A Short Overview of the Huron Indians

The Huron, whose traditional homeland was north of the Great Lakes, were a confederacy of four major tribes: Bear, Rock, Barking Dogs, and White Thorns (also known as Canoes). The people called their confederacy Wendat or People of the Peninsula. They were given the name Huron by the French: the name came from hure, meaning “boar’s head” in reference to the head gear of the warriors.

With regard to language, Huron is a part of the Iroquois language family. Culturally, the Huron were similar to other Iroquoian-speaking Indian nations in the Northeast.

In the seventeenth century, the estimated 20,000 to 40,000 Hurons lived in 18-25 villages. With regard to the Huron origins, Olive Dickason, in her entry on the Huron/Wyandot in the Encyclopedia of North American Indians, reports:

“Archaeologists favor the theory that they began inhabiting their lands soon after the retreat of the glaciers, slowly evolving from hunter-gatherers into farmer-hunters.”

Their oral traditions tell of a migration from the southeast. The archaeological data shows that they were raising corn (maize) by 500 CE.


Among the Huron, agriculture produced about four-fifths of the food which they consumed. Farming centered around the Three Sisters: corn, beans, squash. They cultivated about 15 different varieties of corn, 60 different varieties of beans, and 8 different kinds of squash. As with other Iroquoian groups, the farming was done by the women in fields which had been cleared by the men. All uncleared land was considered common property.

The land was cleared by first girding the trees and then burning the underbrush and trees, a process known as slash-and-burn agriculture. In addition to providing a clear space for their fields, the ash from the fire also provided additional nutrients.  Generally, the cleared land would wear out in about a decade, forcing the Iroquois to clear new land, usually farther from the village. For the smaller villages – those with about 200 inhabitants – by the time the walking distance to the farthest field reached about 1 kilometer, the oldest abandoned fields could be re-opened. For the larger villages, however, it took about 50 years for the productive fields to become too distant and requiring the village itself to move.

Planting would usually begin when the white oak leaves were the size of a red squirrel’s foot. While men would assist in the initial clearing of the fields, planting was done by a party of women under the supervision of the clan mothers. Women did the planting, weeding, and harvesting.

The three crops complemented each other. In her article on the Three Sisters in Science and Native American Communities: Legacies of Pain, Visions of Promise, Jane Mt. Pleasant reports:

“Beans, because they are legumes, add nitrogen to the soil that the other two plants need.”

The corn stalks also provide support for the bean vines. Mt. Pleasant points out:

“Now the squash, because it grows low to the ground and has very big leaves, reduces the ability of weeds to grow and interfere with the food crops.”

When the three foods are eaten together, they provide a balanced diet of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and the full complement of amino acids for protein.

By 1630 it is estimated that the Huron, with a population of about 21,000, were harvesting 189,000 bushels of corn from 7,000 acres.

Marriage and Family

In general, the most important feature of social organization among Iroquoian-speaking people was the matrilineal: this was a named group in membership was through the female line. Each person belonged to the mother’s clan. Among the Huron, there were eight matrilineal clans: Turtle, Wolf, Bear, Beaver, Deer, Hawk, Porcupine, and Snake. The clans were exogamous, meaning the people had to marry outside of their own clan. In addition, marriage to a close relative on the paternal side was also taboo.

Among the Huron, there was little public affection displayed between men and women. Sexual intercourse for both married and unmarried people tended to take place outside of the village. Premarital sexual intercourse was considered to be normal.

Among the Huron, families tended to be small – 3 children – because the women abstained from sexual intercourse during breastfeeding (usually about 3 years).

With regard to the gender of children among the Huron, anthropologist Elisabeth Tooker, in her monograph An Ethnography of the Huron Indians, 1615-1649, notes:

“Girls were preferred: the Huron rejoiced more in the birth of a daughter than a son, in order that the country’s inhabitants increase.”

With regard to sexuality, heterosexual relations were considered to be normal, but homosexuality was acceptable. Having no sexual contact at all was considered to be abnormal.

Tribal Government

There were three levels of government among the Huron: village, tribe, and confederacy. At the village level, clan chiefs organized councils in which older men and women expressed their opinions on matters concerning the village. Each Huron village council met frequently, often daily, to discuss village affairs. Discussions would continue until consensus was evident.

There were two kinds of Huron chiefs: (1) civil chiefs who were concerned with everyday life and peace, and (2) war chiefs who were concerned exclusively with military matters. Being a Huron chief required both time and an expenditure of wealth. Upon the death of a chief, the new chief would often be selected from among the relatives of the deceased chiefs. The person who was elected was usually not the child of the deceased chief, but was more often a nephew or a grandson.


The Huron recognized four main classes of crime: (1) murder and wounding and injury, (2) theft, (3) witchcraft, and (4) treason. Murder placed an obligation on the relatives to avenge the killing. Reparation payments helped alleviate the possibility of blood feuds. Anthropologist Bruce Trigger, in his book The Huron: Farmers of the North, notes:

“Huron law did not permit society as a whole to punish individuals.”

Among the Huron, material gifts were often used as a way of restoring peace and mending the social fabric following a crime, such as murder or physical injury. The guilty party (including both the individual and the clan) would pay the victim’s family. According to Henry Bowden, in his book American Indians and Christian Missions: Studies in Cultural Conflict:

“Thirty presents was the usual indemnity for killing a man, but the murder of a tribeswoman called for forty gifts.”

War and Trade

For Huron men there were two ways to obtain wealth and prestige: war and trade. Traditionally, war was not waged to impose religious views on other people, or to capture new territory. Most frequently the reasons for war were honor and avenging some injury. Revenge raids were usually launched at the request of a clan mother.

While brave warriors were admired, so were clever traders. Trading had prestige because individual initiative and shrewd judgment came into play. It took courage and diplomacy to open new trade routes or to organize a wide network of business alliances. The purpose of acquiring wealth through trade was not to possess or display material goods, but to be able to give them away. Giving wealth away was a way of improving social status and respect.

A Short Overview of the Subarctic Culture Area

The Subarctic Culture Area lies south of the Arctic Circle and covers some 12 million square miles. It spreads from the interior of Alaska to the Atlantic Ocean. This is an area where the winters are cold – often colder than in the Arctic – and the summers are short. During the summer, the blackflies and other insects make life difficult. A frost-free period of only 40-60 days is common in much of the region.

Linguistically, the Subarctic can be broken into two areas: (1) the area west of Hudson’s Bay in which Athapascan languages predominate, and (2) the area east of Hudson’s Bay in which the people spoke Algonquian languages. Culturally, however, it may be more convenient to look at these culture areas as being composed of three sub-areas: (1) the northeastern area (the area east of Hudson’s Bay) which was traditionally occupied by the Algonquian-speaking Montagnais and Naskapi, (2) the central zone which was occupied by the Algonquian-speaking Cree, and (3) the northwest which was occupied by the Athapaskan-speaking tribes.

With regard to the native people of the Subarctic, John J. Collins, in his book Native American Religions: A Geographical Survey, writes:

“These people had been in North America for a long time and had been pushed into the Subarctic by related groups to the south.”

The tribal names used today do not reflect the significant territorial entities of earlier times. June Helm and Eleanor Leacock, in North American Indians in Historical Perspective, write:

“Large areas were inhabited by small autonomous regional groups that commonly number a few score members each. They were usually loosely related to surrounding groups through intermarriage, economic dependence in times of local scarcities, linguistic affinity, and some feeling of ethnic identity.”

The primary form of subsistence among the Subarctic tribes was hunting. It is estimated that during the winter people needed to consume 4,500 to 5,000 calories per day. Each person might consume four pounds of meat per day.

Large game animals, such as the moose, elk, musk ox, caribou, and deer, were of primary importance. In his book Native Arts of North America, Christian Feest writes:

“The tribes of the Subarctic had always been nomadic hunters of the moose, caribou, and other animals of the northern forests.”

In some areas, the people hunted wood buffalo (bison bison athabascae) and plains buffalo (bison bison bison). Large game animals were generally hunted with a bow and arrow or were trapped using deadfalls. Hunters would use calls for bringing in moose during mating season. In some areas, caribou were driven toward long brush fences where they were forced into single file and could be more easily killed.

The caribou was particularly important to many of the tribes. Colin Taylor, in his book Native American Hunting and Fighting Skills, reports:

“The caribou was essential to the sustainment of life amongst such tribes as the Athapascan speaking Chipewyan.”

Among the Chipewyan, the communal caribou hunt used a pound technique in which the herd would be driven into a chute made of poles and brush. Within the enclosure—which could be over a quarter of a mile in diameter—were looped snares which entangled the animals so that they could be easily dispatched. Philip Kopper, in his book The Smithsonian Book of North American Indians: Before the Coming of the Europeans, reports:

“From the caribou, the people obtained food, hides and material for many implements from bones for netting needles to rawhide for fishlines and thongs. They ate the meat fresh or they preserved it by sun-drying or smoking, then pounding it into powder and mixing it with fat to make pemmican.”

Some of the other animals which were hunted in this area include bear, beaver, porcupine, and rabbit. With regard to hunting bears in the Shield and Mackenzie Border lands, Edward Rogers and James Smith report in the Handbook of North American Indians:

“Although bears were found throughout the forests, they were not taken frequently enough to bulk large in the diet; however, they were eagerly sought especially for the large quantities of fat they possessed.”

Rabbits were often snared by the women. The smaller animals – beaver, rabbits – were often taken with traps and snares. While the snowshoe rabbit is widely exploited in the Subarctic Area, Beryl Gillespie, in the Handbook of North American Indians, reports:

“While not a preferred source of food for many natives, it has been a very important source of midwinter food when large game is difficult to find or kill.”

Among the Natives, it was felt that one could starve to death on rabbits as they provided very little fat during most of the year.

In the eastern portion of the region, beaver were taken as a food source, particularly in winter. To capture the beaver, nets would be placed across the entrances to the beaver lodges.

In the Hudson Bay Area, migratory waterfowl was an important food resource. Various species of grouse were also taken throughout the Subarctic area.

In some areas, fishing was also an important subsistence activity. Fish were caught using lines and hooks or they were netted in gill nets woven from raw hide or the inner bark of the willow. In some areas, fish traps and weirs were also used.

In some areas, the Native people relied heavily on the seasonal salmon runs. In the lake areas of the western Labrador interior, whitefish and lake trout were the most desirable fish. In addition, the general availability of fish in most lakes and streams made fishing a seasonally important activity.

Among the Montagnais off the Saint Lawrence region, fresh eels were taken in September and October. Edward Rogers and Eleanor Leacock report in the Handbook of North American Indians:

“Chains of stones were laid in the sand at the river edge to guide eels, when waves lashed the shore, into weirs large enough to hold 500-600. Eels were also attracted to canoes at night with torches and speared with iron-pointed leisters.”

With regard to the gathering of wild plants, June Helm and Eleanor Leacock write:

“Plant foods were inconsequential in the diet, though blueberries, cranberries, and edible shoots and bulbs were collected in the summer.”

Canoes were important to many of the tribes of this culture area. During the summer, travel was possible via lakes and rivers using canoes. Writing about the Cree, archaeologist Dale Russell, in his book Eighteenth-Century Western Cree and Their Neighbours, says:

“Women were often more skilled in steering canoes than men since the latter typically rode in the bow where they had an unimpeded aim at any game that was met.”

