on-line book icon

table of contents

Field Division of Education
The Blackfoot
NPS logo


A large variety of games was employed, some being for adults; others being used for children's toys.

Children's games and Toys. Boys played stealing horses, using bison foot bones for horses. They also used the bull roarer. Tops were made of sections of birch 11 to 16 cm. long and 8 to 12 cm. in diameter, variously decorated by removing strips of bark and otherwise. These are thrown over soft snow with four lash buckskin whips on wooden handles. (Wissler, 1911:54, fig. 8 illustrates tops, also Culin 1907:734.) An egg-shape, water-worn pebble was spun on ice with a whip having many lashes of bark. (Wissler, 1911:54-55, fig. 9-10 illustrate top and lash.) Boys shot arrows, sometimes especially made, at grass targets consisting of a small bundle of grass. Bows, arrows and target are described and illustrated in Wissler (1911:55, fig. 11.). Boys also competed in casting "arrows" plain sticks about 80 cm. long, for distance. They also cast darts, made of a stick 90 cm. long, sharpened at one end, quartered at the other, at the first dart cast. (Wissler, 1911:56, fig. 12 for dart.)

A hoop-and-pole game was played by young and old people. The hoop was rolled on the ground, generally over a special crouse, and the arrows cast at it. The hoop was about 41 cm. in diameter, and the darts were simply pointed sticks about 80 cm. long. This is described and a hoop shown, Wissler, (1911:57, fig.13.) Grinnell (1912:183) describes the hoop as the give spoked wheel four inches in diameter, and the pole as an arrow. Culin (1907:443-4) describes one as an eight spoked wheel, three inches in diameter, buckskin covered, with wire-covered and beaded spokes, and illustrates it (fig. 577, p. 444.) He describes another as having six spokes and another as having five. Arrows were thrown at it. As this game is very common in western America, a distribution map could well accompany an exhibition of it.

Shinny was played by all, the implements being a stick about 90 cm long with a slight curve at the end and a ball, about the size of a baseball, stuffed with hair and covered with skin. It was played on a long course, the ball being thrown over opposite goal lines. (See Wissler, 1911-58 for descriptions and fig. 14 for illustration of stock.)

Other games included wrestling, kicking, swimming, etc.

Gambling games. These were games played by adults for stakes.

The hand game is probably the most widely spread and popular of American Indian games in the western half of North America, and it is certain that some of its paraphenalia will find its way into any collection. Like all other tribes, the Blackfoot used four sticks of bone or wood, each about the diameter of a pencil and 7 cm. long two of which were wrapped about their centers. The Players usually men, formed two sides, usually one society against another, each receiving six counters, plain sticks about 38 cm. long, stuck in the ground. The hand game sticks were held in the hands of two members of one side while the other guessed the whereabouts of them. They won the stocks for correct guesses, lost counters for incorrect guesses. Meanwhile, there was singing and drumming. (Wissler, 1911:59-60; Grinnell, 1912:184; and Culin, 1907:269, 276, 305, 317.) The latter say men used ten counters.

The four stick game, or dice, generally played by a couple of women, required four bones about 18 cm., long, more or less flat, all having one side blank, two having one design on the other side called "twos", the other two having wavy lines called "snakes".

These were cast upon the ground or on a blanket and counted according to the sides which turned up. Twelve counters were played for. (Wissler, 1911:60-61, describes the play and fig. 15 shows a set of bones with their markings. Culin 1907:56-58; figs. 27-28-30, shows playing bones; fig. 29 shows counting sticks.)

Other games common among many western tribes are denied the Blackfoot by Wissler (1911:61-62). These are plum stone or button dice, moccasin game, hoop game, 102 stick game, cup-and-ball, snow snake, ice-gliders, and winged bones.

Smoking and Tobacco

The Blackfoot pipe was generally of a dark, greenish stone found in Blackfoot territory. The stem, up to 65 cm. long, was of ash or other hardwood, selected in the round and burned out with hot wire, then wrapped and variously decorated. The head formed an elbow with the stem in contract to the tubular pipe of the western states. Some pipe bowls were inlaid with lead. (Wissler, 1910:82-83, figs. 48-50 give illustrations of typical pipes.)

Tobacco growing was entirely ritualistic, being carried on in connection with the Beaver Bundle ceremonies (See below) Wissler, 1912-b:200-204, describes this in detail.) The species used in Nichotiana quadrivalis, which is common in the northwest. Kinnekinick or larb (arcostaphylus uva ursi) and big larb (chimaphila umbellata) leaves were also used for smoking. (McClintock, 1910:528.)

Smoking was used for a variety of purposes. Socially, a host lit his pipe and passed it from time to time to his visitor. It was also used to seal an oath or contract. Only in this respect can it be said to relate to the matter of making peace. (See Wissler, 1912-b:168; also Grinnell, 1912-187-88). Otherwise, the calumet ceremony was unknown to the Blackfoot, so that the idea tenaciously held by the white an that these people "smoked the pipe of peace" must be discarded. The use of medicine pipe in rituals is an entirely different matter, falling strictly into the category of religion, and is consequently treated below.

Passing the pipe, done primarily in the tipi, in connection with rituals, follows the sun, that is, is clockwise. (Wissler, 1912-b:248; also, Grinnell, 1912:183:187-88.)


Many specimens in any collection are certain to have decorations of one kind or another. In general, two styles of decoration are recognized: (1) geometric designs or occasionally floral designs painted on bags, parfleches and the like, or embroidered with quills or beads, on bags, clothing, etc. In general, these were applied by women to articles which they manufactured. (2) Pictographic decoration applied to buffalo robes, tipi exteriors and tipi back-walls. These are intimately connected with the system of war honors and represent realistically and semi-realistically, the valorous deeds of the owners of these objects.

(1) The paints employed on various articles include some of those listed under body paints, although the list of these is not clear. For dyeing quills, Wissler, quoting Maximillian, lists: yellow, from lemon colored moss growing on firs in the Rocky Mountains: (McClintock 1910:527, gives this as a lichen, Evernia vulpina); red, from some root: later, quills of the porcupine and feather shafts were boiled with brightly colored cloth bought from the white man. The garish brilliance of modern quill work is generally due to analine dyes. (Wissler, 1910:55-62.) There were many techniques by which quills were applied. These are too detailed to present here, but are clearly explained with diagrams, by Wissler, (1910:55-62, figs. 14-31). Wooden and bone pencils for applying paint were explained under "body paint".

(2) Pictographic decoration. This can be worked into a museum exhibit in several ways. First, it provides an admirable means of explaining a thing lying otherwise outside the realm of material culture. The custom of war honors, connected with attitude toward war as a game prevalent among Plains tribes, can be explained elsewhere. Here it may be pointed out that any individual set of pictographs has its own explanations. (Wissler, 1911:36-44, explains a series illustrated by him, figs. 1-7. See also, Schultz and Donaldson, pp. 244-249 and illustration. Schultz, 1916:110, gives an excellent photo of an Indian painting one of these.) Second, these pictographs correspond closely with what was undoubtedly the first stage in the development of writing, containing not only pictograms but many conventional symbols and occasional ideagrams.

Previous Next

top of page

History  |   Links to the Past  |   National Park Service  |   Search  |   Contact

Last Modified: Sat, Mar 22 2003 10:00:00 am PDT

ParkNet Home