Blackfeet (sometimes called Blackfoot). The people call themselves Niitsitapii, meaning “the real people.” The Crow name for the tribe was Siksika, which means “blackfeet people” and refers to their moccasin soles, which were darkened either by paint or by walking on charred prairie grasses. To avoid confusion the word “Blackfeet” will be used here as opposed to “Blackfoot” (as the Canadians often refer to them). Although Blackfeet is the official name the government gave the tribe, the word is not plural in their language, so some tribe members in Montana also prefer to be called “Blackfoot.”
The three tribes in the Blackfeet Confederacy—the Blackfeet proper, the Piikani or Piegan (pronounced PEE-gun), and the Blood—occupied the northwestern part of the Great Plains from the northern reaches of the Saskatchewan River in Alberta, Canada, to the southernmost headwaters of the Missouri River in Montana in the United States. As of the mid-2000s there were Blackfeet people scattered throughout the United States. Many lived in northwestern Montana on the Blackfeet Reservation (bounded by Canada on the north and Glacier National Park on the west) and large numbers lived in the states of Washington and California. The Blackfeet people of Canada lived in southeastern Alberta.
In the early 1800s there were an estimated 5,200 Blackfeet. In the 1990s about fifteen thousand Blackfeet lived on three reserves in Canada, while about ten thousand lived on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. In the 1990 U.S. Census, 37,992 people identified themselves as Blackfeet. In 2000 the U. S. census showed 28,731 Blackfeet, with 85,750 people claiming to have some Blackfeet heritage, making it the eighth largest tribal grouping in the United States. In 2007 the Canadian First Nation Profiles indicated that 18,782 Blackfeet resided on and off the reserves.
Origins and group affiliations
The Blackfeet Confederacy is an alliance of three tribes who speak the same language and practice the same culture. Their ancestors may have come to North America thousands of years ago from Asia, crossing a land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. The ancient people probably traveled south, then moved east and north to their present-day region.
The three tribes of the Blackfeet Confederation are the Piikani (or Piegan), meaning “the poorly dressed ones”; the Blood, or Akainawa (also called Kainai), meaning “many chiefs”; and the Siksika, or Blackfeet proper (also known as the Northern Blackfeet). The Blackfeet, along with the Sarcee and Gros Ventre, were all Algonquian speakers. The tribe’s enemies included the Shoshone and Nez Perce.
For centuries the Blackfeet wandered the rolling plains that rise westward to the forests of the Rocky Mountains. They hunted buffalo and gathered wild plants. As white settlers moved westward Blackfeet life was greatly disrupted by the extinction of the buffalo and the devastating diseases the settlers carried with them. In modern times the tribe has battled poverty and assimilation (the adoption of white ways) by developing their own businesses and passing their traditions down to succeeding generations.
A powerful tribe of Northern Plains
The Blackfeet migrated onto North America’s Great Plains from the eastern woodlands before the Europeans arrived. The tribe followed the enormous herds of buffalo, using tame dogs to carry their belongings. This period before they began using horses and firearms is known as the “Dog Days.”
The Blackfeet used arrows and lances in wars with the Shoshone, Plains Cree, Assiniboin (see entries), and Flathead. Most often their allies were their friendly neighbors, the Gros Ventre (grow VAHNT) and Sarcee. After acquiring horses and firearms around the middle of the eighteenth century the Blackfeet became one of the most powerful tribes of the Northern Plains. By the middle of the nineteenth century they had pushed their enemies, particularly the Shoshone, westward across the Rocky Mountains.
1851: The Treaty of Fort Laramie sets and limits boundaries of Blackfeet territory.
1855: The Treaty of Lamed Bull is signed. It offers the Blackfeet goods and education in return for some of their land.
1870: About two hundred Piegan Indians are massacred on the Marias River by U.S. soldiers led by Major Eugene M. Baker.
1883–84: Buffalo have almost disappeared from the plains. A severe famine strikes and one-quarter of the Piegan tribe starves.
1934: Indian Recognition Act is passed and the modern economic and political development of the Blackfeet begins.
