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Blackfoot History
(Version of the story from the White Man)

Located in western Montana, the Piegans, or Pikuni branch of the Blackfoot Confederacy is the southernmost group of Blackfoot Indians. The other two branches, the Siksika and the Kainah or Blood, are residents of Canada. In Canada, the singular term "Blackfoot" is preferred, the Pikuni are always referred to in the plural "Blackfeet". The Pikuni, which means "poorly dressed", occupy a reservation of 937,838 acres straddling the border with Canada and abutting Glacier National Park. Their reservation was established in 1855.  

The term "Blackfoot" comes from their habit of dyeing their moccasins black. In a rare occurrence, the reservation assigned to the Blackfeet in Montana coincides with their traditional homelands, though greatly reduced in size.

The Blackfoot capital is in the town of Browning, which acts as the eastern gateway to Glacier National Park, affording the many visitors to the park a chance to see the Blackfoot's heritage and flag. Browning serves as home to the "Museum of the Plains Indians".

The Blackfoot were known for their beautiful craftwork - their tepees, clothing, weapons and riding equipment were of exceptional design. Their war bonnets, one of which appears on the flag, were unique in that the feathers stood straight up. Many examples of the art of the Blackfeet can be found in the "Museum of the Plains Indian".

The flag, which is not used extensively, is a medium blue and bears at the hoist a ceremonial lance or coup stick, having 29 eagle feathers attached (sample flag provided by Elmer's Flag & Banner, Portland, OR).

In the center is a ring of 32 white and black eagle feathers surrounding a map of the reservation. On this appears a war bonnet and the name of the tribe in English and in the Algonquin based native tongue of the Blackfoot. All items appearing in the center are white with black edging and black lettering.

The Native Americans, or Indians of the United States have traditionally been a non-vexilliferous people, relying upon costume, art and totems to distinguish themselves from one another and from the European dominated culture that is the modern United States.

In the last fifty years that has been changing. It is still true that the bulk of the 500 plus recognized and unrecognized tribes found within the United States are without flags, but an increasing number have started using this form of symbolism that hitherto was alien to their culture. It may not be unreasonable to assume that the vast majority of federally recognized Native American nations do, as of 1995, indeed have flags. At the end of this report is a chart listing those nations that definitely do not have tribal flags as well as those known to have flags, but for which insufficient information was available. The number of nations with flags, both those reported and those without sufficient data, far exceeds the number of nations still without a flag.

For the purpose of this paper, I shall refer to all those mentioned by the terms tribe or nation although the Native Americans utilize many other terms in referring to themselves such as band, community, village, rancherio, etc.

It should be remembered that under United States law, federally recognized Indian tribes constitute sovereign, independent "domestic" nations. They are not subject to laws enacted by state governments except when agreed to by the tribe. Their chiefs, presidents, governors or whatever term they use to identify the head of their people are, by an executive memorandum issued by President Clinton on 29 April, 1995, treated with the same regard as any representative of another government engaged in government to government relations with federal offices.

The Blackfoot, like any other ethnicity, encompasses a vast variety of socio-economic strata including some of the poorest in America and some of the wealthiest niches in society. In 1994, for example, the Pequot Indians of Connecticut were sufficiently wealthy that they could contribute ten million dollars to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. toward the construction of a Museum of the Native Americans, the largest single donation the project had ever received! In the 1930s the wealthiest ethnic group in the United States was the Chickasaw nation of Oklahoma, thanks to the discovery of oil on the land that constituted their "historic tribal area", a term used to refer to lands formerly constituting a reservation in Oklahoma that was declassified when Oklahoma achieved statehood in 1907.

While wealthy Native Americans are not uncommon, many also suffer in the worst conditions of poverty. Native Americans as a unit find themselves with the highest incidents of alcoholism and one of the highest incidents of suicide in the United States. To combat this, many Native American activists have encouraged a return to their traditional ways and lifestyles.

The adoption of flags by tribes can be seen in some instances as a tool to instill pride in the hearts and minds of people too often forgotten and abused by the federal and state governments with which they were involuntarily saddled.

Another major inducement for Native American peoples to adopt flags has been their increasing involvement in the gaming industry. More than ninety-five tribes now offer gambling in one form or another on federally recognized reservations. This has brought millions of visitors to lands they would never have thought to visit. With this massive influx of visitors tribes now find themselves in need of a readily acceptable symbol of sovereignty. Replies to surveys and phone inquiries in at least a dozen cases have directly attributed the adoption of a flag to the opening of a casino or bingo parlor. The impact of gambling upon the adoption of flags within the Native American community may be a unique occurrence in vexillological history.

How the data was collected

To seek out these flags, possibly the largest body of sovereign national symbols that remain unknown to the general vexillological community, a major effort was undertaken. Many reservations throughout the United States were visited including ones in California, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Montana, both Dakotas, Minnesota, Florida, New Jersey and Maine. Surveys were sent out to over two hundred Indian nations and reservations ranging in size from the Santa Ysabel Rancheria in California with a population of under two hundred and fifty residents to the great Navajo nation that exceeds 250,000 citizens. Where no response was received by the mail survey, follow up phone calls were placed to all whose phone number could be found.

