Blackfeet History
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This unusual packet contains faithful, full-color reproductions of 24 famous Blackfeet
Indian paintings
by Winold Reiss, and a brilliant account of the Blackfeet tribe written
by the late Frank Bird Linderman.

Fortunately for those who are interested in the history of Plains Indians, the
Blackfeet reservation adjoins Glacier National Park in Montana, and each summer
members of this proud tribe encamp in Glacier Park. They are exceedingly gracious to
visitors as well as to artists and writers who visit the Park for the purpose of studying
Indian life and customs.

Naturally, then, a great many inquiries are received both at the Park and the Reservation,
for information and pictures. Art students, high school and college students, librarians,
teachers...many, many people have said they would like to know the real story of
the Blackfeet tribe. This packet was designed to meet these demands. The brochure by
Mr. Linderman tells the true story of the Blackfeet, while the pictures by Mr. Reiss
{printed on loose sheets, suitable for framing) offer an authentic record of how they looked and dressed. Both Linderman and Reiss learned to know the Blackfeet from long personal association with the present generation who carried the tribal lore in their heads. Now it is put down on paper so that the record becomes permanent. This accomplishment will become more important with each passing year as the older chiefs are called to the Happy Hunting Ground.

When the buffalo disappeared from the plains, the Blackfeet tribe faced starvation.
Then in 1887 the United States government bought a part of their mountain lands for
$1,500,000, payable in installments of $150,000 per year for ten years. With part of
this money the Indians bought cattle which they grazed on their prairie lands. In 1895-96
they sold more of their mountains to the United States government, and these serrated
peaks in due time became part of a National Park by the establishment, in 1910, of
Glacier National Park.

Meantime, the Blackfeet continued to live on their reservation to the East of Glacier
Park. Now they are ranchers and farmers who look west at sundown toward the Shining
Mountains of their forebears. They are educated and are citizens of the United States—
but they take pride in keeping up the old customs of tribal councils, dances and

Because of its friendship with the Indians, the Great Northern Railway has collected
and published this material, now hereby dedicated to all those who are interested in
Glacier Park and the neighboring Blackfeet.

(c) Great Northern Railway
Printed in U.S.A.



BLACKFEET! No tribal name appears oftener in the history of the
Northwestern plains; no other is so indelibly written into the meager
records of the early fur-trade of the upper Missouri river, and none ever
inspired more dread in white plainsmen. Hell-gate* was not so named
because the water there was fiercely wild, or the mountain trail difficult, but because
the way led from tranquility to trouble, to the lands of the hostile Blackfeet.

*Near Missoula, Montana. Gateway through the Rockies to the plains.

The three tribes of the Blackfeet nation, the Pecunnies (Piegans), Bloods, and
Blackfeet, are one people. They speak a common language, and practice the same
customs. Long ago, probably more than two hundred years, the Blackfeet were a
timber people inhabiting the forests near Lesser Slave lake. Incessant war forced
upon them by the powerful Chippewas (Ojibwas) pushed them steadily southward
until they reached the wide plains bordering the Rocky mountains in what is now
Montana. Here they found vast herds of fat buffalo, elk, and antelope, an exhaustless abundance they had never known; and here, after driving the Snakes, and
probably the Flatheads, Kootenais, and Nez Perces, from the bountiful grass-lands
to the narrow valleys west of the Rockies, the three tribes of Blackfeet settled down
to become plainsmen. Nobody can tell their numbers when they came out of the
north. Old Pecunnie warriors have told me that their tribe once counted 750 lodges,
probably less than 4000 people; and we know that, of the three tribes of the Blackfeet nation, the Pecunnie was the most numerous.

All this happened before the Blackfeet had horses. Dogs had always transported
their goods. Now, to steal horses, their raiding parties ranged over the endless
grass-lands far toward the south, old warriors say even into the Spanish possessions.
Often these raiders were absent for two years; and nearly always they were successful.

