Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


One of the largest Native American groups of the Northern Plains, the Blackfoot Confederacy, consists of the Siksikas (Blackfoot proper), Kainahs (Bloods), Northern (Canadian) Piegans, and Southern Piegans (or Blackfeet, as they came to be known). The Algonquian-speaking Blackfoot may have migrated from the north and northwestern woodlands into the Plains of southern Alberta and northern Montana sometime in the fifteenth century. If so, they adapted to become one of the defining Plains Indian nations, so much so that their own history places their homeland in the Northern Plains.

Early estimates of Blackfoot population varied from 15,000 to 40,000. Blackfoot territory included the area from the North Saskatchewan River south to the Yellowstone River, and from central Saskatchewan west to the continental divide. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Blackfoot had acquired horses from other tribes and guns from British traders. Raiding, gathering, hunting, and trading became the mainstays of their economy, and their power and influence grew. Wider contacts, however, made the Blackfoot vulnerable to smallpox, such as during the 1837 epidemic, and to other diseases which periodically decimated them.

The Blackfoot saw themselves as a part of a vibrant, sacred world, regarding the Sun as one of the most powerful beings. Like other Plains tribes, Blackfoot men and women secured their place in this world through vision quests, through ceremonies of sacred bundles to secure the blessing and protection of powerful bird and animal spirits (the "beaver medicine" being considered among the oldest and most powerful ceremonies), and through reliance on the spiritual guidance of medicine men and women. Although no central authority governed the Blackfoot, the Sun Dance eventually emerged as the principal summer ceremony that brought together dozens of independent, dispersed bands.

In 1806 the Lewis and Clark expedition incurred the enmity of the Blackfoot, resulting in periodic attacks on Americans. The Blackfoot gained a reputation for fierceness due to their opposition to the incursion of American fur trappers into their territory. They remained on friendlier terms with the Hudson's Bay Company, which encouraged the Blackfoot to trade at its posts. After the establishment of Fort McKenzie on the Marias River in 1833, contacts with Americans grew. The Blackfoot exchanged buffalo robes, pemmican, elk and deer hides, and furs for manufactured goods. These contacts occasionally led to trader- or trapper-Native marriages and the appearance of a mixed-blood population.

The transition from independence to reservation life was harrowing for the Blackfoot. In 1855 the Blackfoot, with several other tribes, took part in their first American treaty. The so-called Lame Bull's Treaty set aside for the Blackfoot a portion of a reservation in what became Montana in exchange for annuities and other pledges by the U.S. government. Few promises were fulfilled, and in subsequent years, as whiskey peddlers, miners, cattlemen, and settlers moved into the area, conflicts increased and clamor for the reduction of this reservation grew. Congress failed to ratify two such treaties, and in the 1860s the situation led to a series of raids and clashes called the "Blackfoot War." On January 23, 1870, Blackfoot resistance to encroachment on their lands ended with the massacre on the Marias River of 173 men, women, and children by the U.S. Army under Maj. Eugene V. Baker.

In July 1873 an executive order set aside a new reservation for the Blackfeet, Gros Ventres, and River Crows. The 2,750-square-mile reservation was bounded on the west by the continental divide, on the north by the U.S.- Canadian border, on the south by the Missouri River, and on the east by Dakota Territory. In 1874, upon the urging of settlers, Congress restored the land between the Sun and the Missouri Rivers to public domain.

The remaining bands of the Confederacy signed Treaty Number 7 with the British government in 1877. The Blackfoot and the Kainahs, along with the Sarcee (Sarsi), received as their reserve a four-mile by 200-mile strip of land along the Bow River in southern Alberta. The Kainahs subsequently moved to a new reserve between the St. Mary and Belly Rivers, and the Piegans went to a reserve west of Fort Macleod. The land was more suited to hunting than to farming, and the disappearance of the bison from the Northern Plains between 1879 and 1883 brought famine and starvation to the Confederacy. In Canada, an estimated 1,000 Blackfoot died, and almost 600 died of starvation and associated diseases in Montana. As a result, the American Blackfeet were pressured in 1888 and 1896 to trade their only remaining resource, their land, for the prospect of government annuities.

In both countries, efforts to teach selfsupport through farming and irrigated agriculture initially failed, but by the turn of the century cattle raising began to emerge as a successful enterprise, especially among the growing population of the mixed bloods. In the United States, however, the acts of 1907 and 1919 allotted the reservation, resulting in an erosion of the Blackfeet land base and the crippling of their nascent economy. The Canadian Blackfoot lands were also reduced by the early twentieth century.

The American practice of allotment and assimilation formally ended with the passage of the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934. The Blackfeet chose to organize under this act with a tribal council elected by residents of the various districts of the reservation. Health, education, and economic conditions on the reservation slowly began to improve. During World War II many Blackfeet served in the armed forces and found employment off the reservation. Many consequently chose to relocate to urban centers while maintaining their tribal a.liation. Some entered skilled and professional occupations and pursued higher education.

Since the 1930s the Blackfeet economy has followed the pattern of other tribes with various tribal enterprises–ranching, timber and gas, and light manufacturing industries– which experienced mixed success. The 1.3- million-acre Blackfeet Reservation, adjacent to Glacier National Park (which was once part of it), attracts tourists and visitors. The tribally owned and operated Museum of the Plains Indians houses exhibits and publishes monographs on tribal history and culture. The fully accredited Blackfeet Community College in Browning, Montana, offers standard curriculum as well courses in the language and traditions of the tribe. Tribal enrollment is about 15,000, with about 7,000 residing on the Montana reservation. The registered population of Canadian Blackfoot is about 16,000, with almost 12,000 living on the three reserves.

See also LITERARY TRADITIONS: Welch, James.

Hana Samek Norton Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ewers, John C. The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958.

Ground, Mary. Grass Woman Stories. Browning MT: Blackfeet Heritage Program, 1978.

Samek, Hana. The Blackfoot Confederacy 1880–1920. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.

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