The Canon and the Mule

The Blackfoot were the most feared Indian nation on the Northern Plains in the nineteenth century. The United States established their reservation in 1851 at a treaty council held in Fort Laramie, Wyoming. Since no Blackfoot chiefs were in attendance, the government probably felt safe in declaring all of the land north of the Missouri River as their reservation.

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The Blackfoot signed their first treaty with the United States in 1855, when they met with Territorial Governor Isaac Stevens and others at the Judith River. The Treaty of Judith River establishes the Great Blackfeet Reservation which includes 17.5 million acres north of the Missouri River and east of the Rocky Mountains. Governor Stevens told the Blackfoot:

“This country is your home. It will remain your home.”

Meeting in the council were not only the various Blackfoot tribes (Piegan and Blood), but also the Flathead, Nez Perce, Gros Ventre, Kootenai, Pend d’Oreille, Cree, and Shoshone. One of the primary Blackfoot concerns was hunting rights. They feared that being restricted to the reservation would restrict them from their traditional hunting grounds. On the other hand, the other tribes did not want to see the Blackfoot granted exclusive hunting rights to contested areas. In the end, the western Indians were given the right to hunt from the Mussleshell River to the Yellowstone River.  

The treaty promised to provide the Blackfoot with annuities, to provide them with instruction in agricultural pursuits, to educate their children, and to promote civilization and Christianization. Indian treaty violations were to result in deductions from the annuities. This assumed that only the Blackfoot would violate the treaty. There was no penalty for non-Indians, including the federal government, if they were to violate it.

Fort Benton was designated as the Indian Agency for the Blackfoot. The Indian Agent’s duties were to distribute annuities to the tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy and to maintain peace between the Indians and non-Indians in the region.

By 1865, non-Indian settlement in Montana was increasing and these new settlers felt that they were somehow entitled to Indian land. Therefore, the United States met with the Blackfoot and the Gros Ventre to convince them to move their southern boundary in order to allow American settlers to move in.

Many U.S. and Indian dignitaries assembled at Fort Benton for the Treaty Council. The Indian agent for the Blackfoot is described by his contemporaries as knowing as much about Indians as he did about the inhabitants of the planet Jupiter.

As all were assembling just outside of the fort, someone decided that the chiefs who had gathered for the treaty council should be shown American military might. A freight train which had been passing through included a mule which was carrying a cannon barrel strapped to its back. Some non-Indian of questionable intelligence decided that it would be a good idea to set off the cannon while it was still being carried by the mule.

The cannon was carried so that the muzzle pointed toward the mule’s tail. The gathered non-Indians, intent on impressing the Indians with their might and intellectual superiority, filled the cannon with powder and grape shot. A fuse was inserted and lit. The mule, hearing the fizzle of the fuse, turned to look. The River Press reported:

“As his head turned, so his body turned and the howitzer began to take in other points of the compass. The mule became more excited as his curiosity became more and more intense. In a few seconds he either had his four feet in a bunch, making more revolutions a minute than the bystanders dared count and with the howitzer threatening destruction to everybody within a radius of a quarter mile, or he suddenly tried standing on his head with his heels and howitzer at a remarkable angle in the air.”

Panic set in among the non-Indian dignitaries: some dove into the nearby river, others simply hit the ground, while others ran for the cover of the nearby fort. The Indians simply stood around wondering what all the excitement was about. When the cannon finally went off, the mule’s rear end was pointed at the fort, which absorbed the grape shot. The buffalo mural over the main gate was peppered with shot. No humans were injured and the mule was never seen again.

Having impressed in the Indians with their superior firepower and intellect, the Americans promised the chiefs that they would be paid an additional annual sum for signing the treaty. After signing the treaty, Little Dog, the head chief of the Piegan Blackfoot, said:

“We are pleased with what we have heard today. … The land here belongs to us, we were raised upon it; we are glad to give a portion to the United States, for we get something for it.”

As with all Indian treaties, the Americans assumed that it was immediately binding for the Indians, but it had to be ratified by the Senate before it was binding to the United States. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs, in retaliation for Blackfoot and Blood war parties which killed miners who were trespassing in Indian territory, refused to recommend ratification to the Senate. When the government refused to ratify the treaty, the Blackfoot decided that the government had lied to them once again.


Guilty of Being Indian

American history is filled with accounts of Indians being massacred by the U.S. Army, by American civilians, and others. Some of these “incidents” are well-known to the general public: Wounded Knee, the Washita, and Sand Creek. Others, such as the massacre of Heavy Runner’s Blackfoot band, are less well-known. In 1870, soldiers under the leadership of Colonel E. M. Baker killed 217 peaceful Blackfoot women, children, and men on the Marias River in Montana.


