The Blackfeet Confederacy
The Blackfeet are a confederacy of mounted hunters and gatherers in the Northern United States and Canada. There are four groups that constitute the Blackfeet and they are the Siksika ( which translated means “black feet”), Piegan, Northern Piegan and Kainai. Only the Piegan live in the United States and presently have a reservation in Montana.
The word black feet describes the blackened mocassins of the groups. The word Blackfeet has no plural in the language. So if you encounter one member of the confederacy, he or she is a Blackfeet.
The Blackfeet were a warlike group that were the traditional enemies of the Shoshone, the Nez Perce and the Salish peoples, members of the Flathead confederacy.
The Blackfeet speak Siksika which is an Algonquian language with two dialects, Pikanii and Siksika. The language is presently spoken by about 8000 people in Northern Montana and Alberta, Canada.
Initially the Blackfeet were friendly to Europeans. They traded with the English, specifically the Hudson Bay Company.
They were not mounted prior to the Europeans but hunted buffalo by driving herds over cliffs. With the Europeans, the Blackfeet discovered horses which were invaluable to a culture of buffalo hunters. With the Lewis and Clark expedition, they became aware of the firearms which were being traded with other Native American groups. This experience aroused the suspicion among the Blackfeet that with the advent of firearms among their traditional enemies they might lose their superiority in war among other cultures in the region. This realization provoked some Blackfeet to attack Lewis and Clark’s Discovery Camp near what is now Browning, Montana, which resulted in the deaths of two Blackfeet warriors.
In 1870 the U.S. cavalry, while looking for warlike Blackfeet bands, came upon Heavy Runners peaceable band of Piegans and 200 Blackfeet were killed, mostly the elderly, women and children.
Smallpox took a heavy toll in the mid 1800’s on the Blackfeet. There is some evidence that the Blackfeet were given infected blankets by white settlers. By 1900, the buffalo herds had been wiped out by white hunters and many Blackfeet died of starvation. The massive loss of people left the remaining group of U.S. located Blackfeet dependent upon the U.S. government for sustenance.
The Women Warriors
The Blackfeet are a patriarchal culture but a there is an oral history of a couple of women warriors among the U.S. located Blackfeet.
The most notable of the women warriors was “Running Eagle” or Pi’tamaka, a Piegan. Her name in her childhood was “Weasel Woman.” While stories off her life differ, one story relates that at the age of fifteen, her parents died. Contrary to the cultural tradition of giving up their lodge and living among relatives, she chose to raise her five siblings.
At about the age of twenty, she went with a war party across the mountains to raid the Flatheads for horses. She was asked by the war party to turn back but refused. The war party chief finally agreed to let her stay thinking that she would bring them good luck.
On the edge of Flathead lake the war party discovered the enemy. Running Eagle stole six pinto horses and led them back to the war party thus proving herself as a warrior. Upon her return, she was given the male privilege of counting coup or retelling the story of her exploits. At this time she was given the name of Running Eagle, (“Pi’tamaka.”) and after that she was invited to go on war parties. She participated in several more forays against the enemy and was ultimately clubbed to death by a Salish warrior about 1850.
“Hate Woman” was another Blackfeet warrior but there is less oral history of her exploits than “Running Eagle.” She is known for having ridden with her husband armed with a six shooter. She also was given the opportunity to count coup and relate her adventures to the male warriors.
“Hate Woman” was known to have collected booty from her enemies. Her favorite booty was a saddle, a beaded ammunition bag and a war club. She was known for bragging of her horse stealing raid in which she and her husband with another warrior stole fourteen horses from the Sioux. Her husband recounted that his wife loved him and if he had died on a raid, she would choose to die with him.
Landmarks named for women warriors
In Glacier National Park, there is Running Eagle Falls named for the famous female warrior. the falls are noted for “tricking” viewers by changing the water flow.
A U.S. Navy tender, now decommissioned, was named Pitamaka for the legendary and real female warrior of the Blackfeet.
“Running Eagle; Woman Warrior of the Blackfeet” by James Willard Schultz as told by Tail-Feathers-Coming over the Hill, Council for Indian Education, 1996
“Women Warriors in History” by David E. Jones
“Native Languages of the Americas; Blackfeet (Siksika, Peigan, Piegan, Kainai, Blackfeet)