Impact of whites on the tribe
The first known whites to visit the region of the Blackfeet were fur trappers who came in the middle of the eighteenth century. They were exploring the West hoping to establish trading relationships with the Native Americans. Among them was British agent and fur trapper David Thompson, who traveled into Blackfeet territory in 1787 and wrote in detail about the tribe. From this date until the buffalo disappeared in the early 1880s, the tribe’s relationship with the trading companies became vital to Blackfeet economic and social life.
From their contact with whites at the trading post, the tribe was introduced to new technologies, such as the gun. The white diseases they encountered, which led to the outbreaks of smallpox in 1781, 1837, and 1869, killed off a great many of the tribe.
Blackfeet keep whites out of their territory
In the early 1800s American explorer Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) encountered the Blackfeet on one of his journeys. As Lewis discovered, the people he referred to as “strong and honest” could also be aggressive. Blackfeet horse raiders attacked the party of eight men he led. Lewis and his men escaped and fled the area.
Shortly after 1810 the tribes living near the Blackfeet took sides in the American and British struggle for land. Blackfeet did everything possible to keep whites out of their territory, but during the 1820s there was a new push by white trappers who wanted the Blackfeet land. The tribe tried to stop their progress. In 1823 alone they killed more than 25 trappers and stole the guns and supplies of countless more.
By the end of the 1830s, however, over-trapping and the loss of the beaver supply caused most white trappers to pull out of the area. Then in the 1840s a substantial number of American settlers on their way West traveled through the southern part of the Blackfeet territory. In the mid-nineteenth century, with the discovery of gold nearby, gold seekers flooded the Blackfeet region.
Treaties limit the Blackfeet
Over the years the Blackfeet were particularly hostile to the whites they encountered, in part due to problems and misunderstandings from earlier days. Settlers moving west heard about the reputation of the Blackfeet as fierce warriors and were terrified of them. The settlers applied to the U.S. government for protection. Whites were so determined to obtain Blackfeet land that the federal government made treaties with the tribe. In time the Blackfeet lost much of their territory to the United States through these treaties.
In 1851 the Treaty of Fort Laramie limited the boundaries of the Blackfeet territory in the United States, even though no Blackfeet attended the negotiations. In 1855 the Blackfeet signed their first treaty, known as the Treaty of Lamed Bull for the powerful Piegan chief who signed it. This treaty stated that the U.S. government would pay the tribe $20,000 annually in goods and spend $15,000 each year toward educating and converting the Blackfeet to Christianity. In return the Blackfeet would give up half of their hunting area and live peacefully with their white neighbors. They also agreed to allow white settlers to build railroads and telephone and telegraph lines.
For a while relations between the Blackfeet and the settlers improved. The Blackfeet helped the settlers hunt buffalo. They also traded buffalo hides for such supplies as beads, guns, wool, wagons, and food. But within a short time whites abused the treaty. They gave the Native Americans spoiled food, damaged wagons, rusty guns, blankets with moth holes, and alcohol, which was to have a long-term negative effect on the Native Americans. Feeling disrespected and duped, the Blackfeet responded with anger.
The Baker Massacre
In the 1860s hostilities with American settlers became so frequent that the Blood division of the Blackfeet, who usually split their time between Montana and the plains of what is now Alberta, Canada, decided to stay in Canada permanently. They joined the ranks of the northern Piegan who had already made that decision. Most of the Blackfeet who remained in the United States were southern Piegan.
In early 1870 a group of U.S. soldiers attacked the Piegan in an action that is called either the Piegan War or the Baker Massacre (for the U.S. Army major who led the attack). The Piegan who were attacked had never been involved in raids against the whites and had recently undergone a severe smallpox epidemic. At the time of the attack most of the Piegan men were away on a hunting trip. But U.S. troops went ahead with their surprise attack and killed two hundred Piegan, mostly women, children, and the elderly. The Americans suffered only one death, probably the result of an accident. The incident drew much criticism from political and media groups.
Later in 1870 the Hudson’s Bay Company, a trading operation, gave the area of Alberta where the northern Piegan lived to the Canadian government, who opened it up to settlers. To guard the area the Canadian government established the Northwest Mounted Police (“Mounties”). The Mounties won the respect of the Blackfeet for their fairness and courtesy.
