Blackfeet Religion

In ancient times the chief god of the Blackfeet their Creator was Na’pi (Old Man). This is the word used to indicate any old man, though its meaning is often loosely given as white. An analysis of the word Na’pi, however, shows it to be compounded of the word Ni’nah, man, and the particle a’pi, which expresses a color, and which is never used by itself, but always in combination with some other word. The Blackfoot word for white is Ksik-si-num’ while a’pi, though also conveying the idea of whiteness, really describes the tint seen in the early morning light when it first appears in the east the dawn not a pure white, but that color combined with a faint cast of yellow. Na’pi, therefore, would seem to mean dawn-light-color-man, or man-yellowish-white. It is easy to see why old men should be called by this latter name, for it describes precisely the color of their hair.

Dr. Brinton, in his valuable work, American Hero Myths, has suggested a more profound reason why such a name should be given to the Creator. He says: “The most important of all things to life is light. This the primitive savage felt, and personifying it, he made light his chief god. The beginning of day served, by analogy, for the beginning of the world. Light comes before the Sun, brings it forth, creates it, as it were. Hence the Light god is not the Sun god but his antecedent and Creator.”

It would be absurd to attribute to the Blackfoot of today any such abstract conception of the name of the Creator as that expressed in the foregoing quotation. The statement that Old Man was merely light personified would be beyond his comprehension, and if he did understand what was meant, he would laugh at it, and aver that Na’pi was a real man, a flesh and blood person like himself.

The character of Old Man, as depicted in the stories told of him by the Blackfeet, is a curious mixture of opposite attributes. In the serious tales, such as those of the creation, he is spoken of respectfully, and there is no hint of the impish qualities which characterize him in other stories, in which he is powerful, but also at times impotent; full of all wisdom, yet at times so helpless that he has to ask aid from the animals. Sometimes he sympathizes with the people, and at others, out of pure spitefulness, he plays them malicious tricks that are worthy of a demon. He is a combination of strength, weakness, wisdom, folly, childishness, and malice.

Under various names Old Man is known to the Cree, Chippeway, and other Algonquin, and many of the stories that are current among the Blackfeet are told of him among those tribes. The more southern of these tribes do not venerate him as of old, but the Plains and Timber Cree of the north, and the north Chippeway, are said still to be firm believers in Old Man. He was their Creator, and is still their chief god. He is believed in less by the younger generation than the older. The Cree are regarded by the Indians of the Northwest as having very powerful medicine, and this all comes from Old Man.

Old Man can never die. Long ago he left the Blackfeet and went away to the West, disappearing in the mountains. Before his departure he told them that he would always take care of them, and some day would return. Even now, many of the old people believe that he spoke the truth, and that some day he will come back, and will bring with him the buffalo, which they believe the white men have hidden. It is sometimes said, however, that when he left them he told them also that, when he returned, he would find them changed a different people and living in a different way from that which they practiced when he went away. Sometimes, also, it is said that when he disappeared he went to the East.

It is generally believed that Old Man is no longer the principal god of the Blackfeet, that the Sun has taken his place. There is some reason to suspect, however, that the Sun and Old Man are one, that N[=a]t[=o]s’ is only another name for Na’pi, for I have been told by two or three old men that “the Sun is the person whom we call Old Man.” However this may be, it is certain that Na’pi even if he no longer occupies the chief place in the Blackfoot religious system is still reverenced, and is still addressed in prayer. Now, however, every good thing, success in war, in the chase, health, long life, all happiness, come by the special favor of the Sun.

The Sun is a man, the supreme chief of the world. The flat, circular earth in fact is his home, the floor of his lodge, and the over-arching sky is its covering. The moon, K[=o]-k[=o]-mik’-[=e]-[)i]s, night light, is the Sun’s wife. The pair have had a number of children, all but one of whom were killed by pelicans. The survivor is the morning star, A-pi-su-ahts early riser.

