views updated May 18 2018


by Richard C. Hanes and Matthew T. Pifer


The Blackfoot Nation is actually a confederation of several distinct tribes, including the South Piegan (or Pikuni), the Blood (or Kainai), the North Piegan, and the North Blackfoot (or Siksika). They traditionally called each other Nizitapi, or "Real People." The name Blackfoot reportedly derived from the black-dyed moccasins worn by some tribal members at the time of early contact with non-Indians. The Blackfoot are also known as the Blackfeet. The Blood, Siksika, and Piegan freely intermarried, spoke a common language, shared the same cultural traits, and fought the same enemies. This confederation traditionally occupied the northwest portion of the Great Plains from the northern reaches of the Saskatchewan River of western Saskatchewan and southern Alberta, Canada, to the Yellowstone River in central Montana including the headwaters of the Missouri River. The Northern Blackfoot live farthest north, the Blood and North Piegan in the middle just north of the Canadian border, and the South Piegan furthest south along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains in northern Montana. The confederation had more than one tribal leader. Each tribe consisted of a number of hunting bands, which were the primary political units of the tribe. Each of these bands was headed by both a war leader and a civil leader, the former chosen because of his reputation as a warrior, and the later chosen because of his eloquent oratory.

In 1809, fur trapper and explorer Alexander Henry estimated the North Blackfoot population at 5,200. In 1832, artist George Catlin estimated the population of the entire confederation at 16,500. By 1840, the population began decreasing significantly from epidemics of diphtheria in 1836 and smallpox in 1837, and from increasing warfare. One southern group of 2,000 in central Montana known to some as Small Robes reportedly disappeared altogether. Still, the Blackfoot reigned over the northern Plains region of southern Alberta and northern Montana into the mid-nineteenth century. By 1896, however, only 1,400 Blackfoot lived in Montana.

As a member of the Algonquian language family, the Blackfoot are related to other Algonquianspeaking tribes whom ethnologists believe migrated onto the plains from the eastern woodlands several centuries before contact with whites. Some Blackfoot do not readily accept that historic interpretation. In The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains, John C. Ewers stated that the Blackfoot were the "earliest Algonquian residents of the plains." Consequently, their culture is a Plains culture, revolving around warfare, buffalo, and the horse. During the nineteenth century, the Blackfoot confederation was the most powerful of the Northern Plains Native groups, actually impeding to some extent the westward U.S. expansion.


Central to their traditional economy, the Blackfoot relentlessly followed the enormous herds of buffalo. In the time before the horse and firearms, commonly known as the "Dog Days," the Blackfoot used arrows and lances in wars with traditional enemies, including the Shoshone, the Plains Cree, the Sioux, the Flathead, and the Assiniboin. Often, they allied in battle with their neighbors the Gros Ventre and the Sarcee. Domesticated dogs carried Blackfoot belongings by pulling a loaded travois consisting of two long poles attached to the dog's sides. After acquiring horses and firearms around the middle of the eighteenth century, the Blackfoot became the most powerful tribe of the Northern Plains. By the mid-nineteenth century, they had pushed their enemies, particularly the Shoshone, Flathead, and Kootenai, west across the Rocky Mountains.

In the mid-eighteenth century, fur trappers exploring westward, with the hope of establishing trading relationships with the Native population, were the first non-Indians to visit this region. The first trapper to provide an extensive written record of the Blackfoot was David Thompson, an agent for the Hudson's Bay Company, who traveled into Blackfoot territory in 1787. From this date until the near extermination of buffalo in 1883, the relationship between the trading companies and the Blackfoot was important to the Blackfoot's economic and social lives. Trading posts not only introduced them to new technologies, such as guns, but also to new diseases. Smallpox epidemics devastated the Blackfoot population in 1781, 1837, and 1869.

The Blackfoot became respected as an aggressive military force, attacking and destroying several trading posts in their territory. Stories of such events terrified the settlers moving west, who applied to their governments for protection. Due to such concerns, as well as the desire to acquire Blackfoot land, a number of treaties and agreements were negotiated that led to the Blackfoot ceding

"T he buffalo have disappeared, and the fate of the buffalo has almost overtaken the Blackfeet."

George Bird Grinnell, Blackfoot Lodge Tales: The Story of a Prairie People,(Scribner's, New York, 1892).

much of their territory. In 1855, the Blackfoot signed their first treaty, known as Lame Bull's Treaty, after the powerful Piegan chief who signed it. This treaty ceded most of the 26 million acre composing traditional Blackfoot territory within U.S. borders. A reserve was left for their exclusive use. New treaties in 1865 and 1868 significantly decreased the size of their territory along the southern boundary. Continued pressures from expanding white settlements led to hostile resistance by some Blackfoot. In retaliation, the U.S. Cavalry, commanded by Major Eugene M. Baker, indiscriminately massacred 173 Blackfoot in 1870 at Heavy Runner's Piegan's camp on the Marias River.

In 1874, an executive order further reduced the Blackfoot territory in Montana and formally established a reservation on the east flanks of the Rocky Mountains next to the Canadian border. To the north, the Canadian government established reservations in Alberta for the Blackfoot in 1877 through Treaty No. 7, which ceded much of their traditional Native territory. The Bloods reserved almost 350,000 acres, the North Blackfoot over 178,000 acres, and the North Piegan over 113,000 acres. Additional land in the United States was relinquished through agreements in 1887 and 1896. The 1896 a land sale agreement for $1.5 million sold an area that soon became part of Glacier National Park in 1910. The conditions of that agreement continue to be at issue with respect to tribal use of park lands. The modern-day reservation boundaries were essentially set by this time. Lands within the reservation were allotted to individual tribal members between 1907 and 1911 under the General Allotment Act of 1887. This process led to so-called "excess" lands falling into non-Indian ownership.


In Modern Blackfeet: Montanans on a Reservation, Malcolm McFee studied the changing culture of the Blackfoot after the buffalo's disappearance in 1883. He pointed to two significant periods divided by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. The first period lasted from 1884, with the onset of famine caused by the near extermination of the buffalo, to 1935. This period was characterized by Blackfoot dependency on the reservation agent for food and other essential supplies. In addition, there was a massive cultural change due to the new sedentary, agricultural lifestyle. The second period, stretching from 1935 to the 1960s, was characterized by self-sufficiency and self-government, which the Indian Reorganization Act encouraged. Today the Blackfoot Reservation has an established government and an active population. Many Blackfoot support themselves through ranching, industry, and oil and natural gas exploration.

