Blackfeet of Today

In the olden times the Blackfeet were very numerous, and it is said that then they were a strong and hardy people, and few of them were ever sick. Most of the men who died were killed in battle, or died of old age. We may well enough believe that this was the case, because the conditions of their life in those primitive times were such that the weakly and those predisposed to any constitutional trouble would not survive early childhood. Only the strongest of the children would grow up to become the parents of the next generation. Thus a process of selection was constantly going on, the effect of which was no doubt seen in the general health of the people.

With the advent of the whites, came new conditions. Various special diseases were introduced and swept off large numbers of the people. An important agent in their destruction was alcohol.

In the year 1845, the Blackfeet were decimated by the small-pox. This disease appears to have traveled up the Missouri River; and in the early years, between 1840 and 1850, it swept away hosts of Mandans, Rees, Sioux, Crows, and other tribes camped along the great river. I have been told, by a man who was employed at Fort Union in 1842-43, that the Indians died there in such numbers that the men of the fort were kept constantly at work digging trenches in which to bury them, and when winter came, and the ground froze so hard that it was no longer practicable to bury the dead, their bodies were stacked up like cord wood in great piles to await the coming of spring. The disease spread from tribe to tribe, and finally reached the Blackfeet. It is said by whites who were in the country at the time, that this small-pox almost swept the Plains bare of Indians.

In the winter of 1857-58, small-pox again carried off great numbers, but the mortality was not to be compared with that of 1845. In 1864, measles ran through all the Blackfoot camps, and was very fatal, and again in 1869 they had the small-pox.

Between the years 1860 and 1875, a great deal of whiskey was traded to the Blackfeet. Having once experienced the delights of intoxication, the Indians were eager for liquor, and the traders found that robes and furs could be bought to better advantage for whiskey than for anything else. To be sure, the personal risk to the trader was considerably increased by the sale of whiskey, for when drunk the Indians fought like demons among themselves or with the traders. But, on the other hand, whiskey for trading to Indians cost but a trifle, and could be worked up, and then diluted, so that a little would go a long way.

As a measure of partial self-protection, the traders used to deal out the liquor from the keg or barrel in a tin scoop so constructed that it would not stand on a flat surface, so that an Indian, who was drinking, had to keep the vessel in his hand until the liquor was consumed, or else it would be spilled and lost. This lessened the danger of any shooting or stabbing while the Indian was drinking, and an effort was usually made to get him out of the store as soon as he had finished. Nevertheless, drunken fights in the trading-stores were of common occurrence, and the life of a whiskey-trader was one of constant peril. I have talked with many men who were engaged in this traffic, and some of the stories they tell are thrilling. It was a common thing in winter for the man who unbarred and opened the store in the morning to have a dead Indian fall into his arms as the door swung open. To prop up against the door a companion who had been killed or frozen to death during the night seems to have been regarded by the Indians as rather a delicate bit of humor, in the nature of a joke on the trader. Long histories of the doings of these whiskey trading days have been related to me, but the details are too repulsive to be set down. The traffic was very fatal to the Indians.

The United States has laws which prohibit, under severe penalties, the sale of intoxicants to Indians, but these laws are seldom enforced. To the north of the boundary line, however, in the Northwest Territories, the Canadian Mounted Police have of late years made whiskey-trading perilous business. Of Major Steell’s good work in putting down the whiskey traffic on the Blackfoot agency in Montana, I shall speak further on, and today there is not very much whiskey sold to the Blackfeet. Constant vigilance is needed, however, to keep traders from the borders of the reservation.

