Houses of the Blackfoot Confederacy

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"Encampment of the Piekann Indians"  Karl Bodmer 1833
Plate 15 - "Encampment of the Piekann Indians" Karl Bodmer 1833

The tribes forming this group are the Siksika, or Blackfeet proper, the Piegan, and the Kainah, or Bloods. Closely allied and associated with these were the Atsina, a branch of the Arapaho, but who later became incorporated with the Assiniboin. These tribes roamed over a wide territory of mountains, plains, and valleys.

Early accounts of the manners and ways of life of the Blackfeet are to be found in the journals kept by traders belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company, who penetrated the vast, unknown wilderness southwestward from York Factory daring the eighteenth century. Although the records are all too brief and leave much to be desired, nevertheless they are of the greatest interest, referring as they do to the people while yet in a primitive state, with no knowledge of the customs of Europeans.

The first of the journals to be mentioned is that of Anthony Hendry, who left York Factory June 26, 1754. He ascended Hayes River many miles, thence, after crossing numerous lakes and streams and traversing forests and plains, arrived on Monday, October 14, 1754, at a point not far northeastward from the present city of Calgary, Alberta. This was in the country of the Blackfeet, mentioned in the journal as the Archithinue Natives. That same day, so the narrative continues: “Came to 200 tents of Archithinue Natives, pitched in two rows, and an opening in the middle; where we were conducted to the Leader’s tent; which was, at one end, large enough to contain fifty persons; where he received us seated on a clear [white] Buffalo skin, attended by 20 elderly men. He made signs for me to sit down on his right hand: which I did. Our Leader set on several grand-pipes, and smoked all round, according to their usual custom: not a word was yet spoke on either side. Smoking being over, Buffalo flesh boiled was served round in baskets of a species of bent, and I was presented with 10 Buffalo tongues.” The following day he again visited the lodge of the chief, where he received as a gift “a handsome Bow & Arrows,” and the journal continues: ” I departed and took a view of the camp. Their tents were pitched close to one another in two regular lines, which formed a broad street open at both ends. Their horses are turned out to grass, their legs being fettered: and when wanted, are fastened to lines cut of Buffalo skin, that stretches along and is fastened to stakes drove in the ground. They have hair halters, Buffalo skin pads, & stirrups of the same.”

Although Hendry mentioned the encampment to consist of 200 lodges it is quite evident others were in the vicinity, or came soon after his arrival, for three days later, on October 17, he noted in his journal “322 tents of Archithinue Natives unpitched and moved Westward.”1 They did not have permanent villages, and “never wanted food, as they followed the Buffalo and killed them with the Bows and Arrows.” They were unacquainted with the canoe, would not eat fish, and their garments were finely painted with red paint.” Such were the Blackfeet about the middle of the eighteenth century.

On June 27, 1772, Matthew Cocking, second factor at York Factory, started on a journey quite similar to that performed by Hendry just eighteen years earlier. He ascended Hayes River, passed north of Lake Winnipeg, and continued in a southwestwardly direction to some point not far north of the South Saskatchewan River in the extreme western part of the present Province of Saskatchewan. When near this position on December 1, 1772, they encamped not far from a “Beast pound.” which had probably stood from year to year. That day, so he entered in his journal, “our Archithinue friends came to us and pitched a small distance from us; on one side the pound 21 tents of them, the other seven are pitched another way.” And the following day, “the Archithinue Natives repairing the pound, the repair we gave it on our arrival not being sufficient.” Two days later “the Archithinue Natives drove into the pound male and one female Buffalo, and brought several considerable drove very near: They set off in the Evening; and drive the Cattle all night. Indeed not only at this Gallic, but ill all their actions they far excel the other Natives. They are all well mounted…Their Weapons, Bows & Arrows: Several have on Jackets of Moose leather six fold, quilted, and without sleeves.” Cocking evidently visited many of the tents, and on December 5 wrote: ” Our Archithinue Friends are very Hospitable, continually inviting us to partake of their best fare; generally berries infused in water with fat, very agreeable eating. Their manner of showing respect to strangers is, in holding the pipe while they smoke: this is done three times. Afterwards every person smokes in common; the Women excepted… The tobacco they use is of their own planting… These people are much more cleanly in their cloathing, and food, than my companions: Their Victuals are dressed in earthen pots, of their own Manufacturing; much in the same form as Newcastle pots, but without feet: their fire tackling a black stone used as flint, and a kind of Ore as a steel, using tuss balls as tinder, (i. e.) a kind of moss.” December 6, 1772: ” No success in pounding: the Strangers say the, season is past.” On December 21 ” we were joined by ten tents of Asinepoet Indians,” and the following day “by five tents of Nehetheway Indians.” The former were Assiniboin and the latter Cree.2