The Blackfoot have always been concerned with their traditional land, recognizing it as sacred and important to their survival. This concern is reflected today in the Blackfoot claim for priority rights over the water resources on the reservation, rights to certain natural resources within the boundaries of Glacier National Park as specified in the 1896 agreement, and the appropriate use of reservation lands by both members and non-members. The traditional values represented in the Blackfoot's concern for the land are also evident in the tribe's ongoing concern over the preservation of their culture. Other issues include the development of industry, the use of oil and natural gas resources, and the maintenance of ranches on the reservation.


Four reservations compose the Blackfoot nation today. The only one in the United States, the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, borders the east boundary of Glacier National Park. It is over 1.5 million acres in size, containing a diverse landscape of mountains and hills, and lakes and rivers. The other three are all located in Alberta, Canada: the Blackfoot Reserve on the Bow River, the Blood Reserve situated between the Belly and St. Mary rivers, and the smaller Piegan Reserve located a short distance west of the Blood Reserve on the Oldman River. By the 1990s, 15,000 Blackfoot lived on the Canadian reserves, while 10,000 lived on the U.S. reservation.

Acculturation and Assimilation


The Blackfoot avoid eating fish or using canoes, because they believe that rivers and lakes hold special power through habitation of Underwater People called the Suyitapis. The Suyitapis are the power source for medicine bundles, painted lodge covers, and other sacred items. A traditional disdain for fishing persists for many, despite the rich on-reservation fisheries.

The Blackfoot traditionally relied on the buffalo for food, clothing, shelter, and much of their domestic and military equipment. The pervasive use of the buffalo in Blackfoot culture provides the basis for Alfred Vaughan's claim, recorded by John C. Ewers, that the buffalo was the Blackfoot's "Staff of Life." Until the buffalo's near extermination in the early 1880s, they roamed the plains in extraordinarily large herds. Several hunting methods were used throughout Blackfoot history, such as the "buffalo surround" and cliff drives. However, once the Blackfoot acquired the horse and mastered its use, they preferred charging the buffalo on their fast and well-trained "buffalo runners." This method of hunting brought together both courage and skill, traits which the Blackfoot valued most highly.

The traditional shelter of the Blackfoot was a tipi that normally housed one family of about eight individuals. According to Ewers, the typical household was composed of two men, three women, and three children. About 19 pine poles, each averaging 18 feet in length, comprised the tipi's frame. Between six and 20 buffalo skins, often decorated with pictures of animals and geometric designs, covered the poles. Furnishings included buffalo robe beds and willow backrests. The tipi's design allowed for easy movement, a necessity given the traditionally nomadic nature of the Blackfoot-hunting lifestyle. After the buffalo's disappearance and the creation of reservations during the latter half of the nineteenth century, the log cabin replaced the tipi, becoming a symbol of the new sedentary lifestyle. Ranching and agriculture then became the primary means of survival.


Buffalo meat, the staple of the Blackfoot diet, was boiled, roasted, or dried. Dried meat was stored in rawhide pouches. It was also made into pemmican, a mixture of ground buffalo meat, service berries, and marrow grease. Pemmican was an important food source during the winter and other times when buffalo were scarce. In addition to buffalo, men hunted larger game, such as deer, moose, mountain sheep, antelope, and elk. The Blackfoot supplemented their diet with berries and other foods gathered from the plains. Women gathered roots, prairie turnips, bitterroot, and camas bulbs in the early summer. They picked wild service berries, choke cherries, and buffalo or bull berries in the fall, and gathered the bark of the cottonwood tree, enjoying its sweet interior. Fish, reptiles, and grizzly bears were, except for a few bands, considered unfit for consumption.


The Blackfoot used two types of drums were. For the Sun Dance, a section of tree trunk with skin stretched over both ends was traditionally used. The other type of percussion instrument was like a tambourine with hide stretched over a broad wooden hoop. Rattles were traditionally used for various ceremonies, with the type varying with the particular ceremony. Some were made of hide, others of buffalo hooves. Also, whistles with single holes were used in the Sun Dance.


Traditionally, the Blackfoot made their clothing from the hides of buffalo, deer, elk, and antelope. The women tailored dresses for themselves from the durable and pliable skins of antelope or mountain sheep. These dresses were ankle length and sleeveless, with straps to hold them up. They were decorated with porcupine quills, cut fringes, and simple geometric designs often colored with earth pigments. In the winter, separate skin sleeves were added to these dresses along with a buffalo robe. The women also wore necklaces of sweet-grass and bracelets of elk or deer teeth. Clothing changed as contact with white traders increased. Many women began to use wool and other types of cloth to make many of their garments. The buffalo robe, however, for reasons of both warmth and comfort, remained important through the nineteenth century.

The men wore antelope or mountain sheep skin leggings, shirts, breechcloths, and moccasins. In the winter they wore a long buffalo robe, often decorated with earth pigments or plant dyes and elaborate porcupine quill embroidery. They also wore necklaces made from the claws and teeth of bears, and from braided sweet grass. In general, this dress was common among Blackfoot men until the last decade of the nineteenth century. At this time what was called "citizen's dress," according to John C. Ewers, became popular, due to both pressure from missionaries and the disappearance of the buffalo. "Citizen's dress" consisted of a coat, trousers, and moccasins, which were preferred over the inflexible shoes of the white man.


Traditionally, the Blackfoot had numerous dance societies, each having a social and religious function. Dances, usually performed at summer gatherings, reflected Blackfoot emphasis on hunting and war. Men were honored in the dances for bravery in battle or for generosity in sharing meat from a hunt. The Blackfoot Sun Dance was a major annual dance ceremony involving the construction of a special circular lodge. The actual dance involved men fasting and praying, and dancing from the wall to a central pole and back inside the Sun Dance lodge. Voluntary piercing of the chest for ritual purposes was sometimes a concluding feature of the dance.

