Blackfoot Political Organization

When the European nations began their invasion of the Americas, they assumed that there was only one natural way for a people to be governed: a monarchy. Since most American Indian nations didn’t have monarchies, the Europeans simply invented the idea that a “chief” ruled over a “tribe” in a manner similar to that of a European monarch. While the United States rejected the concept of monarchy for its own government, it continued to insist that Indian “tribes” were somehow ruled by “chiefs” who acted like monarchs. As a result, there are many people today, including American Indian people, who are not aware that “tribes” and “chiefs” are not aboriginal concepts.

On the Northern Plains, along the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains in what is now the U.S. state of Montana and the Canadian province of Alberta, the Blackfoot Nation (sometimes called the Blackfoot Confederacy) was composed of three or four large groups who shared the same language, and many of the same ceremonies, but maintained their political independence. These groups included the Siksika (also called Northern Blackfoot), Kainah (also called Blood), and the Pikuni (also called Piegan or Peigan). The Pikuni are currently divided into South Piegan (located in Montana on the Blackfeet Reservation) and North Peigan (located in Alberta). Each of these four groups—Siksika, Kainah, North Peigan, and South Piegan—was composed of many small groups commonly called bands.

Like other Northern Plains Indian nations, the Blackfoot had an economy that was organized around bison hunting. Blackfoot political organization was, therefore, formed around communal buffalo hunting. The band was the primary hunting unit and each band was politically autonomous.

Prior to the horse, bands among the buffalo-hunting tribes tended to be small – perhaps 20-30 related families with a total population of 100-200 people. According to anthropologist John Ewers in his book The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains:  “These bands were large enough to enable their members to encircle a small herd of buffalo on the prairies and large enough to offer a stiff defense against human enemies; yet they were small enough to permit survival during periods of game scarcity and limited rations.”

Each band had its own chief, usually a man. The position of chief was not hereditary, but a son could succeed his father if he distinguished himself with leadership qualities, including bravery and generosity. Chiefs were not autocratic, that is, they could not tell people what to do, but led through the power of persuasion.

Among the Blackfoot, the band chief was responsible for preserving peace in the group. This meant that the band chief would arbitrate conflicts and disputes which arose in daily life. One of the important aspects of social control in the band was ridicule: in cases of mild misconduct, ridicule was very effective in shaming the offender into changing behavior.

During the summer many of the bands would gather together for a joint encampment which might last as long as two weeks. During this time there would usually be a Sun Dance and the chiefs might gather in council. At this time, the most influential band chief would be recognized as the head chief of the tribe. However, the only time when this rank had any significance was during the summer encampment. At this time, the role of tribal chief was really as chairman of the council of chiefs rather than as a ruler.

One of the important characteristic of Blackfoot leadership was generosity which was often expressed in the give-away– an activity condemned by Christian missionaries and the United States government. The give-aways were – and still are — formal events at which one is expected to give away property to other people. Chiefs were expected to give away most of their property.

Since the primary power of a Blackfoot chief lay in the ability to persuade people, one of the important chiefly qualities was oratory. Chiefs had a reputation of speaking well and telling only the truth. Historian John C. Jackson, in his book The Piikani Blackfeet: A Culture Under Siege, describes the leadership qualities esteemed by the Blackfoot:  “Standing tall, speaking straight, exuding dignity and unshakable self-confidence were the attributes that won respect.”

In addition to generosity, Blackfoot leaders were expected to be experienced warriors with a reputation for bravery in battle. War honors were recorded as counting coup—doing things like taking a weapon from a live enemy, capturing a horse from within an enemy camp, and so on. Killing was not necessarily a form of counting coup. Anthropologist Hugh Dempsey, in one of his articles in the Handbook of North American Indians, writes:  “Generally, a band leader had an outstanding record of success in warfare and was regarded as generous to the poor in his distribution of war booty or inherited wealth.”  Howard Harrod, in his book Mission Among the Blackfeet, puts it this way:  “Without an impressive war record, as well as a history of philanthropy, no man could hope to become a band chief.”

Many bands had both a civil chief and a war chief. The civil chief was generally known for eloquence while the war chief was known for leading successful war parties.

Blackfoot Sacred Places

By the time fur traders from the Hudson’s Bay Company first made contact with the Blackfoot tribes in 1735, their territory included much of the Northern Plains of present-day Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana. There are three Blackfoot tribes: Pikuni (also called Piegan), Kainah (also called Blood), Siksika (also called Northern Blackfoot). The Piegan are currently divided into South Piegan (located in Montana) and North Peigan (located in Alberta). These tribes, while politically independent, shared the same language and many of the same ceremonies.

One of the common accounts of Blackfoot origins often given by non-Indians is that they had been woodland dwellers who entered the Plains and adopted a Plains buffalo-hunting lifestyle just prior to European contact in the eighteenth century. On the other hand, anthropologist Hugh Dempsey, in his chapter on the Blackfoot in the Handbook of North American Indians, writes:  “The belief that they were woodland dwellers who drifted onto the plains from the region of the Eagle Hills in Saskatchewan in the immediate precontact period has been rejected by Indians and some anthropologists.”

Since Blackfoot culture shows almost no influence from the woodland cultures to the northeast, it is generally felt today that the Blackfoot had lived on the Northern Plains for a very long time prior to their contact with the fur traders.

For the Blackfoot, as well as other Plains Indian tribes, there were places which were regarded as particularly sacred. These sacred places were not marked with structures or shrines, but were usually places on the landscape which served as portals to the spiritual world. Some of these sacred places were used for ceremonies, such as the Medicine Lodge (Sun Dance), vision quest, and sweat lodge. Others were places where sacred plants could be gathered. Many of the sites are mentioned in the tribal oral traditions and therefore tend to be invisible for those unfamiliar with these traditions.

A few of the places which are sacred to the Blackfoot are described below.

Chief Mountain:

Chief Mountain is located to the east of Glacier National Park, Montana. It is used as a vision quest and prayer site. The Blackfoot name for the mountain is Niinastoko which means “Father Mountain.” According to Blackfoot elder Long Standing Bear Chief, writing in Spirit Talk News:   “On Chief Mountain, or rather Father Mountain, the Great Holy Being called upon the spirits of the universe to meet and decide what they were to offer in order to make life meaningful to the newest form of life: mankind.”  He goes on to say:  “When you go to the base of Chief Mountain today, you will find cloth of many different colors tied to the trees as offerings to the Source of Life and to the Spirits who continue to contribute to the wellness of mankind.”

Badger-Two Medicine:

 Another area sacred to the Blackfoot is Badger-Two Medicine, an area near the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. It is an area which contains hundreds of features which are associated with Blackfoot oral tradition and creation. According to Arlene Hirschfelder and Paulette Molin, in The Encyclopedia of Native American Religions:  “For centuries, the Blackfeet have carried out practices in this sacred region that are vital to the Blackfeet culture and people.”

In an article in The Journal of Law and Religion, Jay Vest writes:  “Spiritually, the Badger-Two Medicine is a source for the gathering of traditional Blackfeet ‘medicine power’ and this quality has a significant role in restoring the moral fabric of the Blackfeet Nation.”

The area is endangered by oil and gas exploration which the elders feel will destroy the region’s spirituality.

Sweetgrass Hills:

 The Sweetgrass Hills is an area in Montana which is sacred to the Blackfoot, Gros Ventre, Chippewa-Cree, Kootenai, and Assiniboine. The area is used as a fasting area and ceremonial area. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has placed the Sweetgrass Hills on its list of ten most endangered places. The area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and there have been attempts to explore the area for gold, oil, and gas.

Writing-on-Stone:

Writing-on-Stone is now a provincial park in Alberta, Canada which is well-known for its large collection of traditional rock art. Along a seven kilometer stretch of the Milk River, sandstone outcrops have been used for petroglyphs (rock carvings). Among the Blackfoot, this place is known as the “place of mystery” and the place “where the ghosts live”. According to Blackfoot elders Bird Rattle and Split Ears, the writings are messages from the spirit world which can be read by medicine men. According to these elders, the messages “which frequently changed overnight, warned of enemies in the area, told them the location of the buffalo herds or strayed horses, and foretold future events.”

The Cypress Hills Massacre

In the 1860s and 1870s packs of non-Indians known as wolfers roamed the Northern Plains of Montana and Alberta seeking to exterminate wolves. They would kill a buffalo, then douse the carcass with poison and wait for the wolves to devour the poisoned meat and die. They would then skin the wolves and collect the bounties. They got $2.50 per hide in bounties.  

It was not uncommon for Indian dogs to eat the tainted meat and die. While this created hardships for the Indians, for many wolfers there was little distinction between the extermination of wolves, buffalo, and Indians. They viewed all as a common nuisance whose extinction they sought.

In 1873, a group of wolfers, known as the Green River Renegades, paused in Fort Benton, Montana for some heavy drinking. When they returned to their camp outside of town, they found that they had lost about 40 of their horses. While the horses were most likely captured (some Indians would say “liberated”) by a Cree party, the wolfers made little distinction between one Indian tribe and another.

The Green River Renegades assumed that the raiders would take the horses across the Medicine Line into Canada where they would be traded at one the whiskey forts along the Whoop-Up Trail. These forts were run by American traders seeking to circumvent the US prohibition against selling alcohol to Indians and ignoring any possibility of Canadian law.

The Green River Renegades crossed into Alberta and stopped at Fort Farwell. They asked the trader about any Indians with horses in the area and were informed that there were only some peaceful Assiniboine in the area and that they didn’t have any more than a few horses. Upon hearing this, the wolfers sat down, ordered whiskey and got drunk.

Led by John Evans, the wolfers located the Assiniboine camp of Little Soldier. Abe Farwell, the owner of Fort Farwell, beat the wolfers to the camp and attempted to warn the Indians that they were in danger.

The wolfers attacked the camp, killing 30 people, and mutilating the bodies. The wolfers were well-armed with Henry and Winchester repeating rifles, while the Assiniboine had only bows and a few muzzle-loading muskets.

The wolfers captured a number of Assiniboine women and gang raped them throughout the night. One elder, Wankantu, was clubbed to death and then decapitated. His head was impaled on a spike outside of nearby Fort Solomon.

The Indians protested to the American Indian agent as well as to Canadian authorities, but the wolfers were never brought to justice. Even though the leaders of the Green River Renegades– John Evans, Thomas Hardwick, George Hammond-were well-known in the region. The Americans seemed to have little interest in justice. On the other hand, the brutality of this attack helped stimulate the creation of the North-West Mounted Police and end the illegal whiskey trade in the region.

The Assiniboine refer to this attack as the Cypress Hills Massacre.  

The Archaeology of Head-Smashed-In, Alberta

Archaeology is the study of the past through material remains. One of the goals of archaeology is discovery and description. Discovery and description, however, is only the first step: archaeologists also seek to develop explanations. Understanding the past means that we should try to understand how people lived in the past and why changes occurred. Ultimately, archaeology seeks to understand human behavior. In addition, there is also a concern, some would say an obligation, of communicating archaeological insights to the general public. One way of doing this is through displays at museums and interpretive centers. One of these interpretive centers is found in southern Alberta: the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre.

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Indian people have lived in southern Alberta for more than 11,000 years. By 6,000 years ago, they were using a sophisticated hunting technique that involved driving buffalo over a cliff at Head-Smashed-In. In 1965 archaeologists began their first dig at this site which led to the establishment of the Interpretive Centre which now explains the archaeological findings. The fifth level of the Interpretive Centre, Uncovering the Past, shows the archaeology behind the displays and explains how archaeologists uncover the past.

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Below the impressive buffalo at the top of the cliff there is a replica of the archaeological dig. The replica is a cast of an actual dig. Digging is often done with a trowel, the dirt placed into the bucket, which is then screened to find small items.

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Shown above is the grid used to help record the context of the finds.

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The idea of “dig” in archaeology often means going down many meters. In general, the farther down you go, the farther back in time you go.

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Archaeology is more than just digging up pretty or exotic objects to be displayed in museums: the context of all items is carefully recorded. The photos above shows the notebooks used to record the findings.

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The diorama shown above displays an archaeological dig on the right and the Indian village on the left. This shows what the site was like when it was in use and then what it looks like to the archaeologist. The archaeologists’ job is to use the material remains left at the site to reconstruct what happened there. The amount of detail in this diorama is amazing.

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A hide scraping tool is shown above.

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A series of interactive displays (some of which are shown above) explains some of the different artifacts found at Head-Smashed-In. The displays show not only different types of artifacts, but also how they are made and used.  

Cultures in Contact on the Northern Plains

In the late 1700s, Europeans began to arrive on the Northern Plains in Alberta, Canada and their arrival brought a century of great cultural change to the First Nations of the region. During this century, the buffalo, which had provided the Indians with food and shelter, comes close to extinction. At the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre near Fort Macleod, Alberta, displays on the fourth level of the building tell the story of the European impact on Native cultures.

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The coming of the fur trade had a far reaching impact on the people. One of the first traders to reach the Blackfoot was Peter Fidler who came among them in 1792. While he may have been the first European trader to reach the Blackfoot, European trade goods-metal items, beads, cloth, guns-had reached them several decades earlier. The traders not only brought in European trade goods, but more importantly they involved the Indians in a globalized economic system.

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The photographs above show some of the kinds of trade items that the European traders brought with them.

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The most famous trade good developed by Hudson’s Bay Company was the blanket. By 1740, the Hudson’s Bay Company was making a specially designed trade blanket. These blankets were heavier than other trade blankets and were made of pure wool. Each blanket was assigned a certain number of “points” based on its weight, and a series of stripes indicating the “points” were woven into the blankets. In this way the trade value of the blanket was easily seen by both trader and the Indian fur trappers.

Another change was brought about the treaties negotiated between the First Nations and the Canadian government. In 1877, representatives from the Blood, Siksika, North Peigan, Stoney, and Sarcee gathered at the Blackfoot Crossing of the Bow River in Alberta to meet with representatives of the Canadian government. Father Albert Lacomb, an Oblate missionary, was hired by the government to assist with the treaty. From the viewpoint of the Canadian government, the purpose of Treaty 7 was to resolve the problem of aboriginal possession so that those lands could be legally passed into private ownership.

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The Indians were given one square mile for each five people, and an allowance of $12 for the first year and $5 thereafter. The treaty ledger book showing payment to the Indians is shown above.  

Napi’s World

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Traditionally, the Indian nations of the Northern Plains, such as the Blackfoot, were egalitarian. Within Blackfoot society, there were no individuals, no groups of people, who were endowed by a god, creator, or other entity with any more rights than anyone else. As animists, they also viewed all other living things as people, as having souls. Within their egalitarian world-view, all people-humans, animal-people, plant-people, and others-were seen as equals. Humans did not have superior rights, they did not have dominion over the rest of creation. Humans tried to live in harmony with nature.  

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The Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre, located near Fort Macleod, Alberta, tells the story of the interaction between the buffalo-people and the Blackfoot. Visitors start their tour at the top of the seven-level building which is concealed in the ancient cliff face. Napi’s World, a series of displays on the first level, tells about the environment of southern Alberta and the people-animal, plant, and human-who inhabit it.

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Napi is a Blackfoot Culture Hero who transformed the world for the people. Photographs of Napi’s World and other animal-people in the Centre are shown below.

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Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre

Head Smashed In Sign

There are probably thousands of buffalo jumps scattered across the Northern Plains. The Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the oldest, largest, and best preserved buffalo jumps in North America. Located about 18 kilometers from Fort Macleod, Alberta, Canada, the site tells of the story of the First Nations and the buffalo for 6,000 years.  

Buffalo Jump

Head-Smashed-In takes its name from the story of a young Peigan boy who stood under the cliff to get a better view of the buffalo falling over the cliff. The young man was soon crushed under the pile of dead buffalo.

While Indian people have inhabited the area around Head-Smashed-In for more than 11,000 years, it did not become designated as a National Historical Site until 1968. The interpretive centre was officially opened by the Duke and Duchess of York, Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, in 1987. The interpretive centre at Head-Smashed-In is an architectural delight and wonder by itself. It is built into the side of the cliff in an unobtrusive and aesthetically pleasing way. The architect, Robert LeBlond, received the Governor General’s Award for Architecture in 1990.

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The 2,400 square metre building rises for seven stories, but it is sunk into the sandstone bedrock and the prairie soil so that it is barely visible to a person standing outside. Only about 10% of the surface area of the building is visible. The concrete of the building’s walls have been stained to match the local sandstone and the portions of the building walls exposed above ground have been etched with horizontal grooves designed to simulate the natural bedding planes of the sandstone. The building does not intrude on the landscape and thus visitors are better able to visually understand the nature of the vast, open prairies where the remarkable story of this buffalo jump took place. Archaeologist Jack Brink, in Imagining Head-Smashed-In: Aboriginal Buffalo Hunting on the Northern Plains, writes:

“Built adjacent to the actual archaeological site, the Head-Smashed-In Interpretive Centre is a premier example of in situ interpretation of an archaeological resource in North America.”

The Centre’s parking area, which seems quite awkward for the visitors, was positioned so that it did not disrupt any archaeological materials.

The Interpretive Centre:

The interpretive centre at Head-Smashed-In has seven levels. The top two levels provide access to the trail at the top of the cliff and views of the area.

The upper trail leads from the interpretive centre along the top of the cliff to the kill site. The lower trail can be seen in the photos.

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Cliff Drawing

The drawing above shows the location of the kill site (designated as 1), a second buffalo jump (the Calderwood Jump, designated as 2), and a vision quest site (designated as 3). A cast of the Calderwood Buffalo Jump is the cliff face which is on display inside the Interpretive Centre.

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The view looking back from the cliff toward the prairie is shown above. The grass cover of the massive basin behind the jump is dominated by blue gamma and rough fescue. Both of these grasses are especially high in protein and are thus excellent graze for fall and winter. The buffalo jump was used primarily in the fall.

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The lower trail goes past a tipi and then below the cliffs. At present the cliffs are about 10 meters (33 feet) high, but when the buffalo jump was first in use the cliffs were about 20 meters (66 feet) high.

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Each of the other five levels tells a different aspect of the area’s rich history. The interpretation is detailed and is told from the perspectives of Blackfoot elders and archaeology.

Niitsitapi, the Blackfoot People

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Niitsítapi, the Blackfoot people, have a long and rich history on the Northern Plains. According to tribal elders, the people have always lived on the Plains, since the time when muskrat brought up the mud from under the waters. Archaeologists can trace the Blackfoot through their artifacts and sites for at least a thousand years. Beyond that, archaeologists are reluctant to put a tribal name on the earlier tools and sites. Aboriginal people have lived on the Plains of southern Alberta for at least 11,000 years.  

The Blackfoot Confederacy is formed from four closely related First Nations: Siksika (also called Northern Blackfoot), Kainah (also called Blood), South Pikuni (Piegan, located in Montana), and North Pikuni (Peigan, located in Alberta). A fifth group, the Small Robes, was wiped out by a smallpox epidemic in the 1830s. All of these nations share a common language and heritage. Traditionally, they had a way of life centered around buffalo hunting.

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Napi’s People:

On the second level of the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump Interpretive Centre near Fort Macleod, Alberta, are a series of displays entitled Napi’s People which shows the lifestyle of the Plains people. The displays include a reconstructed tipi and artifacts.

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Napi stories are a part of oral tradition. In order to convey the idea of these stories, they are projected onto rocks rather than written out in the displays.

The Blackfoot elders felt that it was important that the visitors to the Head-Smashed-In Interpretive Centre gain some feeling for the spiritual nature of their culture, the buffalo jump, and the importance of buffalo in their life. According to the elders:

Plains Indian culture was steeped in religion and ceremony. The world was an uncertain place, and people needed the help of supernatural powers.

Help was obtained from the spirit world in the form of visions and dreams. In these dreams people were instructed in the use of sacred objects, songs and rituals. These objects and rituals became part of the sacred Medicine Bundles.

Medicine Bundles were the most powerful religious possession in Plains Indian culture. They were owned by individuals but could bring power, luck or health to anyone who honoured them. Ownership of a bundle brought long life, success and social prestige.

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Shown above are replicas of some of the ceremonial items used by the Blackfoot, including rattles, small medicine bags, a pipe, and smudge. Notice that the pipe is not the elbow pipe which is often shown in association with the Plains tribes, but rather is a straight pipe.

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One of the concerns of the Blackfoot elders was how to express the spiritual nature of the buffalo jump without displaying spiritual artifacts. Spiritual artifacts, such as medicine bundles, are not meant to be ogled by tourists. The elders decided that a replica would be created by someone who had the spiritual power to create the actual bundle. The explanation of the medicine bundle shown above:

“There were different kinds of medicine bundles, each symbolizing different kinds of power. The one displayed here is a Medicine Pipe Bundle. It was given to the people by Thunder.

Because of its sacred nature, this Medicine Bundle is a replica. Except for the pipestem, the bundle is empty. A real Medicine Bundle would contain the skins of muskrat, mink, otter, squirrel, owl and other birds, a rattle, a wooden bowl, and several small rawhide bags containing red earth paint, pine needle incense for smudges, and tobacco. The bundle would be opened at least once a year, shortly after the first thunder in the spring.”

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Shown above is the hide of a buffalo fetus which has been made into a bag for holding berries.

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Shown above is the detail of how the hides of the tipi are pinned above the door.

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Notice the stones which are being used to hold down the tipi covers. Throughout the Northern Plains, archaeologists have found “tipi rings” of these stones where Indian lodges once stood.

Note: most Indians in North America did not live in tipis: this was a form of architectures which was highly developed on the Plains.

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The drawing shown above shows women erecting a tipi in a Blackfoot camp. Notice that they are using a four-pole base frame. Many of the other Plains tribes used a three-pole frame.

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Prior to the acquisition of the horse in 1735, the only domesticated animal used by the Blackfoot was the dog. During the Dog Days, the dogs carried loads in a travois (shown above).

Ancient America: Eating a Buffalo

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For the Plains Indians, for many thousands of years, the buffalo (more properly called bison) was a walking supermarket providing them with food, clothing, shelter, tools, and toys. Buffalo were hunted in many different ways: they were killed as they swam across rivers and lakes; they were driven into snow banks where their short legs failed them; they were driven into dead-end canyons where they were easily cornered; they were ambushed as they migrated along well-marked trails; they were herded into corrals; and they were driven over cliffs.  

Buffalo Jump

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Butchering:

Once the buffalo had been harvested, the carcass had to be fully butchered and processed into usable food fairly quickly or it would spoil. In a communal hunt, such as a buffalo jump, processing the carcass was done with an assembly line. Removing the hide and emptying the stomach were crucial in cooling down the carcass and ensuring that the greatest amount of food could be saved for future use.

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In butchering a buffalo, the tongue and internal organs were removed first. These were taken to the camp’s medicine people and then eaten as delicacies. As the people butchered the carcass-a process which would go on around the clock until it was done-they would smash the big marrow bones with heavy stone hammers to extract the tasty and nutritious marrow. This would help replenish the energy of the workers.

The body would be cut into 11 pieces to facilitate transportation: the four limbs, the two sides of ribs, the two sinews on each side of the back bone, the brisket, the croup, and the back bone.

Bison meat is about 65% water, so the Indians would dry the meat to make it lighter and easier to carry. In order to get rid of the moisture, the meat would be cut into thin strips, thus exposing a great deal of the surface area to the drying effects of the sun and air. The thin strips of meat would be hung on simple wooden racks for drying. Drying the meat in very thin strips is also a method of preserving it.

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The dried meat would be stored in hide containers known as parfleches. Parfleches were made from stiff, untanned hides that were folded into a large envelope. The food would be packed in the parfleche as tightly as possible to keep out as much air as possible, thus reducing spoilage. Properly cured and packaged dried meat could last for months, and even years.

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The hides would be processed into robes or tanned hides for lodge covers or clothing.

Stone Boiling:

One of the common methods of cooking is known as stone boiling. A bowl-shaped pit would be dug into the hard earth. It would then be made watertight by pushing a fresh buffalo hide, fleshy side up, into the bottom of the pit. The pit would then be filled with water. Large heavy cobbles would be heated in a nearby fire until they glowed red. They would then be carried on a forked stick to the pit. By continually replacing the rocks as they cooled with hot rocks, the water would get very hot. Food would then be added and cooked.

At the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump in southern Alberta, the local stone was not suitable for heating for this process and so the cobbles were brought in from some distance away.

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This diorama at the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump shows the use of stone boiling to render fat from the bones. Notice that the material stacked up on the right is buffalo dung (commonly called buffalo chips). Since trees tend to be scarce on the Great Plains, dried buffalo dung was the standard fuel used by the Plains Indians.

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This display at the First Peoples Buffalo Jump in Ulm, Montana shows stone boiling.

Grilling:

Grilling meat on a spit over an open flame was a quick, easy way to cook buffalo. It was often done, but it was not the preferred way of cooking. Native Americans viewed grilling as an inferior way of preparing meat as it resulted in the loss of much of what makes meat so great to eat: fat.

Earth Ovens:

A common way of cooking buffalo involved earth ovens. A pit-deeper and with steeper sides than the pit used for stone boiling-would be dug. In many cases this pit would be shaped like an inverted bell. Rocks would be placed at the bottom of this pit. At Head-Smashed-In, local sandstone was used for this.

In some cases the rocks would be heated before being placed in the pit and at other times a fire would be built over the rocks in the bottom of the pit to get them red hot. Once the hot rocks were ready, the meat would be added. Usually, the meat would be wrapped in a covering of either hide or local vegetation to keep the meat from getting covered in dirt. At Head-Smashed-In, the local vegetation was small branches of local willows, Saskatoon bushes, or conifers. Dirt was then piled on top of the protected meat and a fire was built over the pit. After several hours, sometimes the next day, the pit would be uncovered and the people would feast.

Personal note: I had buffalo prepared this way at the Kalispel Powwow many years ago. It was the best buffalo I have ever tasted, and I have eaten a lot of buffalo.

Pemmican:

Making pemmican out of buffalo is a way of preserving it so that it can be stored for a very long time. Once the flat sheets of meat have been thoroughly dried, they can be used in making pemmican. Using stone hammers, the meat would be reduced to almost a powder, then mixed with fat. Berries would then be added to the mixture. On the Northern Plains, Saskatoon and chokecherries were most frequently used.

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Dried Saskatoon and Choke Cherry berries were mixed with finely pounded buffalo meat to make pemmican.

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At times, wild Bergamont would be added to the pemmican for additional flavor.

When all of the ingredients-powdered meat, fat, berries, and other flavorings-had been thoroughly mixed, the mash was then placed in heavy bags made of buffalo hide. These bags were made from several pieces of hide sewn together to make a large sack which would hold 40 to 50 kilograms (88 to 110 pounds) of pemmican. In the dog days prior to the horse, the bags would have been somewhat smaller.

Pemmican is a dense, nutritious, storable food that often served as a staple. Later, during the fur trade era, pemmican became the staple of the fur trappers and both Indians and Métis produced it as a trade good.