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

Click Here to get Quicktime   Quicktime

Narcisse Blood on story telling


Belly River
Early morning on the Belly River, Alberta.
K. Lugthart photo
Trail Map
The Old North Trail in Blackfeet country
Base map adapted from Raisz: 1957

Big Spring Painting Hide
Big Spring illustrates the old way of recording Blackfoot
events and history. Glacier National Park, 1913 (Hungry Wolf: 1989).
Image courtesy of Glacier National Park archives.


Click Here to get Quicktime   Quicktime
Click Here to get RealPlayer 28K 56K 256K

Darrell Kipp on Piegan history
Sign language for Piegan (Pikuni):

“Piegan (Indian) – Partially close the right hand; i.e., keeping backs of fingers form second joints to knuckles about on line with back of hand, ball of thumb resting on second joint of index; hold the hand close to lower part of right cheek, back of hand right, edges pointing upwards; move the hand, mostly by elbow action, in small circle parallel to cheek" (Clark 1959:302).

Great Falls > Culture > Since Time Immemorial

Narcisse Blood,
coordinator of Kainah Studies at Red Crow Community College in Standoff, Alberta, speaks about "time immemorial" and the way Blackfeet people understand their history.
Oral History
Waterton Beaver Bundle
Waterton Lakes, origin of beaver bundle
K. Lugthart photo

Oral traditions include history, stories, and mythology, and each is different.

History is important to all peoples, and particular methods are developed by all oral cultures to engage the collective memory. Oral history is often told in a ceremonial way, with the history of the people being related through songs, told in a particular sequence, reflecting their historical relationships. The words of songs remain the same, even over centuries of change. By encoding history in songs, the Nitsitapi (Blackfeet) remember their history from generation to generation.

Stories are always tied to particular people, animals, events, and places. When Nitsitapi pass a particular place, they might be reminded of stories of their family and tribe, of battles with enemies, or of any unusual event that stands out. These stories are about events that actually happened, but they are embellished and altered a little with each telling. In this way, they are different from ceremonial stories of history.

Myths are another expression of a culture's stories. Although myths are by definition fiction, they generally hold some core of fact important to the people. Myths help to convey the essence of a people, if not the factual history.

Percy Bullchild, a Piegan, explains the importance of oral history among Blackfeet people:

"We Indians do not have written history like our white friends. Ours is handed down from generation to generation orally. In this way we have preserved our Indian history and our legends of the beginning of life. All history the Native learns by heart, and must pass it on to the little ones as they grow up. We Natives preserved our history in our minds and handed it down from generation to generation, from time unknown, orally. From the time human life began" (Bullchild 1985:2-3).

The oral traditions of the Nitsitapi carry them back to "time immemorial." How long is that? Anthropologists disagree about how long Blackfeet people have lived in their homeland. Some say the Blackfeet have existed in the Upper Missouri country only a few hundred years; others believe several thousand years is more accurate. The boundaries of the territory change through time.

For now, relax. Don't get mired in this argument; instead, let the stories carry you into a different world where quantification is less important than experience.

A Story of the Old North Trail

A century ago Chief Brings-Down-the-Sun told Walter McClintock about the Old North Trail:

"There is a well-known trail we call the Old North Trail. It runs north and south along the Rocky Mountains. No one knows how long it has been used by the Indians. My father told me it originated in the migration of a great tribe of Indians from the distant north to the south, and all the tribes have, ever since, continued to follow in their tracks.

"The Old North Trail is now becoming overgrown with moss and grass, but it was worn so deeply, by many generations of travelers, that the travois tracks and horse trail are still plainly visible...

"In many places the white man's roads and towns have obliterated the Old Trail. It forked where the city of Calgary now stands. The right fork ran north into the Barren Lands as far as people live. The main trail ran south along the eastern side of the Rockies, at a uniform distance from the mountains, keeping clear of the forest and outside of the foothills. It ran close to where the city of Helena now stands and extended south into the country inhabited by a people with dark skins and long hair falling over their faces.