In the western portion of the Subarctic Culture Area, people used canoes which resembled the Inuit kayak. However, instead of covering the frame with skin in the Inuit style, the frame was covered with birchbark. This made the craft very light and enabled the people to carry it over long distances.

The Chipewyan made a birch bark kayak-style canoe which was used in hunting caribou or moose as they crossed rivers or lakes. According to John Jennings in his book Bark Canoes: The Art and Obsession of Tappan Adney:

“The canoe was extremely responsive and could be steered with one hand as the other was busy with spear or knife.”

The Gwich’in also made birch bark canoes. John Jennings reports:

“The Gwich’in canoes are unique among Northwestern canoes in having a rigid frame, with the stringers held in place by crosspieces.”

With regard to the Gwich’in canoes in the Tanana River area, Jennings writes:

“These canoes were subtly asymmetrical, being slightly wider and deeper at the stern, thus making them both very fast and easy to maneuver. The lightness of the bow allows it to hydroplane when driven fast.”

During the winter, snow shoes were used. Again, the travel routes often utilized the frozen lakes and rivers. Among the Montagnais-Naskapi, long, narrow toboggans would be pulled with a cord across the chest. Edward Rogers and Eleanor Leacock report:

“They were ideal when everything was covered with deep snow, for their relatively extensive weight bearing surface prevented them from sinking too deeply into the powdery snow.”

The Chickasaw Indians

Five of the Southeastern Indian nations – Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole – are sometimes called the “five Civilized Tribes”. The designation “civilized” is an indication that they had acquired many elements of European cultures and were the most acculturated Indian tribes during the nineteenth century. The Chickasaw, descendents of one of the Mississippian chiefdoms that dominated the region after 1000 CE, became a major power-player when the European invasion of the Southeast intensified in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The traditional Chickasaw homeland was in northern Mississippi.

There is an oral tradition which says that the people emerged from the underworld at Ninih Waiya. The first to emerge were the Creek, who dried themselves in the sun and then went east. Next to emerge were the Cherokee, who tried to follow the Creek but got lost and settled in the north. The third group to emerge was the Chickasaw, who followed the Cherokee. The last group to emerge was the Choctaw, who settled near the mound.

Linguistically, the Chickasaw language is a part of the larger Muskogean family and is most closely related to Choctaw.

Like the other Indian nations of the Southeast, the Chickasaw were an agricultural people who raised corn, beans, squash, melons, and sunflowers. They farmed the fertile floodplains and located their villages on high grounds away from the annual flooding. Chickasaw houses, like those of other Indian nations in the region, used a pole and frame construction which could then be covered with bark or thatch.

Corn was the most important Chickasaw crop, so it is not surprising that he Green Corn Ceremony was their most important religious ceremony. Held after the harvest, the Green Corn Ceremony was an expression of gratitude for a successful corn crop. This was a time for renewing life when the villages were cleaned and worn pottery was broken. The Green Corn Ceremony was also associated with the quest for spiritual purity. Fasting – one of the principle ways of attaining purity – was an important element in the ceremony. Among the Chickasaw, the fast started on the first afternoon of the ceremony and lasted until the second sunrise. Following the fast an emetic was used to purge the body of all impurities.

The emetic used was the Black Drink, a black beverage which was made from the leaves of the cassina shrub. Drinking the beverage — a strong purgative — gave special purification to the drinker. It was used to cleanse the minds of village leaders for debate and to cleanse and strengthen the bodies of warriors for battle. By removing bodily impurities, the drinkers were restored to a state of equilibrium which allowed them to successfully complete whatever task they faced. Anthropologist Charles Hudson, in his book The Southeastern Indians, notes: “The physiological effects of black drink are mainly those of massive doses of caffeine.”

Fishing and hunting supplemented the agricultural diet. Fish were often speared using green cane spears which could be 16 to 18 feet in length. Spearing was often done from canoes.

Like many of the other Indian nations in the Southeast, the Chickasaw had a dual system of government in which there was a civil chief who managed internal matters and peaceful diplomacy and another chief served as war chief. During times of conflict, the war chief would function as the primary leader.

One of the interesting cultural practices of some of the Southeastern tribes, such as the Natchez, Chickasaw, Catawba, and Choctaw, was cranial deformation in which the heads of infants were deliberately flattened.  Christina Snyder, in her book Slavery in Indian Country: The Changing Face of Captivity in Early America, reports:  “When infants from these groups lay on their cradle boards, families placed wooden boards covered with deerskin on the foreheads, making the cranial vault rounded and long.”

Cranial deformation was usually an indication of high social rank.

Warfare was common among the Southeastern Indian nations. Even though there were women warriors, warfare tended to be dominated by men.  Warfare generally involved raiding to obtain booty or captives. Among the Chickasaw a typical raiding party consisted of about 20 men led by a war leader who carried a medicine bundle. Chickasaw women would often accompany the men, providing them with both critiques and encouragements through song. As with other Southeastern tribes, if anything happened which could be interpreted as a bad omen the warriors returned home.

The Kalispel Indians

The aboriginal homeland of the Kalispel (“Camas People”) was in the camas-rich area around Calispell Lake and the Pend Oreille River in what is now eastern Washington. Their homeland was heavily forested and mountainous with interspersed meadows. Their lifestyle prior to the coming of the horse was centered on the river. Their traditional territory followed the rivers into what is now northern Idaho and western Montana.

Prior to the coming of the horse, the people would spend the winter in camps along the Pend Oreille River. When the snow disappeared in the Spring, the families would separate and move to areas where they had the rights to fish and hunt. In June, the camas would be ripe and the families would come back together at the camas fields. Following the camas harvest in July, the people would once again focus their attention on hunting, fishing, and the gathering of other wild plant foods. When the snows began, the bands would reassemble at their winter camps along the river where the snowfall was lighter and the temperatures somewhat milder.

Fishing was an important economic activity and the fish were harvested with fish traps, weirs, and spearing platforms. While most of these were individually owned, there were also large weir sites which were tribally owned. The fish harvested from the tribal weirs would be communally distributed. It has been estimated that about two-thirds of the fish harvested by the Kalispel came from weirs.

As a river people, water transport was important. The Kalispel made and used several different kinds of canoes, including both dugouts (that is, made from a single log that had been hollowed out) and bark canoes (a frame covered with bark).

With regard to hunting, mule deer and whitetail deer were the most important game animals. While deer were hunted throughout the year, most were harvested in the winter. During the winter, hunters using snowshoes would hunt deer with bows and arrows. In the deep snow, the hunters would often have more mobility than the deer.

In addition to deer, caribou were hunted in some areas. Mountain sheep and goats were also found in some areas and mountain sheep robes were highly valued.

While camas was the most important plant food, the Kalispel also gathered Indian potato, cattail roots, wild garlic, wild celery, wild carrot, Easter lily, and bitterroot. A wide variety of berries were also harvested. Berry harvesting was generally regarded as the exclusive domain of the women.

During the summer, the people would live in conical mat lodges: similar in shape to the Plains tipi, but covered with tule mats rather than buffalo hide. In the winter, the people would use an elongated house which ranged from 20 to 60 feet in length. The floor of the winter house would be excavated about a foot which would provide some additional warmth. The winter house would be covered with woven tule mats. The winter house would usually be home to 3 to 12 families.

As with other Plateau Indian tribes, the Kalispel were not a single political or social unit. The tribe was composed of independent villages or bands which were united by a common culture, including a common language (Salish). There was no overall “chief” or group of “chiefs.” Each village had its own leaders and leadership was not hereditary, but was based on leadership skills. Leaders exerted power through their ability to persuade. The council of adults who made decisions included women.

With regard to language, the Kalispel language is a part of the larger Salish language family and is most closely related to Cheweleh, Spokan, Pend d’Oreille, and Flathead.

The horse was brought to the Americans by the Spanish colonists in New Mexico. Following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the horse began to spread northward and was introduced to the Plateau tribes by the Shoshone between 1710 and 1740. The arrival of the horse brought dramatic changes to Kalispel culture.

First of all, the horse enabled the Kalispel to leave their homelands in eastern Washington and travel across the Rocky Mountains to hunt buffalo on the Great Plains. With the horse, some families would leave for the Plains in mid-July, hunt for three or four weeks, and then return home. This brought them into contact with the Blackfoot who resented their intrusion into Blackfoot hunting grounds.

Using the horse and hunting buffalo on the Plains, a number of Plains cultural elements were acquired in the Plateau. These Plains cultural elements included the use of the tipi and the travois, the custom of war honors dances, beaded dresses, feather warbonnets, and the idea of electing chiefs because of their skill as warriors. Warfare became more common: prior to the acquisition of the horse warfare had been almost nonexistent among the Plateau tribes.

Chehalis Treaties and Reservations

In 1855, Washington Territorial Governor Isaac I. Stevens set out to negotiate-or rather, impose-a series of treaties on the Indian nations of the region which would free land for non-Indian settlement and place Indians on less valuable land, out of the way of American settlement. Stevens knew very little about Indians and assumed that all Indian cultures were the same and were inferior to American culture. He sought a long-term goal of eradicating Indian cultures.  

It should be noted that by this time, the once populous Chehalis living along Grays Harbor had been reduced from many thousand to just a few hundred due to the “big sick” which had struck a few years before.

On the Chehalis River near Grays Harbor, Washington, Stevens met with the Queets, Quinault, Satsop, Lower Chehalis, Cowlitz, and Chinook. The Quileute did not attend the conference even though they had been invited. The tribes were strongly opposed to the land cessions and removal which Stevens was attempting to force upon them. After several days of talks, the Indians refused to sign the treaty.

One of the consequences of the Stevens Treaties was war. In 1855, war broke out in the Puget Sound area. While the Chehalis and other Indian nations in the Grays Harbor area had no tradition of warfare, but tended to be business-oriented (i.e. traders), the Americans were fearful that they would join the Indian uprisings. Americans with rifles began to raid the peaceful Indian villages, disarming the Indians, and placing them under surveillance. Some of the Indians-Upper and Lower Chehalis-were herded together on Sidney Ford’s farm near Steilacoom; some of the coastal Indians, including the Cowlitz, were placed in a “local reservation” on the Chehalis River; and the Chinook were placed inland at Fort Vancouver. The Indians were stripped of their personal property and held as captives for nearly two years.

In 1857, The Northwest Coast; or Three Years’ Residence in Washington Territory by James Swan provided some description of the Indians of the Territory. He did not generalize about Indians and criticized the literary stereotypes of the Indians. He wrote:

“In all matters relating to Indians, I only give an account of those I have lived with [original emphasis], the Chenooks, Chehalis, and one or two tribes north of Gray’s Harbor.”

With regard to the Indians’ desire to trade, Swan noted that this did not mean that they wanted to adopt European or American lifestyles:

“They feel as we would if a foreign people came among us, and attempted to force their customs on us whether we liked them or not. We are willing the foreigners should come, and settle, and live with us; but if they attempted to force upon us their language and religion, and make us leave our old homes and take up new ones, we would certainly rebel; and it would be by a long intercourse of years that our manners could be made to approximate.”

