Popular Science Monthly/Volume 29/June 1886/Ethnology of the Blackfoot Tribes



THE tribes composing the Blackfoot Confederacy, as it is commonly styled, are in some respects the most important and interesting Indian communities of the Northwest; but they have been until recently less known than any others in that region. A report on these tribes having been requested by the British Association for the Advancement of Science, a correspondence was opened by the writer with two able and zealous missionaries residing among those Indians. These were the Rev. Albert Lacombe, widely and favorably known as Father Lacombe, author of a valuable grammar and dictionary of the Cree language, and now missionary among the Siksika, or proper Blackfoot Indians; and the Rev. John McLean, missionary of the Canadian Methodist Church to the Blood and Piegan tribes, who is now preparing a translation of the Scriptures into the Blackfoot tongue. To these gentlemen, who responded most courteously and liberally to the inquiries made of them, the report (of which the following is mainly a summary) is indebted for most of the facts which it contains. For the conclusions drawn from these facts the writer only is responsible. Some other sources have been consulted, particularly the valuable official reports of the Canadian and United States Indian Departments. Something has also been drawn from the writer's own notes, made formerly during an exploring tour in Oregon.

Fifty years ago the Blackfoot Confederacy held among the Western tribes much the same position of superiority which was held two centuries ago by the Iroquois Confederacy (then known as the Five Nations) among the Indians east of the Mississippi. The tribes of the former confederacy were also, when first known, five in number. The nucleus, or main body, was—as it still is—composed of three tribes speaking the proper Blackfoot language. These are the Siksika, or Blackfeet proper, the Kena, or Blood Indians, and the Piekané, or Piegans (pronounced Peegans)—a name sometimes corrupted to Pagan Indians. Two other tribes joined this original confederacy, or, perhaps, more accurately speaking, came under its protection. These were the Sarcees from the north and the Atsinas from the south. The Sarcees are an offshoot of the great Athabascan stock, which is spread over the north of British America, in contact with the Esquimaux, and extends, in scattered bands—the Umpquas, Apaches, and others—through Oregon and California, into Northern Mexico. The Atsinas, who have been variously known, from the reports of Indian traders, as Fall Indians, Rapid Indians, and Gros Ventres, speak a dialect similar to that of the Arapahoes, who now reside in the “Indian Territory” of the United States. It is a peculiarly harsh and difficult language, and is said to be spoken only by those two tribes. None of the Atsinas are now found on Canadian territory, and no recent information has been obtained concerning them except from the map which accompanies the United States Indian Report for 1884, in which their name appears on the American Blackfoot Reservation.

The five tribes were reckoned, fifty years ago, to comprise not less than thirty thousand souls. Their numbers, union, and warlike spirit, made them the terror of all the Western Indians. It was not uncommon for thirty or forty war-parties to be out at once against the hostile tribes of Oregon and of the eastern plains, from the Shoshonees of the south to the Crees of the far north. The country which the Blackfoot tribes claimed properly as their own comprised the valleys and plains along the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains, from the Missouri to the Saskatchewan. This region was the favorite resort of the buffalo, whose vast herds afforded the Indians their principal means of subsistence. In the year 1836 a terrible visitation of the small-pox swept off two thirds of the people; and five years later they were supposed to count not more than fifteen hundred tents, or about ten thousand souls. Their enemies were then recovering their spirits and retaliating upon the weakened tribes the ravages which they had formerly committed.

In 1855 the United States Government humanely interfered to bring about a complete cessation of hostilities between the Blackfoot tribes and the other Indians. The commissioners appointed for the purpose summoned the hostile tribes together and framed a treaty for them, accompanying the act with a liberal distribution of presents to bring the tribes into good-humor. This judicious proceeding proved effectual. Dr. F. V. Hayden, in his account of the Indian tribes of the Missouri Valley, states that from the period of the treaty the Blackfoot tribes had become more and more peaceful in their habits, and were considered, when he wrote, the best disposed Indians in the Northwest. He remarks that their earlier reputation for ferocity was doubtless derived from their enemies, who always gave them ample cause for attacking them. “In an intellectual and moral point of view,” he adds, “they take the highest rank among the wild tribes of the West.” The recent reports of the Indian agents and other officials of the Canadian Northwest confirm this favorable opinion of the superior honesty and intelligence of the Blackfoot tribes. While constantly harassed on their reserves by the incursions of thievish Crees and other Indians, who rob them of their horses, they forbear to retaliate, and honorably abide by the terms of their late treaty, which binds them to leave the redress of such grievances to the Canadian authorities.

Since the general peace was established by the American Government, the numbers of the Blackfeet have apparently been on the increase. Dr. Hayden reports the three proper Blackfoot tribes as numbering, in 1855, about seven thousand souls. The present population of the three Canadian reserves is computed at about six thousand, divided as follows: Blackfeet proper (Siksika), twenty-four hundred; Bloods, twenty-eight hundred; Piegans, eight hundred. On the American reservation there are said to be about twenty-three hundred, mostly Piegans. This would make the total population of the three tribes exceed eight thousand souls. The adopted tribe, the Sarcees, have greatly diminished in numbers through the ravages of the small-pox. There are now less than five hundred, who reside on a small reserve of their own, near the town of Calgary.

During the past five years, as is well known, a great change has taken place in the condition of all the Western tribes through the complete extermination of the buffalo. The Blackfeet have been the greatest sufferers from this cause. The herds were not only their main dependence for food, but also furnished the skins which made their tents and their clothing. Suddenly, almost without warning, they found themselves stripped of nearly every necessary of life. The Governments both of the United States and of Canada came to their rescue; but in the former country the urgency of the case was not at first fully comprehended, and before the necessary relief came many of the Indians perished from actual starvation. On the Canadian side, fortunately, the emergency was better understood. Arrangements were at once made for settling the Indians on reserves suited for agriculture, and for supplying them with food and clothing, and teaching them to erect wooden houses and cultivate their lands. The Indians displayed a remarkable readiness to adapt themselves to their new conditions. In 1880 the buffalo finally disappeared. In 1882, according to the official reports, more than half a million pounds of potatoes were raised by the three Blackfoot tribes, besides considerable quantities of oats, barley, and turnips. The Piegans had sold one thousand dollars' worth of potatoes, and had a large supply on hand. "The manner in which the Indians have worked," writes the agent, "is really astonishing, as is the interest they have taken and are taking in farming." Axes and other tools were distributed among them, and were put to good use. In November, 1882, the agent writes that log-houses "had gone up thick and fast on the reserves, and were most creditable to the builders." In many cases the logs were hewed, and in nearly all the houses fireplaces were built. In the same year another official, the Indian commissioner, going through the reserves, was surprised at the progress which he saw. He found comfortable dwellings, cultivated gardens, and good supplies of potatoes in root-houses. Most of the families had cooking-stoves, for which they had sometimes paid as much as fifty dollars. He "saw many signs of civilization, such as cups and saucers, knives and forks, coal-oil lamps, and tables; and several of the women were baking excellent bread, and performing other cooking operations." Three years before, these Indians were wild nomads, who lived in skin tents, hunted the buffalo, and had probably never seen a plow or an axe.

The Blackfeet have been known to the whites for about a century, and during that period have dwelt in or near their present abode. There is evidence, however, that they once lived farther east than at present. Mackenzie, in 1789, found the three Blackfoot tribes, with their allies, the Fall Indians (or Atsinas), holding the South Branch of the Saskatchewan, from its source to its junction with the North Branch—a region of which the eastern portion was at a later day possessed by the Crees. Of the Blackfoot tribes, he says: "They are a distinct people, speak a language of their own, and I have reason to think are traveling northwest, as well as the others just mentioned (the Atsinas); nor have I heard of any Indians with whose language that which they speak has any affinity."

The result of Mr. McLean's inquiries confirms this opinion of the westward movement of these Indians in comparatively recent times. "The former home of these Indians," he writes, "was in the Red River country, where, from the nature of the soil which blackened their moccasins, they were called Blackfeet." This, it should be stated, is the exact meaning of Siksika, from siksinam, black, and ka, the root of ohkatsh, foot. The westward movement of the Blackfeet has probably been due to the pressure of the Crees upon them. The Crees, according to their own tradition, originally dwelt far east of the Red River, in Labrador and about Hudson Bay. They have gradually advanced westward to the inviting plains along the Red River, pushing the prior occupants before them by the sheer force of numbers. This will explain the deadly hostility which has always existed between the Crees and the Blackfeet.

Father Lacombe, it should be stated, is disposed to question the fact of the former residence of the Blackfeet in the Red River country, on the ground that their own tradition seems to bring them from the opposite direction. "They affirm," he writes, "that they came from the southwest, across the mountains; that is, from the direction of Oregon and Washington Territory. There were bloody conflicts between the Blackfeet and the Nez Percés, as Bancroft relates, for the right of hunting on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains." Mr. McLean, who mentions the former residence of the Blackfeet in the Red River region as an undoubted fact, also says, "It is supposed that the great ancestor of the Blackfeet came across the mountains." Here are two distinct and apparently conflicting traditions which call for further inquiry. One of the best tests of the truth of tradition is to be found in language. Applying this test in the present instance, we are led to some interesting conclusions. It has been seen that Mackenzie, to whom we owe our first knowledge of the Blackfoot tribes, declared that their language had no affinity with that of any other Indians whom he knew. He was well acquainted with the Crees and Ojibways, who speak dialects of the great Algonkin stock, but he recognized no connection between their speech and that of the Blackfeet. Later inquirers, and at first even Gallatin himself (after studying a brief list of Blackfoot words), took the same view. Subsequent investigations satisfied that distinguished philologist that his first impressions were incorrect, and that the Blackfoot language really belonged to the Algonkin stock. More recently the French missionaries have made the same discovery, "by studying," as M. Lacombe writes to me, "the grammatical rules of these languages." From the extensive comparative list of words and grammatical forms in the Blackfoot, Cree, and Ojibway languages, with which he has favored me, it appears that while the Blackfoot is in its grammar purely Algonkin, many of the most common words in its vocabulary are totally different from the corresponding words in the Algonkin tongues. Others which are found, on careful examination, to be radically the same as the corresponding Algonkin terms, are so changed and distorted that the resemblance is not at first apparent. These facts admit of but one explanation. They are the precise phenomena to which we are accustomed in the case of mixed languages. In such languages (of which our English speech is a notable example), we expect the grammar to be derived entirely from one source, while the words will be drawn from two or more. Furthermore, wherever we find a mixed language, we infer a conquest of one people by another. In the present instance, we may well suppose that when the Blackfoot tribes were forced westward from the Red River country to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, they did not find their new abode uninhabited. It is probable enough that the people whom they found in possession had come through the passes from the country west of those mountains. If these people were overcome by the Blackfeet, and their women taken as wives by the conquerors, two results would be likely to follow. In the first place, the language would become a mixed speech, in grammar purely Algonkin, but in the vocabulary largely recruited from the speech of the conquered tribe. A change in the character of the amalgamated people would also take place. The result of this change might be better inferred if we knew the characteristics of both the constituent races. But it may be said that a frequent if not a general result of such a mixture of races is the production of a people of superior intelligence and force of character.

The religion of these tribes (applying this term to their combined mythology and worship) resembles the language. It is in the main Algonkin, but includes some beliefs and ceremonies derived from some other source. In their view, as in that of the Ojibways, the Delawares, and other Algonkin nations, there were two creations—the primary, which called the world into existence, and the secondary, which found the world an expanse of sea and sky (with, it would seem, a few animals disporting themselves therein), and left it in its present state. The primitive creation is attributed to a superior divinity, whom they call the Creator (Apistotokin), and sometimes identify with the sun. After this divinity—of whom their ideas are very vague—had created the watery expanse, another deity, with the aid of four animals, of which the muskrat was the chief, brought some earth from the bottom of the abyss, expanded it to the present continent, and peopled it with human beings. This deity is commonly styled by them the "Old Man" (Napiw), a name implying, as used by them, a feeling of affectionate admiration. He is represented as a powerful but tricksy spirit, half Jupiter and half Mercury. "He appears," writes M. Lacombe, "in many other traditions and legendary accounts, in which he is associated with the various kinds of animals, speaking to them, making use of them, and especially cheating them, and playing every kind of trick." In this being we recognize at once the most genuine and characteristic of all the Algonkin divinities. In every tribe of this wide-spread family, from Nova Scotia to Virginia, and from the Delaware to the Rocky Mountains, he reappears under various names—Manabozho, Michabo, Wetuks, Glooskap, Wisaketjak, Napiw—but everywhere with the same traits and the same history. He is at once a creator, a defender, a teacher, and at the same time a conqueror, a robber, and a deceiver. But the robbery and deceit, it would seem, are usually for some good purpose. He preserves mankind from their enemies, and uses the arts of these enemies to circumvent and destroy them. In Longfellow's charming poem, he is confounded with the Iroquois hero, Hiawatha. In Dr. Brinton's view, his origin is to be found in a Nature-myth, representing "on the one hand the unceasing struggle of day with night, light with darkness, and on the other that no less important conflict which is ever waging between the storm and sunshine, the winter and summer, the rain and clear sky."

Napiw, the "Old Man," has, it seems, other names in the Blackfoot tongue. He is known as Kenakatsis, "he who wears a wolf-skin robe," and Mik-orkayew, "he who wears a red-painted buffalo-robe." These names have probably some reference to legends of which he is the hero. The name of the Creator, Apistotokin, as explained by M. Lacombe, affords a good example of the subtile grammatical distinctions which abound in the Siksika, as in other Algonkin tongues. The expression "he makes," which, like other verbal forms, may be used as a noun, can be rendered in four forms, of varied shades of meaning: Apistototsim signifies "he makes," or "he who makes," when the complement, or thing made, is expressed, and is an inanimate object. Apistotoyew is used when the expressed object is animate. Apistotakiw is the indefinite form, used when the complement, or thing made, is not expressed, but is understood to be inanimate; and, finally, Apistotokin, the word in question, is employed when the unexpressed object is supposed to be animate. By this analysis we gain the unexpected information that the world, as first created, was in the view of the Blackfoot cosmologists an animated existence.

But while these beliefs are all purely Algonkin, the chief religious ceremony of the Blackfoot tribes is certainly of foreign origin. This is the famous "Sun-dance," to which they, like the Dakota tribes and some of the Western Crees, are fanatically devoted. That this ceremony is not properly Algonkin is clearly shown by the fact that among the tribes of that stock, with the exception of the Blackfeet and a few of the Western Crees, it is unknown. Neither the Ojibways of the Lakes, nor any of the tribes east of the Mississippi, had in their worship a trace of this extraordinary rite. The late eminent missionary among the Dakotas, the Rev. Stephen R. Riggs (author of the "Dakota Grammar and Dictionary"), says of this ceremony: "The highest form of sacrifice is self-immolation. It exists in the Sun-dance, and is what is called "vision-seeking." Some, passing a knife under the muscles of the breast and arms, attach cords thereto, which are fastened at the other end to the top of a tall pole, raised for the purpose; and thus they hang suspended only by those cords, without food or drink, for two, three, or four days, gazing upon vacancy, their minds intently fixed upon the object in which they wish to be assisted by the deity, and waiting for a vision from above. Others, making incisions in the back, have attached, by hair ropes, one or more buffalo-heads, so that every time the body moves in the dance, a jerk is given to the buffalo-heads behind. The rite exists at present among the western bands of the Dakotas in the greatest barbarity. After making the cuttings in the arms, breast, or back, wooden setons—sticks about the size of a lead-pencil—are inserted, and the ropes are attached to them. Then, swinging on the ropes, they pull until the setons are pulled out with the flesh and tendons; or, if hung with buffalo-heads, the pulling is done in the dance, by successive jerks, keeping time with the music, while the head and body, in an attitude of supplication, face the sun, and the eye is unflinchingly fixed upon it."

A letter from the Rev. Mr. McLean furnishes a detailed and graphic account of this ceremony, as he witnessed it in June last, when most of the Kena or Blood Indians were present as actors or spectators. His narrative is too long for insertion here, but the concluding portion will show the resolute constancy with which this sacrifice of self-immolation is performed—some new features being added which are not comprised in Mr. Riggs's brief account, and possibly are not found among the Dakotas:

"This year, several persons, young and old, who had made vows during times of sickness or danger, had a finger cut off at the first joint, as an offering to the sun; and others had the operation of cutting their breasts and backs. The old woman who cut the fingers off held the suppliant's hand up to the sun, and prayed—then placed it upon a pole on the ground, laid a knife on the finger, and with a blow from a deer-horn scraper severed the member. The severed piece was taken up, held toward the sun, and the prayer made, when it was dropped into a bag containing similar members. This ceremony was gone through with each in turn. After this was done, each carried an offering, and climbing the sacrificial pole, with the face reverently turned toward the sun, placed the offering on the top of the pole. This year seven or eight persons went through the above ceremony. The other sacrificial ceremony consisted of the slitting of the flesh, in two pieces in each breast. A wooden skewer was thrust through each breast, a rope fastened to the sacrificial pole was placed around each skewer, and then the suppliant—whistling all the time upon the bone whistle—jumped about until the flesh gave way. In some instances the flesh was cut so deeply that two men had to press upon the performer's shoulders in order to tear it away. The ‘shield ceremony’ was the same process, only performed on the back, and the rope with a shield attached fastened to the skewers, and the ceremony continued until the suppliant was released."

Mr. Riggs, it will be noticed, says that the ceremony was most zealously performed among the most westerly of the Dakota tribes, that is, those which are nearest to the Rocky Mountains and to the Blackfeet. Possibly the Blackfeet may have learned the rite from the tribe from which they acquired the foreign element of their language, and may have taught it to the Western Dakotas and Crees. In any case, it is clear that they have a mixed religion as well as a mixed language—which are both facts of considerable interest in ethnological science.

The form of government among the Blackfeet, as among the Algonkin tribes generally, is exceedingly simple, offering a striking contrast to the elaborately complicated system common among the nations of the Iroquois stock. Each tribe has a head chief, and each of the bands composing the tribe has its subordinate chief; but the authority of these chiefs is little more than nominal. The office is not hereditary, the bravest or richest being usually chosen. The term "confederacy," commonly applied to the union of the Blackfoot tribes, is somewhat misleading. There is no regular league or constitution binding them together. "They consider themselves," writes M. Lacombe, "as forming one family, whose three branches or bands are descended from three brothers. This bond of kinship is sufficient to preserve a good understanding among them." They can hardly be said to have a general name for their whole community, though they sometimes speak of themselves as Sawketapix, or "Men of the Plains," and occasionally as Netsepoyè, or "People who speak one language."

The facts thus derived from the best authorities concerning this interesting people suggest some important conclusions. The opinion, still entertained by many, of the impossibility of bringing the nomadic Indians—or at least the grown-up people—under the restraints of civilization, has certainly not proved correct in this case, where we see a large body of wandering hunters converted within three years into a community of industrious and successful farmers. If it be said that the Blackfeet are, to some extent, an exceptional people, we are led to inquire into the origin of their superiority; and we can find no other cause than the fact that they are evidently a people of mixed race. As the Chilians, who are of mingled Spanish and Araucanian origin, are taking the lead among; the nations of South America—as the Feejeeans, who are of mixed Polynesian and Melanesian race, are foremost in mental vigor among the islanders of the South Pacific—so it would seem that the Blackfeet may owe their unusual capacity for improvement to a like cause. Instead of holding the melancholy belief which was common a few years ago—but which science is now repudiating—that Nature is opposed to a mingling of the human races, we may find in such evidences reason to believe that Nature is preparing to produce, by a commixture of the most opposite races, the most progressive, and possibly the predominant, race of the future.