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The Blackfoot
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Origin of the Blackfoot

It is entirely futile at the present time to speculate as to the origin of the Blackfoot. Physically, he is most like to the origin of the Blackfoot. Physically, he is most like Plains tribes though tending somewhat to resemble the marginal peoples. His is tall (171.5 cm.-5'7-1/2"--Wissler, 1920:143), round headed (cephalic index, 80), and has high check bones, a prominent nose and a certain strength and nobleness of countenance which is conspicuous among plains Indians. (Schultz and Donaldson give excellent illustrations of Blackfoot faces in pictures opposite pp. 166, 218, 250. Wissler, 1920, p. 142, also illustrates the type.)

If his physical type connects the Blackfoot with the Plains, his language connects him with the north and east, as he speaks a branch of the Algonkian stock. Schultz and Donaldson, (p. 1) take this to imply that he has migrated from the east, erroneously stating that Algonkian-speaking peoples occur no farther west. As a matter of fact, the language has a continuous distribution to the Pacific Coast.

Culturally, the Blackfoot's closest kin are to the south, although he possesses many traits linking him with the Plateau area to the west and some linking him with the north.

Linguistic, cultural and physical comparison, however, prove little as to origin of these people, for any one or all of these may have come to them by diffusion, and so imply nothing whatever as to tribal movements.

Wissler's careful investigation of all available evidence (1910) shows that there is no reason to assume the Blackfoot has not been in his present habitat for many hundreds of years. Indeed, the thoroughness with which the Blackfoot has absorbed the Plains culture shows that he has been in the area a very long time.

Tribal Grouping

Although the Blackfoot are fairly homogeneous linguistically and culturally, they are divided into three politically independent groups, the location of which about 1800 is shown on Map 2. (See Teit, 1930, for their western neighbors.) The northernmost division is simply called the Blackfoot, siksikauwa or sometimes siksika. (Blackfoot people. In much literature, the Blackfoot in general are listed as Siksika.) Most authorities accept the Northern Branch of the Saskatchewan as their northern boundary. South of them, between Battle River and Bow River were the Blood, kainawa, from kai (dried blood or probably any effluvium.) The third division lay along the mountains and extended south to Glacier Park and was called the Piegon (probably meaning small or poorly dressed robes.) (Wissler, 1911:7; 1910) (Teit, 1930:148, gives the designations of these groups in sign language.)

Authorities differ as to the southern boundary of the Piegon, many, for example, Grinnell (1912) and McClintock (1910) believing them to have extended well toward the Yellowstone River. Wissler (1910), after carefully examining the early evidence, places the Marias River as their southern limit in 1800. They are indicated on Map 2.

Figure 2.
Range of the Blackfoot Tribes.


Jenness (p.324), quoting Mackenzie, estimates the number of Blackfoot warriors in 1801 to have been about 9,000. Whether this is supposed to represent the total population is not clear. McClintock (1910:5) believes that the population formerly numbered about 30,000 to 40,000. Mooney, (1928:13), in his survey of the aboriginal population of North America, places the Blackfoot figure for 1780 at 15,000. It is probable that the conservative estimate is more nearly correct.

It is certain that repeated ravages of smallpox in the next century greatly reduced the Blackfoot tribes. In 1858, Barbeau (p.198) estimates the total population to have been about 7,300, while Jenness, using Hind's data, places the figure at 7,600. By the beginning of the present century, factors incident to the coming of the white men had further reduced it by half. Mooney (1928:13) estimates the population to have been 4,560 in 1907. Of these, about 2,195 were on the Reservation in Montana (Handbook of the American Indian, Part 2, p.571). Jenness in 1930 (p. 324) estimated that there were about 2,200 on the Montana reservation and slightly more in Alberta, while Barbeau in 1933 (p.198) calculated a total of about 4,600.

Thus, judging from even the most conservative estimates, the present population does not exceed a quarter of its size in aboriginal days. Nevertheless, it appears that the Blackfoot have been holding their own for the past quarter of a century.

History of White Contacts

The identity of the first white man to visit the Blackfoot is uncertain. Schultz and Donaldson (1930:2) suggest that the Spanairds reached Blackfoot territory, or possibly that wandering war parties of Blackfoot contacted them in the Southwest. Although Blackfoot expeditions were rather extensive, it is unlikely that they roamed that far.