In attributes the Sun is very unlike Old Man. He is a beneficent person, of great wisdom and kindness, good to those who do right. As a special means of obtaining his favor, sacrifices must be made. These are often presents of clothing, fine robes, or furs, and in extreme cases, when the prayer is for life itself, the offering of a finger, or still dearer a lock of hair. If a white buffalo was killed, the robe was always given to the Sun. It belonged to him. Of the buffalo, the tongue regarded as the greatest delicacy of the whole animal was especially sacred to the Sun. The sufferings undergone by men in the Medicine Lodge each year were sacrifices to the Sun. This torture was an actual penance, like the sitting for years on top of a pillar, the wearing of a hair shirt, or fasting in Lent. It was undergone for no other purpose than that of pleasing

God as a propitiation or in fulfillment of vows made to him. Just as the priests of Baal slashed themselves with knives to induce their god to help them, so, and for the same reason, the Blackfoot men surged on and tore out the ropes tied to their skins. It is merely the carrying out of a religious idea that is as old as history and as widespread as the globe, and is closely akin to the motive which today, in our own centers of enlightened civilization, prompts acts of self-denial and penance by many thousands of intelligent cultivated people. And yet we are horrified at hearing described the tortures of the Medicine Lodge.

Besides the Sun and Old Man, the Blackfoot religious system includes a number of minor deities or rather natural qualities and forces, which are personified and given shape. These are included in the general terms Above Persons, Ground Persons, and Under Water Persons. Of the former class, Thunder is one of the most important, and is worshipped as is elsewhere shown. He brings the rain. He is represented sometimes as a bird, or, more vaguely, as in one of the stories, merely as a fearful person. Wind Maker is an example of an Under Water Person, and it is related that he has been seen, and his form is described. It is believed by some that he lives under the water at the head of the Upper St. Mary’s Lake. Those who believe this say that when he wants the wind to blow, he makes the waves roll, and that these cause the wind to blow, another example of mistaking effect for cause, so common among the Indians. The Ground Man is another below person. He lives under the ground, and perhaps typifies the power of the earth, which is highly respected by all Indians of the west. The Cheyennes also have a Ground Man whom they call The Lower One, or Below Person (Pun’-[)o]-ts[)i]-hyo). The cold and snow are brought by Cold Maker (Ai’-so-yim-stan). He is a man, white in color, with white hair, and clad in white apparel, who rides on a white horse. He brings the storm with him. They pray to him to bring, or not to bring, the storm.

Many of the animals are regarded as typifying some form of wisdom or craft. They are not gods, yet they have power, which, perhaps, is given them by the Sun or by Old Man. Examples of this are shown in some of the stories.

Among the animals especially respected and supposed to have great power, are the buffalo, the bear, the raven, the wolf, the beaver, and the kit-fox. Geese too, are credited with great wisdom and with foreknowledge of the weather. They are led by chiefs. As is quite natural among a people like the Blackfeet, the buffalo stood very high among the animals which they reverenced. It symbolized food and shelter, and was Nato’y[)e] (of the Sun), sacred. Not a few considered it a medicine animal, and had it for their dream, or secret helper. It was the most powerful of all the animal helpers. Its importance is indicated by the fact that buffalo skulls were placed on the sweat houses built in connection with the Medicine Lodge. A similar respect for the buffalo exists among many Plains tribes, which were formerly dependent on it for food and raiment. A reverence for the bear appears to be common to all North American tribes, and is based not upon anything that the animal’s body yields, but perhaps on the fact that it is the largest carnivorous mammal of the continent, the most difficult to kill and extremely keen in all its senses. The Blackfeet believe it to be part brute and part human, portions of its body, particularly the ribs and feet, being like those of a man. The raven is cunning. The wolf has great endurance and much craft. He can steal close to one without being seen. In the stories given in the earlier pages of this book, many of the attributes of the different animals are clearly set forth.

There were various powers and signs connected with these animals so held in high esteem by the Blackfeet, to which the people gave strict heed. Thus the raven has the power of giving people far sight. It was also useful in another way. Often, in going to war, a man would get a raven’s skin and stuff the head and neck, and tie it to the hair of the head behind. If a man wearing such a skin got near the enemy without knowing it, the skin would give him warning by tapping him on the back of the head with its bill. Then he would know that the enemy was near, and would hide. If a raven flew over a lodge, or a number of lodges, and cried, and then was joined by other ravens, all flying over the camp and crying, it was a sure sign that during the day some one would come and tell the news from far off. The ravens often told the people that game was near, calling to the hunter and then flying a little way, and then coming back, and again calling and flying toward the game.

