Blackfoot Tribal Organization and Control

In a way, the band may be considered the social and political unit. There is, in a general sense, a band chief, but we have failed to find good grounds for assuming that he has any formal right to a title or an office. He is one of an indefinite number of men designated as headmen. These headmen may be considered as the social aristocracy, holding their place in society in the same indefinite and uncertain manner as the social leaders of our own communities. Thus, we hear that no Blackfoot can aspire to be looked upon as a head man unless he is able to entertain well, often invite others to his board, and make a practice of relieving the wants of his less fortunate band members. Such practices are sure to strain the aspirant’s resources and many sink under it; but he who can meet all such demands soon acquires a place in the social life of the band that is often proof against the ill fortunes of later years. This phase of their social life is very much alive, having survived not only the changes in economic conditions brought about by the reservation system but the direct opposition of its officers. This story is oft repeated: a young man takes to stock raising, accumulates cattle and horses, gradually taking into nominal employ all his less able relatives who thus come to depend upon him. Presently, he wakes up to the situation and entertains an ambition to become the leading headman of his band, or even of all bands. Then begins a campaign. He makes feasts, gives presents, buys medicines, and supports ceremonies; thus making his home the center of social and ceremonial activities, the leader-ship of which he assumes. His rivals are stirred to activity also and the contest goes on apace. From observation, we believe that bankruptcy is the usual result; but, unless this comes at the very beginning of the effort, the aspirant acquires enough prestige to give him some claim to being a head man for the rest of his days even though he becomes a hanger-on at the door of a younger aspirant.

Thus, the headmen are those who are or have been social leaders. Naturally, individual worth counts in such contests and he who is born to lead will both in matters great and small. In former times, these rivalries often led to assassination and other dark deeds.

Before the reservation system came in, deeds of the warpath were also essential to the production of a headman, for in them was the place to demonstrate the power to lead. Great deeds in social and ceremonial life would alone elevate one to the status of a headman, though as a rule the warpath was the line of least resistance.

These headmen of uncertain tenure come to regard one or two of their number as leaders, or chiefs. Such chiefs rarely venture to act without the advice of some headmen, as to stand alone would be next to fatal. In tribal assemblies, the headmen of the bands usually look to one of these as spokesman, and speak of him as their chief.

While the tenure and identity of a headman is thus somewhat vague, his functions are rather definite. He is the guardian and defender of the social order in its broadest sense. Of this, he is fully conscious; as, for example, no man of importance will accept an invitation to visit for a time in a distant band or tribe without calling a consultation. Should some headmen of his band indicate disapproval, the invitations will be declined. The theory is that the welfare of his band is endangered by his absence. Above all, the headmen are expected to preserve the peace. Should a dispute arise in which members of their band are concerned, one or more of them are expected to step in as arbitrators or even as police officials if the occasion demand. When it is suspicioned that a man contemplates a crime or the taking of personal vengeance some head men go to his tipi and talk with him, endeavoring to calm him, giving much kind advice as to the proper course for the good of all concerned. If he has been wronged, they often plead for mercy toward his enemy. Again, the headmen may be appealed to for redress against a fellow member of the band. In the adjustment of such cases the headmen proceed by tact, persuasion, and extreme deliberation. They restrain the young men, as much as possible, after the same method. In all such functions, they are expected to succeed without resort to violence.

For mild persistent misconduct, a method of formal ridicule is some-times practiced. When the offender has failed to take hints and suggestions, the headmen may take formal notice and decide to resort to discipline. Some evening when all are in their tipis, a head man will call out to a neighbor asking if he has observed the conduct of Mr. A. This starts a general conversation between the many tipis, in which all the grotesque and hideous features of Mr. A’s acts are held up to general ridicule amid shrieks of laughter, the grilling continuing until far into the night. The mortification of the victim is extreme and usually drives him into temporary exile or, as formerly, upon the warpath to do desperate deeds.

When there is trouble between members of different bands, the headmen of each endeavor to bring about a settlement. Thus, if one of the contending party is killed, the band of the deceased sends notice to the murderer’s band that a payment must be made. In the meantime, the murderer may have called upon a headman of his own band to explain the deed. The headmen then discuss the matter and advise that horses and other property be sent over to the injured band at once. A crier goes about with the order and members of the band contribute. 1 This offer may be refused by the injured band and a demand made for the culprit’s life. No matter how revolting the offense, the band is reluctant to give up the accused without a fight. If no presents are sent in a reasonable time, the injured band assembles in force and marches out. A headman meets them for a conference, but a fight is likely. After a conflict of this kind, the band killing the greatest number moves to a distant part of the country and when the camp circle is formed keeps in sight but far out to one side. This separation may continue for a. year or more. In all such disputes between bands, the headmen of other bands may step in to preserve the peace; but, according to report, they seldom accomplish anything.

