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Blackfeet Indians, Siksika Tribe, Siksika Indians (‘black feet’, from siksinam ‘black’, ka the root of oqkatsh, ‘foot’. The origin of the name is disputed, but it is commonly believed to have reference to the discoloring of their moccasins by the ashes of the prairie fires; it may possibly have reference to black-painted moccasins such as were worn by the Pawnee, Sihasapa, and other tribes). An important Algonquian confederacy of the northern plains, consisting of three subtribes, the Siksika proper or Blackfeet, the Kainah or Bloods, and the Piegan, the whole body being popularly known as Blackfeet. In close alliance with these are the Atsina and the Sarsi.
Within the recent historic period, until gathered upon reservations, the Blackfeet held most of the immense territory stretching almost from North Saskatchewan river, Canada, to the southern headstreams of the Missouri in Montana, and from about lon.105° to the base of the Rocky mountains. A century earlier, or about 1790, they were found by Mackenzie occupying the upper and middle South Saskatchewan, with the Atsina on the lower course of the same stream, both tribes being apparently in slow migration toward the north west1. This would make them the vanguard of tile Algonquian movement from the Red river country. With the exception of a temporary occupancy by invading Cree, this extreme northern region has always, within the historic period, been hold by Athapascan tribes. The tribe is now settled on three reservations in Alberta, Canada, and one in north west Montana, about half being on each side of the international boundary.
So far as history and tradition go, the Blackfeet have been roving buffalo hunters, dwelling in tipis and shifting periodically from place to place, without permanent habitations, without the pottery art or canoes, and without agriculture excepting for the sowing and gathering of a species of native tobacco. They also gathered the camas root in the foothills. Their traditions go back to a time when they had no horses and bunted their game on foot; but as early as Mackenzie’s time, before 1800, they all ready had many horses, taken from tribes farther to the south, and later they became noted for their great horse herds. It is entirely probable that their spread over the plains region was due largely to the acquisition of the horse, and, about the same time, of the gun. They were a restless, aggressive, and predatory people, and, excepting for the Atsina and Sarsi, who lived under their protection, were constantly at war with all their neighbors, the Cree, Assiniboin, Sioux, Crows, Flatheads, and Kutenai. While never regularly at war with the United States, their general attitude toward Americans in the early days was one of hostility, while maintaining a doubtful friendship with the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Their culture was that of the Plains tribes generally, although there is evidence of an earlier culture, approximately that of the Eastern timber tribes. The 3 main divisions seem to have been independent of each other, each having its own Sun dance, council, and elective head chief, although the Blackfeet proper appear to have been the original nucleus. Each of the 3 was subdivided into a number of bands, of which Grinnell enumerates 45 in all. It has been said that these bands were gentes, but if so, their gentile character is no longer apparent. There is also a military and fraternal organization, similar to that existing in other Plains tribes, known among the Blackfeet as the Ikunuuhkahtsi, or All Comrades,’ and consisting formerly, according to Grinnell, of at least 12 orders or societies, most of which are now extinct. They have a great number of dances-religious, war, and social-besides secret societies for various purposes, together with many “sacred bundles,” around each of which centers a ritual. Practically every adult has also his personal “medicine.” Both sexes may be members of some societies. Their principal deities are the Sun, and a supernatural being known as Napi, ‘Old Man,’ who may be an incarnation of the same idea. The dead are usually deposited in trees or sometimes laid away in tipis erected for the purpose on prominent hills.
As usual, many of the early estimates of Blackfoot population are plainly unreliable. The best appears to be that of Mackenzie, who estimated them about 1790 at 2,250 to 2,500 warriors, or perhaps 9,000 souls. In 1780-81, in 1837-38, in 1845, in 1857-58, and in 1869 they suffered great losses by smallpox. In 1864 they were reduced by measles, and in 1883-84 some 600 of those in Montana died of sheer starvation in consequence of the sudden extinction of the buffalo coincident with a reduction of rations. The official Indian report for 1858 gave them 7,300 souls, but another estimate, quoted by Hayden as having been made “under the most favorable circumstances” about the same time, gives them 2,400 warriors and 6,720 souls. In 1909 they were officially reported to number in all 4,635, viz: Blackfoot agency, Alberta, 795; Blood agency, Alberta, 1,174; Piegan agency, Alberta, 471; Blackfoot agency (Piegan), Montana, 2,195.
For Further Study
The following articles and manuscripts will shed additional light on the Blackfeet as both an ethnological study, and as a people.
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- Grinnell, Blackfoot Lodge Tales, 1892.
- Hayden, Ethnog. and Philol. Mo. Val., 1862.
- Schultz, My Life as an Indian, 1907.
- Wissler, in Ontario Archæo. Rep. for 1905, 1906.
- Wissler, in Anthr. Pap. Am. Mus. Nat. Hist., V, pt. 1, 1910.
Mackenzie, Vol., lXX-lXXI, 1801 ↩