The Blackfoot, fiercely independent and very successful warriors,
controlled a vast region stretching from the North Saskatchewan River
in Alberta to Yellowstone River of Montana, and from the Rocky Mountains
to the Cypress Hills on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border. It was not
until the coming of the North West Mounted Police in 1874, over 110
years ago, that Euro–Canadian settlement in the region began. Indeed,
until the near extinction of the buffalo in 1881, the Blackfoot pursued
their traditional lifeways. Only with the loss of their food supply
were they obliged to adapt to the new era.
The term "Blackfoot" actually refers to three tribes — the
Blackfoot proper (Siksika), the Bloods (Kainai), and the Peigan (Pekuni).
Each tribe was independent, but they all spoke the same language and
regarded themselves as allies. The Blackfoot proper are the northernmost
of the tribes and currently occupy the Bow River east of Calgary. To
the south are the Bloods, situated on the Oldman, Belly and St. Mary
rivers west of Lethbridge. To the west of the Bloods are the Northern
Peigan on the Oldman River. In Montana, the southern branch of the
Peigan occupy the upper Missouri River drainage. This distribution
of tribes reflects the area controlled at the time of the treaties;
it is thought that throughout the last few hundred years the tribes
continually expanded their territory southward.
Social Structure – Basic
The basic social unit of the Blackfoot, above the family, was the band.
Bands among the Peigan varied from about 10 to 30 lodges, or about
80 to 240 persons. Such bands were large enough to defend themselves
against attack and to undertake small communal hunts. The band was
a residential group rather than a kin group; it consisted of a respected
leader, possibly his brothers and parents, and others who need not
be related. A person could leave a band and freely join another. Thus,
disputes could be settled easily by simply moving to another band.
As well, should a band fall upon hard times due to the loss of its
leader or a failure in hunting, its members could split–up and join
other bands. The system maximized flexibility and was an ideal organization
for a hunting people on the Northwestern Plains.
Leadership of a band
was based on consensus; that is, the leader was chosen because all
people recognized his qualities. Such a leader lacked coercive authority
over his followers; he led only so long as his followers were willing
to be led by him. A leader needed to be a good warrior, but, most
importantly, he had to be generous. The Blackfoot despised a miser!
Upon the death of a leader, if there was no one to replace him, the
band might break up. Bands were constantly forming and breaking–up.
Structure – Societies
During the summer when the bands assembled for tribal ceremonies and
hunting, the warrior societies would become active. These societies,
known as Pan–tribal Sodalities, are a very interesting social institution.
Membership was not based on kinship ties. Membership crosscut the bands
and was purchased. A number of young men would purchase membership
in the lowest society. Throughout their lives, they would continue
to purchase membership in higher societies while selling their old
positions to the new generation. These warrior societies acted as a
police force, regulating camp moves and the communal hunt.
The Blackfoot bands were nomadic. This does not mean they wandered
haphazardly over the land. The structure of their movements was dictated
by the location of the bison herds, the weather and the season. This
structured movement is known as the seasonal round.
For almost half the year, the Blackfoot bands lived in winter camps.
The bands were strung out along a wooded river valley, perhaps a day's
march apart; in areas with adequate wood and game resources, some bands
might camp together all winter. From about November to March, the people
would not move camp unless food supplies, firewood or pasture for the
horses became depleted.
What were Bison doing in winter?
Bison wintered in treed areas where snow is less deep. Brushing snow
aside with winters thick facial hair, grazing in shadow of forests,
they did not move quickly in deep drifting snow and made easier targets
In spring the bison moved out onto the Plains where the new spring
grasses provided forage. The people might not follow immediately for
fear of spring snowstorms. During this time they might have to live
on dry food or game animals such as deer. Soon, however, the bands
would leave to hunt the buffalo. During this time each band traveled
Summer – The Sun Dance
In mid–summer, when the Saskatoon (Service) berries were ripe, the
bands came together for the Sun Dance. The Sun Dance was the major
tribal ceremony in historic times. Such tribal ceremonies are described
as Rites of Intensification because they serve the social purpose of
binding the loosely organized tribal bands together.
Communal hunts of bison provided food for the gathering and the bulls'
tongues necessary as offerings at the ceremony. This was the only time
of year when all the people of the tribe assembled at the same place.
the Sun Dance, the bands again separated to pursue the buffalo. In
the fall, the bands would gradually shift to their wintering areas
and prepare the bison jumps and pounds. Several bands might join together
at particularly good sites, such as Head–Smashed–In Buffalo Jump. As
the bison moved into the area, drawn by water and richer forage than
the burned-dry summer grasses, communal kills would again occur, and
the people would prepare dry meat and pemmican for winter. Such dry
food stores were used as emergency supplies for those times when the
bison were not near. At the end of the fall, the Blackfoot would move
to their winter camp locales.
After Signing Treaty 7
With the signing of Treaty No. Seven in 1877 and the demise of the
buffalo shortly thereafter, the Blackfoot settled on reserves in southern
Alberta. This period was marked by a heroic struggle to adapt to a
new way of life. Despite declines due to disease and the economic hardships
populations increased since World War 11 to about 12,000 people. Hand
in hand with an increased economic diversity based on farming, ranching,
and light industry came a revitalization of Plains Indian culture and
Last reviewed/revised: May 22, 2012