One of the reasons which inspired Cocking to undertake the long journey into the wilderness was the desire to win the Blackfeet away from the French interests, and to persuade them to carry their furs to the posts of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Soon the English were successful in their endeavors, and for several generations secured the furs and robes collected by the people of the ever-shifting camps, who followed the buffalo as the vast herds moved from place to place with the changing seasons of the year. Later, traders from another people penetrated the country to the upper waters of the Missouri, and certain of the Blackfeet began trading at the posts erected by these newcomers. The various tribes wandered over a wide region, and 60 years ago it was said:

“The Blood Indians range through the district along Maria, Teton, and Belly Rivers, inclining west and northwest far into the interior. In this section, wood is more abundant, pasturage excellent, and, consequently, buffalo almost always abound there. The Blackfeet inhabit a portion of country farther north than the Bloods, extending to the banks of the Saskatchewan. along which they often reside. They have never altogether abandoned their English friends. and more frequently dispose of their furs to them than to the American traders on the head branches of the Missouri. The Piegan roam through the Rocky Mountains on the south side of Maria River on both banks of the Missouri.  They also hunt as far down the Missouri as the Musselshell River, and up that stream to the borders of the Crow country. The three divisions constitute the Blackfoot nation proper, whose name has become notorious for their fierce and deadly struggles with all the neighboring tribes, and in former times struck terror to all white men who traveled in any district from the Saskatchewan to the Yellowstone, and from the Yellowstone to the Columbia. These bands all live in skin tents, like the rest of the prairie tribes, follow the chase for a subsistence, and in former years were famous for their war excursions against neighboring tribes.”3

The region mentioned would have included the central portion of the present State of Montana and northward. Marias River flows into the Missouri just below Fort Benton.

Maximilian, who visited the Blackfeet during the summer of 1833, has left a very concise and interesting account of the appearance of their camps: “The leather tents of the Blackfeet, their internal arrangement, and the manner of loading their dogs and horses, agree, in every respect, with those of the Sioux and Assiniboin, and all the wandering tribes of hunters of the upper Missouri. The tents, made of tanned buffalo skin, last only for one year; they are, at first, neat and white, afterwards brownish, and at the top, where the smoke issues, black, and, at last, transparent, like parchment, and very light inside. Painted tents, adorned with figures, are very seldom seen, and only a few chiefs possess them. When these tents are taken down, they leave a circle of sods, exactly as in the dwellings of the Esquimaux. They are often surrounded by fifteen or twenty dogs, which serve, not for food, but only for drawing and carrying their baggage. Some Blackfeet, who have visited the Sioux, have imitated them in eating dogs, but this is rare. Near the tents they keep their dog sledges, with which they form conical piles resembling the tents themselves, but differing from them in not being covered with leather. On these they hang their shields, traveling bags, saddles and bridles; and at some height, out of the reach of the hungry dogs, they hang the meat, which is cut into long strips, their skins, &c. The medicine bag or bundle, the conjuring apparatus, is often hung and fastened to a separate pole, or over the door of the tent. Their household goods consist of buffalo robes and blankets, many kinds of painted parchment bags, some of them in a semicircular form, with leather strings and fringes; wooden dishes, large spoons made of the horn of the mountain sheep, which are very wide and deep . . . In the center of the tent there is a small fire in a circle composed of stones, over which the kettle for cooking is suspended.”4

A painting of a Piegan camp was made at that time by Bonnier, who accompanied Maximilian, and served as an illustration in the latter’s work. It is here reproduced as plate 15. It shows clearly the many skin lodges forming the encampment, the numerous dogs and horses, with some of the Indians wrapped in highly decorated buffalo robes. Some of the lodges are decorated, but the great majority are plain, thus conforming with the description.

