The Way Blackfoot Reckon Time

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As far as our information goes, the time of day was noted by the sun and the night by the position of Ursa major, the Seven Stars. The year was designated by the winter, each winter constituting a new year. Two divisions or seasons were recognized; spring and autumn were regarded as originating with the whites. Each season was considered as composed of moons; the period during which the moon was invisible taken as the beginning of another moon. We found little consistency in the nomenclature of moons, our information implying that they were considered more by numerals than by names. The tendency was to count the moons from about October, the beginning of winter or the New Year. Variation seems to have been due to the fact that calendar counts were kept by a few individuals, usually medicine men, who modified the system according to their own theories. One man who kept a calendar gave the following list: -

Winter Moons Summer Moons
1. Beginning winter moon Beginning summer’s moon
2. Wind moon Frog moon
3. Cold moon Thunder moon
4. Two-big-Sunday moon Big-Sunday moon
5. Changeable moon Berry moon
6. Uncertain moon Chokecherry moon
7. Geese moon

The references to Sunday are to the Christmas and July holidays of our own calendar. The year is generally regarded as comprising fourteen moons equally divided among the two seasons. As calendars were usually in the keeping of men owning beaver bundles and the number seven was employed in enumerating parts of their rituals, this division of the year into moons may be a matter of convention rather than observation. They claim to have reckoned twenty-six days to a moon. Some, however, assert that thirty days were counted; but in this case the year could not have comprised fourteen moons.

From one man we secured a set of 179 sticks used for keeping track of time. Red sticks were used for years. Another, used a bag with two parts; one faced with red, the other with blue. Fourteen pebbles were used to mark the moons; each time the moon became invisible he moved a pebble to the other side. Calendars, or winter counts, were kept by memory rather than by sticks, or paintings. We get the impression, however, that there was less interest in such records than among the Dakota and Kiowa. The following is Elk-horn’s winter count, beginning about 1845:

  1. Camped down at Mouth River; Gambles killed; sun dance at Crow Garden (a place).
  2. Camped near Fort Benton; moved to Yellowstone country; some Crow escaped by letting themselves down from a rock with a rope; Yellow River, the place of the sun dance; camped at a place where Bad-tail killed a Sioux.
  3. Crossed Missouri River to camp; traded at Ft. Benton and spent most of the winter on the Marias; a fight with the Snake; the ice broke up in the winter (unusual); sun dance near this place; some Piegan killed by enemies.
  4. On the Marias; man named Goose killed; in autumn hunted south of Ft. Benton; traded at Ft. Benton.
  5. Wintered on the Teton; spring, moved down the Missouri; killed a man named High-ridge; made two sun dances; went to Bear Paw Mountains; went toward Crow country; John Monroe came up to tell Piegan that soldiers were near to issue ammunition and some Piegan did not go because they were skeptical; six Flathead came there for ammunition, some Nez Perce, two North Blackfoot, a few Blood, four North Piegan and some Gros Ventre, but no Sarcee.
  6. Camped on Two Medicine River.
  7. Missouri River; deep snow winter; sun dance at Yellow River.
  8. Slippery winter; some Piegan killed by the Snake.
  9. Camped on Cut Bank; went toward Missouri; Some-bull killed by fall from a horse (chief of the tribe); traded at Sun River.
  10. Sweet Grass Hills; spent spring on the Marias; in summer went south; Big-snakes (chief) killed; ammunition issued.
  11. South of the Missouri; Blood fought among themselves; first time steamboats came to Ft. Teton.
  12. Camped at Bad Waters; Sioux after Piegan; this camp north of the Missouri; killed 7 Cree; a fight with the Crow and lost two chiefs. Good-raven and Mad-plume.
  13. On the Marias; first fight with Gros Ventre; summer camp on the northeast side of Sweet Grass Hills (Canada).
  14. A few cases of smallpox; fight with the Kootenai in which many were killed; during the summer Mountain-chief was attacked by Sioux; a Piegan was killed by a number of Gros Ventre.
  15. Captured a double barrel shot gun; sun dance at High Ridge.
  16. Flies-low was killed.
  17. Many Piegan visited the Southern Gros Ventre (?); ammunition issued; summer camp above Sweet Grass Hills; a fight with the Flathead; also with the Gros Ventre; returned to Two Medicine River.
  18. Eagle-chief killed; in summer killed Eagle-horse.
  19. Fought with the Crow, Gros Ventre, and Flathead.
  20. Straggling-wolf killed near camp; Piegan killed Crow in revenge.
  21. Assiniboine (name of a chief) killed.
  22. Big-prairies father killed by his own people.
  23. Body-sticking-out killed by his own people.
  24. Three-eagles killed by his own people.
  25. Many-horses (the chief) died.
  26. Many buffalo and many trading posts on the Marias.
  27. Man tried to kill his wife, she (Sarcee woman) stabbed him, he killed her; in summer, Home-chief died.
  28. Chief Old-woman-child dies; an open winter.
  29. Killed seven Assiniboine.
  30. Crossed the Missouri; Sitting-bull killed many Piegan.
  31. Camped south of the Missouri.
  32. Camped on Two Medicine River; White-dry, chief of Assiniboine, killed by Piegan; after this the Piegan were confined to the reservation.
  33. Wolf-eagle shot in the arm by Cree.
  34. Many Indians died of sore throat; Chief Birch-bark died.
  35. Crow-big-foot visited Piegan; Crow came to steal horses.
  36. Eagle-child died.
  37. Many cattle died.
  38. Stallions issued.
  39. Mares issued.
  40. Two Indians arrested and died in prison; in summer cattle were issued.
  41. Wolf-coming-over-hill dies.
  42. Chief Walking-through-the-beach dies.
  43. Crow-big-foot dies.
  44. Yellow-medicine dies.
  45. Three-bulls dies.
  46. Big-nose dies.
  47. Four-bear dies.
  48. Gets-paint dies.
  49. Black-living-over-tail dies.
  50. Old-kicking-woman dies.
  51. Lance-chief dies.
  52. Fat-buffalo-horse dies.
  53. Bites killed in a runaway.
  54. Running-rabbit dies.
  55. White-calf dies.

This calendar is given as a type and not for the value of its contents, though it doubtless has its merits from that point of view. The narrator was somewhat uncertain as to the order of many counts and made frequent use of a set of improvised counting sticks. We asked him why in later years the winter counts were designated chiefly by the deaths of the most prominent men, to which he replied that since his people were confined to the limits of the reservation nothing else happened worth remembering, and further, that the count ended with the death of White-calf because there were now no men living of sufficient worth to be honored with such mention. From the human point of view we agreed with him in that the book should be closed, for the old ways have all but gone. If we were interested in the historical aspect of this account the dates could doubtless be checked by certain specific references as Nos. 11, 22, 43, and 56.

For completeness, we add the winter count of Big-brave, covering a span of sixty-one years, but not giving full representation to the later years. Since reservation days, there is a general tendency among the older men to fix their counts in units of residence at a given spot; i. e., “for five winters, I lived on Two Medicine, then for eight winters on Cut Bank, etc.:

  1. The fall of the year. Gambler went on the warpath and was killed; Piegan spent the winter on the Marias River.
  2. In the fall of the year. Big-lake, chief of The-don’t-laugh band died; Piegan wintered on the Marias River which was high and flooded their camps. In the summer, they had a sun dance at Sweet Grass Hills; Bob-tail-horse was shot and killed; a woman was also killed.
  3. Leaves-big-lodge-camp-marks clubbed a Flathead but did not kill him; in the summer, Piegan killed some Sioux on the Marias.
  4. Black-tattoo became crazy; in the spring a man named Goose was killed by Sioux; in the summer. Goose’s father went to war and killed some Crow; some of the Crow escaped by letting themselves down a high cliff with a rope.
  5. Still-smoking was killed; the Piegan stole a sorrel race horse from the Flathead. In the summer some Piegan were on the warpath south of the Missouri River. They came to some white settlers and there saw a Sioux Indian whom Last-bull killed with a club. The Sioux had been visiting with the white men.
  6. In the fall, the first treaty was made by the Government at the mouth of Yellow River; there were seven different tribes there. That winter, Mountain-chief spent on Belly River. One of his daughter’s clothes caught fire and she was burnt to death. During the summer Mountain-chief became ill with the hiccoughs which lasted some time.
  7. This winter was called the slippery winter because there was so much ice. In the summer Mountain-chief and his people went to Canada and killed thirty Sioux.
  8. The Piegan camped on Marias, and one by the name of Blood killed a Flathead Indian. Lame-bull, a chief, was killed by falling from his horse in the summer.
  9. Mountain-chief spent the winter on Milk River and found an extra large buffalo dung which was about three feet across when measured. Chief Big-snake was killed in the summer.
  10. Lazy-boy was killed. In the summer, the Blood camped at Yellow Mountains and fought among themselves; Calf-shirt killed some of his own people.
  11. A man named Peace-maker was killed. Eagle-child was killed in the summer; a Blood was shot through the face with an arrow by a Sioux but did not die.
  12. Piegan fought with the Gros Ventre and one, Many-butterfly, was killed. The Piegan killed five Sioux who had a horn spoon.
  13. Chief Coward was killed by Crow Indians. In the summer, the Piegan attacked the camps of the Gros Ventre and killed many of them; also, some Piegan were killed while out hunting.
  14. The Assiniboine attacked Mountain-chief’s camps on Big River in Canada, at night, but did not kill anyone. The Piegan fought with the Gros Ventre in the summer and a Piegan, whose name was Half-breed, was killed.
  15. Piegan had what was called red smallpox; in the summer they attacked the Assiniboine seventy lodges and running them out captured the lodges.
  16. At Fort Benton, the Government gave the Piegan clothes, etc.; the white man who issued the things to them went by the name of Black-horse-owner. At this place they also made peace with the Gros Ventre. In the summer Little-dog was killed and the Piegan fought with a great number of enemies, with the Crow, Assiniboine, and Gros Ventre who helped one another in fighting the Piegan; but the Piegan overpowered or whipped them all.
  17. Bear-chief was killed south of the Missouri and the following summer the Piegan killed Weasel-horse, a chief of the Blood.
  18. Mountain-chief camped south of the Missouri and the Piegan killed two Flathead near the Piegan camps; in the summer the Piegan killed thirty Assiniboine who were picking gum off the pine trees.
  19. Strangle-wolf was killed by the Gros Ventre while out hunting; Chief Crow was killed by Gros Ventre while he was out hunting. He had six women with him.
  20. The Piegan had smallpox and the soldiers attacked seventy camps, killing many old men, women, and children. Running-raven was wounded by a Gros Ventre.
  21. The Piegan fought with the Cree on Belly River in Canada .and killed one hundred of them. In the summer they had a big battle with the Assiniboine and Big-brave and his horse were wounded.
  22. A Piegan, Red-old-man, was killed by the Gros Ventre near Bear Paw Mountain while he was trying to steal some horses from them; Black-eagle, a Piegan, killed an Assiniboine and his wife, in the summer.
  23. In the summer Big-brave moved to Blacktail Creek and wintered there.
  24. Mares were issued to the people and Little-dog received two buck-skin mares.
  25. Big-brave moved to White Tail Creek and lived there two winters and summers.
  26. Big-brave moved to Blacktail and has been living there ever since, nineteen winters and summers he has lived there.

Though we failed to find among the Blackfoot such elaborate chronicles as among the Dakota and Kiowa, what did come to hand were obviously of the same type and suggest common origins. Further, we get the impression that in details our material is more like the counts of the Kiowa than the Dakota.



MLA Source Citation:

After we go live. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 18 September 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/the-way-blackfoot-reckon-time.htm - Last updated on Jul 10th, 2013


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