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Essay/Term paper: The blackfoot indians

Essay, term paper, research paper:  History Essays

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The Blackfoot Indians

The wind blows across the lone prairie, causing the golden heads of
grass to sway in a synchronized motion. On the horizon stands a herd of buffalo
with bowed heads silhouetted by the slowly sinking sun. In the east stands an
Indian war party mounted on horseback, each individual in different multicolored
attire, all with either bows or spears in hand. As they move in for the attack,
the mystical scene slowly fades from vision....
This dreamlike scene was once everyday life to the American Indian
before they were robbed of all that made their life real. The Indians
originally came over to North America via the Bering Strait at a time when the
ice age caused the gap to freeze over. They came from Asia by following herds
and in search of more. During their travels, some decided to stop and settle
down, hence the many different tribes. The Blackfoot occupied the region of
modern day Alberta in Canada, and Montana in the U.S. The Blackfoot consisted
of three main tribes: the Northern Blackfoot(Siksika), the Piegan(Pikuni), and
the Blood(Kainah). The tribes differed little in their speech, but were
politically independent. Blackfoot population varied, but was less affected by
the arrival of the white man than some tribes due to their location. "In 1855,
there were approximately 2,400 Northern Blackfoot, 2,000 Blood, and 3,200 Piegan.
The total population of Blackfoot varied as follows: 15,000(1780), 9,000(1801),
7,600(1855), and 4,600(1932)" ( ). The decline of population was
most likely due to the white man's diseases and the annihilation of the buffalo.
In 1781, the Blackfoot had their first serious attack of smallpox. An epidemic
of smallpox again occurred in 1838, 1845 1857, and 1864. In the winter of 1864,
the tribe was struck with measles and about 780 died. In the winter of 1883 to
1884, more than 1/4 the Piegan population died of starvation (600). This was
mainly the result of official stupidity and the disappearance of the buffalo.
The Blackfoot were typically large-game hunters and were mainly
dependant on the buffalo for their diet, clothing, and receptacles. They also
hunted such animals as the elk, deer, and antelope. There were four main
methods of hunting, one of which was the "surround". This method required the
use of horses and was done by surrounding the herd, after which they were shot
down. Another method was accomplished by driving the game down a cliff, in
which the fall would injure the animal enough to hinder their escape. A third
method used was impounding, which resembled modern day cow herding. The hunting
party would build fences into which they would herd the animals. Yet another
method was to encircle the herd with fire. The hunters would leave an opening
at which they would wait since it was the animals' only escape. In times of
need, the Blackfoot would catch fish by using crude basketry traps. They also
made use of the wild plants, including berries, chokecherries, wild turnips, and
many others. The wild turnip was dug up in large amounts in early summer and
was peeled and dried for winter use. Maize, beans, squashes or pumpkins, and
sunflowers were the principal crops grown. Most of the cultivation of
agriculture was done by women.
The Blackfoot, as all Indians, grew and used tobacco mainly for
ceremonies and other solemn occasions. The seeds were inserted in early spring
in separate fenced gardens, about 21 X 18 ft. In mid-June, the blossoms were
picked and dried indoors. The blossom was more prized than the stem or leaves,
which were picked just before the frosts came. The stems provided the greater
part of the smoking tobacco. Both crops were oiled with buffalo fat before
being stored in a pouch for future use. Seeds were set out for the following
year without selection. The cultivating of the tobacco plant was done by old
men, and women assisted them. Men were the main smokers of tobacco, but some
women smoked it in small pipes. Being a superstitious people, some Blackfoot
would not smoke while an old pair of moccasins were hanging up; others put the
pipe on a slice of buffalo tongue before use. The peace pipe was always passed
by the host to his vis-a-vis(left-handed neighbor), who puffed it several times
and passed it on to his left. This left pass routine was continued until the
end of the line was reached, at which time the end man either returned the pipe
to the host or sent it back toward the right. No one would take a puff until
the pipe was returned to the host, who smoked it and sent it around again.
The Blackfoot were a nomadic tribe that lived throughout the year in
tepees and had seasonal migrations. the tepee was originally covered with
buffalo skins, but later they were covered with canvas due to the lack of
buffalos. Women were considered the owner of the tepee and were in charge of
it's care and maintenance. Blackfoot tepees consisted of four poles and among
the Indians were the most elegant in shape and painted decoration. The
Blackfoot tepee had a broad band of dark color painted around the base to
represent earth, and on this a series of circles, or dusty stars. They had
seasonal grouping of the tepees in a large circle. The fireplace was made in
the center of the tepee, with an outlet for smoke at the top. The tent cover
had flaps to which two poles were attached outside the general framework to form
a closable doorway. The entrance to the tepee faced east with the place of
honor in the rear. Ceremonial objects were kept in the rear also, along with
the bedding, backrests, rawhide containers, and utensils such as wooden dishes,
horn spoons, weapons, and implements. When the tribe traveled, the tepee was
collapsed and carried on a horse. However, before the introduction of the horse,
the tepee was probably smaller with lighter poles, and covered with bark or mats.