The same authors suggest that Sieur Pierre Gaultier de Varennes de la Verendri, who built a trading post at the forks of the Saskatchewan in 1739 may have visited them, or that a party of ten French Canadians, who, at the instance of Chevalier de Niverville, ascended one of the branches of the Saskatchewan river in 1751 to establish trading posts, contacted them. Whether credit goes to these men or not, it is certain that fur traders were the first visitors of importance. Fortunately many of them have left journals which constitute important source material on the Blackfoot.

In 1754, Anthony Hendry of the Hudson's Bay Company visited the Blackfoot and wrote about them in his Journal (1754-1755). In 1772, Matthew Cocking also journeyed to them to induce them to trade and left a Journal (1772-1773). Soon after Cocking's visit, the Hudson's Bay Company and the Northwest Fur Company established posts on both branches of the Saskatchewan River. Edward Umfreville of the latter Company describes the Blackfoot (1790). The various tribes which had already been at war with one another were, however, jealous of the sale of arms to their enemies, so that for some time maintaining a post was an uncertain and dangerous business. In 1807, for example, a Northwest Company's post at Kootenay Plains was abandoned. The traders continued to implant themselves, however, Alexander Henry, Jr., who visited complete if somewhat prejudiced account of the Natives in his Journals.

Toward the middle of the last century explorers of some intellectual attainments and scientific interest visited the Blackfoot. Of these, one of the most important was Maximilian, Price of Wied Neuwied, who travelled in 1832-4, the artist, George B. Catlin, who travelled 1832-1839 and left records and illustrations (1948, V.I); and Paul Kane, another artist, who travelled in 1845-46 left several pictures and on account (1859).

The end of the last century brought a number of serious students of primitive life to the Blackfoot. The most important of these were George Bird Grinnell and Rev. John MacLean, both of whom have left many important writings.

With the beginning of the present century, the Blackfoot received many more sympathetic investigators. Walter McClintock, visiting them first in 1896, has contributed several valuable works. C.C. Uhlenbeck has paid special attention to their language. J.W. Schultz has much of interest but is sadly lacking in anthropological perspective. The most important investigations, however, have been those of Clark Wissler, the results of which have been published by the American Museum of Natural History. As Wissler, is a trained scientist and one of America's leading anthropolgists, his works should be taken as the final authority on the Blackfoot for he analyzes the interprets their culture with an objectivity that one rarely, if ever, finds in men not trained in the special field. (See bibliography).

Effect of White Contacts

The earliest results of the coming of the white man was to introduce horses to the Blackfoot. These probably spread to them before they were first visited by white men and quickly became an indispensable part of native life.

After the advent of fur traders the usual ill-effects of race impacts began, being manifest in unrest and war, but most seriously in a series of smallpox epidemics. The first is said to have occurred in 1781-2 and to have reduced their population by half. (Schultz; Mooney, 1928:12). Others followed in 1837-8 (Mooney, 1928:13), and 1857-8. Measles came in 1864 and smallpox again in 1869 (Grinnell, 1912:287-8.), and 1870-1 (Mooney, 1928:13).

Whiskey sold them in great quantities between 1860 and 1875 brought its usual ills. (Grinnell, 1912:288.)

Meanwhile, the introduction of fire arms and wanton slaughter of the bison, largely by the white man, had been seriously reducing the herds. The fatal blow to the Blackfoot came in 1883 with the extinction of the last great herd, for with the bison went their livelihood and the heart and soul of their culture. This marks the end of the old order. The year 1884 was one of great famine which supplemented the earlier epidemics in seriously reducing the Blackfoot population. (Schultz and Donaldson; Grinnell, 1912; 289-292).

Beginning with the Treaty of Ft. Laramie, 1851, the Blackfoot territory was steadily restricted. By a series of complex treaties, executive acts, and acts of Congress, they relinquished more and more land, until by 1878 they had given up their former territory and finally come to inhabit their present reservations, of which there are three in Alberta and one in Montana, adjoining Glacier National Park. (Royce, 1899:812, 864, 874, 876, 880, 902, 924.)

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