on-line book icon

table of contents

Field Division of Education
The Blackfoot
NPS logo


Indian religion, mere than anything else, has been consistently misinterpreted to the public. The statement frequently encountered in literature designed for popular consumption that the Blackfoot are sun-worshippers is entirely misleading and should be avoided. That the sun was a supernatural power, even the most important power, is quite a different matter.

The essence of Blackfoot religion is a system of individual relations to supernatural powers, established through visions and involving ceremonies, songs, and fetishes, ranging from small charms to complex bundles. The Sun Dance was the only ceremony approaching community ritual. In objective representation of religion in a museum, therefore, we have to interpret religion either through appropriate labels on the objective evidence of the individual religion, that is, the fetishes and medicine bundles, or through complex groups representing ceremonies of which the Sun Dance is best known and in many respects more characteristic.

Fetishes and Medicine Bundles.

It is impossible to give a key by which all fetishes and bundles may be interpreted, because their characteristic feature is individuality. To make an accurate statement concerning any particular object that might occur in a collection, the explanation of its owner is essential. The probability is exceedingly small that any white man who collected such objects would know even remotely their true significance, because in the first place, he probably did not inquire, in the second place, if he did inquire, the Indian probably did not tell him. The most that can be given, therefore, is a general explanation of the significance of objects of these types, unless a bundle collected is a well known type described in the literature.

The fetishes, whether simple, individual amulets or complex bundles, comprise a vast variety of trinkets, skins, etc., etc. These are always given the Blackfoot in a vision or a dream, which may be southy by fasting or may come at some time. (There is evidence that Chief Mountain was used as a place for seeking a vision. Schultz. 1916:233-35.) At the same time he receives a instructions as to how to make and use these things, what rites to perform, what to sing, hew to behave, and what taboos to fellow.

These always come from a spirit with which he comes to be in rapport and which guides and assists, him. (See Wissler: 1912:b:71-90 for a collection of accounts of these visions.) The spirit may be the sun, thunder bird, moon, morning star, eagle, buffalo, beaver, or a large variety of other animals, birds and even objects. Although the general power pervading nature and acting through these spirits is called natoji, sun power, this does not mean that in revering some special spirit, the Blackfoot is worshipping the sun.

Instead of receiving these things through his own vision, he may purchase a vision and all that pertains thereto from another, whereupon the latter relinquishes all claim to it. In either event, however, the man's relation to his spirit, fetishes and so forth, is the same. The ceremony involved, frequently quite long, is supposed to recount the original vision in which the fetish and blessing were given. These are generally held in the tipi of the owner. Important ritualistic elements usually involved are: smoking; singing in which the songs are generally grouped into sevens, although ritual is ordinarily done in fours; following the ceremonial number four; opening of the bundle, if there be one; recounting the story of its origin in a vision: the very characteristic burning of sweet grass (Sevastana odorata) and occasionally of sweat pine (Abies lasiocarpa), narrow leaved puccoon (Lithospermum linearifolium) and parsnip (Loptotaenia multifada) on the cleared space or "altar" in the rear of the tipi (see Wissler, 1912-b: fig. 35 on P. 256 for several painted altars) much praying; gifts; and the use of the sweat-house, a skin-covered structure of twelve or fourteen bent-over willows, which was heated with hot rocks even which water was poured to form steam. (See McClintock, 1910: photo on p. 285 and 287 for a sweat-house frame.)

The outstanding features of the Blackfoot medicine bundle concept then, are: the bundle; the ritualistic behavior accompanying it; the associated body painting, tipi painting and dress; the acquisition of these through a vision or purchase from a previous owner; the social prestige gained by owing or having owned a great many bundles. The Blackfoot, unlike many other Plains tribes, lack the association of bundles with social groups such as clans or political divisions of the tribe.

The following are some of the major classes of fetishes.

(1) War fetishes--usually individual objects, designs, etc.

(2) Horse fetishes-these are charms, generally hung on the bridle and involving other charms, songs, and ceremonies. They are for fleetness and sure-footedness of the owner's horse; some times they serve magically to injure another's horse.

(3) Weasel shirts, that is, shirts trimmed with weasel tails, having value particularly in war.

(4) Similar shirts trimmed with hair-locks.

(5) Head dresses. These were generally of two kinds, a horn bonnet and a feather bonnet. (See illustrations in Wissler, 1912-b:figs. 11 and 12, and in McClintock 1910: on PP. 272-275.) As the privilege of wearing these was also ceremonial, it follows that they were limited to those who had received or purchased the appropriate vision. These were used mainly in war.

(6) Shields. These have names and have probably been transfered many times. They involved ritual. The protective value of the shield is felt to lie in its supernatural qualities rather than impenetrability. Some of these are old and famous have been transfered many times. (See Wissler, 1912-b: 117-125.

(7) Otter bundle. There are two of these, which are famous, and powerful, and confer great blessings. They involve long, complex ceremonies and taboos.

(8) Bear Knife

(9) Medicine lance. One such bundle. This confers especially war power. As with the other bundles the medicine lance is simply the principal of many articles.

