The Blackfoot Confederacy consists of four different tribes, the Pikuni/Peigan, North Peigan Pikuni, Blood/Kainai, and Blackfoot/Siksika.
Members of the Blackfoot Confederation presently live in Montana, the United States and Alberta, Canada. When the Canadian government/British Crown sought to enter into a treaty with the Niitsitapi (the Real People), they made initial contact with the Siksika who lived on the north and northeastern frontiers of Niitsitapiskaku.
They made the wrong assumption that all Niitsitapi were Blackfoot. The Niitsitapi are Ahpikuni (Peigan), Southern Ahpikuni (Montana Blackfeet), Ahkainah (Bloods) and Siksika (Blackfoot).
Originally the Blackfoot Confederacy was a Plains confederacy which consisted of three peoples (“nation”, “tribes”, “tribal nations”) based on kinship and dialect, but all speaking a common language, Blackfoot. These were the Piikáni (historically called “Piegan Blackfeet” in English-language sources), the Káínaa (called “Bloods”), and the Siksikáwa (“Blackfoot”).
They later allied with the unrelated Tsuu T’ina (“Sarcee”) who became merged into the Blackfoot Confederacy and, (for a time) with Atsina (Gros Ventres).
Each of these peoples were divided into many bands which ranged in size from 10 to 30 lodges, or about 80 to 240 persons, and it was the band, rather than the tribe, that was the basic unit of organization for hunting and defence.
The largest ethnic group in the Blackfoot Confederacy is the Piegan (Peigan or Pikuni). Their name derives from the Blackfoot term Piikáni. They are divided into the North Peigan (Aapátohsipikáni(“the companion up there”) or simply Piikáni) in Alberta, and the South Peigan or Piegan Blackfeet (Aamsskáápipikani) in Montana.
A further once large and mighty division of the Piegan were the Inuk’sik(“the humans”) of southwestern Montana, which today survive only as a clan or band of the South Peigan.
The modern Kainai Nation is named for the Blackfoot-language term Káínaa, meaning “Many Chief people”. These were historically also called the Blood, from a Plains Cree name for the Kainai: Miko-Ew, meaning “stained with blood” (i.e. “the bloodthirsty, cruel”); therefore, the common English name for the tribe is Blood or the Blood tribe.
The Siksika Nation’s name derives from Siksikáwa, meaning “Those of like”. The Siksika also call themselves Sao-kitapiiksi meaning “Plains People”.
The Sarcee call themselves the Tsu T’ina, meaning “a great number of people”, but were called saahsi or sarsi, “the stubborn ones”, by the Blackfoot during their early years of conflict.
The Sarcee are from an entirely different language family than the other Plains peoples; they are part of the Athabascan or Dené language family, most of whose members are located in the Subartic of Northern Canada.
Specifically, the Sarcee are an offshoot of the Beaver (Danezaa) people who migrated south onto the plains sometime in the early eighteenth century. They later joined the Confederacy and essentially merged with the Pikuni (“Once had”).
The Gros Ventre people call themselves the Haaninin (“white clay people”). The French called them Gros Ventres (“fat bellies”), and the English called them the Fall Indians.
They were known in Blackfoot as the Piik-siik-sii-naa (“snakes”) or Atsina (“like a Cree”). Early scholars thought they were related to the Arapaho Nation, who inhabited the Missouri Plains and moved west to Colorado and Wyoming.
They were allied with the Blackfoot Confederacy from circa 1793 to 1861, and enemies of it thereafter.
The Blackfoot Confederacy used to hunt and forage on both sides of the current Canada–US border. But both governments forced them to end their nomadic traditions and settle on “Indian reserves” (Canadian terminology) or “Indian reservations” (US terminology) during the late nineteenth century.
Excluding the Gros Ventre (who no longer counted as members), the South Peigan are the only group that chose to settle in Montana. The other three Blackfoot-speaking peoples and the Sarcee are located in Alberta. Together, the Blackfoot-speakers call themselves the Niitsítapi (the “Original People”).
When these peoples were forced to end their nomadic traditions because of the demise of the American bison herds and the division of their territory between Canada and the United States, their social structures changed.
Tribal nations, which had formerly been mostly ethnic associations, were institutionalized as governments (referred to as “tribes” in the United States and “bands” or “First Nations” in Canada). The Piegan were divided into the North Peigan in Alberta, and the South Peigan in Montana.
The language of the Niitsitapi is Niitsipussin (the Real Language). Some differences in phraseology occurs among the Niitsitapi but essentially, the language is the same.
The Blackfoot migrated to their present territory from the northern Great Lakes Region. They were nomadic buffalo hunters. The Blackfoot were first introduced to horses in 1730 when the Shoshoni attacked them on horseback.
After this, they obtained their own horses through trade with the Flathead, Kutenai and Nez Perce. They also traded buffalo hides, horses, and guns with settlers as far away as the east coast.
However, by the winter of 1884, the buffalo were nearly extinct and many Blackfoot starved. They were forced to depend upon the Indian Agency for food.
The word “tribe” connotates a lack of cohesive political, cultural and social structure which definitely does not apply to the Niitsitapi. In fact, the cohesive structure was the very reason that the Niitsitapi achieved cultural, political and military predominance making them “the Lords of the Great Plains.”
The Blackfoot Confederacy was a group of people united by a common language, culture and religion living in a country with borders recognized by other First Nations.
When the Canadian federal government entered into negotiations with Crowfoot, the Siksika political leader, he had to consult the other Niitsitapi leaders as he was being asked by the government to negotiate matters affecting all Niistitapi. As leader of the Siksika and not the entire Niitsitapi, he couldn’t do so without the consent of the other leaders.
In 1870, one of the worse slaughters of Indians by American troops occured, known as the Marias Massacre. On the morning of Jan. 23, 200 Peigans were killed, most of them women, children, and elderly.
The Peigans were a friendly tribe, not the hostile camp that the troops were supposed to attack. However, the commander had permission to use his judgment and attack the Peigans and punish them for things they may be guilty of in the past or future.
After the massacre, the troops left to find their real target, but it was too late as the hostile tribe had moved.
The Blackfoot were a nomadic people who followed the buffalo. It’s difficult to lead a nomadic lifestyle when there is no place to go.
The Niitsitapi were hemmed in by other First Nations. In addition, the different Niitsitapi had claim to areas within Niitsitapiskaku, for instance, the Siksika couldn’t infringe on Ahkainah (Kainai) territories as the Ahkainah lived there. Their territory once covered an areas from Edmonton and Calgary, Alberta to the Yellowstone River, and from the Rocky Mountains to the present day North Dakota border.
The most important event of the year for the Blackfoot Confederacy was the Sundance Festival, or the Medicine Lodge Ceremony, as it is also called, which was celebrated with other Plains Indians tribes.
An important religious area for the Blackfoot is the Badger-Two Medicine area. This area was lost in 1895 to the U.S. government in a treaty which was poorly translated to the Blackfoot.
Best Known Feature:
Head-Smashed-In is a hill site in southwestern Alberta. The Blackfoot used it for hundreds of years. It is known as a very spiritual place to the tribe. It has been around for approximately 7,000 years.