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Blackfeet Tribe, Social Organization
Posted By Dennis Partridge On In Native American | No Comments
The social organization of the Blackfeet is very simple. The three tribes acknowledged a blood relationship with each other, and, while distinct, still considered themselves a nation. In this confederation, it was understood that there should be no war against each other. However, between 1860 and 1870, when the whiskey trade was in its height, the three tribes were several times at swords’ points on account of drunken brawls. Once, about sixty or seventy years ago, the Bloods and Piegan had a quarrel so serious that men were killed on both sides and horses stolen; yet this was hardly a real war, for only a part of each tribe was involved, and the trouble was not of long duration.
Each one of the Blackfoot tribes is subdivided into gentes, a gens being a body of consanguineal kindred in the male line. It is noteworthy that the Blackfeet, although Algonquins, have this system of subdivision, and it may be that among them the gentes are of comparatively recent date. No special duties are assigned to any one gens, nor has any gens, so far as I know, any special “medicine” or “totem.”
Below is a list of the gentes of each tribe.
|Tsin-ik-tsis’-tso-yiks||Early Finished Eating|
|Ah-kwo’-nis-tsists||Many Lodge Poles|
|In-uhk!-so-yi-stam-iks||Long Tail Lodge Poles|
|Sik-ut’-si-pum-aiks||Black Patched Moccasins|
|Tsin-ik-sis’-tso-yiks||Early Finished Eating|
|Kut’-ai-im-iks||They Don’t Laugh|
|I-nuk-si’-kah-ko-pwa-iks||Small Brittle Fat|
|Ni-tot’-si-ksis-stan-iks||Kill Close By|
|Mo-kum’-iks||Red Round Robes|
It will be readily seen from the translations of the above that each gens takes its name from some peculiarity or habit it is supposed to possess. It will also be noticed that each tribe has a few gentes common to one or both of the other tribes. This is caused by persons leaving their own tribe to live with another one, but, instead of uniting with some gens of the adopted tribe, they have preserved the name of their ancestral gens for themselves and their descendants.
The Blackfoot terms of relationship will be found interesting. The principal family names are as follows:
|My father||Ni’-nah||My uncle||Nis’-ah|
|My mother||Ni-kis’-ta||My aunt||Ni-kis’-ta|
|My elder brother||Nis’-ah||My cousin, male||Same as brother|
|My younger brother||Nis-kun’||My cousin, female||Same as sister|
|My older sister||Nin’-sta||My grandfather||Na-ahks’|
|My younger sister||Ni-sis’-ah||My grandmother||Na-ahks’|
|My father-in-law||Na-ahks’||My son||No-ko’-i|
|My mother-in-law||Na-ahks’||My daughter||Ni-tun’|
|My son-in-law||Nis’-ah||My daughter-in-law||Ni-tot’-o-ke-man|
|My brother-in-law older than self||Nis-tum-o’||My sister-in-law||Ni-tot’-o-ke-man|
|My brother-in-law younger than self||Nis-tum-o’-kun||My second cousin||Nimp’-sa|
|My wife||Nit-o-ke’-man||My husband||No’-ma|
As the members of a gens were all considered as relatives, however remote, there was a law prohibiting a man from marrying within his gens. Originally this law was strictly enforced, but like many of the ancient customs it is no longer observed. Lately, within the last forty or fifty years, it has become not uncommon for a man and his family, or even two or three families, on account of some quarrel or some personal dislike of the chief of their own gens, to leave it and join another band. Thus the gentes often received outsiders, who were not related by blood to the gens; and such people or their descendants could marry within the gens. Ancestry became no longer necessary to membership.
As a rule, before a young man could marry, he was required to have made some successful expeditions to war against the enemy, thereby proving himself a brave man, and at the same time acquiring a number of horses and other property, which would enable him to buy the woman of his choice, and afterwards to support her.
Marriages usually took place at the instance of the parents, though often those of the young man were prompted by him. Sometimes the father of the girl, if he desired to have a particular man for a son-in-law, would propose to the father of the latter for the young man as a husband for his daughter.