The wolves are the people’s great friends; they travel with the wolves. If, as they are traveling along, they pass close to some wolves, these will bark at the people, talking to them. Some man will call to them, “No, I will not give you my body to eat, but I will give you the body of some one else, if you will go along with us.” This applies both to wolves and coyotes. If a man goes away from the camp at night, and meets a coyote, and it barks at him, he goes back to the camp, and says to the people: “Look out now; be smart. A coyote barked at me tonight.” Then the people look out, and are careful, for it is a sure sign that something bad is going to happen. Perhaps some one will be shot; perhaps the enemy will charge the camp.

If a person is hungry and sings a wolf song, he is likely to find food. Men going on a hunting trip sing these songs, which bring them good luck. The bear has very powerful medicine. Sometimes he takes pity on people and helps them, as in the story of Mik’-api.

Some Piegan, if they wish to travel on a certain day, have the power of insuring good weather on that day. It is supposed that they do this by singing a powerful song. Some of the enemy can cause bad weather, when they want to steal into the camp.

People who belonged to the Sin’-o-pah band of the I-kun-uh’-kah-tsi, if they were at war in summer and wanted a storm to come up, would take some dirt and water and rub it on the kit-fox skin, and this would cause a rainstorm to come up. In winter, snow and dirt would be rubbed on the skin and this would bring up a snowstorm.

Certain places and inanimate objects are also greatly reverenced by the Blackfeet, and presents are made to them.

The smallest of the three buttes of the Sweet Grass Hills is regarded as sacred. “All the Indians are afraid to go there,” Four Bears once told me. Presents are sometimes thrown into the Missouri River, though these are not offerings made directly to the stream, but are given to the Under Water People, who live in it.

Mention has already been made of the buffalo rock, which gives its owner the power to call the buffalo.

Another sacred object is the medicine rock of the Marias. It is a huge boulder of reddish sandstone, two-thirds the way up a steep hill on the north bank of the Marias River, about five miles from Fort Conrad. Formerly, this rock rested on the top of the bluff, but, as the soil about it is worn away by the wind and the rain, it is slowly moving down the hill. The Indians believe it to be alive, and make presents to it. When I first visited it, the ground about it was strewn with decaying remnants of offerings that had been made to it in the past. Among these I noticed, besides fragments of clothing, eagle feathers, a steel finger ring, brass ear-rings, and a little bottle made of two copper cartridge cases.

Down on Milk River, east of the Sweet Grass Hills, is another medicine rock. It is shaped something like a man’s body, and looks like a person sitting on top of the bluff. Whenever the Blackfeet pass this rock, they make presents to it. Sometimes, when they give it an article of clothing, they put it on the rock, “and then,” as one of them once said to me, “when you look at it, it seems more than ever like a person.” Down in the big bend of the Milk River, opposite the eastern end of the Little Rocky Mountains, lying on the prairie, is a great gray boulder, which is shaped like a buffalo bull lying down. This is greatly reverenced by all Plains Indians, Blackfeet included, and they make presents to it. Many other examples of similar character might be given.

The Blackfeet make daily prayers to the Sun and to Old Man, and nothing of importance is undertaken without asking for divine assistance. They are firm believers in dreams. These, they say, are sent by the Sun to enable us to look ahead, to tell what is going to happen. A dream, especially if it is a strong one, that is, if the dream is very clear and vivid, is almost always obeyed. As dreams start them on the war path, so, if a dream threatening bad luck comes to a member of a war party, even if in the enemy’s country and just about to make an attack on a camp, the party is likely to turn about and go home without making any hostile demonstrations. The animal or object which appears to the boy, or man, who is trying to dream for power, is, as has been said, regarded thereafter as his secret helper, his medicine, and is usually called his dream (Nits-o’-kan).

The most important religious occasion of the year is the ceremony of the Medicine Lodge. This is a sacrifice, which, among the Blackfeet, is offered invariably by women. If a woman has a son or husband away at war, and is anxious about him, or if she has a dangerously sick child, she may make to the Sun a vow in the following words:

“Listen, Sun. Pity me. You have seen my life. You know that I am pure. I have never committed adultery with any man. Now, therefore, I ask you to pity me. I will build you a lodge. Let my son survive. Bring him back to health, so that I may build this lodge for you.”