The Chehalis continued to oppose the idea of an American imposed treaty with its land cessions and reservation. In 1859, a group of Chehalis killed Chehalis chief Anawata because he escorted an Indian agent to the Chehalis River for a treaty conference a year earlier.

In 1864, the Chehalis reservation was established by Presidential executive order. The reservation contained 4,225 acres. The superintendent sought to bring onto the reservation all of the nonreservation Chinook, Willapa Bay, Cowlitz, and Chehalis Indians. Government “potlatches” were held where gifts were given to the Indians in an attempt to persuade them to move to the reservation and give up their “bad habits” of gambling, head flattening, polygyny, sorcery, and drinking. The government attempted to remove the Cowlitz to the Chehalis Reservation, but the Cowlitz refused to move.

The Chehalis Indians

In 1792, American ships from Boston under the command of Captain Robert Gray sailed along the Pacific Coast of what is now Oregon and Washington seeking to trade with the coastal Indians and obtain furs which were valuable in the European and Chinese markets. On May 7, Gray sailed into a large estuarine bay about 45 miles (72 kilometers) north of the mouth of the Columbia River. Ignoring any possibility that the indigenous people who lived in the area might have had a name for it, he named it Bullfinch Harbor in honor of Charles Bullfinch of Boston, one of the owners of the Columbia Rediviva.  Later, Captain George Vancouver named it Grays Harbor in honor of Captain Robert Gray and this is the name that it carries today.

 photo DSCN7956RobertGray_zps8ce150ee.jpg

Shown above is a portrait of Robert Gray which is on display in the Polson Museum in Hoquiam, Washington.

While most history books credit John Gray with “discovering” the harbor that currently carries his name, the people who lived there when he sailed in didn’t feel like the area needed to be “discovered.”  When the ship sailed into the harbor, the Chehalis came out in canoes to greet it. John Boit, the ship’s fifth officer reported:

“Vast many canoes came off, full of Indians. They appeared to be a savage set, and was well arm’d, every man having his Quiver and Bow slung over his shoulder.”

The Americans traded with the Chehalis for some fish and furs. Boit also noted:

“The men were entirely naked, and the women, except a small apron made of rushes, was also in a state of nature. They were stout made, and very ugly.”

When the natives approached again the following day, the ship opened fire on the canoes with their cannons, destroying one canoe with 20 men in it and driving the others off. Boit wrote:

“I am sorry we was obliged to kill the poor Devils, but it could not with safety be avoided.”

The message to the people was clear: the intruders were not particularly peaceful.

The Chehalis are a group of culturally, linguistically, and historically related tribes that have lived in the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years. With regard to language, Chehalis is classified as a part of the larger Salish language family. The Salish language family is found on the Northwest Coast and in the Columbia Plateau area. Salish is generally felt to have great antiquity in the Northwest Coast. Linguists estimate that this language family may be 6,000 years old, although some feel it may be as young as 3,000 years old.

The Chehalis are generally divided into two broad groups: Upper Chehalis and Lower Chehalis with the boundary between the groups the confluence of the Chehalis River and the Satsop River. The lower Chehalis include the Copalis, Wynoochee, and Humptulips. The Satsop are part of the Upper Chehalis.

Like the other Indian nations living along the Pacific coast of what is now Washington and British Columbia, the Chehalis subsistence activities emphasized fishing and marine mammal hunting. Sturgeon was a popular item and often weighed 200 to 300 pounds. Sturgeon fishing was an art and was done with a large hook fasted to a cedar and spruce bark rope. This was fitted to a long pole, often 20 feet or longer. Holding the rope and pole, the channel floor would be probed for the large fish. It would sometimes take hours to land a large sturgeon. It is reported that a skilled fisherman would pull a 300-pound sturgeon into a canoe without shipping water.

In addition, they gathered shellfish and plants. Mussels and cockle clams were staples.

While the stereotype of American Indians envisions them as living in tipis, the Indians of the Northwest Coast lived in substantial wooden houses. These multi-family houses were built with planks on a post and beam frame. Coast Salish houses were typically 30 to 50 feet wide and they ranged from 50 to 200 feet in length.

In 1824, Hudson’s Bay trader John Work brought a large trading party into Grays Harbor. He reported:

“We passed 4 villages of the Chihalis nation, 2 houses in the first, five in the second, 2 in the third and 3 in the fourth, opposite which we encamped.”

Work described the houses:

“These peoples houses are constructed of planks set on end and neatly fastened at the top, those in the ends lengthening towards the middle to form the proper pitch, the roofs are cased with plank, the seams between which are filled with moss, a space is left open all along the ridge which answers the double purpose of letting out smoke and admitting the light.”

Salish houses were divided into compartments. The compartment would occupy the space between two rafters and would contain a hearth.  Each compartment would be occupied by two related nuclear families. The walls were usually lined with rush mats which helped to seal the cracks between the wall planks. These mats could also be used as sleeping mats and as pillows. Along the walls there was often a bench which was used for storage and sleeping. Items would be stored both on top of the bench and underneath it.

The houses would usually be arranged in a single row facing the water. Villages might have as few as four or five houses, while many villages would have 15 or more.

One of the cultural features of the Northwest Coast Indian nations is the potlatch. The potlatch is a series of songs, dances, and rituals. As a part of the potlatch, the host clan gives away a great deal of wealth which serves as a validation of the clan’s status of the society. Wealth was important to the Indian nations of the Northwest Coast and giving it away was a way of gaining status.

Potlatches are held to honor the dead as well as to celebrate life transitions such as marriages and births. The potlatch brings people-both living and dead-together. The guests at a potlatch see and experience the social business of the event, such as the inheritance of a name. They mentally record and validate that which has happened.

The potlatch itself often lasts for days with special songs for greeting the arriving guests and large quantities of food. During the several days of the potlatch, the hosts provide the guests with two large meals per day.

Since Americans are obsessed with the acquisition of property, the idea of giving it away is somehow offensive. Christian missionaries opposed the potlatch and it was banned in both Canada and the United States. However, Indian people continued the potlatch away from the government and the missionaries. The potlatch is currently legal in both countries

One of the functions of the potlatch is to memorialize those who have died. Among most of the Northwest Coast Indian nations, death involves reincarnation.

At the time of first contact with Europeans, the Coast Salish used wooden coffins and canoes set up in graveyards as a means of disposing of dead bodies. Regarding Chehalis burials, nineteenth century school superintendent Edwin Chalcraft reported:

“It was the old-time Indian custom in burying the dead at Chehalis to have the grave shallow enough to permit the cover of the box in which the body had been placed to be level with the surface of the ground, and then build a small house, about three feet high, over the grave.”

Modern Indian Scouts For Christian Fascists

A historical paradox is that once a people are freed, they sometimes become the aggressors. For instance, the Texans who defeated the Mexicans in the Texas Revolution fought exterminated the Comanche; some freed slaves became Buffalo Soldiers and joined the genocide campaign. Today, there are Christianized American Indians, and Christianized into Dominionism, who commit cultural genocide. They are the hidden face of Dominionism.

These dominionist American Indians are either ignorant of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and their history, or they do not care (anymore).

American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978

On and after August 11, 1978, it shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites.

These modern day Indian scouts for the Christian Fascists may do it for one reason or another, but no one knows why they do it but them.


After his conversion Chief Red Cloud gave up the land where Holy Rosary Mission was built. He asked to be buried at the Holy Rosary cemetery in the black robe of the Catholic priests. He was granted his wish. He and other tribal leaders then proceeded to give up land for other religious orders to build their churches and schools.

Would Crazy Horse have done the same if he had surrendered his freedom to become an Agency Indian?

Despite the general history.


Since the colonizing British, and subsequently the Americans, had little use for Indian servitude, but only wanted Indian land, they appealed to other Christian and European sources of wisdom to justify their genocide: the Indians were Satan’s helpers, they were lascivious and murderous wild men of the forest, they were bears, they were wolves, they were vermin. Allegedly having shown themselves to be beyond conversion to Christian or to civil life-and with little British or American need for them as slaves-in this case, straightforward mass killing of the Indians was deemed the only thing to do.

Or despite the more specific history.

Theodore Roosevelt…

The fourth face you see on that “Stony Mountain” is America’s first twentieth century president, alleged American hero, and Nobel peace prize recipient, Theodore Roosevelt. This Indian fighter firmly grasped the notion of Manifest Destiny saying that America’s extermination of the Indians and thefts our their lands “was ultimately beneficial as it was inevitable”. Roosevelt once said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth”. (Stannard, Op.Cit.)

They have nonetheless chosen to be modern Indian scouts for the Christian Fascists.

Researching U.S. Army Indian Scouts, 1866-1914 By Trevor K. Plante

The Army Reorganization Act of 1866 authorized the President “to enlist and employ in the Territories and Indian country a force of Indians not to exceed one thousand to act as scouts, who shall receive the pay and allowances of cavalry soldiers, and be discharged whenever the necessity for further employment is abated, at the discretion of the department commander.” One of the most significant measures in the act was that Indians would receive the same pay as white cavalry soldiers.

Jay Swallow of the New Apostolic Reformation, Cheyenne-Sioux, is in charge of Christianizing Native Americans nationally, and he runs the Spiritual Warfare Military training camp in Bixby, Oklahoma.

In 2004 Drs. Swallow and Bigpond saw the need of Spiritual Warfare Training and developed The Strategic Warriors At Training Boot Camps. There was an enormous amount of prophetic information throughout this nation concerning a major move of the Spirit of God in visiting the Tribes of this hemisphere. It was discerned that the enemy had planted himself within the areas targeted for transformation. A state of emergency had risen as the result of this resistance by the enemy in Indian country.

(Start at 5:50)

You Tube Video

They “practice” burning sacred Native American objects at that “training camp” in Oklahoma. Directly or indirectly, his influence to motivate somebody to commit cultural genocide spread up to Wisconsin (2012) and down to Texas (2007).

Will Arson Attack Cause Holy War Between Born-Agains and Natives?

On the night of July 17 and early morning of July 18, six suspicious fires destroyed three traditional ceremonial structures on the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe (LCO) reservation in northern Wisconsin, and two other structures were also severely damaged. The destroyed buildings included a ceremonial lodge, historic home for generations of big drum ceremonies and two private sweat lodges. A big drum dance ring as well as a structure at the pow wow grounds, home of the long-running Honor the Earth pow wow was damaged. An RV that served as the residence for Paul DeMain, a longtime journalist on LCO, was completely destroyed, and the main building on his property, home to News From Indian Country was also partially burned.


Christopher Grover, an LCO tribal member, was reportedly arrested not long after as a “person of interest” in the cases. Grover, 38, has ties to local evangelicals who embrace elements of a growing ideological movement that has been known to equate  traditional Native spirituality with a dangerous form of idolatry, even witchcraft.


Bruce Wilson of Talk2Action, a website dedicated to challenging the claims of the religious right, published what he says is an archived report by International Coalition of Apostles member Tom Schlueter in which he describes a ceremony in Olney, Texas in 2007 during which apostles-including Jay Swallow, Cheyenne-Sioux-smashed “Native American matrimonial vases” representing the demon powers of Baal and Leviathan.

