|First Posted: Oct 27, 2009|
Mar 6, 2011
Blackfoot or Siksika Native Americans
Total Population: 32,000; Regions with significant populations - Canada (Alberta), United States (Montana)
The Blackfoot Confederacy or Niitsítapi (meaning "original people;" c.f. Ojibwe: Anishinaabeg and Quinnipiac: Eansketambawg) is the collective name of three First Nations in Alberta and one Native American tribe in Montana. The Blackfoot Confederacy consists of the North Peigan (Aapátohsipikàni), the Blackfeet or South Piegan (Aamsskáápipikani), the Kainai Nation (Káínaa: "Blood"), and the Siksika Nation ("Blackfoot") or more correctly Siksikáwa ("Blackfoot people"). The South Peigan are located in Montana, and the other three are located in Alberta. Together they call themselves the Niitsítapi (the "Original People"). These groups shared a common language and culture, had treaties of mutual defense, and freely intermarried.
The independent and very successful warriors whose territory stretched from the North Saskatchewan River along what is now Edmonton, Alberta in Canada, to the Yellowstone River of Montana, and from the Rocky Mountains and along the South Saskatchewan River, east past the Cypress Hills.
The basic social unit of the Niitsitapi (all the Niitsitapi were erroneously referred to as Blackfoot when only one nation was called Siksika or Blackfoot), above the family, was the band, varying from about 10 to 30 lodges, about 80 to 240 people. This size of group was large enough to defend against attack and to undertake small communal hunts, but was also small enough for flexibility. Each band consisted of a respected leader, possibly his brothers and parents, and others who need not be related. Since the band was defined by place of residence, rather than by kinship, a person was free to leave one band and join another, which tended to ameliorate leadership disputes. As well, should a band fall upon hard times, its members could split up and join other bands. In practice, bands were constantly forming and breaking up. The system maximized flexibility and was an ideal organization for a hunting people on the northwestern Great Plains.
During the summer the people assembled for nation gatherings. In these large assemblies, warrior societies played an important role. Membership into these societies was based on brave acts and deeds.
For almost half the year in the long northern winter, the Niitsitapi lived in their winter camps along a wooded river valley perhaps a day's march apart, not moving camp unless food for the people and horses or firewood became depleted. Where there was adequate wood and game resources, some bands would camp together. During this part of the year, buffalo wintered in wooded areas where they were partially sheltered from storms and snow, which hampered their movements, making them easier prey. In spring the buffalo moved out onto the grasslands to forage on new spring growth. The Blackfoot did not follow immediately, for fear of late blizzards, but eventually resources such as dried food or game became depleted, and the bands would split up and begin to hunt the buffalo.
In midsummer, when the chokecherries ripened, the people regrouped for their major ceremony, the Okan (which has been misnamed/identified as Sundance in the erroneous assumption that the people were worshipping the sun). This was the only time of year when the four nations would assemble, and it served the social purpose of reinforcing the bonds between the various groups and reidentifying the individuals with the nations. Communal buffalo hunts provided food and offerings of the bulls' tongues (a delicacy) for the ceremonies. After the Okan, the people again separated to follow the buffalo.
In the fall, the people would gradually shift to their wintering areas and prepare the buffalo jumps and pounds. Several groups of people might join together at particularly good sites, such as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. As the buffalo were naturally driven into the area by the gradual late summer drying off of the open grasslands, the Blackfoot would carry out great communal buffalo kills and prepare dry meat and pemmican to last them through winter and other times when hunting was poor. At the end of the fall, the Blackfoot would move to their winter camps.
The Niitsitapi maintained this traditional way of life based on hunting bison, until the near extinction of the bison by 1881 forced them to adapt their ways of life in response to the effects of the European settlers and their descendants. In the United States, they were restricted to land assigned in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 and were later given a distinct reservation in the Sweetgrass Hills Treaty of 1887. In 1877, the Canadian Niitsitapi signed Treaty 7 and settled on reserves in southern Alberta.
This began a period of great struggle and economic hardship; the Niitsitapi had to try to adapt to a completely new way of life, as well as suffer exposure to many diseases their people had not previously encountered.
