Introduction to Native American Units

The activities in Units 2, 3 and 4 are adapted from Work House, a Glacier National Park curriculum based on the Blackfeet, Kootenai and Salish cultural perspectives. The Work House curriculum is an excellent stand-alone set of activities, and is currently being evaluated as part of the "Indian Education For All" requirements.

Special Instructions: It is important to note that, out of respect for cultural values, Coyote stories may not be told from April through October. None are directly presented in these activities but, if the decision is made to use them, please use them after the first snowfall and stop using them in the spring. Ideally teachers would do well to confer with local cultural authorities about Coyote story usage.

Getting to Know “The People.” It would be most appropriate to invite a Tribal Cultural Committee spokesperson into your classroom to discuss tribal history. If that is not possible, the following background should help.

The Blackfeet
The Blackfeet Nation consists of four subdivisions; the Siksika or Northern Blackfeet, the Kainah or Blood, the Northern Piegan, and the Southern Piegan or Pikuni. The neighboring Cree Indians began calling this tribe the “Blackfeet”. It is unclear at this point in history why the name Blackfeet was chosen. Some historians feel that it is reference to blackened moccasin soles caused by walking through burned over prairie. Others think moccasin soles were intentionally painted black.

By the early nineteenth century the Blackfeet occupied and controlled most of the area from the North Saskatchewan River south to the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers, and from the Rocky Mountain Front in the west to the mouth of the Milk River in the east. They dominated the entire eastern front of what is now Glacier National Park. The Piegan people formed the southwestern vanguard of the Blackfeet Nation and patrolled the gateways to the plains in an ongoing attempt to prevent the western tribes from using the area and its resources.

The tribes from west of the mountains often used northern passes on their journeys east to hunt the buffalo. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Blackfeet and the western tribes had their most frequent contact, and on occasions armed conflict, in and near these passes.

The Blackfeet are of the Great Plains culture. Some Blackfeet traditions claim that they have always occupied parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana--that they "woke up here". Other traditions, heavily favored by Anglo anthropologists, preserve an ancient account of The Long-Ago People crossing over from Asia on the Bering Land Bridge as they followed game. Still other sources trace the Blackfeet to Algonquin sources in the northeastern Canadian forests. According to the latter tradition, the Blackfeet had migrated to the Great Plains long before the arrival of white men and had finished their migration to the Rocky Mountains by the beginning of the eighteenth century. A popular and quite recent theory, supported by archeological, linguistic and genetic arguments, suggests that the Blackfeet may have been a strong presence in the immediate area for a minimum of 5,000 years. The dialects of the Blackfeet language belong to the Algonquian family of languages. None of these accounts necessarily contradicts the others -- the Blackfeet have been a strong presence in the area for a long time.

Historically, people of the Plains culture followed a subsistence hunting and gathering cycle. However, since the Blackfeet were almost exclusively dependent upon the buffalo herds for every facet of their livelihood, they were much more nomadic and mobile than their western neighbors. Though they tended to camp in the same locations at certain times of the year, the Blackfeet seldom constructed permanent lodges of any kind. Their skin lodges were put up and taken down in a matter of minutes and could be readily transported through a cycle of camps even in the “dog days” before horses made moving so much easier.

Though the western tribes relied heavily on seasonally abundant roots and berries, the bulk of the Blackfeet diet consisted of buffalo meat. They gathered plants for food but went so far as to call it “nothing food”. Buffalo meat was “real food”. Nonetheless, the Blackfeet sometimes traveled to the western valleys to dig for bitterroot and camas where they were much more plentiful than on the dry plains.

Plains culture was dependent upon buffalo, limited use of roots and berries, virtually no fishing, no agriculture other than raising tobacco, highly moveable lodges, transportation by travois, either behind dogs or horses, and a highly developed use of buffalo and deer skins in the crafting of clothing, lodges, and other household items. Heavier items made of wood, stone, and bone were de-emphasized because of the need to travel light. The Blackfeet seldom needed water transportation; when necessary they constructed makeshift rafts to transport items across swollen rivers.