In the years both before and after the Civil War, many Americans came to Montana seeking wealth either through mining or cattle ranching. Malcolm Clarke was one of those who settled down as a cattle rancher.  Clarke soon married a Blackfoot woman, Kohkokima (Cutting Off Head Woman). Clarke gained the respect of the Blackfoot and was initially given the name White Lodgepole. Later, he was given the name Four Bears after he killed four grizzlies in one day.

In 1867, some Blackfoot relatives of Kohkokima, come to visit the Clarke ranch. In the group were Owl Child (Ne-tus-che-o, Kohkokima’s cousin), his wife, mother, sister, and younger brother. As a result of this visit something went wrong which created bad blood between Owl Child and the Clarke men. One version of the story, told by the Blackfoot, alludes to improper advances made by the rancher to the wife of the Piegan cousin while Horace Clarke and Owl Child were hunting in the nearby mountains. Another version of the story, usually told by non-Indians, says that Owl Child stole some Clarke horses and that Clarke publically beat him.

Two years later, a Blackfoot party led by Owl Child approached the Clarke ranch in a friendly fashion. With Owl Child are Black Weasel, Eagle’s Rib, Bear Chief, and Black Bear. Owl Child told Clarke that he had come to invite him to Mountain Chief’s village. Black Weasel, who was with the party, was Mountain Chief’s son.

Mountain Chief had disliked Americans since three Americans shot his brother and the authorities had done nothing about it. He banned all Americans from his village, but he stayed friendly with Malcolm Clarke because of his marriage to Kohkokima.  

Suddenly, Bear Chief shot one of Clarke’s sons in the head. When Clarke rushed out of the house, he was shot dead by Eagle’s Rib. About 25 warriors then came out of the woods and proceeded to destroy everything in the house.

Initial Response:

The incident at Clarke’s ranch was clearly murder and furthermore the murderers had been identified by the survivors-Kohkokima and other Clarke children. Had the murderers been non-Indians, a posse would probably have been formed to track them down and bring them to justice. But as American Indians have long known, there is usually no concern for justice when Indians are involved.

Since Malcolm Clarke was a prominent rancher, the Montana press clamored for revenge against the Blackfoot, with little concern for the actual killers. However, the military commander at Fort Shaw remained calm. He reported:

“The only Indians within reach are friendly, and nothing could be worse than to chastise them for offenses of which they are not guilty.”

However, General Sheridan, with a reputation as an Indian fighter, was in Chicago and he was hearing from the American settlers in Montana who wanted revenge. He ordered Colonel E. M. Baker to obtain that revenge. It was not about justice: there was little concern for capturing the actual murderers. It was about retaliation: attacking the Blackfoot camps, any Blackfoot camp. Baker was ordered to give the Blackfoot an exhibition of military force to show the Blackfoot that they were not to trifle with the Americans. Baker’s orders from General Sheridan:

“If the lives & property of the citizens of Montana can best be protected by striking Mountain Chief’s band of Piegans, I want them struck.”

The Battle:

It was January of 1870 when the soldiers set out in search of Mountain Chief’s camp. The temperature was well below zero. Riding with the soldiers was Horace Clarke, Malcolm Clarke’s son.

On the Marias River, the soldiers encounter a Blackfoot camp. As the army approached the camp, scout Joe Kipp recognized that it is the friendly village of Heavy Runner and informed the commander that this was the wrong village. The officer ordered the soldiers to shoot Kipp if he yelled again. According to Horace Clarke, Colonel Baker was drunk at this time and didn’t know what he was doing.

Heavy Runner was known as a peace chief and his camp was the refuge for many widows and orphans. Heavy Runner’s people were known for their caring and concern for others. Heavy Runner was also one of the Blackfoot chiefs who had signed a treaty with the United States government and, unlike the United States, was determined to uphold the terms of the treaty.

As the soldiers attacked, Heavy Runner ran toward Baker waving his Washington medals and his letters of recommendation showing that he was friendly to the United States. According to the later testimony of Good Bear Woman:

“I noticed Chief Heavy Runner, the leader of the camp, come out of his lodge and go to meet the commanding officer. He handed him some papers, which the commanding officer read, then he tore them up and threw them away. As Heavy Runner turned about face, soldiers fired upon him and killed him.”

After Heavy Runner was killed, Baker ordered his troops to fire. The Indians did not return fire as all of their able-bodied men were on a buffalo hunt. When the firing was over the soldiers simply shot the wounded Indians. They then collected the lodges and property of the Indians in great piles, and set fire to them. The soldiers also looted the dead bodies, removing anything which they thought might be of value.

