In the past, I have looked at the various Indigenous nations including the Mi’kmaq and the Anishinaabe, and today I am going to dive into the history and culture of the Blackfoot. There is so much to their history and culture, I can’t possible cover it all but I will do my best. As well, I will do my best to pronounce all Indigenous names properly. I will also be concentrating more on the history of the people before, or just after the arrival of Europeans.
The Blackfoot Confederacy as it would be called was once a huge nation that stretched from Edmonton, down into Montana, west to the Rocky mountains and then east past the Cypress Hills in Saskatchewan. This territory was called Niitsitpiis-stahkoii, (NIIT SIT PEE STAH KOII) or Original People’s Land. In all, its estimated they occupied 28 million acres. Niitsitapi is the name for the Blackfoot, but through this episode I will refer to several nations as the Blackfoot, even though only one of the Niitsitapi tribes was called Blackfoot.
The largest ethnic group in the Blackfoot Confederacy are the Piegan. Other ethnic groups include the Kainaa, which means Many Chief People, the Siksika, which means Those of Like, the Sarcee, which means A Great Number of People, and the Haaninin, which means White Clay People.
As for why that name came about, it is believed to have come from the color of the moccasins that the people wore. One story says that the Blackfoot, or Siksika, walked through ashes of prairie fires and that turned the color of the bottom of their moccasins to black. When French fur traders arrived, they saw the black feet and called then pen wa, the French word for black foot. Another story states that the Blackfoot are the people of the bison, and the bison have black hooves.
In the creation stories of the Blackfoot, there is a great deal of variation among the member nations but it was generally believed that a Creator called N’api or Old Man was light personified and as such, as the beginning of the day and the beginning of life. N’api is said to have created the Earth using the mud from a turtle’s mouth. He would also create men and women, and made the bison tame so that people could hunt them. He is also said to have created everything else on Earth. N’api would also create the wind, which he did when he found two bags containing summer and winter. He tries to gain possession of the bags without success, so he sends a small animal to capture the summer bag, which he does. The guardian of the bag kills the animal that took the bag, and the bag bursts open and a strong wind comes from it, creating the wind.
One of the more interesting myths relates to the sun and the moon. It begins with a family of a man and wife with two sons who only lived off berries. One day N’api comes to the man in a dream and tells him to get a spider web and put it on the trail where animals roam. If he does that, they will become caught and can be killed with a stone axe. The man does this and finds that he can kill the animals with ease. One day he returns home to find his wife putting on a perfume of sweet pine burned over a fire and he suspects she has a lover. The next day, he tells his wife he must set the spider web farther away and he leaves. He catches another animal and brings some of the meat back to the camp. The next morning, he asked his wife to go and retrieve the rest of the meat. As she left, the woman thought her husband was watching her. As she journeyed over a hill, she would look back three times to see that her husband was sitting in the same spot. Once his wife was gone, the man asked his children if they ever went with their mother to retrieve timber. They said no but that they knew where she went. The man then went to the patch of timber and found a den of rattlesnakes, one of which was his wife’s lover. He gathered up timber and set fire to it, and then burned the rattlesnakes to death. When he returns home he tells his children he has set fire to the timber and that his wife will be angry and she will try to kill them. He says he will wait there but he gives his children a stick, stone and moss and says that if she ever chases them, to use these items. The woman, some distance way, looked back to see the timber patch on fire and she felt sad. She raced towards the lodge and was stopped at the door by the web her husband had put over it. She attempts to get in but her foot is cut off by her husband using the stone axe. She then puts her head in and her husband cuts it off with the axe as well. The man then ran from the house and down the creek as his wife’s body follows him, while the head rolls towards the children. The boy would throw the stick and when it stuck in the ground it created a dense forest. Their mother’s head continued to follow them, so they threw a stone that stuck in the ground and became a huge mountain from ocean to ocean. The woman rolls along the mountain until she reaches water, and then she rolls the other way and hits water again. She then asks two rams to open a passage through the mountain so she can overtake her children as they had passed over the mountain. She agrees to marry the chief of the sheep and the rams butt through the mountain but in the process knocked down peaks, cliffs and opened ravines. The rams were taking too long to get through the mountain, so the woman asked the ants to open a passage and she agreed to marry the chief ant. The ants were able to do so and the head rolled through and down the other side of the mountain. Looking back, the children saw the head rolling towards them. They took the moss and wet it and then wrung it out on the trail. The children were suddenly on a different land and behind them was a big water surrounding the country they left. The head then rolled into the big water and was drowned. The children then built a raft and went back to the land they left. They then journey through the lands of many different Indigenous until they chose to separate, with one going north and one going south. Through all of this, the woman’s body stil chases the man. Her body is the moon and he is the sun. If she were to ever catch him, she would kill him and it would always be night.
