The Blackfoot country probably contained more game and in greater variety than any other part of the continent. Theirs was a land whose physical characteristics presented sharp contrasts. There were far-stretching grassy prairies, affording rich pasturage for the buffalo and the antelope; rough breaks and bad lands for the climbing mountain sheep; wooded buttes, loved by the mule deer; timbered river bottoms, where the white-tailed deer and the elk could browse and hide; narrow, swampy valleys for the moose; and snow-patched, glittering pinnacles of rock, over which the sure-footed white goat took his deliberate way. The climate varied from arid to humid; the game of the prairie, the timber, and the rocks, found places suited to their habits. Fur-bearing animals abounded. Noisy hordes of wild fowl passed north and south in their migrations, and many stopped here to breed.
The Blackfoot country is especially favored by the warm Chinook winds, which insure mild winters with but little snow; and although on the plains there is usually little rain in summer, the short prairie grasses are sweet and rich. All over this vast domain, the buffalo were found in countless herds. Elk, deer, antelope, mountain sheep, and bear without number were there. In those days, sheep were to be found on every ridge, and along the rough bad lands far from the mountains. Now, except a few in the “breaks” of the Missouri, they occur only on the highest and most inaccessible mountains, along with the white goats, which, although pre-eminently mountain animals, were in early days sometimes found far out on the prairie.
The Blackfeet were a race of meat-eaters, and, while they killed large quantities of other game, they still depended for subsistence on the buffalo. This animal provided them with almost all that they needed in the way of food, clothing, and shelter, and when they had an abundance of the buffalo they lived in comfort.
Almost every part of the beast was utilized. The skin, dressed with the hair on, protected them from the winter’s cold; freed from the hair, it was used for a summer sheet or blanket, for moccasins, leggings, shirts, and women’s dresses. The tanned cow skins made their lodges, the warmest and most comfortable portable shelters ever devised. From the rawhide, the hair having been shaved off, were made parfleches, or trunks, in which to pack small articles. The tough, thick hide of the bull’s neck, spread out and allowed to shrink smooth, made a shield for war which would stop an arrow, and turn a lance thrust or the ball from an old-fashioned, smooth-bore gun. The green hide served as a kettle, in which to boil meat. The skin of the hind leg, cut off above the pastern and again some distance above the hock, was sometimes used as a moccasin or boot, the lower opening being sewed up for the toe. A variety of small articles, such as cradles, gun covers, whips, mittens, quivers, bow cases, knife-sheaths, etc., were made from the hide. Braided strands of hide furnished them with ropes and lines. The hair was used to stuff cushions and, later, saddles, and parts of the long black flowing beard to ornament wearing apparel and implements of war, such as shields and quivers. The horns gave them spoons and ladles sometimes used as small dishes and ornamented their war bonnets. From the hoofs they made a glue, which they used in fastening the heads and feathers on their arrows, and the sinew backs on their bows. The sinews which lie along the back and on the belly were used as thread and string, and as backing for bows to give them elasticity and strength. From the ribs were made scrapers used in dressing hides, and runners for small sledges drawn by dogs; and they were employed by the children in coasting down hill on snow or ice. The shoulder-blades, lashed to a wooden handle, formed axes, hoes, and fleshers. From the cannon bones (metatarsals and metacarpals) were made scrapers for dressing hides. The skin of the tail, fitted on a stick, was used as a fly brush. These are but a few of the uses to which the product of the buffalo was put. As has been said, almost every part of the flesh was eaten.
Now it must be remembered that in early days the hunting weapons of this people consisted only of stone-pointed arrows, and with such armament the capture of game of the larger sorts must have been a matter of some uncertainty. To drive a rude stone-headed arrow through the tough hide and into the vitals of the buffalo, could not have been even under the most favorable circumstances other than a difficult matter; and although we may assume that, in those days, it was easy to steal up to within a few yards of the unsuspicious animals, we can readily conceive that many arrows must have been shot without effect, for one that brought down the game.