In the winter of 1883-84 more than a quarter of the Piegan tribe of the Blackfeet, which then numbered about twenty-five or twenty-six hundred, died from starvation. It had been reported to the Indian Bureau that the Blackfeet were practically self-supporting and needed few supplies. As a consequence of this report, appropriations for them were small. The statement was entirely and fatally misleading. The Blackfeet had then never done anything toward self-support, except to kill buffalo. But just before this, in the year 1883, the buffalo had been exterminated from the Blackfoot country. In a moment, and without warning, the people had been deprived of the food supply on which they had depended. At once they had turned their attention to the smaller game, and, hunting faithfully the river bottoms, the brush along the small streams, and the sides of the mountains, had killed off all the deer, elk, and antelope; and at the beginning of the winter found themselves without their usual stores of dried meat, and with nothing to depend on, except the scanty supplies in the government storehouse. These were ridiculously inadequate to the wants of twenty-five hundred people, and food could be issued to them only in driblets quite insufficient to sustain life. The men devoted themselves with the utmost faithfulness to hunting, killing birds, rabbits, prairie-dogs, rats, anything that had life; but do the best they might, the people began to starve. The very old and the very young were the first to perish; after that, those who were weak and sickly, and at last some even among the strong and hardy. News of this suffering was sent East, and Congress ordered appropriations to relieve the distress; but the supplies had to be freighted in wagons for one hundred and fifty or two hundred miles before they were available. If the Blackfeet had been obliged to depend on the supplies authorized by the Indian Bureau, the whole tribe might have perished, for the red tape methods of the Government are not adapted to prompt and efficient action in times of emergency. Happily, help was nearer at hand. The noble people of Montana, and the army officers stationed at Fort Shaw, did all they could to get supplies to the sufferers. One or two Montana contractors sent on flour and bacon, on the personal assurance of the newly appointed agent that he would try to have them paid. But it took a long time to get even these supplies to the agency, over roads sometimes hub deep in mud, or again rough with great masses of frozen clay; and all the time the people were dying.

During the winter, Major Allen had been appointed agent for the Blackfeet, and he reached the agency in the midst of the worst suffering, and before any effort had been made to relieve it. He has told me a heart-rending story of the frightful suffering which he found among these helpless people.

In his efforts to learn exactly what was their condition, Major Allen one day went into twenty-three houses and lodges to see for himself just what the Indians had to eat. In only two of these homes did he find anything in the shape of food. In one house a rabbit was boiling in a pot. The man had killed it that morning, and it was being cooked for a starving child. In another lodge, the hoof of a steer was cooking, only the hoof, to make soup for the family. Twenty-three lodges Major Allen visited that day, and the little rabbit and the steer’s hoof were all the food he found. “And then,” he told me, with tears in his eyes, “I broke down. I could go no further. To see so much misery, and feel myself utterly powerless to relieve it, was more than I could stand.”

Major Allen had calculated with exactest care the supplies on hand, and at this time was issuing one-seventh rations. The Indians crowded around the agency buildings and begged for food. Mothers came to the windows and held up their starving babies that the sight of their dull, pallid faces, their shrunken limbs, and their little bones sticking through their skins might move some heart to pity. Women brought their young daughters to the white men in the neighborhood, and said, “Here, you may have her, if you will feed her; I want nothing for myself; only let her have enough to eat, that she may not die.” One day, a deputation of the chiefs came to Major Allen, and asked him to give them what he had in his storehouses. He explained to them that it must be some time before the supplies could get there, and that only by dealing out what he had with the greatest care could the people be kept alive until provisions came. But they said: “Our women and children are hungry, and we are hungry. Give us what you have, and let us eat once and be filled. Then we will die content; we will not beg any more.” He took them into the storehouse, and showed them just what food he had, how much flour, how much bacon, how much rice, coffee, sugar, and so on through the list and then told them that if this was issued all at once, there was no hope for them, they would surely die, but that he expected supplies by a certain day. “And,” said he, “if they do not come by that time, you shall come in here and help yourselves. That I promise you.” They went away satisfied.

Meanwhile, the supplies were drawing near. The officer in command of Fort Shaw had supplied fast teams to hurry on a few loads to the agency, but the roads were so bad that the wagon trains moved with appalling slowness. At length, however, they had advanced so far that it was possible to send out light teams, to meet the heavily laden ones, and bring in a few sacks of flour and bacon; and every little helped. Gradually the suffering was relieved, but the memory of that awful season of famine will never pass from the minds of those who witnessed it.