This report in no ways can be considered conclusive. Many tribes failed to respond to the survey, including some that are known to have flags. Many tribes listed in the directory utilized no longer could be reached at the listed address. For those that had phones listed several were disconnected or converted into fax lines.

Some of the flags that are included have been reported on in the past, but are part of this presentation to make it as comprehensive as possible. There are some that have been seen only in NAVA News (the newsletter of the North American Vexillological Association), and hopefully NAVA will continue to publish detailed stories of Native American symbols for years to come. The vast majority of the flags you are about to read about have never before appeared in any vexillological media, much less been presented to a wider audience. It is hoped that this report will provide vexillologists and others with a greater understanding of Native Americans, their rich histories and their use of symbols.

Any and all people accessing this document are requested to contribute information concerning additional tribal flags not listed, amend or correct errors and omissions they find, and help in any way to achieve a complete compendium of flags of the Native American peoples of the United States.

Acknowledged as one of the most powerful tribes in the American northwest, the Blackfoot are a confederacy of three independent tribes presently living in Montana and Alberta, Canada. The name "Blackfeet" originates from the distinctive black hue of their moccasins, either painted that color or perhaps darkened by prairie fires.

Modern scholars believe that the Blackfoot migrated westward over three centuries ago from the northern Great Lakes region; their language belongs to the Algonkian linguistic family (centered in that region) and other aspects of their culture, i.e., utensils, pottery, etc. This westward migration is thought to have been caused by the competitive nature (among Indians in the region) of supplying French traders with sufficient animal furs and pelts.

The Blackfoot quickly assimilated in to a nomadic type of existence in the northern plains; plentiful buffalo assured them of a strong future. A shaman or medicine man aided the hunt through the powerful use of the tailsman to help lure the buffalo to the fall.

By the early 1700's, extensive trade was going on with the Midwest and east coast settlers. Buffalo hides were traded for many different items, not the least of which were horses and guns. These two items radically changed the nature of the buffalo hunt; thus there was more time to develop more ornate cultural items, rituals, and myths to tell their stories and educate their young people.

The most sacred yearly event was the sun dance, or Medicine Lodge Ceremony. As a communal event, the Blackfoot and other Plains tribes would gather in mid-summer to fulfill vows to assure the well-being of the community through the continued abundance of the buffalo.

This time of prosperity and growth was soon cut short by the invasion of white settlers into Indian territory.

Undoubtedly, the greatest devastation to the Indian people was the near extinction of the buffalo by the white settlers. Their main food source gone and not having yet taken up the concept of farming, the Blackfoot were forced with total dependence upon the Indian Agency for food. The winter of 1884 was a cruel one; over 600 Indians starved to death reducing the tribe to some 1,400 people.

To help the tribe live in the white man's world, the government and religious organizations setup schools and other programs to educate the Blackfoot children and help create jobs on the reservation. The aim of these ventures was to educate the Blackfoot people so that the can have their own governance and self-determination.

Many of the Blackfoot have served with honor and distinctions in the armed services; their example and leadership have been example to younger generations here on the reservation.

Of an estimated 14,000 Blackfoot in the world today, approximately 8,500 live on the reservation. The town of Browning is the seat of the tribal government as well as the site of the annual North American Indian Days celebration in mid-July.

Blackfoot, a closely related confederacy of Native American tribes of Algonquian linguistic stock, who roamed the northern Plains region between the upper Missouri and Saskatchewan rivers. The confederacy is also called Blackfoot.

The Blackfoot consist of three distinct divisions: the Siksika or Blackfoot proper, the Kainah or Bloods, and the Piegan. The entire group is known among its members as the Bloods. Originally from Saskatchewan, in the mid-18th century they drifted into the Montana area in search of buffalo. By the mid-19th century, at the peak of their power, they controlled a vast territory.

The Blackfoot were expert horseback riders, noted buffalo hunters, and fierce warriors. They were feared by other Native American groups and were frequently at war with their neighbors, the Cree, Sioux, Crow, and other tribes. In times of war the three divisions united to defend their lands.

The Blackfoot were a nomadic tribe, living in tepees in easily dismantled villages. The tribes were divided into several bands, each led by a chief. The bands assembled in summer for social and religious ceremonies. Except for growing tobacco, the Blackfoot did no farming; their culture and economy were thus essentially typical of those of the Plains tribes. While the men made weapons and hunted, the women did household chores and gathered wild plants for food. The Blackfoot practiced polygamy; a prosperous warrior might have several wives.

Blackfoot Indians

An important tribe of the Northern Plains, constituting the westernmost extension of the great Algonquian stock. Instead of being a compact people with a head chief and central government, they are properly a confederacy of three sub-tribes speaking the same language, namely:

Siksika or Blackfoot proper; 
Kaina (K?na), or Blood; and 
Pik?ni, or Piegan.

Each sub-tribe is again subdivided into bands, to the number of some fifty in all. In close alliance with them are the Ats?na, or Grosventres, a branch of the more southern Arapahoe, and the Sassi, a detached band of the Beaver Indians farther to the north.