Their pony-bands grew until men measured their wealth in horses. Meat, their
principal food, was easily obtained; and yet these people did not permit life to drag,
or become stale. War and horse-stealing were their never-ending games; and besides
furnishing necessary excitement and adventure they kept every man in constant
training, since a successful raid was certain to bring attempts at reprisal. To be mentioned by his tribesmen as a great warrior, or a cunning horse-thief, was the highest
ambition of a plains Indian; and the Blackfeet were master-hands at both these
hazardous hobbies. When finally they obtained fire-arms they became the scourge
of the Northwestern plains, claiming all the country lying north of the Yellowstone
river to the Saskatchewan. In stature they average taller than the men of
neighboring tribes, having thin, shapely noses, and intelligent faces. Like the other
tribesmen of the great grasslands they were naturally a deeply religious people; and
like all the plains Indians they were naturally jolly, loving jest and laughter when
not in the presence of strangers.

Even though the Blackfeet may have brought their social customs from the northern
forests, they did not differ greatly from those of the other plains people. Each of the
three tribes was subdivided into clans, or gentes of blood kin in the male line, there
being in the Blackfeet nation perhaps fifty such clans known as Black-Elks, Lone-
Fighters, Fat-Roasters, White-Breasts, etc. A man was not permitted by tribal law
to marry a woman who belonged to his own clan; and the children of any union belonged
always to their mother's clan. Young women were closely guarded. There
was little courting. Marriages were arranged by parents, with the consent of near
relations. And yet, when possible, the desires of young people were given consideration.

Nevertheless the father of a young woman finally decided the question of
marriage for his daughter; and there were many things which a father must consider
in making this decision. He must think of the young man's breeding, prestige, and
his power to provide properly for a family. He must not forget that upon giving his
daughter in marriage he automatically made all her younger sisters the potential
wives of her husband, and that even though his son-in-law might never demand any
of them they could not be otherwise disposed of without the son-in-law's consent.

Moreover he must remember that if his son-in-law should die all his wives would
become the potential wives of his son-in-law's oldest brother. These matters often led
fathers to forbid their daughters marrying the young men of their choice; and then
sometimes the unhappy young women hanged themselves. However, when an
agreement was reached the young woman's mother outfitted her with pretty clothes,
besides making a new buffalo-skin lodge for the young couple. During all these
preparations, requiring weeks, accompanied by her mother or a girl friend, the
bride-to-be, under the eyes of the village, each day carried prepared food to the lodge
of her future husband. When at last the wedding-lodge had been pitched in the
center of the encampment, the bride's mother accompanied her daughter to her new
home, helped her arrange her household, and then left her there. Her father now
tied a dower of several horses, all he could afford, to his daughter's lodge, sometimes,
to show his respect for his future son-in-law, even adding his own war-shield and most
prized weapons. The young man, seeing that all was in readiness, now entered the
wedding-lodge, seating himself at its "head." And from that minute he was forever
forbidden to speak to his mother-in-law, or to her sisters; and he could not in propriety
pronounce their names. By the same tribal law his mother-in-law and her sisters
were forbidden to speak to him, or of him, by name. If a woman suddenly met her
son-in-law in the village she either turned aside or in passing covered her face with
her robe. This is the reason for the signs, ashamed woman, often made by old plains
Indians in referring to a man's mother-in-law.

Blackfeet children were named only as individuals. Family, or surnames, were
not used, so that there was seldom anything in a person's name that even remotely
suggested ancestry. Children were often named by their grandparents, or other aged
relations, dreams usually suggesting the names chosen. Sometimes the one
commissioned for the office named a baby for the first thing seen on the morning after
receiving the commission, birds and animals supplying most of such names. However,
a grown man might change his own name every time he counted coup* in
battle, or once each year if he desired. Old time Blackfeet would seldom speak their
names aloud, believing that to do so might bring misfortune.

* Note: The term coup, meaning a blow, is attributable to the early French voyageur.