Aside from the heavy emphasis upon the buffalo hunt, the search for food was similar to other area tribes. Blackfeet men did most of the hunting while the women did most of the gathering and processed the harvests of both activities. Blackfeet children learned by doing, by example, and through apprenticeship to their elders. The Blackfeet had to find sheltered river valleys in which to spend the winter. They enjoyed the long winter evenings when their heritage and culture were transmitted and reinforced around the communal fire. Blackfeet stories had their heroes and spiritual helpers. Foremost among the creation heroes were Napi or Old Man and Creator Sun. Because the Plains culture of the Blackfeet overlapped with the Salishan Plateau culture of the western tribes, their stories influenced each other. Napi or Old Man is often the protagonist in a story that matches one about Coyote in the Salishan culture.

Blackfeet were completely dependent upon the buffalo herds for survival and were very protective of the territory in which the herds ranged. In order to insure their livelihood, it was necessary to keep other tribes from hunting the buffalo. Consequently, warfare became a way of life. Much of Blackfeet culture centered on becoming a warrior. Patrolling the borders of their territory required many good horses and excellent horsemanship. Being a warrior involved a great deal of skill raising and handling horses. Horses, in turn, became the primary spoils of war.

The skill of the Blackfeet warrior was legendary. In part, it was fear and respect that other tribes and white explorers had for the Blackfeet that kept the northern plains unchanged for so many years. Many Blackfeet people today take great pride in the fact that they were one of the only “non-conquered” Native American peoples during white western expansion.

The Salish/Kootenai Confederation
The tribes and bands comprising the Confederated Salish/Kootenai were loosely associated long before confederation was forced upon them by the Hellgate Treaty of 1855. The Kalispel, Lower Pend d’Oreilles, and the Bitterroot Salish were all part of the Salishan Plateau culture which included many of the Indian tribes in the Pacific Northwest. They spoke dialects of a Salish language base which allowed them to communicate and trade with most groups in the Columbia drainage. It is likely that all of these groups were derived from common ancestors somewhere to the northwest of present day western Montana. Many Anglo historians, anthropologists and ethnographers suggest that Native American tribes are descended from aboriginal natives who crossed into the Americas on the Bering Land Bridge. Many oral traditions assert that The People have always lived in the Americas, and still others claim that the original ancestors came over the great waters to the west in large canoes. At any rate, the Salishan peoples have occupied the Northwest for a very long time.

The Kootenai, as they are commonly known today, prefer the name Ktunaxa and the Montana group most intimately related to the Glacier National Park area is called the Ksanka Band. In a translation of their native language, they are known as the Fish Trap People in reference to the numerous fish traps that they traditionally used on Flathead Lake. Ktunaxa territory once occupied much of present day Southern Alberta, British Columbia, Idaho, and Montana. Their language base is unrelated to the Salishan base of the Northwestern Plateau culture or to the predominant Algonquian base of the Blackfeet Plains culture. No one really knows where the Ktunaxan language base originated and there are no closely related languages in the Americas.

The Montana Ktunaxa, or Kootenai, have long shared a common hunting and gathering territory with the Salish groups known as the Kalispel and the Lower Pend d’Oreille. The confederated tribes respected each other’s needs and rights, sometimes influenced each other’s culture, and often cooperated in hunting expeditions to the east side of the mountains. The confederation was solidified by the necessity to marshal large forces for protection while hunting buffalo in areas where they were likely to encounter Blackfeet.

Up until the early eighteenth century, their territory extended out onto the prairies east of the Continental Divide which the tribes called The Backbone of the World. However, with the growing dominance of the Blackfeet, the western tribes were eventually confined to the west side of the mountains when not hunting. These western tribes were able to share what is now western Montana because their hunting-gathering life style was easily sustained in the woodlands and mountains of the area.

Today the tribes are collectively known as the Flathead Tribes. Flathead is actually a misnomer. When Lewis and Clark first encountered the Bitterroot Salish, the explorers mistook them for the west coast Flatheads.

The Bitterroot Salish contingent of the confederation traditionally made their home in the Bitterroot Valley. Most of their economy was centered in that area, though they ranged freely west of the Continental Divide. The Pend d'Oreilles and the Kalispel ranged throughout the western valleys from the Missoula area to the Canadian border. In early spring the hunting and gathering cycle began with root digging. The women dug for bitterroot, camas, wild carrots, and onions as well as for other roots and bulbs. They also gathered mosses and berries, medicinal plants, and herbs as they came in season. The gathering cycle was continuous from the first thaw in spring until the killing freeze in autumn. Until use of horses became common among people of the Plateau culture it was not unheard of for the men to help with the gathering although their time was occupied for the most part with fishing and hunting.