Eventually, they established a viable economy based on farming, ranching, and light industry, and their population has increased to about 16,000 in Canada and 15,000 in the U.S. today. With their new economic stability, the Niitsitapi have been free to adapt their culture and traditions to their new circumstances, renewing their connection to their ancient roots.
The Niitsitapi, also known as the Blackfoot Indians reside in the Great Plains of Montana and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Only one of the Niitsitapi are called Blackfoot or Siksika. The name is said to have come from the color of the peoples' leather shoes, or moccasins. They had typically dyed or painted the bottoms of their moccasins black, but one story claimed that the Siksika walked through ashes of prairie fires, which in turn colored the bottoms of their moccasins black. European anthropologists believe the Niitsitapi had not originally come from the Great Plains of the Midwest North America, but rather from the upper Northeastern part of the country. The Niitsitapi started off as woodland people but as they progressively made their way over to the Plains, they had adapted to the ways of life and had become adept to the land. They learned the new lands they traveled to very well and established themselves as one of the most powerful Indian tribes among the Plains in the late 1700s and earning themselves the name "The Lords of the Plains." However; Niitsitapi stories (First Nation verbal accounts are admissible in Canadian courts as a basis for Aboriginal Title claims) trace their residence and possession of their territory to "time immemorial."
European anthropologists claim the Blackfoot originally lived in the forests of what became known as Northeastern United States. They were mostly located around the Maine and Canadian border. When 1600 came around, the Niitsitapi had decided to relocate in search of more land. They had decided to move west and found themselves stationed north of the Great Lakes into what we know today as Canada. The Niitsitapi had not adapted well or were accepted too well by the neighboring tribes that already lived there. They had fought with the neighboring tribes constantly and eventually decided to leave the Great Lakes area. This claim might be based on European need to justify their incursion by claiming the Niitsitapi were newcomers themselves to the land. When they moved, they would usually pack their belongings on an A-shaped sled called a travois. The travois was designed for transport over dry land. The Blackfoot had relied on dogs to pull the travois since they did not acquire horses until the 1700s. From the Great Lakes area, they continued to move west and eventually settled in the Great Plains. The Plains had covered approximately 780,000 square miles (2,000,000 km2) with the Saskatchewan Ocean to the north, the Rio Grande to the south, the Mississippi River to the east, and the Rocky Mountains to the west.
Importance and Uses of the Buffalo
While the Niitsitapi were in the Great Plains, the buffalo proved to be a vital source for them. The buffalo are the largest mammals in North America and stand about 6 1/2 feet tall and weigh up to 2,200 pounds. Before the introduction of horses, the Niitsitapi had to devise ways of sneaking up close to the buffalo without them noticing so that they could get in range for a good shot. The Blackfoot went about this in a couple of different ways. The first and most common way for them to hunt the buffalo was from the technique known as the buffalo jump. The hunters would round up the buffalo into V-shaped pens and drive them over a cliff (they hunted prong-horned antelopes in the same way). After the buffalo went over the cliff, the Indians would go to the bottom and take as much as they would need or could carry back. Another method that was used was by camouflage. The hunters would take buffalo skin from previous hunting trips and would drape it over themselves to blend in. This technique allowed the hunter to get very close as long as they made no sudden or startling movements. As soon as the hunter was close enough, they would shoot the buffalo with arrows, lance, or spear it.
The buffalo that the Blackfoot hunted was used in a variety of ways. Buffalo meat was used for food frequently-boiled, roasted, or dried. The good part about the buffalo meat is that it lasts a long time without spoiling, which made it great for the winter or traveling because it could easily be stored without worry of rot. The winters were long, harsh, and cold due to the lack of trees in the Plains, so they were forced to stockpile the meat as much as they could while they had the chance. As a ritual also, the hunters would often eat the buffalo heart meat minutes after they killed the buffalo as part of their culture. Apart from the food aspect it provided, the skins provided a great covering that would make up the tepee. The tepee was made of log poles with the skin draped over it. It would remain warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and a great shield against the wind. Much of the skin had also gone to clothing such as robes or moccasins in the winter because of how warm and insulated that the buffalo skin proved to be. The soap that the Niitsitapi would commonly use came from the buffalo fat. The bones of the buffalo were typically used for shaping into eating utensils, sewing needles, and other various tools. The stomach and the bladder both proved to be good containers for holding liquids that they might have needed to be stored, whereas dried buffalo manure was used to fuel the fires. Almost every part of the buffalo was used by the Niitsitapi and has remained to them a sacred animal.