Blackfeet treaties in the United States and Canada
The Blackfeet in the United States signed treaties in 1865 and 1868 that decreased their territory. Although the U.S. Congress never officially confirmed those treaties, an 1874 treaty officially established the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. The Native Americans gave up additional land from their reservation in treaties signed in 1887 and 1896. When it was discovered that there was little gold there, the land was made part of Glacier National Park. The conditions of the treaties are still being disputed today.
In 1877, with Treaty No. 7, the Canadian government established reserves in the province of Alberta for the Blood, North Piegan (Piikani), and Siksika (Blackfeet) people. Compared to the removal of Natives to reservations in the United States, the process in Canada went much more smoothly. The Canadians, wishing to avoid Indian wars like those of their American counterparts, generally treated the Natives more fairly and tried to honor their treaties.
Loss of the buffalo
By the 1880s, the buffalo on the Great Plains had become nearly extinct. Historians blame their disappearance on mass slaughter by white hunters, who killed the beasts for their tongues (which had become a tasty treat in Europe) and for their hides that were made into fashionable clothing. Some men shot the animals from the windows of passing trains for sport, leaving the carcasses to rot on the Plains. In 1860, when manufacturing firms began using buffalo cowhide to make machine belts for industry, the price of hides skyrocketed, and the massacre of the buffalo increased.
Blackfeet in the twentieth century
In the period following the disappearance of the buffalo, the Blackfeet people in Montana constantly faced starvation. From the late 1870s until 1935 the Blackfeet were dependent on the reservation agent for food and other essential supplies. In addition, they had to learn to adjust to the massive cultural change required by their new agricultural lifestyle.
After 1887 the U.S. government policy called allotment went into effect. Reservation lands in Montana were divided into parcels called allotments, and Native Americans were given small plots on which to farm or raise cattle. A drought that took place in 1919 and falling prices for beef forced many Blackfeet to give up their lands for nonpayment of taxes.
New laws were passed in the 1930s that lessened Blackfeet dependence on government handouts. Their lands were placed in trust, an arrangement in which the federal government oversees land use. Beginning in 1935 and extending into the 1960s the Blackfeet became self-sufficient. In the early twenty-first century the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana remains vital and many of its people support themselves through jobs in ranching, industry, and oil and natural gas. Today it is home not only to Blackfeet people but to other tribes and whites as well.
Canada’s Blackfeet Population
In Canada, the majority of the Blackfoot live on three reserves in southeastern Alberta. The figures below reflect the total numbers living both on and off each reserve in 2007.
“First Nations Profiles.” Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, Canada, 2007. (accessed on July 27, 2007).
The Blackfeet believed that the physical and supernatural worlds were closely bound together. Animals and natural elements had powers that humans could acquire. This transfer of power usually took place in a dream. An animal in human form appeared to the dreamer and provided him or her with a list of objects, songs, and rituals to use the animal’s power. The dreamer gathered the objects and placed them in a rawhide pouch called a medicine bundle. The person then used the medicine bundle and songs and rituals during social and religious ceremonies. Sometimes tribe members held elaborate ceremonies at which they traded medicine bundles.
The most powerful bundle was the beaver medicine bundle. This was the one used by the Beaver Men to charm the buffalo and to assist in planting the sacred tobacco. The beaver medicine bundle was also used during medicine pipe rituals, which took place during thunderstorms.
The Blackfeet dialect (variety) of the Algonquian language is related to the languages of several Plains, Eastern Woodlands, and Great Lakes tribes. The Blackfeet dialect was influenced by their isolation from other groups who spoke Algonquian and by interactions with speakers of other languages during the tribe’s westward move. They did not have written symbols for their language. But they did record their traditional stories and important events, such as wars, in pictographs on the internal and external surfaces of tepees and on their buffalo robes. Pictographs are pictures that represent ideas.
In the 1800s John William Tims developed a written language using symbols to represent sounds. He used his system to translate the Bible into the Blackfeet language. In modern times the tribe uses an alphabet like that of the English language, but they have only ten consonants and three vowels, many times these are paired to make other sounds.
Blackfeet words for living things like animals and people often have the ending “wa” added to them. For example they sometimes say the word for buffalo iinii, and other times they use iiniiwa. Either way is correct.
