Tribal Origin: AlgonquianNative Name: Niitsítapi, Alternate Name: Northern BlackfootHome Territories: North Dakota and South Dakota, MontanaLanguage: BlackfootBlackfoot Bands: Piegan, Siksika (the US Blackfeet are primarily Siksika), Northern Piegan and KainaiEnemies: Crow, Dakota, Lakota and NakotaPoint of Interest:They received their tribal name due to the fact that they wore black moccasins
Niitsítapi, the Blackfoot people, have a long and rich history on the Northern Plains. According to tribal elders, the people have always lived on the Plains, since the time when muskrat brought up the mud from under the waters. Archaeologists can trace the Blackfoot through their artifacts and sites for at least a thousand years. Beyond that, archaeologists are reluctant to put a tribal name on the earlier tools and sites. Aboriginal people have lived on the Plains of southern Alberta for at least 11,000 years.
The Blackfoot Confederacy is formed from four closely related First Nations: Siksika (also called Northern Blackfoot), Kainah (also called Blood), South Pikuni (Piegan, located in Montana – now known as the Blackfeet in the United States), and North Pikuni (Peigan, located in Alberta). A fifth group, the Small Robes, was nearly wiped out by a smallpox epidemic in the 1830s, and the remaining remnant were massacred by the Crows.
Is it Blackfoot or Blackfeet?
“Blackfoot” is the English translation of the word siksika, which means “black foot.” It refers to the dark colored moccasins the people wear. Some Blackfoot people are annoyed by the plural “Blackfeet,” which is obviously an anglicization. But most Blackfoot people accept both terms. “Blackfoot” is more commonly used in Canada, and “Blackfeet” is more commonly used in the United States, due to the US Government’s naming of the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana with the plural form.
The Blackfoot were members of an American Indian people who migrated from the Great Lakes north and west into the Saskatchewan River valley, Canada, and Montana, in the early 1700s. All of these nations share a common language and heritage. They speak an Algonquian dialect of the Algic language family. Traditionally, the Blackfoot had a way of life centered around buffalo hunting. They were skilled buffalo hunters even before they acquired horses and guns in the 18th century, and had a warrior culture.
The Blackfeet were the most feared Indian nation on the Northern Plains in the nineteenth century. A fiercely aggressive people, they drove weaker groups from their lands and fought with their neighbours, taking scalps, raiding camps and running off with their horses.
The Blackfeet were constantly at war with all their neighbors except the Atsina and Sarci, who lived under their protection. The Gros Ventre (Atsína) had been allies of the Blackfoot for generations, but a dispute with the Piegans over stolen horses in 1863 turned them into bitter enemies. The Cree, Assiniboin, Sioux, Flatheads, and Kutenai were often under attack by the Blackfeet. but their main rivals were the Crow Indians.
The Blackfeet were renowned for their horse riding skills, and maintained large herds of horses; stealing horses gave a warrior prestige. They also developed their own breed of sturdy Blackfeet Buffalo Horse. Buffalo and other big game provided nearly all their basic needs, including food, clothing, and tepee covers.
Blackfoot tipis used a four pole frame, while many other Plains tribes used a three pole frame.Prior to the acquisition of the horse in 1735, the only domesticated animal used by the Blackfoot was the dog. Dogs were used to pull a travois carrying some of their belongings, which is a platform lashed to two poles, which would be strapped to the sides of the animal and dragged behind it.
During the winter the Blackfeet dispersed into scattered hunting bands to follow the buffalo herds, but came together in the summer to celebrate the sun dance, their main religious ceremony. Other important rituals included the sweat lodge and buffalo tongue ceremonies. All major ceremonies were presided over by an elderly medicine woman.The Blackfeet had a cohesive political structure, and consultations between the chiefs took place on any matters affecting the Blackfeet as a whole.
The Blackfeet originally hunted buffalo on foot, using bows and arrows, but were introduced to horses by the Shoshone, who attacked them on horseback in 1730. They soon obtained their own horses through trade with the Salish and Nez Percé, and acquired guns in 1780.
In 1781 the Blackfeet suffered severely from smallpox, and their numbers dwindled from an estimated 15,000 to about 6,000. However, they continued to control the northern Great Plains and prevented white settlement in their territory until their hold was loosened by another devastating smallpox epidemic in 1837 that killed two thirds of the population. In 1855 their territory was defined by treaty with the US government.
