Legends of The Ancient Blackfoot

By George Bird Grinnell in 1913

Buffalo Herd in Montana

Buffalo Herd in Montana

Long, long ago, before our fathers or grandfathers were born, before the white people knew anything about the western half of North America, the Indians who told these stories lived on the Western plains. To the west of their home rose high mountains, black with pine-trees on their lower slopes and capped with snow, but their tents were pitched on the rolling prairie. For a little while in spring this prairie was green and dotted with flowers, but for most of the year it stretched away brown and bare, north, east, and south, farther than one could see.

On these plains were many kinds of wild animals. Sometimes the prairie was crowded with herds of black buffalo running in fear; or, again, the herds, unfrightened, fed scattered out; so that the hills far and near were dotted with their dark forms. Among the buffalo were yellow and white antelope — many of them — graceful and swift of foot.

Feeding on the high prairie or going down into the wooded river valleys to drink were herds of elk, while the willow thickets, the brushy ravines, and the lower timbered foot-hills sheltered deer.

The naked Bad Lands, the rocky slopes of the mountains, and the tall buttes that often rise above the level prairie were the refuge of the mountain sheep, which in those days, like all the other grass eaters of the region, grazed on the prairie and sought the more broken, higher country only when alarmed or when they wished to rest.

These were the animals that the Blackfoot killed for food before the white men came, and of these, the buffalo was the chief. Buffalo, more than any other animals, could be captured in numbers, and the Blackfoot, like the other Indians of the plains, had devised a method for taking them, so that when the buffalo were near the Blackfoot never suffered from hunger. Yet sometimes it happened that the buffalo went away and that the lonely far traveling scouts sent out by the tribe could not find them. Then the people had to turn to the smaller animals — the elk, deer, antelope, and wild sheep.

In those old days, before they had horses, they did not make long marches when they moved. Their only domestic animal was the dog, which was used chiefly as a beast of burden, either carrying loads on its back or hauling a travois, formed by two long sticks crossing above the shoulders and dragging on the ground behind. Behind the dog, these two sticks were united by a little platform, on which was lashed some small burden — sometimes a little baby.

In those days, when the people moved from one place to another, all who were large enough to walk and strong enough to carry a burden on the shoulders, were laden. Usually men, women, and children alike bore loads suited to their strength. Yet sometimes the men carried no loads at all, for if journeying through a country where they feared that some enemy might attack them, the men must be ready to fight and to defend their wives and children. A man cannot fight well if he is carrying a burden; he cannot use his arms readily, nor run about lightly — forward to attack, backward in retreat. If he is not free to fight well, his family will be in danger. White men who have seen Indians journeying in this way, and who have not understood why some women carried heavy loads and the men carried nothing, have said that Indian men were idle and lazy, and forced their women to do all the work. Those who wrote those things were mistaken in what they said. They did not understand what they saw. The truth is that these men were prepared for danger of attacks by enemies, and were ready to do their best to save their families from harm.

Carrying on their backs all their property, except the little which the dogs might pack, it is evident that the Indians in those days could not make long journeys.

In those days they had no buckets of wood or tin in which to carry water. Instead, they used a vessel like a bag or sack, made from the soft membrane of one of the stomachs of the buffalo. This, after it had been cleansed and all the openings from it save one had been tied up, the women filled at the stream with a spoon made of buffalo horn or with a larger ladle of the horn of the wild sheep.

Piegan Woman by Edward S. Curtis, 1910.

Piegan Woman by Edward S. Curtis, 1910.

Because this water-skin was soft and flexible, it could not stand on the ground, and they hung it up, sometimes on the limb of a tree, more often on one of the poles of the lodge, or sometimes on a tripod — three sticks coming together at the top and standing spread out at the ground.

Most of the meat cooked for the family was roasted, yet much of it was boiled, sometimes in a bowl of stone, sometimes in a kettle made of a fresh hide or of the paunch of the buffalo. Sometimes these skin or paunch kettles were supported at the sides by stakes stuck in the ground, and sometimes a hole dug in the ground was lined with the hide, which was so arranged as to be water-tight.

They were not, as may be imagined, put over a fire, but when filled with cold water this water was heated in quite another way. Near by a fire was built, in which were thrown large stones, and on top of the stones more wood was piled; so that after a time, when the wood had burnt down, the stones were very hot — sometimes red hot.

With two rather short-handled forked sticks, the women took from the fire one of the hot stones, and put it in the water in the hide kettle, and as it cooled, took it out and put in another hot stone. Thus the water was soon heated, and boiled and cooked whatever was in the kettle. To be sure, there were some ashes and a little dirt in the soup, but that was not regarded as important.

This was long before the Indians knew of matches, or even of flint and steel. In those days to make a fire was not easy and it took a long time. By his knees or feet a man held in position on the ground a piece of soft, dry wood in which two or three little hollows had been dug out, and taking another slender stick of hard wood, and pressing the point in one of the little hollows in the stick of soft wood, he twirled the stick rapidly between the palms of his hands, so fast and so long that presently the dust ground from the softer stick, falling to one side in a little pile, began to smoke, and at last a faint spark was seen at the top of the pile, which began to glow, and, spreading, became constantly larger. He, or his companion, for often two men twirled the stick, one relieving the other, caught this spark in a bit of tinder — perhaps some dry punk or a little fine grass — and by blowing coaxed it into flame, and there was the fire.

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