- See Blackfoot for the rock band.
Blackfoot is a name applied to a few Native American groups in the northwestern plains.
These include the Blackfeet tribe or Piegan (Pikani) band of Montana (Amsskaapipikani), and the Kainah (Blood, or Many Leaders), Siksiki (Northern Blackfoot), and Northern Peigan (Pikani, or Apatohsipikani in Alberta), bands in Alberta, Canada, all closely related and generally called the Blackfoot (Nitsitapii) nation. These groups shared a common language and culture, had treaties of mutual defense, and freely intermarried.
The Blackfoot were fiercely independent and very successful warriors who controlled a vast region stretching from the North Saskatchewan River in Alberta, Canada, to the Yellowstone River of Montana, and from the Rocky Mountains to the Cypress Hills on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border.
The basic social unit of the Blackfoot, above the family, was the band, varying from about 10 to 30 lodges, about 80 to 240 people. This size group was large enough to defend against attack and to undertake small communal hunts, but small enough for flexibility. Each band consisted of a respected leader, possibly his brothers and parents, and others who need not be related. Since the band was defined by place of residence, rather than by kinship, a person was free to leave one band and join another, which tended to ameliorate leadership disputes. As well, should a band fall upon hard times, its members could split-up and join other bands. in practice, bands were constantly forming and breaking-up. The system maximized flexibility and was an ideal organization for a hunting people on the Northwestern Plains.
Leadership of a band was based on consensus, rather than heredity; the leader was chosen because all people recognized his fitness to lead. Such a system was basically democratic; the leader lacked coercive authority over his followers and led only so long as his followers were willing to be led by him. A leader needed to be a good warrior, but, most importantly, he had to be generous. Upon the death of a leader, if there was no one else suitable to lead, the band might break up rather than choose a leader who did not have the faith of the band members.
During the summer the bands assembled for tribal ceremonies and hunting. In these large assemblies, warrior societies which crossed band boundaries played an important role. Again, membership in these societies, also known as Pan-tribal Sodalities, was not based on heredity or kinship; but was purchased. Young men would purchase membership in the lowest society. As they became wealthier, they would purchase membership in higher societies, while selling their former memberships to the new generation. These warrior societies acted as a police force, regulating camp moves and the communal hunt.
Blackfoot bands were nomadic, following a seasonal round dictated by the location of the bison herds, the weather and the season. Survival required their being in the proper place at the proper time. For almost half the year in the long northern winter, the Blackfoot bands lived in their winter camps, strung out along a wooded river valley perhaps a day's march apart, not moving camp unless food for the people and horses or firewood became depleted. Where there was adequate wood and game resources, some bands might camp together. During this part of the year, bison wintered in wooded areas where they were partially sheltered from storms and snow, which hampered their movements, making them easier prey. In spring the bison moved out onto the grasslands to forage on new spring growth. The Blackfoot did not follow immediately, for fear of late blizzards, but eventually resources such as dried food or game animals such as deer became depleted and the bands would split up, and begin to hunt the bison.
In mid-summer, when the Saskatoon berries ripened, the bands regrouped for their major tribal ceremony, the Sun Dance. This was the only time of year when the entire tribe would assemble, and served the social purpose of reinforcing the bonds between the various bands, and reidentifying the individuals with the tribe. Communal bison hunts provided food and offerings of the bulls' tongues (a delicacy) for the ceremonies. After the Sun Dance, the bands again separated to follow the bison.
In the fall, the bands would gradually shift to their wintering areas and prepare the bison jumps and pounds. Several bands might join together at particularly good sites, such as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. As the bison were naturally driven into the area by the gradual late summer drying off of the open grasslands, the Blackfoot would carry out great communal buffalo kills, and prepare dry meat and pemmican to last them through winter, and other times when hunting was poor. At the end of the fall, the Blackfoot would move to their winter camps.
The Blackfoot maintained this traditional way of life based on hunting bison, until the near extinction of the bison by 1881 forced them to change and finally adapt to the coming of Europeans. In 1877, the Canadian Blackfoot signed Treaty No. Seven and settled on reserves in southern Alberta, beginning a period of great struggle and economic hardship, trying to adapt to a completely new way of life as well as exposure to many diseases they had not previously encountered. Eventually, they established a viable economy based on farming, ranching, and light industry, and their population has increased to about 12,000. With their new economic stability, the Blackfoot have been free to adapt their culture and traditions to their new circumstances, renewing their connection to their ancient roots.
Blackfoot is also a city in the State of Idaho in the United States of America: see Blackfoot, Idaho.