The Indians originally came over to North America via the Bering Strait at a time when the ice age caused the gap to freeze over. They came from Asia by following herds and in search of more. During their travels, some decided to stop and settle down, hence the many different tribes. The Blackfoot occupied the region of modern day Alberta in Canada, and Montana in the U.S. The Blackfoot consisted of three main tribes: the Northern Blackfoot(Siksika), the Piegan(Pikuni), and the Blood(Kainah). The tribes differed little in their speech, but were politically independent. Blackfoot population varied, but was less affected by the arrival of the white man than some tribes due to their location. “In 1855, there were approximately 2,400 Northern Blackfoot, 2,000 Blood, and 3,200 Piegan. The total population of Blackfoot varied as follows: 15,000(1780), 9,000(1801), 7,600(1855), and 4,600(1932)”. The decline of population was most likely due to the white man’s diseases and the annihilation of the buffalo. In 1781, the Blackfoot had their first serious attack of smallpox. An epidemic of smallpox again occurred in 1838, 1845 1857, and 1864. In the winter of 1864, the tribe was struck with measles and about 780 died. In the winter of 1883 to 1884, more than 1/4 the Piegan population died of starvation (600). This was mainly the result of official stupidity and the disappearance of the buffalo.
The Blackfoot were typically large-game hunters and were mainly dependant on the buffalo for their diet, clothing, and receptacles. They also hunted such animals as the elk, deer, and antelope. There were four main methods of hunting, one of which was the “surround”. This method required the use of horses and was done by surrounding the herd, after which they were shot down. Another method was accomplished by driving the game down a cliff, in which the fall would injure the animal enough to hinder their escape. A third method used was impounding, which resembled modern day cow herding. The hunting party would build fences into which they would herd the animals. Yet another method was to encircle the herd with fire. The hunters would leave an opening at which they would wait since it was the animals’ only escape. In times of need, the Blackfoot would catch fish by using crude basketry traps. They also made use of the wild plants, including berries, chokecherries, wild turnips, and many others. The wild turnip was dug up in large amounts in early summer and was peeled and dried for winter use. Maize, beans, squashes or pumpkins, and sunflowers were the principal crops grown. Most of the cultivation of agriculture was done by women.
The Blackfoot, as all Indians, grew and used tobacco mainly for ceremonies and other solemn occasions. The seeds were inserted in early spring in separate fenced gardens, about 21 X 18 ft. In mid-June, the blossoms were picked and dried indoors. The blossom was more prized than the stem or leaves, which were picked just before the frosts came. The stems provided the greater part of the smoking tobacco. Both crops were oiled with buffalo fat before being stored in a pouch for future use. Seeds were set out for the following year without selection. The cultivating of the tobacco plant was done by old men, and women assisted them. Men were the main smokers of tobacco, but some women smoked it in small pipes. Being a superstitious people, some Blackfoot would not smoke while old pair of moccasins was hanging up; others put the pipe on a slice of buffalo tongue before use. The peace pipe was always passed by the host to his vis-a-vis(left-handed neighbor), who puffed it several times and passed it on to his left. This left pass routine was continued until the end of the line was reached, at which time the end man either returned the pipe to the host or sent it back toward the right. No one would take a puff until the pipe was returned to the host, who smoked it and sent it around again.
The Blackfoot were a nomadic tribe that lived throughout the year in tepees and had seasonal migrations. The tepee was originally covered with buffalo skins, but later they were covered with canvas due to the lack of buffalos. Women were considered the owner of the tepee and were in charge of its care and maintenance. Blackfoot tepees consisted of four poles and among the Indians were the most elegant in shape and painted decoration. The Blackfoot tepee had a broad band of dark color painted around the base to represent earth, and on this a series of circles, or dusty stars. They had seasonal grouping of the tepees in a large circle. The fireplace was made in the center of the tepee, with an outlet for smoke at the top. The tent cover had flaps to which two poles were attached outside the general framework to form a closable doorway. The entrance to the tepee faced east with the place of honor in the rear. Ceremonial objects were kept in the rear also, along with the bedding, backrests, rawhide containers, and utensils such as wooden dishes, horn spoons, weapons, and implements. When the tribe traveled, the tepee was collapsed and carried on a horse. However, before the introduction of the horse, the tepee was probably smaller with lighter poles, and covered with bark or mats. Among the Blackfoot Indians, the hair was considered the “seat of the soul”. Warriors combed a narrow lock of hair over the bridge of the nose, cutting it square. The Blackfoot were responsible for some of the most impressive costume on the Plains. They frequently used ermine in their clothing and decorated their war costumes with paint, beads, etc. These costumes were considered to have spiritual powers, and hence were rarely worn. However, such costumes were worn at certain special events as the “war parade”, which was held to impress guests. The people formed lines or circles while featuring headdresses, shields, lances, painted ponies, and ermine fringes on clothing. They also wore animal skins from the animal they had the powers of as a symbol of a transfer of power. During moves, these “uniforms” were stored in containers that were proudly carried by the warriors’ wives. For everyday attire, the men in warm weather wore a breechcloth and moccasins. In cold weather, men wore deerskin shirts, long skin leggings, and a buffalo robe. The women’s attire in warm weather consisted of dresses made of deer or sheepskin. The length was below the knee and it was held on the shoulders by straps. In cold weather, sleeves could be added by tying skin cords at the back of the neck and moccasins, leggings, and buffalo robes were also worn. Men’s leggings were above the knee while women were below. The Blackfoot Indians had fur-lined moccasins and fur caps with ear flaps. They also painted their bodies with bear grease to keep warm in the frigid temperatures.