Discovery and Uses of Horses
Up until around 1730, all the traveling that the Blackfoot made was primarily done on foot and with the use of dogs. They had not seen horses in the previous lands that they settled, but a short while after being in the Plains, they began to see more and more horses, either wild or used by other tribes. The first horses that they saw belonged to another Plains Indian tribe called the Shoshone. They saw the impact that the horse could make and wanted some for themselves. The Blackfoot called the horses "ponokamita," or "elk dogs." The horses had proven to be very beneficial with travel because they could carry a lot more than dogs could and moved at a greater speed, while also making hunting easier. The hunters would no longer have to race up alongside the buffalo on foot, but rather could easily catch up to them riding on horseback, to make for an easy kill.
Horses were highly valued by the First nations of the Great Plains. They would have horse-stealing expeditions, in which they would have a skillful thief try to capture an enemy's fleetest horse they might have observed during a previous battle. Horses were generally used as universal standards of barter. Shamans' (Indian doctors) families were paid in horses for finding or treating a cure, dreamers who made shields or war bonnets were also paid in horses for their efforts. Horses were also given away to those who were owed gifts as well as to the needy. An individual's wealth rose with the number of horses that they were able to accumulate, but did not keep an abundance of them. The individual's prestige and status was judged by the number of horses that they were able to give away. For the Indians that lived on the Plains, owning property for property's sake was unthinkable because its principal value was that it could be shared with others.
The Niitsitapi were enemies of the Crow and Sioux (Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota) on the Great Plains; and the Shoshone, Flathead, and Kootenai in the mountain country to their west. Blackfoot war parties would ride hundreds of miles on raids. A boy on his first war party was given a silly or derogatory name. But after he had stolen his first horse or killed an enemy, he was given a name to honor him.
First Contact With Europeans
The first known meeting with white people for the Niitsitapi came in 1806 by means of the Lewis and Clark expedition. They embarked on mapping the Missouri River for the United States government and were confronted by Niitsitapi warriors. The warriors confronted some men that Lewis was leading, and he explained to them that the United States government wanted peace with all Indian nations. The warriors knew they traded guns to their enemies, the Shoshone, and the Nez Perce. They attempted to steal guns from Lewis' men and in the ensuing struggle one warrior was fatally stabbed and another shot by Lewis and presumed killed. For the next ten years, the Niitsitapi traded with British traders in Canada. They began to trade animal skins for guns and bullets. In 1833, German explorer Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied and Swiss painter Karl Bodmer spent months with them to get a sense of their culture.
All the contact with European people had caused a spread of disease to the Niitsitapi, mostly in the form of cholera and smallpox. In one instance in 1837, American Fur Company steamboat, the St. Peter's, was headed to Fort Union and contracted smallpox on the way. They continued to send a smaller vessel with supplies farther up the river to posts among the Niitsitapi. The Niitsitapi contracted the disease and eventually 6000 died, marking an end to their dominant reign over the Plains. Had Hudson's Bay Company employed English Doctor Edward Jenner's forty one year old technique of injecting cowpox to make people immune to smallpox, they could have prevented the epidemic they created.
Hardships of the Niitsitapi
If the smallpox was not bad enough, during the mid 1800s the Niitsitapi took another blow of their food supply dwindling. White hunters had come in and hunted buffalo until they were almost completely gone. Without the buffalo, the Niitsitapi could not get enough food and was forced to depend on the United States government for food. In 1855, Niitsitapi leader, Lame Bull made a peace treaty with the government. The Lame Bull Treaty promised the Niitsitapi $20,000 in goods and services in exchange for them moving onto a reservation. In 1860, very few buffalo were left, and they became completely dependent on the supplies from the treaty, which were spoiled most the time because it took so long for them to receive it. Hungry and desperate Blackfoot raided white settlements for food and supplies and causing a stir with the United States Army. In January of 1870, the army had attacked, out of revenge, a peaceful Niitsitapi village of 219 people, and when they got through, only 46 remained. Finally, the winter of 1883-1884 became known as "Starvation Winter" because no government supplies came in, there was no buffalo, and 600 more Niitsitapi died of hunger.
