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

Piegan horses and travois, 1900.
Image courtesy of Glenbow Archives NA-1700-142.

Siksila camp
Camp at Blackfoot Crossing, [ca.1900]
Image courtesy of Glenbow Archives.
Arrowleaf balsamroot
K. Lugthart photo
© Lynn Kitagawa
used with permission
Pasque flower
K. Lugthart photo
Blooming prickly pear.
Image courtesy of K. Furrow.
© Lynn Kitagawa
used with permission
K. Lugthart photo

Great Falls > Culture > Camp Life & Seasonal Round

©Jackie Parsons- used with permission
Don Parsons- artist

The yearly cycle of the Blackfeet is divided into four seasons. In the days when buffalo still roamed the land, patterns of movement reflected the location of important foods. The buffalo was most important, but particular camp locations were selected with other resources in mind as well. To an observer, the changes in camp locations through the year may appear random, but they were far from that. Each location was known for the resources it held, whether they were plant, animal, or mineral, and year after year, the people returned to these locations.

piegan camp
Piegan encampment (Point, 1846)
used with permission from Loyola Press

The work of moving camp was the responsibility of the women. When the head chief decided to move camp, that evening the camp-crier would announce that in the morning everyone should be all ready to leave. The women were up at dawn preparing the family breakfast, finishing packing, and tying the family belongings to the horse travois.

Women would take down their hundred pound buffalo skin lodges and tie them between the horse's horned saddle. Two horses were needed to pack the nineteen lodge poles. Women packed saddle bags filled with dried meat and berries, tallow, and tobacco, and they packed bedding, tools, utensils, and ceremonial objects to be carried on the travois. Babies rode on their mother's back while the toddlers rode upon the travois. Older boys took care of the loose horses.
"The horse that carries the calumet on the march is exempt from all other use and she who leads him is the most honored woman of the tribe" (Point, 1846).   -used with permission from Loyola Press

The day's long journey would end with enough sunlight so the women could unpack, erect lodges, cook supper, and then prepare for the next day. Children helped gather wood and bring water. When wood was low, women used dried buffalo chips and dried grass for fire (Summarized from Ewers 1958:92-93).

K. Furrow photo 
When spring comes, life awakens and the beauty of green life can be seen again. Spring arrives just after the moon "when the ice breaks up" (in April), during the moon "when the geese come" or "when the leaves are budding" (in May) and after the first thunder is heard. This marks the end of the storytelling season.

In buffalo days, when the buffalo plant was in flower and the buffalo calves were yellow, it was time to leave the long camps of winter. Before they left camp, just after the snow disappeared, the ground of the tobacco garden was prepared for planting. The seeds would grow while they were off hunting the buffalo. Some of the important men who were responsible for the well-being of the tobacco, would return to the garden to tend the plants several times during the growing season. At the right time, everyone would gather near the garden for harvesting the tobacco in a ceremonial manner.

Extended family groups would split apart to follow the buffalo and other game out onto the grassy plains, always choosing campsites near potable water and firewood. Everyone anticipated the great variety of fresh foods of spring after eating dried meat and berries most of the long winter. Great spring feasts included eggs of ducks and other water-fowl, "pomme blanche," wild turnip, and roasted camas bulbs.
Duck nest
N. Dakota Game & Fish


Wild sunflowers
S. Thompson photo
The buffalo migrated to the open grassy plains in the early summer, the time known to the Blackfeet as the "moon of flowers." The people followed the buffalo to the Cypress Hills or other hunting grounds in the eastern region of their homeland where they would stay only as long as the buffalo. The summer hunts provided the ceremonial buffalo-bull tongues needed for the Medicine Lodge, or Sun Dance Ceremony, during the moon when "serviceberries were ripe".

