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Religious Culture

The religious life of the Blackfoot centered upon medicine bundles and their associated rituals. These bundles were individually owned and ultimately originated from an encounter with a supernatural spirit. These encounters took the form of dreams or visions, which were sought in a typical Plains type of vision quest. A young man, often under the tutelage of an older medicine man, would go out to some lonely place and fast until he had a vision. Many of these men failed and never had a vision. In this case, they would buy a bundle and its ritual. Wissler (1912) points out, however, that a man of some importance was expected to have had a vision experience.

Individual bundles acquired great respect, especially those associated with success in war. Some of these were headdresses, shirts, shields, knives, and lances. Painted lodges were considered to be medicine bundles, and there were more than 50 of them among the three main Blackfoot groups. The most important bundles to the group as a whole were the beaver bundles, the medicine pipe bundles, and the Sun Dance bundle.

Since the Sun Dance was not mentioned by the eighteenth-century explorers, Ewers feels that it was an early nineteenth-century innovation among the Blackfoot (Ewers 1958: 174). By the middle of the nineteenth century, the Sun Dance had become an important ceremony performed once each summer. The Sun Dance among the Blackfoot was generally similar to the ceremony that was performed in other Plains societies. There were some differences, in that a woman played the leading role among the Blackfoot, and the symbolism and paraphernalia used were derived from beaver bundle ceremonialism. The Blackfoot Sun Dance included the following: (1) moving the camp on four successive days; (2) on the fifth day, building the medicine lodge, transferring bundles to the medicine woman, and the offering of gifts by children and adults in ill health; (3) on the sixth day, dancing toward the sun, blowing eagle-bone whistles, and self-torture; and (4) on the remaining four days, performing various ceremonies of the men's societies.

Researchers are advised to consult Mooney (1910), for a brief cultural summary of the Blackfoot, and Ewers (1958), for a more lengthy general ethno history. In addition, Murdock and O'Leary (1975) should be consulted for further references to literature on the Blackfoot.

A more extensive cultural summary of the Blackfoot, with emphasis on subsistence patterns and material culture, is available in Forde (1950: 45-68).

The religious life of the Blackfoot

In the Blackfoot religion, both animals and humans are seen as spiritual beings that possess individualized spiritual powers. As spiritual figures, animals play a large role in Blackfoot religion with humans and animals existing as similar groups connected through a complex relationship. The importance that Blackfoot place upon animals can be explained partly by their mode of subsistence. At the time of European contact, the Blackfoot consisted of three closely related hunter-gatherer tribes living in Alberta Canada and Montana USA. They are thought to be one of the first Native American groups to move out of the timberland and take up a migrating existence on the open grassland. Like many other migrating hunter-gatherers, the Blackfoot had a close relationship with their environment. Their survival was fundamentally tied to the world around them, as they did not extensively manage or manipulate their food source through herding or farming. Because they lived on the grasslands, the Buffalo herds and other wild game were particularly essential to the tribe?s survival. The importance of animals in the Blackfoot?s day to day existence is one possible factor in the reason animals play such a prominent role in Blackfoot religion.

In the Blackfoot world-view, animals are viewed as spiritual beings with specialized powers. Their spiritual power first manifests itself in the Blackfoot creation story, in which only Old Man Napi and "all the beasts [of the world]" exist (Wissler, Duvall 19). After a great flood, the Earth is lost beneath deep waters and Old Man sits atop the highest mountain, which just breaks the surface. Because the land is covered with water, Old Man decides to send animals with diving ability to retrieve some earth. First he sends Otter, Beaver, and than Muskrat. All fail and perish in their attempts. At last, Old Man sends Duck, who also drowns but "in his paw held some earth. Old Man saw it, put it in his hand, feigned putting it on the water three times, and at last dropped it" creating the present day Earth (Wissler, Duvall 19).

In this narrative, there are no Blackfeet, only Old Man and animals. The existence of animals alongside Old Man Napi in the account of Earth?s recovery exemplifies their important status as powerful supernatural beings. Not only are the animals in this account spiritual beings present since the beginning of the present day world, they are also able to retrieve the earth while Old Man Napi cannot. Although Old Man Napi is the creator of animals and the world, this narrative suggests that he is not an "all powerful" or "all knowing" figure. Instead, he is one of many spiritual beings that inhabit the world. This lack of a distinct hierarchy between supernatural beings contributes to the complex relationships held between supernatural powers, as no one creature is more powerful than another in all aspects. Old Man's specific use of diving animals to retrieve the submerged earth suggests that he acknowledge the existence of individualistic capabilities in spiritual beings.

