January 30, 2024 | Allison Robertson

Blackfoot Nation: The Most Aggressive Tribe in North America


Blackfoot Nation

The Blackfoot tribe was once a nomadic Indigenous group that thrived off following bison herds as their simple, yet substantial, way of life. But now, they struggle to preserve what is left of their traditional ways.

Known as one of the strongest and most-aggressive tribes in North America, they earned their reputation as they tirelessly fought for rights to their land.

From intriguing cultural traditions to indescribable massacres, find out who the Blackfoot people are and why they have to fight so hard for their land—even today.

Blackfoot nation split image

Blackfoot Nation

The Blackfoot Nation, officially named the Blackfoot Tribe of the Blackfoot Indian Reservation of Montana, is a recognized tribe of Siksikaitsitapi people with an Indian reservation in Montana.

Six Blackfeet ChiefsPaul Kane, Wikimedia Commons

Location

The Blackfoot Indian Reservation is located east of Glacier National Park in Montana, and borders the Canadian province of Alberta.

The reservation is 3,000 square miles (7,800 km2)—which is twice the size of the national park and larger than the state of Delaware.

Blackfeet Indian SignMurray Foubister, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Climate

The main tribal territories sustained hot summers and cold winters.

Chief Mountain at Blackfoot territoryAstronautilus, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

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Tribes

The Blackfoot Nation is made up of four tribes, including three First Nation tribes in Canada, and one Native American tribe in Montana.

Blackfoot Elders opening the traditional Indian VillageJeff Whyte, Shutterstock

Tribal Bands

Tribal members now living on the Blackfoot Reservation are descendants of the Piegan band of the Blackfoot.

There are two other primary bands—the Bloods and the Northern Blackfoot—that reside on the Canadian side.

Three Chiefs PieganEdward S. Curtis, Wikimedia Commons

Lifestyle

The Blackfoot people lived a nomadic lifestyle, following large bison herds.

They relied almost entirely on bison for the livelihood, using the animal for its meat, and its droppings for fuel. They used bison bones for tools, and its hides for clothing and shelter.

Hunting buffaloAlfred Jacob Miller, Wikimedia Commons

Shelter

The Blackfoot people lived in teepee shelters made of wooden poles and animal hides. They were built in a manner that was easy to pack up and move.

They used buffalo hides for their beds and blankets.

Blackfoot TipisArthur Rafton-Canning, Wikimedia Commons

Shelter: Winter

In the winter, they added additional coverings and insulation to their teepees, made of grass, sticks and other materials found in the forested areas.

A small firepit was built in the center of the teepee, with a hole at the top to let out the smoke.

Winnipeg Jack, BlackfootS. J. Thompson, Wikimedia Commons

Typical Clothing

All of their clothing was made from skins of animals, primarily bison. The skins were sewn together using thread made from the sinews of deer.

Women often wore dress-style pieces that went down to their ankles. While men and boys typically wore a simple breech cloth.

In cold weather they wrapped themselves in tanned buffalo skin.

Scalp Dance, Blackfoot IndiansBritish Library, Wikimedia Commons

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Traditional Clothing

During ceremonies and rituals, Blackfoot men wore fringed buckskin tunics that were decorated with beads and furs.

The war chiefs wore headdresses with feathers that leaned downwards.

Blackfeet NationDoro Guzenda, Shutterstock

Moccasins

Blackfoot men were known to wear moccasins with beaded soles. These were usually set aside for ceremonies. People sitting across from them could admire the beaded soles.

Moccasins with special beaded designs were referred to as burial moccasins.

Blackfoot and Cree moccasinsThomas Quine, Flickr

Language

The Blackfoot language is called Siksiká –an Algonquian language that is traditionally spoken by Indigenous North Americans.

Dialects can change slightly between groups.

William Crooks And Blackfoot TribeGreat Northern Railway, Wikimedia Commons

Food

Their main food source was bison, but they hunted other animals as needed, such as deer, elk and rabbits.

It is said that the men could eat up to five pounds of meat in one day.

The women gathered berries and roots, and during winter months they mixed meat, berries and fat to make pemmican.

Blackfoot peopleUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Marriage

Most marriages within the Blackfoot community were monogamous, but polygyny was practiced and preferred by the wealthier men.

Marital and relationships had rigid rules, including: mother-in-law avoidance, age-grading, and the use of formal speech with elders.