There is a record of between four and five hundred Indians who died of hunger at this time, and this includes only those who were buried in the immediate neighborhood of the agency and for whom coffins were made. It is probable that nearly as many more died in the camps on other creeks, but this is mere conjecture. It is no exaggeration to say, however, that from one-quarter to one-third of the Piegan tribe starved to death during that winter and the following spring.

The change from living in portable and more or less open lodges to permanent dwellings has been followed by a great deal of illness, and at present the people appear to be sickly, though not so much so as some other tribes I have known, living under similar conditions further south.

Like other Indians, the Blackfeet have been several times a prey to bad agents, men careless of their welfare, who thought only about drawing their own pay, or, worse, who used their positions simply for their own enrichment, and stole from the government and Indians alike everything upon which they could lay hands. It was with great satisfaction that I secured the discharge of one such man a few years ago, and I only regret that it was not in my power to have carried the matter so far that he might have spent a few years in prison.

The present agent of the Blackfeet, Major George Steell, is an old-timer in the country and understands Indians very thoroughly. In one respect, he has done more for this people than any other man who has ever had charge of them, for he has been an uncompromising enemy of the whiskey traffic, and has relentlessly pursued the white men who always gather about an agency to sell whiskey to the Indians, and thus not only rob them of their possessions, but degrade them as well. The prison doors of Deer Lodge have more than once opened to receive men sent there through the energy of Major Steell. For the good work he has done in this respect, this gentleman deserves the highest credit, and he is a shining example among Indian agents.

As recently as 1887 it was rather unusual to see a Blackfoot Indian clad in white men’s clothing; the only men who wore coats and trousers were the police and a few of the chiefs; today it is quite as unusual to see an Indian wearing a blanket. Not less striking than this difference in their way of life, is the change which has taken place in the spirit of the tribe.

I was passing through their reservation in 1888, when the chiefs asked me to meet them in council and listen to what they had to say.

I learned that they wished to have a message taken to the Great Father in the East, and, after satisfying myself that their complaint was well grounded, I promised to do for them what I could. I accomplished what they desired, and since that time I have taken much active interest in this people, and my experience with them has shown me very clearly how much may be accomplished by the unaided efforts of a single individual who thoroughly understands the needs of a tribe of Indians. During my annual visits to the Blackfeet reservation, which have extended over two, three, or four months each season, I see a great many of the men and have long conversations with them. They bring their troubles to me, asking what they shall do, and how their condition may be improved. They tell me what things they want, and why they think they ought to have them. I listen, and talk to them just as if they were so many children. If their requests are unreasonable, I try to explain to them, step by step, why it is not best that what they desire should be done, or tell them that other things which they ask for seem proper, and that I will do what I can to have them granted. If one will only take the pains necessary to make things clear to him, the adult Indian is a reasonable being, but it requires patience to make him understand matters which to a white man would need no explanation. As an example, let me give the substance of a conversation had last autumn with a leading man of the Piegans who lives on Cut Bank River, about twenty-five miles from the agency. He said to me:

“We ought to have a storehouse over here on Cut Bank, so that we will not be obliged each week to go over to the agency to get our food. It takes us a day to go, and a day to come, and a day there; nearly three days out of every week to get our food. When we are at work cutting hay, we cannot afford to spend so much time traveling back and forth. We want to get our crops in, and not to be traveling about all the time. It would be a good thing, too, to have a blacksmith shop here, so that when our wagons break down, we will not have to go to the agency to get them mended.”

This is merely the substance of a much longer speech, to which I replied by a series of questions, something like the following:

“Do you remember talking to me last year, and telling me on this same spot that you ought to have beef issued to you here, and ought not to have to make the long journey to the agency for your meat?” “Yes.”