The fact that the Blackfoot share Old Man?s understanding of supernatural specialization is apparent in many of the Blackfoot?s interactions with the animal world. For example, Blackfoot will often call upon specific animals to aid them in different endeavors. Several examples of this occur during the ceremonial calling of the buffalo. In one component of the ceremony, the beaver bundle owners ask the ravens for assistance saying: "Help me, ravens, with your good luck. The raven, he is looking for buffalo. He has found them. Buffalo, them I have taken. Raven he is looking around on the ground for a dead buffalo to eat. He has found it. It is powerful" (Wissler 204). In this prayer, the Blackfoot call upon a specific animal, the raven, for power to help them find buffalo. The specificity in both the animal solicited and the request shows that although the ravens are superior to Blackfeet in their power to find buffalo, it is not implicit that they are generally more spiritually powerful. It is likely that the raven is superior to most animals in this particular spiritual power, and it is for this reason that the Blackfoot call upon it. This prayer is based on the assumption of specialization in spiritual powers, in which all animals are spiritual beings with differing spiritual abilities. This idea of specialized spiritual powers is fundamental to the Blackfoot view of animals and reflected in the origin of their most important bundle, the Beaver Bundle.

The Beaver Bundle was discovered by Akaiyan, one of two Blackfoot brothers. As a result of an argument with his older brother, Akaiyan is deserted on an uninhabited island to die. Free of wrong doing, he is then rescued by a beaver family, staying with them for one full winter. During his winter with the beavers, Akaiyan learns many rituals and ceremonies. The Beaver Chief explains "the prayers and songs of their [beaver] medicine and the dances that belonged to them" (McClintock100). When spring arrives, Akaiyan returns to his people, teaches them the Beaver medicine, and also makes a sacred Bundle similar to the ones the beavers had. After Akaiyan finishes making the first Blackfeet beaver bundle, he invites all the animals to add their power to the Beaver Medicine. Upon request, "many birds and animals of the prairies and mountains came, offering their skins and taught him their songs, prayers, and dances?" (McClintock 111). This narrative exemplifies the theme of intrinsically spiritual animals possessing individualized spiritual power or medicine. Each animal contributing to the Beaver Bundle had a special ability to add as well as his own dances, prayers, and songs.

Along with explaining many of the different animals? powers, this Beaver bundle narrative also shows that the Blackfoot perceived animals as very similar to people in intelligence, societal structure, and spirituality. When Akaiyan is invited into the Beaver?s lodge, he meets his adoptive family, which consists of the beaver Chief, his wife, and their children. This scenario illustrates the view that animals have families and leaders much like the Blackfeet themselves. The existence of animal societies and families along with the ability to communicate across species boundaries implies that animals are thought of as similar to humans in intelligence as well as complexity of culture and society.

As a logical extension of animals? similarities in their physical manifestation, the Blackfeet also believed that animals were akin to humans in their spirituality. For example, the animals in the beaver bundle narrative are described as having their own religious ceremonies, in the form of dances, prayers and songs, that are similar to those used by the Blackfoot to increase their spiritual powers. The "Buffalo Charming" dance expresses an even deeper similarity between animal and human spirits. This dance reveals that not only do animal?s spiritual practices mirror those of Blackfeet, but their spiritual forms are actually interchangeable.

The "Buffalo Charming" dance is a small portion of a beaver bundle ceremonial complex performed to call distant buffalo herds closer. During the dance, the current beaver bundle owner and his wife begin "butting at each other and bellowing. The owner slaps his right hand on the dust, than on his wrists, elbow, and shoulder?The wife does the same. All the time there is singing, ?dust, it is the buffalo medicine?" (Wissler 206-207). As they dance, the owner and wife are not only acting like buffalo, but are believed to have become buffalo. Howard Harrod, a scholar who has extensively studied the Plains Indians explains this phenomena as an example of "transcendent realities" in which people are able to break away from the constraints of the physical and experience a transformation made possible through the spiritual world (92). The ability of Blackfoot to become buffalo, or any other animal, confirms the perceived similarities between the spirits of Blackfoot and animals. An important insight of this transformation is that humans are also spiritual beings. The ability of the Blackfoot to undergo this transformation of spirit attests to the fact that like animals, Blackfoot also posses innate spiritual powers.

As two spiritual groups that inhabit the same world, the relationship between animals and people has the potential to be one of rivalry or uneasy truce. Instead, it is connection characterized by respect, obligation, sharing, and equilibrium. This type of association can be explained to some extent by the Blackfoots? view on animals. The fact that animals are believed to be powerful spiritual beings creates a relationship based in respect and communication. This belief, along with the notion that animals are similar to people ensure that the power relations among Blackfeet and animals will remain at equilibrium. Within this context of respect and communication between the Blackfoot and animals, the fact that powers are specialized ties the two groups together. The existence of specialized abilities creates a situation in which animals and humans become dependent upon each other for the skills that are not within their specialty.

Thus, despite the fact that both animals and people are independently spiritually powerful, they exist in a relationship of co-dependence. In many ways, the Blackfoot rely on animals for spiritual power related to hunting success, curing illness, guidance, and other religious needs. Due to the mutual dependence between the groups, the animals are at times obligated to share their powers and respond to the requests of the Blackfoot. Through this obligation, animals in a sense become responsible for the Blackfoot?s well being. For example, the beavers and other animals are willing, upon the request of Akaiyan, to donate their skins and powers to the Blackfeet people. Animals also regularly assist humans in times of need such as when Akaiyan was deserted on the island or when a certain animal?s assistance is needed during a hunt.