Some words describe an object rather than giving it a name. An example of this is the word for dried apples (ohtookiinaattsi, which means “appear like ears”) or for snack (a’písttaapiksistaki, which means “move about tasting food”).
- aakii(wa) …“woman”
- ainihkiwa …“sing”
- ainima …“see”
- asaksiwa … “leave”
- ayoohtsiwa … “hear”
- ki’sómma … “sun”
- ninaa(wa) … “man”
- ni’t …“one”
- oki …“hello”
- omitaa … “dog”
- ponokáómitaa … q>horse”
- sipistoo … “owl”
- sspopíi …“turtle”
The Blackfeet tribes were broken up into a number of hunting bands, each led by both war chiefs and civil chiefs. The war chief was chosen because of his reputation as a warrior and the civil chief was chosen for his public speaking skills
In 1934,the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) in order to stop the damage that the policies of the General Allotment Act of 1887 (also known as the Dawes Act) had done to Native American reservations all over the country. The IRA restored some land to tribes and encouraged a form of self-government on the reservations. One result of the act for the Blackfeet was it stemmed the tribe’s land losses by placing most Native American land into trust status, an arrangement whereby the federal government oversees land.
In the mid-2000s the affairs of the tribe were run by the Tribal Business Council of the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana, which had nine members who serve four-year, staggered terms. Three of the four districts elect two members to the council, and the Browning District elects three. The council then nominates its own officers, including a chairperson, vice-chairperson, and secretary.
The Blackfeet reserves in Canada are run by a single governing body with one chairperson. As in the past, the Blackfeet still make their decisions by consensus, agreement among all the members. In 2007 the Piikani Nation, who had been under third-party management for several years due to tribal difficulties, elected a new chief and council.
In the early days the Blackfeet were a wandering people who depended on hunting for their food. The buffalo supplied not only most of their nutritional needs but the raw materials for clothing and shelter. In time the tribe engaged in fur trading, particularly with the British.
Around 1915 the U.S. government stopped urging the Native Americans on the Blackfeet Reservation to engage in farming, as they had for several decades, and suggested they begin raising livestock. But a 1919 drought and a huge drop in beef prices forced many Blackfeet to give up their land because they were unable to pay their taxes. In the 1920s a tribal leader encouraged the people to begin small, manageable farms growing grains and vegetables.
In the early twenty-first century many people grow grains and raise livestock. Others make their living in construction, tourism, and the timber industry. About one-third of the people on the reservation are employed by the tribal government. Many of these jobs are linked to federal government programs such as building government-funded housing.
Pikuni Industries produces and erects modular homes. Small businesses manufacture tepees and canvas carrying bags. The tribe also produces bottled water. More than 360 retail and service operations provide jobs for the tribe and generate revenue. In addition the tribe owns the 67-acre Blackfeet Industrial Park. On the Canadian reserves manufactured items include houses, clothing, moccasins, and Native crafts.
In recent years coal, oil, and natural gas have generated a good income for the Montana tribe. The Blackfeet lease these fields and receive a portion of the profit. The Blackfeet Coalfield may have as much as thirty to fifty million tons of coal. The reservation has other resources that could be exploited including gold, silver, lead, and zinc.
Two men, three women, and three children made up the typical Blackfeet family. Perhaps because many Blackfeet men died in battle and there were excess numbers of women, men often had more than one wife. Second and third wives were usually sisters of the first wife. The wives worked together on the daily chores.
Because of their hunting lifestyle, the Blackfeet built single-family tepees that were easy to construct and move. They used about 19 pine poles for the frame, each averaging 18 feet (5 meters) in length. They covered the poles with six to twenty buffalo skins, often decorated with pictures of animals and geometric designs. Furnishings included buffalo robes for beds and willow backrests.
After the buffalo disappeared and the reservations were created, the Blackfeet replaced their tepees with log cabins. These homes were the symbol of a new, settled way of life, in which ranching and agriculture became the primary means of survival.
Clothing and adornment
The Blackfeet used buffalo, deer, elk, and antelope skins to make their clothing. Women fashioned ankle-length sleeveless dresses held up by straps. They decorated them with porcupine quills, cut fringe, and simple geometric designs colored with earth pigments. In the winter they added separate skin sleeves to the dresses, and buffalo robes provided warmth. After contact with white traders, clothing changed. Women used wool and cloth to make many of their garments. However, the buffalo robe remained an important piece of clothing during the nineteenth century.
