Smoke Signals

Mar/Apr 2011


Guest Writer


Blackfoot Indians

Discussion in “Anthropological Essays” by Oscar Lewis. Random House, @ 1946, 1949, 1953, 1959, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1969, 1970.

They are an important tribe of the Northern Plains, constituting the western most extension of the great Algonquian stock. Instead of being a compact people with a head chief and central government, they are properly a confederacy of three sub-tribes speaking the same language, namely:

  • · Siksika or Blackfoot proper;
  • · Kaina (Kćna), or Blood; and
  • · Pikűni, or Piegan.

Parfleche Envelopes, c. 1890, rawhide with pigments
average 30 ˝" height x 15" width

Algonquins or Algonquian 

The Indians known by this name were probably at one time the most numerous of all the North American tribes. Migrations, inter-marriages, political alliances, wholesale absorption of captives and desertions, however, make it impossible to fix the tribal limits with any degree of exactness; yet the Algonquins may be said to have roamed over the country from what is now Kentucky to Hudson Bay, and from the Atlantic to the Mississippi and perhaps beyond. The Micmacs, Abenakis, Montagnais, Penobscots, Chippewas, Mascoutens, Nipissings, Sacs, Pottowatomies, and Illinois, the Pequods of Massachusetts, the Mohegans of New York, the Lenapes of Pennsylvania and Delaware, with many other minor tribes, may be classed among them. Linguistically and physically they have many unmistakable traits in common. John Eliot and Cotton Mather had a very poor idea of them and spoke of their condition as "infinitely barbarous". The early French missionaries gave more flattering accounts of their intellectual power, their poetry, their oratory, their nobility of character, and even their mechanical skill. In his "Indian Tribes of the United States", though referring to somewhat more modern Indians, Drake rather shares the latter view, at least with regard to the Algonquins of Lake Superior. The name Algonquin seemed to be a general designation, and it is not certain that they were united in a confederation at least in one as compact and as permanent as that of the Iroquois, who supplanted and crushed them. Whatever union there was had given way before the whites arrived. It is regarded as one of the mistakes of Champlain that he espoused the cause of the Algonquins, whose power was not only waning but who were actually vassals of the Iroquois, and made war against the Iroquois, their enemies; a policy which, besides, threw the Iroquois with the English and resulted in so many bloody wars. In his Preface to the "Jesuit Relations", Thwaites is of the opinion that they have made a larger figure in our history than any other family, because through their lands came the heaviest and most aggressive movement of white population, French and English; but it is now believed that the number was never so great as was at first estimated by the Jesuit Fathers and the earliest English colonists. A careful modern estimate is that the Algonquins at no time numbered over 90,000 souls and possibly not over 50,000. But as the actual number of Algonquins now living is in excess of that, it is more than likely that the early missionaries did not exaggerate and that there may have been nearly a quarter of a million of them, as some moderns still claim. The missions among them began with the Micmac tribe of Nova Scotia and the Abenakis of Main. The work at Tadoussac was contemporaneous with the first attempt at colonization; it extended north as far as Hudson Bay, and along the St. Lawrence and Ottawa to the Great Lakes on whose shores the Algonquins were found, sometimes living with the Hurons who were kinsmen of the Iroquois. The Chippewas, whom Raymbault and Jogues visited at Sault Ste. Marie in 1641, were Algonquins as were those whom Allouez later gathered together in his famous mission of La Pointe on Lake Superior. The Algonquin language has been more cultivated than any of the other North American tongues. Its sounds are not difficult to catch, its vocabulary is copious and its expressions clear. The early missionaries called it the "Indian court language." It was the most widely diffused and most fertile in dialects of all the Indian tongues. "It was spoken, though not exclusively", says Bancroft, "in a territory that extended through sixty degrees of longitude and more than twenty degrees of latitude." This facilitated to some extent the work of the missionaries. Eliot translated the Bible into Algonquin and Father Rasle (q.v.) left an Abenaki Dictionary which is the possession of Harvard University. In recent days, Bishop Baraga (q.v.) of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, has written a remarkable series of works such as the Ojibway Catechism, prayer book, hymn book, extracts from the Old and New Testament, the Gospels of the year, and a grammar and dictionary. They regarded Manabozho, or the Great Hare, as their ancestor, and the tribe that bore his totem was entitled to the greatest respect. He was the founder and teacher of the nation, the creator of the sun and moon, and the shaper of the earth. He still lives in the Arctic Ocean. The Supreme Spirit they called Monedo, or Manitou, to whom they ascribe some of the attributes of God, but who does not judge or punish evil doing. Bad actions are not considered as committed against him. There is an evil spirit who has to be propitiated, and besides him are many others who bring all temporal misfortunes. Hence the universal superstition, magic, sorcery, and the like. According to one authority the number of Indians of Algonquin stock in 1902 was estimated at about 82,000 souls, of whom 43,000 are in the United States, the remainder being in Canada with the exception of a few refugees in Mexico.