The marriage in the old days was arranged after this wise: The chief of one of the bands may have a marriageable daughter, and he may know of a young man, the son of a chief of another band, who is a brave warrior, of good character, sober-minded, steadfast, and trustworthy, who he thinks will make a good husband for his daughter and a good son-in-law. After he has made up his mind about this, he is very likely to call in a few of his close relations, the principal men among them, and state to them his conclusions, so as to get their opinions about it. If nothing is said to change his mind, he sends to the father of the boy a messenger to state his own views, and ask how the father feels about the matter.
On receiving this word, the boy’s father probably calls together his close relations, discusses the matter with them, and, if the match is satisfactory to him, sends back word to that effect. When this message is received, the relations of the girl proceed to fit her out with the very best that they can provide. If she is the daughter of well-to-do or wealthy people, she already has many of the things that are needed, but what she may lack is soon supplied. Her mother makes her a new cow skin lodge, complete, with new lodge poles, lining, and back rests. A chiefs daughter would already have plenty of good clothing, but if the girl lacks anything, it is furnished. Her dress is made of antelope skin, white as snow, and perhaps ornamented with two or three hundred elk tushes. Her leggings are of deer skin, heavily beaded and nicely fringed, and often adorned with bells and brass buttons. Her summer blanket or sheet is an elk skin, well tanned, without the hair and with the dew-claws left on. Her moccasins are of deer skin, with parfleche soles and worked with porcupine quills. The marriage takes place as soon as these things can be provided.
During the days which intervene between the proposal and the marriage, the young woman each day selects the choicest parts of the meat brought to the lodge, the tongue, “boss ribs,” some choice berry pemmican or what not, cooks these things in the best style, and, either alone, or in company with a young sister, or a young friend, goes over to the lodge where the young man lives, and places the food before him. He eats some of it, little or much, and if he leaves anything, the girl offers it to his mother, who may eat of it. Then the girl takes the dishes and returns to her father’s lodge. In this way she provides him with three meals a day, morning, noon, and night, until the marriage takes place. Every one in camp who sees the girl carrying the food in a covered dish to the young man’s lodge, knows that a marriage is to take place; and the girl is watched by idle persons as she passes to and fro, so that the task is quite a trying one for people as shy and bashful as Indians are. When the time for the marriage has come, in other words, when the girl’s parents are ready, the girl, her mother assisting her, packs the new lodge and her own things on the horses, and moves out into the middle of the circle about which all the lodges of the tribe are arranged and there the new lodge is unpacked and set up. In front of the lodge are tied, let us say, fifteen horses, the girl’s dowry given by her father. Very likely, too, the father has sent over to the young man his own war clothing and arms, a lance, a fine shield, a bow and arrows in otter-skin case, his war bonnet, war shirt, and war leggings ornamented with scalps, his complete equipment. This is set up on a tripod in front of the lodge. The gift of these things is an evidence of the great respect felt by the girl’s father for his son-in-law. As soon as the young man has seen the preparations being made for setting up the girl’s lodge in the centre of the circle, he sends over to his father-in-law’s lodge just twice the number of horses that the girl brought with her, in this supposed case, thirty.
As soon as this lodge is set up, and the girl’s mother has taken her departure and gone back to her own lodge, the young man, who, until he saw these preparations, had no knowledge of when the marriage was to take place, leaves his father’s lodge, and, going over to the newly erected one, enters and takes his place at the back of it. Probably during the day he will order his wife to take down the lodge, and either move away from the camp, or at least move into the circle of lodges; for he will not want to remain with his young wife in the most conspicuous place in the camp. Often, on the same day, he will send for six or eight of his friends, and, after feasting them, will announce his intention of going to war, and will start off the same night. If he does so, and is successful, returning with horses or scalps, or both, he at once, on arrival at the camp, proceeds to his father-in-law’s lodge and leaves there everything he has brought back, returning to his own lodge on foot, as poor as he left it.
We have supposed the proposal in this case to come from the father of the girl, but if a boy desires a particular girl for his wife, the proposal will come from his father; otherwise matters are managed in the same way.