In late fall the women were busy drying and preserving meats and plants and processing hides for various uses while the men continued to hunt. The winter months were a little more relaxed, though the men continued to trap, go on occasional hunts, and ice fish. Women spent a good deal of their time making and repairing clothing. Everyone spent more time during the winter nights around the fire. It was a time for socializing and story telling.

Until the coming of the horse in the first half of the eighteenth century, hide-covered lodges were not common on the west side of the mountains. Even though Salish and Ktunaxa territory once extended out onto the plains east of the mountains, their primary home was west of the mountains where they often lived in semi-permanent villages. When traveling, they had to move all of their belongings on their backs or with the help of packing dogs. A buffalo hide lodge and the poles to support it were extremely heavy and cumbersome. Before horses, it was difficult to carry many hides over the mountains on a regular basis. Even after the introduction of the horse, the people found it more practical to construct a temporary lean-to of logs and branches when travelling into buffalo country.

Until horses became a common means of transportation, the usual lodge was likely to be covered by woven tule mats. Some lodges were partially sunken into pits and banked with earth. Some “long houses” for multiple family dwellings were built in lean-to fashion with a smoke slit running the length of the lodge peak. While these lodges were not as portable as the tipi, Plateau culture people were not required to move as often as Plains Indians.

As the white man’s influence began to push the Blackfeet and other plains tribes closer and closer to the mountains, the people of the Salish and Kootenai Confederation were confined more and more to the west side of the mountains. Trade goods, horses, and weapons began to make their way into the area long before the local tribes actually saw white people. With horses, the plateau people became more mobile.

The Bitterroot Salish, the Kalispel, the Lower Pend d’Oreille, and the Ksanka Band of the Ktunaxa shared territory and exchanged useful knowledge and culture while retaining their tribal individuality and identity. The Bitterroot Valley was recognized as the home of the Salish. The Kalispel and Pend d’Oreille ranged from what is now western Washington, through the Pend d’Oreille Lake/Priest River area in what is now Idaho, to Camas Prairie and the present St. Ignatius area of western Montana. The Ktunaxa occupied an area ranging from the Tobacco Plains area in the north to the west shore of Flathead Lake. These groups were usually able to move freely through each other’s home territories by observing certain courtesies and protocol.

The Ktunaxa, felt at home in what is now Glacier National Park. Their allied bands lived to the west, north, and east of the park and they probably hunted frequently in the area. Some traditions claim that the Ktunaxa actually held gatherings of the bands in the area. Not only did the North Fork Valley provide a convenient conduit for travel south by the northern bands, but the locations of Kintla, Bowman and McDonald Lakes provided inspiring central locations for gatherings.

Whether they gathered in the area, hunted, or just passed through, all of the groups of the Salish and Kootenai Confederation probably used some of the passes in what is now Glacier National Park for journeys east to hunt buffalo on the plains.

The Influence of European Immigrants
The European influence was felt by the tribes before the Blackfeet or the Salish and Kootenai ever saw a white person. The Spanish brought horses to North America early in the sixteenth century. By the middle of the eighteenth century Indians in the Northwest were breeding and trading horses extensively. Tribal culture was beginning to change. People could travel further and faster and carry more possessions with them. Soon after the arrival of horses came the fur traders. The pursuit of the beaver took them into every part of the Americas. With the trappers came trading posts and trade goods. At first, some tribes were pleased. It was convenient to have metal tools and weapons. Canvas made maintenance and transportation of lodges much easier. Some even welcomed large-scale agriculture and the white man’s religion. While many Indians felt that European religions were evil and destructive of their native culture, others felt that the white man’s god was a confirmation of their traditional beliefs. Some preferred the white version of heaven to their traditional destinations in the Spirit World.

Regardless of how the white influence was received, it appeared to be here to stay. Most Indians found it impossible to live according to the old ways because their territory and means of subsistence had been taken away. Blackfeet culture nearly collapsed when the last of the great buffalo herds was wiped out in 1883. The following winter more than a quarter of the Pikuni died of starvation.