Certain ingenious methods were therefore devised to insure the taking of game in large numbers at one time. This was especially the case with the buffalo, which were the food and raiment of the people. One of these contrivances was called pis’kun, deep-kettle; or, since the termination of the word seems to indicate the last syllable of the word ah’-pun, blood, it is more likely deep-blood-kettle. This was a large corral, or enclosure, built out from the foot of a perpendicular cliff or bluff, and formed of natural banks, rocks, and logs or brush, anything in fact to make a close, high barrier. In some places the enclosure might be only a fence of brush, but even here the buffalo did not break it down, for they did not push against it, but ran round and round within, looking for a clear space through which they might pass. From the top of the bluff, directly over the pis’kun, two long lines of rock piles and brush extended far out on the prairie, ever diverging from each other like the arms of the letter V, the opening over the pis’kun being at the angle.
In the evening of the day preceding a drive of buffalo into the pis’kun a medicine man, usually one who was the possessor of a buffalo rock, In-is’-kim, unrolled his pipe, and prayed to the Sun for success. Next morning the man who was to call the buffalo arose very early, and told his wives that they must not leave the lodge, nor even look out, until he returned; that they should keep burning sweet grass, and should pray to the Sun for his success and safety. Without eating or drinking, he then went up on the prairie, and the people followed him, and concealed themselves behind the rocks and bushes which formed the V, or chute. The medicine man put on a head-dress made of the head of a buffalo, and a robe, and then started out to approach the animals. When he had come near to the herd, he moved about until he had attracted the attention of some of the buffalo, and when they began to look at him, he walked slowly away toward the entrance of the chute. Usually the buffalo followed, and, as they did so, he gradually increased his pace. The buffalo followed more rapidly, and the man continually went a little faster. Finally, when the buffalo were fairly within the chute, the people began to rise up from behind the rock piles which the herd had passed, and to shout and wave their robes. This frightened the hinder-most buffalo, which pushed forward on the others, and before long the whole herd was running at headlong speed toward the precipice, the rock piles directing them to the point over the enclosure. When they reached it, most of the animals were pushed over, and usually even the last of the band plunged blindly down into the pis’kun. Many were killed outright by the fall; others had broken legs or broken backs, while some perhaps were uninjured. The barricade, however, prevented them from escaping, and all were soon killed by the arrows of the Indians.
It is said that there was another way to get the buffalo into this chute. A man who was very skilful in arousing the buffalo’s curiosity, might go out without disguise, and by wheeling round and round in front of the herd, appearing and disappearing, would induce them to move toward him, when it was easy to entice them into the chute. Once there, the people began to rise up behind them, shouting and waving their robes, and the now terror-stricken animals rushed ahead, and were driven over the cliff into the pis’kun, where all were quickly killed and divided among the people, the chiefs and the leading warrior getting the best and fattest animals.
The pis’kun was in use up to within thirty-five or forty years, and many men are still living who have seen the buffalo driven over the cliff. Such men even now speak with enthusiasm of the plenty that successful drives brought to the camp.