The vow to build the Medicine Lodge is repeated in a loud voice, outside her lodge, so that all the people may hear it, and if any man can impeach the woman, he is obliged to speak out, in which case she could be punished according to the law. The Medicine Lodge is always built in summer, at the season of the ripening of the sarvis berries, and if, before this time, the person for whom the vow is made dies, the woman is not obliged to fulfill her vow. She is regarded with suspicion, and it is generally believed that she has been guilty of the crime she disavowed. As this cannot be proved, however, she is not punished.

When the time approaches for the building of the lodge, a suitable locality is selected, and all the people move to it, putting up their lodges in a circle about it. In the meantime, at least a hundred buffalo tongues have been collected, cut, and dried by the woman who may be called the Medicine Lodge woman. No one but she is allowed to take part in this work.

Before the tongues are cut and dried, they are laid in a pile in the medicine woman’s lodge. She then gives a feast to the old men, and one of them, noted for his honesty, and well liked by all, repeats a very long prayer, asking in substance that the coming Medicine Lodge may be acceptable to the Sun, and that he will look with favor on the people, and will give them good health, plenty of food, and success in war. A hundred songs are then sung, each one different from the others. The feast and singing of these songs lasts a day and a half.

Before the Medicine Lodge is erected, four large sweat lodges are built, all in a line, fronting to the east or toward the rising sun. Two stand in front of the Medicine Lodge, and two behind it. The two nearest the Medicine Lodge are built one day, and the others on the day following. The sticks for the framework of these lodges are cut only by renowned warriors, each warrior cutting one, and, as he brings it in and lays it down, he counts a coup, which must be of some especially brave deed. The old men then take the sticks and erect the lodges, placing on top of each a buffalo skull, one half of which is painted red, the other black, to represent day and night, or rather the sun and the moon. When the lodges are finished and the stones heated, the warriors go in to sweat, and with them the medicine pipe men, who offer up prayers.

While this is going on, the young men cut the centre post for the Medicine Lodge, and all the other material for its construction. The women then pack out the post and the poles on horses, followed by the men shouting, singing, and shooting.

In the morning of this day the medicine woman begins a fast, which must last four days and four nights, with only one intermission, as will shortly appear. During that time she may not go out of doors, except between sunset and sunrise. During the whole ceremony her face, hands, and clothing are covered with the sacred red paint.

When all the material has been brought to the spot where the lodge is to be erected, that warrior who, during the previous year, has done the most cutting and stabbing in battle is selected to cut the rawhide to bind it, and while he cuts the strings he counts three coups.

The centre post is now placed on the ground, surrounded by the poles and other smaller posts; and two bands of the I-kun-uh’-kah-tsi, the Braves, and the All Crazy Dogs approach. Each band sings four songs, and then they raise the lodge amid the shouting of the people. It is said that, in old times, all the bands of the I-kun-uh’-kah-tsi took part in this ceremony. For raising the centre post, which is very heavy, lodge poles are tied in pairs, with rawhide, so as to form “shears,” each pair being handled by two men. If one of the ropes binding the shears breaks, the men who hold the pair are said to be unlucky; it is thought that they are soon to die. As soon as the centre post is up, the wall posts are erected, and the roof of poles put on, the whole structure being covered with brush. The door-way faces east or southeast, and the lodge is circular in shape, about forty feet in diameter, with walls about seven feet high.

Inside the Medicine Lodge, at the back, or west side, in the principal place in the lodge, is now built a little box-shaped house, about seven feet high, six feet long, and four wide. It is made of brush, so tightly woven that one cannot see inside of it. This is built by a medicine man, the high priest of this ceremony, who, for four days, the duration of the ceremony, neither eats nor goes out of it in the daytime. The people come to him, two at a time, and he paints them with black, and makes for them an earnest prayer to the Sun, that they may have good health, long lives, and good food and shelter. This man is supposed to have power over the rain. As rain would interfere with the ceremonies, he must stop it, if it threatens.

In the meantime, the sacred dried tongues have been placed in the Medicine Lodge. The next morning, the Medicine Lodge woman leaves her own lodge, and, walking very slowly with bowed head, and praying at every step, she enters the Medicine Lodge, and, standing by the pile of tongues, she cuts up one of them and holds it toward heaven, offering it to the Sun; then she eats a part of it and buries the rest in the dirt, praying to the Ground Man, and calling him to bear witness that she has not defiled his body by committing adultery. She then proceeds to cut up the tongues, giving a very small piece to every person, man, woman, or child. Each one first holds it up to the Sun, and then prays to the Sun, Na’-pi, and the Ground Man for long life, concluding by depositing a part of the morsel of tongue on the ground, saying, “I give you this sacred tongue to eat.” And now, during the four days, outside the lodge, goes on the counting of the coups. Each warrior in turn recounts his success in war, his battles or his horse-takings. With a number of friends to help him, he goes through a pantomime of all these encounters, showing how he killed this enemy, took a gun from that one, or cut horses loose from the lodge of another. When he has concluded, an old man offers a prayer, and ends by giving him a new name, saying that he hopes he will live well and long under it.

