The Blackfeet are a Great Plains tribe that is currently split into four distinct bands. Each band lives on a reservation, with about 10,000 residing in the United States and another 15,000 in Canada. The four Blackfeet bands are the American Blackfeet Tribe and the Piikani First Nation, Kainai First Nation and Siksika First Nation in Canada.
Most of the Blackfeet lived primarily in Idaho, Montana, and Alberta Canada for much of their history, and many of them still reside in those same places today. The buffalo were the most important animal to the Blackfeet, and they honored them with their religious ceremonies. They understood how vital the buffalo were to their existence, as they relied on this animal for food and clothing.
The Extinction of Buffalo Impact Food Supply
When Europeans came to America, they introduced horses to the Blackfeet, which made hunting the buffalo much easier. But once white settlers began hunting the animals as well, the Blackfeet no longer had a plentiful food supply. The buffalo were hunted nearly to extinction, and as a result, nearly 600 Blackfeet Indians died from a lack of food. Besides horses, the white men also brought a number of diseases to the Great Plains tribes. The natives lost many to measles and smallpox.
The warriors of the Blackfeet had special status within the tribes. They wore very ornate clothing, sown together with animal hide and porcupine quills. The warrior culture of the Blackfeet meant that they often went to battle against surrounding tribes, and they were constantly at odds with the Sioux, Cree, Crows and Flatheads.
In the late 1800, Chief Crowfoot led many of the Blackfeet in Canada. He negotiated peace between his people and the Canadian government, and he fought constantly against the spread of alcohol into the villages.
Blackfeet Attempts at Agriculture Do Not Succeed
After most of the buffalo were killed off, the Blackfeet had to adapt to new ways of life. They took up agriculture, but were struggling for many years to sustain their population on farming and light industry. They were also hindered by the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 that limited them to a government-assigned tract of land. With no buffalo to hunt, the Blackfeet had to rely on the U.S. government for food. The government was often late in shipping food to them and would generally disregard the terms of the treaty they had made with the Blackfeet. This led to a period of great tensions between the two sides, resulting in Blackfeet raids on American settlements as a way to sustain the natives’ food supply.
While many Native American nations around them fought against the Americans and Canadians, the Blackfeet, under the guidance of Crowfoot and other leaders, worked to remain friendly with the white settlers. They still fought against surrounding tribes, often stealing horses from one another and riding hundreds of miles to perform raids, but they generally avoided hostile contact with white men in order to keep the peace. Crowfoot also made peace with Sitting Bull and Lakota warriors who had defeated General Custer at the battle of Little Big Horn. The staunch anti-war stance of the Blackfeet made them admired and respected among their neighbors.
The Marias Massacre of 1870
In 1870, the U.S. government sent a contingent of soldiers to a Blackfeet camp. Despite being approached peacefully by the natives, the soldiers ignored their orders and fired on the greeting party then went on to the camp to slaughter many of the women, children and elderly there. The rest were carried off to a nearby military fort. This slaughter, called the Marias Massacre, is often considered to be the most extensive massacre of American Indians by the U.S. government.
The Blackfeet continued to receive horrendous treatment under the U.S. government. Their religious practices were outlawed and their children were forced to attend boarding schools. Many families were separated from each other as the government sought to take all power away from the natives. The government even divided up the reservation land that had been given to the Blackfeet and sold off some of it to Americans as well as to other natives. Then they forced the Blackfeet to pay taxes on the remaining land they still owned.
The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934
The Blackfeet were not allowed to live at peace until the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act. Finally, they were able to set up their own government and enact and enforce their own laws. In 1994, the Blackfeet language was accepted as the official language of the four bands.
The Blackfeet continue to honor the traditions of their ancestors, using the same ceremonies their people have used for generations. There has been a concerted effort from the tribes over the last few decades to pass on knowledge of the Blackfeet people to the children, ensuring their culture will never be lost amid modernization.