The Niitsitapi (Blackfoot) are a confederation of four indigenous nations: the Pikuni/Peigan, North Peigan Pikuni, Blood/Kainai, and Blackfoot/Siksika. Traditionally, the Niitsitapi were a nomadic gathering-hunting people who followed their most prominent game, the buffalo. Members are currently concentrated in present-day “Montana” and “Alberta.”
Tribal members have described the origins of the common name “Blackfoot”: “Before the horse arrived in the 1730s French fur traders observed indigenous people who had walked through a prairie fire and called them pen wa, the French word for black foot, after observing the blackened bottoms of their moccasins. An alternate identification originates from our ancient association with the buffalo whose hooves are black. We are the people of the buffalo, Blackfoot people.”
The Niitsitapi have a website: www.blackfoot.org.
According to Kiera Ladner, the Niistiapi base their society on the surrounding ecosytem and especially on the Buffalo. Buffalo lived in a cohesive community that respected individual autonomy and whose leadership was fluid, non-coercive, and inclusive of all genders. Learning from their nonhuman neighbors, the Niistiapi established a freedom-respecting society: “[T]he buffalo are acknowledged for teaching ‘’Siiksikaawa’’ [another name for the Niistiapi], directly or indirectly, about community. While individuals were free to live their own life way without the interference of others, individuals were also obligated to and responsible for both their relations and the nation. Like the buffalo, they were tied together, by professions of kinship.”
There was a gendered division of labor, but it was not mandatory and women had a choice to engage in hunting and warfare if they preferred these activities to homemaking. Within the home, women had no obligation to obey men. On the subject of traditional gender roles, the ‘’Indian Country Media Network’’ interviewed women’s studies professor Susan Webber:
“Men took over the education of young boys, teaching them about being hunters and aggressive warriors,” she said. “But women had a choice. They could learn the tasks of homemaking or they could go to war with the men. Education—and whatever that meant—was the realm of the woman.” Traditionally, Blackfeet women owned their homes and were subservient to no one, Webber said. Prior to the introduction of Christianity and its notions of patriarchy, Blackfeet women existed at the center of the home. “The home belonged to the woman, and the husband—the man—just resided there,” she said. “She ensured the home was taken care of, that anyone who came in was fed. She even sat at the center as she cooked.”
Niistiapi governance did not involve coercive hierarchy, and Ladner writes that “there was no ‘authority’ greater than the responsible individual.”. The Niistiapi facilitated group decision making and administered the decisions through three main organizational structures: clans, societies, and bundles.
“Clans” were the local political entity, and the clan leaders (“chiefs”) played an administrative role of implementing decisions and meeting everyday needs. Leadership relied on example and persuasion rather than coercion.
Each “society” played a specific administrative or decision-making role modeled after an animal from the ecosystem. For example, the Bumble Bee society gave social assistance and “stung,” or called out, anyone who acted harmfully toward others. The Dog society provided defense and expected members to be generous and loving yet fiercely loyal.
Holders of “bundles” of sacred items also played particular governance roles. The holders of the Thunder Medicine Pipe Bundle used traditional knowledge in order to settle disputes among band members. The Beaver Medicine Bundle contains over 600 songs and dances representing animals in the territory.
The Blackfeet traditionally had what the anthropologist Ruth Benedict called a “high-synergy” economy, meaning that it was in an individual’s advantage to cooperate with the community rather than compete. Communities honored those who shared, and frequent redistributions prevented the permanent acquisition of private wealth.
Those who became wealthy over the course of a year would give away virtually all their wealth at an annual Sun Dance ceremony. The humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow attended a Sun Dance and recounted how a Northern Blackfoot man gave away nearly all his possessions (such as food, blankets and Pepsi-Cola cases) to those in need:
And then, with a very lordly gesture, a gesture of great pride, but without being humiliating, he gave this pile of wealth to the widows, to the orphaned children, and to the blind and diseased. At the end of the Sun Dance ceremony he was stripped of all his possessions, owning nothing but the clothes he stood in. He had, in this synergic way ( I won’t say either selfishly or unselfishly because clearly the polarity has been transcended) given away everything he had, but in that process had demonstrated what a wonderful man he was, how capable, how intelligent, how strong, how hard-working, how generous, and therefore how wealthy.