Blackfoot Tribe danceBritish Library, Wikimedia Commons

Marriage: Consequences

Consequences in marriage were brutal.

Husbands were exceedingly jealous, and if they suspected their wife of adultery in any sense, she would be beaten, mutilated, or even slain.

Blackfoot familyUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

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Inheritance

Traditionally, men would leave their property to a relative through a verbal will. Horses were the most valuable property and were left to the man’s oldest brother.

In the past, women did not inherit much, but today they receive a more equitable share.

Blackfoot ChiefJack Long, Wikimedia Commons

Family Structure

Households were made up of large groups of related families. Given the scarcity of resources, families lived closely together to rely on each other for basic living needs.

Today, independent households only exist for those with financial security.

Blackfoot tribe dancersRonnie Chua, Shutterstock

Gender Roles

As with most traditional tribes, Men were in charge of hunting for food and protecting the camp and the women were in charge of the home.

Blackfoot Woman with braids and jewelsProvincial Archives of Alberta, Wikimedia Commons

Gender Roles: Hunting

During hunting season, the men were responsible for the hunt, and the women were tasked with moving camp to keep up, as well as collecting and processing the bison for food, clothing and shelter.

Tanning a single bison hide took 2 full days to prepare, longer during dark winters. A woman could typically tan about 25 hides in a season.

A Blackfoot man on horsebackKarl Bodmer, Wikimedia Commons

A Balance of Power

Although it may seem like women did the grunt work, there is more that meets the eye.

Women actually owned their home and were subservient to no one. It was tradition of the women to sit beside their husbands, not behind or away from them.

There was a balance of power between men and women.

Blackfoot coupleBeinecke Library, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Famous Blackfoot Woman

Women were often judged by their skills and abilities. One of the most famous Blackfoot women was Running Eagle (or Pi’tamaka), also known as “Brown Weasel Woman.”

She was born into the Piikáni Piegan Tribe of the Blackfoot Nation.

Blackfoot WomenClark Wissler, Wikimedia Commons

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Running Eagle

Running Eagle’s father was an important warrior, and he secretly taught her how to hunt and fight. She eventually became a war chief herself, and was known for her success in battle.

Today, the Pitamakan Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana is named after her.

Pitamakan Lake Looking NorthMacaddct1984, CC BY-SA 4.0 , Wikimedia Commons

Children: Socialization

Children were, and still are, viewed as individuals worthy of respect. They are expected to be quiet and respectful with adults but assertive with their peers.

Corporal punishment is considered abusive. Instead, they prefer to discipline their children through warnings, teasing, ridiculing, and fear.

Blackfoot tribe encampmentUniversity of Washington Library digital collections, Picryl

Children: Education

Girls are taught by women and boys by men. This is so that they learn the appropriate gender roles. They learn first by imitation, then by helping, and finally by instruction.

A young native Blackfoot Indian dancerRonnie Chua, Shutterstock

Family Involvement

The extended family plays a huge role in every aspect of child rearing. Grandparents are very much involved, and it is not uncommon for a child to adopted or raised by their elders.

Inside A Medicine Lodge Of The Siksika NationProvincial Archives of Alberta, Wikimedia Commons

Religious Beliefs

Traditionally, the Blackfoot tribe was animist, meaning they followed the natural spirits in animals and natural features.

They believed in a "Great Spirit" called Manitou, and the name for their supreme being is "Apistotoke" which is believed to be one in the same with the Sun (Nah-too-si).

blackfoot nationDoro Guzenda, Shutterstock

Religious Beliefs: The Afterlife

Upon their demise, a Blackfoot tribe member’s body would be placed on a platform in a tree or the tipi, or on the floor of the tipi. A portion of the land was left with the body for use in the next life.

They also feared the ghosts of the dead, and if a person passed in a tipi, that tipi was never used again.

Blackfoot Camp SceneHeritage Images, Getty Images

Illness & Medicine

Any illness was considered to be an evil spirit entering the body. The Shaman treated the person by removing the evil spirit through singing, dancing, and drumming.

Some practitioners (usually a medicine man) within the tribe would treat more serious illnesses using various plants and herbs collected during their travels.

The shamanInternet Archive Book Images, Flickr

The Medicine Man: Costume

The Blackfoot Medicine Man, also known as a Skinwalker, usually wears a grizzly bear costume made of the skins of a bear, as well as frogs, bats and snakes.