The pis’kuns of the Sik’-si-kau, or Blackfoot tribe, differed in some particulars from those constructed by the Bloods and the Piegans, who live further to the south, nearer to the mountains, and so in a country which is rougher and more broken. The Sik’-si-kau built their pis’kuns like the Crees, on level ground and usually near timber. A large pen or corral was made of heavy logs about eight feet high. On the side where the wings of the chute come together, a bridge, or causeway, was built, sloping gently up from the prairie to the walls of the corral, which at this point were cut away to the height of the bridge above the ground, here about four feet, so that the animals running up the causeway could jump down into the corral. The causeway was fenced in on either side by logs, so that the buffalo could not run off it. After they had been lured within the wings of the chute, they were driven toward the corral as already described. When they reached the end of the, they ran up the bridge, and jumped down into the pen. When it was full, or all had entered, Indians, who had lain hidden near by, ran upon the bridge, and placed poles, prepared beforehand, across the opening through which the animals had entered, and over these poles hung robes, so as entirely to close the opening. The buffalo will not dash themselves against a barrier which is entirely closed, even though it be very frail; but if they can see through it to the outside, they will rush against it, and their great weight and strength make it easy for them to break down any but a heavy wall. Mr. Hugh Monroe tells me that he has seen a pis’kun built of willow brush; and the Cheyennes have stated to me that their buffalo corrals were often built of brush. Sometimes, if the walls of the pis’kun were not high, the buffalo tried to jump or climb over them, and, in doing this, might break them down, and some or all escape. As soon, however, as the animals were in the corral, the people women and children included ran up and showed themselves all about the walls, and by their cries kept the buffalo from pressing against the walls. The animals ran round and round within, and the men standing on the walls shot them down as they passed. The butchering was done in the pis’kun, and after this was over, the place was cleaned out, the heads, feet, and least perishable offal being removed. Wolves, foxes, badgers, and other small carnivorous animals visited the pis’kun, and soon made away with the entrails.
In winter, when the snow was on the ground, and the buffalo were to be led to the pis’kun, the following method was adopted to keep the herd traveling in the desired direction after they had got between the wings of the chute. A line of buffalo chips, each one supported on three small sticks, so that it stood a few inches above the snow, was carried from the mouth of the pis’kun straight out toward the prairie. The chips were about thirty feet apart, and ran midway between the wings of the chute. This line was, of course, conspicuous against the white snow, and when the buffalo were running down the chute, they always followed it, never turning to the right nor to the left. In the latter days of the pis’kun, the man who led the buffalo was often mounted on a white horse.
Often, when they drove the buffalo over a high vertical cliff, no corral was built beneath. Most of those driven over were killed or disabled by the fall, and only a few got away. The pis’kuns, as a rule, were built under low-cut bluffs, and sometimes the buffalo were driven in by moonlight.
In connection with the subject of leading or decoying the buffalo, another matter not generally known may be mentioned. Sometimes, as a matter of convenience, a herd was brought from a long distance close up to the camp. This was usually done in the spring of the year, when the horses were thin in flesh and not in condition to stand a long chase. I myself have never seen this; but my friend, William Jackson, was once present at such a drive by the Red River half-breeds, and has described to me the way in which it was done.
The camp was on Box Elder Creek near the Musselshell River. It was in the spring of 1881, and the horses were all pretty well run down and thin, so that their owners wished to spare them as much as possible. The buffalo were seven or eight miles distant, and two men were sent out to bring them to the camp. Other men, leading fresh horses, went with them, and hid themselves among the hills at different points along the course that the buffalo were expected to take, at intervals of a mile and a half. They watched the herd, and were on hand to supply the fresh horses to the men who were bringing it.
The buffalo were on a wide flat, and the men rode over the hill and advanced toward the herd at a walk. At length the buffalo noticed them, and began to huddle up together and to walk about, and at length to walk away. Then the men turned, and rode along parallel to the buffalo’s course, and at the same gait that these were taking. When the buffalo began to trot, the men trotted, and when the herd began to lope, the men loped, and at length they were all running pretty fast. The men kept about half a mile from the herd, and up even with the leaders. As they ran, the herd kept constantly edging a little toward the riders, as if trying to cross in front of them. This inclination toward the men was least when they were far off, and greatest when they drew nearer to them. At no time were the men nearer to the herd than four hundred yards. If the buffalo edged too much toward the riders, so that the course they were taking would lead them away from camp, the men would drop back and cross over behind the herd to the other side, and then, pushing their horses hard, would come up with the leaders, but still at a distance from them, and then the buffalo would begin to edge toward them, and the herd would be brought back again to the desired course. If necessary, this was repeated, and so the buffalo were kept traveling in a course approximately straight.