Among the Blackfoot Indians, the hair was considered the "seat of the
soul". Warriors combed a narrow lock of hair over the bridge of the nose,
cutting it square. The Blackfoot were responsible for some of the most
impressive costume on the Plains. They frequently used ermine in their clothing
and decorated their war costumes with paint, beads, etc. These costumes were
considered to have spiritual powers, and hence were rarely worn. However, such
costumes were worn at certain special events as the "war parade", which was
held to impress guests. The people formed lines or circles while featuring
headdresses, shields, lances, painted ponies, and ermine fringes on clothing.
They also wore animal skins from the animal they had the powers of as a symbol
of a transfer of power. During moves, these "uniforms" were stored in
containers that were proudly carried by the warriors' wives. For everyday
attire, the men in warm weather wore a breechcloth and moccasins. In cold
weather, men wore deerskin shirts, long skin leggings, and a buffalo robe. The
women's attire in warm weather consisted of dresses made of deer or sheepskin.
The length was below the knee and it was held on the shoulders by straps. In
cold weather, sleeves could be added by tying skin cords at the back of the neck
and moccasins, leggings, and buffalo robes were also worn. Men's leggings were
above the knee while woman's were below. The Blackfoot Indians had fur-lined
moccasins and fur caps with ear flaps. They also painted their bodies with bear
grease to keep warm in the frigid temperatures.
Myths and stories were an Indians only form of history teaching since it
wasn't recorded in books, and therefore was vital to keep the past and it's
mistakes alive. The myths and stories were about such things as the beginning
of time, the sun, moon, and stars, the formation of the earth, powers of the
animals, the wind, the clouds, and thunder and lightening. Stories were usually
told around a campfire with many people both to tell the stories and listen to
them. The stories always followed the same formal order, but each time they
had a different emphasis. Each speaker had their own favorite introductions and
narrative style that made each story unique. Children were encouraged to follow
the stories' moral values, and each story taught a lesson to make one a better
person. An example of the way a typical story went can be seen through the
Blackfoot "Creation" story: In the beginning, Napi(Old Man) created everything:
the earth, moon, animals, and people. From the east he journeyed to the west,
spreading mud before him to form the earth and making this large so that there
should be plenty of room. He went to the south and, touching northwards, made
the birds and animals, all of which could understand him; he also made the
prairies, mountains, rivers, and valleys, and put trees in the ground. So that
the animals should have something to eat, he covered the prairies with grass;
then he marked off a section in which he caused the various roots and berries to
grow: the camass, bitter-root, sweet-root, sarvis berry, and so on. In certain
places he put red paint in the ground.
Since the Blackfoot were a nomadic tribe, transportation techniques were
very important in their lives. Before the arrival of the horse, domesticated
dogs were used to carry belongings. The dogs consisted of two different
varieties: a large wolf-like, and a smaller coyote-like. Some tribes used the
dog as a food source, but the Blackfoot did not. The dogs carried loads on
their back or were trained to draw a "travois". The travois was formed by two
long poles whose front tips converged for attachment to the dogs' shoulders.
Midway down the poles, a frame was attached that was either in ladder form or a
heap with netting and thongs. To this a 60 or more pound load was attached.
The travois was also used to carry firewood; relieving the woman of this job.
Dogs were named according to its appearance or deeds done by its master, such as
Red-spot, Feather-lance-carrier, and Took-away-his-shield. The Blackfoot also
trained their dogs for bear baiting and flushing smaller animals out of hiding.
The horse was introduced by the Spanish after 1730. The Indians quickly adapted
their travoises for horse use and made riding gear that mimicked that of the
Spanish. Saddles were high- pommeled and reserved for women, while men used
either a pad saddle or frame of elkhorn tree and cantle with wooden side bars.
Stirrups were made of wood and were bound with rawhide. Horses were used as a
form of money and determined one's status and wealth. Not only did a horse
represent a better form of transportation, but also more prosperous buffalo
hunts, and improved military position. To transport babies, the Blackfoot used
a cradleboard. While on horse, the mother would sling the cradle from the
saddle. The Blackfoot's cradleboard design was U-shaped at the top and tapered
toward the bottom. To cross rivers, they would only use crude temporary hide
rafts to ferry across a deep stream. It was towed by able-bodied men and woman,
usually by swimming out and holding the tow lines with their teeth.
Marriages were usually arranged with a go-between, but the couple was
allowed to fall in love before they got married. A lover would convey a message
to his beloved by playing a tune on his flute, with each tune meaning something
different. The young men were shy and would wait near a stream hoping for a
glance when the girls came to fill their bags. As a sign of acceptance of union,
a girl would stand outside her familiy's tepee with a big blanket, and when her
lover came, she would cover them both and they would talk about plans for the
future. If a young man was in love with a certain girl, he would often prod his
parents to take further steps. A young girl, on the other hand, had to be
dutiful and accept her parents choice without complaint. Girls married young
and looked forward to becoming mothers. It was custom for the bridegroom to
give a gift of horses to the girl's family; not as a bride price, but as proof
of his wealth and ability to take care of their daughter. Marriages were simple
and men usually had two to three wives. This was in part because of the
shortage of men due to warfare. The family unit was very close and consisted of
an extended family. They camped together in several tepees that included
grandparents, great-grandparents, unmarried brothers and sisters, parents, and
children. It was the man's duty to supply meat and protection, while the woman
was responsible for the household and moving. Women walked a few paces behind
the men when in public, but ruled the tepee and wielded behind-the-scenes
influence in major tribal decisions. Marriage was considered a permanent union
between families instead of individuals.
This is only a summary of the civilization once known as the Blackfoot.
The tribe, its customs, and its child-like purity can never be brought back.
They no longer exist. However they can be remembered and a lesson can be
learned. It's amazing that the majority of American citizens have some form of
Indian blood flowing through their veins, yet know nothing of this lost heritage
beyond what those John Wayne and Gene Autry western shows taught them as
children. We as Americans should learn from the mistakes that this country was
founded on. People cannot leap into a situation without thinking about the
results first else disaster will follow. In this case, human mistakes caused
the annihilation of a race of people, along with its customs, traditions, and
human rights. Even though we think we are the most knowledgable people, we
could have learned much from the American Indian. Maybe we could have learned
how to freely love other people and accept them regardless of their strange ways.


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