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


John J. Audubon describes “Mrs. Culbertson" in his journal entry dated July 14, 1843, during his stay at Fort Union:

“...the Ladies had their hair loose and flying in the breeze, and then all mounted on horses with Indian saddles and trappings. Mrs. Culbertson and her maid rode astride like men, and all rode a furious race, under whip the whole way, for more than one mile on the prairie; and how amazed would have been any European lady, or some of our modern belles who boast their equestrian skill, at seeing the magnificent riding of this Indian princess – for that is Mrs. Culbertson’s rank – and her servant. Mr. Culbertson rode with them, the horses running as if wild, with these extraordinary Indian riders, Mrs. Culbertson’s magnificent black hair floating like a banner behind her" (Audubon 1897:88).


Little Dog, Chief of Blackfeet, and his wife, 1910.
Photograph by N.A.Forsyth
Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society and Canada Museum of Civilization.
“This common hunting ground... did not belong exclusively to the Blackfeet, however defined, nor did they overwhelmingly and convincingly occupy it, possessing it in the sense of control­ling either the sweeping grasslands themselves or access to them. This had been and would remain something of a war zone — contested, neutral, and therefore common ground on which the competing and always moving tribes shifted about...Through their deliberate actions and di­plomacy, the nomadic camps and alliances had created a territory that was controlled by none but hunted and used by all at various times in the ebb and flow of tribal movements... Temporary treaties and awkward truces were forged, after which carefree hunting, peaceful socializing, and intertrihal trade reigned. Stevens recog­nized this fundamental fact of tribal reality and, together with Cumming, designated and described the territory for what it was—a com­mon hunting ground founded upon multiple tribal movement and multiple use" (Farr 2001:140).
Portion of the 1865 de Lacy map of the Territory of Montana.
Courtesy of the Mansfield Library, University of Montana.
Blue markings on DeLacy’s map indicate active gulch diggings in 1865.

Great Falls > Culture > Making Treaties
Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851

In preparation for a great council to define intertribal boundaries between the Missouri River and the Continental Divide, Superintendent of Indian Affairs David Mitchell, sent word to the trader Alexander Culbertson at Fort Union to select delegations from the Upper Missouri tribes. Word arrived too late for Culbertson to obtain delegates from the Blackfeet or Gros Ventres tribes, so these tribes were not present at the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 However, their territories were defined by three white men—Mitchell, Culbertson, and Father Pierre De Smet—each sympathetic to the Blackfeet. For the Blackfeet nothing really changed as a result of this first treaty, and few of them were even aware that a land-defining treaty had been negotiated.

DeSmet Map

View portion of P.J. DeSmet’s 1851
to D.D. Mitchell, following
Ft. Laramie treaty gathering.


Fort Benton Council of 1853

In 1853 Congress appropriated $150,000 to explore and survey the west for a "practicable and economical route" for a transcontinental railroad. The party appointed to explore the northern route, from St. Paul to Puget Sound, was led by Isaac I. Stevens, newly appointed governor of Washington Territory. In addition to the responsibilities of governance and survey, he was given the daunting task of negotiating peace treaties with tribes along the route. Some of these tribes, especially the Blackfeet, had been conducting an unofficial war on Americans since 1806. The major objective of the treaty was to establish a permanent peace "with all the most numerous and warlike tribes" of the region, according to George Manypenny, Commissioner of Indian affairs.

Medicine Snake Woman, Indian wife of Culbertson. (Point:1842)
Natoyist-siksina', or Natawista
Used with permission from Loyola Press

Alexander Culbertson, head factor at Fort McKenzie, was designated as special agent to introduce Stevens to the Blackfeet.

Culbertson married Natawista, Medicine Snake Woman, daughter of Blood Indian chief Two Suns.

Even though Culbertson was in good relation with his in-laws, this task was a dangerous one because of the long-standing animosity between Blackfeet tribes and the "Long Knives." Medicine Snake Woman insisted on accompanying her husband on this errand, saying,

"My people are a good people but they are jealous and vindictive. I am afraid that they and the whites will not understand each other, but if I go, I may be able to explain things to them and sooth them if they should be irritated. I know there is great danger" (Medicine Snake Woman, in Ewers 1958:209, from Reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1854:196).
Medicine Snake Woman (Natoyist-siksina')
Image courtesy of Montana Historical Society.

Dress and Decorum

Isaac Stevens made these observations on dress and decorum in September of 1853:

"On the 21st we held our talk with the Blackfeet. The chiefs and warriors were all richly caparisoned. Their dresses of softly prepared skins of deer, elk, or antelope were elegantly ornamented with bead-work. These are made by their women, and some must have occupied many months in making. The other articles of their costume were leggings made of buffalo skins, and moccasins, also embroidered, and a breech-cloth of blue cloth. Their arms were the Northwest guns, and bows and arrows. On all solemn occasions, when I met the Indians on my route, they were arrayed with the utmost care. My duties in the field did not allow the same attention on my part, and the Indians sometimes complained of this, saying, "We dress up to receive you, and why do you not wear the dress of a chief" (Stevens: 1901)?

