The Blackfeet Creator is Na’pi (Old Man). This is the word used to indicate any old man, though its meaning is usually loosely given as white. An analysis of the word Na’pi, however, shows it to be compounded of the word Ni’nah (man), and the particle a’pi, which expresses a color and which is never used by itself, but always in combination with some other word.
The Blackfeet word for white is Ksik-si-num’ while a’pi, though also conveying the idea of whiteness, actually describes the tint seen in the early morning light when it first appears in the east. The dawn is not a pure white, but has a faint cast of yellow. Na’pi, therefore, would seem to mean ‘dawn-light-color-man,’ or ‘man-yellowish-white.’ This is also the color of many old men’s hair.
The character of Old Man, as depicted in the stories told of him by the Blackfeet tribes, is a curious mixture of opposite attributes. In the serious tales, such as those of the creation, he is spoken of respectfully, and there is no hint of the impish qualities which characterize him in other stories, in which he is powerful, but also at times impotent; full of all wisdom, yet at times so helpless that he has to ask aid from the animals.
Sometimes he sympathizes with the people, and at others, out of pure spitefulness, he plays them malicious tricks that are worthy of a demon. He is a combination of strength, weakness, wisdom, folly, childishness, and malice. Under various names Old Man is known to the Cree, Chippeway, and other Algonquin, and many of the stories that are current among the Blackfeet are told of him among those tribes.
Old Man can never die. Long ago he left the Blackfeet and went away to the West, disappearing in the mountains. Before his departure he told them that he would always take care of them, and some day would return. Even now, many of the old people believe that he spoke the truth, and that some day he will come back, and will bring with him the buffalo, which they believe the white men have hidden. It is sometimes said, however, that when he left them he told them also that, when he returned, he would find them changed a different people and living in a different way from that which they practiced when he went away. Sometimes, also, it is said that when he disappeared he went to the East.
It is generally believed that Old Man is no longer the principal god of the Blackfeet, that the Sun has taken his place. There is some reason to suspect, however, that the Sun and Old Man are one, that N[=a]t[=o]s’ is only another name for Na’pi, for I have been told by two or three old men that “the Sun is the person whom we call Old Man.” However this may be, it is certain that Na’pi even if he no longer occupies the chief place in the Blackfoot religious system is still reverenced, and is still addressed in prayer. Now, however, every good thing, success in war, in the chase, health, long life, all happiness, come by the special favor of the Sun.
The Sun is a man, the supreme chief of the world. The flat, circular earth in fact is his home, the floor of his lodge, and the over-arching sky is its covering. The moon, K[=o]-k[=o]-mik’-[=e]-[)i]s, night light, is the Sun’s wife. The pair have had a number of children, all but one of whom were killed by pelicans. The survivor is the morning star, A-pi-su-ahts, the early riser.
In attributes the Sun is very unlike Old Man. He is a beneficent person, of great wisdom and kindness, good to those who do right. As a special means of obtaining his favor, sacrifices must be made. These are often presents of clothing, fine robes, or furs, and in extreme cases, when the prayer is for life itself, the offering of a finger, or still dearer a lock of hair.
Some of the Blackfeet now say that originally there was a great womb, in which were conceived the progenitors of all animals now on earth. Among these was Old Man. As the time for their birth drew near, the animals used to quarrel as to which should be the first to be born, and one day, in a fierce struggle about this, the womb burst, and Old Man jumped first to the ground. For this reason, he named all the animals Nis-kum’-iks, Young Brothers; and they, because he was the first-born, called him Old Man.
There are several different accounts of the creation of the people by Old Man. One is that he married a female dog, and that their progeny were the first people. Others, and the ones most often told, have been given in the Old Man stories already related above. More can be found under the Legends / Oral stories category.
If a white buffalo was killed, the robe was always given to the Sun. It belonged to him. Of the buffalo, the tongue regarded as the greatest delicacy of the whole animal was especially sacred to the Sun. The sufferings undergone by men in the Medicine Lodge each year were sacrifices to the Sun. This torture was an actual penance, like the sitting for years on top of a pillar, the wearing of a hair shirt, or fasting in Lent. It was undergone for no other purpose than that of pleasing God as a propitiation or in fulfillment of vows made to him.