Inside the lodge, rawhide ropes are suspended from the centre post, and here the men fulfill the vows that they have made during the previous year. Some have been sick, or in great danger at war, and they then vowed that if they were permitted to live, or escape, they would swing at the Medicine Lodge. Slits are cut in the skin of their breast, ropes passed through and secured by wooden skewers, and then the men swing and surge until the skin gives way and tears out. This is very painful, and some fairly shriek with agony as they do it, but they never give up, for they believe that if they should fail to fulfill their vow, they would soon die.

On the fourth day every one has been prayed for, every one has made to the Sun his or her present, which is tied to the centre post, the sacred tongues have all been consumed, and the ceremony ends, every one feeling better, assured of long life and plenty.

Most persons have an entirely erroneous idea of the purpose of this annual ceremony. It has been supposed that it was for the purpose of making warriors. This is not true. It was essentially a religious festival, undertaken for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the people according to their beliefs. Incidentally, it furnished an opportunity for the rehearsal of daring deeds. But among no tribes who practiced it were warriors made by it. The swinging by the breast and other self-torturing were but the fulfillment of vows, sacred promises made in time of danger, penances performed, and not, as many believe, an occasion for young men to test their courage.

From the Indians of the tribe, the Medicine Lodge woman receives a very high measure of respect and consideration. Blackfoot men have said to me, “We look on the Medicine Lodge woman as you white people do on the Roman Catholic sisters.” Not only is she virtuous in deed, but she must be serious and clean-minded. Her conversation must be sober.

Before the coming of the whites, the Blackfeet used to smoke the leaves of a plant which they call na-wuh’-to-ski, and which is said to have been received long, long ago from a medicine beaver. It was used unmixed with any other plant. The story of how this came to the tribe is told elsewhere. 1 This tobacco is no longer planted by the Piegans, nor by the Bloods, though it is said that an old Blackfoot each year still goes through the ceremony, and raises a little. The plant grows about ten inches high and has a long seed stalk growing from the centre. White Calf, the chief of the Piegans, has the secrets of the tobacco and is perhaps the only person in the tribe who knows them. From him I have received the following account of the ceremonies connected with it:

Early in the spring, after the last snow-storm, when the flowers begin to bud (early in the month of May), the women and children go into the timber and prepare a large bed, clearing away the underbrush, weeds and grass and leaves and sticks, raking the ground till the earth is thoroughly pulverized. Elk, deer, and mountain sheep droppings are collected, pounded fine, and mixed with the seed which is to be sown.

On the appointed day all the men gather at the bed. Each one holds in his hand a short, sharp-pointed stick, with which to make a hole in the ground. The men stand in a row extending across the bed. At a signal they make the holes in the ground, and drop in some seed, with some sacred sarvis berries. The tobacco song is sung by the medicine men, all take a short step forward, make another hole, a foot in front of the last, and then drop in it some more seed. Another song is sung, another step taken, and seed is again planted; and this continues until the line of men has moved all the way across the bed, and the planting is completed. The tobacco dance follows the planting.

After the seed has been planted, they leave it and go off after the buffalo. While away during the summer, some important man one of the medicine men who had taken part in the planting announces to the people his purpose to go back to look after the crop. He starts, and after he has reached the place, he builds a little fire in the bed, and offers a prayer for the crop, asking that it may survive and do well. Then he pulls up one of the plants, which he takes back with him and shows to the people, so that all may see how the crop is growing. He may thus visit the place three or four times in the course of the summer.

