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Blackfoot Bands

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Each of the three tribes is composed of bands, kaiyok’ kowommostiijaw, implying not only bonds of friendship but bonds of blood.1 These bands have been discussed by Grinnell who considers them true gentes2 though he states that in recent times, at least, the adherence to exogamy was not absolute. For our part, we have met with many contradictory statements and observations among the Indians now living, so that we can do no more than offer what seems to be the most consistent view of the data available.

In the first place, while the band is a definite group in the minds of the Indians and every individual knows to what band he belongs, they manifest uncertainty as to how membership is determined and as to its bearing upon marriage restrictions. There is, however, no evidence of a belief in a band ancestor, human or animal; and, hence, no band totem. The name of the band has no relation to a founder but is supposed to designate, in a way, some peculiarity common to the groups as a whole. Thus, the names are in theory and kind the same as tribe names – Blood, Piegan, etc. – originating normally after the manner of object names in general and apparently not in conformity to some system or belief concerning descent or relationship.

At marriage, the wife goes to her husband and is considered as belonging to his band. The general feeling seems to be that the children belong to the band of their father. Should the father die, the mother and children will go to their relatives best able and willing to care for them, but the children will always be called after their father’s band. Should the mother’s relatives in her own band be few and not as able to care for the children as the father’s people, they remain in the father’s band. These relatives may live in the same band, but in any event, the mother takes the dependent children with her. Should she marry in another band, as is frequent, her children may reside with her in their step-father’s band. There is no rule governing cases of this sort and it is said that the children usually go to the band in which they have the strongest ties. Yet, they are seldom really lost to the sight of the father’s band and are often reminded by them that they properly belong to their band. Thus, it seems that the bands are in part, at least, gents. Yet a man may change his band even in middle life.3 For a man to join the band of his wife at marriage is not unusual. The reasons for such changes are usually selfish, in that greater material and social advantages are offered, but we have no suggestion of such transfers being made with the idea of recruiting a depleted band. A man who changes his band may become a headman or even a chief without hindrance, as in the case of a well-known Piegan chief now living. Thus, it appears that there is no absolute rule of descent in band membership and that what bonds exist are rather those of real blood relationship than of an artificial system. Further, it appears that continuous residence or association with a band is practically equivalent to membership therein. The individual seems free to select his band.

To marry within the band is not good form, but not criminal. Thus, when a proposal for marriage has been made, the relatives of the girl get together and have a talk, their first and chief concern being the question of blood relationship. Naturally, the band affiliations of the contracting parties cannot be taken as a criterion since both may have very near relatives in several bands and cousins of the first degree are ineligible. Should the contracting parties belong to the same band but be otherwise eligible, the marriage would be confirmed, though with some reluctance, because there is always a suspicion that some close blood relationship may have been overlooked. Thus, while this attitude is not quite consistent, it implies that the fundamental bar to marriage is relation by blood, or true descent, and that common membership in a band is socially undesirable rather than prohibitive. If we may now add our own interpretation, we should say that the close companionship of the members of the band leads to the feeling that all children are in a sense the children of all the adults and that all the children are brothers and sisters and to a natural repugnance to intermarriage. Further, since most of the men in a band are in theory, of common paternal descent, even the informal adoption of a stranger would tend to confer upon him the same inheritance which as time dulled the memory would become more and more of a reality. In any event, the attitude of the Blackfoot themselves seems to imply that the band system came into existence after the present marriage customs and adapted itself to them rather than they to it.

A woman is called nimps by all members of her husband’s band, not his actual relatives. She may speak of all male members of the band older than herself as grandfather while the younger males may in turn speak of her as mother. Sometimes men of the same age as her husband, speak of her as “distant-wife.” While this may be consistent with a theory of gentile band organization in opposition to other data secured by us, our opinion is that it is at least equally probable that these terms were originally applied as marks of respect and circumstantial association, and consequently of little value as indicating the genesis of the band relations.

We must not permit the question of exogamy to conceal the important political and social functions of the band system. As one informant says, “the members always hang together at all times.” In another place, we have noted how the responsibility for the acts of individuals is charged to the band as a whole and how all are bound to contribute to the payment of penalties and even risk life and limb in defense of a member guilty of murder. In such, we shall doubtless find the true function of the Black-foot band. The confusion as to exogamy seems to arise from the fact that blood ties tend to hold the children to the band of the father.

