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Plains Nations [Blackfoot/Nitsitapii]

Siksika Indian Reserve #146, AB, Canada

First Contact:


gather% / fish % / hunt %
fat % / protein % / carb%

A rough estimate to help us understand how carnivorous and how ketogenic these people were before being exposed to western civilization

Click this Slide deck Gallery to see high quality images of the tribe, daily life, diet, hunting and gathering or recipes

About the Tribe

Blackfoot and other hunters on the North American Plains ALICE B. KEHOE Marquette University

The Plains in the nineteenth century, already well populated, became a refugium for midwestern Indigenous Nations forced out of their homelands by advancing invasions of Anglo/Euro-Americans. Add to this the refugees from Spanish invasions into the American Southwest, and Numa migrations out of the Great Basin. Now pepper the mix with European epidemics, entrepreneurs trafficking in horses, guns, slaves, ornaments, amulets, and foodstuffs; toss in gamblers and adventuring youths, and the task of disentangling ethnic histories is formidable. 

Wissler’s list of Plains tribes (1941 [ 1912]:19) presents the situation only as it stood in the mid-nineteenth century; this shows how arbitrary the “ethnographic present” can be. Wissler’s “typical” Plains Nations include only those who were nomadic, dependent upon bison hunting, lived in tipis, used horses, policed camps with men recruited into soldier sodalities, and celebrated the Sun Dance (Wissler 1941 [1912]:18). His “typical” list included the Blackfoot, Gros Ventre, Arapaho, and Cheyenne (Algonquian speakers), the Assiniboin, Crow and Teton Dakota/Lakota (Siouan speakers), the Comanche (Numic speakers), and Kiowa (Kiowa-Tanoan phylum). He listed as “marginals” the Sarsi (Dene speakers), Kiowa-Apache (Plains Apache) (Apachean speakers), and the Plains Cree and Plains Ojibwa (Saulteaux or Bungee) (Algonquian speakers). There were, in addition, those who were not primarily hunters, the “village tribes” (living in earth lodges and farming the bottomlands of the Missouri and its tributaries). They traveled long distances twice a year to hunt bison (Mandan, Hidatsa [Siouan speakers], and Arikara and Pawnee [Caddoan speakers]). Wissler adds the farming prairie Siouans: the Iowa, Kansa, Missouri, Omaha, Osage, Oto, Ponca and (eastern) Dakota, and the Caddoan Wichita. He takes cognizance of the nations west of the Cordillera who traveled east to hunt on the Plains: the Bannock, Wind River, and Northern Shoshone (Numic speakers), the Ute (Uto-Aztecan speakers), and the Nez Percé (Sahaptin speakers). He could have added the Kutenai (language isolate, possibly Salishan) and Yakima (Sahaptin), and the Salish speaking Flatheads, Kalispel, and Pend d’Oreilles. 

I present this extensive, varied list to emphasize that it holds barely true for the middle of the nineteenth century when the northern Plains Nations had possessed horses for only one hundred years. Around 1750, the Kutenai and Shoshone held the western Montana Plains, the Cheyenne occupied the eastern prairie, and the Hidatsa probably ranged the Missouri-Saskatchewan watershed. 

Population 155,000 in the USA (1980 US Census): 

Blackfoot (22,000), 

Gros Ventre (2200), 

Arapaho (4500), 

Cheyenne (10,000), 

Assiniboin (4000, excluding those in Canada), 

Crow (7000), 

Teton Dakota/Lakota (78,000), 

Comanche (9000), 

Kiowa (7400), 

Kiowa-Apache (Plains Apache) (260), 

Plains Cree (7000 in the USA; about 20,000 in Canada). 