The beaks, toes and tails of birds are also attached to the costume as well as the hooves of deer and goats.

Medicine ManGeorge Catlin, Wikimedia Commons

The Medicine Man: Purpose

The Medicine Man was believed to have a spiritual connection with animals, supernatural creatures and all elements of nature. He used chants, dances and rituals to protect men from evil spirits.

He was a “healer, a prophet and a mystic” and held an important position within the Blackfoot Tribe.

Blackfoot Medicine HeaddressEdward Sheriff Curtis , Wikimedia Commons

Ceremonies: The Sun Dance

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Sun Dance had become an important ceremony. It was performed once each year during the summer.

It was a world-renewal ceremony offering prayers for the welfare of the people and for the increase of their resources.

Placing the clan poles, c. 1910, The Sun DanceRichard Throssel, Wikimedia Commons

Arts

The Blackfoot community enjoy singing and dancing, and often formed singing groups that performed at rituals and ceremonies.

Porcupine quillwork was considered a sacred craft, and some men were highly skills painters of buffalo-skin shields and tipi covers.

Blackfeet Reservation danceRichard Westlund, Shutterstock

Politics: Societies

Like many other Plains Indian cultures, the Blackfoot community had age-graded men’s societies. There were seven societies as of 1833. The first age-graded society was The Mosquito society, and the last was the Bull society.

Group Of Piegan Blackfeet Men Riding On HorsebackUniversity of Washington, Wikimedia Commons

Politics: Societies

Membership to the societies had to be purchased. Each society had its own songs, dances, and regalia. They had specific responsibilities for keeping order in the camp.

There was only one women’s society.

Blackfoot Warriors, Macleod, AlbertaBritish Library, Wikimedia Commons

Political Organization

Each group (the Bloods, the Piegan and the Northern Blackfoot) have a head chief. His main responsibilities are to call councils to discuss affairs of interest to the group as a whole.

Intragroup conflict was handled by individuals, families, or bands. There was no formal social control. People treated conflict with gossip, ridicule, and shaming.

Generosity was often encouraged and praised.

Three Blackfoot (Piegan) MenGill, De Lancey W, Wikimedia Commons

Reputation

The Blackfoot tribe was highly known for their militaristic ways.

At the height of their power in the first half of the 19th century, the Blackfoot Nation were known as one of the strongest and most-aggressive military powers on the northwestern Plains.

Blackfoot Warrior DanceUnknown Author, Wikimedia Commons

Violence

They earned their violent reputation between 1820 and 1870 when they fought off Cree, American, and Canadian encroachments on their land, and retained control of Canada’s largest Indian Reserve (the Blood Reserve, Alberta).

They were apparently very peaceful within their own Blackfoot community, though.

The annual Sun Dance ceremonyLibrary and Archives Canada, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Conflicts

Conflicts with the Blackfoot tribe often lead to raiding other tribes and seizing their horses. Given their size and warrior skill, anyone who was not part of their community feared them.

They had control over a lot of land, and protecting it was priority.

Piegan ridersEdward Sheriff Curtis, Wikimedia Commons

Horses

In the first half of the 18th century, the Blackfoot tribe got horses and firearms from European traders and peoples from other tribes.

The horses were few and far between at first, and were regarded as highly valuable. Once more horses were acquired, the tribe heavily relied on them for transport and hunting.

Horses and weaponry played an important role in defending their territory.

Six tribal leaders on horsebackCurtis, Edward S, Wikimedia Commons

Weaponry

The weapons used by the Blackfoot tribe included bows and arrows, war clubs, spears, lances and blades.

They also used shields made of buffalo hides for protection.

Group Of Siksika (Blackfeet) Men And One WomanWanamaker, Rodman, Wikimedia Commons

Trade

Trade was more common within the group, or among the three Blackfoot groups. Horses, slaves, food, tipis, mules, and ornaments were the most common trade items.

Later, trading with Europeans included bison hides and herds for whisky, firearms, clothing, food, and modern tools.

Native American Peigan Big Mouth SpringEdward S. Curtis, Wikimedia Commons

Trade: Losing Traditions

Once trading with Europeans became more common, traditional practices started to dwindle. There was no longer a need to make their own goods—clothing, cups, bowls, tools, décor.