After the Sun Dance, the chief would tell his people it was time to move to "Many-berries" or other places rich in fruit. The women would gather sarvis berries every other year, when there was a crop. They collected branches, which they beat over a buffalo robe. The berries were dried and stored for future use. Goose berries and red willow berries were also collected in late summer. The people would move from place to place either because it was a good location for picking berries or a good place to hunt bulls.
Buffalo berry
Dave Ode photo

At the time when "leaves are yellow and the time of first frost" the chief would announce that it was time to move to where the choke-cherries were ripe. The women would pick the fruit, then pound it with a stone maul, pits and all, and then dry it. This was usually mixed into soup or with pemmican. Bull berries, a favorite fruit, were ripe at the same time.

"For the superior hunter, the best weapon was the rifle" (Point, 1846).
used with permission from Loyola Press
About the time "when the geese fly south" was the most important buffalo hunt of the year. The fall was also a time to go to the hills and mountains for lodge poles. While men were busy with their activities, the women processed meat and berries and made pemmican for the winter. Robes were also prepared for trade.

Once the white traders were established in Blackfeet country, the men hunted for wolves, badgers, skunks, antelopes, and buffalo at this time of year so they would have hides and pelts to trade. The trading fort was part of their seasonal round, and they all looked forward to the goods that would be acquired through trade.
Winter camp locations were scouted out in October or November. The head chief would consider the information from the scouts, then, with the advice of the band chiefs, select a location that fit the needs of the tribe. The ideal locations were in stands of trees in protected valleys, where people were sheltered from the snow and cold winter winds. Camps were arranged along rivers for fresh water and where firewood could easily be found to keep the lodges warm. The buffalo wintered in the valley bottoms, along with the Blackfeet, who gathered in large numbers during this season.
Old Cabin on Two Medicine River
S. Thompson photo

At this season, buffalo were prime and fat. Full tribal participation was needed to conduct a successful hunt and to acquire the winter supply of buffalo meat. Hunting continued into the moon "when the buffalo calves are black" and the heavy snows come (in January). When the fresh food was consumed, people lived off of the dried meat and berries preserved during the previous months.

Winter days were long and provided a time for the nomadic buffalo followers to rest and play and pass on traditional stories. Camps were large and much socializing occurred. The winter was a time for children up to sixteen years of age to play and compete against each other in traditional winter sport games, including coasting, top-spinning, sliding on ice, and other children's games.

"Favorite pastimes of children playing on ice were sliding or a game called spinning tops." (Point, 1846) used with permission from Loyola Press

On cold, windy nights the children would sit around the warm tipi lodges and listen to the elders recount the beautiful myths, legends, and stories of their tribe. The elders would tell the children about their brave Blackfeet warriors who had many encounters in war against their enemies. Other stories of exciting hunting trips would help pass the long winter months.

Elders' stories taught how to look into the future by observing the warnings of animals, and how to know the different moons by watching the changes of the seasons and by studying the habits of birds and wild animals, and to know the signs in the heavens.

The most popular of winter sports was coasting down steep, snow-packed hills onto the valley bottoms. The sleds that were used for coasting were made without a single nail or bolt. They were made entirely of parts of the buffalo carcass. The runners were five to ten buffalo rib bones; the long, heavy ribs of a buffalo cow, scraped free of meat and gristle. These ribs were separated from the backbone and breastbone and reassembled in exactly the same order they had appeared on the buffalo. The ribs were tied together at each end by a rawhide rope that wound in and around a cross-piece of split willow. The seat was made of skin from the leg of the buffalo, stretched hair-side up over the runners and tied to the willow cross bars at each end. A buffalo tail was sewn or tied to the rear of the seat for decoration. A rawhide rope was tied to the front to pull the sled uphill and to guide it sliding downhill (Ewers: 1945).

The people have always understood winter as the time for death, when that spirit from the north blows onto the Mother Earth its power, the snow. All of the beauty of the Mother Earth is covered over by the snow white blanket of the northern spirit. Underneath this blanket all life goes to sleep as though they were dead (Floyd Rider, 1994). All winter long the Beaver Bundle holders notched into their calendar sticks the passing of each day, keeping track of the right time for their spring Beaver ceremonies.


Background: Rocky Mountain Front, near Skunk Creek. K. Lugthart photo