Legends of The Ancient Blackfoot

This fire making was hard work, and the people tried to escape this work by keeping a spark of fire always alive. To do this, men sometimes carried, by a thong slung over the shoulder, the hollow tip of a buffalo horn, the opening of which was closed by a wooden plug. When going on a journey, the man lighted a piece of punk, and, placing it in this horn, plugged up the open end, so that no air could get into the horn. There the punk smoldered for a long time, and neither went out nor was wholly consumed. Once in a while during the day the man looked at this punk, and, if he saw that it was almost consumed, he lighted another piece and put it in the horn and replaced the plug.

Blackfoot Teepee

Blackfoot Teepee by Edward S. Curtis

So, at night when he reached camp the fire was still in his horn, and he could readily kindle a blaze, and from this blaze other fires were kindled. Often, if the camp was large, the first young men who reached it gathered wood and perhaps kindled four fires, and after the women had reached the camp, unpacked their dogs, and put up their lodges, each woman would go to one of these fires to get a brand or some coals with which to start her own lodge fire.

In warm weather men and boys wore little clothing. They went almost naked; yet in cold weather each man or woman was most of the time wrapped in a warm robe of tanned buffalo skin. Even the little children wore robes, the smallest ones those taken from the little buffalo calves. All their clothing, like their beds and their homes, was made of the skins of animals. Shirts, women’s dresses, leggings, and moccasins were made from the tanned skins of buffalo, deer, antelope, and mountain sheep. Often the moccasins were made from the smoked skin cut from the top of an old lodge, for this skin had been smoked so much that it never dried hard and stiff, after it had been wet. The moccasins had a stiff sole of buffalo rawhide; and in the bottom of this sole were cut one or two holes, in order that the water might run out if a man had to wade through a stream.

The homes of these Indians were lodges—tents made of tanned buffalo skin supported on a cone of long, straight, slender poles. At the top where the poles crossed was an opening for the smoke from the fire built in the centre of the circular lodge floor, while about the fire, and close under the lodge covering, were the beds where the people slept or ate during the day.

Blackfoot Teepees

Blackfoot Teepees

These homes were warm and comfortable. The border of the lodge covering did not come down quite to the ground, but inside the lodge poles, and tied to them, was a long wide strip of tanned buffalo skin four or five feet high, and long enough to reach around the inside of the lodge, almost from one side of the door to the other.

This strip of tanned skin—made up of several pieces—was so wide that one edge rested on the floor, and reached inward under the beds and seats.

Through the open space between the lodge covering and the lodge lining, fresh air kept passing into the lodge close to the ground and up over the lining and down toward the centre of the lodge, and so furnished draught for the fire. The lodge lining kept this cold air from blowing directly on the occupants of the lodge who sat around the fire. Often the lodge lining was finely painted with pictures of animals, people, and figures of mysterious beings of which one might not speak.

The seats and beds in this home were covered with soft tanned buffalo robes, and at the head and foot of each bed was an inclined back-rest of straight willow twigs, strung together on long lines of sinew and supported in an inclined position by a tripod. buffalo robes often hung over these back-rests. In the spaces between the back-rests, which though they came together at the top were separated at the ground, were kept many of the possessions of the family; the pipe, sacks of tobacco, of paint, “possible sacks”—parfleches for clothing or food, and many smaller articles.

The outside of the lodge was often painted with mysterious figures which the lodge owner believed to have power to bring good luck to him and to his family. Sometimes these figures represented animals—buffalo, deer, and elk—or rocks, mountains, trees, or the puff-balls that grow on the prairie. Sometimes a procession of ravens, marching one after the other, was painted around the circumference of the lodge. The painting might show the tracks of animals, or a number of water animals, apparently chasing each other around the lodge. On either side of the smoke hole at the top were two flaps, or wings, each one supported by a single pole. These were to regulate the draught of the fire in case of a change of wind, and the poles were moved from side to side, changing as the direction of the wind changed. On such wings were often painted groups of white disks which represented some group of stars. At the back of the lodge, high up, just below the place where the lodge poles cross, was often a large round disk representing the sun, and above that a cross, which was the sign of the butterfly, the power that they believe brings sleep. From the ends of the wings, or tied to the tips of the poles which supported them, hung buffalo tails, and sometimes running down from one of these poles to the ground near the door was a string of the sheaths of buffalo hooflets, which rattled as it swung to and fro in the breeze.

Their arms were the bow and arrow, a short spear or lance, with a head of sharpened stone or bone, stone hammers with wooden handles, and knives made of bone or stone, and if of stone, lashed by rawhide or sinew to a split wooden handle.

The hammers were of two sorts: one quite heavy, almost like a sledge-hammer or maul, and with a short handle; the other much lighter, and with a longer, more limber handle. This last was used by men in war as a mace or war club, while the heavier hammer was used by women as an axe to break up fallen trees for firewood; as a hammer to drive tent-pins into the ground, to kill disabled animals, or to break up heavy bones for the marrow they contained.

Piegan Indians and horses, by Edward S. Curtis, 1910

Piegan Indians and horses, by Edward S. Curtis, 1910

These mauls and hammers were usually made by choosing an oval stone and pecking a groove about its shortest diameter. The handles were made by green sticks fitted as closely as possible into the groove, brought together and lashed in position by sinew, the whole being then covered with wet rawhide tightly fitted and sewed. As the rawhide dried, it shrunk and strongly bound together the parts of the weapon.

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