And what is the correlation between the States and Canada in 2011, insofar as this Cultural Genocide is concerned?

“The Council hereby unanimously declares that the sweat lodge is to be dismantled and removed, and that all sweat lodge practices in the community immediately cease. Oujé-Bougoumou will continue to uphold its faith in and guidance by God.”

Though disappointed by this ruling, Mianscum hoped the council would reconsider, but he also began seeking legal and political assistance, writing to human rights attorneys and other Cree leadership.

Meanwhile, the Oujé-Bougoumou band council notified Lana Wapachee by letter in early December that several elders and community members were coming to her property to take the sweat lodge down. And they did. It was dismantled on Dec. 6 as Mianscum and dozens of community members stood witness. Police said the outer structure had to be dismantled as well. All the materials were left in a pile in the yard.

I can’t say if there is a direct correlation, yet the mindset is very similar here and in Canada. I’ve written 8 diaries over this since 2009, and I can only come to one conclusion.









The Sand Creek Massacre brought to light one predominant thought: the whites didn’t kill them just for the land, the whites wanted all Indians dead. So, these plastic Christians aren’t assimilating Native Americans to “save” them, they want ALL INDIAN RELIGION DEAD. Furthermore, they must use modern Indian Scouts to “track” them. Combat tracking was used as a method of trailing and gathering information on the enemy until finally locating and attacking them. Units such as Churches Rangers tracked enemy Indian bands through forests and swamps to conduct attacks on their camps.

I conclude with a line from the Two Rivers Native American Training Center’s website.

(bold mine)

A state of emergency had risen as the result of this resistance by the enemy in Indian country.



Greatly varied though the specific details of individual cases may be, throughout the Americas today indigenous peoples continue to be faced with one form or another of a five-centuries-old dilemma. At the dawn of the fifteenth century, Spanish conquistadors and priests presented the Indians they encountered with a choice: either give up your religion and culture and land and independence, swearing allegiance “as vassals” to the Catholic Church and the Spanish Crown, or suffer “all the mischief and damage” that the European invaders choose to inflict upon you. It was called the requerimiento. The deadly predicament that now confronts native peoples is simply a modern requerimiento: surrender all hope of continued cultural integrity and effectively cease to exist as autonomous peoples, or endure as independent peoples the torment and deprivation we select as your fate.

The Kowa

The Kiowa speak a language which linguists classify as a part of the Tanoan language family and is related to the Pueblos of Taos, Jemez, Isleta, and San Ildefonso in New Mexico. Yet the oral traditions of several tribes place the homeland of the Kiowa not in New Mexico, but much farther north in what is now Montana. It was here that they made the transition from elk and deer hunting to buffalo hunting. It was on the plains of Montana that they acquired the horse and many elements of Northern Plains culture, including the Sun Dance. In was in the north that the Kiowa made close and lasting friendships with the Sarsi, the Crow, and the Arikara. It was here that they first encountered the Plains Apache (also known as the Kiowa-Apache).  

Kiowa oral tradition tells of a time when they lived far to the north, beyond the territory of the Crow and the Lakota in the Northern Plains. It was a country that was very cold most of the year. This was a time when they used dogs to carry their burdens as they did not know of the horse. One of their warriors went far to the south where he was captured by the Comanche. The Comanche treated him well and gave him a horse so that he might return home with honor. Upon returning home, he told the tribe of a land stocked with game where the summer lasted nearly all of the year. The council decided to follow the man back to the country he had seen and the following spring they began their migration south. They traveled south until they were attacked by the Comanche.

The Kiowa maintained a tribal history or chronology which was painted on hides and later on paper. The chronology was arranged in a continuous spiral starting in the lower right and ending near the center. Winter was symbolized by a black bar and summer by a drawing of the Sun Dance lodge. In this way, the Kiowa kept a fairly accurate account of their history.

Among the Kiowa, there were three kinds of horses: (1) those which were used as pack animals, (2) those which were ridden by the family, and (3) those which were used for hunting, war, and racing. The average Kiowa household included about five adults.  The ideal size for the horse herd was approximately ten pack animals, five riding animals and two to five buffalo horses.

The Kiowa would form fairly large winter camps which were located along streams where there was firewood and shelter from the winter storms. In early spring, when food supplies were low, the camp would break up into several smaller bands which would scatter in search of game. Later in the summer, the bands would come back together for the buffalo hunt.

Kiowa men wore buffalo robes to cover the upper part of the body. The tanned side of these robes was often painted in a sunburst design. Women’s dresses would be decorated with a simple beaded band across the shoulders.

Among the Kiowa, the basic social unit was composed of a group of brothers, their wives and children. These kinship groups were then loosely organized into a variable number of bands under the leadership of a chief or headman who was spoken of as “father”. Bands ranged in size from about 20 individuals to over 60, with the typical band having about 35 people.

People were attracted to a Kiowa band because of the generosity of the chief. Chiefs who were not generous and who failed to maintain internal peace soon found themselves without a band. The primary functions of the chief involved the directing of the band’s hunting activities and the maintenance of internal peace. The chief usually decided when and where to move.

The Kiowa tribe existed as a sense of common identity and in reality the tribe came together only once a year (sometimes less) for the Sun Dance. In Kiowa tradition there were seven autonomous tribal divisions, each composed of several bands: Biters, Elks, Kiowa proper, Big Shields, Thieves, Pulling Up, and Black Boys. During the annual encampment these divisions occupied set places in the camp circle. Each of these divisions had a head chief who was selected on the basis of ability (the position was not inherited) and there was a nominal chief for the entire tribe.

Warfare was an important part of Kiowa culture, particularly during the nineteenth century. This importance was expressed through ceremonial song and dance. There were two kinds of raids: (1) horse raids, and (2) revenge raids. The typical size of a horse raiding party was 6-10 warriors while the revenge raiding parties were much larger. The smaller horse raiding parties might stay out for a long time – some were gone for a year or two – while the revenge parties soon returned to the band to help with hunting and other activities.

The Kiowa recognized about twelve different deeds of valor during war. When a man had performed four of these deeds he was acknowledged as a warrior.

Among the Kiowa there were several warrior societies:

Horses’ Headdresses: this was the lowest in rank and tended to have younger members.

Black Legs: membership in this society required the achievement of war honors.

Skunkberry People: this is the oldest of the men’s societies and during the twentieth century it became known as the Gourd Dance Society. The society demanded brave conduct from its members in warfare.

Principal Dogs: this was the most exclusive of the men’s societies and membership was open only to the highest ranking war chiefs. Members had to have obtained at least four war honors.

Each of these societies had two leaders and two whipbearers. Each of these societies also had its own songs, dance, insignia, and duties. Membership in the Koisenko was reserved for the bravest warriors and there were 10-40 members. The Koisenko led the most dangerous charges and were not allowed to retreat in battle.

These societies functioned primarily during the four weeks of the Sun Dance encampment. During this time they would sponsor feasts and entertainment and initiate new members. The primary functions of the Kiowa men’s societies were social and economic. In hosting feasts and giving gifts to honored guests they would redistribute wealth.

The Kiowa also had a number of shield societies in which supernatural power was shared. Of the shield societies, the oldest was the Taime Shields which represented the power of the Taime. During the Sun Dance, the Taime shields would be hung in the Sun Dance Lodge.

The Kiowa Eagle Shields had prestige similar to the Taime Shields. Eagle power was associated with war and therefore those who owned Eagle shields were courageous in battle.

The Kiowa Buffalo Shields society cured wounds and broken bones. Members of this society often went with war parties as doctors. The Buffalo Shields society is younger than the Eagle Shields society and while it was founded by a woman, no woman could be a member. The leaders of the society were descendents of the founder. Originally there were 12 Buffalo Shields.

The members of the Kiowa Old Shield Society had the ability to see the future and to talk with the spirits of the dead about finding lost articles. The society was founded by Mamanti (Sky Walker) following the Treaty of Medicine Lodge in 1867.  

The Kiowa also had a women’s society, the Calf Old Women, which was equal in rank to the Skunkberry People. Since the society had war power, men would present its members with gifts before leaving on a war party.

Another Kiowa women’s society was the Bear Old Women which was a secret society that controlled bear power. This is one of the oldest Kiowa societies.  

Kiowa Religion

 photo Kiowamen_zpsefbd5828.jpg

While the Kiowa today have a reservation in Oklahoma, their own oral tradition as well as that of other tribes tells of their migrations from Montana to the Southern Plains. Kiowa religion is based on a sacred power (dwdw), a force that permeated the universe and could be found in spirits, objects, places, or natural phenomena. This spiritual power permeates the universe, including the sun, the moon, and the stars. On earth, this power permeates the mountains, rivers, streams, plants, and animals. This spiritual power is neither good nor bad, but it can help or harm depending on the user.  

There is a hierarchy of spiritual power: the spiritual power of predators is more powerful than that of their prey; the spiritual powers from above, such as the sun, are stronger than the earthly animals.

For humans, the spiritual power could be obtained through the vision quest. Through the successful completion of the vision quest, the seeker obtains a guardian or tutelary spirit. This special spirit gives instructions on how to paint the face, as well as imparting special songs, and guidance for making special amulets. Traditionally it was considered unlikely that a man could be successful in life without a guardian spirit.

The vision quest, usually done only by men, involved going to an isolated place and fasting wearing only a breechcloth and moccasins. A buffalo robe might be draped over the shoulders with the hair side out. The seeker would carry a black stone pipe with a long stem. For four days the seeker would fast, smoke, and pray, attempting to obtain a vision.

Among the Kiowa, successful vision seekers traditionally obtained spiritual power related to either curing or war. These two realms of spiritual power were generally mutually exclusive: one became either a great warrior or a great curer. For those who became curers, life was more difficult as there were both responsibilities and restrictions which came with the spiritual power. Typically, restrictions might include the need to avoid certain animal foods-bears, moles, or fish-or animal parts-brains or marrow.

Kiowa men who received war power often made war shields that symbolized the power they had received through their vision. These shields, along with the associated spiritual power, could be given to a son or sold to a friend.

Among the Kiowa, the ten sacred medicine bundles – the Ten Grandmothers – were very important. One of the functions of the medicine bundle priests was to adjudicate disputes. The bundles also had the power to cure the sick. Anyone in the tribe could make gifts to a bundle and to pray for it. Success in war was traditionally the most common supplication.

The eleventh tribal bundle among the Kiowa is the Taime or Sun Dance bundle which became the focal point of the Sun Dance. This medicine bundle is placed at the western side of the Sun Dance lodge where it symbolizes the spiritual powers of the sun and mediates between the people and these spiritual powers.

According to one story, the Kiowa obtained two Taime medicine bundles, one male and one female, about 1770 from an Arapaho man who had received them as a gift from the Crow. When the Arapaho man married a Kiowa woman the two bundles come into possession of the Kiowa people.

The Sun Dance was the only time in which the entire Kiowa tribe camped together. This ceremony unified the tribe socially and spiritually. Traditionally, the Kiowa Sun Dance was held between mid-June and mid-July and was not an annual dance: it was held only when someone pledged it. The keeper of the Sun Dance bundle selected the location for the dance and was the nominal head of the tribe during this ceremony.