This ceremony of moving into the middle of the circle was only performed in the case of important people. The custom was observed in what might be called a fashionable wedding among the Blackfeet. Poorer, less important people married more quietly. If the girl had reached marriageable age without having been asked for as a wife, she might tell her mother that she would like to marry a certain young man, that he was a man she could love and respect. The mother communicates this to the father of the girl, who invites the young man to the lodge to a feast, and proposes the match. The young man returns no answer at the time, but, going back to his father’s lodge, tells him of the offer, and expresses his feelings about it. If he is inclined to accept, the relations are summoned, and the matter talked over. A favorable answer being returned, a certain number of horses what the young man or his father, or both together, can spare are sent over to the girl’s father. They send as many as they can, for the more they send, the more they are thought of and looked up to. The girl, unless her parents are very poor, has her outfit, a saddle horse and pack horse with saddle and pack saddle, parfleches, etc. If the people are very poor, she may have only a riding horse. Her relations get together, and do all in their power to give her a good fitting out, and the father, if he can possibly do so, is sure to pay them back what they have given. If he cannot do so, the things are still presented; for, in the case of a marriage, the relations on both sides are anxious to do all that they can to give the young people a good start in life. When all is ready, the girl goes to the lodge where her husband lives, and goes in. If this lodge is too crowded to receive the couple, the young man will make arrangements for space in the lodge of a brother, cousin, or uncle, where there is more room. These are all his close relations, and he is welcome in any of their lodges, and has rights there.
Sometimes, if two young people are fond of each other, and there is no prospect of their being married, they may take riding horses and a pack horse, and elope at night, going to some other camp for a while. This makes the girl’s father angry, for he feels that he has been defrauded of his payments. The young man knows that his father-in-law bears him a grudge, and if he afterwards goes to war and is successful, returning with six or seven horses, he will send them all to the camp where his father-in-law lives, to be tied in front of his lodge. This at once heals the breach, and the couple may return. Even if he has not been successful in war and brought horses, which of course he does not always accomplish, he from time to time sends the old man a present, the best he can. Notwithstanding these efforts at conciliation, the parents feel very bitterly against him. The girl has been stolen. The union is no marriage at all. The old people are ashamed and disgraced for their daughter. Until the father has been pacified by satisfactory payments, there is no marriage. Moreover, unless the young man had made a payment, or at least had endeavored to do so, he would be little thought of among his fellows, and looked down on as a poor creature without any sense of honor.
The Blackfeet take as many wives as they wish; but these ceremonies are only carried out in the case of the first wife, the “sits-beside-him” woman. In the case of subsequent marriages, if the man had proved a good, kind husband to his first wife, other men, who thought a good deal of their daughters, might propose to give them to him, so that they would be well treated. The man sent over the horses to the new father-in-law’s lodge, and the girl returned to his, bringing her things with her. Or if the man saw a girl he liked, he would propose for her to her father.
Among the Blackfeet, there was apparently no form of courtship, such as prevails among our southern Indians. Young men seldom spoke to young girls who were not relations, and the girls were carefully guarded. They never went out of the lodge after dark, and never went out during the day, except with the mother or some other old woman. The girl, therefore, had very little choice in the selection of a husband. If a girl was told she must marry a certain man, she had to obey. She might cry, but her father’s will was law, and she might be beaten or even killed by him, if she did not do as she was ordered. As a consequence of this severity, suicide was quite common among the Blackfoot girls. A girl ordered to marry a man whom she did not like would often watch her chance, and go out in the brush and hang herself. The girl who could not marry the man she wanted to was likely to do the same thing.
The man had absolute power over his wife. Her life was in his hands, and if he had made a payment for her, he could do with her about as he pleased. On the whole, however, women who behaved themselves were well treated and received a good deal of consideration. Those who were light-headed, or foolish, or obstinate and stubborn were sometimes badly beaten. Those who were unfaithful to their husbands usually had their noses or ears, or both, cut off for the first offence, and were killed either by the husband or some relation, or by the I-kun-uh’-kah-tsi for the second. Many of the doctors of the highest reputation in the tribe were women. It is a common belief among some of those who have investigated the subject that the wife in Indian marriage was actually purchased, and became the absolute property of her husband. Though I have a great respect for some of the opinions which have been expressed on this subject, I am obliged to take an entirely different view of the matter. I have talked this subject over many times with young men and old men of a number of tribes, and I cannot learn from them, or in any other way, that in primitive times the woman was purchased from her father. The husband did not have property rights in his wife. She was not a chattel that he could trade away. He had all personal rights, could beat his wife, or, for cause, kill her, but he could not sell her to another man.
All the younger sisters of a man’s wife were regarded as his potential wives. If he was not disposed to marry them, they could not be disposed of to any other man without his consent.
Not infrequently, a man having a marriageable daughter formally gave her to some young man who had proved himself brave in war, successful in taking horses, and, above all, of a generous disposition. This was most often done by men who had no sons to support them in their old age.
It is said that in the old days, before they had horses, young men did not expect to marry until they had almost reached middle life, from thirty-five to forty years of age. This statement is made by Wolf Calf, who is now very old, almost one hundred years, he believes, and can remember back nearly or quite to the time when the Blackfeet obtained their first horses. In those days, young women did not marry until they were grown up, while of late years fathers not infrequently sell their daughters as wives when they are only children.
The first woman a man marries is called his sits-beside-him wife. She is invested with authority over all the other wives, and does little except to direct the others in their work, and look after the comfort of her husband. Her place in the lodge is on his right-hand side, while the others have their places or seats near the door-way. This wife is even allowed at informal gatherings to take a whiff at the pipe, as it is passed around the circle, and to participate in the conversation.
In the old days, it was a very poor man who did not have three wives. Many had six, eight, and some more than a dozen. I have heard of one who had sixteen. In those times, provided a man had a good-sized band of horses, the more wives he had, the richer he was. He could always find young men to hunt for him, if he furnished the mounts, and, of course, the more wives he had, the more robes and furs they would tan for him.
If, for any cause, a man wished to divorce himself from a woman, he had but to send her back to her parents and demand the price paid for her, and the matter was accomplished. The woman was then free to marry again, provided her parents were willing.
When a man dies, his wives become the potential wives of his oldest brother. Unless, during his life, he has given them outright horses and other property, at his death they are entitled to none of his possessions. If he has sons, the property is divided among them, except a few horses, which are given to his brothers. If he has no sons, all the property goes to his brothers, and if there are no brothers, it goes to the nearest male relatives on the father’s side.
The Blackfeet cannot be said to have been slave-holders. It is true that the Cree call the Blackfeet women “Little Slaves.” But this, as elsewhere suggested, may refer to the region whence they originally came, though it is often explained that it is on account of the manner in which the Blackfeet treat their women, killing them or mutilating their features for adultery and other serious offences. Although a woman, all her life, was subject to some one’s orders, either parent, relative, or husband, a man from his earliest childhood was free and independent. His father would not punish him for any misconduct, his mother dared not. At an early age he was taught to ride and shoot, and horses were given to him. By the time he was twelve, he had probably been on a war expedition or two. As a rule in later times, young men married when they were seventeen or eighteen years of age; and often they resided for several years with their fathers, until the family became so large that there was not room for them all in the lodge.
There were always in the camp a number of boys, orphans, who became the servants of wealthy men for a consideration; that is, they looked after their patron’s horses and hunted, and in return they were provided with suitable food and clothing.
Among the Blackfeet, all men were free and equal, and office was not hereditary. Formerly each gens was governed by a chief, who was entitled to his office by virtue of his bravery and generosity. The head chief was chosen by the chiefs of the gentes from their own number, and was usually the one who could show the best record in war, as proved at the Medicine Lodge,1 at which time he was elected; and for the ensuing year he was invested with the supreme power. But no matter how brave a man might have been, or how successful in war, he could not hope to be the chief either of a gens or of the tribe, unless he was kind-hearted, and willing to share his prosperity with the poor. For this reason, a chief was never a wealthy man, for what he acquired with one hand he gave away with the other. It was he who decided when the people should move camp, and where they should go. But in this, as in all other important affairs, he generally asked the advice of the minor chiefs.