White settlement in Blackfoot Country
White settlement and the near extinction of the buffalo in the 1880s ended their nomadic lifestyle. Most now farm their respective reservations.
White settlement began in Blackfoot country in 1860, and in 1865 fighting broke out with the settlers. In 1870, 200 Piegan Blackfoot, including women and children, were killed in the Marias Massacre, an unprovoked attack on a friendly camp by the US army who were hunting a hostile party.
By the 1870s commercial buffalo hunting had drastically reduced supplies of the Blackfeet’s staple food. Although the 1882 winter buffalo hunt was successful, as prairie fires had driven northern herds into Montana, in the winter of 1883–84 the buffalo suddenly disappeared and over 600 Blackfeet died of starvation. Survivors were forced to give up their hunting lifestyle and take up farming. Between 1907 and 1912 their US reservation lands were divided into allotments, with individuals receiving 140 ha/350 acres.
Most Blackfeet now live on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana and Blackfeet reservations in Alberta, Canada. They number about 27,100 (as of 2000) in the USA, and 15,000 in Alberta, Canada.
Blackfoot Religion and Ceremonies
Plains Indian culture was steeped in religion and ceremony. The world was an uncertain place, and people needed the help of supernatural powers.
Help was obtained from the spirit world in the form of visions and dreams. In these dreams people were instructed in the use of sacred objects, songs and rituals. These objects and rituals became part of the sacred Medicine Bundles.
Medicine Bundles were the most powerful religious possession in Plains Indian culture. They were owned by individuals but could bring power, luck or health to anyone who honoured them. Ownership of a bundle brought long life, success and social prestige.There were different kinds of medicine bundles, each symbolizing different kinds of power. The Medicine Pipe was given to the people by Thunder. A Medicine Bundle would contain a sacred pipe, the skins of muskrat, mink, otter, squirrel, owl and other birds, a rattle, a wooden bowl, and several small rawhide bags containing red earth paint, pine needle incense for smudges, and tobacco. The bundle would be opened at least once a year, shortly after the first thunder in the spring.The hollow bones from large birds, such as geese and eagles, were sometimes made into whistles used in sacred and healing ceremonies.Napi is a Blackfoot Culture Hero who transformed the world for the people.Traditionally, the Indian nations of the Northern Plains, such as the Blackfoot, were egalitarian societies. Within Blackfoot society, there were no individuals, no groups of people, who were endowed by a god, creator, or other entity with any more rights than anyone else. As animists, they also viewed all other living things as people, as having souls. Within their egalitarian world-view, all people (human people, animal people, bird people, plant people, and stone people) were seen as equals. Humans did not have superior rights, they did not have dominion over the rest of creation. Humans tried to live in harmony with nature.
Blackfeet Culture and Trade
Blackfoot culture centered around hunting the buffalo. Every part of this animal was put to use in their daily life, and was their main protein source for food. One way they hunted the buffalo, more correctly called prairie bison, was to drive them off a cliff at a place known as the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, located in what is now Alberta, Canada. Today, there is a unique 7 story interpretive center concealed in the face of the cliff, which tells the story of the Blacfoot, the buffalo, and the buffalo jump. It is well worth a visit if you are in the area.In the late 1700s, Europeans began to arrive on the Northern Plains in Alberta, Canada and their arrival brought a century of great cultural change to the First Nations of the region. During this century, the buffalo, which had provided the Indians with food and shelter, came close to extinction.The coming of the fur trade had a far reaching impact on the people. One of the first traders to reach the Blackfoot was Peter Fidler who came among them in 1792. While he may have been the first European trader to reach the Blackfoot, European trade goods-metal items, beads, cloth, guns-had reached them several decades earlier. The traders not only brought in European trade goods, but more importantly they involved the Indians in a globalized economic system.The most famous trade good developed by Hudson’s Bay Company was the blanket. By 1740, the Hudson’s Bay Company was making a specially designed trade blanket. These blankets were heavier than other trade blankets and were made of pure wool.
Each blanket was assigned a certain number of “points” based on its weight, and a series of stripes indicating the “points” were woven into the blankets. In this way the trade value of the blanket was easily seen by both trader and the Indian fur trappers.
Blackfeet Tribe of Montana Index