Men wore leggings made of antelope, and moccasins, shirts, and breechcloths (flaps of material that hung from the waist and covered the front and back) of buckskin. War shirts were fringed and decorated with dyed porcupine quills, beads, and elk teeth. In winter men wore long buffalo robes, often decorated with earth pigments or plant dyes and elaborate porcupine quill embroidery. They braided their hair and arranged the front into a topknot on their foreheads.
Most Blackfeet men wore traditional dress until the last decade of the nineteenth century. Faced with pressure from Christian missionaries and the disappearance of the buffalo, they began to wear what was called “citizen’s dress.” This outfit consisted of a coat and pants, but the Blackfeet replaced the stiff leather shoes of the white man with moccasins.
Blackfeet men usually wore their hair long and loose, while women parted theirs and wore it in long braids. Both men and women frequently washed and brushed their hair and applied buffalo fat to make it shine. They wore necklaces of braided sweet grass. Men also wore necklaces made from the claws and teeth of bears, while women wore bracelets of elk or deer teeth.
Buffalo was boiled, roasted, or dried. Pieces of fresh meat were cooked with wild roots and vegetables to make a stew, and intestines were cleaned and stuffed with meat mixture to make sausage. Dried meat was stored in rawhide pouches or was made into pemmican, an important food source during the winter and at other times when buffalo were scarce. Men also hunted other larger game, such as deer, moose, mountain sheep, antelope, and elk, but most Blackfeet considered fish, reptiles, and grizzly bears unfit for human consumption.
Blackfeet women gathered roots, prairie turnips, bitterroot, and camas bulbs to supplement buffalo meat. They also picked wild berries, chokecherries, and buffalo or bull berries, and gathered the bark of the cottonwood trees to use the sweet inside portions.
Beyond Beef Jerky
Because the Native Americans of the Great Plains moved frequently, they employed clever methods for reducing the bulk of the foods they carried by drying and compacting them. The dried beef specialty called jerky was a result. Jerk refers to a process whereby meat is cut into long strips and dried in the sun or cured by exposing it to smoke. Using jerky as a base, Plains Indians added fat (for energy), wild fruits, and seeds to yield pemmican, which comes from the Cree word for “fat.”
Many different Native peoples had a version of pemmican, using the wild fruits and seeds available to them. Eastern tribes, for example, used cranberries. Modern, meatless versions use fruits and grains; you may be familiar with them in the form of granola bars. According to author E. Barrie Kavasch, Native Americans relied on pemmican when winters were long, food was scarce, or hunting was poor. Small pemmican patties could be dropped into a pot of boiling water, producing an agreeable stew or soup.
- 3 cups shredded buffalo jerky, or other jerked game meat
- 1 cup Saskatoon berries, buffalo berries, or raisins
- 1 cup roasted sunflower seeds or other seeds
- 1/2 cup roasted yellow cornmeal (optional)
- 1/2 cup to 1 cup sunflower seed or corn oil
In a large bowl combine all ingredients, mixing well with a wooden spoon or your hands so that the ingredients are well pressed together. With your hands, form this mixture into small cakes or patties or roll and pat into bars.
Arrange on plates to serve immediately, or wrap individually and refrigerate or freeze for future use on your next trail walk or camping trip.
Makes 10 to 12 patties.
Kavasch, E. Barrie. Enduring Harvests: Native American Foods and Festivals for Every Season. Old Saybrook, Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press, 1995, p. 106.
Blackfeet boys learned to hunt, track game, endure physical pain, and to recognize signals from both the physical and spiritual worlds. Girls were trained to prepare food and clothing, to sew and do bead work, and to tan hides.
Catholic and government schools
As early as 1859 Roman Catholic missionaries introduced Catholic religious practices and educational systems to the Blackfeet people. Catholic priests started schools to teach the Native Americans to farm and raise cattle. The priests served as go-betweens for the Blackfeet and whites. They also learned the Blackfeet language and helped to preserve it by translating Christian texts into the language.
