The Blackfeet
Traditional Culture
  Since Time Immemorial
Homeland of the Blackfeet
All My Relations
Camp Life and Seasonal Round
Buffalo Hunt
Further Reading
References Cited

  Contemporary Culture
  Arts and Artists
Tribal Government
Tribal Colleges
Recommended Web Sites

  Relationship with U.S.
  Before the Long Knives
The Long Knives
Making Treaties
The Shrinking Reservation
References Cited

"The Blackfeet tipi was sewn together by sinew, cut from 6-20 buffalo hides. Most painted lodges also had two areas of geometric design. A banded area at the bottom, usually in red, represented the Earth, while unpainted discs within this field symbolized fallen stars. The second area, at the top, was painted black, representing the night sky. Unpainted discs within this area indicated the constellations of the Great Bear and the Pleiades. Near the top and at the back of the cover a Maltese cross representing the morning star or butterfly was painted. It was thought to bring powerful dreams to the tipi owner. These mural paintings portrayed the animal, bird, or spiritual beings that the owner regarded as his or her source of power" (Ewers: 1958).
Tipi image 1993 Apiisoomahka William Singer III used with permission of Red Crow College.

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Charlene Mountain Horse
Blackfeet people are concerned about the use of images of ceremonies and ceremonial paraphernalia without seeking approval from relevant individuals. We make every attempt to do so. For more than a century, visitors have taken pictures to be used for their own purposes, without permission and without compensation to the people involved. As such, we are very cognizant about intellectual property rights and getting approval for saying and showing documents that reflect other's ownership. We have chosen to use this picture of a Sun Dance lodge, provided by Charlene Mountain Horse, as an example of an appropriate picture, because it shows no close-up ceremonial details.

We encourage others to be respectful of the Blackfeet religion.

Great Falls > Culture > All My Relations

The world of the Blackfeet , their entire universe, is inhabited by good and evil spirits. The realm of the supernatural is accepted as a significant part of everyday life, without the need to analyze or rationalize it. They believe in the "Sun Power" as the source of all power. It is everywhere; in the mountains, lakes, rivers, birds, and wild animals, and this power can be transferred to people. The gift, usually in the form of songs, comes through the medium of some animal, bird, or supernatural being, whose pity for the person comes when the person demonstrates his need through fasting. The songs received are means to contact the spirit powers. The power bestowed can heal the sick, help the tribe, or bring success in war. Today, the Blackfeet belief in the spirit world remains strong.




S. Thompson photo

Spiritual Life

Spiritual life for the Nitsitapi is not something relegated to Sundays. It is a way of walking through the world each and every day. Prayer, fasting, and purification through sweats are regular expressions of spiritual life. Prayers always begin with words of gratitude.

Jim Kipp describes his spiritual life as a Blackfeet:

"Our personal relationship with Creator (Nah-doo-si), Indian culture, religion, tradition, language, and living on the 'red path' of our ancestors is who the Blackfeet People are today. To continue on, this way of life depends upon the future generations, our children. This way of life has been passed down from our Elders who learned from their Elders. This oral guidance has very strict, but respectful qualities of perpetual wisdom that will help us. Four important teachings come through all interpretations of how to live a good life.

· Creator comes first. Without Creator we are nothing. No person, beings or laws are above Creator.
· Myself. Creator gave me a choice in life – a 'red road' leading to him or the path that is curving, dangerous, and leads to death. Being able to live in a respectful way in Creator's name teaches how to be humble because it acknowledges that Creator's presence is in everything.
· My family. Doing and participating in holy ceremonies to strengthen my spiritual life with Creator will help me to love and respect my family.
· Everything else follows these first three in importance.

"The Blackfeet always pray to Creator first, beginning with words of gratitude for the beauty of the earth and sky, for family, for health, and for all life. After Creator, then prayers expand to include all those 'Holy Spirits' or 'Grandfathers and Grandmothers' (naahks) who work for Creator and those 'Holy Spirits' who pity the people, and will hear their prayers. Praying for 'all my relations' is not just family, but includes the sacred naahks, who are other than human beings; they are animals, plants, rocks, the entire ecosystem; all included in 'Mother Earth' and 'Father Sky.'

"Certain spiritual gifts have been given to the Blackfeet by Creator, for their tribal identity, such as the sacred pipe and the sacred medicine bundles. The people who keep these gifts for the people have great responsibilities. They are honored members of the community. These gifts are to be respected, dignified and honored. For example, the sacred pipe, the greatest spiritual power, must always be handled by its keeper with the greatest respect. Whenever anyone smokes the holy pipe, they are bound by the truth" (Kipp:2002).

Sweat Lodge
"The sweat lodge is one of the gifts that Creator gave to the Blackfeet. Just like our physical body becomes unclean and needs a bath, the body's spirit also needs a cleansing. Everything used in the sweat lodge has to be gathered in a ceremonial manner, the rocks for the fire, the sage for the floor, and the willows that form the frame. The sweat lodge is ideally built along the bank of a river.
"The oval shape of the sweat lodge is like that of a pregnant woman lying on her back, gazing up into the heavens. That is one way to say that the womb of Mother Earth is the sweat lodge. When entering the lodge from the east it is as though you are entering Mother Earth's womb.
Sweat lodge frame
on the Belly River
S.Thompson photo
"Once inside, it is dark, but safe. Participants pray to Creator and Mother Earth to take pity on them, their children. The head lodgeman sits in the west direction and splashes the hot rocks in the center of the lodge with medicine water. After four rounds of singing and being purified from Creator's breath with the steam from the holy rocks, all negative toxins from the person's body and spirit have been taken by Mother Earth. The pores of the skin are seeping out mud to represent the origin of where we came from. The lodgeman utters, "It is time to leave," and the door-person lifts the flap of the entryway, now the exit of the sweat lodge. Crawling out of the lodge the sweaty and red with life people, are now rejuvenated. Their spirits and bodies have been cleansed. Time has begun to start a new walk, free from previous negative energies —just like a baby leaving its mother's womb.