The Kiowa Gourd Dance (Tdiepeigah) began as a spiritual gift from the red wolf to a Kiowa warrior who was separated from his war party. The dance honors the battles of the Kiowa warriors during their migration from the Northern Plains to the Southern Plains.  

Cherokee Families

When the Europeans arrived in North America, they simply assumed that their concept of family was universal, moral, natural, and divinely-inspired. If there were any other kinds of families they must be immoral and inferior. For the Europeans, family implied a male-dominated institution, one run by the male in the household and whose children belonged to him. When Europeans encountered the Cherokee family, they: (a) were simply oblivious to the differences and superimposed their own concepts on it; (b) were totally baffled by the differences; and/or (c) assumed that the Cherokee family was immoral and unnatural.  

The Cherokee:

At the time of European contact, the Cherokee were divided into three broad groups: (1) the Lower Towns along the rivers in South Carolina, (2) the Upper or Overhill Towns in eastern Tennessee and northwestern North Carolina, (3) the Middle Towns which included the Valley Towns in southwestern North Carolina and northeastern Georgia and the Out Towns. There were some cultural and linguistic differences between these groups. The Cherokee language is a part of the Iroquoian language family.


Understanding the Cherokee family begins with an understanding of Cherokee clans. First of all, clans are not just a bunch of people who are somehow vaguely related to each other. Clans are corporate entities with names, traditions, oral history, and membership rules. Traditionally, the Cherokee were a farming people and the fields were farmed by the clans. The land was owned by the village and allocated to the clans.

Membership in a Cherokee clan is determined by the mother: you belong to your mother’s clan. Among the Cherokee, as with many other American Indian tribes, clan membership is the most important thing a person has and was the most fundamental of Cherokee rights. To be without a clan is to be without identity as a Cherokee.

The Cherokee had seven clans:

Blue: (A ni sa ho ni) Also known as the Panther or Wild Cat clan

Long Hair: (A ni gi lo hi) The Peace Chief was usually from this clan

Bird: (A ni tsi s kwa)

Paint: (A ni wo di) Many of the medicine people were from this clan

Deer: (A ni ka wi)

Wild Potato: (A ni ga to ge wi) Also known as the Bear, Racoon, or Blind Savannah clan

Wolf: (A ni wa yah) Many war chiefs came from this clan


Among the Cherokee, individuals were not allowed to marry members of their own clan or members of their father’s clan. They were, however, encouraged to marry members of their maternal grandfather’s clan or their paternal grandfather’s clan. In general, marriage was regulated by the women of the village. This does not mean that women were told who to marry. No relative-not her mother, nor her uncles, nor her brothers-had any compulsory authority over her.

Premarital chastity was unusual and there were no cultural prohibitions against fornication or adultery. Cherokee women determined with whom they would have sexual relations. Cherokee marriage was not seen as binding on either the husband or wife. Married Cherokee women also enjoyed great latitude with regard to sexual freedom. Women were free to dissolve a marriage at will.

Cherokee women resided with their kinswomen, that is, with members of their own clan. They owned the homes and shared in the agricultural products of the clan’s fields.

Cherokee men often married women from outside of their own village. The men were expected to live in their wives’ village. Women, of course, owned the house.

The Cherokee wedding ceremony was brief and simple: it involved an exchange of gifts. It was not a religious ceremony and often involved only the two clans involved.

Fathers and Uncles:

Fathers had no official relationship to their children because their children belonged to a different clan. Fathers might love their children and provide them with some care, but still the children belonged to the mother’s clan. A father did not have the right to punish his children. In fact, if a father were to harm his children, the children’s clan (that is, the clan of their mother) could hold him responsible.

The traditional roles of uncles-more specifically, the mother’s brothers-were very important in traditional Cherokee culture. Traditional Cherokee education was based on the role of the maternal uncles. For a young boy, this meant that the most important men in his childhood were his uncles, not his father. It was his maternal uncle who would teach him about warfare and hunting. The uncle was the disciplinary and tutorial authority within the clan.

The designation “maternal uncle” was also different in Cherokee society than in European society. This simply indicated that the man was a member of the mother’s clan. The maternal uncle did not have to have the same mother as the mother.

Traditional Northern Plains Warfare

After the Indian Nations on the Northern Plains acquired the horse in the eighteenth century, warfare became more common. Northern Plains warfare, however, was very different from the warfare waged by European countries and later by the United States: it was not usually waged by one tribe against another. War was not waged to conquer other nations. While there were battles in which people were killed, the purpose of war was not to kill people.  

Warfare was carried out by small, independent raiding parties rather than by large, organized armies. The motivation for war was personal gain, not tribal nationalism. Through participation in war an individual gained prestige, honor, and even wealth. Since wealth among the Indian nations of the Northern Plains was measured in horses, warriors could increase their wealth by capturing horses from other tribes.

Honor and Prestige:

For Plains Indian warriors, warfare centered around counting coup. “Coup” is a French word indicating “blow,” but for the Indian warrior coup was a war honor. A warrior did not count coup by killing the enemy or collecting scalps or capturing sexual slaves. While it was not uncommon for warriors to kill their enemies in battle, this was not in itself considered to be a particularly noteworthy act of valor.

The actual act of counting coup varied somewhat from tribe to tribe. Among the Cheyenne, for example, the act of counting coup involved touching an enemy with a stick (known as a coup stick), bow, whip, or the open palm of the hand.

Among the Blackfoot, the highest war honors were given to capturing an enemy’s gun. Also ranked high was the capture of a bow, shield, war shirt, war bonnet, or ceremonial pipe. The taking of a scalp ranked below these things.

During the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century many of the written and popular media accounts of Indian warfare stressed the practice of scalping. Yet among the Plains tribes, a scalp was not highly valued: it was simply an emblem of victory. Taking a scalp was not the goal of combat.

Warfare, according to Sioux writer Dr. Charles Eastman was about personal courage and honor:

“It was held to develop the quality of manliness and its motive was chivalric or patriotic, but never the desire for territorial aggrandizement or the overthrow of a brother nation.”


In addition to the acquisition of honor and prestige, war was about gaining personal wealth. An individual who had many horses could gain a great deal of prestige, particularly if he also gave away many horses. Wealth was something that was shared, it was not hoarded nor was it passed down to family members. Wealth had to be earned as it could not be inherited.

Since the objective of many war parties was to capture horses, it was common for the party to leave their camp on foot. If they were going to capture horses, there was no use in taking horses with them.


Plains Indian warfare was closely intertwined with religion, but not in the manner of the Europeans. Warfare was never waged because of religious differences. First of all, Plains Indian religions were generally based on animism rather than theism. In animistic religions, spiritual entities communicate with the people through dreams. Thus, a war party might form because a warrior would announce: “I had a dream…..” and those who felt that the dream was strong would join the war party. These dreams of war would usually describe where horses might be captured.

Success in war was generally attributed to the warrior’s individual spiritual power, not to the superiority of a religion, religious belief, or god. Religion, like warfare, was a highly personal thing. War medicine was often acquired through dreams and fasting. War medicine often involved a war song, face paint, and a sacred object to be worn during raids.

Military Strategy:

The military strategy for Plains Indian warfare involved the avoidance of unnecessary risks. From the viewpoint of Indian warriors, craft and cunning were superior to courage. To raid an enemy camp and to capture horses without being detected was a primary goal. Thus the American Corps of Discovery lead by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark lost half of their horses to a raid by Crow warriors and yet they never saw the warriors.

While war parties had nominal leaders, each warrior really fought alone. The goal was personal glory, not tribal victory. If a warrior saw a sign that indicated failure, the warrior might turn around and go home. This was a personal spiritual experience and no-one, including the war party leader, could insist that the warrior continue with the party.

Since surprise was a key element in Indian war strategy, war parties often travelled at night, attempting to avoid detection. The war party would travel in single file with the war leader taking the lead and young men on their first raid traveling in the rear. During the day they would try to stay hidden.

Warfare and the United States:

When the United States military first encountered the Indian nations of the Northern Plains in battle, the army did not understand either Indian military strategies or Indian motivations for fighting. The Indian warriors were not following the rules of war as understood by the Americans. The idea of warriors as individuals who did not follow orders and who could leave the field of battle whenever they wanted created in the minds of the military a stereotype of Indian warriors as cowards.

On the other hand, when Indian warriors first encountered the U.S. Army, they were baffled because the U.S. did not follow the well-established rules of war. The Army fought in the winter; it required soldiers to follow orders even when following them meant sure death; it sought to kill people rather than acquire honor; and it sought to obtain land and religious conversion.

The Give-Away

In 1884, the United States government formally outlawed all Indian religions. Part of the rationale behind the banning of Indian religions was the concern expressed by Indian agents, Christian missionaries, and the Christian philanthropists of the Lake Mohonk Conference regarding the American Indian practice of giving away their material possessions. Many non-Indians were scandalized by the Indian practice of the give-away. For Indians to become civilized, they argued, Indians needed to understand the importance of private property.  

In the 1880s, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Henry Teller, reported on the need to eliminate Indian feasts, dances, and ceremonies:

“they must be compelled to desist from the savage and barbarous practices that are calculated to continue them in savagery.”

Private property, Teller felt, is an important part of civilization. Steps needed to be taken to prevent private property from being given away at feasts and funerals. Not only did Indians need to learn to acquire private property, but they also needed to learn to pass it on to their children, not to tribal members.

The American obsession with private property and the accumulation of wealth was, and often still is, seen as having a mystical power to transform Indians. Since Indian cultures were not based on the principles of private property and greed, these cultures had to be destroyed.

While Indian religions, including the practice of giving away goods, remained illegal for half a century, the practice of the give-away continued and is still an important part of Indian life today.

Today’s Indians do give-aways for many different reasons. I recently attended a give-away related to a naming ceremony. In many traditional cultures, an individual may acquire a number of different names during the course of their life. In Native American cultures names are given to reflect deeds and accomplishments as well as spiritual characteristics. Often a spiritual name may help inspire the person to live up to the characteristics of the name.

The naming ceremony involves three basic activities. First, a respected elder or ceremonial leader will bestow the new name. This is often done in conjunction with a sweat lodge ceremony or a medicine circle ceremony. The new name may describe spiritual characteristics which the elder sees in the person being named. The named individual then will do a give-away and a feed. The give-away symbolizes the acceptance of the name. The individual accepting the name does not speak publicly at the give-away. Instead, someone is selected to speak for that individual. People are called forward to receive a gift from the person accepting the name. The receivers take the gift and shake hands with the giver. In doing this, they serve witness to the fact that the individual has formally accepted the name.

The feed is not a potluck. The person accepting the name must provide food to all those who received the gifts. The sharing of food is an important part of Native American spirituality.

There are many other occasions for give-aways. When a young person graduates from high school or college, or comes home safe after serving in the military, the family will often host a give-away. It is not uncommon for public events, such as powwows, to include give-aways. In Native cultures, the graduates and their families give gifts rather than receive them. The give-away functions as a public recognition of the individual’s new status and/or their thanks for the blessings they have received.