Bags and pouches, c. 1890, brain tanned deerhide with trade beads
average 10 - 12" height x 2-1/2 - 3" wide. 

Each sub-tribe is again subdivided into bands, to the number of some fifty in all. In close alliance with them are the Atsína, or Grosventres, a branch of the more southern Arapahoe, and the Sassi, a detached band of the Beaver Indians farther to the north. As is usually the case with Indian etymologies, the origin of the name is disputed. One tradition ascribes it to the blackening of their moccasins from the ashes of prairie fires on their first arrival in their present country. It may have come, however, from the former wearing of a black moccasin, such as distinguished certain southern tribes. The name is also that of a prominent war-society among tribes of the Plains. As indicated by linguistic affinity, the Blackfeet are immigrants from the East. In the early nineteenth century, and until gathered upon reservations, they held most of the immense territory stretching from the southern headwaters of the Missouri, in Montana, almost to the North Saskatchewan, in Canada, and from about 105° W. longitude to the base of the Rocky Mountains. They are now settled on three reservations in the Province of Alberta, Canada, and one in Montana, U.S., being about equally divided between the two governments. The Atsina are also now settled in Montana, while the Sassi are in Alberta. Most of the early estimates of Blackfoot population are unreliable and usually exaggerated. The estimate made by Mackenzie (about the year 1790) of 2250 to 2550 warriors, or perhaps 8500 souls, is probably very near the truth for that period. In 1780, 1837, 1845, and 1869, they suffered great losses by smallpox. In 1883-84 some 600 on the Montana reservation died of starvation in consequence of a simultaneous failure of the buffalo and reduction of rations. In addition to these wholesale losses, they suffered a continual wasting from wars with the surrounding tribes -- Cree, Assiniboin, Sioux, Crow, Flathead, Kutenai -- for the Blackfeet were a particularly warlike and aggressive people, and, with the exception of the two small tribes living under their protection, they had no allies. The official Indian report for 1858 gives them 7300 souls, but a careful unofficial estimate made about the same time puts them at 6720. In 1906 they were officially reported to number in all 4617, as follows: Blackfoot Agency, Alberta, 842; Blood Agency, Alberta, 1204, Piegan Agency, Alberta, 499; Blackfoot Agency (Piegan), Montana, 2072. In their culture the Blackfeet were a typical Plains tribe, living in skin tipis, roving from place to place without permanent habitation, without pottery, basketry, or canoes, having no agriculture except for the planting of a native tobacco, and depending almost entirely upon the buffalo for subsistence. Their traditions go back to a time when they had no horses, hunting the buffalo on foot by means of driveways constructed of loose stones; but as early as 1800 they had many horses taken from the southern tribes, and later became noted for their great herds. They procured guns and horses about the same time, and were thus enabled to extend their incursions successfully over wide areas.

While generally friendly to the Hudson's Bay Company traders, they were, in the earlier period, usually hostile towards Americans, although never regularly at war with the government. Upon ceremonial occasions each of the three principal tribes camped in a great circle, as usual among the Plains tribes, the tipis of each band occupying a definite section of the circle, with the "medicine lodge", or ceremonial sacred structure, in the centre of the circle. The assertion that these smaller bands constituted exogamic clans seems consistent with Plains Indians custom. There was also a military society consisting of several subdivisions, or orders, of various rank, from boys in training to the retired veterans who acted as advisers and directors of the rites. Each of these orders had its distinctive uniform and equipment, songs and dance, and took charge of some special function at public gatherings. There were also the ordinary secret societies for the practice of medicine, magic, and special industrial arts, each society usually having its own sacred tradition in the keeping of a chosen priest. the industrial societies were usually composed of women. The ordinary dress in old times was of prepared deerskins; the arms were the bow, knife, club, lance, and shield, and, later, the gun. The principal deity was the sun, and a supernatural being known as Napi, "Old Man" -- perhaps an incarnation of the same idea. The great tribal ceremony was the Sun Dance, held annually in the summer season. The marriage tie was easily broken, and polygamy was permitted. The dead were usually deposited in trees, or sometimes in tipis, erected for the purpose on prominent hills. The earliest missionary work among the Blackfeet was that of the French Jesuits who accompanied the explorer Verendrye in the Saskatchewan region in 1731-42. Among these many be named Fathers Nicholas Gonnor, Charles Mesaiger, and Jean Aulneau. Nothing more was done until the establishment of the Red River colony by Lord Selkirk, who, in 1816, brought out Fathers Dumoulin and Provencher from Montreal to minister to the wants of the colonists and Indians. Their Indian work, at first confined to the Crees and Ojibwa, was afterwards extended, under the auspices of the Oblates, to the Blackfeet and Assiniboin. Among the most noted of these Oblate missionaries were Father Albert Lacombe (1848-90), author of a manuscript Blackfoot dictionary, as well as of a monumental grammar and dictionary of the Cree, and Father Emile Legal (1881-90), author of several important manuscripts relating to the Blackfoot tribe and language. Protestant mission work in the tribe was begun by the Wesleyan Methodists about 1840 (though without any regular establishment until 1871), and by the Episcopalians at about the same date.