From time to time, while they are absent from the tobacco patch in summer, moving about after the buffalo, the men gather in some lodge to perform a special ceremony for the protection of the crop. Each man holds in his hand a little stick. They sing and pray to the Sun and Old Man, asking that the grasshoppers and other insects may not eat their plants. At the end of each song they strike the ground with their sticks, as if killing grasshoppers and worms. It has sometimes happened that a young man has said that he does not believe that these prayers and songs protect the plants, that the Sun does not send messengers to destroy the worms. To such a one a medicine man will say, “Well, you can go to the place and see for yourself.” The young man gets on his horse and travels to the place. When he comes to the edge of the patch and looks out on it, he sees many small children at work there, killing worms. He has not believed in this before, but now he goes back convinced. Such a young man does not live very long.

At length the season comes for gathering the crop, and, at a time appointed, all the camps begin to move back toward the tobacco patch, timing their marches so that all may reach it on the same day. When they get there, they camp near it, but no one visits it except the head man of the medicine men who took charge of the planting. This man goes to the bed, gathers a little of the plant, and returns to the camp.

A small boy, six or eight years old, is selected to carry this plant to the centre of the circle. The man who gathered the tobacco ties it to a little stick, and, under the tobacco, to the stick he ties a baby’s moccasin. The little boy carries this stick to the centre of the camp, and stands it in the ground in the middle of the circle, the old man accompanying him and showing him where to put it. It is left there all night. The next day there is a great feast, and the kettles of food are all brought to the centre of the camp. The people all gather there, and a prayer is made. Then they sing the four songs which belong especially to this festival. The first and fourth are merely airs without words; the second has words, the purport of which is, “The sun goes with us.” The third song says, “Hear your children’s prayer.” After the ceremony is over, every one is at liberty to go and gather the tobacco. It is dried and put in sacks for use during the year. The seed is collected for the next planting. When they reach the patch, if the crop is good, every one is glad. After the gathering, they all move away again after the buffalo.

Sometimes a man who was lazy, and had planted no tobacco, would go secretly to the patch, and pull a number of plants belonging to some one else, and hide them for his own use. Now, in these prayers that they offer, they do not ask for mercy for thieves. A man who had thus taken what did not belong to him would have a lizard appear to him in a dream, and then he would fall sick and die. The medicine men would know of all this, but they would not do anything. They would just let him die.

This tobacco was given us by the one who made us.

The Blackfoot cosmology is imperfect and vague, and I have been able to obtain nothing like a complete account of it, for I have found no one who appeared to know the story of the beginning of all things.

Some of the Blackfeet now say that originally there was a great womb, in which were conceived the progenitors of all animals now on earth. Among these was Old Man. As the time for their birth drew near, the animals used to quarrel as to which should be the first to be born, and one day, in a fierce struggle about this, the womb burst, and Old Man jumped first to the ground. For this reason, he named all the animals Nis-kum’-iks, Young Brothers; and they, because he was the first-born, called him Old Man.

There are several different accounts of the creation of the people by Old Man. One is that he married a female dog, and that their progeny were the first people. Others, and the ones most often told, have been given in the Old Man stories already related. There is an account of the creation which is essentially an Algonquin myth, and is told by most of the tribes of this stock from the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains, though the hero is variously named. Here is the Blackfoot version of it:

In the beginning, all the land was covered with water, and Old Man and all the animals were floating around on a large raft. One day Old Man told the beaver to dive and try to bring up a little mud. The beaver went down, and was gone a long time, but could not reach the bottom. Then the loon tried, and the otter, but the water was too deep for them. At last the muskrat dived, and he was gone so long that they thought he had drowned, but he finally came up, almost dead, and when they pulled him on to the raft, they found, in one of his paws, a little mud. With this, Old Man formed the world, and afterwards he made the people.

This myth, while often related by the Blackfoot tribe, is seldom heard among the Bloods or Piegan. It is uncertain whether all three tribes used to know it, but have forgotten it, or whether it has been learned in comparatively modern times by the Blackfeet from the Cree, with whom they have always had more frequent intercourse and a closer connection than the other two tribes.

There is also another version of the origin of death. When Old Man made the first people, he gave them very strong bodies, and for a long time no one was sick. At last, a little child fell ill. Each day it grew weaker and weaker, and at last it fainted. Then the mother went to Old Man, and prayed him to do something for it.

“This,” said Old Man, “will be the first time it has happened to the people. You have seen the buffalo fall to the ground when struck with an arrow. Their hearts stop beating, they do not breathe, and soon their bodies become cold. They are then dead. Now, woman, it shall be for you to decide whether death shall come to the people as well as to the other animals, or whether they shall live forever. Come now with me to the river.”