Traditional Whaling

The area along the Pacific Coast north of California and between the Cascade Mountains and the ocean, is the home to many Indian nations who traditionally based their economy on the use of sea coast and river ecological resources. This is an area which stretches from the Tlingit homelands in Alaska to the Tolowa homelands in northern California. Prior to European contact in 1774, it is estimated that the population of this area was at least 200,000 with some people estimating it at closer to a million. This suggests that it was one of the most densely populated non-agricultural regions of the world.

Some of the Northwest Coast tribes are actually confederations. The Nuu-chah-nulth (also known as the Nootka), for example, are a confederacy of 14 nations. Each of the tribes takes pride in their political independence and autonomy. The designation of the independent nations as Nuu-chah-nulth (which means “all along the mountains”) was selected by the First Nations leaders in 1978 as the collective term to describe the closely related nations of western Vancouver Island in Canada. The tribes had forged an alliance since 1967 to present a unified political voice. The Makah in Washington are linguistically and culturally related to the Nuu-chah-nulth.

As a coastal people, the subsistence activities of the Indian nations of the Northwest Coast emphasized fishing and marine mammal hunting. The marine mammals which they hunted included harbor seal, fur seal, sea lion, sea otter, porpoise, and whale. These sea mammals were often hunted from a canoe.

Whales provided a significant range of important resources, including meat, bone, baleen, sinew, and gut. While whales provided an abundance of food and tool-making materials, they also presented significant challenges to those who hunted them.

The most commonly hunted whales were the California gray whale and the humpback whale. Whale hunting was often felt to be a noble calling and among some tribes, such as the Nuu-chah-nulth, the whaler was always a chief. Preparation for the Nuu-chah-nulth whale hunt took months with the whaler bathing and scouring his body, praying, and swimming in imitation of the actions desired in the whale, his wife holding him on a line. In preparation for the hunt, the whalers would often sequester themselves in a small wooden structure called a chii-asim (shrine). Here the crew would bathe, fast, and pray. Nuu-chah-nulth artist Ki-ke-in reports:

“As the whaling crew prepared themselves to take the life of a huge whale, a spiritual act of the highest order, they prayed, surrounded by their most famous and successful ancestor whalers.”

The Nuu-chah-nulth whale hunting crew was traditionally composed of eight men. The harpooner would stand in the bow with the harpoon to his right pointing forward over the prow. Close to the feet of the first paddler was the first float and it was the duty of the first paddler to throw it overboard as the harpooner made his strike.

Nuu-chah-nulth whale hunters used a harpoon that was up to 18 feet in length with a detachable head of carved elk horn. An extremely sharp point from mussel shell was set in the elk-horn head.  When the harpoon struck the whale, the head would separate from the shaft. The head was connected to the whaler’s canoe with a cord made of nettles and a sinew lanyard. When the wounded whale resurfaced, more harpoons would be plunged into its body.  It was necessary for the whaler to come very close to the whale, for the harpoon was thrust into the whale rather than being thrown. The trick was lying alongside just as the whale was submerging, with the flukes under water. It was more than the harpooner’s skill, however, that led to success: the skill of the crew, particularly that of the steersman, was needed to get the harpooner in place for the kill.

Nuu-chah-nulth artist Ki-ke-in summarizes the whale hunt this way:

“The success in whaling of these great men-their spiritual preparedness, knowledge, and physical strength-meant that they were able to feed their communities and invite neighboring tribes.”

Once the whale had been killed, it was necessary to tie its mouth shut to prevent the carcass from filling with water and sinking. One of the crew would dive into the water as soon as the whale was killed, cut a hole through the mandible behind the bone and another through the upper lip, and then tie the two together with a rope.

Once the hunters had beached the dead whale, it was cut up and distributed according to specific rules. The whaler (the first harpooner) received the “saddle”-the choicest piece of blubber which lies across the back and down the sides of the whale from just in front to just in back of the dorsal fin. This choice piece was placed on a rack in front of the whaler’s house. It was cooked and eaten four days later. The whaler did not eat any of the saddle; instead it was distributed as a feast.

With regard to the importance of whale hunting to the Nuu-chah-nulth, artist Ki-ke-in writes:

“Like our system of beliefs, our history of whaling is one of the great unifying forces in Nuu-chah-nulth communities. Whaling was never far from our grandparents’ thoughts.”

Whaling was important not only to Nuu-chah-nulth men, but to the women as well. A young whaler could marry only the daughter of another whaler as the young woman had to be ready to meet the expectations which the community had for a whaler’s wife. Ki-ke-in reports:

“When her husband was out on the sea whaling, she would lie on a specially prepared mat, as still and quiet as she could be, praying that he would be successful and come home safe.”

The Nuu-chah-nulth acknowledged a deep connection between the whale and the whaler’s wife.

Aboriginal Farming in New England

When the Pilgrims first arrived in New England in 1620, they viewed the area as an undeveloped wilderness. One of their first activities was to rob Indian graves, taking from them, among other things, maize (commonly known as corn). While the Pilgrims relied on the produce from Indian farms-corn, beans, and squash-for their survival they failed to either see or understand the well-developed Indian agriculture which they encountered. In the centuries since the Pilgrims began their invasions, historians, politicians, pundits, and others have been unaware of Indian agriculture.  

Aboriginal New England agriculture was based on corn, beans, gourds, pumpkins, passionflower, Jerusalem artichoke, tobacco, and squash. Beans of many different colors and textures were used in many different ways and were added to many foods. Corn (maize) was a variety known as northern flint which had eight-rowed, multicolored ears.  

Fields were initially cleared by slash-and-burn methods. Fires would be placed around the bases of standing trees which would burn the bark and kill the tree. Later the dead tree would be felled, often knocking down other dead trees as it fell.

Once an area had been cleared, earth mounds or hills were constructed about four or five feet apart. Kernels of corn and beans would then be planted in the mounds. The corn stalks would later be used by the bean vines as a pole. In the spaces between the mounds, the people would plant squash, gourds, and tubers. The squash vines would trail alongside and over the mounds, protecting the roots of the corn plants and preventing weeds from establishing themselves. This type of agriculture did not look orderly to European eyes and thus it was often unseen by them.

In addition, the farming was done by women. Since the English assumed that only men farmed, they didn’t see the farming because it was done by the women. The European invaders assumed that men were inherently more important than women and thus valued only men’s work, or what they perceived as men’s work. In actuality, women contributed as much as three-fourths of the total calories consumed. A single Indian woman, working an acre or two, could raise 25-60 bushels of corn which was enough to provide about half of her family’s caloric needs.

Hoes for preparing the ground and weeding used the shells of horseshoe crabs, clams, the scapulae from deer, or turtle shells. Small huts were often constructed in and around the fields. From these huts, children would watch the fields and scare off any birds which threatened the plants. Among the Narragansett, tamed hawks were also used to frighten the birds away.

In southern New England, planting was timed by the disappearance of the constellation Pleiades from the western horizon and harvesting began with its reappearance in the east. These astronomical observations mark the length of the frost-free season in the area.

In order to keep an accurate measure of the seasons, the people constructed observatories in the form of stone chambers, stone circles, and carefully split boulders which enabled them to view and mark solar events such as solstices. These architectural features, which have often puzzled non-Indians, may have also been used to mark lunar and stellar cycles.

While the aboriginal inhabitants of New England have often been characterized by non-Indians as nomadic hunter-gatherers, they were actually settled agriculturalists. Throughout New England, Indian villages had extensive fields and at least six of the thirteen phases of the lunar calendar were named or described in terms of agricultural schedules. The fields would range from 20 to 200 acres in size.

Over time, agricultural fields lose their fertility. In many areas, the declining fertility would be noticed after 8-10 years, at which time the people would increase fertilization and/or create new fields by burning the woods. After a decade or so, the fields might be abandoned and the people would move a short distance away to establish to new village. This move would be done gradually, often over a period of several years. A few families would move initially and then the others would join them.

Since farming was an important part of the daily life of the people, it should come as no surprise to find that agriculture was also the center of their religious and ceremonial life. Of particular importance was the harvest ceremony (or, better, ceremonies) which involved several days of feasting, dancing, and the giving away of material wealth. Among Native Americans food was seen as communal and was shared freely by all who were in the village.

The Green Corn Ceremony was usually held in August when the first corn ripened. For a period of about two weeks, the community leaders would eat only at night.

The cosmology of the Indian Nations of New England included many different spiritual beings or forces. Unlike the Europeans, they did not rely on one god with multiple personalities, nor did they have a hierarchy of gods and goddesses. The traditional stories tell of forest elves, river elves, fairies, dwarves, and giants. Among the Narragansett, it was an entity called Cautantouwit who sent the first kernels of corn to the people in the ear of a crow and for this reason the Narragansett did not harm crows.  

Navajo Weaving

Even the most casual tourist who travels through the Navajo lands of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah cannot help but notice the abundance of fine weavings commonly called “rugs” which are offered for sale at roadside stands, tourist traps, restaurants, museums, and fine arts galleries. Navajo weavings are some of the best-known and most easily recognized American Indian art forms.

Navajo weaving trading post

According to the oral tradition, at some point in the mythological past, Spider Woman taught Navajo men how to make an upright loom and then instructed Navajo women on how to use this loom to weave beauty. Beauty is an important part of Navajo culture-it is not a matter of being surrounded by beauty, but being involved in the process of beauty.

Navajo weaving is not just a way of making cloth or textiles: it is a form of artistic expression. While oral tradition gives Spider Woman credit for teaching weaving to the Navajo, the archaeology suggests an additional dimension to the story. Sometime in the 16th century the Navajo learned weaving from the Pueblo people in the Southwest and for more than a century, Navajo weavings closely resembled those of the Pueblos. Both the Navajo and the Pueblos at this time wove the same kinds of clothing.

Navajo Manta

There are some major differences between Navajo weaving and Pueblo weaving: in Pueblo culture, the men do the weaving, while in Navajo culture weaving is generally women’s work.

Among the Navajo, it is the process of weaving, not necessarily the final product, which is important. Weaving provides an opportunity to make individual decisions, to discipline one’s thought process, to practice self-control, patience, and tenacity, and to develop one’s skill. The process of weaving is closely attuned to spiritual concepts. Working at her loom, the weaver seeks to create a single whole that blends fine and bold contrasts in color, feature, and design. In this way, the weaver seeks to emulate the process by which the Holy People created the world.  

When a Navajo weaver sits down before her loom to start a new weaving, she has a design in her mind-it is not written down and it is not a design which she has done before. Navajo weavings are always designed anew and the designs are always changing, moving, and flowing. The Navajo weavers see the process of weaving and their designs as a form of communication. In this way, the process of Navajo weaving is like a language with codes and conventions that carry meanings embedded in specific historical, cultural and familial contexts.


Weaving with cotton was common in the southwest prior to the arrival of the Spanish. After the arrival of the Spanish, the Navajo acquired churro sheep and began weaving with wool. Within a relatively short period of time they became proficient in weaving wool and by the early 18th century they were already selling their textiles to both Spanish and Pueblo communities.

During the 19th century, Navajo wearing blankets were traded throughout the Southwest and into adjacent culture areas. These blankets are woven wider than long and are worn by both men and women, draped around the shoulders. Outside of the Southwest, these blankets became prestige items and are often referred to as “chiefs’ blankets”.  These blankets were so tightly woven that they would shed water. The use of indigo dyes and costly yarns meant that they commanded a high price. On the Great Plains, only those people with significant resources could afford such a blanket, thus the designation of Chief blankets.