From Mexico—US border, into Canada, from steppe grasslands behind the Rockies to the Mississippi valley in the east, about 30° and 50° N, and from 98° W in the east, to the northwest-trending Rocky Mountains in the west


Importance of Animal Products

Ecological conditions 

The vast Great Plains region is marked by the paucity of water. The western portion lies in the rainshadow of the Rocky Mountains. Rivers drain east to the Great Lakes, or southeast to the Mississippi basin which provides a conduit for moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Some rivers disappear into underground aquifers. Agriculture is precarious except in larger river floodplains. Grazing animals are forced constantly to move, and formerly with them, dependent human societies like the Blackfoot. Herding remains ecologically feasible today, with bison herds now supplanted by cattle. Major subsistence species included bison, cervids (also for clothing), and wild or partially cultivated plant foods. Population density was necessarily low. Kroeber (1939:78) argued that possibilities for a Plains culture did not exist before the horse, that the region was economically marginal. Archaeology contradicts this inference, except for reduced habitation during the Altithermal period (c. 3000-2000 BC) (Schlesier 1994). Archaeological work since the 1950s demonstrates the central importance of the bison drive in the long-term Plains economy. Impounding herds was the core of subsistence until conquest (Verbicky-Todd 1984).

The Blackfoot Nation 

Let us now examine one of Wissler’s “typical” mid-nineteenth-century Plains tribes, the Nitsitapii or Blackfoot, who occupied the northwestern Plains (present-day Alberta, Saskatchewan, Montana) from at least the fourteenth century. 


The Blackfoot dwelt in tipis secured against the wind by rocks, which left innumerable “tipi rings.” Blackfoot moved in relation to the wild herds, transporting their shelters with dog-pulled travois (Bozell 1988). They relied upon the bison pound, a corral toward which a herd was enticed by a young man singing a spiritually potent song in the mode of a bleating calf; meanwhile, in camp, spiritually adept adults prayed over an iniskim, usually a fossilized ammonite possibly resembling a sleeping bison. Close to the pound, V-shaped lines of rock or brush piles hid the main hunting team. As the herd entered this funnel the whole band jumped up, waving robes and shouting, to stampede the herd either over a bluff or up a closed ravine to the corral where men waited to kill the milling animals with clubs and bows and arrows. From a few dozen to two hundred bison would be killed. There was no way to let the surplus escape. 

All able-bodied adults worked to process the kill. One source reported six-person teams working on each carcass. Stomach contents and organs were eaten fresh. Most flesh was dried in thin strips, bones were cracked for marrow, chopped and boiled to extract fat. Pemmican (dried meat and rendered fat combined, often with dried berries) was packed into hide bags for storage. Pemmican, or simple dried meat, may have been a prehistoric trade item, downriver to farming towns (Brink 1990, Kehoe 1973). The historic fur trade brigades depended on tons of pemmican traded by Plains hunters. 

Hunters or pastoralists? 

Blackfoot bands, like other Plains Nations, burned large stretches of grassland to improve forage for the wild herds. In the less arid eastern prairies, burning also prevented reversion to forest. (Seasonal grass burning has been associated with the name “Blackfoot,” from moccasin soles blackened by walking over burned land. One of the confederated Nitsitapii groups is the Siksika [Blackfoot].) 

In the sense that the Blackfoot and other Plains Nations managed pasture and corraled herds in order to slaughter them, they could be considered pastoralists, although no one, including modern “buffalo ranchers,” has succeeded in domesticating bison. The strategy of maximizing forage, moving with the herds’ annual round, and seducing the lead cows to slaughter with a bleating calf song was highly efficient for exploiting this unique, rich, renewable resource. 

When horses were adopted in the seventeenth (southern Plains) and eighteenth (northern Plains) centuries (Ewers 1955:3–10) families could carry more possessions further, but the horse elaborated, rather than supplanted, the basic impounding method of hunting (Morgan 1991:154–8). Politically, horses enabled rapid attacks and retreats, ideally far from home camps, during the years of endemic warfare of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Social relations and residential patterns 

The band/residential group was the unit task force for obtaining bison. With ten to twenty tipis (80– 160 persons), its nucleus was twenty to forty able-bodied men and an equal number of able-bodied women. The band followed its prey onto the grasslands in spring, rendezvoused with other bands in early summer, and returned to sheltered stream valleys in autumn (Epp 1988). Bands had a core of close kin, though one was free to move, even to join a band of another Nation (Sharrock 1974). 