Beyond the gift of horses or goods to the woman's father there was no ceremony,
and little formality, in a plural marriage. A man's first wife was known as His-Sits-
Beside-Him-Woman. Her place was near the "head" of the lodge on her husband's
right. She superintended the lodge, and the work of the other wives, who were often
her sisters; and she possessed special privileges. She might, at times, take part in
the conversation of her husband and his guests, and she might, during informal
meetings, even smoke the pipe when it was passed in her lodge. The other wives sat
near the door, which is always directly opposite the "head" of the lodge.

Smoking was a sacred ceremony. Old plains Indians sealed oaths and agreements
with the pipe. In smoking, the host or master of ceremonies, filled and lighted the
stone pipe, offering its stem first to the sun (the father) and then to the earth (the
mother) before smoking, himself. Next he passed the pipe to the guest on his left,
"as the sun travels." After smoking, usually taking three deep draughts, this guest
handed the pipe to the man on his left, the pipe's stem being kept pointed at the
lodge-wall in its movements. And the pipe must not be handed across the doorway.
When the man nearest the door on the host's left hand had smoked, the pipe must
go back to the "head" of the lodge where the host passed it to the guest on
his right, the pipe going, unsmoked to the guest nearest the door on that side.

When this guest had smoked he passed the pipe to the guest on his left, so that the
pipe again began to move "as the sun travels." If the pipe needed refilling it was
handed back to the host who replenished it, the guests passing it along, unsmoked,
to the man who had discovered its emptiness. Nobody might properly pass between
smokers and the lodge-fire.

Hereditary leadership was unknown. Men became chiefs by their prowess in war;
and because he must ever be generous, a chief was usually a poor man. With the
Blackfeet, as with the other Indians of the Northwestern plains, a chieftainship had
to be maintained by constant demonstration of personal ability. It might easily be
lost in a single day, since these independent tribesmen were free to choose their
leaders, and were quick to desert a weak or cowardly character. This independence
was instilled in the children of the plains people. They were never whipped, or
severely punished. The boys were constantly lectured by the old men of the tribes,
exhorted to strive for renown as warriors, and to die honorably in battle before old
age came to them. The names of tribal heroes were forever upon the tongues of these
teachers; and everywhere cowardice was bitterly condemned. A coward was forbidden to
marry, and he must at all times wear women's clothing.

The girls were taught by their mothers and grandmothers to look seriously upon
life, to shun the frivolous, and to avoid giggling. With the Blackfeet, women "gave"
the sun-dances, the most sacred of their religious ceremonies; and because the "givers"
of these sun-dances must have lived exemplary lives to have dared offer dances to
the sun, they were forever afterward highly honored by both the men and women
of the tribe. "Look, my daughter," a woman would say, "there goes Two-Stars.
She is The-Sits-Beside-Him-Woman of White-Wolf. Two summers ago she gave a
sun-dance, and she yet lives. If you try to be like her you may some day give a sun-
dance, yourself." Girls were warned by their mothers against infidelity to their
husbands, since adultery cost a married woman her nose, or ears; for a second offense
she was killed by her brothers, or first cousins, upon formal complaint by her husband.
By tribal law murder was punished by death, or by stripping the murderer of all
property for the benefit of the dead man's family, the latter choosing the penalty.
Proven treachery, which amounted to treason, was also punished by death; and a
thief was compelled to return the stolen goods to their rightful owner.

The lodges, or tepees, of the plains Indians were the most comfortable transportable
shelters ever devised by man. They were made of grained, and partially dressed,
buffalo cow skins, from fourteen to twenty-four skins being required for a lodge.
Indian women could easily pitch or strike a lodge within a few minutes. In cold
weather the lodges were made comfortable, besides being brightened interiorly, by
handsomely decorated linings which reached well above the heads of seated occupants, thus protecting them from draughts. From fourteen to twenty-six slender poles were required for each lodge, their length depending upon the height of the
lodge. New sets of poles were usually cut each year, since dragging them over the
plains in following the buffalo herds wore them out in a season. Lodges were often
decorated with picture-stories of medicine-dreams, scalps, and buffalo-tails. In the
village each clan, and each individual lodge, had its rightful position, the lodges of
clan chieftains being pitched in ,a small circle within the village-circle, each always
occupying its hereditary post.