Today, the Blackfoot hold the North American Indian Days Celebration in Browning, Montana every July. The large pow wow draws Native peoples from throughout the region for singing, dancing, and socializing. Blackfoot customs were the subject of a 1982 film, The Drum is the Heart, produced by Randy Croce. The film traces how long-standing Blackfoot traditions are still a part of modern celebrations. The film shows ceremonial costumes, tipi decoration, social interactions, and the ongoing role of pow wows.


The Blackfoot believe spirits to be an active and vital of everyday life. Therefore, they viewed illness as the visible presence of an evil spirit in a person's body. Consequently, such illness required the expertise of a professional medicine man or woman who had acquired, through a vision, the ability to heal the sick by removing evil spirits. In their visions a supernatural power instructed the medicine people, who then called upon this power to assist them during healing ceremonies. John C. Ewers in Indian Life on the Upper Missouri observed that upon the conclusion of the traditional healing ceremony a medicine person might physically remove some object from the sick person, presenting it as proof that the ceremony had been successful. Lesser injuries, such as cuts, were treated with medicinal herbs. The medicine person commonly acquired such knowledge through an apprenticeship. Traditionally, horses were offered as payment for a medicine person's services. Today, the Blackfeet Indian Hospital, operated under the Indian Health Service, is located in Browning and provides local health services to the Blackfeet Reservation.


The Blackfoot Indians' Algonquian dialect is related to the languages of several Plains, Eastern Woodlands, and Great Lake region tribes. Ewers stated that by migrating west, the Blackfoot encountered Athapascan-, Shoshonean-, and Siouan-speaking tribes, which distinguished their particular dialect, along with isolation from other Algonquian-speaking tribes. Although the Blackfoot did not have a syllabary, they did record their traditional stories and important events, such as wars, in pictographs on the internal and external surfaces of tipis, and on their buffalo robes. Like other Native groups attempting to preserve their languages, a resurgence occurred in the use of the Blackfoot language by the end of the twentieth century.


Examples of the Blackfoot language and words include: Tsá kaanistáópííhpa ? How are you?; Amo(i)stsi mííinistsi iikááhsiiyaawa These berries are good; Póóhsapoot ! Come here!; Nitsíksstaa nááhksoyssi I want to eat; Kikáta'yáakohkottsspommóóhpa ?; Can I help you?; Tsimá kítsitokoyihpa ?; Where do you live?; Isstónnatsstoyiiwa It's extremely cold; ookáán Sundance; Ássa ! Hey!; Inihkatsimat ! Help!; and, Wa'piski-wiya's White man.

Family and Community Dynamics


During the dark years of 1884 to 1910, when the Blackfoot population was at its low ebb, Western educational facilities were introduced to the Montana reservation. Holy Family Mission, a Catholic boarding school, was the earliest educational institution on the Blackfoot reservation. A government boarding school followed the boarding school, and later, day schools. These schools strongly focused on assimilating Blackfoot students into American society, forbidding the practice of traditional customs, including native language use. Federal programs in the 1930s provided funds for college and vocational education. Over 120 Blackfoot held college degrees by 1950.

As with many tribes, a revitalization of tribal traditions and customs grew in the late twentieth century with education initiatives leading the way. The Blackfoot's Algonquian language and their traditional cultural values are taught today through head-start programs in primary and secondary schools on the reservation. Similar programs have also been created for adults at neighboring colleges, such as the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana. Strengthening the sense of community through a continued identification with their heritage is one goal of these programs. They also help the Blackfoot overcome such social problems as alcoholism, poverty, and crime. The Blackfeet Community College, established in 1976, became fully accredited by 1985. The college is a member of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium and the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES). The two-year school had 400 students by the early 1990s. Tribal members have assumed leadership roles in AISES through the years. Judy M. Gobert was Treasurer of AISES in 1999 while teaching at the Salish-Kootenai College in Pablo, Montana. Gerald "Buzz" Cobell was on the AISES board. Old Sun Community College is located in Gleichen, Alberta on the North Blackfoot Reserve.


A major traditional activity of Blackfoot women was hide tanning. Tanning was long and hard work. Hides were staked on the ground fur-side down and scraped to remove all fat and meat and then they were flipped over to scrape off all of the hair. The scraping continued until the skin became soft and clean. To produce softer skins, the hide was rubbed with mixtures of animal brains, liver, and fat. After drying in the sun, the hide was then soaked in water, rolled in a bundle, and cured. After curing, the hide was again stretched and scraped. Each hide took many hours. The worth of Blackfoot women was largely judged by the number and quality of hides they produced. Women were also responsible for butchering, curing, and preparing meat. Other roles for Blackfoot women included making, erecting, and owning the tipis. According to John C. Ewers in Indian Life on the Upper Missouri, many of the more popular Blackfoot traditional healers were women.


Marriage traditionally played an important role in both the social and economic lives of the Blackfoot. Marriages were arranged by close friends or relatives or were prearranged by the bride's parents when she was still a child. Before any wedding could take place, the man needed to convince the bride's father, relatives, or friends that he was worthy. This condition of marriage meant he had to prove that he was a powerful warrior, a competent hunter, and an economically stable husband. Due to these requirements, very few men married before the age of 21. Exchanging gifts was central to the marriage ceremony. Both the groom and the bride's families offered horses, household goods, and robes. After the wedding, the new couple lived either in their own hut or in that of the husband's family.


After dying, individuals were traditionally dressed in ceremonial clothes, their faces were painted, and they were wrapped in buffalo robes. The body was then buried atop a hill, down in a ravine, or placed 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. The possessions of the deceased were distributed according to a verbal will. When no verbal will existed, custom called for the band members to take whatever possessions they could gather before others claimed them. However, when a prominent leader died, his possessions were left within his lodge, and his horses were shot. The spirit of the deceased did not leave this world, but traveled to the Sand Hills, an area south of the Saskatchewan River. Although invisible, spirits lived there much as they had in life, and often communicated with the living as they passed through this region.


