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Heads Hides & Horns (book)

Blackfeet Women selling horns

Anceient killing grounds

……The Blackfoot Confederacy or Niitsitapi (meaning “original people” is the collective name of three First Nations bands in Alberta, Canada and one Native American tribe in Montana, United States.

……Historically, the member peoples of the Confederacy were nomadic bison hunters and trout fishermen, who ranged across large areas of the northern Great Plains of Western North America, specifically the semi-arid short-grass prairie ecological region. In the first half of the 18th century, they adopted horses and firearms acquired from European-descended traders and their Cree and Assiniboine go-betweens. The Blackfoot used these resources to expand their territory at the expense of neighboring peoples. Through the use of horses, Blackfoot and other Plains peoples could expand their range for hunting bison.

……But, it was the systematic commercial bison hunting by European-American hunters that nearly ended the bison herds and permanently changed the Native American societies of the Great Plains, as their main food was no longer abundant. Periods of starvation and deprivation for the Blackfoot followed. They were forced to end their nomadism and adopt ranching and farming, settling in reservations made up of small pieces of their former lands. During the 1870s, the Blackfoot signed treaties with the United States and Canada, ceding their lands in exchange for annuities of food and medical aid, and help with farming. Since that time, the Blackfoot have worked to maintain their traditional language and culture in the face of assimilationist policies of the North American nation states.

……The Confederacy had a territory that stretched from the North Saskatchewan River (called Ponoká’sisaahta) along what is now Edmonton, Alberta, in Canada, to the Yellowstone River (called Otahkoiitahtayi) of Montana in the United States, and from the Rocky Mountains (called Miistakistsi) and along the South Saskatchewan River to the present Alberta-Saskatchewan border (called Kaayihkimikoyi) east past the Cypress Hills. They called their tribal territory Nitawahsin-nanni- “Our Land.” To the east, the Innu and Naskapi called their territory Nitassinan – “Our Land.” They had adopted the use of the horse from other Plains tribes, probably by the early eighteenth century, which gave them expanded range and mobility, as well as advantages in hunting.

……The basic social unit of the Niitsitapi above the family was the band, varying from about 10 to 30 lodges, about 80 to 241 people. (European Canadians and Americans mistakenly referred to all the Niitsitapi nations as “Blackfoot”, but only one nation was called Siksika or Blackfoot.) This size group was large enough to defend against attack and to undertake communal hunts, but was also small enough for flexibility. Each band consisted of a respected leader, possibly his brothers and parents, and others who were not related. Since the band was defined by place of residence, rather than by kinship, a person was free to leave one band and join another, which tended to ameliorate leadership disputes. As well, should a band fall upon hard times, its members could split up and join other bands. In practice, bands were constantly forming and breaking up. The system maximized flexibility and was an ideal organization for a hunting people on the northwestern Great Plains.

Chief Aatsista-Mahkan, c.1905.
……During the summer, the people assembled for nation gatherings.
In these large assemblies, warrior societies played an important
role for the men. Membership into these societies was based on
brave acts and deeds.

……For almost half the year in the long northern winter, the Niitsitapi Chief Aatsista-Mahkan, c.1905
lived in their winter camps along a wooded river valley. They were
located perhaps a day’s march apart, not moving camp unless food for the people and horses, or firewood became depleted. Where there
was adequate wood and game resources, some bands would camp together. During this part of the year, buffalo wintered in wooded areas
where they were partially sheltered from storms and snow. They were easier prey as their movements were hampered. In spring the buffalo
moved out onto the grasslands to forage on new spring growth. The Blackfoot did not follow immediately, for fear of late blizzards. As dried
food or game became depleted, the bands would split up and begin to
hunt the buffalo.

……In midsummer, when the chokecherries ripened, the people regrouped for their major ceremony, the Okan (Sun Dance). This was the only time of year when the four nations would assemble. The gathering reinforced the bonds among the various groups and linked individuals with the nations. Communal buffalo hunts provided food for the people, as well as offerings of the bulls’ tongues (a delicacy) for the ceremonies. These ceremonies are sacred to the people. After the Okan, the people again separated to follow the buffalo. They used the buffalo hides to make their dwellings and temporary tipis.

……In the fall, the people would gradually shift to their wintering areas. The men would prepare the buffalo jumps and pounds for capturing or driving the bison for hunting. Several groups of people might join together at particularly good sites, such as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. As the buffalo were naturally driven into the area by the gradual late summer drying off of the open grasslands, the Blackfoot would carry out great communal buffalo kills.