They now had access to modern clothing and tools.

Blackfoot Native American warriorsDanaForeman, Shutterstock

Commercial Activities: Hunting

Aside from clothing, tools and goods, the introduction of commercial trade also changed the way they hunted. Deer and smaller game were now caught with snares, and fishing was done using actual hooks and nets.

Blackfoot HuntingInternet Archive Book Images, Wikimedia Commons

Commercial Activities: Farming

Today, the economy at Blackfoot Reservation, Montana, is based on ranching, farming, wage labor, welfare, and leased land income.

There is even potential for oil and natural gas production and for lumbering.

A Blackfoot TepeeAdolphus Greely, Wikimedia Commons

Poverty

A new way of life comes with a new set of problems. One of the biggest challenges being poverty.

Not all tribal members are as accepting of a new way of life, which results in the more acculturated doing better economically than the less acculturated.

Those who are more acculturated are now marginally integrated into the European economy.

Indian Chief BlackfootIPK Photography, Shutterstock

Challenges

Poverty wasn’t the only challenge the Blackfoot Nation faced.

Many times, over the years, the Blackfoot tribes had to fight for their land. In the late 19th century, their territory was encroached by European Americans and Canadians, and various groups of people were forced to surrender their lands and move to smaller Indian reserves.

Chief Many Tail, Blackfoot tribeSeattle Public Library, Wikimedia Commons

The Marias Massacre

Land disputes in the late 1800’s resulted in a massacre of nearly 200 Indigenous men, women and children carried out by the US Army.

The US government had previously promised protection, but then went back on their promise and attacked a band led by Chief Heavy Runner.

This led to public outrage and a shift toward a Peace Policy, advocated by US President Ulysses S. Grant.

Marias MassacreWilliam Henry Jackson, Wikimedia Commons

Malcolm Clarke

During this time, a notable incident occurred—the slaying of Malcolm Clarke.

Malcolm Clarke was a rancher and a fur trader who had married a Blackfoot Native woman and had four children. This union was seen as an alliance between Malcolm and the Blackfoot tribe—strengthening his trade agreement with the tribe.

Frances Densmore Recording Mountain ChiefHarris & Ewing, Wikimedia Commons

The Clarke Ranch

After conflict within the fur trading business, Clarke left the business and moved to the Rocky Mountains to build a ranch with his second-wife, a mixed-race Blackfood woman named Good Singing.

They established the Clarke Horse and Cattle Ranch.

Birdwell Clark RanchU.S. Department of Agriculture, Picryl

The Slaying of Malcolm Clarke

Owl Child, a young Piegan warrior, had blamed Clarke for losing his horses so he stole Clarke’s horses as revenge.

Clarke and his son reacted by beating Owl Child in front of a group of his own people. Clarke had then forced himself on Owl Child’s wife, who happened to be his first wife’s cousin. This act resulted in a pregnancy.

Owl Child Blackfeet IndianGill, De Lancey W., Wikimedia Commons

The Slaying of Malcolm Clarke

Given the way the child was conceived, the newborn lost its life at the hands of tribal elders.

The Piegan warriors retaliated once more, and Owl Child attacked Clarke with an axe, ending his life. Clarke’s oldest child was shot, but survived. The rest of his family remained unharmed.

This started more problems for the Blackfoot Nation.

War Chiefs Of Blackfeet IndiansJohann Hürlimann, Wikimedia Commons

The US Response to Clarke’s Slaying

In response to the brutal demise of Malcolm Clarke, the US Army demanded that the Blackfoot Confederacy execute Owl Child and dliver his body to them in two weeks.

Owl Child fled North to a different Blackfoot band led by Mountain Chief.

Blackfoot chefJack Long, Wikimedia Commons

The US Attack on Blackfoot Nation

Once the two-week deadline had passed, the US Army set out for revenge on Mountain Chief and his band, for harboring the fugitive, Owl Child.

They set out to completely end the entire band of Blackfoot people led by Mountain Chief.

Mountain Chief and SonsAmmon Beckstrom, Flickr

The Camp

Unfortunately, at the time of the attack, the majority of the people within the camp were women, children and elderly.

This was because small-pox had recently made its debut, and many members were isolated away from camp. Many of the men were away on a hunt.

Shortly before the attack, the US official was told that the camp belonged to a different band—a peaceful one.