Chief Blanket

The Chief blanket is based on a simple striped weaving pattern. The blankets had dark horizontal stripes which were organized into a solid broad band at the blanket’s center. At the top and bottom there were bands which were half as wide as the center band. Between the center and the border bands there would be narrower alternating black and white stripes.

The earliest known Chief blanket, dating to about 1775, consists of evenly spaced alternating brown and white stripes. There are four rows of narrow stripes at each end. By the early part of the 19th century, Navajo weavers broadened the stripes giving them an additional sense of depth. Outlining the horizontal dark brown stripes with deeply saturated indigo blue added even more depth to the design.

By 1850 many Navajo weavers had adopted a technique known as tapestry weave and added geometric forms to the Chief blanket. The horizontal plane is interrupted with twelve vibrant red rectangular bars. When the blanket is draped about the body, the vertical elements are visible down the back and front of the wearer.

About 1860, Navajo weavers began adding terraced triangles and diamonds to the design of the Chief blanket.

By the end of the 19th century, Navajo weavers were using a two-faced weave. This means that one pattern could be developed on the front, and a different pattern, usually one featuring simple stripes, could be done on the reverse side.

In addition to blankets, Navajo weavers also produced a number of other woven items, including sash belts, garters, saddle cinches, women’s dresses, knitted socks, and leggings.

Navajo Blanket

While in today’s market, Navajo rugs are most frequently woven and traded, this is an aspect of Navajo weaving that emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century in response to a globalized market for American Indian goods. This will be discussed in a separate essay.  

Assimilation in 1920

By the late nineteenth century, all Americans, except for American Indians, knew for a fact that all Indian tribes would be extinct in the twentieth century and that all individual American Indians, like other immigrants, would be fully assimilated into mainstream American culture in which they would be English-speaking, Christian farmers. While this American fantasy continued to survive through most of the twentieth century, Indians did not vanish. As Americans entered into the period of growth and prosperity popularly known as the Roaring 20s following World War I, Indian tribes and Indian people continued to exist, usually out of sight of non-Indians.  

Resource Development:

During the nineteenth century, the American government, in its infinite wisdom and charity, had moved American Indians out of the way of economic development by attempting to confine them to reservations. In 1920, non-Indian entrepreneurs, aided by the American government’s Indian Office and inspired by greed, began to look at the possible economic resources on Indian reservations. The American government, believing its own racist propaganda, assumed that Indians should not be allowed to develop these resources, but rather they should be developed for and by non-Indians. Since Indians were the poorest people in the United States, there was little, if any, concern for providing adequate compensation for the resources which were taken from them.

The Indian agent for the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana rented the coal mine on the reservation to a non-Indian. While Indians now had to buy coal from the mine, non-Indians were allowed free coal. The Indian agent justified renting the coal to non-Indian interests by saying that the Indians did not know enough about Anglo practices to mine and market the coal.

The City of Tacoma, Washington, applied to the Department of Interior to purchase a right of way through the Skokomish Reservation for power lines and service access roads in conjunction with their Cushman Hydroelectric Project. While the Department of Interior was considering this request, the City of Tacoma filed a condemnation suit in state court to acquire the land needed for the project. Included in the condemnation suit were the tribal trust lands. The City did not notify the Department of the Interior or the Bureau of Indian Affairs about this law suit.  

In order to allow non-Indians to obtain Yavapai water rights in Arizona, the Bureau of Indian Affairs quietly obtained an executive order from President Woodrow Wilson which authorized the allotment of the Salt River Reservation and reclassified the Fort McDowell Reservation as grazing land.

The residents of Bernalillo, New Mexico, put forth a plan to divert water from one of Santa Ana Pueblo’s ditches into the Bernalillo Community Ditch. While the residents claimed that their plan would not interfere with Santa Ana water, the Pueblo insisted that an agreement be drawn up in which the Bernalillo Community Ditch users acknowledged Santa Ana water rights. The document also stated that these water rights did not fall under state jurisdiction.

While one of the goals of the government’s assimilation program was to make Indians into self-sufficient farmers, a government report (released in 1921) revealed that most Indian land was being farmed by non-Indians: 4.5 million acres as compared with only 762,000 acres which were being farmed by the Indians themselves.


In the United States in 1920, most Americans strongly believed that there was only one true religion: Christianity as reorganized during the Protestant reformation. With regard to American Indian religions, most non-Indians felt that either Indians had no religion or that they worshiped the devil. In either case, it was the duty of the government to bring the Indians into Christianity so that they could participate in American society. While Indian religious activity had been illegal now for two full generations, the aboriginal ceremonies refused to die and so the government continued its efforts to suppress these activities and to jail those who participated in, or advocated participating in, such evil ceremonies. The government was particularly interested in stopping the Plains Indian Sun Dance and the pan-Indian Native American Church.

In Wyoming, the Shoshone under the spiritual leadership of Morgan Moon openly revived the Sun Dance on the Wind River Reservation. The reservation superintendent had banned the dance and when John Truhujo spoke with him about it, Truhujo was threatened with five years in Leavenworth Prison. An Indian Office supervisor from Washington, D.C. watched the dance and took pictures. After having seen the dance, the supervisor disagreed with the reservation superintendent and reported that he saw nothing wrong with the ceremony.

In Arizona, the non-Indian principal of the Oraibi School interrupted a Hopi ceremony when he saw a clown dancer with a huge artificial penis. In the words of the principal, he stopped the ceremony and told the dancer

“that if he ever did a thing like that again, I would put him in jail. He told me that he did not know it was wrong, that it was a Hopi custom.”

The American government was (and still is) particularly concerned with instilling an addiction to greed in American Indians. Above all, private property was to be worshipped, so the traditional practice of giving property away was deemed offensive. In Montana, the superintendent of the Fort Peck Reservation wrote about Indian dances:

“The dance itself is extremely demoralizing because when they dance they insist upon giving away property. More than one-half of these Indians if allowed to would give away all of their property. The Indian dance has a direct influence against the Church influence.”

While government agents were busy attempting to suppress traditional religious practices on the various reservations, the Indians continued to borrow non-Christian religious ideas from each other. On the Fort Peck Reservation, for example, where the Indian agent was busy trying to stop Indian dances, the Assiniboine imported what would become the Owl Dance from the Standing Rock Reservation in South Dakota. This was primarily a social dance and it was held in secret in isolated places out of the sight of the Indian agent and other non-Indians.

One of the concerns of government officials and missionaries was the rise of a new religious movement which blended Christianity and traditional American Indian concepts. Ignoring the elements of Christianity in this new movement and focusing almost entirely on the fact that it incorporated a plant-peyote-as a sacrament, the government and the missionaries attacked the Native American Church on the basis that it somehow promoted intoxication.  Using bogus science and the paranoia of “drunken” Indians, there was a rush to create new laws at the local, state, and federal levels to ban peyote and the religion associated with it.

In Idaho, the peyote religion was brought to the Shoshone and Bannock of the Fort Hall Reservation by Shoshone spiritual leader Jack Edmo and by Sioux spiritual leader Cactus Pete. The new religion rapidly spread across the reservation and alarmed agency officials. In response, the Indian agent arrested Jack Edmo and others as he viewed peyote meetings as a form of immorality. He then contacted the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to see if he was authorized to try them for violating Indian Office Regulations against the practices of medicine men.

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.

Map 3233

Old Photo 3398

Old Photo 3399

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 People 3512

Napi People 3505

Napi World 3506

Napi Stories 3508

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.

Sacred Items 3535

Sacred 3536

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.

Bundle 3509

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.”

Napi People 3510

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

Napi People 3511

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Tipi 3527

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

tipi 3528

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.

Tipi 3537

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.

dog travois 3529

Travois 3531

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).

Indian Chiefs

At the time of the European invasion, Indian cultures differed greatly from their European counterparts in the ways in which they governed themselves. The governments of European nations tended to be based on the peculiar notion that some men (and/or families) had been endowed by God to rule over other people (i.e. the concepts of Kingship and nobility). The Europeans expected Indians to have monarchs, rulers who could tell other people what to do. From the European viewpoint, this was the only “natural” way for people to be governed.  

At the time of the European invasion, European society was based on the notion of hierarchy, a ranking of people from the highest (the nobility) to the lowest (the peasants and slaves). The highest ranking members of European society had access to food and resources that were often denied to the lower members. Furthermore, the lowest members of society were required to economically support the upper classes.

Europeans (and many modern Americans), coming from a socially stratified society saw this as natural and had difficulty perceiving and understanding any society which did not have stratification. They often assumed that people would feel insecure without stratification and so worked to change Indian societies. They often imagined stratification where there was none and also superimposed it on Indian societies through the treaty process.

While it was true that some Indian cultures had hierarchies, most did not have royalty. The present-day claims by some people that their grandmother, great-grandmother, or some other distant relative was an Indian “princess” is a reflection of Euro-American fantasies rather than any realities of Indian society.

Instead of being hierarchical, most Indian cultures tended to be egalitarian and democratic. In most American Indian societies there were no social classes and no-one had superior rights to others based on birth (i.e. the status of one’s father or mother). With regard to government, all adults-both men and women-generally had input into most decisions.

The concept of the Indian “chief” is really a European concept. Europeans felt that it was natural that the leader of the society-designated with the title “king” or “chief”-had a right to tell other people what to do. Furthermore, this person should be immediately recognizable by their dress, by the behavior of their subordinates, and by the size of their dwellings. Since most Indian societies were egalitarian, the early Europeans were often confused when they could not readily identify the Indian leaders (“chiefs”): the leaders wore the same clothing as other people, were treated the same as other people, and lived in similar dwellings.

Unlike the hereditary basis of leadership found in European societies, leadership among Indian cultures was often based on the individual’s ability to get other people to listen and follow. Oratory was one of the key elements of leadership. In addition, leaders were often expected to be generous (they often were required to feed and house all visitors).

It was common for Indian societies to have more than one leader. Among some tribes, there was a hunt leader, a war leader, a ceremonial leader, and so on. All of these leadership roles required different skills and there was no assumption that a single individual could fill all of these roles.

The Europeans, and later the American government, assumed that patrilineal descent was somehow natural, normal, and universal. That is, a son always inherited from his father. The matrilineal systems followed by many tribes, ranging from the Cherokee in the Southeast to the Iroquois in the Northeast to the Tlingit in the Northwest Coast to the Hopi in the Southwest, seemed to be beyond European comprehension. In a matrilineal system, a son would inherit from his mother’s brother, not his father. Not understanding this system, the Europeans and Americans generally assumed that when a chief died, his son would automatically become chief. In most tribes, this did not happen.

With regard to government, Indian societies ranged from very loose democracies in which all discussed important decisions to the more formal confederacies, such as that of the League of Five Nations (also called the Iroquois Confederacy). In general, cross-cultural studies suggest that communities with 500 or fewer individuals tend to be egalitarian without formal leadership roles. Most of the so-called “hunting and gathering” tribes would fall into this category. However, as population increases there is a need for a more formal governmental structure. With a population of about 2,500, societies tend to have formal, political hierarchies. With regard to American Indians, many of the agricultural tribes would fall into this group.