Anthropologists believe that the Blackfoot originated not in the Prairies, but migrated from the upper Northeastern part of the country and came together as a group in the Northeastern United States. By 1200 AD, they began to move west to find new land, traveling north of the Great Lakes but due to competition from Indigenous there, continued to move west until they came to the Prairies and settled there. It is believed that the Blackfoot were the earliest Algonquin residents of the plains.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the Blackfoot culture was based heavily around the bison hunt and they would freely move across the land, following the bison. The bison was a central part of the culture of the Blackfoot, providing them with many of the things they needed in their lives, including the skins for use as the skins over teepees due to its ability to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Clothes were made from the skins as well, and bones were used to make utensils and needles. Tendons were used for binding, and the stomach and bladder was cleaned and used to store liquids. Even bison dung was used as fuel for fires. It is no surprise that the bison was an animal sacred to the Blackfoot.
The hunts for the bison would become quite elaborate in various parts of their territory. This is best shown at Head Smashed In Buffalo Jump, located in southeast Alberta.
The buffalo jump would be used by the Indigenous for 5,500 years and involved driving the bison off a cliff, causing them to fall 36 feet to the ground where they would be killed by Indigenous waiting on the ground. The bison were driven to these cliffs through the use of drive lanes, lined with hundreds of cairns. Indigenous would also dress up as coyotes and wolves to scare the bison along the routes. At the site, bone deposits are 39 feet deep, showing the extensive use of the jump by the Blackfoot over thousands of years. The Blackfoot would call the site Estipah-skikini-kots. According to the legend around the site, a young Blackfoot boy wanted to watch the bison plunge off the cliff from below but when the bison started to run over the cliff, they crushed him as they fell and he was later found under the carcasses with his head smashed in.
Within the culture of the Blackfoot, warriors were revered and the Blackfoot were known to be fierce warriors that made them a force to be reckoned with. Due to the alliances between the nations within the Confederacy, they were powerful enough to impede the westward expansion of the European settlers initially.
War parties would often travel hundreds of kilometres on raids and a boy on his first war raid would be given a derogatory name. After he killed an enemy, or stole a horse, he would be given a proper name to honour him. Warriors would also strive to perform various acts of bravery called counting coup. By doing these acts, they would move up in social rank. Some acts that could do this include scalping an enemy, killing an enemy, freeing a tied horse from in front of an enemy lodge, leading a war party, stealing a headdress, taking a gun from a living enemy or touching him directly.
The traditional enemies of the Blackfoot were the Crow, Cheyenne, Shoshone, Sioux, Kootenai, Flathead and others, but their greatest foe was the Iron Confederacy, also known as the Cree.
The social structure of the Blackfoot consisted of the band, which housed 10 to 30 lodges and 80 to 241 people. This allowed each band to be large enough to defend itself in case it was attacked, but to also take part in large hunts. The size was also beneficial for providing flexibility for movement as well. Within each of these bands there would be a respected leader and each band did not have to consist of families, but could house others who were not related. As a result, the band was more a place of residence than of kinship, so a person could leave a band and join another if they so choose. This often resulted in bands being in a constant state of flux, growing and breaking up, but this structure was ideal for hunting across the Prairies due to its flexibility.
During times of peace, the Blackfoot would elect a peace chief, who would lead the people and improve the relations with other tribes they encountered. When at war, there was a war chief but this person was not elected. They would gain the title through performing acts of bravery in war and against the enemy. Bands also had their own minor chiefs.
Within the Blackfoot Confederacy, there were different societies to which individuals would belong. Young people would be invited into their societies depending on how they proved themselves and what happened during their vision quest.
The warrior society was made up of the warriors who prepared for battle by cleansing themselves spiritually, and then painting their bodies in a symbolic manner. The religious society would protect items that were considered sacred and would conduct religious ceremonies including blessing warriors before battle. They would be the ones to conduct the Sun Dance and other ceremonies like the Medicine Lodge Ceremony. Women’s societies were highly important and would design the shields used for battle, prepare skins, make clothing and teach the children in the ways of the Blackfoot.
When it came to marriage, the Blackfoot men would choose their marriage partners, but women could accept or not and the male had to show the woman’s father that he had skills as a hunter or as a warrior. The father would then approve the marriage if he was impressed. An exchange of gifts and clothing would then happen and the couple would be married. In the culture, men could have more than one wife, but typically only had one.
One aspect of the Blackfoot culture would evolve into an integral part of Canadian culture. Using a long curved wooden stick, a game was played in which the purpose was to knock a ball made of baked clay covered in buckskin, over a goal line. This, along with lacrosse, would evolve into our current game of hockey.