Maximilian again wrote while at Fort McKenzie, in August, 1833: “Having made our arrangements on the first day of our arrival, and viewed the Indian camp, with its many dogs, and old dirty leather tents, we were invited, on the following day, together with Mr. Mitchell, to a feast, given by the Blackfoot chief, Mehkskehme Sukahs (the iron shirt). We proceeded to a large circle in the middle of the camp, enclosed with a kind of fence of boughs of trees, which contained part of the tents, and was designed to confine the horses during the night, for the Indians are so addicted to horse stealing that they do not trust each other. The hut of the chief was spacious; we had never before seen so handsome a one; it was full fifteen paces in diameter, and was very clean and tastefully decorated. W e took our seats, without ceremony, on buffalo skins, spread out on the left hand of the chief, round the fire, in the centre of the tent, which was enclosed in a circle of stones, and a dead silence prevailed. Our host was a tall, robust man, who at this time had no other clothes than his breechcloth; neither women nor children were visible. A tin dish was set before us which contained dry grated meat, mixed with sweet berries, which we ate with our fingers, and found very palatable. After we had finished, the chief ate what was left in the dish, and took out of a bag a chief’s scarlet uniform, with blue facings and yellow lace, which he had received from the English, six red and black plumes of feathers, a dagger with its sheath, a colored pocket-handkerchief, and two beaver skins, all of which he laid before Mr. Mitchell as a present, who was obliged to accept these things whether he liked or not, thereby laying himself under the obligation of making presents in return, and especially a new uniform. When the chief began to fill his pipe, made of green talc, we rose and retired (quite in Indian fashion) in silence, and without, making any salutations.”5

As Maximilian had already visited and seen many skin lodges as he ascended the Missouri, his remarks concerning this one which belonged to the Blackfeet chief are most interesting. It was between 40 and 50 feet in diameter, very clean and well decorated, probably a remarkable example.

The circles of earth which indicated the former positions of lodges were noticed by Maximilian, and he again mentioned them while at Fort Union, at the mouth of the Yellowstone, October 16, 1833. He said: “The little prairie fox was so hungry, and, therefore so tame, that it often visited the environs of the fort, and we found these pretty little animals among the circles of turf which were left on the removal of the Indian tents.”

Another visit to the Piegan, in the same region, was made just 20 years later, during the month of September, 1853. “J. M. Stanley, who accompanied Gov. Stevens as the artist of the expedition, left camp on the banks of Marias River and three days later, September 14, 1853, reached the divide between Milk and Bow Rivers: “From this divide I had a view of the Bull’s Head, forming the base of Cypress mountain. At 1 o’clock I descended to a deep valley, in which flows an affluent of Beaver river. Here was the Piegan camp, of ninety lodges, under their chief Low Horn, one hundred and sixty-three miles north, 20° west, of Fort Benton.

“Little Dog conducted me, with my party, to his lodge, and immediately the chief and braves collected in the ‘council Lodge,’ to receive my message. ” This was conducted with customary formality and the next day, September 15, “At an early hour a town crier announced the intention of the chief to move camp. The horses were immediately brought in and secured around their respective lodges, and in less than one hour the whole encampment was drawn out in two parallel lines on the plains, forming one of the most picturesque scenes I have ever witnessed.

“Preparation for their transportation is made in the following manner: The poles of the lodges, which are from twenty to thirty-five feet in length, are divided, the small ends being lashed together and secured to the shoulders of the horse, allowing the butt-ends to drag upon the ground on either side; just behind the horse are secured to cross-pieces, to keep the poles in their respective places and upon which are placed the lodge and domestic furniture. This also serves for the safe transportation of the children and infirm unable to ride on horseback-the lodge being folded so as to allow two or more to ride securely. The horses dragging this burden-often of three hundred pounds-are also ridden by the squaws, with a child astride behind, and one in her arms, embracing a favorite young pup.

“Their dogs (of which they have a large number) are also used in transporting their effects in the same manner as the horses, making with ease, twenty miles a day, dragging forty pounds. In this way this heterogeneous caravan, comprising of a thousand souls, fell into line and trotted quietly until night, while the chiefs and braves rode in front, flank, or rear, ever ready for the chase or defense against a foe. Like other tribes in this region, the Piegan retain all their primitive customs, adhering with faithful pertinacity to the ceremonies of their forefathers.” 6 At that time the Piegan were estimated to have had 430 lodges, the average number of persons occupying each being 10.