"My father once told me of an expedition from the Blackfeet that went south by the Old Trail to visit the people with dark skins. Elk Tongue and his wife, Natoya, were of this expedition, also Arrow Top and Pemmican, who was a boy of 12 at that time. He died only a few years ago at the age of 95. They were absent four years. It took them 12 moons of steady traveling to reach the country of the dark-skinned people, and 18 moons to come north again. They returned by a longer route through the "High Trees" or Bitterroot country, where they could travel without danger of being seen. They feared going along the North Trail because it was frequented by their enemies, the Crows, Sioux, and Cheyennes.

"I have followed the Old North Trail so often that I know every mountain, stream, and river far to the south as well as toward the distant north" (Brings-Down-the-Sun in McClintock 1992: 434-437).

Along the Rocky Mountain front.
S. Thompson photo
Reckoning Time

Winter count is a way of reckoning time, a tribal calendar of history. A long-ago person sat down to record the memorable events from a round of seasons on a tanned buffalo hide.

"The winter count is an important record. Not only does it give us a historical record of the Blackfeet people greater than that previously recorded, but also an insight into these events. The memories of those elders still living have been added to the events as well as those of past researchers. It was the feelings of people that started this record, and they should be carried with it" (Raczka 1979:5).

Original hide drawings for this winter count were made by five contributors from the North Piegan, or Pikuni. The drawings include the period from 1764 through 1924. Paul Raczka, with credit given to elders, compiled the images in a book from which the following examples are taken. (This winter count recorded by the Rev. Cannon Haynes in journal form was given by Bull Plume.)

1778—The great wind.

1779—When it hailed in winter.

1782—When they took the shield.

The capture of a shield was an important coup. Being both an article of war and a religious item, the shield was a much sought-after trophy, especially those of the Crow tribe, which were highly decorated similar to Blackfoot shields.

1801—When we took the stars and stripes from the River Indians.

Capturing a flag from the enemy was considered an important act. Flags were regarded as having power as war medicines. The people referred to are Pend d'Oreilles, called Niitugta tapi (River People) in Blackfoot.

Hugh Dempsey, a scholar of Blackfeet culture, noted the significance,"that an American flag should be captured by the Piegans four years before the Lewis and Clark expedition came west. The area was still considered part of the Spanish possession, but there were rumors and indications from David Thompson that Americans had penetrated the area even prior to Lewis and Clark." (Dempsey: personal communication to Raczka, 1978)


1805—When the crows died. This refers to the bird, not the tribe.

1806—Many foolish children were killed. [Children had wandered away from the camp and drowned.]


1808—Getting paint and taking captive (near Turtle Mountain, by Crow Indians).

There is a location for getting earth paint on the Castle River near
Turtle Mountain.

(Raczka: 1979)

Source: Raczka, P. M. Winter Count: A history of the Blackfoot people. Calgary: Friesen Printers for Oldman River Culture Center, 1979.(from original hide drawings)

Archaeological Evidence of the Blackfeet

Archaeological evidence indicates that the Blackfeet people have lived in the region of the Northwestern Plains for at least 6,000 years.

Stylized stone projectile points are the key indicators of ancestral Blackfeet sites. Their territory was not constant through these millennia. It changed within the region depending on shifting food resources and relationships with neighbors.

One significant campsite, located alongside an oxbow meander of the Sun River near the Great Falls, was used by Blackfeet people off and on for thousands of years. Meriwether Lewis came close to this site when he was exploring the area during the summer of 1805.

Although the Piegan, Kainah, and Siksika bands were spread over a large territory, even larger than the Blackfeet homeland of historic times, they centered around the Sand Hills of southwestern Saskatchewan. There they buried their loved ones. Blackfeet people still talk of their spirits' returning to the Sand Hills after death. (Greiser, 1986, 1994; Reeves, 1969).

Image courtesy of S. Thompson.
Background ©Apiisoomahka Wm. Singer III, 1993;
used with permission from Red Crow College