"Traditionally, the Blackfeet religion did not allow women to participate in sweat lodges. Today, many lodges are open to any who choose this path" (Kipp:2002).

Vision Quests
Young men enter the world of adulthood by undertaking a quest for visions, usually at a place high in the mountains. The vision quest begins with a decision to embark on this journey, which may have been prompted by a dream. Preparation involves purification through sweating for four consecutive days.
©Clarence Tillenius, 1988
used with permission

The young man takes along helpers to prepare the sweat lodge, gather and heat the rocks, and to assist the seeker, as needed. Then the seeker finds a suitable place, high and isolated, to spend four days and four nights waiting for a vision. The vision is usually in the form of an animal or spirit helper who teaches the seeker a power song.


Men's Societies:
During the Buffalo Days, each tribe of the Blackfeet Confederacy had numerous war societies.
The best known societies were the "Bulls", the "Horns", and "Crazy-Dogs", "Little Birds", the "Braves" and "Kit-Foxes". Each group had its own songs and dances and its own customs and ceremonial rites.
To become a member of one of these bands, the young man had to be of proved bravery; "he must have a good heart, honest and straightforward tongue and be of a generous nature" (Corbett 1934:35).
Some societies continue today, and young men are still expected to exhibit these same valued qualities.

Women's Societies:
Among the Northern Blackfeet bands, women of high character could join the Motoki Society.

Sun Dance (Okan)

Sun Dance lodge, Alberta
Charlene Mountain Horse photo

How the Sun Dance Came to the People as told by Ben Calf Robe

The Okan, or Sun Dance, is the Highest Blackfoot ceremony. Held every summer, when the sarvis berries are ripe, the Okan is a ceremony of prayer, sacrifice and renewal. It lasts a day and a half, during which time a hundred songs are sung, each one different from the others.

Ben Calf Robe, MekiApi [Red Man], Siksika Nation, when he was about 90 years old, told this story of how the first Okan, or Sun Dance, started,

". . .the way it was told to me. I am going to tell the story
about it for the younger generation to be helped.
This is taking place a long time ago. There were no
horses and there was no Okan, yet. Every summer the
People came to camp together in one big circle camp.
This particular day, the girls got tired of playing, so they
just laid back and looked up at the sky. It was evening time,
but it was just like daylight. The moon was full and out, and
all the stars were shining. One pretty young girl who had no husband looked very hard in one direction. Suddenly
she says: ' Ki yo! [ women's expression of surprise]. That
one star is shining so bright, that is the one that I will marry.'

"The next day was coming to evening when the same girl went out to gather Buffalo chips with her mother. On the way back, she had to tie her lace and her mother told her to hurry for it was getting late. The girl told her to go ahead. Then she saw a pair of feet in front of her. She looked up and saw a very handsome young man. He told her he was the star she said she wanted to marry. Then he told her to put down the buffalo chips and to stand on the calf hide that they were wrapped up in. She did that, and he told her to close her eyes.. When he told her to open them, they were high up in the sky.

"The man told her, 'the women come here to dig turnips, and you can join them, but do not ever dig up that Big Turnip, because we only eat small ones.' And so she lived in the sky and she was the wife of the Sun.

"Every thing went well for some time. She used to go with the other women to dig turnips. Then one day she thought she would dig the Big Turnip to see how large it was. She worked hard with her stick and dug all around it until it was loose.. Then she took a good hold of it and she pulled it out. There was a big hole in the ground and when she looked into it she could look through the sky and down to earth, below. She saw the camps of her People and she started to cry.


Old Medicine Lodge,
Two Medicine River

S. Thompson photo

"Her husband figured out that she dug up the Big Turnip and told her, "I will have to let you go home. But you will take some things back with you to help your people, to bring them together."And this is when she was shown about the Sun Dance - the Okan. Because she was a virtuous girl she was given these things to give to her people.She was taught about the forked- Center Pole and the posts that go into stand the rawhide that ties them together.
"She was taught the songs for it and what it means. This was a miracle- a big mystery, how she learned it all. She was shown the different incense altars and use of the Earth Paints that go with the Okan. Finally, she was lowered down to earth with a long rawhide.
"There was a boy on his back, looking up at the sky. Suddenly, he told his mother, " Nah-ah ( an intimate word for mother and grand mother ), there is something strange coming down from the sky" and she with others saw it too. And she went right to her parents' tipi. Pretty soon all the old wise Elders came to the tipi to hear what she had to say.

Chief Mountain
K. Lugthart photo

"She told them about the Okan-Sun Dance and explained the different things that she had been taught. So they believed her story, the way she explained it. The Wise Elders counseled and decided to go ahead with a Sun Dance right away.

"It came to be that everything had a part in the Sun Dance. All the society members come into the Holy Lodge to sing and dance and confess their war deeds. The Weather Dancers are in there to pray and dance and keep good weather. The Beaver Men are the leaders, because the songs for the Sun Dance are like the ones for the Beaver Bundles. The Holy Pipes go in there to be smoked. It is very mysterious how all the holy things fit together for the Sun Dance, once a year" (Calf Robe: 1976).

Background: Map©Apiisoomahka Wm. Singer III, 1993
Used with permission from Red Crow College