The Blackfoot, fiercely independent and very successful warriors, controlled a vast region stretching from the North Saskatchewan River in Alberta to Yellowstone River of Montana, and from the Rocky Mountains to the Cypress Hills on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border.
It was not until the coming of the North West Mounted Police in 1874, over 110 years ago, that Euro–Canadian settlement in the region began. Indeed, until the near extinction of the buffalo in 1881, the Blackfoot pursued their traditional lifeways. Only with the loss of their food supply were they obliged to adapt to the new era.
The term "Blackfoot" actually refers to 3 tribes: the Blackfoot proper (Siksika), the Bloods (Kainai), and the Peigan (Piikani). Each tribe was independent, but they all spoke the same language and regarded themselves as allies.
The Blackfoot proper are the northernmost of the tribes and currently occupy the Bow River east of Calgary. To the south are the Bloods, situated on the Oldman, Belly, and St. Mary rivers west of Lethbridge. To the west of the Bloods are the Northern Peigan on the Oldman River. In Montana, the southern branch of the Peigan occupy the upper Missouri River drainage. This distribution of tribes reflects the area controlled at the time of the treaties; it is thought that throughout the last few hundred years the tribes continually expanded their territory southward.
Social Structure: Basic
The basic social unit of the Blackfoot, above the family, was the band. Bands among the Peigan varied from about 10 to 30 lodges, or about 80 to 240 persons. Such bands were large enough to defend themselves against attack and to undertake small communal hunts.
The band was a residential group rather than a kin group; it consisted of a respected leader, possibly his brothers and parents, and others who need not be related. A person could leave a band and freely join another. Thus, disputes could be settled easily by simply moving to another band. As well, should a band fall upon hard times due to the loss of its leader or a failure in hunting, its members could split up and join other bands. The system maximized flexibility and was an ideal organization for a hunting people on the Northwestern Plains.
Leadership of a band was based on consensus; that is, the leader was chosen because all people recognized his qualities. Such a leader lacked coercive authority over his followers; he led only so long as his followers were willing to be led by him. A leader needed to be a good warrior, but, most importantly, he had to be generous. The Blackfoot despised a miser! Upon the death of a leader, if there was no one to replace him, the band might break up. Bands were constantly forming and breaking up.
Social Structure: Societies
During the summer when the bands assembled for tribal ceremonies and hunting, the warrior societies would become active.
These societies, known as Pan-tribal Sodalities, are a very interesting social institution. Membership was not based on kinship ties. Membership crosscut the bands and was purchased. A number of young men would purchase membership in the lowest society. Throughout their lives, they would continue to purchase membership in higher societies while selling their old positions to the new generation. These warrior societies acted as a police force, regulating camp moves and the communal hunt.
The Blackfoot bands were nomadic. This does not mean they wandered haphazardly over the land. The structure of their movements was dictated by the location of the bison herds, the weather, and the season. This structured movement is known as the seasonal round.
For almost half the year, the Blackfoot bands lived in winter camps. The bands were strung out along a wooded river valley, perhaps a day's march apart. In areas with adequate wood and game resources, some bands might camp together all winter. From about November to March, the people would not move camp unless food supplies, firewood, or pasture for the horses became depleted.
Bison wintered in treed areas where snow is less deep. Brushing snow aside with winter's thick facial hair, grazing in shadow of forests, they did not move quickly in deep drifting snow and made easier targets for hunters.
In spring the bison moved out onto the Plains where the new spring grasses provided forage. The people might not follow immediately for fear of spring snowstorms. During this time they might have to live on dry food or game animals such as deer. Soon, however, the bands would leave to hunt the buffalo. During this time each band travelled separately.
Summer: The Sun Dance
In mid-summer, when the Saskatoon (Service) berries were ripe, the bands came together for the Sun Dance. The Sun Dance was the major tribal ceremony in historic times. Such tribal ceremonies are described as Rites of Intensification because they serve the social purpose of binding the loosely organized tribal bands together.
Communal hunts of bison provided food for the gathering and the bulls' tongues necessary as offerings at the ceremony. This was the only time of year when all the people of the tribe assembled at the same place.
After the Sun Dance, the bands again separated to pursue the buffalo. In the fall, the bands would gradually shift to their wintering areas and prepare the bison jumps and pounds. Several bands might join together at particularly good sites, such as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump. As the bison moved into the area, drawn by water and richer forage than the burned-dry summer grasses, communal kills would again occur, and the people would prepare dry meat and pemmican for winter. Such dry food stores were used as emergency supplies for those times when the bison were not near. At the end of the fall, the Blackfoot would move to their winter camp locales.
After Signing Treaty 7
With the signing of Treaty No. Seven in 1877 and the demise of the buffalo shortly thereafter, the Blackfoot settled on reserves in southern Alberta. This period was marked by a heroic struggle to adapt to a new way of life.
Despite declines due to disease and the economic hardships populations increased since World War II to about 12,000 people. Hand in hand with an increased economic diversity based on farming, ranching, and light industry came a revitalization of Plains Indian culture and traditions.