The Blackfeet envisioned a world inhabited by spirits, some good and some evil. Deities included sun and thunder as well as all animals. Prayers were offered regularly throughout the day. Some people had visions to benefit the tribe as a whole. Medicine bundles, including sacred pipes, were owned by individuals, societies, and bands. They were thought to ensure a long, happy, successful life and thus could be quite valuable if sold.
Ceremonies included the Sun Dance, probably acquired from the Arapahos or the Gros Ventres around the mideighteenth century. Unlike most Plains tribes, women participated in the Blackfeet Sun Dance. Religious societies were responsible for healing and curing. Individual religious activity focused on the acquisition of guardian spirits through prayerful vision quests in remote places. Sweating was considered (for men) a religious activity as well as a preparation for ceremonials.
The constituent tribes of the confederacy were completely autonomous, although all were closely related and occasionally acted in concert. The tribes were in turn organized into autonomous bands of between twenty and thirty families (200 people) before the early eighteenth century. Each band had a civil headman, or chief, chosen on the basis of acts of bravery and generosity. Each band also had a war chief, who exerted power only during military situations. All headmen together constituted a tribal council, which in turn selected a temporary tribal chief when the bands came together. All decisions were made by consensus.
Men were members of one of seven age-graded military societies. In addition, men and women could belong to numerous other religious, dance, and social societies, each with its own symbols and ceremonies. There was also a society exclusively for women. Membership in all societies was drawn from all bands and functioned mainly when the tribe came together in the summer.
Virginity in women was held in high esteem. Depending on his wealth, a man might have more than one wife. Residence after marriage was generally patrilocal. Wedding formalities centered on gift giving. Divorce was possible on the grounds of laziness or infidelity (men) or cruelty or neglect (women).
Names were sometimes given by the mother but more often by a male family member based on his war experiences. Boys usually earned a new name around adolescence. Despite beliefs about the danger of contact with menstruating women, there was no particular ceremony when a girl reached puberty.
Public ridicule was generally an effective deterrent to socially unacceptable behavior. Winter nights might be filled with storytelling, gambling, or all-night smokes during which people sang their religious songs. Childrens' games included hide and seek, archery and other contests, throwing balls, playing with toys, or sledding.
The dead were placed on scaffolds in trees or in teepees if death took place there; horses were generally killed to help in the journey to the next world. Women mourners cut their hair, wailed ritualistically, and slashed their limbs. Men cut their hair and left the band for a while.
Women constructed teepees from twelve to fourteen buffalo skins over pine poles. Teepee entrances always faced east. Larger teepees, of up to thirty buffalo skins, were a sign of wealth. Teepees were smaller when dogs pulled the travois. Food was generally abundant, although droughts or blizzards could bring hunger or even starvation. Plains Blackfeet ate mostly buffalo but also other large as well as small game. Buffalo were driven over cliffs, surrounded on foot and shot, communally hunted with bow and arrow (the most common approach after the Blackfeet acquired horses), and individually stalked. The Indians also ate waterfowl and the eggs. They did not eat fish or dog. In addition to the usual wild fruits, nuts, and berries, Blackfeet women gathered camas roots, which they steamed in an underground oven. Some tobacco was grown for ceremonial purposes.
Early, pre-Plains Blackfeet may have made pottery. The buffalo provided more than sixty material items, which the Blackfeet traded as far south as Mexico in all seasons save the winter. Skin containers were often decorated with painted designs. Musical instruments included a rattle of skin around wood as well as a flageolet (flute). The people also used stone pounding mauls and war clubs attached to wooden handles, chipped stone knives, and brushes of porcupine bristles or horsehair bound with rawhide. They also made backrests of willow sticks tied with sinew and supported by a tripod.
Men painted teepees and other leather items with stars and designs such as battle events. Women made beaded quillwork, usually on clothing. In general, the people were known for the high quality of everyday items such as clothing, tools, teepees, and headdresses. Women wore long, one-piece skin dresses, later fringed and beaded, and buffalo robes in the winter. Men dressed in skin shirts, leggings, and moccasins, as well as buffalo robes in the winter.
All men were members of age-graded military societies known as All Comrades. Blackfeet Indians were considered among the best fighters, hunters, and raiders. Although the three divisions were politically autonomous, they acted in unison to fight their enemies. Weapons included three-foot horn, sinew-backed bows, stone clubs, arrows, and buffalo hide shields. Rather than counting coup with a stick, Blackfeet warriors gathered high war honors by wresting a gun or other weapon from an enemy. Taking a horse or a scalp merited honors but of relatively low caliber.
The Blackfeet people may have originated in the Great Lakes region but had migrated to between the Bow and North Saskatchewan Rivers well before the seventeenth century. During the eighteenth century they completed their move southward into Montana, displacing the Shoshones.
Like many aboriginal peoples, the Blackfeet were transformed by the horse and the gun, both of which they acquired during the early to mideighteenth century. One result was that they had surplus buffalo products to offer for trade. Raiding, especially for horses, became an important activity. They joined in alliance with the Assiniboines, Arapahos, and Gros Ventres and were frequently at war during the historic period.
Blackfeet people first felt the influence of non-Indians in the seventeenth century. By the late eighteenth century they were engaged in the fur trade and were known as shrewd traders, playing American and British interests against each other. The people experienced severe epidemics in 1781–1782, 1837, 1864, and 1869–1870. After one of their number was killed by a member of the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark expedition in 1804, the Blackfeet fought all Americans whenever possible until they began trading with them again in 1831.
The 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty gave the Blackfeet lands south of the Missouri River, although their traditional lands had all been north of the Missouri. Still, in various treaties between 1851 and 1878 they ceded land to the United States and Canada. Epidemics, the decline of the buffalo, and, later, whiskey hurt the Blackfeet more than anything, although in 1870 they were the victims of a U.S. Army massacre in which 173 peaceful Indians, mostly women and children, were killed.
The Blackfeet Reservation was established in 1855 in northern Montana. In exchange for the northern Montana plains, the southern Piegans received fixed hunting grounds bordered by the Canadian, Missouri, and Musselshell Rivers and the Rocky Mountains; they also received promises of payments and annuities. From the 1870s into the 1890s, the United States took away much of the huge Blackfeet Reservation. In Treaty 7 (1877), the Blackfeet (and others) ceded much of southern Alberta for a number of small reserves. Roughly 600 Blackfeet, mostly southern Piegans, died of starvation in 1883 after the last great buffalo herd was destroyed.
After a farming experiment failed, the Piegans began a program of stock raising around 1890, on land individually assigned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. A few Indians became prosperous, but the majority leased their land to non-Indians, who often did not pay. A combination of events in 1919 left the people in dire poverty and dependent on government rations. During this period, over 200,000 acres of Indian land were lost through the nonpayment of taxes and allotments that were sold to fend off starvation. Blackfeet on both sides of the United States–Canadian border were also subject to having their children kidnapped and sent to missionary boarding schools. Log houses replaced teepees during this time. Most Canadian Blackfeet lost large portions of their reserves from 1907 to 1921.
Stock raising returned during the 1920s, accompanied by grain farming and some subsistence gardening. U.S. Blackfeet adopted an Indian Reorganization Act constitution in 1930s. Income rose as the government provided credit for ranching enterprises. After World War II, up to one-third of the population was living off-reservation. Conditions on the reservations began to improve at that time, a trend that accelerated during the 1960s. Among most people, English replaced Blackfeet as the daily language in the 1970s. At the same time, many traditions severely declined.