Certain families considered themselves of higher status, training their children to exercise leadership; well dressed, they were absolved from daily drudgery. Such families maintained their relative economic advantage by lending horses to others, receiving in return a share of the hunted, raided, or harvested produce. I’nssimaa, daughter of one such family, recalled she accompanied cousins to the hunt because “Father would never get a chance to go because he had two fast buffalo horses and some one [sic] would ask to borrow them and they would bring him meat” (Kehoe 1996:392).

Importance of Plants

Blackfoot women harvested plant foods (berries, camas bulbs, and prairie turnips) which they cultivated knowledgeably. (Among the eastern farming nations such as the Cheyenne, women cultivated maize, surpluses going for trade.) Not glamorous, nor often described by explorers, the care and harvesting of carbohydrates were tasks essential to the Plains diet.

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Transition to Industrialized Food Products

Two smallpox epidemics devastated the Plains, in 1780-1 and 1837-8 (before any of the Plains people subsequently interviewed by ethnographers had reached adulthood). When professional ethnography began, all informants (by then, reservation dwellers) had spent their entire lives in communities suffering endemic warfare promoted by government and private interests bent on an ethnic cleansing to ready the Plains for Euro-American settlement. 

The post-contact Plains Nations adapted to radical depopulation, politics centered on armed defense/offense, destruction of pastures by wagon trains, the substitution of imported metal for indigenous raw materials (stone), and, just prior to conquest and forced settlement, an increased demand for women’s labor to process bison hides. Historical contingencies powerfully affected the nations found living on the Plains. 

The prehistoric Plains had been inhabited since the terminal Pleistocene (14,000 years ago) by nomadic bands hunting principally bison. They used the impoundment method of hunting for at least 2000 years. From Hopewell times (beginning of the first millennium AD), surpluses (probably pemmican) were produced and traded downriver into the Midwest region, and overland to the Southwest. It is likely that loosely structured bands moved through seasonal rounds in recognized territories, although distances moved and loads conveyed were probably more modest before horse transport. Farming towns appeared in the Missouri trench, westward to western North Dakota at the beginning of the second millennium AD. 

Following the American Civil War, the campaign to “pacify” Native Nations, already decimated by epidemics and the strain of endemic war, had succeeded by the 1880s. The final blow was the extermination of the wild bison herds, from overhunting (by native and non-native alike), the destruction of grazing patterns and pasture lands, and drought. 

The Indian Nations were then confined to reservations; these were subsequently reduced in size, and reduced again. Reservations were allotted in severalty, contrary to local social structure, destroying Native social systems. Children were removed from families and incarcerated in boarding schools. Schools forbade children their languages and religions. Pupils were taught manual and menial trades thought useful for those at the bottom of the labor force. Reservation men were instructed in farming methods, but inept government agents often undermined successful farming or ranching ventures, selling stock, leasing land to immigrant settlers, and refusing credit. 

The Collier New Deal (1930s) restored some land, reversed policies outlawing native languages and religions, but imposed the United States’ “democratic” government model of elected district representatives in council. The ethos of consensus by persuasion (or dissenters separating) was replaced by majority rule. After a post-World War II policy of moving families into urban areas, the Nixon administration promulgated a policy of “self-determination” that, through many efforts and endless struggles, is slowly achieving some reality.

Current situation 

Much of the current “Plains renaissance” is fueled by a new, college-educated generation of Plains people. On the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, a Harvard graduate has opened Blackfoot language immersion schools, while his colleague, directing the Head Start Program, introduces the Blackfoot language into her classrooms. Contemporary Plains leaders are frustrated by the marginal locations of reservations, rising populations too large to be accommodated by ranching, the inertia of federal programs that foster dependency, and lack of capital. Bison herds are being rebuilt on reservations, but a welter of wheat farms seriously constrains any return to the pre-conquest economy.

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