One hundred and forty women and children were taken prisoner in the attack. After being held for a short time, they were released to face the cold-estimated to be 40 below zero-without blankets, shelter, or food. Many died from exposure.

The first official account of the “incident” claimed that 120 Blackfoot warriors were killed, an interesting statistic since nearly all of the men were out hunting. Later, the official report was modified to indicate that a total of 173 Blackfoot were killed and that 148 of these were women, children, and elders. However, the scout Joe Kipp reported that he personally counted 217 dead. Kipp also reported that the Blackfoot had fired only one shot during the battle. According to Blackfoot oral tradition, only three of those killed were able-bodied warriors. The Indian agent for the Blackfoot reported that only 15 were men of fighting age.

According to Colonel Baker’s official report, he had succeeded in attacking the camp of Bear Chief and Big Horn whom he classified as “hostiles.”

The Aftermath:

At the time of the Heavy Runner massacre (dubbed the Baker Massacre in the eastern press), the U.S. government was debating over whether the Indian Office (later known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs) was to remain in the Department of the Interior or be transferred back to the War Department. The accounts of army brutality in this incident, including Horace Clarke’s testimony about the brutality of the attack against this friendly camp, helped stop the proposal to move Indian Affairs to the War Department. Commissioner of Indian Affairs Ely Parker, who was a Seneca Indian, was put in the position of defending the military operation as an effective way of dealing with the Blackfoot.  

General Sheridan, who was not known for his concern for Indians, expressed confidence in Colonel Baker’s leadership abilities and was able to stop an official army investigation into the incident.  Sheridan insisted that Baker had attacked Mountain Chief’s camp and issued a press release:

“the majority of those killed in Mountain Chief’s camp were warriors, that the firing ceased the moment resistance was at an end, that quarter was given to all who asked for it; and that a hundred women and children were allowed to go free to join the other bands of the same tribe camped nearby, rather than the absurd report that there were only thirteen warriors killed and that all the balance were women and children, more or less afflicted with smallpox.”

Captain Lewis Thompson would later defend the slaughter of women and children:

“The accidental killing of noncombatants during the onslaught was condemned as the deliberate, cruel murder of women and children. By any code which society ever instituted to protect its citizens and punish outlaws, these Indians are guilty of death, as if their crimes were forgotten in the face of their terrible punishment. Punishment, terrible as it was, was not more cruel than the peace role of this government under which the Indians have so long suffered.”

Corporal Dan Starr is reported to have said:

“Baker had made known the paramount feature of his military policy when he announced as a motto, ‘ Nits make lice. ‘ This was the customary way of indicating that children were not to be spared. With this general-extermination idea impressed upon the troops, the camp was quickly surrounded.”

Mountain Chief and his people, upon hearing about the attack on Heavy Runner, avoided the army by crossing the border into Canada.


Looking for a Home in the 20th Century

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were a number of Indian groups (bands, tribes, or nations) that did not have formal relations with the United States government. Without formal recognition from the United States, these groups did not have reservations and were thus considered “landless” Indians. In Montana, there were several groups of landless Indians who wandered throughout the state, living through temporary jobs and hunting (including poaching). During the early twentieth century, some of the Chippewa and Cree bands were successful in obtaining a new reservation in Montana in spite of opposition by many non-Indians.  

In 1902, Chippewa leader Stone Child (also known as Rocky Boy) hired an attorney to write a letter to President Theodore Roosevelt asking that his people be given a home or reservation. In the letter, he indicated that there were 130 people in his band, that they were all American-born, and they were self-supporting. It is apparent that Stone Child wanted to give federal officials the impression that his followers were hard-working, deserving Indians. To end their current hardship, they needed land. While Stone Child claimed that all of his people were American born, in all likelihood his people included Chippewa and Métis who had been born in Canada and who had come to the United States following the Riel Rebellion to escape Canadian retribution.

Rocky Boy

In 1903, a special Indian agent recommended that the landless Chippewa under the leadership of Stone Child (Rocky Boy) be placed on the Flathead Reservation. This action was favored by both the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and the Secretary of the Interior, and a bill was introduced in Congress to that effect. However, this action was opposed by Montana Republican Joseph Dixon who wanted to open up the Flathead Reservation for the benefit of non-Indian interests (and to enrich himself in the process). The bill did not pass.

In 1905, Stone Child (Rocky Boy) continued to advocate a Montana home for his people. His band camped at the base of Mount Jumbo near Missoula for several days while he talked with Joseph Dixon, the Congressman who opposed the settlement of the Chippewa on the Flathead Reservation.

The following year, members of the landless Cree and Chippewa bands met with writer Frank Bird Linderman and told him about their desperate condition. They did not have a reservation and had no consistent way to feed themselves. They told him that they had been living on the outskirts of Helena, living on slaughterhouse offal and the town’s garbage.

In 1908, writer Linderman and William Boles, the editor and owner of the Great Falls Tribune began a campaign to convince congress to create a reservation for the landless Cree and Chippewa bands. These men understood that many Montanans, if not most, would be opposed to the creation of another Indian reservation in the state. Their strategy involved a letter-writing campaign targeted at politicians. Artist Charles Russell began to raise money for the Indians and wrote letters in support of the reservation.

Congressman Joseph Dixon wrote to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs regarding Rocky Boy’s (Stone Child’s) band of Chippewa and asked for aid on their behalf. The Indian agent for the Flathead Reservation was sent to investigate their condition and reported that many of the band were actually Canadian Cree.

While congress appropriated $30,000 to establish a home for the Cree and Chippewa, the reservation failed to materialize and the bands continued to wander across the state.  

In 1908, about 100 people from Stone Child’s Chippewa band were moved by railroad boxcars to an area around Saint Mary’s Lake near the Blackfeet Reservation. A food-for-allotted-land deal had been supposedly made which opened up 101 allotments for the landless Chippewa. While the landless Indians had been told that the details for the deal had been worked out with the federal government, actually there had never been any such agreement.

In 1909, the federal government determined that there were 120 American-born Indians in the Chippewa band led by Stone Child. Indian Office officials began to survey lands in Valley County for allotments under the General Allotment Act (Dawes Act). However, non-Indians soon objected to relocating the Chippewa in Valley County. Among those who objected with Louis Hill, the owner of the Great Northern Railroad. As usual, when wealthy business owners complain, the government listens and responds. As a result, work on the allotment survey was stopped. While the Indian Office was supposed to serve as the guardian to American Indians, it was in reality more responsive to political pressure from politicians and business interests.

The government relocated landless Cree and Chippewa to Babb, Montana on the Blackfoot Nation in 1910. The government then ordered the land to be surveyed so that it could be allotted to the Cree and Chippewa. The Blackfoot were not consulted about either the relocation or the allotment of their tribal lands.

About 50 Chippewa under the leadership of Stone Child accepted allotments. While Stone Child remained at Babb to take up farming, 150 Chippewa camped near Helena and the Cree under Little Bear returned to the Havre area.

In 1911, the Army announced plans to abandon Fort Assiniboine near the town of Havre. Chippewa leader Full-of-Dew, Cree leader Little Bear, and writer Frank Bird Linderman began a campaign to turn the old fort over to the landless Cree and Chippewa bands as a reservation. The plan was strongly opposed in Havre where the local paper ridiculed Linderman for having a romantic and unrealistic notion of Indians.

In 1912, Fred A. Baker, a superintendent of Indian Schools, was assigned the task of finding lands for the landless Chippewa and Cree. Baker, like most Americans at this time, strongly believed that American Indians should be assimilated into American culture. Assimilation, Baker and other officials in the Indian Office felt, had to be accomplished by transforming Indians into rural subsistence farmers, even though this type of farming was not economically feasible in the urban, market economy that was essential to American culture and life in the early twentieth century.

Baker held a council with Chippewa leader Stone Child, Cree leader Little Bear, and others at the Independence Day Celebration on the Blackfeet Reservation. He then held a separate meeting with Blackfoot leaders. From these two councils, it was clear that neither group favored a plan which called for the Chippewa and Cree to be placed permanently on the Blackfeet Reservation.

Little Bear

Baker visited the Fort Assiniboine Military Reservation after talking with Little Bear who told him that his people had periodically lived in the area. He concluded that the landless Chippewa and Cree should be given a small reservation within the confines of the abandoned Fort Assiniboine Military Reservation. Baker felt that a small reservation would be the first step toward assimilation and that it would remove poverty-stricken Indians from the vicinity of Montana towns.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson issued an executive order to create a reservation for the landless Chippewa under the leadership of Stone Child and the landless Cree under the leadership of Little Bear. The tribes were given part of the former Fort Assiniboine and an 8,800 acre park was placed between the tribes and the city of Havre.

Stone Child died of tuberculosis at the age of 70 shortly before the new reservation for his people was created. The new reservation was named Rocky Boy in his honor. Only about 450 Indians, about half of those eligible, chose to settle on the reservation.

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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Upper Trail

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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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Blackfoot Flags

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).