Blackfoot Time Lines

  • I’ll give you a sample to start you off on your own time-line.

    1720: Blackfoot get guns and horses.
  • 1739 First trading posts at forks of Saskatchewan River.
  • 1754: Anthony Henry meets Blackfoot along present Alberta/Saskatchewan border. Guided by Cree, he visits the “archithune” which is Cree for strange/enemy/slave, likely Blackfeet.
  • 1769: Contact between Blackfoot and de le Verendrye
  • 1772: Mathew Cocking of Hudson’s Bay Co. describes Blackfoot.
  • 1774: Cumberland House trading post established on the lower Saskatchewan River.
  • 1778: Continental Congress signs the first Indian treaty -- with the Delaware Nation. At this time the US Articles of Confederation say that one purpose of the Articles is to regulate trade with the Indians.
  • 1780: Blkft population estimated at 15,000, distributed over the top half of Montana and bottom half of Alberta & Saskatchewan but only east of the Rockies.
  • 1781: Devastating epidemic of smallpox, evidently caught from raiding the Shoshone.
  • 1782: Snake and Shoshoni tribes flee the Bow River area. Smallpox mortality among the Blackfoot is about half the population.
  • 1784: Congress grants the War Department rule over Indian Affairs. Hudson’s Bay and Northwest Fur Co. are competing for Blackfoot trade.
  • 1787 David Thompson winters with the Blackfoot on the Bow river. “Dog Days” old men (those who remember pre-horse) say they came from the NE. Blackfoot war party goes south to Santa Fe and steals horses from Spanish miners.
  • 1790 Duncan McGilviray is in the area. Trade and Inercourse Act passed to license Indian traders.
  • 1792 Peter Fidler approaches Chief Mountain.
  • 1794: Blackfoot trade at Fort George on the Saskatchewan River.
  • 1795: Kutenai tribe offers horses to the Blackfoot to get passage to Fort George, but Blackfoot say NO for fear of them getting guns as well.
  • 1796: On July 14 Chief Mountain is identified and given the English version of its Indian name.
  • 1799: Northwest Fur Co. builds Rocky Mountain House at the mouth of the Saskatchewan River.
  • 1800 Trappers LeBlanc & La Grosse of Northwest Fur Co. come to live with the Kutenai. Pikuni group is master of the plains.
  • 1801: McKenzie, explorer, estimates the Blackfeet warrior class as 9,000 men.
  • 1802: The Louisiana Purchase
  • 1803: Disease among the buffalo
  • 1804: On March 10 formal ceremonies in St. Louis finalize the Louisiana Purchase. In May Lewis & Clark start west.

    The actual time-line that I use includes a lot of material from a Canadian winter-count book that is copyrighted, so I don’t include it here. (” Winter Count: A History of the Blackfoot People” Paul M. Raczka. Oldman River Cultural Centre: Brocket Alberta, 1979)

    What’s clear from this excerpt is that the Blackfoot were first approached by white people from the north. They were Hudson’s Bay employees because Canada was not a separate country and the Canadian prairie was only a mercantile franchise. The Blackfoot got right with the program and were soon organized to sell dry meat, pemmican, and tanned buffalo hides to the new people. They were NOT inclined to wade around in a lot of icy water to catch beaver -- let the Cree and the Metis do that. (Discussion in “Anthropological Essays” by Oscar Lewis. Random House, @ 1946, 1949, 1953, 1959, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1969, 1970. So many years because these are articles written and published separately, then anthologized. There were no ISBN numbers then but the Library of Congress Cat. Card # is 79-85586. The article is called “The Effects of White Contact upon Blackfoot Culture, 1942.”)





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All Rights Reserved, Copyrighted 2005-2010.