Taking the Piegan, Blood, and Blackfoot as tribes, we may say that there was a head chief for each. His office was more definite than that of a band chief, though he was not formally elected. All the head men of the various tribes came by degrees to unanimity as to who would succeed the living chief, though the matter was rarely discussed in formal council. The main function of the tribal chief was to call councils, he having some discretion as to who should be invited. Some writers claim the Blackfoot appointed two chiefs, one for peace and one for war; but we could find no evidence for this, except that some band chiefs came to have special reputations for ability as war leaders and were likely to be called upon in time of need. They were not, however, regarded as head chiefs. While the office of head chief was not hereditary, there was a natural desire among the chief’s band to retain the office; thus it is said that among the Piegan most of them have been members of the Fat-roasters.

Everything of importance was settled in council. While each band was represented there was no fixed membership; yet the head chief usually invited those in excess of one member for each band. There seems to have been no formal legislation and no provisions for voting. In former times, the council was rarely convened except in summer. At the end of the fall hunt, the bands separated for the winter to assemble again in the spring at some appointed place. Even in summer they would often camp in two or three bodies, each one under the leadership of some able-bodied band chief, coming together for the sun dance at which time only the whole tribal government was in existence.

The organized men’s societies among the Blackfoot were, when in large camps, subject to the orders of the head chief or executive of the council and on such occasions seem to have exercised the functions of the head men of the respective bands. This subject will be taken up under another head, but it is a’ matter of some interest to note how, when such camps were formed, the head men of the bands were merged into a council for the whole and the men’s societies became their executive and police agents under the direction of the head chief. Thus, when there was danger, certain societies were detailed to guard duty, especially at night. As the chief aim of an organized summer camp was to hunt buffalo and the success of a general hunt depended upon successful co-operation, the discipline was devised to that end. The head chief gave out orders for making and breaking camp, and rules and punishments were announced. Thus, a man found running buffalo or riding about outside without orders might have his clothes torn off, be deprived of his arms, his horse’s ears and tail cropped. Should he resist, he might be quirted and his hair cropped. His tipi and personal property might be destroyed. However, these were extreme punishments, it being regarded as best to get along by persuading the would-be wrong-doer to desist. The punishment inflicted by the members of societies were not personally resented, as they were acting entirely within their rights. As to whether the men’s societies were police by virtue of their own membership, or whether they were individually called out to form an independent body is not certain, but will be discussed elsewhere.

A long time ago Nathaniel J. Wyeth 2 set down some interesting theories concerning the economic reasons for the unorganized state of the Shoshone in contrast to the buffalo-hunting horsemen of the Plains. He doubtless sensed a truth in so far as the camp organization of the Plains is considered as a type of government having for its chief function the supervision and conservation of their immediate resources. Perhaps of all cultural phases in this area, the one most often detailed in the older literature is the organization and control of the camp when pursuing buffalo. So far as we have read, the accounts for the different tribes are strikingly identical and agree with the data from the Blackfoot. In most every case, the horse, the tipi, the camp circle, and the soldier-band police were present, even though the participants, when at home lived in houses and cultivated corn. That the camp circle, or band circle, is a special type of tribal political organization in this area seems obvious. It would be suggestive to know just how some of the tribes having clan organizations adjusted themselves to this scheme when using the circle. 3

Blackfoot Camp Circle

As among many tribes, there was a definite order of camping when the circle of tipis was formed. While Mooney may be correct in his claim that the circle of the Cheyenne is their fundamental social organization, it cannot be said that the circle of the Blackfoot holds a very close objective relation to their organization. In the first place, each division (Blackfoot, Blood and Piegan) had its own circle and there are no traditions that they were ever combined. When a circle is formed, all visitors from other divisions must, like those from strange tribes, camp outside and apart. Further, there is a firm belief among the Piegan that the circle was never formed except for the sun dance and certain related ceremonies connected with the beaver medicine. It seems likely that if the circle were fundamental and not of recent origin, there would be traces of a parent circle and vestiges of rules governing its formation. Further, as among the Cheyenne, there is no great unanimity of opinion as to the order of the various bands in the circle but at the sun dance the leading men decide arbitrarily any doubt that may exist as to the place of a particular band. The further discussion of this point may be deferred until we take up the sun dance and its problems.

The opening in the circle is to the east and the order of bands is enumerated from the south side of the opening, as in the characteristic ceremonial order of movement. The present order for the Piegan is as given in the list.Citations:

  1. One informant commented on this paragraph as follows: When the payment is made it is through the headmen of the bands concerned. The headman of the band to which the wronged party belongs is given the offerings and he passes on them. When he judges them ample, he takes them to the wronged party and tells him to drop the case now since he has received full damages.[]
  2. Schoolcraft, Henry R. Historical and Statistical Information respecting the History, Condition and Prospects the Indian Tribes of the United States. Philadelphia, 1851-57, pp. 205-228.[]
  3. We have heard that the Winnebago used a provisional band scheme for the circle, entirely independent of their regular social organization and in conscious imitation of the Dakota. If this proves correct, it will throw some light on the whole problem of bands and camp circles.[]


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