The Niitsitapi modeled much of their entire society on nonhuman surroundings and lived sustainably until European colonization. They kept band sizes were kept small enough to be “amenable to the survival of all species.” Song and dance taught people about different animal and plant species. The beaver was considered an especially sacred animal because of “his role in the orchestration and allocation of water.”The Niitsitapi hunted buffalo without depleting the animal or destroying its habitat, as tribal members recount: “Blackfeet territory had more buffalo per square mile than anywhere. With an abundance of cold, pristine glacial water from the ‘Earth’s Backbone’, coupled with the cyclical arrival of warm Chinook winds, there evolved a high-protein species of fescue grass. This grass supported the richest buffalo ecosystem in North America. The Blackfeet diet consisted of 80 percent fresh meat, with adults consuming five to seven pounds per day. Blackfeet considered buffalo ‘real food.’”
Piegan, members of the Niistiapi, were the only Indigenous people to engage in violent clashes with the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. "United States" president Thomas Jefferson had commissioned Lewis and Clark to explore territories recently acquired through the Louisiana Purchase. In 1806, about thirty Piegans encountered Lewis and three companions. These settlers had separated from the main party on the return visit, in order to scout the Two Medicine River valley in present-day Montana. A Piegan on horseback rushed toward the settlers and, stopping a hundred paces away, retreated. Instead of respecting this warning, Lewis and his companions ventured further into the Piegan territory and joined the Indians’ campsite. According to Lewis’s account, a Piegan approached the sleeping settlers in the morning and tried to seize their guns. Blackfeet oral histories say that these men were not stealing guns from Lewis's party but had won them in a night of gambling and were simply taking what they and rightly won. Other Piegans tried to take the explorers’ horses. Lewis shot one of the Indians and the explorer J. Fields chased another Indian and stabbed him in the heart. Lewis and his men stole horses, guns, bows, arrows, and buffalo meat from the Piegans before leaving.
In subsequent years, the Niistiapi would face massacre and land theft at the hands of the “United States.” On 23 January 1870, American troops killed 200 Peigans in what is known as the Marias Massacre:
On the morning of Jan. 23, 200 Peigans were killed, most of them women, children, and elderly. The Peigans were a friendly tribe, not the hostile camp that the troops were supposed to attack. However, the commander had permission to use his judgment and attack the Peigans and punish them for things they may be guilty of in the past or future. After the massacre, the troops left to find their real target, but it was too late as the hostile tribe had moved.
- Beth Epley and Sara Wenner, “Blackfoot,” Archived by Wayback Machine on 18 April 2007, https://web.archive.org/web/20070418180642/http://www.mnsu.edu/emuseum/cultural/northamerica/blackfoot.html.
- Jack McNeel, "10 Things You Should Know about the Blackfeet Nation," ‘’Indian Country Media Network’’, 6 April 2017, https://indiancountrymedianetwork.com/history/people/10-things-you-should-know-about-the-blackfeet-nation/.
- Kiera L. Ladner, “Governing Within an Ecological Context: Creating an AlterNative Understanding of Blackfoot Governance,” ‘’Studies in Political Economy’’ 70 (2003), 137.
- Ladner, “Governing Within an Ecological Context,” 138-139.
- Ladner, “Governing Within an Ecological Context,” 142.
- Ladner, “Governing Within an Ecological Context,” 139, 143.
- Ladner, “Governing Within an Ecological Context,” 147-148.
- Ladner, “Governing Within an Ecological Context,” 143-144.
- Jack McNeel, "10 Things.”
- Abraham Maslow, ‘’The Farther Reaches of Human Nature’’ (New York: Viking Press, 1971), 202.
- Maslow, ‘’The Farther Reaches of Human Nature’’, 203-204.
- Ladner, “Governing Within an Ecological Context,” 150.
- Jack McNeel, "10 Things.”
- Jack McNeel, "10 Things.”
- "Untelling the Big Lie: The Murder of Two Blackfeet by Lewis & Clark Party", Indian Country Today, 27 July 2018, https://indiancountrytoday.com/uncategorized/untelling-the-big-lie-the-murder-of-two-blackfeet-by-lewis-clark-party.
- Colin G. Calloway, ”A Double Homicide at Two Medicine,” in Colin G. Calloway, ‘’First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History’’ (4th ed., Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012), 299. Meriwether Lewis, “An Account of His Fight with the Blackfeet (1806)” in Colin G. Calloway, ‘’First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History’’ (4th ed., Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012), 301-304.
- Beth Epley and Sara Wenner, “Blackfoot.”