Indians of the plains respect dignity and love formality. Conventional decorum,
easy and masterful, was always evident in the lodges of old plains warriors. From
the host's place at the "head" of a lodge his sons sat at his left, according to age; his
wives, and their visiting women friends, on his right. A male guest, upon entering
a lodge, turned to his right, around the lodge-fire, and was promptly assigned a seat
on the host's left, according to his rank as a warrior. If a visitor had a message he
stood while delivering it; and he was never interrupted for any reason until he had
finished speaking, and had so declared. Once within a lodge even an enemy might
speak as he chose without interference or heckling. After leaving the village he
must look out for himself, however.

Basketry and the making of pottery were unknown to the Blackfeet. Their
weapons, clothing, and robes received most of their artistic attention, the three-
pronged design representing the three tribes of the nation being commonly used.
Most of their bows were made of ash, or the wood of the chokecherry, their arrows
being made of the shoots of service-berry bushes. Their shields were of rawhide
taken from the necks of old buffalo-bulls. They would turn an arrow, and are said
to have often turned bullets fired from old-fashioned rifles. The old time pipes of the
Blackfeet were made of black, or greenish, stone, "straight" pipes sometimes being
used in ceremonials.

The men wore shirts, breech-clouts, leggings, and moccasins, the latter soled with
rawhide. In summer they wore no head-gear unless attending a ceremonial. In
winter the men often wore caps made from the skins of animals or water-fowl. Eagle
feathers were often worn by the men, beautiful war-bonnets being made with them.
The women wore gowns of dressed deer, antelope, or mountain-sheep, skins that
reached nearly to their ankles; and they also wore leggings, moccasins, and decorated
belts carrying knives in painted scabbards.

The men were thorough sportsmen, loving horse-racing, foot-racing, and gambling.
They were graceful winners, and good losers in games of chance. And they were firm
believers in luck, and in the medicine conferred in dreams. Men often starved, and
even, tortured themselves, in preparation for desired medicine-dreams. Then, weakened both physically and mentally by enervating sweat-baths and fatigue, they
slipped away alone to some dangerous spot, usually a high mountain-peak, a sheer cliff,
or a well-worn buffalo-trail that might be traveled at any hour by a vast herd of buffalo;
and here, without food, or water, they spent four days and nights (if necessary)
trying to dream, appealing to invisible "helpers," crying aloud to the winds until
utter exhaustion brought them sleep, or unconsciousness—and perhaps a medicine-

If lucky, some animal or bird appeared to the dreamer, offering counsel and
help, nearly always prescribing rules which if followed would lead the dreamer to
success in war. Thereafter the bird or animal appearing in the medicine-dream was
the dreamer's medicine. He believed that all the power, the cunning, and the instinctive wisdom, possessed by the appearing bird or animal would forever afterward
be his own in time of need. And always thereafter the dreamer carried with him some
part of such bird or animal. It was his lucky-piece, a talisman, and he would undertake nothing without it upon his person.

In each of the three tribes of Blackfeet there were several societies, some of them
being secret organizations. Most of them were military in character, some of them
originally having police power over villages; and at least one of them was composed
of boys who were not yet old enough to go to war. The Horn society of the Bloods,
and the Kit-Foxes of the Pecunnies, seem to have been much the same society; and
it may have been the most honorable and exclusive. The women of the Pecunnie
also had a society which is said to have been secret. It was evidently not unlike the
Horns in standing, since none but women of middle-age whose lives were known to
have been upright were eligible to membership. This society selected its members,
electing them before solicitation, one dissenting vote excluding a proposed woman.

Like all Indians of the plains, the Blackfeet formerly placed deep faith in the
medicine-men, the "wise-ones" of their tribes; and even though these men resorted to
intricate ceremonies which fascinated patients and onlookers there is no doubt that
they often healed the sick and wounded through this faith alone. They did, however,
possess considerable knowledge of the medicinal properties of herbs and roots, and
often prescribed them. There was little sickness, since the daily lives of the plains
Indians kept them in perfect physical condition. Sunrise saw most of the men and
boys in the icy streams, winter and summer alike.