By the time the buffalo had got pretty near to the camp, they were pretty well winded, and the tongues of many of them were hanging out. This herd was led up among the rolling hills about a mile from the camp, and there the people were waiting for them, and charged them, when the herd broke up, the animals running in every direction.
Occasionally it would happen that for a long time the buffalo would not be found in a place favorable for driving over the cliff or into a pen. In such cases, the Indians would steal out on foot, and, on a day when there was no wind, would stealthily surround the herd. Then they would startle the buffalo, and yet would keep them from breaking through the circle. The buffalo would “mill” around until exhausted, and at length, when worn out, would be shot down by the Indians. This corresponds almost exactly with one of the methods employed in killing buffalo by the Pawnees in early days before they had horses. In those days the Pi-k[)u]n’-i were very numerous, and sometimes when a lot of buffalo were found in a favorable position, and there was no wind, the people would surround them, and set up their lodges about them, thus practically building a corral of lodges. After all preparations had been made, they would frighten the buffalo, which, being afraid to pass through between the lodges, would run round and round in a great circle, and when they were exhausted the people would kill them.
Then they always had plenty of buffalo if not fresh meat, that which they had dried. For in winter they would kill large numbers of buffalo, and would prepare great stores of dried meat. As spring opened, the buffalo would move down to the more flat prairie country away from the pis’kuns. Then the Blackfeet would also move away. As winter drew near, the buffalo would again move up close to the mountains, and the Indians, as food began to become scarce, would follow them toward the pis’kuns. In the last of the summer and early autumn, they always had runners out, looking for the buffalo, to find where they were, and which way they were moving. In the early autumn, all the pis’kuns were repaired and strengthened, so as to be in good order for winter.
In the days before they had horses, and even in later times when the ground was of such a character as to prevent running the buffalo, an ingenious method of still-hunting them was practiced. A story told by Hugh Monroe illustrates it. He said: “I was often detailed by the Hudson’s Bay Company to go out in charge of a number of men, to kill meat for the fort. When the ground was full of holes and wash-outs, so that running was dangerous, I used to put on a big timber wolf’s skin, which I carried for the purpose, tying it at my neck and waist, and then to sneak up to the buffalo. I used a bow and arrows, and generally shot a number without alarming them. If one looked suspiciously at me, I would howl like a wolf. Sometimes the smell of the blood from the wounded and dying would set the bulls crazy. They would run up and lick the blood, and sometimes toss the dead ones clear from the ground. Then they would bellow and fight each other, sometimes goring one another so badly that they died. The great bulls, their tongues covered with blood, their eyes flashing, and tails sticking out straight, roaring and fighting, were terrible to see; and it was a little dangerous for me, because the commotion would attract buffalo from all directions to see what was going on. At such times, I would signal to my men, and they would ride up and scare the buffalo away.”
In more modern times, the height of pleasure to a Blackfoot was to ride a good horse and run buffalo. When bows and arrows, and, later, muzzle-loading “fukes” were the only weapons, no more buffalo were killed than could actually be utilized. But after the Winchester repeater came in use, it seemed as if the different tribes vied with each other in wanton slaughter. Provided with one of these weapons and a couple of belts of cartridges, the hunters would run as long as their horses could keep up with the band, and literally cover the prairie with carcasses, many of which were never even skinned.
It is said that once in early times the men determined that they would use antelope skins for their women’s dresses, instead of cow skins. So they found a place where antelope were plenty, and set up on the prairie long lines of rock piles, or of bushes, so as to form a chute like a. Near the point where the lines joined, they dug deep pits, which they roofed with slender poles, and covered these with grass and a little dirt. Then the people scattered out, and while most of them hid behind the rock piles and bushes, a few started the antelope toward the mouth of the chute. As they ran by them, the people showed themselves and yelled, and the antelope ran down the chute and finally reached the pits, and falling into them were taken, when they were killed and divided among the hunters. Afterward, this was the common method of securing antelopes up to the coming of the whites.