Military societies, called aiinikiks, were a basic element of Blackfoot society. The Blackfoot had strong and friendly relations with the Athapascan-speaking Sarcee to the north and were generally friendly with the Gros Ventre. But long term enemies existed among the Nez Perces, the Flathead, the Northern Shoshoni, the Crow, the Cree, the Assiniboine, and others. War leaders were believed to possess supernatural powers acquired through visions guaranteeing success. Hostile interaction with other tribes was a means of acquiring honor, usually accomplished through the capture of property. Successful exploits were exhibited on tipi covers or buffalo robes. Honor came through being exposed to danger more than actually killing an enemy. These interactions with other groups were an important means of gaining better social standing. The military societies also served domestic services, such as policing camps, overseeing camp moves, and organizing defense from external threats.


"All of the Blackfeet universe," Malcolm McFee stated in Modern Blackfeet: Montanans on a Reservation, "was invested with a pervasive supernatural power that could be met with in the natural environment." The Blackfoot sought these powers, believing the life of the land and their own lives were irrevocably bound. An animal's power or the power of a natural element would frequently be bestowed upon an individual in a dream. The animal, often appearing in human form, provided the dreamer with a list of the objects, songs, and rituals necessary to use this power. The dreamer gathered the indicated items and placed them into a rawhide pouch called a medicine bundle. The power of this bundle and the associated songs and rituals were used in many social and religious ceremonies. The most powerful medicine bundle among the Blackfoot was the beaver medicine bundle. According to Ewers, this bundle was used by the Beaver Men to charm the buffalo, and to assist in the planting of the sacred tobacco used in the medicine pipe ritual performed after the first thunder was heard. Medicine bundles were continually traded among members of the tribe in elaborate ceremonies, in which the physical pouch and its constituent power were literally transferred from one owner to another.

Primary to the traditional Blackfoot religious life was the communal Sun Dance, held in the middle of the summer. The Sun Dance was a sacred celebration of the sun that was initiated by a "virtuous" woman in one of the Blackfoot bands. A woman who pledged, or "vowed" to take on the responsibilities of sponsoring the Sun Dance was called the "vow woman." Typically, the vow woman took on the position as a display of gratitude to the sun for the survival of someone in the vow woman's family. If, for example, a brother or sister had somehow narrowly escaped death, a woman in that person's family would seek to become the vow woman. The vow woman was required to fast prior to the Sun Dance, to prepare food for the Sun Dance, to buy a sacred headdress, and to learn complex prayers.

As word spread about the vow woman and the location of the Sun Dance, bands of Blackfoot drifted toward the site of the Sun Dance and began to prepare the Sun Dance Lodge at the center of a circle camp. Once the Sun Dance lodge was erected around the central cottonwood pole, the dance began and lasted four days. During this time, the dancers, who had taken their own sacred vows, fasted from both food and water. They called to the sun, through sacred songs and chants, to grant them power, luck, or success. Some pierced their breasts with sticks, which were then attached to the center pole by rawhide ropes. The dancers pulled away from the pole, until these skewers tore free. Other men and women would cut off fingers or pieces of flesh from their arms and legs.

The Sun Dance was considered barbaric by the Catholic missionaries. Father J. B. Carroll, for example, opined that the Sun Dance reminded the Blackfeet "of the darkest days of heathenism and bloodshed, because it is the day on which they parade as real savages in their war paints and war dances." William E. Farr, author of The Reservation Blackfeet, 1882-1945, agrees that the Sun Dance may have allowed the Blackfeet to bridge the gap between the past and the present, but he adds that the Sun Dance was "a series of sacred acts, sacrifice, and vision, an annual renewal one that gave the Blackfeet enough presence and strength to go on for another year. Although the missionaries tried to suppress the Sun Dance in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, it has never totally disappeared and has experienced a renewal in recent times.

Catholicism was a major religion among the Blackfoot through the twentieth century. Catholic Jesuits, or "Black Robes," were the first Christian missionaries to reach the Blackfoot bands. In 1859, Catholic Jesuits erected the St. Peter's Mission near Choteau on the Teton River. The Methodist Church arrived shortly after the Jesuits did, and they made their own inroads into Blackfoot spiritual life. Agent John Young, a Methodist minister, managed to get the Jesuits banned from the Blackfoot reservation during the Starvation Winter of 1883-1884, but the Jesuits, led by Peter Prando, set up shop just across the reservation boundary on the south side of Birch Creek. Although Christianity maintains a presence in the Blackfoot community, traditional religious practices involving medicine bundles, the Sun Dance, and sweat baths are still practiced.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Blackfoot followed the movements of buffalo in bands composed of 20 to 30 families. The territory ranged from the edge of the Saskatchewan forests in the north to the Missouri River country to the south. With the near extinction of buffalo herds in 1883, the traditional economy was destroyed and many died from starvation. The winter of 1883-1884 was so particularly devastating that it became known locally as the Starvation Winter. By the early twentieth century, the government carried out irrigation projects employing many tribal members. By 1915, the emphasis shifted from farming to ranching. Some prospered grazing their own herds, while others leased their lands to stockraisers for little return. The tribe lost over 200,000 acres through this period due to their inability to pay taxes. Approximately thirty percent of the reservation fell into non-Indian hands.

In the 1920s, a Five Year Industrial Program was begun that encouraged planting vegetable gardens and small fields of grain. This initiative relieved some economic problems. The 1930s brought federal works programs. Many Blackfoot took part in the Works Progress Administration projects and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Later in the century, the Blackfoot won two substantial monetary judgements from the United States. Monies were awarded in compensation for irregularities associated with the 1888 relinquishment of vast areas in eastern Montana. A $29 million settlement for unfair federal accounting practices with tribal funds was awarded in 1982.

Under the guidance of prominent tribal leader Earl Old Person, a major recreational complex, an industrial park, a museum and research center, housing developments, and a community center were constructed on the reservation. Blackfeet Writing Company of Browning, Montana was established in 1971, is a successful company that makes pens and pencils. Other ventures including lumber mills and the purchase of the American Calendar Company in 1988 have been less successful.

