the Blackfoot spiritual traditions and his role in them, as well as the history of his people.

Dempsey, Hugh A., ed. Mike Mountain Horse: My People the Bloods. Calgary, Alberta, 1979. The story of Mike Mountain Horse's life. A Kainai, he relates his education, his involvement in his people's traditions, political and spiritual, as well as explaining the life of his ancestors and their beliefs.

Ewers, John C. The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains. Norman, Okla., 1958. A combination of history and explanation of religious and cultural practices of the Blackfoot people, documenting the early history (what is known of it in the literature) to the reservation realities.

Frantz, Donald G. Blackfoot Grammar. Toronto, 1991. The first comprehensive grammar of the Blackfoot language, that explains ideology and intent behind the language.

Grinnell, George Bird. Blackfeet Indian Stories. Old Saybrook, Conn., 1913. A compilation of some stories that are central to the Blackfoot spiritual beliefs and practices.

Grinnell, George Bird. Blackfoot Lodge Tales: The Story of a Prairie People. Lincoln, Neb., 1962. A compilation of some stories that are central to the Blackfoot spiritual beliefs and practices.

Hernandez, Nimachia. "Mokakssini: A Blackfoot Theory of Knowledge." Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., 1999. This work focuses on the Blackfoot Star Stories and on interviews with elders about them to articulate the uniquely Blackfoot conception of the cosmos and of how these form the basis for the Blackfoot spiritual/religious/philosophical practices.

Hungry Wolf, Beverly. The Ways of My Grandmothers. New York, 1980. The story of Beverly Hungry Wolf's grandmothers, literally, in which she enfolds the history of her people's material and cultural traditions, together with the sacred Blackfoot stories.

Hungry Wolf, Beverly. Daughters of the Buffalo Women: Maintaining the Tribal Faith. Skookumchuck, British Columbia, 1996. The story of Beverly Hungry Wolf's grandmothers, literally, in which she enfolds her people's history, including schooling.

Lokensgard, Kenneth Hayes. "Gift and Commodity: Sociocultural Economies, Indigenous Religions, and Academic Exchange Practices." Ph.D. diss., Syracuse University, Syracuse, N.Y., 2001. This work delves into the meaning of the Blackfoot place on the transfer of spiritual power, and of how these function in the economic and social realms of the Blackfoot.

McClintock, Walter. The Old North Trail. London, 1910. A recounting of Walter McClintock's time with the Blackfoot, in which he includes the personal histories of some Blackfoot elders, also including the sacred stories they shared with him.

Pepion, Donald Duane. "Blackfoot Ceremony: A Qualitative Study of Learning." Ph.D. diss., Montana State University-Bozeman, Bozeman, Mont., 1999. Using interviews with Blackfoot elders as a basis of investigation of the Blackfoot understanding of learning and its relationship to the spiritual life, this work focuses on the Blackfoot traditions as methods for teaching.

Reeves, Brian O. K., and Sandra Leslie Peacock. The Mountains Are Our Pillows: An Ethnographic Overview of Glacier National Park. Glacier National Park, Mont., 2001. Archeological findings are brought together with Blackfoot sacred stories, revealing a long-standing and deep interrelationship between the environment and the Blackfoot spiritual-religious practices.

Uhlenbeck, C. C. A Concise Blackfoot Grammar, Based on Material from the Southern Peigans. New York. 1978. Grammatical explanations based on Blackfoot stories. Some of the earliest versions of Blackfoot stories recorded.

Uhlenbeck, C. C. An English-Blackfoot Vocabulary, Based on Material from the Southern Peigans. New York, 1979. Grammatical explanations based on Blackfoot stories. Focus on the Blackfoot versions of stories.

Wissler, Clark, and David C. Duvall. Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians. Norman, Okla., 1995. Comprehensive and very detailed accounts of the sacred stories of the Blackfoot, and of the ceremonies they support.

Nimachia Hernandez (2005)

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Blackfeet Religious Traditions

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