When they reached the water’s edge, Old Man picked up from the ground a dry buffalo chip and a stone. “Now, woman,” he said, “you will tell me which one of these to throw into the water. If what I throw floats, your child shall live; the people shall live forever. If it sinks, then your child shall die, and all the people shall die, each one when his time comes.”

The woman stood still a long time, looking from the stone to the buffalo chip, and from the chip to the stone. At last she said, “Throw the stone.” Then Old Man tossed it into the river, and it sank to the bottom. “Woman,” he cried, “go home; your child is dead.” Thus, on account of a foolish woman, we all must die.

The shadow of a person, the Blackfeet say, is his soul. Northeast of the Sweet Grass Hills, near the international boundary line, is a bleak, sandy country called the Sand Hills, and there all the shadows of the deceased good Blackfeet are congregated. The shadows of those who in this world led wicked lives are not allowed to go there. After death, these wicked persons take the shape of ghosts (Sta-au’ 2 , and are compelled ever after to remain near the place where they died. Unhappy themselves, they envy those who are happy, and continually prowl about the lodges of the living, seeking to do them some injury. Sometimes they tap on the lodge skins and whistle down the smoke hole, but if the fire is burning within they will not enter.

Outside in the dark they do much harm, especially the ghosts of enemies who have been killed in battle. These sometimes shoot invisible arrows into persons, causing sickness and death. They have hit people on the head, causing them to become crazy. They have paralyzed people’s limbs, and drawn their faces out of shape, and done much other harm. Ghosts walk above the ground, not on it. An example of this peculiarity is seen in the case of the young man who visited the lodge of the starving family, in the story entitled Origin of the I-kun-uh’-kah-tsi.

Ghosts sometimes speak to people. An instance of this is the following, which occurred to my friend Young Bear Chief, and which he related to me. He said: “I once went to war, and took my wife with me. I went to Buffalo Lip Butte, east of the Cypress Mountains; a little creek runs by it. I took eighteen horses from an Assinaboine camp one night, when it was very foggy. I found sixteen horses feeding on the hills, and went into the camp and cut loose two more. Then we went off with the horses. When we started, it was so foggy that I could not see the stars, and I did not know which way to run. I kept travelling in what I supposed was the direction toward home, but I did not know where I was going. After we had gone a long way, I stopped and got off my horse to fix my belt. My wife did not dismount, but sat there waiting for me to mount and ride on.

“I spoke to my wife, and said to her, ‘We don’t know which way to go.’ A voice spoke up right behind me and said: ‘It is well; you go ahead. You are going right.’ When I heard the voice, the top of my head seemed to lift up and felt as if a lot of needles were sticking into it. My wife, who was right in front of me, was so frightened that she fainted and fell off her horse, and it was a long time before she came to. When she got so she could ride, we went on, and when morning came I found that we were going straight, and were on the west side of the West Butte of the Sweet Grass Hills. We got home all right. This must have been a ghost.”

Now and then among the Blackfeet, we find evidences of a belief that the soul of a dead person may take up its abode in the body of an animal. An example of this is seen in the story of E-kus’-kini. Owls are thought to be the ghosts of medicine men.

The Blackfeet do not consider the Sand Hills a happy hunting ground. There the dead, who are themselves shadows, live in shadow lodges, hunt shadow buffalo, go to war against shadow enemies, and in every way lead an existence which is but a mimicry of this life. In this respect the Blackfeet are almost alone. I know of scarcely any other American tribe, certainly none east of the Rocky Mountains, who are wholly without a belief in a happy future state. The Blackfeet do not especially say that this future life is an unhappy one, but, from the way in which they speak of it, it is clear that for them it promises nothing desirable. It is a monotonous, never ending, and altogether unsatisfying existence, a life as barren and desolate as the country which the ghosts inhabit. These people are as much attached to life as we are. Notwithstanding the unhappy days which have befallen them of late years, days of privation and hunger, they cling to life. Yet they seem to have no fear of death. When their time comes, they accept their fate without a murmur, and tranquilly, quietly pass away.


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

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  1. The Beaver Medicine, p. 117[]
  2. The human skeleton is also called Sta-au’, i.e. ghost. Compare Cheyenne Mis-tai’, ghost.[]

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