The Blackfeet make daily prayers to the Sun and to Old Man, and nothing of importance is undertaken without asking for divine assistance.
Just as the priests of Baal slashed themselves with knives to induce their god to help them, so, and for the same reason, the Blackfoot men surged on and tore out the ropes tied to their skins in a sacred ceremony called the Sun Dance.
It is merely the carrying out of a religious idea that is as old as history and as widespread as the globe, and is closely akin to the motive which today, in our own centers of enlightened civilization, prompts acts of self-denial and penance by many thousands of intelligent cultivated people. And yet we are horrified at hearing described the tortures of the Medicine Lodge.
The most important religious occasion of the year is the ceremony of the Medicine Lodge. This is a sacrifice, which, among the Blackfeet, is offered invariably by women.
Besides the Sun and Old Man, the Blackfoot religious system includes a number of minor deities or rather natural qualities and forces, which are personified and given shape. These are included in the general terms Above Persons, Ground Persons, and Under Water Persons.
Of the former class, Thunder is one of the most important, and is worshipped as is elsewhere shown. He brings the rain. He is represented sometimes as a bird, or, more vaguely, as in one of the stories, merely as a fearful person.
Wind Maker is an example of an Under Water Person, and it is related that he has been seen, and his form is described. It is believed by some that he lives under the water at the head of the Upper St. Mary’s Lake. Those who believe this say that when he wants the wind to blow, he makes the waves roll, and that these cause the wind to blow.
Presents are sometimes thrown into the Missouri River, though these are not offerings made directly to the river, but are given to the Under Water People, who live in it.
The Ground Man is another below person. He lives under the ground, and perhaps typifies the power of the earth, which is highly respected by all Indians of the west. The Cheyennes also have a Ground Man whom they call The Lower One, or Below Person (Pun’-[)o]-ts[)i]-hyo).
The cold and snow are brought by Cold Maker (Ai’-so-yim-stan). He is a man, white in color, with white hair, and clad in white apparel, who rides on a white horse. He brings the storm with him. They pray to him to bring, or not to bring, the storm.
Some Piegan, if they wish to travel on a certain day, have the power of insuring good weather on that day. It is supposed that they do this by singing a powerful song. Some of the enemy can cause bad weather, when they want to steal into the camp.
People who belonged to the Sin’-o-pah band of the I-kun-uh’-kah-tsi, if they were at war in summer and wanted a storm to come up, would take some dirt and water and rub it on the kit-fox skin, and this would cause a rainstorm to come up. In winter, snow and dirt would be rubbed on the skin and this would bring up a snowstorm.
Many of the animals are regarded as typifying some form of wisdom or craft. They are not gods, yet they have power, which, perhaps, is given them by the Sun or by Old Man. Examples of Blackfeet animal powers are shown in some of the stories.
Certain places and inanimate objects are also greatly reverenced by the Blackfeet, and presents are made to these Blackfeet sacred places.
Before the coming of the whites, the Blackfeet used to smoke the leaves of a plant which they call na-wuh’-to-ski, and which is said to have been received long, long ago from a medicine beaver. It was used unmixed with any other plant. The story of how this came to the tribe is told elsewhere.
The Blackfeet are firm believers in dreams. These, they say, are sent by the Sun to enable us to look ahead, to tell what is going to happen. A dream, especially if it is a strong one, that is, if the dream is very clear and vivid, is almost always obeyed.
As dreams start them on the war path, so, if a dream threatening bad luck comes to a member of a war party, even if in the enemy’s country and just about to make an attack on a camp, the party is likely to turn about and go home without making any hostile demonstrations. The animal or object which appears to the boy, or man, who is trying to dream for power, is, as has been said, regarded thereafter as his secret helper, his medicine, and is usually called his dream (Nits-o’-kan).