The Nez Perce Tribe sums up traditional Indian law and government this way:

“Over many hundreds of years, tribal governments exercised their power by declarations of war, by defining and controlling territories, by managing and allocating resources, by punishing crimes, by regulating marriages, by adoption and by conducting various other aspects of their domestic relations. This form of government relied, not upon laws written in books or interpreted in courtrooms, but upon binding oral contracts and oral agreements. Such governments did not define their territories on maps and established no governmental offices.”  

American Indians and Tobacco

In 2011, the Altria Group, the parent company of the tobacco company Philip Morris, released a white paper urging the state of New York to clamp down on tax-free cigarettes manufactured on Indian land. Indian tribes responded by announcing that they would no longer buy famous brand cigarettes manufactured by Philip Morris (Altria), Reynolds, American and Lorillard. Instead they would manufacture and sell their own brands of cigarettes. This year, the Big Tobacco Companies, using their allies in the state and federal governments, are continuing their battle against Indian tobacco, not to reduce Indian smoking, but to increase the consumption of Big Tobacco products. With this in mind, let’s take a look at American Indians and tobacco.  

One of the common sayings in Indian country is that when our ancestors first gave tobacco to the European invaders, they knew it was going to kill them, they just didn’t think it would take this long.

The use of tobacco today, for smoking as well as other uses, is a global phenomenon, and a global health concern. Tobacco, however, is a plant which originated in the Americas and which was first used in a variety of ways by American Indians. Most importantly tobacco was, and continues to be, an integral part of Native American spirituality. The history of tobacco is partially a history of American Indians.

First, some information about the plant. Tobacco’s genus, Nicotiana, contains 64 species. Today, the most frequently used tobaccos are Nicotiana tabacum (tall, annual, broad leafed plant) and Nicotiana rustica.

While tobacco grows wild in many parts of the Americas, the archaeological evidence suggests that Indian people in the Andes region of South America began to domesticate and cultivate tobacco about 7,000 years ago. The practice of growing tobacco as a crop then spread north into the tribal traditions of what is now the United States and Canada and also out to the Caribbean Islands. Shortly after the beginning of the European invasion in 1492, the use and cultivation of tobacco began to spread to other parts of the planet.

Tobacco can be used by humans in many different ways: it can be sniffed, chewed, eaten, smeared on the skin, drunk, used in eye drops and enemas, and smoked. Smoking is the quickest way of getting the drug into the blood stream other than using a hypodermic needle. Taken in small doses, tobacco has a mild effect on those who use it. However, taken in large doses it can produce hallucinations, trances, and death.

Smoking is an unusual way of ingesting a drug. At the time of the European invasion in the 1500s, smoking was found only in the Americas and in a few parts of Africa. Europeans were unfamiliar with this activity and were, at times, amazed when they encountered it.  

Tobacco was traditionally used by nearly all of the tribes of North America and the most common way of using tobacco was to smoke it in a pipe. Indians used pipes made from various materials in a variety of shapes. The most recognized is the Plains Indian “peace” pipe with its stone bowl and long wooden stem. The bowl of the “peace” pipe is often in an elbow shape or a T-shape.

The people whom archaeologists call Basketmaker in what is now the American Southwest were using a tube-like pipe about 3,500 years ago. For their smoking mixture they used wild tobacco (Nicotiana rustica) which was probably mixed with other materials. In a similar fashion, the Indian people around the Great Lakes area about 3,000 years ago were using tubular-shaped pipes for smoking tobacco. The pipes are flared on the tobacco end and narrowed on the mouth end.

While some pipes are left plain, others are elaborately carved. The designs can range from abstract patterns to realistic animal and human effigies. In some instances the animal effigies represent the guardian spirits of the pipe’s owner. Human heads, which are often carved so that they face the smoker, sometimes represent an actual deceased individual and are smoked to facilitate spiritual communication with that person.

One interesting historical side note is the collection of effigy pipes of Toussaint Charbonneau, the guide for Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery expedition. Charbonneau collected pipes which realistically portrayed people in erotic situations.  

The Indian people in the eastern part of the United States frequently made pipes from clay. It was this clay pipe which the Europeans copied when they began to smoke tobacco.

In addition to using stone and clay for making pipes, Indian also made pipes from wood, bone, and antler.

Traditionally, the material smoked in the pipes was a mixture of tobacco and other plant materials. The Algonquian term “kinnekenick,” which means “mixture” was often used to describe this mixture of smoking materials.

While smoking could be a social event or a solitary undertaking, the act of smoking always involved some ritual. When the pipe was first lit, smoke would be offered to the directions: four directions in some traditions, six in others, and often seven.

Often pipes were individual pipes: that is, they were privately owned. An individual pipe could be used ceremonially to aid in the owner’s personal spiritual quest or the owner could use the pipe to help other people. In addition, an individual pipe might be used for recreational smoking. When the owner of the pipe died, the pipe was either buried with the owner’s body or it was destroyed.

Sometimes pipes were communally owned: that is, they were a part of a bundle of spiritual objects. These pipes were used only ceremonially and were used to spiritually help the people.

Today, pipes are still commonly used by American Indian people. Many of the old bundles and their pipes still play an important role in the spiritual life of the people. Many individuals also have pipes and, as “pipe carriers,” they are often asked to conduct spiritual ceremonies.

Note: for many traditional elders, photographing sacred pipes is offensive and therefore no photographs of pipes have been included in this essay.

Many Indian tribes traditionally cultivated tobacco, but cultivated tobacco was not always used for smoking. The Crow, a Northern Plains tribe, have a Tobacco Society (both men and women are members) which plants the sacred tobacco every spring and every fall they harvest it. In the spring, the members meet to discuss their dreams which give them instructions on the site for planting the seeds. The tobacco (Nicotiana multivalvis) raised by the Crow Tobacco Society was considered a holy plant associated with the stars and was not smoked. Some stories say that tobacco was given to the people at the time of creation: that Morning Star transformed himself from human into the tobacco plant in order to overcome their enemies. Other stories indicate that tobacco was the personal medicine of No Vitals, the chief who led the Crow away from the Hidatsa.  For the Crow, their destiny was linked to tobacco.

Tobacco is still used by American Indians as a spiritual offering. When asking the advice of an elder, for example, it is customary to give the elder tobacco. In gathering wild plants for ceremonial use, it is customary to leave a small offering of tobacco for the spirits of the plants. In preparing the fire for the sweat lodge, tobacco offerings are given to the fire. Ceremonially, tobacco is still an important part of Native American spirituality.

In the United States today, tobacco use-primarily cigarettes and chewing tobacco-is extremely high on Indian reservations and among Indian populations in urban areas. A report released in 2012 by the U.S. Surgeon General showed that American Indian youth (age group 12-17) and young adults (age group 18-25) are more likely to smoke tobacco than any other ethnic group. According to the report, nearly 50% of young adult Indians smoke.

Interestingly enough, there seems to be a correlation between Indian casinos and smoking: a study by the Institute on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that casinos reduce the probability of smoking by 9.6%.

Tobacco use is accompanied by the usual tobacco-related health problems. In many areas, the elders are attempting to tell the young people that tobacco should be used only in ceremonial context and not for recreation.

Native American Marriage

The debate over marriage in American society and the fears expressed by some conservatives that allowing diversity will somehow destroy the institution of marriage has been interesting (at some times amusing) to watch. While there appear to be some who feel that there is only one kind of marriage, in reality there are many options regarding marriage. In order to provide some additional depth to an understanding of the complexity of human marriage, I would like to discuss traditional Native American marriage.

First, however, a caution: at the beginning of the European invasion there were several hundred separate and distinct Indian cultures, each with their own view of marriage. I am about to talk about Indian marriage in very broad terms and realize that there are many exceptions to some of the generalizations which I’m about to make.

In American society, part of the discussion about marriage is really about sex. While sex was a part of traditional Native American marriage, marriage was not about sex. Prior to marriage, young people were expected to engage in sexual activities. Sex was not confined to marriage. One of the things that upset many of the early Christian missionaries was the fact that Indian women were allowed to express their sexuality and to choose their own sexual partners.

Among some contemporary American commentators, there is a view that there are only two genders: male and female. Yet, in American Indian cultures people did not make this an either/or situation. They viewed gender (and sexuality) as a continuum. Many modern Indians talk about a third sex/gender often called a berdache or two-spirit. Yet in traditional cultures, it wasn’t quite that simple. There was recognition of the feminine and masculine in all people. There was not an either/or concept of being heterosexual or homosexual. There were in traditional societies male and female homosexuals and transvestites who played important spiritual and ceremonial roles. These individuals were seen as being an important part of the community.

Traditional Native American cultures tended to be egalitarian: all people were equal. This is one of the things that bothered many of the early Christian Missionaries, particularly the Jesuits in New France, as they viewed marriage as a relationship in which the woman subjugated herself to the man. In Indian marriages, men and women were equals.

In Indian cultures marriage was neither religious nor civil. Marriage was viewed as a private matter or a family matter. There was usually no religious ceremony involved, only a public recognition of the fact of marriage. In most cases there was no actual ceremony, religious or civil.

In most Native American cultures, nearly all people were married, yet marriage was not seen as permanent. It was recognized that people would be together in a married state for a while and then separate. Divorce was neither a civil nor a religious concern-this was a private matter among the people involved. While some American commentators bemoan the negative impact of divorce upon children, in Native cultures each child had many fathers, many mothers, and many siblings. A child was not property but a member of a large family and thus had rights. (As an aside, in many Indian cultures it was unthinkable to strike a child.)

For many writers, one of the most confusing parts of Indian marriage was plural marriage. While most writers call this polygamy they are really referring to polygyny: that is, the marriage of a man to more than one woman at a time. To understand American Indian polygyny, we must begin with an understanding that marriage was an economic institution and that polygyny has to be understood in economic terms. It was not about sex.

First of all, individuals in many Indian societies had to be married to fully function in the economic system. Thus, if a woman’s husband died, she had to be married and this meant that she would often marry one of her husband’s brothers. While sex was not excluded from this new relationship, it was not the primary concern: the widow now became a part of her brother-in-law’s economic household.

In the hunting and gathering societies, such as those of the Great Plains tribes during the 19th century, if a man was a good hunter, he needed more than one wife to process the hides. Thus he might take a second wife. Very often this second wife would be a sister to his first wife since it was understood that sisters don’t fight and marriage to two sisters was seen as more harmonious. Sometimes the second or third wife would be a two-spirit, a man who had taken a woman’s role.

Polyandry-the marriage of one woman to more than one man at the same time-was common among many American Indian cultures, but tended to be unseen by the patriarchic-oriented Europeans. From the perspective of European culture, the idea of polyandry was unthinkable and seemed unnatural and thus was invisible to European observers, including most anthropologists. Yet it was fairly common and occurred in a number of ways.

To understand polyandry, it must be understood that most Indian societies were egalitarian and that women were not owned by men. Thus, a woman could choose to be married to two or more men. In some instances, the second husband would be the younger brother of her first husband. In many tribes, the younger brother would live with his older brother and sexually share his older brother’s wife as he matured into adulthood.