Although it may seem that the obligation of animals to respond to human pleas tips the balance of power toward the Blackfoot, this is not necessarily true, as the right to call upon animals is tempered by many factors. For example, when the Blackfeet charm the buffalo and influence the herd?s movement, they rely upon other animals and spiritual beings such as "He-who-causes-winds-to-blow." The Blackfoot?s ability to call upon the obligation of animals was also constrained by circumstance. "Charming the Buffalo" songs were not sung during any other ceremony and when they were used, it was only when the people were facing starvation (Wissler 207). Except under these extreme conditions, the Blackfoot would not, or could not, ask for a fulfillment of duty from the animal world.

In return for animal?s willingness to share powers and answer to the requests of humans, the Blackfoot accept the responsibility to share with the animals their special "medicine," the ability to renew the earth and animal kingdoms. The Blackfoot perform many religious ceremonies with the intention of continued good health and maintaining the well-being of the world. These ceremonies often occur during the Sun Dance ceremonial complex that is common in various forms to most Plains Indians. The Blackfoot sun dance occurs in their summer camping grounds, which are a place for social festivities and the renewal and transfer of bundles. Like all sun dances, it involves the general theme of world revival. Understood in the wish for world renewal is the desire for the continued good health and revival of the animal world in particular.

The importance of animals during the Blackfoot sun dance is reflected in a ritualistic gathering and weaving of buffalo hide into the main sun dance structure. The buffalo used for this purpose is often ceremonially killed with a single arrow. After its hide is prepared with ritual and prayer, it is woven throughout the sun dance structure (Wissler 238). During the ceremony, this structure becomes the center of the world, and with this transformation, the buffalo hide can be seen as the animal kingdom woven throughout the Earth. Along with this general acknowledgement of the importance of animals, the Blackfoot also possess sun dance rituals aimed specifically at the animal world, such as the ceremonial gathering of buffalo tongues.

In the ceremony of buffalo tongues, the Blackfoot boil buffalo tongues while singing songs to the Sun, Moon, Morning Star, and Buffalo. Those participating in the Sun Dance then ingested a portion of the cooked tongues. Of the boiled tongues, a few pieces are not eaten and instead are painted and then divided into smaller fragments. These portions of tongue are involved in prayer, and then buried within the ground (Wissler 237).

The ritual burial of tongues can be seen specifically as a hope for the re-growth of buffalo and also can be viewed as a ceremony for all animals, as buffalo are often a representative for the animal kingdom (Harrod 114). Although the Blackfoot killed buffalo to obtain the tongues used in the ceremony, parts of this valued organ are set aside and planted within the ground. The ritualistic planting of buffalo is parallel to the planting of seeds, in which the parent plant may die but a small portion, the seed, can produce another plant as a replacement. Without the Blackfoot ceremonies, such as the gathering of tongues, the buffalo herds? and other animal groups could diminish in size or health. Thus, through this vital ritual and others like it, the Blackfoot help the buffalo and other animals continue their existence, just as the animals are able to help sustain the Blackfoot.

The persistence of this balanced relationship for hundreds of years is a logical consequence of the Blackfoot?s view of animals. Perceived as two spiritually powerful and specialized groups, Blackfoot and animals were predisposed toward a relationship involving respect and co-dependence. The Blackfoot lifestyle of migrating hunter-gatherers also made them inclined to believe that animals played an important role in the spirit world, as animals fulfilled such a vital place within the Blackfoot?s physical world. With the Blackfoot relying on animals for physical health and the animals relying upon humans for spiritual health, the Blackfoot perception of the physical and spiritual worlds blended together. Their religious beliefs concerning animals allowed them to hunt successfully in the physical world and gave them a relationship to their environment which modern scientists would maintain possessed "long term sustainability", or had the possibility of indefinite continued existence. Without their core beliefs about the animal world, the Blackfoot may not have been able to reach the steady equilibrium with their environment that allowed for their continued survival. Thus, although the Blackfoot perspective on animals may seem unusual to many modern peoples, within the context of their environment and lifestyle, it is not only a reasonable but perhaps necessary belief system.


Grinnell, George Bird. Blackfeet Lodge Tales: the story of a prairie people. Lincoln, 

Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1962.

Harrod, Howard L. The Animals Came Dancing. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona 

Press, 2000.

McClintock, Walter. The Old North Trail. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska 

Press, 1968. 103-113 

Wissler, Clark. "Ceremonial Bundles of the Blackfeet Indians." Anthropological 

Papers of the American Museum of Natural History. vVII, pt 2 (1912): 168-209.

Wissler, Clark and D.C. Duvall. "Mythology of the Blackfeet Indians." Anthropological 

Papers of the American Museum of Natural History. vII, pt. 1 (1908): 5-8, 74-78.

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