The Blackfeet Nation is the name given to a confederacy or group of tribes currently residing in northern Montana and Canada.
Other names for the Blackfeet Nation include the Blackfoot Confederacy and Siksikaitsitapi. The Blackfeet people themselves go by the name of Niitsitapi (the real people) or Siksikaitsitapi (Blackfoot-speaking real people.
If you have yet to pick up on it from their name, the Blackfeet Nation was once powerful, proud, and numerous people that lived across vast swaths of Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. Even today, the Blackfeet Nation has more descendants than most other Native American and First Nation groups.
You’ve come to the right place if you’re curious and want to know more about the Blackfeet Nation. This article will deeply dive into their history, culture, and where they are today.
Blackfeet Nation Origins
It’s believed that the Blackfeet Nation originally came to North America from Asia thousands of years ago. They came to North America as one people, but as they crossed the Great Planes in Canada, small groups broke off from one another and set up villages rather than continue the journey.
The tribes that continued on ended up settling in the Great Lakes region of what is now Canada and the US. However, warfare with their archenemies, the Cree Indians, drove the Blackfoot people in the Great Lakes region back out west.
There, they joined up with their former tribe members and formed four different tribes that make up the Blackfeet Nation. These tribes include the following.
- South Piegan
- North Piegan
- North Blackfoot
Together, these tribes formed the Blackfeet Nation or Confederacy and settled throughout the Rocky Mountains in Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.
Food and Daily Life
The Blackfoot people relied heavily on hunting and gathering, specifically big game animals like deer, wolves, and moose. However, no animal was more important to the Blackfeet than the bison.
They built their entire culture and lifestyle around following bison herds and tracking and hunting them. Keep in mind that this was long before the era of guns and explosives, so the Blackfeet did all their hunting with bows, arrows, and lances.
For most of their existence, the Blackfeet also didn’t have access to horses, so they did all their hunting and traveling on foot.
Their heavy reliance on bison for food and as part of their culture impacted the Blackfeet lifestyle.
Generally, the Blackfeet lived in traditional tipis and tents so they could travel with bison herds according to their migratory patterns. By living in tipis rather than longhouses or cabins, they could easily tear down and set up camp immediately.
In addition to bison and other big game animals, the Blackfeet were also gifted gatherers and farmers. Aside from the meat, their diet consisted of nuts, vegetables, fruits, and maize. Unlike other Native American and First Nation groups, most members of the Blackfeet Nation didn’t eat fish, as they viewed them as unclean.
During Winter Months
While the Blackfeet liked to stay mobile and nomadic during the summer months to keep up with bison, they settled down during the winter. In most tribes, bands of 100 to 200 people would branch off from the others and construct lodges to live in during the winter.
These lodges were usually located near a patch of woodland, and every band ensured it had enough warriors to protect the rest of the members from attack. Then, when spring rolled around, the Blackfeet bands would regroup with the rest of the tribe and continue traveling where the bison took them.
Blackfeet Society and Culture
Along with their diet, the Blackfeet’s culture and society revolved heavily around the bison hunt. Entire tribes would gather together for bison hunts, and it was as much a social event as a hunt for food. Following the hunt, the Blackfeet would hold dances, festivals, and feasts to honor the bison and celebrate their kills.
Their annual mid-summer celebration, known as the Sun Dance, was the highlight of their bison celebrations. Multiple communities would gather together as one to celebrate the bison during the Sun Dance, and it was a core tradition for all Blackfeet people.
Language and Government
The Blackfeet Nation is unique from other Native American and First Nation tribes in many ways, but none more so than in the way they co-existed.
Each tribe spoke a dialect or version of an Algonquian language, but not all of them could understand one another. Despite this, however, Blackfeet from different tribes were allowed to co-mingle and intermarry.
They were even allowed to come and go freely from one tribe’s land to another. However, while each tribe abided peacefully with the others, they also had their own form of government.
Every tribe also had its own war chief and civil leader, which the people chose based on their reputation and qualifications. The Blackfeet Nation, as a whole, didn’t have a dominant leader or governor.
Like other Native American tribes, the Blackfeet Nation was heavily religious, spiritual, and superstitious. One example is that the Blackfeet refused to use canoes because they believed there were evil spirits in lakes and rivers.
Regarding their religion and what they believe, the Blackfeet were and are heavily invested in nature. They believed that they were connected to the earth and the animals that inhabited it. They also believed that they could harness the power of animals through dreams, where an animal would willingly grant power to the dreamer.
While versions differ from tribe to tribe, most Blackfeet believe that the world was created by the Creator, also known as Old Man or N’api.
The Creator took the form of light, becoming the beginning and end of day and night. Similar to other Native American beliefs, the Creator doesn’t have a human body but instead lives in everything on the earth, from the people to the animals.
It was because of this belief that the Blackfeet held bison in such high regard. They believed that, although they had to kill bison for food and clothing, they were connected to them.
Therefore, they made every effort to honor the bison, in both life and death, and never killed animals for pleasure, but only out of necessity.
The Blackfeet Warriors
One of the reasons that the Blackfeet Nation was able to grow and prosper as much as it did was because of their warriors. Blackfeet warriors were feared and revered because they were fearless and skilled in battle. The traditional warrior fought with a bow, arrow, and lance.
Another reason that people so feared the Blackfeet Nation was because of their treaties with one another.
Each of the Blackfoot tribes would help each other in times of war, and they were also able to make treaties with other Algonquian-speaking groups. Their most notable enemies were the Crow, Cheyenne, Shoshone, Flathead, and Lakota tribes.
Post European Contact
For the most part, life was looking good for the Blackfeet Nation up until the mid-1700s. That’s when they first made contact with European settlers and explorers and, most notably, the Hudson Bay Company.
The HBC hugely influenced the Blackfeet Tribe and involved them in fur trading. They also introduced the Blackfeet people to firearms and horses, which the Blackfeet quickly put to use on hunts, raids, and in warfare.
Unfortunately, the Europeans also brought disease and famine with them. Native Americans didn’t have immunizations or medicine to treat measles, mumps, and smallpox, which quickly decimated them. Nearly half of the Blackfeet Nation lost their lives between 1750 and 1900 due to these diseases.
Additionally, European settlement meant that there were suddenly tens of thousands of people hunting bison in addition to the various Blackfoot tribes. As a result, bison nearly went extinct in North America, and more than 5,000 Blackfoot Indians starved.
The Marias Massacre
One of the most infamous incidences in US and Blackfeet history happened in January of 1870. In the years leading up to this, Blackfeet warriors consistently fought with trappers, traders, and the US military due to aggressive westward expansion.
A group of US cavalrymen, led by an unnamed military officer, were in pursuit of one of these Blackfeet raiding parties. Unfortunately, they ran into a tribe of peaceful Piegan villagers, not in any way associated with the hostile Blackfeet. Chief Heavy Runner, the leader of the peaceful village, tried to present safe conduct papers to the cavalry.
Unfortunately, the military did not heed these papers and slaughtered men, women, and children in the mostly unprotected village. When all was said and done, 170 and 220 unarmed Pieagan villagers lost their lives. This event went on to be known as the Marias Massacre.
The Blackfeet Nation Today
Despite facing near extinction due to disease, famine, and war in the late 19th century, the Blackfeet nation has recovered and prospered in the modern era.
There are more than 25,000 living members of the Blackfeet Nation, most of which live on reservations in northern Montana and Alberta, Canada, making the Blackfeet Nation one of the largest First Nation and Native American groups today.
Despite adversity and persecution from religious groups, the Blackfeet Nation has retained much of its culture, religion, and society.