The tendency is for each band to live apart. When a band becomes very weak in numbers or able-bodied men, it takes up its residence beside another band or scatters out among relatives in various bands, but this is from necessity rather than choice. At present, the Blackfoot reserves are dotted here and there by small clusters of cabins, the permanent or at least the winter homes of the respective bands. By tradition, this was always the custom, though tipis were used instead of cabins. When two or more bands choose to occupy immediate parts of the same valley, their camps are segregated and, if possible, separated by a brook, a point of highland, or other natural barrier. The scattering of bands during the winter was an economic necessity, a practice accentuated among the Thick-wood Cree and other similar tribes. Something was lost in defensive powers but this was doubtless fully offset by greater immunity from starvation. In summer, the bands tended to collect and move about, both for trade and for the hunt. From what information we could secure, this seemed to be a natural congregation under the leadership of some popular man, usually a head man in his band. While the tendency was for the bands as a whole to join such leaders, it often happened that part of a band cast its lot with one group and part with another; however, such unions were usually temporary, the whole band being ultimately re-united when the tribe finally came together, either to trade at a post or to perform a ceremony.

Grinnell gives a list of the bands which he implies are to be taken as existing about 1860 and this agrees quite well with the information we secured. From the foregoing, it is natural to expect changes at any time. Since the names seem particularistic in their significance, we give only Mr. Duvall’s translations. For the Blood and North Blackfoot, our list is less complete.4

Piegan Bands

1. Solid-Topknots13. Many-medicines
2. They-don’t-laugh14. Small-robes
3. Worm-people15. Red-round-robes
4. Blood-people16. Buffalo-dung
5. Black-patched-Moccasins17. Small-brittle-fat
6. Black-doors18. Undried-meat-in-parfleche
7. Fat-roasters19. Lone-fighters
8. Skunks20. No-parfleche
9. Sharp-whiskers21. Seldom-lonesome
10. Lone-eaters22. Early-finished-eating
11. White-breasts23. Short-necks
12. Short-necks
Blood Bands
1. Fish-eaters5. Many-children
2. Black-elks6. Many-lodge-poles
3. Lone-fighters7. Short-bows
4. Hair-shirts

North Blackfoot Bands

1. Many-medicines4. Biters
2. Black-elks5. Skunks
3. Liars6. Bad-guns

These lists are doubtless far from being complete. Even among the Indians themselves confusion seems to exist as to some names since a band may be known by two or more names. Under these conditions we deemed the preceding data sufficient to our purpose. Mr. Grinnell explains the existence of bands of the same name among the varions divisions as due to members of the bands leaving their own tribe to live with another. As we have no data on this point it must pass, though we see no reason why some of the band names may not be older than the tribal divisions. On the other hand, some of the translated names for Gros Ventre bands as stated by Kroeber are identical in meaning with some of those found among the several tribal divisions of the Blackfoot. Again, we are not ready to accept unconditionally the opinion of Grinnell that the disparity between band ties and blood ties is due to the gradual disintegration of tribal life, having previously stated our reasons for assuming the system of blood relationship the older form and pointed out that the band is rather political than otherwise.


  1. As to the origin of the term band, used so generally by the older writers and traders of this area, we have a suggestion from Keating: “The term hand, as applied to a herd of buffalo, has almost become technical, being the only one in use in the west. It is derived from the French term bande.” Keating, 379. We may venture that the use of this term for a head man and his following among the Indians of this same area was suggested by the analogy between the two kinds of groups, these old naive observers not being blinded by sociological preconceptions. 

  2. Grinnell, George Bird. Blackfoot Lodge Tales. New York, 1904, p. 223-224. 

  3. On this point, the following statement of a Piegan informant may be worthy of note: A man may go into another band and live there if he choose, nothing much being said about it. Sometimes a man may not like the chief of his own band and so go to another. There is neither announcement nor formal adoption, he simply goes there to live. For a time, it may be thrown out to him that he belongs elsewhere but after a while he is always spoken of as a member. When a band begins, it may be a group of two or three brothers, fathers, and grandfather, or a small family band (which means the same thing); later, friends or admirers of the head man in this family may join them until the band becomes very large. Bands may split in dissention, one part joining another or forming a new one. A new group is soon given a name by other people according to some habit or peculiarity. They do not name them” selves. 

  4. For another list of Blood bands, see Social Organization of the Blackfoot Indians. (Transactions, Canadian Institute, Vol. 4, 1892-93. Toronto, 1895) p. 255. For a Piegan list, see Original Blackfoot Texts. (Verhandelingen der Koninklijkl Akademie van Wetenschappen te Amsterdam. Deel XII, No. 1. Amsterdam, 1911). 

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