During this brief but interesting journey Stanley made many sketches of the Indians with whom he came in contact, but not one of the drawings is known to exist at the present time. His beautiful painting of a buffalo hunt, shown in plate 2, is one of his five pictures now in the National Museum at Washington.

Blackfoot Camp
Plate 16a - Blackfoot Camp

The Blackfeet allies often moved in great numbers from place to place when searching for the herds of buffalo or tracking some enemy tribe. Such a war party was encountered on the banks of the River Saskatchewan, two days journey below Fort Pitt, about the present town of Battleford, Saskatchewan, on June 1, 1848. Among the party then going from Fort Pitt to Norway House, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s post on the northeast shore of Lake Winnipeg, was the Canadian artist Kane, who entered in his journal: “We saw a large party of mounted Indians, riding furiously towards us. On their nearer approach they proved to be a large war party, consisting of Blackfoot Indians, Blood Indians, Surcees, Gros Ventres, and Paygan. We instantly put ashore to meet them. They told us they were a party of 1,500 warriors, from 1,200 lodges, who were then ‘pitching on’ towards Fort Edmonton; that is, they were making short journeys, and pitching their tents en towards Edmonton, leaving few behind capable of bearing arms. They were in pursuit of the Cree and Assiniboine, whom they threatened totally to annihilate, boasting that they themselves were as numerous as the grass on the plains. They were the best mounted, the best looking, the most warlike in appearance, and the best accounted of any tribe I had ever seen on the continent during my route. After our smoke several of the young Braves engaged in a horse race, to which sport they are very partial, and at which they bet heavily; they generally ride on those occasions stark naked, without a saddle, and with only a lasso fastened to the lower jaw of the horse as represented in Sketch No. 16.” 7 The “sketch No. 16″ is here reproduced in plate 16a. It shows, in addition to the horses, several conical decorated skin-covered lodges, the one on the right being highly decorated.

The valley of the Saskatchewan and southward to the waters of the Missouri was a region frequented by many tribes, rich in game, and one from which the Hudson’s Bay Company derived quantities of furs. The Blackfeet, who, as already mentioned, occupied in recent years the country about the headwaters of the Missouri, formerly lived farther north, and about the close of the eighteenth century were encountered near the Saskatchewan, neighbors of the Assiniboin and Cree. About the year 1790 Mackenzie traversed the country, and wrote, regarding the number and distribution of the tribes then claiming that northern region: “At Nepawi, and South-Branch House, about thirty tents of Knisteneaux, or ninety warriors; and sixty tents of Stone-Indians, or Assiniboin. who are their neighbors, and are equal to two hundred men; their hunting ground extends upwards to about Eagle Hills. Next to them are those who trade at Forts George and Augustus, and are about eighty tents or upwards of Knisteneaux: on either side of the river, their number may be two hundred. In the same country are one hundred and forty tents of Stone-Indians; not quite half of them inhabit the West woody country; the others never leave the plains, and their numbers cannot be less than four hundred and fifty men. At the Southern headwaters of the North branch dwells a tribe called Sarsees, consisting of about thirty-five tents, or one hundred and twenty men. Opposite to those Eastward, on the head-waters of the South Branch, are the Picaneaux, to the number of from twelve to fifteen hundred men. Next to them, on the same water, are the Blood-Indians, of the same nation as the last, to the number of about fifty tents, or two hundred and fifty men. From them downwards extend the Black-Feet Indians, of the same nation as the two last tribes; their number may be eight hundred men. Next to them, and who extend to the confluence of the South and North branch. are the Fall, or Big-bellied Indians, who may amount to about six hundred warriors.”8 “South-Branch House” of this narrative stood between the north and south branches of the Saskatchewan, near the present town of Dalmeny, in the Province of Saskatchewan. The Picaneaux, who probably possessed from 200 to 300 skin-covered lodges, were the Piegan, the Piekann Indians of Maximilian, whose village as it appeared in 1833 was painted by Bodmer. Likewise the Fall or Bigbellied Indians whose habitat about the year 1790 was near the junction of the two branches of the Saskatchewan, were the Atsina, the Gros Ventres of the Prairie, and their village or camp in 1790 was probably quite similar to the one visited by Maximilian 43 years later, when it was sketched by Bodmer.

By reason of the roving disposition of the northern tribes, those mentioned in the preceding quotations and their neighbors, it was not possible for them to erect and maintain permanent villages. The skin-covered lodge served as a shelter easily and quickly raised and readily transported from place to place as requirements and desires made necessary. But many bark-covered structures were probably to have been found scattered throughout the wooded sections.

Something of the manners and ways of life of these people may be gathered from another passage in Mackenzie’s narrative: “In the fall of the year the natives meet the traders at the forts, where they barter the furs or provisions which they may have procured; then they obtain credit, and proceed to hunt the beavers, and do not return till the beginning of the year; when they are again fitted out in the same manner and come back the latter end of March, or the beginning of April. They are now unwilling to repair to the beaver hunt until the waters are clear of ice, that they may kill them with firearms, which the Chepewyans are averse to employ. The major part of the latter return to the barren grounds, and live during the summer with their relations and friends in the enjoyment of that plenty which is derived from numerous herds of deer. But those of that tribe who are most partial to these desarts, cannot remain there in winter, and they are obliged, with the deer, to take shelter in the woods during that rigorous season, when they contrive to kill a few beavers, and send them by young men, to exchange for iron utensils and ammunition.”9

The large ceremonial lodges erected by the Blackfeet were among the most interesting structures reared by the tribes of the Northwest. A remarkable example was encountered by the Fisk party September 1, 1862, near the banks of Milk River, a short distance from Fort Benton. As described in the journal: “We passed this afternoon an abandoned camp of some three thousand or four thousand Blackfeet Indians. A large ‘medicine lodge,’ in which they had celebrated their superstitious rites, was left standing, although its covering had been mostly stripped from its frame-work. It was circular, and about one hundred feet in diameter and forty feet high in the centre, the roof poles running from the top down to and around a tree, which was erected for a centre pole. This, in time of occupancy, is covered with dressed buffalo skins and constitutes the Indian’s highest achievement in the architectural line.”10 The entire ceremony attending the selection of a site for the structure, the cutting of the poles, the erection of the associated sweat lodges, and the final raising of the medicine lodge, has been recorded by Grinnell11 and is one of the most complete accounts of a native ceremony ever prepared.

Footnotes

  1. Hendry, Anthony, Journal of . . . 1754-1755. In Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada. Vol. I, Third series, 1907, pp. 337-340. 

  2. Cocking, Matthew, Journal of… 1772-1773. In Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada. Vol. II, Third series. 1908. pp. 110-112. 

  3. Hayden, F. V., Contributions to the Ethnography and Philology of the Indian Tribes of the Missouri Valley. In Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. XII. Philadelphia, 1862, pp.,249-250. 

  4. Maximilian, Prince Of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America. London, 1843, pp. 250-251. 

  5. Maximilian, Prince Of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America. London, 1843, pp. 261-262. 

  6. Stanley, J. M., Visit to the Piegan Camp. In Reports of Explorations and Surveys to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean . . 1853-1854. Vol. I. Washington, 1855, pp. 448-449. 

  7. Kane, Paul, Wanderings of an Artist among the Indians of North America. London, 1859, pp. 417-420. 

  8. Mackenzie, Charles, The Mississouri Indians, a narrative of four trading expeditions to the Mississouri, 1804-1805-1806. In Masson, p. lxx. 

  9. Mackenzie, Charles, The Mississouri Indians, a narrative of four trading expeditions to the Mississouri, 1804-1805-1806. In Masson, pp. xc-xci. 

  10. Fisk, J. L., North overland expedition for protection of emigrants from Fort Abercrombie to Fort Benton, 1862. Ex. Doc. No. 80, 37th Cong., 3d session. Washington, 1863, p. 24. 

  11. Grinnell, George Bird, Blackfoot Lodge Tales. New York, 1892, pages 263-267. 



MLA Source Citation:

Bushnell, David Ives. Villages of the Algonquian, Siouan and Caddoan Tribes West of the Mississippi. Published in Bulletin 77, Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution. Washington. 1922. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 27 August 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/blackfoot-confederacy-houses.htm - Last updated on Jul 16th, 2014


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