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Blackfoot Tribal Divisions

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As previously stated, there are three political divisions of the Blackfoot Indians. These were definite when the tribes first came to our knowledge and their origins have long had a place in mythology. The genesis of these divisions must forever remain obscure, though there are a few suggestions as to what may have been the order of differentiation. While the term Blackfoot has been used by explorers from the very first, it seems also to have some general significance among the Indians themselves. Thus, a Piegan will tell you that he is a Piegan, but if asked who are the Piegan, will usually reply that they are Blackfoot Indians. Naturally, this may be due to foreign influence, the idea of subordination to the Blackfoot division having grown out of knowledge that such a classification was accepted by the dominant race.1 In the sign language, there appears no distinct designation for the group as a whole. According to our information the signs are: –

  • Blackfoot: Pass the thumb and extended fingers down the side of the leg and supplement by pointing to black.
  • Blood: Crook the closed fingers and draw across the mouth, the teeth showing. The idea is that of picking clotted blood from the mouth.
  • Piegan: The closed fist, fingers down, rubbed on the cheek. The idea is “poorly dressed robes,” the sign signifying the rubbing of a skin.2 One informant claims the name to have been given by the Crow because the first Piegan they killed wore a scabby robe.

To the many published stories accounting for the origin of the term Kainaw a (Blood) we add the following from the Piegan which is entirely consistent with the sign. A party of Piegan were found in the mountains frozen. They lay in a heap. Afterwards, the Blood taunted them by singing, “All in a pile.” Some time after this, some Blood were found in the same condition but with dried blood and froth smeared on their faces. Then the Piegan retorted by singing and making the sign. In daily speech, the significance of kai seems to be some dried effluvium from the body, hence, the name.

Henry gives a great deal of information as to the Blackfoot but is not quite consistent in his classification, for though he recognized the three historical divisions in his enumeration, he substituted two “bands” for the Blackfoot;3 the Cold band and Painted Feather’s band, implying that these were distinct and strong divisions into which the Blackfoot were divided. This may have been a temporary segregation under two dominant leaders. Henry estimated the strength of the Piegan as equal to all the other divisions combined, an estimate consistent with all our information and with tradition.

There are some linguistic differences between the three tribes but these are chiefly in the choice of words and in current idioms. The Northern Blackfoot seem to differ more from the Piegan than the latter from the Blood.

Footnotes

  1. “All these Indians [Piegan, Blood; Blackfoot] are comprehended, by the Whites, under the general name of Blackfeet, which they themselves do not, however, extend so far, but know each of the three tribes only by its own proper name ” Maximilian, Prince of Wied. Early Western Travels, 1748-1846. Edited by Reuben Gold Thwaites. Cleveland, 1906, Vol 23, p. 96. 

  2. See also Maclean, John. The Gesture Language of the Blackfeet. (Transactions, Canadian Institute, Vol. 5. Toronto, 1898), p. 44; Clark, W. P. The Indian Sign Language. Philadelphia, 1885, p. 73, 74. 

  3. Henry and Thompson. New Light on the Early History of the Great Northwest. Edited by Elliott Coues. New York, 1897, p. 530. 


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