Myths and stories were an Indians only form of history teaching since it wasn’t recorded in books, and therefore was vital to keep the past and its mistakes alive. The myths and stories were about such things as the beginning of time, the sun, moon, and stars, the formation of the earth, powers of the animals, the wind, the clouds, and thunder and lightning. Stories were usually told around a campfire with many people both to tell the stories and listen to them. The stories always followed the same formal order, but each time they had a different emphasis. Each speaker had their own favorite introductions and narrative style that made each story unique. Children were encouraged to follow the stories’ moral values, and each story taught a lesson to make one a better person. An example of the way a typical story went can be seen through the Blackfoot “Creation” story: In the beginning, Napi(Old Man) created everything: the earth, moon, animals, and people. From the east he journeyed to the west, spreading mud before him to form the earth and making this large so that there should be plenty of room. He went to the south and, touching northwards, made the birds and animals, all of which could understand him; he also made the prairies, mountains, rivers, and valleys, and put trees in the ground. So that the animals should have something to eat, he covered the prairies with grass; then he marked off a section in which he caused the various roots and berries to grow: the camass, bitter-root, sweet-root, sarvis berry, and so on. In certain places he put red paint in the ground.
Since the Blackfoot were a nomadic tribe, transportation techniques were very important in their lives. Before the arrival of the horse, domesticated dogs were used to carry belongings. The dogs consisted of two different varieties: a large wolf-like, and a smaller coyote-like. Some tribes used the dog as a food source, but the Blackfoot did not. The dogs carried loads on their back or were trained to draw a “travois”. The travois was formed by two long poles whose front tips converged for attachment to the dogs’ shoulders. Midway down the poles, a frame was attached that was either in ladder form or a heap with netting and thongs. To this a 60 or more pound load was attached. The travois was also used to carry firewood; relieving the woman of this job. Dogs were named according to its appearance or deeds done by its master, such as Red-spot, Feather-lance-carrier, and Took-away-his-shield. The Blackfoot also trained their dogs for bear baiting and flushing smaller animals out of hiding. The horse was introduced by the Spanish after 1730. The Indians quickly adapted their travoises for horse use and made riding gear that mimicked that of the Spanish. Saddles were high- pommeled and reserved for women, while men used either a pad saddle or frame of elkhorn tree and cantle with wooden side bars. Stirrups were made of wood and were bound with rawhide. Horses were used as a form of money and determined one’s status and wealth. Not only did a horse represent a better form of transportation, but also more prosperous buffalo hunts, and improved military position. To transport babies, the Blackfoot used a cradleboard. While on horse, the mother would sling the cradle from the saddle. The Blackfoot’s cradleboard design was U-shaped at the top and tapered toward the bottom. To cross rivers, they would only use crude temporary hide rafts to ferry across a deep stream. It was towed by able-bodied men and woman, usually by swimming out and holding the tow lines with their teeth.
Marriages were usually arranged with a go-between, but the couple was allowed to fall in love before they got married. A lover would convey a message to his beloved by playing a tune on his flute, with each tune meaning something different. The young men were shy and would wait near a stream hoping for a glance when the girls came to fill their bags. As a sign of acceptance of union, a girl would stand outside her family’s tepee with a big blanket, and when her lover came, she would cover them both and they would talk about plans for the future. If a young man was in love with a certain girl, he would often prod his parents to take further steps. A young girl, on the other hand, had to be dutiful and accept her parents’ choice without complaint. Girls married young and looked forward to becoming mothers. It was custom for the bridegroom to give a gift of horses to the girl’s family; not as a bride price, but as proof of his wealth and ability to take care of their daughter. Marriages were simple and men usually had two to three wives. This was in part because of the shortage of men due to warfare. The family unit was very close and consisted of an extended family. They camped together in several tepees that included grandparents, great-grandparents, unmarried brothers and sisters, parents, and children. It was the man’s duty to supply meat and protection, while the woman was responsible for the household and moving. Women walked a few paces behind the men when in public, but ruled the tepee and wielded behind-the-scenes influence in major tribal decisions. Marriage was considered a permanent union between families instead of individuals.
This is only a summary of the civilization once known as the Blackfoot. The tribe, its customs, and its child-like purity can never be brought back. They no longer exist. However they can be remembered and a lesson can be learned. It’s amazing that the majority of American citizens have some form of Indian blood flowing through their veins, yet know nothing of this lost heritage beyond what those John Wayne and Gene Autry western shows taught them as children. We as Americans should learn from the mistakes that this country was founded on. People cannot leap into a situation without thinking about the results first else disaster will follow. In this case, human mistakes caused the annihilation of a race of people, along with its customs, traditions, and human rights. Even though we think we are the most knowledgeable people, we could have learned much from the American Indian. Maybe we could have learned how to freely love other people and accept them regardless of their strange ways.