In addition to the diseases and hunger, the laws that the United States passed also severely damaged the Niitsitapi. In 1874, the government voted to change the Niitsitapi reservation borders without discussing it with the Niitsitapi. They received no land for the land lost, causing the Kainai, Siksika, and Piegan to move to Canada, whereas only the Pikuni remained in Montana. In 1898, the government dismantled tribal governments for the time and outlawed the practice of traditional Indian religions. Blackfoot children were forced to go to boarding schools, where they were forbidden to speak their native language, practice customs, or wear traditional clothing, in an attempt to assimilate them into mainstream American society. In 1907, the United States government adopted a policy of allotment on the Blackfoot Reservation saying that families must live separately and not with tribal groups. They each received a 160-acre (0.65 km2) farm, and the extra unoccupied land was given to the government. In 1919 there was a drought that destroyed crops and raised beef prices. Many were forced to sell their allotted land and pay taxes the government said they owed. Some good finally came in 1934 when the Indian Reservation Act ended allotments and allowed for the tribes to choose their own government and openly practice their culture. In 1935, the Blackfoot Nation of Montana began a Tribal Business Council and from that they have adopted their own Constitution and has been under their own government ever since.
The Blackfoot Nation
The Blackfoot Nation in Montana is made up of four nations. These nations include the Piegan, Siksika, Northern Piegan, and Kainai or Blood Indians. The four nations come together to make up what is known as the Blackfoot Confederacy, meaning that they have banded together to help one another. The nations have their own separate governments ruled by a head chief, but regularly come together for religious and social celebrations. The only nation that resided on American soil today in Montana is the Piegan, also known as the Pikuni. It has also been mentioned that there are two other outside tribes that became allies to the Blackfoot and they include the Sarcees and the Atsinas. The Sarcees joined from the north and is a tribe that was a branch of the Athabascan or Tinneh family. That family typically resided north of the United States and was said to be in contact with the Eskimos, or else in the Southwestern United States, where they are known as Apache and Navajo. The Atsinas were under the Blackfoot protection in the south. They were known as the Fall Indians and Gros Ventres. They were proven to be related to the Arapahoe Nation, whom once roamed the Missouri Plains.
Electing A Leader
Family was highly valued by the Blackfoot Indians. It was very typical for the Blackfoot to split into bands of 20-30 people for traveling, all of which would come back together for times of celebration. They had valued leadership skills and chose the chiefs who would run their settlements very wisely. If the faction was in a state of war, they would elect a war chief, meaning someone who had shown tremendous bravery in battle. During times of peace, the people would elect a peace chief, meaning someone who was a good speaker so that they could lead the people and improve relations with other tribes.
Within the Blackfoot Nation, there were different societies that the people belonged to. In order to join one of the societies in the tribe, you had to be invited. Before an invitation to a society, a young male would have to perform a vision quest. The vision quest began by spiritually cleansing in a sweat lodge. Next, they would venture out alone for 4 days of fasting and praying. Their main goal was to see a dreamlike vision that would explain their future. After their vision, they returned to the village ready to join society. In a warrior society, you would be constantly prepared for battle. The warrior would cleanse himself in a sweat lodge and then engage in painting himself and sometimes his horse, leaders of the warrior society carried a spear or lance called a coup stick that was decorated with feathers, skin, and other tokens. In a religious society, their job was to protect the holy Blackfoot items. They would be chosen to lead the ceremonies and protect the warriors before battle. The holiest ceremony that they practiced was called the Sun Dance, or Medicine Lodge Ceremony. They believed that by engaging in the Sun Dance, their prayers would be carried up to the Creator, who would bless them with well-being and abundance of buffalo. Women's societies were in charge of various duties. They would be held responsible for creating quillwork, helping prepare for battle, prepare clothing, take after the children, prepare leather, or perform ceremonies to help hunters in their journeys.
