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Field Division of Education
The Blackfoot
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From Texas to Saskatchewan and the Mississippi to the Rocky Mountains, there stretches a vast sea of prairie, which is, except for climatic variations produced by latitude, remarkably homogeneous, geographically, and which supported, in aboriginal days, enormous herds of buffalo. The buffalo overshadowed all other species economically and reacted upon the native population of the area to produce a very specialized culture, the Plains culture. Map 1 shows the relation of this culture area to the habitat of the bison. Although the range of the latter extends beyond the plains, it will be seen that the Plains culture area falls within the geographical limits of the great plains, that is, within the region of the greatest bison herds. Even those tribes on the Mississippi River, on the Missouri River, and in the Southern part of the area which had adopted a certain amount of horticulture were largely organized along the lines of the bison culture. All these tribes were known as the Plains Indians.

Figure 1.
The Blackfoot in relation to the plains culture (red) and the distribution of the buffalo (orange)

In many respects, however, the tribes of the northern part of this area have the most typical Plains culture, for horticulture had not penetrated this far north. The Blackfoot are highly characteristic of the tribes of the upper Missouri-Saskatchewan basin--the Assiniboin, Gros ventre, Plains Cree--whose mode of living and whose arts and industries revolve around buffalo hunting. This great dependence upon a single species of animals, then, is the central fact of Blackfoot culture and should be borne in mind in picturing their relationship to other American Natives.

To say that the Blackfoot, like their other neighbors in the plains, were primarily bison hunters, is not to say that they have not many culture traits in common with Indians of other regions. Their language, for example, belongs to the Algonkian family, which is spoken throughout southern Canada from the Pacific to the Atlantic and in the upper Mississippi valley. Their flint chipping, fire making, bow and arrow, pipes and tobacco, much of their clothing, and other material and social traits are shared by most Indian tribes. This simply means that the Blackfoot possessed a simple, but basically American Indian culture before they became specialized for life in the Great Plains.

Those more or less striking and spectacular traits, however, which one seems among the Blackfoot are characteristic of the Plains--tipis, travois, parfleches, and innumerable other objects of Buffalo skin, feather bonnets, and a host of lesser material items and a long list of social traits. Despite the fact that all American Indians are generally represented in the motion pictures and elsewhere associated with those things, the fact is that they are not ordinarily found outside the Plains. For this reason, when typical Plains specimens are exhibited in a museum, they could advantageously be accompanied by small maps showing their limited distribution.

1 It is customary in Anthropological usage not to employ the plural in speaking of a people; thus, Blackfoot, not Blackfeet, is correct.

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