The Blackfoot Indians, originally known as Niitsitapi, were erroneously referred to as Blackfoot. Although the tribe resides in the Great Plains of Montana and Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, anthropologists believe that they originated from the upper region of North America, and progressively made their way over to the Plains, where they became adapted to the land.
The name Blackfoot is said to have come from the color of the moccasins they wore. The color is said to have come from dying the bottoms black. There is also the guess that they traveled through the ashes from prairie fires which turned their moccasins black.
The Indians relied heavily on the buffalo for food. Buffalo meat lasted a long time and could be dried and stored for the winter. This was important to the Blackfoot because the winters were long and harsh on the Plains. The buffalo also provided skins for clothing, such as robes and moccasins. The skin was also used as teepee coverings, which kept their shelters warm during the cold winter months. The soap that the Blackfoot used was made from buffalo fat.
The first known encounter with whites occurred in 1806, during the Lewis and Clark expedition. As the famous explorers traveled through the Missouri River area, they were confronted by Blackfoot warriors. It is reported that the Blackfoot attempted to steal guns from Lewis’ men because they (the Blackfoot) knew the U.S. government traded guns with the Shoshone and the Nez Perce, tribes who were enemies of the Blackfoot. During the struggle, two warriors were killed. No more was written about this occurrence.
For the next ten years the Blackfeet traded with British traders in Canada. They traded animal skins for guns and bullets. The constant contact with European people caused an outbreak of disease among the Blackfoot, mostly cholera and smallpox. The following is a case in point:
…In one instance in 1837, American Fur Company steamboat, the St. Peter’s, was headed to Fort Union and contracted smallpox on the way. They continued to send a smaller vessel with supplies farther up the river to posts among the [Niitsitapi [Backfoot]. The Niitsitapi contracted the disease and eventually 6000 died, marking an end to their dominant reign over the Plains. Had Hudson’s Bay Company employed English Doctor Edward Jenner’s forty one year old technique of injecting cowpox to make people immune to smallpox, they could have prevented the epidemic they created… –Wikipedia
During the mid 1800s, in addition to the smallpox outbreak, the Blackfoot found that their food supply was running out. This was because white hunters were hunting the buffalo (the main food source for the tribe) until the animals were completely gone. In 1855, Blackfoot leader Chief Lame Bull made a peace treaty with the U.S. government. The Lame Bull Treaty promised the Blackfoot twenty thousand dollars in goods and services in exchange for their moving to a reservation. It was a dismal time for the Blackfoot. The following is a description of that period:
“…In 1860, very few buffalo were left, and they became completely dependent on the supplies from the treaty, which were spoiled most the time because it took so long for them to receive it. Hungry and desperate Blackfoot raided white settlements for food and supplies and causing a stir with the United States Army. In January of 1870, the army had attacked, out of revenge, a peaceful Niitsitapi village of 219 people, and when they got through, only 46 remained. Finally, the winter of 1883-1884 became known as “Starvation Winter” because no government supplies came in, there was no buffalo, and 600 more Niitsitapi died of hunger… ”
The U.S. government passed laws that produced negative effects on the Blackfoot. Laws such as changing the reservation border, which provided the Indians with less land, that they were never compensated for, and caused groups of the tribe to move to Canada. Only one group remained on the reservation in Montana. In 1898, the government dismantled tribal governments and outlawed the practice of traditional religions. Blackfoot children were forced to leave their parents and attend boarding schools, where they were forbidden to speak their native language. The children were also forced to wear non-Indian clothing as a means of assimilating them into the white American society.
In 1934 the Indian Reservation Act supported the rights of tribes. The act allowed tribes to choose their own government, and to openly practice their cultural traditions.
Tribalpedia’s Questions for Comprehension and Discussion
1. Where did the Blackfoot originate from?
2. Name three things that the Indians used the buffalo for?
3. Were the explorers Lewis and Clark looking for the Blackfoot Indians?
4. Why did the Blackfoot warriors attempt to take guns away from the men in the expedition?
5. Why didn’t the men from the Hudson Bay Company give the medicine to the Blackfoot?
6. Describe what occurred during the period known as Starvation Winter.
7. Explain why the Blackfoot children were taken away from their families. Why weren’t the adults taken?
8. Provide reasons for the high unemployment rate on the Blackfoot Reservation today.
In 1935 the Blackfoot Nation of Montana began their Tribal business Council and their own Constitution, under their own government. Today many Blackfoot live on reserves in Canada, and on the Montana reservation. The Blackfoot sold a large portion of their land to the U.S. thinking there was gold or copper mines, but there was no evidence of either. The land they sold became officially known as Glacier National Park.
There is a high rate of unemployment on the Blackfoot Reservation. Today, the main source of income is farming, but there aren’t enough jobs. Many Indians leave the reservation to seek work in other towns and cities. There are Blackfoot owned businesses such as the Blackfoot Writing company, and a group that makes clothing and moccasins. In 1974, they opened the Blackfoot Community College in Browning, Montana. As of 1979, the Montana state government requires all public school teachers to have background in American Indian studies.
Blackfoot Myth:The Berries in the Stream
One day Coyote was walking along and he was very hungry. He came to the edge of a stream and there in the water he saw some bright red berries. He dived into the water, right to the bottom of the stream, but could find no berries.
As soon as he got up on the bank he waited for the water to clear. There were the berries again, right where he’d seen them the first time. He dived in again. He searched the bottom very carefully with his hands but still couldn’t find any berries! Now Coyote was angry.
Another time he tried, but no luck. Finally he thought he had a way to get them. He tied rocks to his legs to make himself heavy so he would stay down longer. He jumped in and searched over the whole bottom but still could find no berries.
He almost drowned before he could pull himself out on the bank where he fell down exhausted. Right there above him he saw the berries! They had only been reflections in the water! Coyote got very angry. He picked up a stick and began to beat the berry bush.
Blackfeet Flag Wikimedia Commons