The Blackfoot, along with six other tribes including the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Crow, formed the Montana Indian Manufacturer's Network to promote jobs for Indians in economically depressed areas. The foundation was the subject of a 1992 film, Tribal Business in the Global Marketplace, produced and written by Carol Rand and directed by Thomas Hudson. In addition, leasing lands for grazing and oil and gas exploration has provided relatively steady income to the Blackfoot. In 1997 the Blackfoot signed an agreement with the K2 Energy Corporation to begin oil and gas exploration on Montana reservation lands. Despite these initiatives, an unemployment rate of over 50 percent persisted through the 1990s.

Politics and Government

Blood tribal leader Crowfoot (1830-1890) was born at Blackfoot Crossing near where Calgary, Alberta was later founded. In his youth he moved from the Blood to Northern Blackfoot tribe where he gained a reputation as a warrior, leader, and orator. Crowfoot was leader of the Canadian Blackfoot during the transitional period from their traditional economy based on buffalo hunting to reservation-based farming. Foreseeing the need to establish friendly relations with the Euroamericans, Crowfoot represented the Blackfoot, Bloods, Piegans, and Sarcees in 1877 treaty negotiations that led to establishment of governmental relations with the Canadian government. Crowfoot maintained peaceful relations with Canada, even during hostilities in 1885 involving other Native Canadians. Crowfoot continued his leadership role during the early reservation period, traveling to Montreal as his people's representative to meet with the prime minister Crowfoot's name provided the basis for a 1968 film titled The Ballad of Crowfoot, which was produced by Barrie Howells and directed by Willie Dunn. The film looked at the history of western Canada through the eyes of Native populations.

For the Blackfoot of Montana, the 1934 Indian Recognition Act began their modern economic and political development. Under the authority of the act, the Blackfoot chose to write a constitution establishing a tribal council. The governmental changes placed remaining tribally owned lands into a more stable federal trust status and provided loans for economic pursuits, such as raising livestock and for education. Each Blackfoot reservation is governed by a general council headed by a single chairman. The Montana Blackfoot reservation, for example, is lead by the Tribal Business Council composed of nine members elected to two year terms. The council is headquartered in Browning, the largest of five reservation communities. To qualify for tribal programs, tribal members carry identification cards showing their enrollment number and blood quantum degree.

Individual and Group Contributions


Gerald Tailfeathers (1925-1975), one of the first Native Canadians to become a professional artist, was born at Stand Off, Alberta among the Blood branch of Blackfoot. His talents for painting were recognized early in life, and Tailfeathers attended the School of Fine Arts in Banff, Alberta and the Provincial School of Technology and Art in Calgary. Tailfeathers depicted Blackfoot peoples in late nineteenth century settings such as buffalo hunting ceremonies. His style was considered pictorial in its portrayals.


Richard Sanderville (c. 1873-1957), part Piegan, grew up on the Montana Blackfoot Reservation and became a student in the use of traditional sign language. He inherited this interest from his father and grandfather who also served as interpreters between the Blackfoot and Euroamericans from the fur trade era onward. He was among the first group of Blackfoot enrolled at the famed Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Sanderville later served on the Blackfoot tribal council. Seeking to relieve the poverty of the area in the 1920s, he helped organize the Piegan Farming and Livestock Association. Sanderville helped develop the Dictionary of the Indian Sign Language with the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s. He was also instrumental in establishing the Museum of the Plains Indian on the Blackfoot Reservation in 1941 in an effort to preserve tribal history.

Vivian Ayoungman (1947 ) was born east of Calgary, Alberta in the Siksika Indian Nation to a ranching family. Ayoungman earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Calgary in secondary education in 1970 before going on to earn a Ph.D. from Arizona State University in Phoenix. While at University of Calgary she helped establish the Indian Student University Program, where she served as counselor. Ayoungman was elected to the board of directors and later served as academic vice president of Old Sun Community College in the 1970s. Following graduate studies, Ayoungman returned to Calgary where she became director of education for the Treaty Seven Tribal Council. Throughout her career, Ayoungman has presented many talks promoting the image of Native Canadians and their traditional values and cultural traits.

Ed Barlow was a noted educator in Montana, serving as superintendent of the Browning Public Schools. He was the first American Indian appointed to the Montana State Board of Education before becoming regional director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in the Minneapolis Area Office.


King Kuka (1946 ) was born in Browning, Montana and attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico in the mid-1960s. Kuka's poetry has been published in several works, including The Whispering Wind (1991) and Voices of the Rainbow (1992). Kuka is also a painter and a sculptor.

One of the more noted tribal members in the arts is Blackfoot novelist James Welch (b. 1940). Welch was born on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning and also has kinship ties to the Gros Ventre of northeastern Montana. After graduating from the University of Montana, Welch has employed his Native background in writing about the human relationship to the natural landscape, Indian mythology, cultural traditions, tribal history, and the plight of Native life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He published a collection of poems in Riding Earthboy 40 in 1971 and the novel Winter in the Blood in 1974. In Killing Custer (1994), Welch presents the Native perspective on the epic Battle of Little Horn. Other works include The Death of Jim Loney (1979), Fools Crow (1986), and The Indian Lawyer (1990). Welch has been recognized as one of the early influential writers in American Indian literature. Welch teaches contemporary American Indian literature on occasion at Cornell University in New York.


Architect Douglas Cardinal (1934 ) was born in Red Deer, Alberta in Canada. His father was a member of the Northern Blackfoot. Cardinal graduated with a degree in architecture from the University of Texas in 1963. He quickly achieved a reputation as innovator in architectural design by combining Native traditions with advanced technology. The firm Douglas Cardinal, Architect, Limited of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada designed several Indian education centers, the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec and the master campus plan for the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. The film involved in the initial design of the National Museum of the American Indian, proposed for the National Mall in Washington, D.C.


James Gladstone (1887-1971) became the first Native Canadian to serve as a senator in the Canadian Parliament. Gladstone, born at Mountain Hill in the Northwest Territory, grew up on the Blood Blackfoot Reservation in Alberta. A successful farmer on the Blood Reserve, he was the first Blood to have electricity or use a tractor. He became active in representing Native Canadian concerns before the national government in the late 1940s. Gladstone founded the Indian Association of Alberta in 1939, serving as president of the organization from 1948 to 1954 and again in 1956. Gladstone was appointed senator in 1958 and served 17 years. He was a strong proponent for protecting the traditions of Native Canadians, as well as economic improvement. He also delivered the first Parliament speech in Blackfoot language. During his tenure, treaty Indians received the right to vote in national elections. He was named Outstanding Indian of the Year in the 1960s.