As is usually the case with Indian etymologies, the origin of the name is disputed. One tradition ascribes it to the blackening of their moccasins from the ashes of prairie fires on their first arrival in their present country. It may have come, however, from the former wearing of a black moccasin, such as distinguished certain southern tribes. The name is also that of a prominent war-society among tribes of the Plains.

As indicated by linguistic affinity, the Blackfoot are immigrants from the East. In the early nineteenth century, and until gathered upon reservations, they held most of the immense territory stretching from the southern headwaters of the Missouri, in Montana, almost to the North Saskatchewan, in Canada, and from about 105 W. longitude to the base of the Rocky Mountains. They are now settled on three reservations in the Province of Alberta, Canada, and one in Montana, U.S., being about equally divided between the two governments. The Atsina are also now settled in Montana, while the Sassi are in Alberta.

Most of the early estimates of Blackfoot population are unreliable and usually exaggerated. The estimate made by Mackenzie (about the year 1790) of 2250 to 2550 warriors, or perhaps 8500 souls, is probably very near the truth for that period. In 1780, 1837, 1845, and 1869, they suffered great losses by smallpox. In 1883-84 some 600 on the Montana reservation died of starvation in consequence of a simultaneous failure of the buffalo and reduction of rations. In addition to these wholesale losses, they suffered a continual wasting from wars with the surrounding tribes -- Cree, Assiniboin, Sioux, Crow, Flathead, Kutenai -- for the Blackfoot were a particularly warlike and aggressive people, and, with the exception of the two small tribes living under their protection, they had no allies. The official Indian report for 1858 gives them 7300 souls, but a careful unofficial estimate made about the same time puts them at 6720. In 1906 they were officially reported to number in all 4617, as follows: Blackfoot Agency, Alberta, 842; Blood Agency, Alberta, 1204, Piegan Agency, Alberta, 499; Blackfoot Agency (Piegan), Montana, 2072.

In their culture the Blackfoot were a typical Plains tribe, living in skin tipis, roving from place to place without permanent habitation, without pottery, basketry, or canoes, having no agriculture except for the planting of a native tobacco, and depending almost entirely upon the buffalo for subsistence. Their traditions go back to a time when they had no horses, hunting the buffalo on foot by means of driveways constructed of loose stones; but as early as 1800 they had many horses taken from the southern tribes, and later became noted for their great herds. They procured guns and horses about the same time, and were thus enabled to extend their incursions successfully over wide areas.

While generally friendly to the Hudson's Bay Company traders, they were, in the earlier period, usually hostile towards Americans, although never regularly at war with the government. Upon ceremonial occasions each of the three principal tribes camped in a great circle, as usual among the Plains tribes, the tipis of each band occupying a definite section of the circle, with the "medicine lodge", or ceremonial sacred structure, in the center of the circle. The assertion that these smaller bands constituted exogamic clans seems consistent with Plains Indians custom. There was also a military society consisting of several subdivisions, or orders, of various rank, from boys in training to the retired veterans who acted as advisers and directors of the rites. Each of these orders had its distinctive uniform and equipment, songs and dance, and took charge of some special function at public gatherings. There were also the ordinary secret societies for the practice of medicine, magic, and special industrial arts, each society usually having its own sacred tradition in the keeping of a chosen priest. the industrial societies were usually composed of women. The ordinary dress in old times was of prepared deerskins; the arms were the bow, knife, club, lance, and shield, and, later, the gun. The principal deity was the sun, and a supernatural being known as Napi, "Old Man" -- perhaps an incarnation of the same idea. The great tribal ceremony was the Sun Dance, held annually in the summer season. The marriage tie was easily broken, and polygamy was permitted. The dead were usually deposited in trees, or sometimes in tipis, erected for the purpose on prominent hills.

The earliest missionary work among the Blackfoot was that of the French Jesuits who accompanied the explorer Verendrye in the Saskatchewan region in 1731-42. Among these many be named Fathers Nicholas Gonnor, Charles Mesaiger, and Jean Aulneau. Nothing more was done until the establishment of the Red River colony by Lord Selkirk, who, in 1816, brought out Fathers Dumoulin and Provencher from Montreal to minister to the wants of the colonists and Indians. Their Indian work, at first confined to the Crees and Ojibwa, was afterwards extended, under the auspices of the Oblates, to the Blackfoot and Assiniboin. Among the most noted of these Oblate missionaries were Father Albert Lacombe (1848-90), author of a manuscript Blackfoot dictionary, as well as of a monumental grammar and dictionary of the Cree, and Father Emile Legal (1881-90), author of several important manuscripts relating to the Blackfoot tribe and language. Protestant mission work in the tribe was begun by the Wesleyan Methodists about 1840 (though without any regular establishment until 1871), and by the Episcopalians at about the same date.

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[ Blackfoot History Introduction ]
[ Calgary & Southern Alberta | History of the Blackfoot | Blackfoot History 2 ]
[ History of the Horse and the Chase | The Blackfoot People | The Pikuni ]
[ Blackfoot Traditions | The Blackfoot Indians of the United States and Canada ]
[ The Siksika Nation Coat-Of-Arms | Blackfoot Bibliography ]

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