Artistry was also very important to the Blackfoot and they were masters of embroidery, basket making and beading. They would not only decorate their clothing, but also their teepees and other tools. Women would often wear earrings, made of shells or semi-precious metals. Elk antlers were also prized and they would be used as decorations on clothing and teepees.
The artistry of the Blackfoot is also seen in places such as Writing On Stone Provincial Park, a UNESCO Heritage Site. At this site, there are hundreds of pictographs dating back centuries, long before European arrival, that showcases the life of the Blackfoot at the time.
Boys would often be provided with a toy bow and arrow to play with until they learned to hunt, while girls were given a doll that would serve as a learning tool so they could learn how to care for a child. As the children grew, their responsibilities would increase.
One of the most recognizable aspects of the Blackfoot, and other Plains Indigenous, were the headdresses. Different headdresses were used for different purposes. A war bonnet would often feature eagle feathers as it was seen as a powerful bird and it was worn by chiefs and prestigious warriors. Headdresses came in many styles as well including the straight-up headdress and the split-horn headdress. Blackfoot men would sometimes wear a roach made from porcupine hair, and buffalo scalps, with horns still attached, were worn during the winter to protect from the cold.
Through the summer, the Blackfoot would come together to hunt bison, and celebrate with huge feasts and dances. One aspect of this was the Sun Dance, which was a celebration held annually in the middle of summer and was a central aspect of the cultural life of the Blackfoot. It was a ceremony for honouring the sun, and participants would prove their bravery by overcoming pain. Typically, it would take place around midsummer at a predetermined location. The Sun Dance would take four days, during which a sacred dance pole and sacred lodge would be built. On the final day of the Sun Dance, different versions of the same dance would happen. The Sun Dance would be banned under the Indian Act in 1895, but the ban was often ignored and it would finally dropped in 1951.
In the autumn, the women would process the bison that had been hunted, preparing the dried meat and combining it with dried fruits to create pemmican. This would provide a vital food source when hunting was poor through the winter.
In the winter, the Blackfoot would spend the cold months camped along wooded river valleys due to a greater abundance of game and each camp was located typically a day’s march apart. Most camps and bands would not move unless food and wood became depleted, and if an area had a high abundance of both, some bands camped together.
As spring began to dawn, the bison would start to move from the wooded areas to the grasslands, but the Blackfoot would wait to follow due to late blizzards that could be deadly. During these months, they would often gather berries and other plants, while hunting other types of animals as well.
The first Europeans would encounter the Blackfoot in the mid-1700s when traders and explorers came through the area. While Europeans did not reach the Blackfoot, horses introduced to North American by the Spanish did, likely between 1725 and 1731. It is likely the first time the Blackfoot saw horses was in 1730 when the Shoshone attacked. The Blackfoot also began to receive firearms from Cree and Assiniboine traders, completely changing the hunting practices of the Blackfoot forever. Horses would quickly become a measure of wealth and warriors would travel on the best horses. Horses became a form of currency as well and the more horses someone had, the more their individual wealth would grow but a man would not keep too many horses, as his prestige and status was often judged by the number of horses he could give away. Prior to the arrival of horses, domesticated dogs were used to haul loads while the Blackfoot walked across the landscape.
The arrival of horses also changed many things for the Blackfoot that brought a negative impact. The Shoshone would acquire horses before the Blackfoot and they soon used this advantage to conduct raids against their enemy. This would allow them to occupy a lot of the Blackfoot territory in the present day United States and up into Alberta. Things shifted when the Blackfoot acquired horses of their own, as well as guns, and by 1787, David Thompson reported that the Blackfoot had conquered most of the Shoshone territory. By 1790 to 1850, the Blackfoot were at the height of their power.
The first European to meet the Blackfoot would be Anthony Henday, who was working for the Hudson’s Bay Company when he arrived in what is now Alberta in 1754.
As Europeans began to move into the area, they brought with them diseases and a total disruption to the culture of the Blackfoot. By 1833, 20,000 people were part of the Blackfoot Confederacy, and by 1837, 6,350 were left following a terrible smallpox epidemic. In 1877, the Blackfoot in Canadian territory would sign Treaty 7 and settle on reserves throughout southern Alberta.
Today, the Blackfoot have been able to retain much of their culture despite adversity in the form of Residential Schools, forced settlement to reserves and other factors and have achieve several victories against the government when it comes to self-governance, self-determination and land claims.
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, A Blackfoot Sun and Moon Myth, Wikipedia, Legendsofamerica.com, EveryCulture.com, University of Montana, Indiancountrytoday.com,