Earl Old Person (1929 ) became one of the most highly esteemed and honored individuals in the state of Montana, as well as the nation. He was born in Browning, Montana to Juniper and Molly (Bear Medicine) Old Person, who were from prominent families on the Blackfoot Reservation in northern Montana. By the time he was seven, he had started his long career of representing Native Americans, presenting Blackfoot culture in songs and dances at statewide events. In 1954, at the age of 25, Old Person became the youngest member of the Blackfoot Tribal Business Council. He was elected as its chairman ten years later in 1964 and, except for two years, held that position into the 1990s. Old Person also served as president of the National Congress of American Indians from 1969 to 1971 and president of the Affiliated Tribes of the Northwest from 1967 to 1972. He was chosen in 1971 as a member of the board of the National Indian Banking Committee. In 1977, he was appointed task force chairman of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) Reorganization. He was charged with the task of recommending to the Secretary of the Interior changes in BIA policy that were desired by Indian leaders throughout the nation. He won the prestigious Indian Council Fire Award in 1977 and has traveled extensively meeting with many dignitaries and celebrities. In July of 1978, Old Person was given the honorary lifetime appointment as chief of the Blackfoot Nation. In 1990 he was elected vice-president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), a national political interest group that lobbies on behalf of U.S. tribes. Old Person, through his gentle demeanor and sincere desire to help others, has done much to promote the ideas of Native Americans in the United States and further positive relations between Indian communities and U.S. society.

Forrest J. Gerrard (1925 ) became Assistant Secretary of Interior for Indian Affairs during the 1970s oversight management of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Born in Browning, Montana, Gerrard flew 35 combat missions as an Air Force pilot in World War II before returning home to represent American Indians before the U.S. government. He was director of the Office of Indian Affairs for the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare before being appointed to Assistant Secretary position.


George Burdeau (1944 ), a member of the Blackfoot, received a degree in communications from the University of Washington before undertaking graduate work and studies at the Anthropology Film Center and Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Burdeau went on to produce, direct, or write more than 20 film and television productions. Early in his career he worked on Native American subjects for Public Broadcasting System before working for the major television networks after the mid-1980s. Burdeau became director of the Communication Arts Department at the Institute of American Indian Arts.


Blackfeet Tribal News.

A newspaper providing information about current events of the Blackfoot, published by Blackfeet Media.

Address: Blackfeet Community College, P.O. Box 819, Browning, Montana 59417.

Telephone: (406) 338-7755.

Glacier Reporter.

Contact: Brian Kavanagh, Publisher.

Address: Box R, Browning, Montana 59417-0317 USA.

Telephone: (406) 338-2090.

Fax: (406) 338-2410.

Montana Inter-Tribal Newsletter.

Address: 6301 Grand Avenue, Department of Indian Affairs, Billings, Montana 59103.

Organizations and Associations

Blackfeet Community College.

Tribally-controlled two-year college chartered by the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council in 1974.

Contact: Carol Murray, President.

Address: Highway 2 and 89, P.O. Box 819, Browning, Montana 59417.

Telephone: (406) 338-5411.

E-mail: [email protected]


Blackfeet Crafts Association.

Handles retail sales and mail orders for crafts produced by Blackfoot tribal members.

Contact: Mary F. Hipp.

Address: P.O. Box 51, Browning, Montana 59417.

Blackfeet Tribe.

Address: P.O. Box 850, Browning, Montana 59417.

Telephone: (406) 338-7276.

Montana Inter-Tribal Policy Board.

The Board seeks to represent and advance the economic and social well-being of Montana's Native population. It promotes social services, economic development, natural resource development, and law enforcement among other services.

Contact: Roland Kennedy.

Address: P.O. Box 850, Browning, Montana 59417.

Telephone: (406) 652-3113.

Museums and Research Centers

Montana Historical Society Museum.

Founded in 1865, information is available on the culture history of Montana, including newspapers, photograph archives, unpublished diaries and manuscripts, and an extensive library. The Museum also publishes the quarterly periodical, The Magazine of Western History.

Contact: Susan R. Near.

Address: 225 N. Roberts, Helena, Montana 59620.

Telephone: (406) 444-2394.

Museum of the Plains Indian and Crafts Center.

Founded in 1938, the museum is operated by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board of the United States Department of Interior, promoting the historic and contemporary Native American arts of Northern Plains Native cultures.

Contact: Loretta Pepion.

Address: P.O. Box 400, Browning, Montana 59417.

Telephone: (406) 338-2230.

University of Wyoming Anthropology Museum.

The museum contains cultural heritage information of the Northern Plains cultures of the United States.

Contact: Dr. Charles A. Reher, Director.

Address: P.O. Box 3431, Laramie, Wyoming 82071-3431.

Telephone: (307) 766-5136.

Fax: (307) 766-2473.

E-mail: [email protected], [email protected].


Sources for Additional Study

Duke, Philip. Points in Time: Structure and Event in a Late Northern Plains Hunting Society. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1991.

Ewers, John C. The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958.

. Indian Life on the Upper Missouri. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.

Farr, William E. The Reservation Blackfeet, 1882-1945, University of Washington Press, 1984.

McClintock, Walter. The Old North Trail, or, Life, Legends, and Religion of the Blackfeet Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Samek, Hana. The Blackfoot Confederacy, 1880-1920: A Comparative Study of Canadian and U.S. Indian Policy. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.

Scriver, Bob. The Blackfeet: Artists of the Northern Plains. Kansas City: The Lowell Press, Inc., 1990.


views updated May 21 2018


ETHNONYMS: Blood, Kainah, Northern Blackfoot, Peigan, Piegan, Pikuni, Siksika


Identification. The Blackfoot of the United States and Canada consisted aboriginally of three geographical-linguistic groups: the Siksika (Northern Blackfoot), the Kainah (Blood), and the Pikuni or Piegan. The three groups as a whole are also referred to as the "Siksika" (Blackfoot), a term that probably derived from their practice of coloring their moccasins with ashes. The term Kainah means "many chiefs" and Piegan refers to "people who had torn robes." Although the three groups are sometimes called a confederacy, there was no overarching political structure and the relations among the groups do not warrant such a label. Actually, the three groups had an ambiguous sense of unity, and they gathered together primarily for ceremonial purposes.