“And that I told you I agreed with you, and believed that some of the steers could just as well be killed here by the agency herder and issued to those Indians living near here?” “Yes.”

“That change has been made, has it not? You now get your beef here, don’t you?” “Yes.”

“You know that the Piegan have a certain amount of money coming to them every year, don’t you?” “Yes.”

“And that some of that money goes to pay the expenses of the agency, some for food, some to pay clerks and blacksmiths, some to buy mowing-machines, wagons, harness, and rakes, and some to buy the cattle which have been issued to you?” “Yes.”

“Now, if a government storehouse were to be built over here, clerks hired to manage it, a blacksmith shop built and another blacksmith hired, that would all cost money, wouldn’t it?” “Yes.”

“And that money would be taken out of the money coming next year to the Piegan, wouldn’t it?” “Yes.”

“And if that money were spent for those things, the people would have just so many fewer wagons, mowing-machines, rakes, and cattle issued to them next year, wouldn’t they?” “Yes.”

“Well, which would be best for the tribe, which would you rather have, a store and a blacksmith shop here on Cut Bank, or the money which those things would cost in cows and farming implements?”

“I would prefer that we should have the cattle and the tools.”

“I think you are right. It would save trouble to each man, if the government would build a storehouse for him right next his house, but it would be a waste of money. Many white men have to drive ten, twenty, or thirty miles to the store, and you ought not to complain if you have to do so.”

After this conversation the man saw clearly that his request was an unreasonable one, but if I had merely told him that he was a fool to want a store on Cut Bank, he would never have been satisfied, for his experiences were so limited that he could not have reasoned the thing out for himself.

In my talks with these people, I praise those who have worked hard and lived well during the past year, while to those who have been idle or drunken or have committed crimes, I explain how foolish their course has been and try to show them how impossible it is for a man to be successful if he acts like a child, and shows that he is a person of no sense. A little quiet talk will usually demonstrate to them that they have been unwise, and they make fresh resolutions and promise amendment. Of course the only argument I use is to tell them that one course will be for their material advancement, and is the way a white man would act, while the other will tend to keep them always poor.

Some years ago, the Blackfeet made a new treaty, by which they sold to the government a large portion of their lands. By this treaty, which was ratified by Congress in May, 1887, they are to receive $150,000 annually for a period of ten years, when government support is to be withdrawn. This sum is a good deal more than is required for their subsistence, and, by the terms of the treaty, the surplus over what is required for their food and clothing is to be used in furnishing to the Indians farming implements, seed, live stock, and such other things as will help them to become self-supporting.

The country which the Blackfeet inhabit lies just south of the parallel of 49 deg., close to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, and is very cold and dry. Crops can be grown there successfully not more than once in four or five years, and the sole products to be depended on are oats and potatoes, which are raised only by means of irrigation. It is evident, therefore, that the Piegan tribe of the Blackfeet can never become an agricultural people. Their reservation, however, is well adapted to stock-raising, and in past years the cattlemen from far and from near have driven their herds on to the reservation to eat the Blackfoot grass; and the remonstrance’s of the Indians have been entirely disregarded. Some years ago, I came to the conclusion that the proper occupation for these Indians was stock-raising. Horses they already had in some numbers, but horses are not so good for them as cattle, because horses are more readily sold than cattle, and an Indian is likely to trade his horse for whiskey and other useless things. Cattle they are much less likely to part with, and besides this, require more attention than horses, and so are likely to keep the Indians busy and to encourage them to work.

Within the past three or four years, I have succeeded in inducing the Indian Bureau to employ a part of the treaty money coming to the Blackfeet in purchasing for them cattle.

It was impressed upon them that they must care for the cattle, not kill and eat any of them, but keep them for breeding purposes. It was represented to them that, if properly cared for, the cattle would increase each year, until a time might come when each Indian would be the possessor of a herd, and would then be rich like the white cattlemen.

