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Blackfoot Tribe: History, Facts & Beliefs

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  • 0:01 The Blackfoot Tribe
  • 0:45 Blackfoot Society & Culture
  • 2:38 Blackfoot Religion &…
  • 4:24 Contact With the Europeans
  • 7:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Crystal Daining

Crystal has a master's degree in history and loves teaching anyone ages 5-99.

The Blackfoot tribe was a nomadic Native American group that lived on the Great Plains. Learn about their society and how contact with Europeans changed their culture forever in this lesson.

The Blackfoot Tribe

The Blackfoot tribe is a group of northern Great Plains Native Americans made up of three sub-tribes that spoke the Algonquian language. The three sub-tribes are the Siksika, the Kainah, and the Piegan. These three sub-tribes intermarried, shared cultural events, and fought the same enemies, but they were also independent of each other and were not united under a tribal chief.

The reason for the tribe's name is disputed to this day. One story is that they were called 'Blackfoot' because they blackened their moccasins with ash. Other scholars argue that it is because the tribe wore black moccasins in order to distinguish themselves from other tribes. Yet other scholars say that 'Blackfoot' is a name for war societies among tribes on the Great Plains.

Blackfoot Society and Culture

Since the Blackfeet speak Algonquian, an eastern native language, scholars believe that the Blackfeet migrated to the Great Plains from the eastern woodlands many centuries before Europeans came to America. This made them one of the oldest Great Plains tribes. Their culture revolved mainly around warfare, bison (buffalo), and later, the horse.

Like most Plains tribes, the Blackfeet were nomadic and lived in buffalo-skin tipis that could be moved easily. They had no interest in arts, such as pottery or basketry, nor in agriculture. Instead, they depended almost entirely on the buffalo and moved wherever the buffalo went. They used buffalo for their food, clothing, shelter, and equipment.

Buffalo meat was either dried for winter or used fresh. The Blackfeet also occasionally hunted other game, such as deer, moose, and elk. The women foraged the Plains and supplemented their diet with whatever berries, roots, and plants they could find. When the women were not foraging, they spent most of their time tanning the hides, a difficult and time-consuming task. The women also constructed and erected the tipis and did the cooking.

Marriage was an important occasion for the Blackfoot tribe. Marriages were carefully arranged by friends and family, sometimes when the woman was still a child. Before a wedding, a groom had to show that he was a powerful warrior and a skilled hunter. When he finally proved his worth, both families exchanged gifts and the marriage could take place. The bride and groom then either moved into their own tipi or moved in with the groom's family.

Before the 19th century, the Blackfeet were recognized as one of the most aggressive and strongest military powers in the Great Plains. Until 1806, they prevented European and American traders and explorers from entering their territories, and they also successfully warred against other Indian tribes.

Blackfoot Religion and Ceremonies

The Blackfoot religion was very complex. Their main god was the sun, but they also believed in a supernatural being named Napi, which means 'Old Man.' The Blackfoot tribe also had complicated beliefs about supernatural powers in connection with nature. For example, they believed that animals had their own powers, and that these animals could bestow these supernatural powers on a person in a dream.

The dreams often revolved around the animal giving the dreamer a list of objects, songs, and rituals that the dreamer had to gather in order to use the power. When the dreamer awoke, he or she would gather those items together and it would be called a medicine bundle. Medicine bundles were often traded between the tribes, each with specific powers connected to it from specific animals, and each bundle was revered and used often during ceremonies.

The Blackfoot tribe believes that rivers and lakes hold special powers due to the 'Underwater People,' called the Suyitapis. To this day, they avoid eating fish or using canoes.

Ceremonies were very important to the Blackfeet, and this was one of the few times when all three sub-tribes would gather together. The ceremonies usually revolved around a dance, and these dances were both social and religious functions.

Their greatest tribal ceremony was the annual four-day Sun Dance, a celebration of the sun. It was initiated by a 'vow woman,' a virtuous woman from one of the sub-tribes who pledged to take on the responsibilities of sponsoring the dance. She would prepare the food, learn complex prayers, and wear sacred clothes. The dancers would fast the entire time, some of them voluntarily piercing their own chests to prove their gratitude to the sun.

Contact with the Europeans

Until the 18th century, the Blackfeet were mainly undisturbed by Europeans. By the late 18th century, European traders and trappers had begun exploring westward. They established trading relationships with the Blackfoot tribe, which greatly impacted the Blackfoot economy and society.

The Blackfoot eagerly traded for European technology, guns, and horses, and used these powerful new items to become even better hunters and warriors. The Blackfoot pushed weaker tribes off their lands, and soon their territory stretched from the northern Great Plains in Canada to southern territory on the Missouri River. However, the Europeans also brought smallpox, which devastated the Blackfoot population.

By the 19th century, white settlers began pouring into the western American lands looking for new opportunities and adventures. The Blackfoot had a reputation as an aggressive military society, and this made the settlers nervous. Due to their concerns, as well as their desire to acquire Blackfoot lands, the U.S. government was called in for protection and negation purposes.

The Blackfoot signed their first treaty with the U.S. government in 1855. It was called the 'Lame Bull Treaty', which ceded 26 million acres of traditional Blackfoot territory to the U.S. A reservation was created for them from what lands were left after the treaty. More treaties were signed in 1865 and 1868 that decreased their territory even more. During this time, the Blackfoot tribe often tried to resist the pressures of white expansion, but the U.S. Army pressured them into signing the treaties.

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