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The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains

The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains

by John C. Ewers

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The Blackfeet were the strongest military power on the northwestern plains in the historic buffalo days. For half a century up to 1805, they were almost constantly at war with the Shoshonis and came very close to exterminating that tribe. They aggressively asserted themselves against the Flatheads and the Kutenais, shoving them westward across the Rockies. They got


The Blackfeet were the strongest military power on the northwestern plains in the historic buffalo days. For half a century up to 1805, they were almost constantly at war with the Shoshonis and came very close to exterminating that tribe. They aggressively asserted themselves against the Flatheads and the Kutenais, shoving them westward across the Rockies. They got on fairly well with English and Canadian traders during the heyday of the fur trade on the Saskatchewan River, but on the upper Missouri they took an early dislike to Americans, whom they called "Big Knives." American fur traders, such as Manuel Lisa, Pierre Menard, and Andrew Henry, were literally chased out of Montana by the Blackfeet.

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University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date:
Civilization of the American Indian Series
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5.54(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.82(d)

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The Blackfeet

Raiders on the Northwestern Plains

By John C. Ewers


Copyright © 1958 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8868-3


Dog Days

Elderly Blackfoot men and women who grew to adulthood in buffalo days had no doubts about the origin of their people. They knew, because their grandparents had told them, that Napi, the Old Man, was the creator of the world and every living thing in it.

In the beginning all the world was water. One day Old Man, either by design or because he was just curious, decided to find out what might lie beneath the water. He sent animals to dive below the surface. First duck, then otter, then badger dived in vain. Then Old Man sent muskrat diving into the depths. Muskrat remained under water so long Old Man began to fear that he had drowned. At last muskrat rose slowly to the surface, holding between his paws a little ball of mud. Old Man took this small lump of mud and blew upon it. The mud began to swell. It continued to grow larger and larger until it became the whole earth.

Then Napi traveled about over the earth piling up rocks to make mountains, gouging out beds of rivers and lakes and filling them with water. He covered the plains with grass. He made roots and berries grow on the grasslands and timber in the mountains and river valleys. He made all the animals and the birds. And then, from a lump of clay, he made himself a wife.

Together Old Man and Old Woman designed the people and determined how they should live. Old Man insisted that he should have the first say in everything. Old Woman agreed, provided she might have the second say.

Old Man said, "Let the people have eyes and mouths in their faces, and let them be straight up and down." But Old Woman added, "Yes, let them have eyes and mouths; but they shall be set crosswise in their faces."

Old Man said, "Let the people have ten fingers on each hand." "No," declared Old Woman, "ten fingers are too many. They will be in the way. Let them have four fingers and a thumb on each hand." So the people were made.

But Old Man and Old Woman could not agree on one important point. Should the people live forever, or should they die? Finally Old Man said, "I will throw a buffalo chip into the water. If it floats, the people will die for four days and live again; but, if it sinks, they will die forever." He threw the buffalo chip into the water, and it floated. "No," said Old Woman, "I will throw this rock. If it floats, the people will die for four days. If it sinks, they will die forever." She threw the rock into the water, and it sank to the bottom. Then they agreed that it was better that way. If people lived forever they would never feel sorry for one another.

At first the people were hungry and cold. Then Old Man showed them how to collect edible roots and berries, how to make wooden bows and stone-headed arrows, how to use weapons, traps, and deadfalls to kill buffalo and the smaller animals for food, and how to dress animal skins for warm clothing.

His work of creation completed, Old Man climbed a high mountain and disappeared.

Some say that Napi's home was in the mountains at the head of the stream that still bears his name, Oldman River, in the province of Alberta. Blackfoot Indians can still point out Old Man's gambling place west of Fort Macleod, where Napi played the hoop-and-pole game long, long ago. However, the fact that Old Man, the creator, also appears in the mythology of the Arapaho, Gros Ventre, and Cree tribes suggests that he may have been known to the Blackfeet in prehistoric times. Their old men probably were telling their grandchildren of Napi's wonder-workings long before the three Blackfoot tribes moved westward to their historic homeland in Alberta and Montana.

For nearly two centuries the three Blackfoot tribes have been known to white men by their separate names. They are the Pikuni or Piegan (pronounced Pay-gan'), the Kainah or Blood, and the Siksika or Blackfoot proper, often referred to as the Northern Blackfoot to distinguish it from the other two tribes. The three tribes were politically independent. But they spoke the same language, shared the same customs (with the exception of a few ceremonial rituals), intermarried, and made war upon common enemies. So it has been customary to speak of these three tribes as one people, under the general name of Blackfoot or Blackfeet. The former is the more literal translation of the native name, Siksikauwa (blackfooted people). Together these three tribes comprised the strongest military power on the northwestern plains in historic buffalo days.

The Blackfoot tribes consider themselves to be of common descent. Long ago they probably were one tribe. But the three tribes were separate units at the beginning of the historic period.

Whether these Indians at one time dyed their footgear black or whether the moccasins of some of them happened to be coated with black earth or the ashes from prairie fires when the neighboring Cree Indians bestowed the name of Blackfoot upon them cannot be determined at this late date. Needless to say, the curious tourist who in recent years asked one of these Indians to remove his moccasins so she could see for herself was disappointed.

The name Piegan refers to a people who possessed poorly dressed or torn robes. The Blood tribe may have received its name from the Cree because its members were accustomed to paint their faces and robes with red earth, which is still the sacred paint among all the Blackfoot tribes. However, a century and a quarter ago the German scientist-explorer, Prince Maximilian zu Wied, was told that this tribe was named after some of its members who returned with bloodstained hands and faces from the massacre of a small camp of Kutenai Indians. In any case, this was not their name for themselves. The people of that tribe prefer to call themselves by the native name Kainah, meaning Many Chiefs.

Language certainly furnishes a much more valuable clue to the origin of the Blackfoot tribes than does their mythology. The fact that they speak an Algonkian dialect allies them with the host of other Algonkian-speaking tribes of North America. While it is true that Algonkian was more widely spoken than any other Indian language, it is significant that the great majority of the Algonkian tribes lived in the forests east of the Great Plains. Of the six Algonkian-speaking tribes who were living on the plains before 1830, the Cheyennes, Plains Crees, and Plains Ojibwas are known to have migrated westward within the historic period. The Arapahoes, Gros Ventres, and Blackfeet were older residents of the grasslands. However, persistent Arapaho traditions point to their migration from a region farther east, probably the Red River Valley of Minnesota, and to Gros Ventre separation from that tribe. This leaves the Blackfeet as probably the earliest Algonkian residents of the plains.

Linguists tell us that of all Algonkian dialects Blackfoot differs most markedly in its word formation from the presumed parent tongue spoken by tribes living in the western Great Lakes region. Relative isolation from other Algonkian-speaking peoples, on the one hand, and prolonged contacts with tribes speaking alien tongues, on the other, may help to explain the considerable differences between Blackfoot and all other Algonkian dialects.

The Blackfeet may have occupied the western frontier of Algonkian-speaking peoples for some time before they left the woodlands for the plains. After they reached the plains they became more isolated from the great majority of forest-dwelling Algonkian tribes of the Middle West. At the same time they met Athapascan-, Shoshonean-, and Siouan-speaking Indians. The Blackfeet appear to have been the adventurous pioneers in the migration of a number of Algonkian tribes out of the timber onto the open grasslands, a movement which began in prehistoric times and ended only with the removal of some of the eastern Indians to lands west of the Mississippi to make room for white settlement in the nineteenth century.

Whether the Blackfeet moved west because they were attracted by opportunities for big- game hunting in the open country, or whether they were driven westward by other Algonkian tribes whose growing populations forced them to expand their own hunting territories, we do not know. Possibly both factors encouraged Blackfoot migration. At any rate, it is certain that the Blackfeet entered the plains on foot. It is just as certain that they were accustomed to plains life when the first white trader-explorers discovered them. The late Clark Wissler, for many years a thorough student of the Blackfeet, expressed the opinion that they "were on the plains a long time before the discovery of America." But they may have tarried for an extended period, perhaps for centuries, in the transition zone between the short-grass plains and forests before they pushed on westward to lands watered by the upper tributaries of the Saskatchewan and Missouri rivers in the eighteenth century.

The Blackfeet had not yet reached their historic homeland near the eastern base of the Rockies when their aboriginal culture began to be modified, indeed revolutionized, by indirect influences from the white man's civilization—influences which rapidly transformed them from plodding, stone age pedestrians into mobile horsemen possessing some of the advantages of an age of metals. It will be easier to understand the changes in Blackfoot life wrought by these innovations if we try to picture their existence in the years immediately preceding their acquisition of horses, metal tools, and weapons, and their initial participation in the white man's fur trade. When elderly Blackfoot Indians refer to this pre-horse period they commonly identify it by the expression, "When we had only dogs for moving camp." Let us simply refer to that time as "dog days."

No white man visited the Blackfeet in dog days, so we have no contemporary descriptions of their life in those times. Nevertheless, we need not rely entirely upon Blackfoot traditions to gain a general impression of their life in dog days.

David Thompson, an intelligent, inquisitive fur trader, spent the winter of 1787–88 in a Piegan village in present southern Alberta. There were aged men in that Indian camp who recalled from personal experience tribal life in dog days. When Thompson sought to determine the origin of these Indians, they "always pointed out the North West as the place they came from, and their progress has always been to the southwest. Since the Traders came to the Saskatchewan River, this has been their course and progress for the distance of four hundred miles from the Eagle Hills to the Mountains near the Missouri but this rapid advance may be mostly attributed to their being armed with guns and iron weapons." Thompson's elderly informants made it clear that in their youth the Blackfeet possessed no firearms and neither horses nor canoes. They were nomads who hunted game and fought enemy tribesmen with primitive weapons of their own manufacture. They traveled overland on foot. Their only domesticated animal was the dog.

So we may picture those aboriginal Blackfoot Indians living in the valley of the North Saskatchewan near the Eagle Hills in the early years of the eighteenth century, just before the dawn of history in that region. North of that great eastward-flowing river was the coniferous forest. The Blackfoot homeland lay south of that thickly wooded area in a country of grassy prairies broken by forested hills, timbered river valleys, and lakes of different sizes. Here the primitive Blackfeet found the necessities of life—wild game, wild plant foods, water, and firewood.

Long, cold winters and short summers were typical of that old Blackfoot country. It was too far north to permit the raising of Indian corn and other food crops. But it was fine country for the nomadic hunter. Here he found many small mammals—wolves, foxes, muskrats, beavers, badgers, minks, martens, rabbits, skunks, and porcupines. Here were the larger bear, deer, elk, and moose. But best of all, this was buffalo country.

The Plains Crees and Assiniboins who occupied this region in the nineteenth century hunted or trapped all of these animals. But they depended primarily upon buffalo for their subsistence. Both tribes were poor in horses and, save for their possession of firearms, metal traps, and tools, lived very much as the Blackfeet must have lived in the same region in earlier times. Our considerable knowledge of Cree and Assiniboin methods of exploiting the natural resources of this area in later years furnishes valuable clues to Blackfoot life in dog days.

Indians who preyed upon the buffalo had to adjust their way of life to the habits and movements of their prey. In spring, summer, and fall, buffalo grazed on the rich grasslands in open country. But in winter, the harsh season of sub-zero temperatures, deep snows, and strong winds, these animals sought food and shelter in wooded valleys and broken country where hills offered protection from the wind. So the Indians' buffalo-hunting techniques varied with the seasons.

The buffalo in its wild state was a gregarious animal. Throughout the greater part of the year buffalo could be killed most effectively through the co-operative efforts of groups of Indians working together in planned operations. So the tribes were divided into separate hunting bands. Each band probably comprised about twenty to thirty families, totaling some one hundred to two hundred men, women, and children. These bands were large enough to enable their members to encircle a small herd of buffalo on the prairie and large enough to offer a stiff defense against human enemies; yet they were small enough, to permit survival during periods of game scarcity and limited rations. Probably each band was composed primarily of blood relatives, led by the most respected able-bodied man in the group.

Throughout most of the year these hunting bands moved from one temporary encampment to another, following the buffalo over the open grasslands. Each family was responsible for the movement of its own baggage. Its largest and heaviest possession was the tipi, a conical lodge with a foundation of stout poles over which was stretched a cover of buffalo hides. The size of this Indian home was limited by the weight its owners' wolflike dogs could haul. A strong dog could drag a load of about seventy-five pounds on the A-shaped, wooden travois. A lodge cover made from six or eight buffalo cowskins was a good load for one of these dogs. Larger covers could have been transported if they were made in two or more pieces so that they could be carried on two or more travois. But the necessity for dragging the lodgepoles, which increased in length and weight with the number of hides in the cover, must have encouraged the use of small lodges in dog days. The family's lodge furnishings and household utensils, also designed for ready transportation, were tied into compact bundles or fitted into skin sacks which could be hauled on dog travois or carried on the backs of dogs or women.

A Blackfoot camp on the march in dog days must have been a picturesque sight. Scouts led the way, walking a considerable distance in advance of the main party, constantly on the lookout for signs of game or enemies. The other able-bodied men of the band fell in on the flanks and in the rear of the main body to provide further protection. Men traveled light and carried only their weapons. In the center of the moving camp walked the women and children and the dogs with the baggage. Mothers carried their infants on their backs. Not infrequently women shouldered part of the baggage also. The dogs, hitched to their loaded travois by hide straps, were not the most willing of burden bearers. Women had to keep them some distance apart to prevent dog fights. Occasionally a dog took off after a bitch or a rabbit, or merely to get a drink of cool water from a near-by lake or stream. Under these conditions long marches were out of the question. There were frequent stops. Five or six miles was a good day's march.

The great bulk of the baggage carried by the dogs and women must have consisted of articles essential to day-to-day living. Elaborate lodge furnishings, many changes of clothing, complex medicine bundles and ceremonial regalia, surpluses of fresh or dried meat, and wild fruits or vegetables would have been excess baggage in dog days. Blackfoot traditions refer to the surround as the favorite method of hunting buffalo in the summer season in dog days. Probably they employed the same method as that observed among the Assiniboins or Crees by Henry Kelsey, the first white man known to have met Indians on the Northern Plains, in the year 1691:

Now ye manner of their hunting these Beasts on ye barren ground is when they seek a great parcel of them together they surround them with men which done they gather themselves into a smaller Compass Keeping ye Beasts still in ye middle and so shooting ym till they break out at some place or other and so get away from ym.


Excerpted from The Blackfeet by John C. Ewers. Copyright © 1958 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John C. Ewers (1909–1997), was the first curator of the Museum of the Plains Indian on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. Later he served as Director of what is now Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History and was Ethnologost Emeritus with the Smithsonian. His many publications include The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains and Plains Indian History and Culture: Essays on Continuity and Change.

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