The Old North Trail, by Walter McClintock, , at sacred-texts.com
Click to enlarge
HERD OF BUFFALO ON THE PLAINS
THE once powerful confederation of the Blackfeet or Siksikaua Indians comprising the North Blackfeet, Bloods and Piegans, is of Algonquin origin. Although they speak the same language, have similar customs, and are closely intermarried, these three divisions are independent of each other, each having its own Sun-dance, council and head chief. When the dominant white race, both in Canada and the United States, restricted the Blackfeet from their nomadic life, which had covered the vast region stretching, from the North Saskatchewan River in Alberta, to the Yellowstone River in Montana, and from longitude 105 degrees west from Greenwich to the Rocky Mountains, their fixed settlements were made in the localities where their permanent camps were formerly located. Thus the present reservations of the Bloods (Kainau), and North Blackfeet, in the Province of Alberta, Canada, are along the same rivers, where their ancestors camped. The Piegans became subdivided into North and South Piegans, the former in Alberta, and the latter in Northwestern Montana.
The most reliable authorities that I could consult among the Blackfeet, as to the origin of their tribal
name, stated that, ages ago, their people lived far to the north of their present country, where the dark fertile soil so constantly discoloured their moccasins that they were called Siksikaua, or Black Moccasins.
They were the most aggressive and warlike of all the Plains tribes. They were constantly at war with the Crows, Sioux, Cheyennes, Assinniboines, Snakes, Kutenai and Flatheads. Their war-parties frequently met in conflict along the Old North Trail. The Blackfeet say that the Crows once roamed along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, but were driven by them to the south-east, where the Crow reservation is now situated. The Lewis and Clark Journals mention the Blackfeet as the only tribe against which their expedition was compelled to use firearms.
In 1832 Catlin wrote about the Plains Indians: "The several tribes of Indians, inhabiting the Upper Missouri, are undoubtedly the finest looking, best equipped and most beautifully costumed. . . . They live in a country well stocked with buffaloes and wild horses, which furnish them an excellent and easy living; their atmosphere is pure, which produces good health and long life, and they are the most independent and happiest race of Indians I have met with: they are all entirely in a state of primitive rudeness and wildness, and consequently are picturesque and handsome, almost beyond description. Nothing in the world, of its kind, can possibly surpass in beauty and grace some of their games, amusements and parades. In my travels I have more than realised my former predictions that those Indians, who could be found almost entirely in a state of nature, with the least knowledge of civilised society, would be found the most cleanly in their persons, elegant in their dress and manners, and enjoying
life to the greatest perfection. Of such tribes perhaps the Crows and Blackfeet stand first; and no one would be able to appreciate the richness and elegance, (and even taste too), with which some of these people dress, without seeing them in their own country."
The Blackfeet traversed wide tracts of country in quest of plunder and adventure. They were the most daring and enterprising of the Plains tribes, their expeditions following the Old North Trail into the far distant North Land, and southward as far as Mexico. That they used horses, on these far-seeking expeditions, we have the testimony of Mackenzie, who says of the Blackfeet in 1800, "They are the people who deal in horses and take them upon war parties towards Mexico, from which they enter into the country to the south-east, which consists of plains." Sometimes their expeditions did not return for several years, and then would appear unexpectedly in full view of the tribal camp, bearing their spoils and singing their songs of victory, amid general rejoicing. The bravery of their chiefs and their wonderful adventures were then heralded throughout the tribe, and the young men were thus stimulated to emulate their deeds of valour.
In the former domain of the Blackfeet, lying between the Rocky Mountains and the Yellowstone and Upper Missouri Rivers, the mountain slopes abounded in beaver, wapiti, moose, mountain sheep and grizzly bears, while immense herds of antelope and buffalo roamed over the plains, furnishing them with an abundance of meat for food, and skins for clothing and shelter. But the irresistible advance of the white race was like the invasion of a hostile army in its effects upon this Indian paradise. It brought small-pox, measles and
other contagious diseases and the seductive poison, alcohol, each in turn contributing to the undermining of the vigour of the Indian race. The last of several plagues of small-pox was introduced by a Missouri River steamboat in 1869, spreading rapidly among the Plains tribes. It decimated the Blackfeet and is still referred to by them as "the great sickness." The climax of their misfortunes finally came with the sudden annihilation in 1883 of the last of the great herds of buffalo, which had afforded them occupation and their chief means of subsistence. At the beginning of the following winter, the Blackfeet found themselves deprived of their usual winter stores of dried buffalo meat, with the result that, during that winter and the spring of 1884, a large number of them perished from starvation.
Greatly reduced in numbers and crippled in resources, the Blackfeet slowly retreated before the advancing tide of white settlers. Yielding to the pressure from the whites and their own dire necessities, they sold by treaty vast tracts of land to the United States, so that they now occupy only a narrow strip of country bordering upon the eastern slopes of the northern Rockies. The climate, being subject to severe storms in summer and blizzards in winter, has so far seemed unfavourable for agriculture. Their chief occupation of raising cattle and horses is handicapped by the hazards of extreme heat and cold.
They have held themselves, as much as possible, aloof from civilisation, cherishing the remembrance of their former days of comfort, freedom and power. Oft repeated wrongs by the whites have provoked individual retaliation and bloodshed, but not organised rebellion against the Government, and developed in
the Indian heart a deep-seated mistrust and hatred of the white race. Early explorers estimated that the Blackfeet once numbered from 30,000 to 40,000. They have gradually dwindled, until at the present time there are about 3,500 full bloods in Canada and the United States. This constant decline of the full-blooded Blackfeet still continues, and we have the pathetic spectacle of a dying race.