Before the whites came to the Blackfoot country, the Indian standard of value was eagle tail-feathers. They were used to make war head-dresses, to tie on the head, and to ornament shields, lances, and other weapons. Besides this, the wings were used for fans, and the body feathers for arrow-making. Always a wary bird, the eagle could seldom be approached near enough for killing with the bow and arrow; and, in fact, it seems as if it was considered improper to kill it in that way. The capture of these birds appears to have had about it something of a sacred nature, and, as was always the case among wild Indians when anything important was to be undertaken, it was invariably preceded by earnest prayers to the Deity for help and for success.
There are still living many men who have caught eagles in the ancient method, and, from several of these, accounts have been received, which, while essentially similar, yet differ in certain particulars, especially in the explanations of certain features of the ceremony.
Wolf Calf’s account of this ceremony is as follows:
“A man who started out to catch eagles moved his lodge and his family away from the main camp, to some place where the birds were abundant. A spot was chosen on top of a mound or butte within a few miles of his lodge, and here he dug a pit in the ground as long as his body and somewhat deeper. The earth removed was carried away to a distance, and scattered about so as to make no show. When the pit had been made large enough, it was roofed over with small willow sticks, on which grass was scattered, and over the grass a little earth and stones were laid, so as to give the place a natural look, like the prairie all about it.
“The bait was a piece of bloody neck of a buffalo. This, of course, could be seen a long way off, and by the meat a stuffed wolf skin was often placed, standing up, as if the animal were eating. To the piece of neck was tied a rope, which passed down through the roof of the pit and was held in the watcher’s hand.
“After all had been made ready, the next day the man rose very early, before it was light, and, after smoking and praying, left his camp, telling his wives and children not to use an awl while he was gone. He endeavored to reach the pit early in the morning, before it became light, and lay down in it, taking with him a slender stick about six feet long, a human skull, and a little pemmican. Then he waited.
“When the morning came, and the eagles were flying, one of them would see the meat and descend to take it away from the wolf. Finding it held fast by the rope, the bird began to feed on it; and while it was pecking at the bait, the watcher seized it by the legs, and drew it into the pit, where he killed it, either by twisting its neck, or by crushing it with his knees. Then he laid it to one side, first opening the bill and putting a little piece of pemmican in its mouth. This was done to make the other eagles hungry. While he was in the pit, the man neither ate, drank, nor slept. He had a sleeping-place not far off, to which he repaired each night after dark, and there he ate and drank.
“The reason for taking the skull into the hole with the catcher was, in part, for his protection. It was believed that the ghost of the person to whom the skull had belonged would protect the watcher against harm from the eagle, and besides that, the skull, or ghost, would make the watcher invisible, like a ghost. The eagle would not see him.
“The stick was used to poke or drive away smaller birds, such as magpies, crows, and ravens, which might alight on the roof of the pit, and try to feed on the bait. It was used, also, to drive away the white-headed eagle, which they did not care to catch. These are powerful birds; they could almost kill a person.
“There are two sacred things connected with the catching of eagles, two things which must be observed if the eagle-catcher is to have good luck. The man who is watching must not eat rosebuds. If he does, the eagle, when he comes down and alights by the bait, will begin to scratch himself and will not attack the bait. The rosebuds will make him itch. Neither the man nor his wife must use an awl while he is absent from his lodge, and is trying to catch the birds. If this is done, the eagles will scratch the catcher. Sometimes one man would catch a great many eagles.”
In his day, John Monroe was a famous eagle-catcher, and he has given me the following account of the method as he has practiced it. The pit is dug, six feet long, three wide, and four deep, on top of the highest knoll that can be found near a stream. The earth taken out is carried a long way off. Over the pit they put two long poles, one on each side, running lengthwise of the pit, and other smaller sticks are laid across, resting on the poles. The smaller sticks are covered with juniper twigs and long grass. The skin of a wolf, coyote, or fox, is stuffed with grass, and made to look as natural as possible. A hole is cut in the wolf skin and a rope is passed through it, one end being tied to a large piece of meat which lies by the skin, and the other passing through the roof down into the pit. The bait is now covered with grass, and the man returns to his lodge for the night.