Location. Before the Blackfoot were placed on reservations and reserves in the latter half of the nineteenth century, they occupied a large territory that stretched from the North Saskatchewan River in Canada to the Missouri River in Montana, and from longitude 105° W to the base of the Rocky Mountains. The Plains Cree were located to the north, the Assiniboin to the east, and the Crow to the south of the Blackfoot. The Piegan were located toward the western part of this territory, in the mountainous country. The Blood were located to the northeast of the Piegan, and the Northern Blackfoot were northeast of the Blood. The Blackfoot now live mainly on or near three reserves: the Blackfoot Agency (Northern Blackfoot), the Blood Agency, and the Peigan Agency (Northern Peigan) in Alberta, Canada, and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, inhabited by the Southern Piegan.

Demography. In 1790 there were approximately 9,000 Blackfoot. In 1832 Catlin estimated that the Blackfoot numbered 16,500, and in 1833 Prince Maximilian estimated that there were 18,000 to 20,000. During the nineteenth century, starvation and repeated epidemics of smallpox and measles so decimated the population that by 1909 the Blackfoot numbered only 4,635. Evidence indicates that the Piegan were always the largest of the three groups. In 1980 in Montana, the Blackfoot population was about 15,000 with 5,525 on the Blackfeet Reservation and the remainder living off the reservation. In Canada they numbered about 10,000.

Linguistic Affiliation. Blackfoot is an Algonkian language and is on a coordinate level with Arapaho and Cheyenne. Dialects of Blackfoot are Siksika, Blood, and Piegan.

History and Cultural Relations

Horses, guns, and metal as well as smallpox were probably present among the Blackfoot early in the eighteenth century, although they did not see a White person until the latter part of that century. The introduction of horses and guns produced a period of cultural efflorescence. They were one of the most aggressive groups on the North American plains by the mid-nineteenth century. Allied with the Sarsi and the Gros Ventre, the Blackfoot counted the Cree, Crow, and Assinboin as enemies. Warfare between the groups often centered on raiding for horses and revenge. The U. S. government defined Blackfoot territory and promised provisions and instructions in the Judith Treaty of 1855. The westward movement of White settlers in the following decade led to conflicts with the Blackfoot. By 1870 the Blackfoot had been conquered and their population weakened by smallpox. The bison had become virtually extinct by the winter of 1883-1884, and by 1885 the Southern Piegan had settled on the Blackfeet Reservation. The Canadian government signed a treaty with the Blackfoot in 1877. The three reserves were established some time later, and they are under jurisdiction of the Canadian Indian Department.


The conical bison-hide tipi supported by poles was the traditional dwelling. During the summer, the Blackfoot lived in large tribal camps. It was during this season that they hunted bison and engaged in ceremonial activities such as the Sun Dance. During the winter they separated into bands of some ten to twenty households. Band membership was quite fluid. There might be several headmen in each band, one of whom was considered the chief. Headmanship was very informal, with the qualifications for office being wealth, success in war, and ceremonial experience. Authority within the band was similar to the relationship between a landlord and a tenant. As long as the headman continued to provide benefits, people remained with him. But if his generosity slackened, people would simply pack up and leave. When bands congregated during the summer, they formed distinct camps, which were separated from other band camps by a stream or some other natural boundary when available. When the Piegan, Blood, and Northern Blackfoot joined together for ceremonial purposes, each one of the three groups camped in a circle.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Blackfoot were the typical, perhaps even the classic example of the Plains Indians in many respects. They were nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived in tipis. The bison was the mainstay of their economy, if not the focus of their entire culture. They hunted other large mammals and gathered vegetable foods. Traditions indicate that the bison were hunted in drives, although hunting practices changed when horses and guns were introduced. Deer and smaller game were caught with snares. Fish, although abundant, were eaten only in times of dire necessity and after the disappearance of the bison. Today, the economy at Blackfeet Reservation, Montana, is based on ranching, farming, wage labor, welfare, and leased land income. There is potential for oil and natural gas production and for lumbering. Poverty is a major problem, with the more acculturated doing better economically than the less acculturated as a general rule. Describing the Blackfeet during the 1960s, Robbins refers to them as an "underclass" and their economic position as "neo-colonial." On the Canadian reserves the current economic situation is similar to that in the United States, with the Blackfoot now marginally integrated into the White economy.

Industrial Arts. In traditional times, the bison was the primary food source as well as the source of raw material for many material goods including clothing, tipi covers, cups, bowls, tools, and ornaments. After trade was established with Whites, metal tools and cloth rapidly replaced the traditional manufactures.

Trade. Trade within the group or among the three Blackfoot groups was more common than trade with other groups. Horses, slaves, food, tipis, mules, and ornaments were common trade items. Trade with Whites involved the Blackfoot trading bison hides and furs for whiskey, guns, clothes, food, and metal tools.

Division of Labor. There was a rigid division of labor on the basis of sex. Men hunted, made war, butchered animals, made weapons, made some of their own clothing, and painted designs on the tipis and shields. Women did most of the rest, including moving camp, bringing wood and water, preparing and storing food, cooking meals, making clothing, and producing most implements and containers.

Land Tenure. Traditionally, there were no formal rules relevant to access or use of lands. Under the reservation system, about 15 percent of the reservation land is owned by the tribe, with the remainder allotted to individuals. In some cases, the inheritance by numerous heirs of what were once large parcels of land has resulted in ownership of small pieces of land of no economic value.


Kin Groups and Descent. The aboriginal kinship and social systems have been characterized as reflecting "anarchistic individualism." The kinship system was multilineal and multilocal, with a very slight tendency toward patrilineality. The basic social unit was the "orientation group," which consisted of the household of one's parents and one's own household.

Kinship Terminology. Kin terms were of the Hawaiian type.

Marriage and Family

Marriage and Domestic Unit. Marriage brought increased status to both the husband and the wife. Although most marriages were monogamous, polygyny was practiced and was preferred, especially among wealthier men. Marital and kinship relationships in general were governed by rigid rules of etiquette and behavior including mother-in-law avoidance, age-grading, and the use of formal speech with older kin. Husbands were exceedingly sexually jealous, and a wife suspected of adultery might be beaten, mutilated, or even killed. Today, family relationships and structures remain amorphous, unstable, and fluid. At Blackfeet Reservation, the formation of large households made up of related families and the tendency for the families to live near each other is associated with the scarcity of economic resources. These groups of relatives form cooperative economic units. A similar situation obtains at the Northern Blackfoot Reserve, with independent households occurring only under conditions of financial security.

Inheritance. Traditionally, men would leave their property to kin through a verbal will. Horses were the most valuable property and were most often left to the man's oldest brother. In the past, women inherited little, although today they more often receive an equitable share.

Socialization. Children were and are viewed as individuals worthy of respect. They are expected to be quiet and deferential with adults but assertive with peers. Admonishing, teasing, ridiculing, and scaring are preferred to corporal punishment which is considered abusive. Girls are taught by women and boys by men, generally learning the appropriate sex-typed behavior and skills first by imitation, then by helping, and finally by instruction. The extended family plays a central role in child rearing and care; it is not uncommon for children to live with their grandmother or grandparents. Adoption or the "bringing up" of children raised by relatives is also fairly common.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Like other Plains Indian cultures, the Blackfoot aboriginally had age-graded men's societies. Prince Maximilian counted seven of these societies in 1833. The first one in the series was the Mosquito society, and the last, the Bull society. Membership was purchased. Each society had its own distinctive songs, dances, and regalia, and their responsibilities included keeping order in the camp. There was one women's society.

Political Organization. For each of the three geographical-linguistic groups, the Blood, the Piegan, and the Northern Blackfoot, there was a head chief. His office was slightly more formalized than that of the band headman. The primary function of the chief was to call councils to discuss affairs of interest to the group as a whole. The Blackfeet Reservation is a business corporation and a political entity. The constitution and corporate charter were approved in 1935. All members of the tribe are shareholders in the corporation. The tribe and the corporation are directed by a nine-member tribal council.

Social Control and Conflict. Intragroup conflict was a matter for individuals, families, or bands. The only formal mechanism of social control was the police activities of the men's societies in the summer camp. Informal mechanisms included gossip, ridicule, and shaming. In addition, generosity was routinely encouraged and praised.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Aboriginally, the religious life of the Blackfoot centered upon medicine bundles, and there were more than fifty of them among the three main Blackfoot groups. The most important bundles to the group as a whole were the beaver bundles, the medicine pipe bundles, and the Sun Dance bundle. Christianity is practiced now by most Southern Piegan with Roman Catholicism predominating. The Blackfoot apparently never adopted the Ghost Dance, nor is the Peyote Cult present. The Sun Dance and other native religious ceremonies are still practiced among most of the Blackfoot groups.

Ceremonies. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Sun Dance had become an important ceremony. It was performed once each year during the summer. The Sun Dance among the Blackfoot was similar to the ceremony that was performed in other Plains cultures, though there were some differences: a woman played the leading role among the Blackfoot, and the symbolism and paraphernalia used were derived from beaver bundle ceremonialism. The Blackfoot Sun Dance included the following: (1) moving the camp on four successive days; (2) on the fifth day, building the medicine lodge, transferring bundles to the medicine woman, and offering of gifts by children and adults in ill health; (3) on the sixth day, dancing toward the sun, blowing eagle-bone whistles, and self-torture; and (4) on the remaining four days, performing various ceremonies of the men's societies.

Arts. Singing groups were an important form of social intercourse. Porcupine quillwork was considered a sacred craft and some men were highly skilled painters of buffalo-skin shields and tipi covers. Today, achievement in traditional arts and crafts is valued as a sign of Indian identity. Consequently, there are skilled Blackfoot dancers, artists, carvers, leather- and beadworkers, orators, and singers whose work is known both within and beyond Blackfoot society.

Medicine. Illness was attributed to an evil spirit entering the body. Treatment by the shaman was directed at removing the spirit through singing, drumming, and the like. Some practitioners specialized in treating certain illnesses, setting broken bones, and so on.

Death and Afterlife. The dead were placed on a platform in a tree or the tipi, or on the floor of the tipi. Some property was left with the body for use in the next life. The Blackfoot feared the ghosts of the dead, and if a person died in a tipi, that tipi was never used again.


Hanks, Lucien M., and Jane R. Hanks (1950). Tribe under Trust: A Study of the Blackfoot Reserve of Alberta. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Hungry Wolf, Adolf (1977). The Blood People, a Division of the Blackfoot Confederacy: An Illustrated Interpretation of the Old Ways. New York: Harper & Row.

Hungry Wolf, Beverly (1980). The Ways of My Grandmothers. New York: William Morrow.

McFee, Malcolm (1972). Modern Blackfoot: Montanans on a Reservation. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Robbins, Lynn A. (1972). Blackfoot Families and Households. Ann Arbor, Mich.: University Microfilms. Ph.D. diss., University of Oregon, 1971.

Wissler, Clark (1910). Material Culture of the Blackfoot Indians. New York: American Museum of Natural History.


views updated May 11 2018

Black·foot / ˈblakˌfoŏt/ • n. (pl. same or -feet) 1. a member of a confederacy of North American Indian peoples of the northwestern plains.2. the Algonquian language of this people.• adj. of or relating to the Blackfeet or their language.


views updated May 29 2018

Blackfoot Nomadic, warlike Native North American tribes. They consist of three Algonquian-speaking tribes: the Siksika or Blackfeet proper, the Kainah, and the Pikuni (Piegan). Living e of the Rockies, on the n Great Plains, they depended largely on the bison (buffalo), which was hunted on horseback. Something of their richly ceremonial culture survives among the c.8000 Blackfeet living today on reservations in Alberta, Canada, and Montana, USA.

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