The tribes on the west side of the mountains were able to manage longer because they were not dependent on the buffalo. The reservations grew smaller because of forced treaty changes, and the opportunity to survive in the old way was eventually eliminated. Some of the people agreed to be acculturated because they had no other choice if they were to survive. Fortunately for us all, some tribal members held on to the old ways and preserved what they could of their heritage.

Today there is a strong interest in preserving Native American culture. Even whites have come to realize that Indian people know things about ecology and medicine that modern technology has yet to understand, and their spirituality integrates a healthy relationship with the land that Western culture has yet to approach. Although few Indians would choose to return entirely to the old days, Indians and whites alike want to restore what they can of the values and culture which made the ”People One With the Earth“.

The Way of the People
There are many traditional differences among the individual tribes and bands that make up the Salish and Kootenai Confederation on the west side of the mountains and among the subgroups of Blackfeet on the east side. However, a mutual respect and an understanding that all Indians know a “way of life” that is in tune with the environment serves as a common bond.

Tradition-based Native Americans live life in a highly spiritual manner. They are so intimately involved with The Way that it is not necessary to philosophize about how one should live. As children grow and learn survival skills by working with adults, understanding and respect for their environment grows along with the skills. Children seldom need to be told to respect living things. They learn through adult example and the values inherent in oral tradition. One Piegan elder calls it living a “prayerful life”. He is not talking about prayer as it is used in formal religions. He means living a life that is thankful for what the Earth gives us, and always giving back to the Earth.

Living according to The Way involves understanding that we are a species sharing the Earth with other equally important species. All animals are participants in the cycle of life, and all things on Earth have a spirit nature interdependent with everything else; be it a human, grizzly bear, mosquito, tree, or rock. In our interdependence we use, consume, and learn from each other. Today it may be necessary to eat the buffalo; tomorrow it may be our turn to be eaten by the grizzly bear. Neither of these actions is taken lightly. If we use the buffalo, we pay him honor. We thank him and waste nothing. The first and the tastiest morsels are given back to the Earth from whence they came. If we use berries, the first are buried in the soil in acknowledgment that they are a gift from the Earth we share.

Never do we accumulate or harvest more than we can use. Napi and Coyote stories about harvesting and preparing foods frequently end with the refrain: “But some were left for seed”, or “The females are left to produce more of their kind so that there will always be food for future generations”. There is no such thing as conspicuous consumption. There is no deliberate waste. In the past, because people needed to be mobile, it was considered foolish to burden oneself with too many possessions. The accumulation of horses was not considered greed because horses enabled persons of influence to provide for others. This attitude carries over to today. In fact wealth is measured by the capacity to be generous.

Traditional Indian life-style impacts the land lightly. No one “owns” land, one simply lives on it for a lifetime. Historically, most tribes were on the move during a large part of the year. Treading lightly upon the land was deliberate. Long before all of the wood in an area was depleted and before all the plants and animals were harvested, the elders would look around and announce that it was time to move the camp, time to let the Earth heal. When whites asked Indians to become farmers and plow the land, most were appalled. Plowing would be like cutting your mother with a knife. When travelling, every effort was made to leave little trace upon the land. Offerings of tobacco were left to the water spirits at crossings and tribute was made to significant landscape features along the way. When camp was made, all doorways were oriented to the east. Upon rising each day one’s first act was to pay tribute to the Sun, the force behind all that grew and was good in nature.

Obviously, automobiles, roads, fences, large-scale agriculture and private property “rights” make it difficult to preserve many of these traditions Elders are treasured and treated with respect. If it is truly an “old one’s” desire to pass on, respect dictates that they be allowed to go off and die. It is considered an honor to be able to provide for many. Even when food is scarce, it is considered dishonorable (to the community) for someone in the community to have to beg. True sensitivity and power include the ability to recognize when someone is in need. A “great one” anticipates tribal members’ needs and helps them before they ask. It is a privilege and a power to be in a position to help. Affluence is measured by the ability and willingness to share.