The Catholic influence lessened in the early 1900s when the federal government established a boarding school and day schools for the Native Americans. One of the purposes of the government schools was to prevent the children from speaking their native language or from following their traditional ways or religion. Children were punished for singing Native American songs or doing tribal dances. These schools were often overcrowded and unsanitary. Canadian officials established similar schools sponsored by the Church of England.
Modern educational programs
During the 1960s and 1970s the Montana Blackfeet encouraged tribal elders to teach the native language and old customs to the young people. Head Start programs on the reservation now teach the Algonquian language and Blackfeet cultural values. Similar programs have also been created for adults at neighboring colleges, including the Blackfoot Community College in Browning, Montana. A Blackfeet dictionary was published in 1989 and a Blackfeet grammar book two years later in Alberta.
Browning, Montana, has five schools for grades K–12. Elementary and middle school students attend school in three other areas. The tribe also operates Blackfeet Community College and provides financial assistance to students who wish to attend universities.
The Blackfeet in Montana established a program to reduce alcoholism. Programs teach children to make good choices. Instruction in outdoor skills and crafts involves the children in worthwhile activities and encourages a sense of pride in their traditions.
Many Canadian educational organizations and school districts have programs to include aboriginal language and cultural traditions into their lesson plans. Teachers are making efforts to use these materials in their classrooms. In the mid-2000s Canadian children learn about their multicultural heritage and history.
The Blackfeet believed that spirits were an active and very real part of everyday life. Illness was understood as the visible presence of an evil spirit in a person’s body. Only a professional medicine person who had acquired the ability to heal the sick in a vision could cure these illnesses. Many of the most popular Blackfeet physicians were women.
During healing ceremonies a medicine person might remove some object from the sick person’s body (an object the healer may have brought with her). The healer presented the object to the patient as proof that the ceremony had been successful. Healers used natural herbs in treating lesser injuries, such as cuts. Patients often offered horses as payment for a medicine person’s services.
On the Montana Reservation in the early twenty-first century the Blackfeet Community Health Representative Department offers assessment and educational programs and follow-up care. The department also provides interpreters, transportation to appointments, and some in-home care. An emergency services program and a health clinic deal with accidents and illnesses.
The Blackfeet were known for their fine craftwork, and their tepees, weapons, and riding equipment were beautifully designed. On the reservation, the people used supplies from whites, such as brass tacks and bells, to create elaborately beaded headdresses, clothing, and accessories. In the mid-2000s, the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, Montana, featured Blackfeet pottery, clothing, art, decorative items, moccasins, shields, and jewelry.
Men were the main singers in the Blackfeet tribe, as it was considered inappropriate for women to sing alone. Few instruments accompanied the singers, with the exception of percussion such as drums, rattles, sticks, or bells. Most songs came to the singers in visions and dreams, so they were not necessarily for the purpose of communicating with others. For this reason many songs are composed of sounds rather than words. Songs with words were often short and used to pass down tribal stories. Children did not have songs, except Mice songs used in a game or lullabies sung by their mothers.
>Origin of the Medicine Pipe
In this Blackfoot tale the Thunder has stolen a man’s wife. The man begs Raven for help. Raven gives him a raven’s wing to make Thunder jump back and an elk-horn arrow to shoot through the Thunder’s lodge if that does not work.
So the man took these things, and went to the Thunder“s lodge. He entered and sat down by the doorway. The Thunder sat within and looked at him with awful eyes. But the man looked above, and saw those many pairs of eyes. Among them were those of his wife.
“Why have you come?” said the Thunder in a fearful voice.
“I seek my wife,” the man replied, “whom you have stolen. There hang her eyes.”
“No man can enter my lodge and live,” said the Thunder, and he rose to strike him. Then the man pointed the raven wing at the Thunder, and he fell back on his couch and shivered. But he soon recovered and rose again. Then the man fitted the elk-horn arrow to his bow, and shot it through the lodge of rock. Right through the lodge of rock it pierced a jagged hole, and let the sunlight in.
“Hold,” said the Thunder. “Stop, you are the stronger. Yours is the great medicine. You shall have your wife. Take down her eyes.” Then the man cut the string that held them, and immediately his wife stood beside him.