Lame Bull Treaty of 1855

Bloods come in council.
Gustavus Sohon, 1855. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

The tribes of the Blackfoot Confederacy agreed to attend the great council of Oct. 17, 1855, across the Missouri from the mouth of the Judith River, a river named by William Clark after his cousin. The Blackfeet called it Oo-tah-kwi-si-sa-tan, or Yellow River.

In addition to the Blackfeet tribes, delegations of Flathead, Pend d'Oreille, and Nez Perce attended along with a single Cree chief. This chief, The Broken Arm, came with gifts of tobacco as a token of friendship for the Blackfeet from the Assiniboine and Cree tribes.

Blackfoot treaty council.
G. Sohon, 1855.
Courtesy of Washington State Historical Society, Tacoma
The Blackfeet were uneasy that additional members of these tribes were not present to smoke tobacco with them and to negotiate this treaty. Furthermore, they felt that negotiations could not be considered concluded without representation from the traditional enemy of the Blackfeet, the Crow. The council proceeded despite these limitations.
1855 Treaty Site
Judith River Treaty site.
Image courtesy of D. McDermott.

The lack of understanding between the parties was demonstrated from the beginning. In Stevens' opening remarks he told the Blackfeet of the hope that,

"through the long winters, bye and bye, the Blackfeet would not be obliged to live on poor Buffalo Meat," adding, "You know the Buffalo will not continue forever" (Partoll 1937:6).

Instead of buffalo, they would have domestic cattle for food.

Stevens clearly did not understand the relationship between Blackfeet and buffalo, or their lack of regard for beef.

The negotiations proceeded, and eventually every tribal representative made his mark to the following agreements, to the extent that they understood:

"Blackfoot nation agrees that certain territory assigned them by treaty of Fort Laramie shall be a common hunting ground. Certain territory to belong exclusively to the described in the treaty as bounded by a line running eastwardly from Hell Gate, or Medicine Rock Passes, to the nearest source of the Muscle Shell river; thence down the river to the Missouri; down the Missouri to the mouth of Milk river; thence N. to forty-ninth parallel; W. to the main range of the Rocky mountains, and southerly along that range to place of beginning " (Powell: 1899).


Portion of 1855 Stevens and Cummings map,
illustrating Blackfeet territory and the common hunting ground.
Map courtesy of the Mansfield Library, University of Montana.

After the signing, gifts of blankets, cotton fabric, sugar, coffee, rice, flour, and tobacco were distributed. Many of the Blackfeet had no idea how these products were to be used. They threw the flour into the air and poured sugar into the stream to drink its sweet mixture.

"After the feast they brought out a lot of things we had never seen before: flour, molasses, bread, axes, tools, and so on. Our chief thought the molasses was grease, and when a barrel was rolled out in front of him, he reached down into it and brought up two handfuls and rubbed it in his hair, saying,'Oh, this will make good grease for the hair.' We thought the flour was snow and that the bread was the fungus off trees, and we did not care to trade our robes for these" (Bradley, “Manuscript," Montana Historical Society, Vol. III, 271-74).

How well did the Blackfeet understand what they had signed? Could they, like Stevens, have imagined an end to the buffalo? Not likely, when the plains were often blackened as far as the eye could see. Even 20 years later, this extinction story was hard to imagine in the world centered on the Sweet Grass Hills.
Stanley - Three Buttes
Blackfeet IndiansThree Buttes
Lithograph from original by John Mix Stanley,
ca. 1854. (Stevens 1861:115)
Stanley's "Three Buttes" are the Sweetgrass Hills.
Courtesy of The University of Montana Mike and
Maureen Mansfield Library, Government Documents.

This treaty is remembered by the Blackfeet as Lame Bull's Treaty, because he was the first chief to sign.


1855—When treaty was first paid.
(Raczka: 1979)


For concessions granted at this council, the United States agreed to spend $20,000 annually on "useful goods and provisions for the four tribes of 'the Blackfoot Nation' for a period of ten years" (Ewers; 1958: 219).


In the fall of 1855, assuming their leaders understood the specifics of the treaty, the Blackfeet people believed that their homeland had been guaranteed them if they would share the Three Forks area as a common hunting ground with the western tribes and share the area east of the Milk and north of the Missouri with the Assiniboine. These hunting agreements would last 99 years. The U.S. government would provide many things they needed in exchange for safe passage through Blackfeet country. At that time, nothing else was coveted within this vast homeland. But this was a short story. In 1862 and 1863 gold was found at several important sites right in the middle of the common hunting ground and others within the Blackfeet Reservation. Within 10 years of the treaty, by 1865, there were no more bison in the shared hunting ground. Mining camps, instead, dotted the landscape, and miners trespassed throughout Blackfeet country looking for gold.

Background: Bloods come in council.
Gustavus Sohon, 1855. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.