Indians do not consider themselves to be lords over the animals, but approach animals from a position of humility. After all, animals seem to be better equipped for survival in the world. Animals never waste and seldom impact the environment in a negative way. Nearly all animal homes blend into their environment.

Native Americans are aware that animals coexist with every element of the environment. They believe that in many ways animals are as intelligent as humans. They observe animals closely and look to them for guidance. Though some have more to teach than others, all have something to teach humans. Different tribes look more to some animals than to others depending upon the tribe’s way of life. A very important “medicine” animal to the Blackfeet is the beaver. An important animal to the Ktunaxa is the grizzly bear. These two animals play important parts in oral traditions. Both the beaver and the grizzly bear are important to the Salish and the Kalispel as well. Many stories attribute human characteristics to medicine animals.

For hundreds of years, the tribes on both sides of the mountains followed The Way. Their daily lives were in harmony with the world around them. They were truly living as if one with the Earth. The world as they knew it changed dramatically with the coming of the whites, but many still celebrate their traditions in the strange context of the modern world.

About Units Two, Three and Four
An important function of oral tradition in American Indian culture is to explain and speculate upon the why and how of natural phenomenon. Young Indians ask questions like, “How did the mountains get there?”. Parents do their best to give children answers. Many of the answers are based on intimate observation of natural phenomenon. Those observations are surprisingly accurate in scientific terms, but it is impossible for any culture to answer some questions. Some things just simply “are”. They are part of the Great Mysteries. Mysteries often become the source for Coyote, Creator Sun, or Napi stories. The elders attribute a phenomenon to the work of a spiritual helper and create a story to explain it. At the same time there are a number of stories that, like Bible stories, were considered to be inspired.

Over time, stories which help explain phenomena and those considered to be inspired or revealed by a spirit have a tendency to blend together. Nevertheless, stories that explain natural phenomena or simply entertain often come close to reflecting scientific accuracy (or rather, new science reflects the much older accuracy of traditional stories).

Many anthropologists theorize that the main (but not the only) ancestral source of Native Americans followed migrating herds across the Bering Land Bridge and gradually dispersed across the Western Hemisphere. Apparently this movement occurred several times beginning forty thousand years ago when sea waters were low enough to expose land. The sea was low because large continental glaciers held much of the water that ordinarily covered the area of the land bridge. Native American oral tradition is so effective that there remain a number of stories which indicate vague memories of the migration. The migration is certainly part of Blackfeet oral tradition. At the time of the migration, the people would have had to travel south along temporary corridors between valley and continental glaciers. They may have been aware of the ice dynamics involved in the formation of topographical features. However, when the mountains were formed, there were no human witnesses to the dynamics. The origin of the mountains is one of the Great Mysteries.

Among the Salish, Kalispel, Ktunaxa, and Blackfeet there are a number of traditional stories involving spiritual helpers and The “Old People” which give location-specific explanations of how regional land forms came into being. The stories are characteristically a combination of observation and artistic creativity. Just how literally the people chose to receive these traditional explanations probably varied from tribe to tribe and from person to person.

It was obvious to the western tribes that the valleys had once been filled with water, in the form of Glacial Lake Missoula. The lake terracing and other evidence made this obvious to a people who were in touch with their surroundings.

In a Ktunaxa story called The Origin of Flathead River an immense beaver creates Flathead Lake. He dams the south end of the lake near present-day Polson but allows the water to overrun the Camas Prairie area above present-day Elmo and Big Arm. (The glacial moraines at those two places do resemble beaver dams.) After some extremely hard winters and a subsequent warming period, the runoff from the mountains becomes overwhelming and the dam breaks through where Kerr Dam is today. The tired beaver gives up at this point but remnants of the beaver’s dam and outlet channels exist today. This story is either based on the interpretation of landforms that resulted from events that took place during the last Ice Age, or, 12,000 years ago, someone was there during the greatest flash flood known to science. The draining of Lake Missoula happened in days. In places the water ran 1000 feet deep at 90 miles per hour, scoured the soil from most of eastern Washington, and created the fertility in Oregon’s Willamette Valley!

It is interesting that, when the Lake Missoula flood was first hypothesized, the idea was ridiculed by most scientists. Yet the same story had been around for thousands of years… Western culture has yet to appreciate the wisdom and accuracy of Native American oral tradition.

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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