Native American Legends
The Past and the Present
A Blackfoot Legend
Fifty years ago the name Blackfoot was one of terrible meaning
to the white traveler who passed across that desolate buffalo-trodden
waste which lay to the north of the Yellowstone River and east of
the Rocky Mountains. This was the Blackfoot land, the undisputed
home of a people which is said to have numbered in one of its tribes
the Pi-kun'-i 8000 lodges, or 40,000 persons. Besides these, there
were the Blackfeet and the Bloods, three tribes of one nation, speaking
the same language, having the same customs, and holding the same
But this land had not always been the home of the Blackfeet. Long
ago, before the coming of the white men, they had lived in another
country far to the north and east, about Lesser Slave Lake, ranging
between Peace River and the Saskatchewan, and having for their neighbors
on the north the Beaver Indians. Then the Blackfeet were a timber
people. It is said that about two hundred years ago the Chippeweyans
from the east invaded this country and drove them south and west.
Whether or no this is true, it is quite certain that not many generations
back the Blackfeet lived on the North Saskatchewan River and to
the north of that stream. Gradually working their way westward,
they at length reached the Rocky Mountains, and, finding game abundant,
remained there until they obtained horses, in the very earliest
years of the present century. When they secured horses and guns,
they took courage and began to venture out on to the plains and
to go to war. From this time on, the Blackfeet made constant war
on their neighbors to the south, and in a few years controlled the
whole country between the Saskatchewan on the north and the Yellowstone
on the south.
It was, indeed, a glorious country which the Blackfeet had wrested
from their southern enemies. Here nature has reared great mountains
and spread out broad prairies. Along the western border of this
region, the Rocky Mountains lift their snow-clad peaks above the
clouds. Here and there, from north to south, and from east to west,
lie minor ranges, black with pine forests if seen near at hand,
or in the distance mere gray silhouettes against a sky of blue.
Between these mountain ranges lies everywhere the great prairie;
a monotonous waste to the stranger's eye, but not without its charm.
It is brown and bare; for, except during a few short weeks in spring,
the sparse bunch-grass is sear and yellow, and the silver gray of
the wormwood lends an added dreariness to the landscape. Yet this
seemingly desert waste has a beauty of its own. At intervals it
is marked with green winding river valleys, and everywhere it is
gashed with deep ravines, their sides painted in strange colors
of red and gray and brown, and their perpendicular walls crowned
with fantastic columns and figures of stone or clay, carved out
by the winds and the rains of ages. Here and there, rising out of
the plain, are curious sharp ridges, or square-topped buttes with
vertical sides, sometimes bare, and sometimes dotted with pines,
short, sturdy trees, whose gnarled trunks and thick, knotted branches
have been twisted and wrung into curious forms by the winds which
blow unceasingly, hour after hour, day after day, and month after
month, over mountain range and prairie, through gorge and coulee.
These prairies now seem bare of life, but it was not always so.
Not very long ago, they were trodden by multitudinous herds of buffalo
and antelope; then, along the wooded river valleys and on the pine-clad
slopes of the mountains, elk, deer, and wild sheep fed in great
numbers. They are all gone now. The winter's wind still whistles
over Montana prairies, but nature's shaggy-headed wild cattle no
longer feel its biting blasts. Where once the scorching breath of
summer stirred only the short stems of the buffalo-grass, it now
billows the fields of the white man's grain. Half-hidden by the
scanty herbage, a few bleached skeletons alone remain to tell us
of the buffalo; and the broad, deep trails, over which the dark
herds passed by thousands, are now grass-grown and fast disappearing
under the effacing hand of time. The buffalo have disappeared, and
the fate of the buffalo has almost overtaken the Blackfeet.
As known to the whites, the Blackfeet were true prairie Indians,
seldom venturing into the mountains, except when they crossed them
to war with the Kutenais, the Flatheads, or the Snakes. They subsisted
almost wholly on the flesh of the buffalo. They were hardy, untiring,
brave, ferocious. Swift to move, whether on foot or horseback, they
made long journeys to war, and with telling force struck their enemies.
They had conquered and driven out from the territory which they
occupied the tribes who once inhabited it, and maintained a desultory
and successful warfare against all invaders, fighting with the Crees
on the north, the Assinaboines on the east, the Crows on the south,
and the Snakes, Kalispels, and Kutenais on the southwest and west.
In those days the Blackfeet were rich and powerful. The buffalo
fed and clothed them, and they needed nothing beyond what nature
supplied. This was their time of success and happiness.
Crowded into a little corner of the great territory which they
once dominated, and holding this corner by an uncertain tenure,
a few Blackfeet still exist, the pitiful remnant of a once mighty
people. Huddled together about their agencies, they are facing the
problem before them, striving, helplessly but bravely, to accommodate
themselves to the new order of things; trying in the face of adverse
surroundings to wrench themselves loose from their accustomed ways
of life; to give up inherited habits and form new ones; to break
away from all that is natural to them, from all that they have been
taught to reverse their whole mode of existence. They are striving
to earn their living, as the white man earns his, by toil. The struggle
is hard and slow, and in carrying it on they are wasting away and
growing fewer in numbers. But though unused to labor, ignorant of
agriculture, unacquainted with tools or seeds or soils, knowing
nothing of the ways of life in permanent houses or of the laws of
health, scantily fed, often utterly discouraged by failure, they
are still making a noble fight for existence.
Only within a few years since the buffalo disappeared has this
change been going on; so recently has it come that the old order
and the new meet face to face. In the trees along the river valleys,
still quietly resting on their aerial sepulchres, sleep the forms
of the ancient hunter-warrior who conquered and held this broad
land; while, not far away, Blackfoot farmers now rudely cultivate
their little crops, and gather scanty harvests from narrow fields.
It is the meeting of the past and the present, of savagery and
civilization. The issue cannot be doubtful. Old methods must pass
away. The Blackfeet will become civilized, but at a terrible cost.
To me there is an interest, profound and pathetic, in watching the
progress of the struggle.
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