“Now,” said the Thunder, “You know me. I am of great power. I live here in summer, but when winter comes, I go far south. I go south with the birds. Here is my pipe. It is medicine. Take it and keep it. Now, when I first come in the spring, you shall fill and light this pipe, and you shall pray to me, you and the people, for I bring the rain which makes the berries large and ripe. I bring the rain which makes all things grow, and for this you shall pray to me, you and all the people.”
Thus the people got the first medicine pipe. It was long ago.
McNeese, Tim. “Origin of the Medicine Pipe.” Illustrated Myths of Native America:: The Southwest, Western Range, Pacific Northwest and California. London, United Kingdom: Blandford, 1998
Unlike many other tribes, the Blackfeet were somewhat flexible about what they considered male or female work. Men sometimes sewed their own clothing, and married women could become healers. Before the 1880s it was common for a young, married woman with no children to go along with the men into battle, during the hunt, or on raids. While these women joined in the duty of preparing food, they also engaged in waging war and herding stolen horses back to their tribe. Some nineteenth-century women, such as Elk Hollering in the Water, became well known as skillful horse raiders. The most famous woman warrior, Running Eagle, led hunting, raiding, and warring parties and could outride and outshoot most of her male companions.
Festivals and ceremonies
The major community religious ceremony, the Sun Dance, was held each year in late summer. Proper preparations by the medicine woman in charge and the dancers determined the success or failure of the Sun Dance. First they erected a Sun Dance lodge around a central cottonwood pole in the village. Dancers prepared by making sacred vows and fasting from both food and water. Then the dance, which lasted for four days, began.
Dancers sang sacred songs and chants and called on the Sun to grant them power, luck, or success. Some dancers pierced their breasts with sticks, which they then attached to the center pole by rawhide ropes. Summoning their courage, the dancers pulled away from the pole until the skewers tore free. Sometimes men and women would cut off fingers or gouge pieces of flesh from their arms and legs. Government officials forbade the Sun Dance in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, but it never totally disappeared. Some Blackfeet still perform it to this day.
In modern times Canadian Blackfeet in Alberta sponsor the Blackfoot Indians Art Show at Head-Smashed-in Buffalo Jump, a World Heritage site, where Native Americans of long ago drove buffalo over the edge of a cliff during their hunts. The show is called “Heritage Through My Hands” and features Native paintings, beadwork, quillwork, and sculpture. Visitors can buy a selection of Native fare including frybread, buffalo and venison pemmican, griddlecakes, and jams and jellies from berries found on Blackfeet land. The tribe also offers many other arts-related events throughout the year such as puppet shows, dancing and drumming, storytelling, and craft instruction.
Every year the Blackfeet Powwow is held in Browning, Montana. The four-day celebration, open to Natives and non-Natives alike, features singing and dancing, storytelling, drumming, and various games. On the menu are Native foods such as boiled beef and deer meat, boiled potatoes, sarvisberry soup, baking powder bread, and fry bread. The powwow also serves to educate whites about Native American ways.
The buffalo was the primary source of food, clothing, shelter, household supplies, and military equipment. The Blackfeet had more than sixty different uses for parts of the buffalo. Until the near disappearance of the buffalo in the late 1870s, the animals roamed the Plains in huge herds. In the old times, people chased the buffalo on foot, surrounded the herd, and drove the animals off a cliff. Once they had horses, they preferred to charge the buffalo on fast, well-trained horses called buffalo runners. This method of hunting required courage and skill.
Blackfeet warrior societies had the duty of protecting the people, keeping order, punishing offenders, and organizing raids and hunts. There were societies for each age group. For example, young boys might belong to the Doves, while men who were waiting to become warriors were part of the Mosquitoes, and warriors might belong to the Braves. The most respected societies were the Bulls and the Brave Dogs, made up of men who had proven themselves in battle. There were other Blackfeet societies for the practice of medicine, magic, and dance. An arts society was largely made up of women.
Courtship and marriage
Blackfeet marriages were arranged by the bride’s parents when she was still a child or later by close friends or relatives of the couple. Before a wedding could take place the groom had to convince the bride’s father, relatives, or friends that he was worthy. This meant that he had to prove that he was a powerful warrior, a competent hunter, and able to offer financial security. Because of these requirements, very few men married before the age of 21.