The I-kun-uh’-kah-tsi (All Comrades) were directly under the authority of the head chief, and when any one was to be punished, or anything else was to be done which came within their province as the tribal police, it was he who issued the orders. The following were the crimes which the Blackfeet considered sufficiently serious to merit punishment, and the penalties which attached to them.
If a man left camp to hunt buffalo by himself, thereby driving away the game, the All Comrades were sent after him, and not only brought him back by main force, but often whipped him, tore his lodge to shreds, broke his travois, and often took away his store of dried meat, pemmican, and other food.
The tradition of the origin of the I-kun-uh’-kah-tsi has elsewhere been given. This association of the All Comrades consisted of a dozen or more secret societies, graded according to age, the whole constituting an association which was in part benevolent and helpful, and in part military, but whose main function was to punish offences against society at large. All these societies were really law and order associations. The M[)u]t’-s[)i]ks, or Braves, was the chief society, but the others helped the Braves.
A number of the societies which made up the I-kun-uh’-kah-tsi have been abandoned in recent years, but several of them still exist. Among the Pi-kun’-i, the list so far as I have it is as follows, the societies being named in order from those of boyhood to old age:
Ts[)i]-st[=i]ks’, Little Birds, includes boys from 15 to 20 years old.
K[)u]k-k[=u][=i]cks’, Pigeons, men who have been to war several times.
T[)u]is-k[)i]s-t[=i]ks, Mosquitoes, men who are constantly going to war
M[)u]t’-s[)i]ks, Braves, tried warriors.
Kn[)a]ts-o-mi’-ta, All Crazy Dogs, about forty years old.
Ma-stoh’-pa-ta-k[=i]ks Raven Bearers.
E’-mi-taks, Dogs, old men. Dogs and Tails are different societies
Is’-sui, Tails, but they dress alike and dance together and alike.
[)E]ts-[=a]i’-nah, Horns, Bloods, obsolete among the Piegans,
Sin’-o-pah, Kit-foxes, Piegans, but still exists with Bloods.
[)E]-[)i]n’-a-ke, Catchers or Soldiers, obsolete for 25-30 years, perhaps longer.
St[)u]‘m[=i]ks, Bulls, obsolete for 50 years.
There may be other societies of the All Comrades, but these are the only ones that I know of at present. The M[=u]t’-s[)i]ks, Braves, and the Knats-o-mi’-ta, All Crazy Dogs, still exist, but many of the others are being forgotten. Since the necessity for their existence has passed, they are no longer kept up. They were a part of the old wild life, and when the buffalo disappeared, and the Blackfeet came to live about an agency, and to try to work for a subsistence, the societies soon lost their importance. The societies known as Little Birds, Mosquitoes, and Doves are not really bands of the All Comrades, but are societies among the boys and young men in imitation of the I-kun-uh’-kah-tsi, but of comparatively recent origin. Men not more than fifty years old can remember when these societies came into existence. Of all the societies of the I-kun-uh’-kah-tsi, the Sin’-o-pah, or Kit-fox band, has the strongest medicine. This corresponds to the Horns society among the Bloods. They are the same band with different names. They have certain peculiar secret and sacred ceremonies, not to be described here.
The society of the Stum’-[=i]ks, or Bulls, became obsolete more than fifty years ago. Their dress was very fine, bulls’ heads and robes.
The members of the younger society purchased individually, from the next older one, its rights and privileges, paying horses for them. For example, each member of the Mosquitoes would purchase from some member of the Braves his right of membership in the latter society. The man who has sold his rights is then a member of no society, and if he wishes to belong to one, must buy into the one next higher. Each of these societies kept some old men as members, and these old men acted as messengers, orators, and so on.
The change of membership from one society to another was made in the spring, after the grass had started. Two, three, or more lodge coverings were stretched over poles, making one very large lodge, and in this the ceremonies accompanying the changes took place.