Burial of the dead was usually on platforms lashed to the limbs of trees beyond the
reach of wolves. Securely wrapped in buffalo robes, firmly bound with rawhide thongs,
the bodies were safe from ravens, crows, and magpies. Weapons and pipes were
buried with warriors, root-diggers and cooking utensils with the women. Often a
number of horses were killed at the burial of a warrior, so that his spirit might ride in The Sand Hills, the Heaven of the Blackfeet.  In mourning for a son, or other male
relative, both men and women scarified themselves, and cut off their hair, the women
wailing piteously, sometimes for long periods. The mourning for women was of
shorter duration, and not so wild.

The Blackfeet were meat eaters. Meat constituted fully 90% of their daily fare. It
was either boiled or roasted, "meat-holes," which operated as fireless-cookers, being
sometimes used. Roots and bulbs were also cooked in the ground; and the eggs of
water-fowl were often steamed. Berries were eaten fresh; and they were dried for
winter use, the latter being used in making the best pemmican, a mixture of dried,
lean meat thoroughly pulverized and seasoned with the berries and bone-marrow.
Ordinary pemmican was made with dried meat and melted tallow, no berries being
used. The Blackfeet did not have salt, and like all the plains tribes dried their meat
in the sun, unsalted, packing it away for winter use, the pemmican in buffalo-skin bags.

In the days before the white man came to the plains the Blackfeet were a happy
people. An abundance of material for their food, clothing, and sheltering lodges was
constantly in sight on every hand. Beyond these necessities their needs were few,
so that with a firm belief in the exhaustless bounty of their loved grass-lands these
practical folks lived each day for itself. And they knew how to live. Their pride in
themselves forbade too much ease, even in their land of plenty. No successful hunter,
no tribesman who, with crude weapons, plentifully fed a family, could have been a
lazy man, no perfect horseman a weakling. The arms and wrists of men who could
send arrows down to their feathers into the bodies of huge buffalo bulls were as
powerful as spring steel; and men who loved war for its excitement could not have been

The power of endurance of the plains Indians has always been beyond
comprehension by white men. These tribesmen hunted, feasted, gambled, and eagerly
made war, young men often faring forth alone over the unmarked plains to count coup,
so that they might marry the young women of their choice, and be numbered among
the tribe's warriors. Killing and scalping an enemy did not entitle them to count coup.
They must strike an armed enemy with their hands, or with something held in their
hands, without otherwise injuring the enemy; or they must capture an enemy's
weapons, or be first to strike an enemy who had fallen in battle, etc., the rules for
coup-counting differing somewhat among the plains tribes. And this coup-counting
was expected of young men. For centuries, during the long, winter nights on these
northern plains, red patriarchs feelingly extolled bravery and fortitude, reciting
hero-tales, some of which may have had origin in far lands.* They were a change-
less people, a romantically happy people, until the white man came to the plains.

* I once found one of them in a translation from the Sanskrit.

The Blackfeet instinctively opposed the coming of white trappers and traders.
Nevertheless the fur companies built forts on the upper Missouri in the heart of the
Pecunnie country; and nowhere has the white man stooped so low for gain as in the
fur trade of the Northwest; nowhere has he been so reprehensible as in his treatment
of the plains Indian. Besides his trade-whisky he brought infectious maladies to a
people whose blood was clean. Nobody will ever know half the crimes that were
committed by these avaricious traders. The enforced inoculation of a large band of
visiting Indians with the virus of smallpox taken from the pustules on the body of a
stricken white engages at Fort Union, whose blood was known to be otherwise unclean,
is revolting enough, especially when one knows that the step was taken wholly in
the interest of the traders who hoped to have the scourge over with before the fall
trading began. It is even more revolting when one learns that all the vaccinated
Indians perished; and yet this deed is no more fiendish in character than the discharge
of a cannon loaded with ounce trade-balls into a crowd of unsuspecting Pecunnies who
were visiting at Fort McKenzie, a little below Fort Benton, in the year 1843.