In the Blackfoot culture, the men were the ones that were responsible for choosing their marriage partners. In order to even get a chance to receive permission to marry, the male would have to show the woman's father his skills as a hunter or warrior. If the father was impressed and had agreed to the marriage, the man and woman would exchange gifts of horses and clothes and were considered married. The married couple would reside in their own tepee or with the husband's family. It was permitted for a male to have more than one wife, but typically they only chose one. In cases of more than one wife, quite often, the male would choose a sister of the wife because they felt that sisters would not argue as much compared to total strangers.
Responsibilities and Clothing
In a typical Blackfoot family, the father would go out and hunt and bring back supplies that the family might need. The mother would stay close to home and watch over the children while the father was out. The children were taught basic survival skills and culture as they grew up. It was generally said that both boys and girls learned to ride horses early. Boys would usually play with toy bows and arrows until they were old enough to learn how to hunt. They would also play a popular game called shinny, which later became known as ice hockey. They used a long curved wooden stick to knock a ball, made of baked clay covered with buckskin, over a goal line. Girls were given a doll to play with, which also doubled as a learning tool because it was fashioned with typical tribal clothing and designs and also taught the young women how to care for a child. As they grew older, more responsibilities were placed upon their shoulders. The girls were then taught to cook, prepare hides for leather, and gather wild plants and berries. The boys were held accountable for going out with their father to prepare food by means of hunting.
Typical clothing that you would find among the Blackfoot was made primarily of antelope and deer hides. The women would make and decorate the clothes for everyone in the tribe. Men wore moccasins, long leggings that went up to their hips, a loincloth, and a belt. Occasionally they would wear shirts but generally they would wrap buffalo robes around their shoulders. For the distinguished men of bravery, they would be seen wearing a grizzly bear claw necklace. Boys dressed much like the older males had, wearing leggings, loincloths, moccasins, and occasionally an undecorated shirt. They kept warm by wearing a buffalo robe over their shoulders or over their heads if it became cold. Women and girls wore dresses made from two or three deerskins. The women liked to wear earrings and bracelets made from sea shells that they traded for, or different types of metal. They would sometimes wear beads in their hair or paint the part in their hair red, which signified that they could still have children.
The Sun and the Moon
One of the most famous traditions held by the Blackfoot would be their story of sun and the moon. It starts out with a man, wife, and two children. The family has no bows and arrows or any way to get food, so they lived off berries. The man had a dream and he was told by the Creator Napi, Napiu, or Napioa (depending on the band) to get a large spider web and put it on the trail the animals roamed, and they would get caught up and could be easily killed with the stone axe he had. The man had done so and saw that it was true. One day, he came home from bringing in some fresh meat from the trail and discovered his wife to be applying perfume on herself. He thought that she must have another lover since she never did that for him. He then told his wife that he was going to move a web and asked if she could bring in the meat and wood. She had reluctantly gone out, just past his sight to check if he was watching, and then took off. The father then asked the children where she acquired the wood from and the children had no clue. The man set out and found the timber and also a den of rattlesnakes, one of which being his wife's lover. He had set the timber on fire and knew his wife would come back and try to kill his family. He told his kids to run and gave them a stick, stone, and moss to use if their mother chased after them. He remained at the house and put a web over his front door. The wife tried to get in but got her leg caught, and at once the man cut her leg off. She then put her head through and he cut that off also. The father and children went in opposite ways, but the head followed the children and the body followed the man. The oldest boy saw the head and threw the stick, and where it landed, a forest popped up. The head made it through, so the younger brother instructed to throw the stone and they did and a huge mountain popped up. It spanned from big water (ocean) to big water and the head was forced to go through it, not around. The head met up with some rams and said to them she would marry their chief if they butted their way through the mountain. The chief cleared it and they butted until their horns were worn down, but still was not through. She then asked the ants if they could burrow through the mountain with the same stipulations and it was agreed and they get her the rest of the way through. The children were far ahead and wet the moss. Soon after they did that, they saw the head and threw the moss down, and suddenly they were in a different land. They were surrounded by water, and the head rolled in and drowned. They decided to build a raft and head back, and once they returned to their land, they discovered that it was occupied. They then decided to split up. One brother was simple and went north to discover what he could and make people. The other was shrewd and went south to make white people and taught them valuable skills. The simple brother created the Blackfeet. He became known as Left Hand and later by the Blackfeet as Old Man. The woman's body still chases the man, she is the moon and he is the sun, and if she is to ever catch him, it will always be night.