In later times, the Braves were the most important and best known of any of the All Comrades societies. The members of this band were soldiers or police. They were the constables of the camp, and it was their duty to preserve order, and to punish offenders. Sometimes young men would skylark in camp at night, making a great noise when people wanted to sleep, and would play rough practical jokes, that were not at all relished by those who suffered from them. One of the forms which their high spirits took was to lead and push a young colt up to the door of a lodge, after people were asleep, and then, lifting the door, to shove the animal inside and close the door again. Of course the colt, in its efforts to get out to its mother, would run round and round the lodge, trampling over the sleepers and roughly awakening them, knocking things down and creating the utmost confusion, while the mare would be whinnying outside the lodge, and the people within, bewildered and confused, did not know what the disturbance was all about.
The Braves would punish the young men who did such things, if they could catch them, tearing up their blankets, taking away their property, and sometimes whipping them severely. They were the peace officers of the camp, like the lari p[=u]k’[=u]s_ among the Pawnees.
Among the property of the Brave society were two stone-pointed arrows, one “shield you don’t sit down with,” and one rattle. The man who carried this rattle was known as Brave Dog, and if it passed from one member of the society to another, the new owner became known as Brave Dog. The man who received the shield could not sit down for the next four days and four nights, but for all that time was obliged to run about the camp, or over the prairie, whistling like a rabbit.
The societies known as Soldiers and Bulls had passed out of existence before the time of men now of middle age. The pipe of the Soldier society is still in existence, in the hands of Double Runner. The bull’s head war bonnet, which was the insignia of the Bulls society, was formerly in the possession of Young Bear Chief, at present chief of the Don’t Laugh band of the Piegan. He gave it to White Calf, who presented it to a recent agent.
In the old days, and, indeed, down to the time of the disappearance of the buffalo, the camp was always arranged in the form of a circle, the lodges standing at intervals around the circumference, and in the wide inner space there was another circle of lodges occupied by the chief of certain bands of the I-kun-uh’-kah-tsi. When all the gentes of the tribe were present, each had its special position in the circle, and always occupied it. The lodge of the chief of the gens stood just within the circle, and about it his people camped. The order indicated in the accompanying diagram represents the Piegan camp as it used to stand thirty-five or forty years ago. A number of the gentes are now extinct, and it is not altogether certain just what the position of those should be; for while all the older men agree on the position to be assigned to certain of the gentes, there are others about which there are differences of opinion or much uncertainty. It is stated that the gentes known as Seldom Lonesome, Dried Meat, and No Parfleche belong to that section of the tribe known as North Piegan, which, at the time of the first treaty, separated from the Pi-kun’-i, and elected to live under British rule.
The lodges of the chiefs of the I-kun-uh’-kah-tsi which were within the circle served as lounging and eating places for such members of the bands as were on duty, and were council lodges or places for idling, as the occasion demanded.
When the camp moved, the Blood gens moved first and was followed by the White Breast gens, and so on around the circle to number 24. On camping, the Bloods camped first, and the others after them in the order indicated, number 24 camping last and closing up the circle. Diagram of old-time piegan camp, say 1850 to 1855. Twenty-four lodges of chiefs of the gentes about the outer circle.
The inner circle shows lodges of chiefs of certain bands of the I-kun-uh’-kah-tsi.
Gentes Of The Pi-Kun’-I
1. Blood People. 2. White Breasts. 3. Dried Meat. 4. Black Patched Moccasins. 5. Black Fat Roasters. 6. Early Finished Eating. 7. Don’t Laugh. 8. Fat Roasters. 9. Black Doors. 10. Lone Eaters. 11. Skunks. 12. Seldom Lonesome. 13. Obstinate. 14. Lone Fighters. 15. Small Robes. 16. Big Topknots. 17. Worm People. 18. Small Brittle Fat. 19. Buffalo Dung. 20. No Parfleche. 21. Kill Close Bye 22. All Chiefs. 23. Red Round Robes. 24. Many Medicines.
Bands of the I-Kun-Uh’-Kah-Tsi
a. All Crazy Dogs. b. Dogs. c. Tails. d. Kit-foxes. e. Raven Bearers. f. Braves. g. Mosquitoes. h. Soldiers. i. Doves.
See chapter on Religion ↩
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