(10) Medicine Pipe. More than seventeen of these among the Blackfoot. These confer great power and social distinction upon the owner. (Wissler, 1912-b: fig.22, shows a medicine pipe.) Wissler (1912-b:136-165) describes the contents of a bundle and gives details of the ceremony which would be of use should the Museum come into the possession of a true medicine pipe bundle. There were also other kinds of pipes with their accompanying ceremonies. These should not be confused with ordinary smoking.

(11) Beaver bundles. These are the most complex and important of all, including innumerable animal species and other objects, variously wrapped. The ceremony and connected ritual were also involved, including the usual singing, use of the sweat-house, etc., but also adding the tobacco planting ceremony, (See Schultz and Donaldson, 122-158), calling the buffalo, the sun dance bundle, and others. (Wissler, 1912-b:168-209; Schultz and Donaldson: 95-121). Illustrations (Photos) of this are provided by McClintock (1910:79-l12).

(12) The Nataos or Sun Dance Bundle. This is also complicated and is one of the few bundles primarily associated with women. There are several of these. (Wissler, 1912-b;209-220) See below under "Sun Dance"

Other bundles are special types in which part of the symbolism is represented on the exterior of the tipi. (Wissler, 1912-b:220-24 See pages 15 and 16.

This discussion of bundles is from Wissler (1912-b:65-282)

The Sun Dance

Despite the manifold spectacular features and the widespread poplar interest in the Sun Dance, it is so surcharged with subjective elements and so inextricable intertwined with basic elements of Blackfoot religion in general, that it is well-nigh impossible to represent it objectively without serving to perpetuate popular misconceptions about it. An amply labeled group representing in minature a Sun Dance lodge with some of its more interesting features, such as the weather dancers booth, society dancers, the musicians, the sweat lodge, and the camp circle is the most that could be done. And, since this would but give one phase of an ever-changing series of rituals, a true picture of it could only be given by supplying a museum visitor with a small guide pamphlet which explains briefly but authoritatively this most interesting ceremony.

Although the Sun Dance comes nearest to being a communal ceremony of any Blackfoot rite, it is in reality a composite of particularized ceremonies, conducted specifically for individual goods and incidentally for community benefits.

The occasion for the Sun Dance is a vow, taken by a woman of general virtue and particularly of sex virtue that if she or someone in danger is spared, she will give the Sun Dance. That is to say, she will purchase a natoas bundle, she and her husband taking the lead in long rites including the Sun Dance. Should no one happen to have taken this vow, some eligible woman is practically forced to purchase one of the several natoas bundles in order that the Sun Dance may be given annually. She is called the "medicine woman".

Accordingly, the proposed purchase, i.e., transfer of the bundle is announced and her husband arranges to call the bands together. They come and form a camp circle. During four days preceding the dance proper, the camp is moved daily, the medicine women and other virtuous women meanwhile having a ceremony of eating buffalo. The others have taken vows to do this. Meanwhile, also, sweat lodge have been erected, (McClintock, 1910:235-287 for illustrations) and the leading men bathe. The whole affair involves much ceremony fasting, expense and other strain for the medicine woman and her husband, but is also a great honor.

The Sun Dance lodge (McClintock, 1910:314 for illustration, is also erected with ceremony, renowned warriors counting coup on the center pole; others cut special thongs to bind the poles, a rite which is purchased from those who held it the previous year. There are also special dancers, known as weather dancers, who are in reality sun priests, calling upon the sun for general blessings. These may transfer their rites to others. Again, certain dancers cut holes in buffalo hides, which is a transferable privilege. Certain societies also indulge in their own special dances. With all this, there is feasting, distribution of presents, revitation of war honors, and much singing. Since the natoas bundle transfer is the nucleus of the ceremony, it has much in common with the beaver bundle ceremonies to which the natoas bundle is intimately related.

A spectacular feature is that in which certain warriors thrust skewers through their flesh to which ropes are attached, dancing until the skin pulls loose. This, too, is a privilege that may be transfered and is generally taken upon a vow, when in trouble. It is closely related to a more general practise of cutting out small bits of flesh or hacking off finger joints as offerings to the sun when on the war path or at other times when special blessings are sought.

Should a Sun Dance group be constructed, details of the essential features, including measurements, will be found in Wissler, "The Sun Dance of the Blackfoot Indians" (Wissler, 1918) Illustrations will be found in Schultz (1907, p. 392. Se also, Wissler, 1918: Schultz and Donaldson, 1930:32-94 for the Bloods; McClintock, 1910:179-183, 192-206, 284-324.)


Although curing was in some measure accomplished by administering herbs, a list of some of which will be found above, the Blackfoot, like all primitive tribes, in the last analysis, attributed disease to supernatural causes. In the event of serious illness, therefore, the doctor was called upon the perform. The doctor received his power like all other " medicine Men" -- that is, owners, of super-natural powers -- in a vision. A super-natural spirit gave him its aid and instructed him as to what diseases he should cure and what procedure he should follow in doing so.

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