Blackfoot Indians, an important tribe of the Northern Plains, constituting the westernmost extension of the great Algonquian stock. Instead of being a compact people with a head chief and central government, they are properly a confederacy of three sub-tribes speaking the same language, namely: Siksika or Blackfoot proper; Kaina (Kaena), or Blood; Pikuni, or Piegan, each of which sub-tribes is again subdivided into bands, to the number of some fifty in all. In close alliance with them are the Atsina, or Grosventres, a branch of the more southern Arapahoe, and the Sassi, a detached band of the Beaver Indians farther to the north. As is usually the case with Indian etymologies, the origin of the name is disputed. One tradition ascribes it to the blackening of their moccasins from the ashes of prairie fires on their first arrival in their present country. It may have come, however, from the former wearing of a black moccasin, such as distinguished certain southern tribes. The name is also that of a prominent war-society among tribes of the Plains.
As indicated by linguistic affinity, the Blackfeet are immigrants from the East. About one hundred years ago, and until gathered upon reservations, they held most of the immense territory stretching from the southern headwaters of the Missouri, in Montana, almost to the North Saskatchewan, in Canada, and from about 105° W. longitude to the base of the Rocky Mountains. They are now settled on three reservations in the Province of Alberta, Canada, and one in Montana, U.S., being about equally divided between the two governments. The Atsina are also now settled in Montana, while the Sassi are in Alberta.
Most of the early estimates of Blackfoot population are unreliable and usually exaggerated. The estimate made by Mackenzie (about the year 1790) of 2250 to 2550 warriors, or perhaps 8500 souls, is probably very near the truth for that period. In 1780, 1837, 1845, 1857, and 1869, they suffered great losses by smallpox. In 1883-84 some 600 on the Montana reservation died of starvation in consequence of a simultaneous failure of the buffalo and reduction of rations. In addition to these wholesale losses, they suffered a continual wasting from wars with the surrounding tribes—Cree, Assiniboin, Sioux, Crow, Flathead, Kutenai—for the Blackfeet were a particularly warlike and aggressive people, and, with the exception of the two small tribes living under their protection, they had no allies. The official Indian report for 1858 gives them 7300 souls, but a careful unofficial estimate made about the same time puts them at 6720. In 1906 they were officially reported to number in all 4617, as follows: Blackfoot Agency, Alberta, 842; Blood Agency, Alberta, 1204, Piegan Agency, Alberta, 499; Blackfoot Agency (Piegan), Montana, 2072.
In their culture the Blackfeet were a typical Plains tribe, living in skin tipis, roving from place to place without permanent habitation, without pottery, basketry, or canoes, having no agriculture except for the planting of a native tobacco, and depending almost entirely upon the buffalo for subsistence. Their traditions go back to a time when they had no horses, hunting the buffalo on foot by means of driveways constructed of loose stones; but as early as 1800 they had many horses taken from the southern tribes, and later became noted for their great herds. They procured guns and horses about the same time, and were thus enabled to extend their incursions successfully over wide areas. While generally friendly to the Hudson’s Bay Company traders, they were, in the earlier period, usually hostile towards Americans, although never regularly at war with the government. Upon ceremonial occasions each of the three principal tribes camped in a great circle, as usual among the Plains tribes, the tipis of each band occupying a definite section of the circle, with the “medicine lodge”, or ceremonial sacred structure, in the center of the circle. The assertion that these smaller bands constituted exogamic clans seems consistent with Plains Indians custom. There was also a military society consisting of several subdivisions, or orders, of various rank, from boys in training to the retired veterans who acted as advisers and directors of the rites. Each of these orders had its distinctive uniform and equipment, songs and dance, and took charge of some special function at public gatherings. There were also the ordinary secret societies for the practice of medicine, magic, and special industrial arts, each society usually having its own sacred tradition in the keeping of a chosen priest. The industrial societies were usually composed of women. The ordinary dress in old times was of prepared deerskins; the arms were the bow, knife, club, lance, and shield, and, later, the gun. The principal deity was the sun, and a supernatural being known as Napi, “Old Man “—perhaps an incarnation of the same idea. The great tribal ceremony was the Sun Dance, held annually in the summer season. The marriage tie was easily broken, and polygamy was permitted. The dead were usually deposited in trees, or sometimes in tipis erected for the purpose on prominent hills. In physique the Blackfeet are tall and finely built; in temper, aggressive, unruly, and uncertain.
The earliest missionary work among the Blackfeet was that of the French Jesuits who accompanied the explorer Verendrye in the Saskatchewan region in 1731-42. Among these may be named Fathers Nicholas Gonnor, Charles Mesaiger, and Jean Aulneau. Nothing more was done until the establishment of the Red River colony by Lord Selkirk, who, in 1816, brought out Fathers Dumoulin and Provencher from Montreal to minister to the wants of the colonists and Indians. Their Indian work, at first confined to the Crees and Ojibwa, was afterwards extended, under the auspices of the Oblates, to the Blackfeet and Assiniboin. Among the most noted of these Oblate missionaries were Father Albert Lacombe (1848-90), author of a manuscript Black-foot dictionary, as well as of a monumental grammar and dictionary of the Cree, and Father Emile Legal (1881-90), author of several important manuscripts relating to the Blackfoot tribe and language. Protestant mission work in the tribe was begun by the Wesleyan Methodists about 1840 (though without any regular establishment until 1871), and by the Episcopalians at about the same date.