During the night, he sings his eagle songs and burns sweet grass for the eagles, rubbing the smoke over his own body to purify himself, so that on the morrow he will give out no scent. Before day he leaves his lodge without eating or drinking, goes to the pit and lies down in it. He uncovers the bait, arranges the roof, and sits there all day holding the rope. Crows and other birds alight by the bait and peck at it, but he pays no attention to them.
The eagle, sailing about high in air, sees the bait, and settles down slowly. It takes it a long time to make up its mind to come to the bait. In the pit, the man can hear the sound of the eagle coming. When the bird settles on the ground, it does not alight on the bait, but at one side of it, striking the ground with a thud heavily. The man never mistakes anything else for that sound. The eagle walks toward the bait, and all the other birds fly away. It walks on to the roof; and, through the crevices that have been left between the sticks, the man can see in which direction the bird’s head is. He carefully pushes the stick aside and, reaching out, grasps the eagle by the two feet. The bird does not struggle much. It is drawn down into the pit, and the man wrings its neck. Then the opening is closed, and the roof arranged as before. So the man waits and catches the eagles that come through the day. Sometimes he sits all day and gets nothing; again he may get eight or ten in a day.
When darkness comes, the man leaves his hiding-place, takes his eagles, and goes home. He carries the birds to a special lodge, prepared outside of the camp, which is called the eagles’ lodge. He places them on the ground in a row, and raises their heads, resting them on a stick laid in front of the row. In the mouth of each one is put a piece of pemmican, so that they may not be afraid of the people. The object of feeding the eagles is that their spirits may tell other eagles how they are being treated that they are being fed by the people. In the lodge is a human skull, and they pray to it, asking the ghost to help them get the eagles.
It is said that in one pit, once, forty eagles were killed in a day. The larger hawks were caught, as well as eagles, though the latter were the most highly valued. Five eagles used to be worth a good horse, a valuation which shows that, in the Blackfoot country, eagles were more plenty, or horses more valuable, than farther south, where, in old times, two eagles would purchase a horse.
They had no special means of capturing deer in any numbers. These were usually killed singly. The hunters used to creep up on elk and deer in the brush, and when they had come close to them, they could drive even their stone-pointed arrows deep in the flesh. Often their game was killed dead on the spot, but if not, they left it alone until the next day, when, on going back to the place, it was usually found near by, either dead or so desperately wounded that they could secure it.
Deadfalls were used to catch wolves, foxes, and other fur animals, and small apertures in the pis’kun walls were provided with nooses and snares for the same purpose.
Another way to catch wolves and coyotes was to set heavy stakes in the ground in a circle, about the carcasses of one or two dead buffalo. The stakes were placed at an angle of about forty-five degrees, a few inches apart, and all pointing toward the centre of the circle. At one place, dirt was piled up against the stakes from the outside, and the wolves, climbing up on this, jumped down into the enclosure, but were unable to jump out. Hugh Monroe tells me that, about thirty years ago, he and his sons made a trap like this, and in one night caught eighty-three wolves and coyotes.
In early times, beaver were very abundant and very tame, and were shot with bows and arrows.
The Blackfeet were splendid prairie hunters. They had no superiors in the art of stalking and killing such wary animals as the antelope. Sometimes they wore hats made of the skin and horns of an antelope head, which were very useful when approaching the game. Although the prairie was pre-eminently their hunting-ground, they were also skilful in climbing mountains and killing sheep and goats. On the other hand, the northern Crees, who also are a prairie people, are poor mountain hunters.
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- Pawnee Hero Stories and Folk-Tales, p. 250.↵