The severe lesson of starvation some years before had not failed to make an impression, and it was perhaps owing to this terrible experience that the Piegan did not eat the cows as soon as they got them, as other Indian tribes have so often done. Instead of this, each man took the utmost care of the two or three heifers he received. Little shelters and barns were built to protect them during the winter. Indians who had never worked before, now tried to borrow a mowing-machine, so as to put up some hay for their animals. The tribe seemed at once to have imbibed the idea of property, and each man was as fearful lest some accident should happen to his cows as any white man might have been. Another issue of cattle was made, and the result is that now there is hardly an individual in the tribe who is not the possessor of one or more cows. Scarcely any of the issued cattle have been eaten; there has been almost no loss from lack of care; the original stock has increased and multiplied, and now the Piegan have a pretty fair start in cattle.

This material advancement is important and encouraging. But richer still is the promise for the future. A few years ago, the Blackfeet were all paupers, dependent on the bounty of the government and the caprice of the agent. Now, they feel themselves men, are learning self-help and self-reliance, and are looking forward to a time when they shall be self-supporting. If their improvement should be as rapid for the next five years as it has been for the five preceding 1892, a considerable portion of the tribe will be self-supporting at the date of expiration of the treaty.

It is commonly believed that the Indian is hopelessly lazy, and that he will do no work whatever. This misleading notion has been fostered by the writings of many ignorant people, extending over a long period of time. The error had its origin in the fact that the work which the savage Indian does is quite different from that performed by the white laborer. But it is certain that no men ever worked harder than Indians on a journey to war, during which they would march on foot hundreds of miles, carrying heavy loads on their backs, then have their fight, or take their horses, and perhaps ride for several days at a stretch, scarcely stopping to eat or rest. That they did not labor regularly is of course true, but when they did work, their toil was very much harder than that ever performed by the white man.

The Blackfeet now are willing to work in the same way that the white man works. They appreciate, as well as any one, the fact that old things have passed away, and that they must now adapt themselves to new surroundings. Therefore, they work in the hay fields, tend stock, chop logs in the mountains, haul firewood, drive freighting teams, build houses and fences, and, in short, do pretty much all the work that would be done by an ordinary ranchman. They do not perform it so well as white men would; they are much more careless in their handling of tools, wagons, mowing-machines, or other implements, but they are learning all the time, even if their progress is slow.

The advance toward civilization within the past five years is very remarkable and shows, as well as anything could show, the adaptability of the Indian. At the same time, I believe that if it had not been for that fateful experience known as “the starvation winter,” the progress made by the Blackfeet would have been very much less than it has been. The Indian requires a bitter lesson to make him remember.

But besides this lesson, which at so terrible a cost demonstrated to him the necessity of working, there has been another factor in the progress of the Blackfoot. If he has learned the lesson of privation and suffering, the record given in these pages has shown that he is not less ready to respond to encouragement, not less quickened and sustained by friendly sympathy. Without such encouragement he will not persevere. If his crops fail him this year, he has no heart to plant the next. A single failure brings despair. Yet if he is cheered and helped, he will make other efforts. The Blackfeet have been thus sustained; they have felt that there was an inducement for them to do well, for some one whom they trusted was interested in their welfare, was watching their progress, and was trying to help them. They knew that this person had no private interest to serve, but wished to do the best that he could for his people. Having an exaggerated idea of his power to aid them, they have tried to follow his advice, so as to obtain his good-will and secure his aid with the government. Thus they have had always before them a definite object to strive for.

The Blackfoot of today is a working man. He has a little property which he is trying to care for and wishes to add to. With a little help, with instruction, and with encouragement to persevere, he will become in the next few years self-supporting, and a good citizen.



Allen, Steell,

Grinnell, George Bird. Blackfoot Lodge Tales: The Story of a Prairie People. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1892.

Search Military Records - Fold3

1 thought on “Blackfeet of Today”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Pin It on Pinterest

Scroll to Top