……Waiting and Mad, Charles Marion Russell, 1899. Painting of a Blackfoot woman.
The women processed the buffalo, preparing dried meat, and combining it for nutrition and flavor with dried fruits into pemmican, to last them through winter and other times when hunting was poor. At the end of the fall, the Blackfoot would move to their winter camps. The women worked the buffalo and other game skins for clothing, as well as to reinforce their dwellings; other elements were used to make warm fur robes, leggings, cords and other needed items. Animal sinews were used to tie arrow points and lances to throwing sticks, or for bridles for horses.

……The Niitsitapi maintained this traditional way of life based on hunting bison, until the near extirpation of the bison by 1881 forced them to adapt their ways of life in response to the effects of the European settlers and their descendants. In the United States, they were restricted to land assigned in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 and were later given a distinct reservation in the Sweetgrass Hills Treaty of 1887. In 1877, the Canadian Niitsitapi signed Treaty 7 and settled on reserves in southern Alberta.

……This began a period of great struggle and economic hardship; the Niitsitapi had to try to adapt to a completely new way of life. They suffered a high rate of fatalities when exposed to Eurasian diseases, for which they had no natural immunity.

……Eventually, they established a viable economy based on farming, ranching, and light industry. Their population has increased to about 16,000 in Canada and 15,000 in the U.S. today. With their new economic stability, the Niitsitapi have been free to adapt their culture and traditions to their new circumstances, renewing their connection to their ancient roots.

Blackfoot teepees, Glacier National Park, 1933
……The Niitsitapi, also known as the Blackfoot Indians, reside in the Great Plains of Montana and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Only one of the Niitsitapi tribes are called Blackfoot or Siksika. The name is said to have come from the color of the peoples’ moccasins, made of leather. They had typically dyed or painted the soles of their moccasins black. One legendary story claimed that the Siksika walked through ashes of prairie fires, which in turn colored the bottoms of their moccasins black.

Importance and uses of buffalo

Bison Hunters

Bison hunters with wolf skin disguises.
……Depiction of Bison being driven over a “buffalo jump”.
While the Niitsitapi were in the Great Plains, they came to depend as their main source of food on the American bison (buffalo), which is the largest mammal in North America,
standing about 6 1⁄2 feet tall and weighing up to 2,000 pounds.
Before the introduction of horses, the Niitsitapi had to devise ways to get close to buffalo unnoticed so they could get in range for a good shot. The first and most common way for them to hunt the buffalo was using the buffalo jump. The hunters would round up the buffalo into V-shaped pens and drive them over a cliff (they hunted pronghorn antelopes in the same way). After the buffalo went over the cliff, the Indians would go to the bottom and take as much meat as they needed and could carry back to camp. They also used camouflage for hunting. The hunters would take buffalo skins from previous hunting trips and drape them over their bodies to blend in and mask their scent. By subtle moves, the hunters could get close to the herd. When close enough, the hunters would attack with arrows, or use lances and spears to finish off wounded animals.


Blackfoot jump by Alfred_Jacob_Miller_-_Hunting_Buffalo

……The people used virtually all parts of the body and skin. The women prepared the meat for food: by boiling, roasting and drying for jerky. This processed it to last a long time without spoiling, and they depended on bison meat to get through the winters. The winters were long, harsh, and cold due to the lack of trees in the Plains, so the people stockpiled the meat when they had the chance. The hunters often ate the bison heart minutes after the kill, as part of their hunting ritual. The women tanned and prepared the skins to cover the tepees. These were made of log poles, with the skins draped over it. The tepee remained warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and was a great shield against the wind.

……With further preparation by tanning and softening, the women made special clothing from the skins: robes and moccasins. They rendered bison fat to make soap. Both men and women made utensils, sewing needles and tools from the bones, using tendon for fastening and binding. The stomach and bladder were cleaned and prepared for use as containers for storing liquids. Dried bison dung was fuel for the fires. The Niitsitapi considered the animal sacred, integral to their lives.


After Signing Treaty 7
……With the signing of Treaty No. Seven in 1877 and the demise of the buffalo shortly thereafter, the Blackfoot settled on reserves in southern Alberta. This period was marked by a heroic struggle to adapt to a new way of life. Despite declines due to disease and the economic hardships populations increased since World War 11 to about 12,000 people. Hand in hand with an increased economic diversity based on farming, ranching, and light industry came a revitalization of Plains Indian culture and traditions.