The American Fur Company's steamboat. Trapper, brought smallpox up the river
in 1837. This devastating scourge swept through the tribes of the Northwestern plains
like a poisoned gale. Nobody knows how many Indians perished, estimates ranging
from 60,000 to 200,000 men, women, and children. Perhaps the least of these figures
is high. Nevertheless the Mandans alone lost 6000 members, so that when the plague
had spent itself the tribe had but 32 warriors left alive. Reaching Fort McKenzie
the disease first attacked the inmates, deaths occurring so rapidly that burial was
impossible. The dead bodies were thrown into the Missouri river. Within the fort
there were 29 deaths, 26 of them being Pecunnie women who had been attached to the
fort's engagees. Upon the arrival of the disease-laden boat there had been 500 lodges of
Blackfeet camped at Fort McKenzie. Now they were gone. During all the time that
the smallpox had scourged the fort's company not an Indian appeared on the plains.

In October Alexander Culbertson, the American Fur Company's manager at McKenzie,
set out to learn what might have happened to his patrons. He did not have
to travel far before reaching a village of 60 Pecunnie lodges standing among the
dead bodies of hundreds of men, women and children, and even of horses and dogs.
Here, in these horrid surroundings, Culbertson found two old women, too feeble to
travel, chanting their death-songs among the putrid dead. And here, having seen
enough, Alexander Culbertson, the trader, turned back to his fort.

In November straggling groups of Blackfeet came to Fort McKenzie to tell their
awful story. The disease had not made its appearance among them until the tenth
day after leaving the post. Then its ravaging became so terrible that in the ensuing panic young warriors who fell ill stabbed themselves to death rather than have
their fine bodies wasted and scarred by the loathsome disease. More than 6000
Blackfeet had perished, they said, more than half their nation. Many other tribes
suffered as severely, the Assiniboins losing more than three-quarters of their warriors.

Nevertheless the trade in buffalo robes was that fall and winter greater than
ever before at Forts McKenzie and Union, since dead Indians needed no robes.
Stripped by thousands from their bodies by surviving tribesmen these death-robes
were traded in at the Company's forts; and then, without the least attempt at disinfection, they were shipped to "the states" where, providentially, no epidemic of
smallpox ensued. But the weakened tribes never again regained their numbers.
Ever since 1837 these Indians have been failing physically. This is not only because
their best blood perished in the plague of that year, but because whole clans having
been wiped out, inter-breeding ensued.

During all this time the heavy toll upon the immense herds of buffalo in the Northwest
was scarcely noticeable; and now there was an exodus of traders. Having stripped
the section of its beaver and land-fur, these avaricious white men began to abandon
their trading-posts on the river, and to leave the country to the Indians and hungry

The Blackfeet, weakened in numbers, and tortured with bitter recollections, had
scarcely settled down to their old life when the Seventies brought the professional
skin-hunters to the plains. And now, for from 50 cents to $1.50 per head, these
white men shot down the buffalo for their robes alone, leaving countless thousands
of tons of fat meat to rot where it fell. By the middle Eighties the skin-hunters had
finished. The buffalo were gone forever. The wide grass-lands, which for centuries
had been so bountiful, were bleak, inhospitable, and bare. Even the elk and antelope
had been wiped away. The Blackfeet, and all the Indians of the plains, were hungry
now; and even while the Pecunnies searched in vain for the vanished herds, which
the old warriors believed had hidden away, more than one-quarter of the tribe starved
to death.

Dazed, unable to comprehend the terrible calamity which had overtaken them,
clinging doggedly to their belief that the buffalo had hidden, and would soon return
to their loved grass-lands, the Pecunnies were slow to rally. If the tardy Government
of the United States had not acted the Pecunnies would have perished to a man.

But the Government did act at last; and the work of making wild hunters into
gentle farmers in a single generation began. And this work is succeeding. The
Pecunnies, and all the Blackfeet, are rapidly becoming self-supporting by raising cattle
and crops on the old buffalo range.