Gift exchanging was central to the marriage ceremony. Horses were among the most valuable gifts, and the families of the young couple also gave them household goods and robes. After the wedding the bride and groom lived in either their own hut or in the home of the husband’s family.
Dying people made known their wishes for the distribution of possessions. When no such arrangement was made, members of the tribe simply took whatever they could gather after the person died.
The face of the dead person was painted, and the body was dressed in fancy clothes and wrapped in buffalo robes. They either buried the corpse atop a hill or in a ravine or placed it between the forks of a tree. Both men and women mourned the death of loved ones by cutting their hair, wearing old clothes, and smearing their faces with white clay.
When a prominent chief of the Canadian Blackfeet died his possessions were left within his lodge, and his horses were shot. The Blackfeet believed that the spirit of the deceased did not leave this world, but traveled to the Sand Hills, an area south of the Saskatchewan River. Invisible spirits of the dead lived there much as they had in life and often communicated with the living who passed through the region.
Current tribal issues
The Blackfeet have always been concerned with their land, which is both sacred and important to their survival. As of 2007 the tribe is making claims for water rights on the reservation and rights to certain natural resources within the boundaries of Glacier National Park. They are also working to ensure the appropriate use of reservation lands by both members and non-members.
The Blackfeet people are concerned about the preservation of their culture. They have established programs to strengthen the sense of community, which may help the tribe overcome such social problems as alcoholism, poverty, and crime. The tribe is also making efforts to further develop industry, the use of oil and natural gas resources, and improve the maintenance of ranches on the reservation.
Blackfeet in Montana are trying to draw more tourists to the St. Mary’s entrance to Glacier National Park, which borders the reservation on the west. Visitors are encouraged to go to the reservation’s shopping sites and attend Native festivals. Some travel agencies offer tours of reservation lands.
At the age of seven Earl Old Person (1929–) began presenting Blackfeet culture in songs and dances at statewide events. For many years he has served as chairperson of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. Under his guidance, recreational, industrial, and housing projects have been completed on the reservation. Old Person has also served as head of a number of nationally recognized Native organizations. In 1978 Old Person received an honorary lifetime appointment as chief of the Blackfeet Nation. His efforts have made for better relations between Native American communities and the larger U.S. society.
Other notable Blackfeet include Canadian architect Douglas Cardinal (1934–); Blood tribal leader Crowfoot (1830–1890); Blood politician James Gladstone (1887–1971); painter Gerald Tailfeathers (1925–1975); and Blackfeet/Gros Ventre novelist James Welch (1940–2003).
Bial, Raymond. The Blackfeet. New York: Benchmark Books, 2002.
Bullchild, Percy. The Sun Came Down: The History of the World as My Blackfeet Elders Told It. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
Dempsey, Hugh A. Crowfoot: Chief of the Blackfeet. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972.
Ewers, John C. The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958.
Ewers, John C. Indian Life on the Upper Missouri. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.
Grinnell, George Bird. Blackfeet Indians Stories. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2006.
Jackson, John C. The Piikani Blackfeet: A Culture Under Siege. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing, 2000.
McClintock, Walter. The Old North Trail: Or Life, Legends and Religions of the Blackfeet Indians. Kila, MN: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.
Rosier, Paul C. Rebirth of the Blackfeet Nation, 1912–1954. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001.
Ryan, Marla Felkins, and Linda Schmittroth. Blackfeet. San Diego, CA: Blackbirch Press, 2002.
Wischmann, Lesley. Frontier Diplomats: Alexander Culbertson and Natoyist-Siksina’ Among the Blackfeet. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.
“Blackfeet.” Wisdom of the Elders. (accessed on July 27, 2007).
Blackfeet Nation. (accessed on July 27, 2007).
“History of Piikani Nation (Peigan).” Peigan Crafts, Ltd. (accessed on July 27, 2007).
Official Site of the Blackfoot Nation. (accessed on July 27, 2007).
Gordon L. Pullar, Director, Department of Alaska Native and Rural Development College of Rural and Community Development, UAF, Anchorage, Alaska
Brian Wescott (Athabaskan/Yup’ik)
Amanda Beresford McCarthy
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.
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.
See alsovol. 9:Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 .