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

Karl Bodmer, Encampment of Piekann Indians near Fort McKenzie on the Muscleshell River. Hand-colored lithograph, Plate 97. McKenney, Thomas L. & Hall, James. History of the Indian Tribes of North America. Philadelphia: F.W. Greenough, 1838-1844.
Image courtesy Archives & Rare Books Department, University of Cincinnati; © University of Cincinnati Digital Press.
Swift fox
M. Johnson.

Great Falls > Culture > Before the Long Knives
Curly Bear Wagner
speaks about the
Canadian fur trade.

In October 1754 hundreds of Kainah, or Blood, people camped on the Saskatchewan River, watched Anthony Henday and his Cree guides enter their camp and walk through the esplanade created by 200 tipis, pitched in two long parallel rows.

Piegan camp, ca. 1900.
Edward Curtis image
Courtesy of Northwestern University Library.

Their horses, tethered to the lodges, would have whinnied as these strangers walked among them. From the great lodge at the end of the street, the chief and 20 elders waited for their visitors.

Inside the lodge the strangers were seated next to the chief. The pipe was passed around in silence, then willow baskets full of boiled buffalo tongue were shared. After these gracious formalities were completed, Henday told the men of his purpose and invited the chief to send young men to Hudson's Bay to exchange their furs for rifles, tobacco, blankets, ammunition, colored cloth, and beads.

The chief waited politely for the interpreter to complete his signing of the message, then told the visitor how the Blackfeet were horsemen, not accustomed to canoes; they ate meat, not fish; and they had heard about Indians who starved while making their way to the trading posts. These were serious problems, and besides, they had no need for the goods Henday described. The buffalo provided all they could ever want, and their bows and arrows were all they required to obtain their prey.

"The inhabitants of the Plains are so advantageously situated that they could live very happily independent of our assistance. They are surrounded with innumerable herds of various kinds of animals, whose flesh affords them excellent nourishment and whose skins defend them from the inclemency of the weather, and they have invented so many means for the destruction of animals that they stand in no need of ammunition to provide a sufficiency for their purposes. It is then our luxuries that attract them to the fort and make us so necessary to their happiness" (McGillivray: 1929).
[Duncan McGillivray, clerk for the North West Company, 1794.]

"The Herd," 1860—Martin S. Garretson.
Image courtesy of National Museum of Wildlife Art.

The Blackfeet, in general, were not beaver trappers with the exception of the westernmost bands of Piegan. The others trapped kit foxes and wolves for furs. They were not interested in completely changing their way of life to enter the trade as offered by the Europeans.

Gray wolf
Image courtesy of Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks.

Accounts by whites in Blackfeet territory during the 18th century paint a picture of friendly relationships. The traders who wintered with various groups of Blackfeet were treated well, and commerce was brisk. In 1805 the North West Company reported a typical acquisition of 77,500 beaver, 51,250 muskrat, and 40,400 martin skins in addition to 1,135 buffalo robes. Similar numbers were reported by the Hudson's Bay Company. The Blackfeet participated by providing the bison robes as well as horses for their transport. This business kept them focused on controlling the buffalo plains and on stealing horses.

However, for a number of reasons, life couldn't continue this way very long. The year that Lewis and Clark traveled up the Missouri, the prolific trader David Thompson attempted to cross the Canadian Rockies to explore the Columbia headwaters, but he was stopped by the Piegans. As beaver were becoming scarce along the rivers of Hudson's Bay, traders were sent into new areas, and Cree, Sioux, and Crow were being pushed further westward into Blackfeet country, creating new tension and conflict. Four years earlier, in 1801, "the Sakatow man, the principal chief of the Piegans," complained to Thompson about arming the Kootenays, whom the chief feared would arm the "Flat Heads," and all this would cause harm to the Piegans. Any attempt to establish trade relations with the Kutenai was seen as a direct conflict with the Piegans.

It was this tense world that Lewis and Clark passed through in 1805.

Background: Encampment of the Piekann Indians
by Karl Bodmer after a sketch from his 1833 visit.