The Blackfoot Confederacy, sometimes referred to as the Blackfoot Nation or Siksikaitsitapi, is comprised of three Aboriginal nations, the Kainai, Piikani and Siksika. One part of the Piikani lives in Montana, while northern Piikani, Kainai and Siksika reside in Alberta. Before external pressure from the Canadian government and the disappearance of the buffalo forced their relocation to reserves in the 19th century, the people were nomadic and relied on the buffalo hunt. People of the Blackfoot Nation refer to themselves as Niitsitapi, meaning "the real people," a generic term for all Aboriginal people, or Siksikaitsitapi, meaning “Blackfoot-speaking real people.” The registered population of Blackfoot peoples is more than 22,000, spread across three communities. (See also Aboriginal People: Plains and general articles under Aborginal People.)

Traditional Culture and Territory

The traditional territory of the Blackfoot Confederacy has been described as roughly the southern half of Alberta and Saskatchewan and the northern portion of Montana. In the west the confederacy was bounded by the Rocky Mountains, and its eastern limits stretched past the Great Sand Hills of eastern Saskatchewan. Their hunting area included the rich buffalo ranges of southern Alberta and northern Montana. Traditional Blackfoot culture is based entirely upon the buffalo hunt, intrinsically linking them to the plains. Their nomadism allowed them to follow buffalo across the plains to hunting grounds where they would utilize buffalo jumps and runs. Because of their portability, Blackfoot people lived in camps populated by tipis.

During the summer, groups would converge to hunt buffalo and celebrate with elaborate feasts and dances. The Sun Dance, a communal celebration held annually in midsummer, was the central aspect of Blackfoot cultural life. The complex and well-established traditions of the Blackfoot were opposed by European settlers and missionaries, who implemented assimilatory laws and policies in order to eradicate the expression of traditional culture.

Shining Mountains - the Ancient Ones by Guy Clarkson, National Film Board of Canada

Language

Traditionally, Blackfoot people spoke an Algonquian dialect related to Cree and Gros Ventre languages. However, their language is distinctive, with only slight variations in dialect among the three nations. Residential schools and other cultural assimilation policies partially eroded traditional language usage and cultural practices. In 2011, Statistics Canada enumerated approximately 3,250 Blackfoot speakers and, though the language is in danger, several language programs exist to promote its resurgence.

European Contact

The influence of Europeans in North America preceded contact with the Blackfoot Confederacy. Though the first European traders did not encounter Blackfoot people until the mid-18th century, horses — brought to North America by the Spanish — probably reached them via trade from the west in about 1725, at the same time as they received firearms from neighbouring Cree and Assiniboinetraders. Throughout most of the 18th and 19th centuries, the equestrian Blackfoot dominated their hunting area and were almost constantly at war with the Cree, Assiniboine, Crow, Nez Percé, Shoshone and other nations. They frequented the Hudson's Bay Company and North West Company posts on the North Saskatchewan River, but fought with American trappers and free traders in the south until United States troops massacred 173 Piikani people at Fort Ellis in present-day Montana in 1870.

Their population varied over this period, with estimates ranging from as high as 20,000 in 1833 and as low as 6,350 after the 1837 smallpox epidemic. From the late 18th to mid-19th century both the Tsuu T’ina (Sarcee) and the Gros Ventre people, though culturally and linguistically distinct from the other Blackfoot nations, were allies of the confederacy for political reasons.

Facing the reality of dwindling buffalo herds and increased European settlement — both encouraged by opportunistic settler governments — the Blackfoot were faced with minimal options and sought cultural and political protection in their homelands. They signed a treaty with the American government in 1855, and in 1877 signed Treaty 7 with the Canadian government under the framework of the newly passed Indian Act. Most of the Piikani settled on a reservation in Montana — in 2010, the Native American population of this reservation was more than 9,000 — while the Siksika, Kainai and North Piikani nations each established reserves in southern Alberta.

Contemporary Life

The Blackfoot nations have been able to retain much of their traditional culture in the face of adversity (see, for example, Crowfoot and Treaty 7). Today, the Blackfoot nations are vibrant communities that emphasize traditional culture in education, wellness and healing programs and other aspects of daily life. Many Blackfoot people rely upon ranching and farming, but also operate Indigenous-owned businesses in areas like tourism and resource extraction and management.

Politically, the Blackfoot nations are represented through elected chiefs and councils, as well as through the Treaty 7 Management Corporation, which provides advocacy and advisory services. The Blackfoot Confederacy itself is the source of some political momentum, with yearly conferences held among member nations that aim to facilitate greater collective organization and influence. Member nations have also independently negotiated and achieved victories with provincial and federal governments with respect to self-governance, self-determination and land claims, among other issues.