Blackfoot Creation Story
The creation story is another commonly share piece of oral history among the Blackfoot Nation. It was said that in the beginning, Napio floated on a log with four animals. The animals were: Mameo (fish), Matcekups (frog), Maniskeo (lizard), and Sopeo (turtle). Napio sent all of them into the deep water one after another. The first three had gone down and returned with nothing. The turtle went down and retrieved mud from the bottom and gave it to Napio. He took the mud and rolled it in his hand and created the earth. He let it roll out of his hand and over time has grown to what it is today. After he created the earth, he created women and then men. He had them living separately from one another. The men were ashamed and afraid, but Napio said to them to not fear and take one as their wife. They had done as he asked, and Napio continued to create the buffalo and bows and arrows for the people so that they could hunt them.
The Blackfoot Today
Today, many of the Blackfoot live on reserves in Canada. About 8500 live on the Montana reservation of 1,500,000 acres (6,100 km2). In 1896, the Blackfoot sold a large portion of their land over to the American government because they had hopes of finding gold or copper, but found nothing. In 1910, the land they sold officially became known as Glacier National Park, where some Blackfoot work and where some occasional ceremonies are held.
Unemployment is a challenging problem on the Blackfoot Reservations today. Many work as farmers but there are simply not enough nearby jobs. In order to find better work, many have relocated from the reservation to towns and cities. Some companies pay them for use of oil, natural gas, and other resources on the land. They do operate their own businesses such as the Blackfoot Writing Company, which opened in 1972. In Canada, the Northern Piegan make clothing and moccasins and the Kainai operate a shopping center and factory.
The Blackfoot continue to make advancements in education still today. In 1974, they opened the Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana. The school also serves as tribal headquarters. As of 1979, the Montana state government requires all public school teachers on or near the reservation to have a background in American Indian studies. In 1989, the Siksika tribe in Canada completed a high school to go along with its elementary school.
The Blackfoot have a blue tribal flag that represents the Blackfoot Nation in Montana. On the flag, it shows a spear called a ceremonial lance. The ceremonial lance has 29 feathers running up its left side. In the center of the flag you will find a ring, in which you will notice 32 white and black eagle feathers. In the ring you will notice a map of the Blackfoot Reservation, and on the map there is depicted a warrior's headdress and the words "Blackfeet Nation"and "Pikuni."
The Blackfoot continue many cultural traditions of the past and hope to extend their ancestors traditions to their children. They would like to teach their children the Pikuni language as well as other traditional knowledge. In the early 1900s, a white woman named Frances Densmore helped the Blackfoot record their language. During the 1950s and 1960s very few Blackfoot spoke the Pikuni language. In order to save their language, the Blackfoot Council asked for help from the elders who still knew the language if they would teach it. The elders had agreed and succeeded in reviving the language, so now the children of today can learn Pikuni at school or at home. In 1994, the Blackfoot Council accepted Pikuni as the official language. To go along with the language, they also revived the Black Lodge Society, which is responsible for protecting songs and dances of the Blackfoot. They continue to announce the coming of spring by opening five medicine bundles, one at every sound of thunder during the spring. One of the biggest celebrations called the North American Indian Days. It lasts four days and occurs during the second week in July and takes place in Browning, Montana. Lastly, the Sun Dance that was illegal from the 1890s-1934 has been in full effect. While it was illegal they hosted it in private anyway, but since 1934 it has occurred every summer. The event lasts eight days and is filled with prayers, dancing, singing, and offerings to honor the Creator. It's a great way for the Blackfoot to get together and share view and ideas with each other, while celebrating their cultures most sacred ceremonies.
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