Bear River MassacreW. H. Jackson, Wikimedia Commons

The Attack

The US official didn’t care and told them to end them all, regardless of which band of Blackfoot the belonged to.

Moments before they fired, the Chief ran toward the US officials waving a piece of paper that stated their safety from the Indian Bureau.

He was instantly shot several times.

Blackfoot peopleF. A. Rinehart, Wikimedia Commons

The Kicker

The unfortunate part about the Chief’s demise was that he was actually shot by another Blackfoot member who was being used by the US Army to distinguish between good and bad bands.

This member was married to Mountain Chief’s sister, and wanted to divert attention from his brother-in-law’s camp.

Treaty of Fort LaramieNational Archives , Wikimedia Commons

The Massacre

The attack became a full on massacre when the troops charged the camp, slicing open tipis with blades and firing at unarmed people inside.

They went from lodge to lodge, ending the lives of every person they saw.

Union Calvary General Philip SheridanAlex Gardner, Wikimedia Commons

Survivors: Spear Woman

Spear Woman, was only six years old at the time. She survived the massacre by hiding behind a headboard of a large bed.

She waited out the massacre, watching and listening to everyone she knew being brutally slain.

Blackfoot womanDoro Guzenda, Shutterstock

Survivors: Long Time Calf

Another young girl, only eight years old managed to grab her infant niece and run. She escaped through the freezing waters of the Marias River, carrying the crying infant the entire time.

Another young girl saw the troops shortly before they started firing, and she turned around and ran into the forest to hide.

Marias RiverU.S. Department of the Interior, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Total Destruction

A young man had gone to fetch horses and was taken prisoner. In the end he was shot, but survived.

He recounts watching the entire massacre take place, including seeing his own mother and sisters being brutally attacked.

After the troops had left, he counted the bodies of 15 men, 90 women, and 50 children.

The entire camp was set on fire, and their goods had been taken.

Piikuni (Blackfeet) elk-skin robe with painted decoration by Mountain ChiefAnagoria, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

The Aftermath

Mountain Chief learned of the raid and immediately escaped with his band over the border into Canada.

The US troops continued to end the lives of any Blackfoot member they had come into contact with during this raid. The total casualties were 217—only one was an American cavalryman.

Chief Mountain, BlackfeetBPL, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

Retaliation

The conflict between settlers and the Blackfoot declined after the massacre.

The Blackfoot Nation, weakened by smallpox, did not have the numbers to retaliate and feared the Americans as a brutal people.

They had given up.

Blackfeet Women At White HouseNational Photo Company Collection, Wikimedia Commons

Impact on Blackfoot Nation

At the time of the massacre, the Blackfoot Reservation stretched across most northern Montana.

But in 1872 US orders were given to reduce the size of the reservation, and then in 1887, the Blackfoot Nation were stripped of an additional 17 million acres.

Blackfoot Crossing Alberta CanadaThank you for visiting my page, CC BY 2.0,  Wikimedia Commons

The Loss of Reserves

As they gradually lost their territory, they also lost access to a large number of bison, causing them to starve. During the winter of 1883-1884 over 500 Blackfoot people passed.

They were desperately losing the battle.

Blackfoot Council GroupGustav Sohon, Wikimedia Commons

The Sweet Grass Hills Treaty

Sadly, 1888, the proud Blackfoot community had no other choice but to sign the “Sweet Grass Hills Treaty”—an agreement that gave the Blackfoot their present reservation, plus lands in the eastern side of present-day Glacier National Park.

Blackfeet campRoland W. Reed, Wikimedia Commons

Glacier National Park

Once again, in 1896, the US government went back on their word and forced the tribe to leave the mountain lands so they could establish Glacier National Park, for a whopping $1.5 million.

The Blackfoot people claim the land was only leased to them for a total of 99 years.

Glacier National Park, MontanaDavid Broad, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Today’s Reserve

Today, the Blackfoot reserve is 1,525,712 acres, and home to about 10,500 tribal members. A large portion—around 40%—is owned by non-Indians.

Most of the land is held in trust for enrolled tribal members. Some land is held directly by the tribe, while other parts of the land are taxable which can be privately owned by the tribe members and non-tribe members.

The tribe leases some of its communal land for homes, farms, grazing, and commercial uses.

Blackfoot Crossing Alberta CanadaThank you for visiting my page, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons