American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Blackfeet Confederacy

The Blackfeet claim modern-day central Montana, southern Alberta, and western Saskatchewan to be their homeland. Recent archaeological discoveries confirm these claims while demonstrating thousands of years of Blackfeet territorial occupation. Four distinctive political groups comprised the Blackfeet Confederacy: the Piikunis, North Piikunis, Kainais, and Siksikas. The imposition of the U.S.–Canadian border in the nineteenth century split the members of the Blackfeet Confederacy, leaving six bands in Canada and one in the United States. In the United States, the Piikunis reside on a reservation in Montana, while in Canada, where they are known as the Blackfoot, three reserve communities in southern Alberta are home to the Kanais, the North Piikunis, and the Siksikas.

The name "Blackfeet" is an English term originally used to describe the people who dyed their moccasins black. The Blackfeet were organized into small bands typically no larger than twenty or thirty people. The bands were self-governing and self-sufficient entities that occupied demarcated territories for their exclusive use and benefit. They fended off anyone who broached their sovereignty, be it American whiskey traders or other nations, such as the Crees from the east or the Shoshones from the south. Prior to their acquisition of horses in the mideighteenth century, the Blackfeet traversed their territory on foot. During this period known as the "dog days," characterized by limited mobility, dogs were the beasts of burden and hooked up to travois to haul teepees and other heavier materials. While the small band sizes were militarily limiting, they made hunting buffalo effective. This resulted in the creation of highly refined techniques for hunting buffalo, the animal the Blackfeet were most dependent on spiritually and materially.

The introduction of the horse in the early eighteenth century was a technological revolution of sorts, permitting the development of more efficient hunting techniques. The Blackfeet were able to travel farther east on horseback, a development that led also to their acquiring guns from the French. This had the effect of positioning the Blackfeet as the preeminent military power in the northwestern region of the Great Plains. A period of rapid and aggressive territorial expansion followed, as the Blackfeet pushed the Shoshones to the southwestern corner of Montana while forcing the Flatheads and Kootenais across the Continental Divide. Northern movement led the Blackfeet to effectively displace the Crees from those territories. By the end of the eighteenth century, the Blackfeet controlled a significant portion of the Montana territory, extending into modern Alberta and western Saskatchewan. The explorers Lewis and Clark confirm these results, claiming that, as of 1806, the Piikunis controlled all of north-central Montana. With an estimated population of 15,000, an ample source of raw materials in the form of buffalo to maintain their traditional economy, and a well-known reputation as fierce warriors, the Blackfeet controlled this extensive region well into the mid-nineteenth century despite the appearance of British officials and the U.S. cavalry seeking to expand their territorial claims.

From 1840 to 1860, the Blackfeet Confederacy bands became distinctive political entities occupying specific territories. For instance, the Kainais, North Piikunis, and Siksikas remained north of the international boundary, whereas the Piikunis lived south of the border. In 1851, following the signing of the Treaty of Fort Laramie, the U.S. government identified the Piikunis as one of the tribes authorized to use the vast Montana territory north of the Missouri River and east of the Continental Divide, even though they were not directly involved in the treaty negotiations. This nevertheless did not end cross-cultural hostilities. Colonel E. M. Baker almost killed Heavy Runner's entire band, the majority of who were women and children, in a surprise attack in January 1870. The Baker Massacre was revenge for the murder of a prominent settler named Malcolm Clark. In all, 173 Blackfeet died and an additional 140 were taken prisoner. This, in turn, led to a reduction of the overall Blackfeet reserve in 1873 and 1874.

In Canada, the Kainais, the North Piikunis, and the Siksikas signed Treaty 7 with representatives of the British crown and the Canadian government in 1877. Despite their poor experience treating with the U.S. government, Canadian success in removing whiskey traders from southern Alberta convinced Blackfeet leaders to negotiate with the crown. In return for annuities, the promise from federal officials to protect the buffalo, and the establishment of protected reserves, the Kainais, North Piikunis, and Siksikas agreed to cede more than 25,000 square miles of their territory to the Canadian government. The Piikuni remained south of the international boundary, contained on their reservation north of the Missouri and Marias Rivers. The loss of the buffalo by the early 1880s led to a desperate situation in Canada and the United States, however. In the United States, Blackfeet leaders were forced to sell a portion of their land, which broke up the contiguous Blackfeet Reservation. The Blackfoot (which is the accepted designation for these bands living in Canada) north of the border found themselves increasingly confined to their reserves, as they became more dependent on government rations and Indian agent generosity for their survival. Later, pressure from the U.S. government led the Blackfeet to surrender a scenic portion of their reservation, land that eventually became part of Glacier National Park.

Indian agents on both sides of the forty-ninth parallel argued that farming and ranching were key to Blackfeet self-sufficiency. As part of Treaty 7, the crown provided farming implements and minimal training to aspiring Blackfoot farmers. In addition to farming, the U.S. government permitted the Blackfeet the right to allot lands to individual families on the reservation, and within a year construction on a large irrigation project began. By the early 1920s, however, the Blackfeet's economy had all but collapsed, with an estimated two-thirds of tribal members reliant on federal handouts. Similarly, in Canada, Blackfoot bands faced tough economic times, due in part to federal efforts to dispossess Indians of the reserves through the illegal leasing and allocation of land to Great War veterans as a reward for their efforts in the European theater. In response, Kainai war veteran Mike Mountain Horse organized two political conferences, in 1924 and 1925, to bring an end to the illegal leasing of reserve lands and to lobby the government for a renewed political relationship. Although little came of the conferences, most Blackfoot leaders continued to resist the leasing of reserve lands. In particular, Kainai Chief Shot Both Sides became a vocal proponent of protecting his people's territorial autonomy and, in the 1920s, initiated a moratorium on leasing reserve land.

The Blackfeet in Montana reorganized according to the provisions of the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act (IRA), the land allotment process was terminated, the sale of reservation lands to non-Indians was halted, and a number of vocational training programs were implemented. In Canada, Blackfoot leaders reacted to the federal government's policy of benign neglect by forming the Indian Association of Alberta (IAA) in 1939. A strictly regional organization that concerned itself with Alberta Indian issues, the IAA promoted equality without endorsing Indian assimilation. It was concerned with drawing the public's attention to social issues on reserves while never losing sight of protecting the Alberta treaties. It continued as a lobby group until the 1970s.

By the 1960s, the Blackfeet, both in the United States and Canada, began to witness better economic times. The Blackfeet in Montana began receiving petroleum royalties, followed by the construction of a pencil factory in 1972. Although still under the threat of termination from the U.S. government, the Blackfeet boast an enrollment of 15,560, of which 8,560 are off-reservation and 7,000 are on-reservation. The Blackfoot in Canada are separated into three main reserve communities: Kainais, Piikunis, and Siksikas. Kainais have a population of more than 9,000, while the Piikunis and Siksikas have a total registered population of 3,375 and 5,922, respectively. The Kainais have a small industrial base, receive royalties on water rights and mineral extraction, and maintain active farming and ranching industries. The Siksikas First Nation receives natural resource royalties and engage in agriculture and ranching, while benefiting from tourism. They also hold exclusive land rights to one of Canada's fastest growing economic sectors. The Piikunis are engaged in petroleum exploration, agriculture and ranching, as well as tourism.

The connection between the Blackfeet of Montana and the Blackfoot of Canada remains close, with friends and family regularly crossing the international boundary to visit and work. The Sun Dance celebration remains a central event and various religious societies still meet, entailing cross-border travel.

Yale D. Belanger


Further Reading
Bastien, Betty. 2004. Blackfoot Ways of Knowing: The World View of the Siksikaitsitapi. Calgary, AB: University of Calgary Press.; Bear Robe, Andrew. 1996. "The Historical, Legal and Current Basis for Siksika Nation Governance, Including Its Future Possibilities Within Canada." In For Seven Generations: An Information Legacy of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. [CD-ROM] Ottawa, ON: Canada Communications Group.; Belanger, Yale D. 2005. "'An All Round Indian Affair': The Native Gatherings at Macleod, 1924 & 1925." Alberta History 53, no. 3: 13–23.; Dempsey, Hugh. 1972. Crowfoot: Chief of the Blackfeet. Edmonton, AB: Hurtig Publishers.; Meijer-Drees, Laurie. 2002. The Indian Association of Alberta: A History of Political Action. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.; Rosier, Paul C. 2001. Rebirth of the Blackfeet Nation, 1912–1954. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Treaty 7 Elders and Tribal Council, with Walter Hildebrant, Sarah Carter, and Dorothy First Rider. 1996. The True Spirit and Intent of Treaty 7. Kingston, ON, and Montreal, QC: McGill-Queen's University Press.
 

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