Legends of The Ancient Blackfoot

The Blackfoot bow was about four feet long. Its string was of twisted sinew and it was backed with sinew. This gave the bow great power, so that the arrow went with much force. The arrows were straight shoots of the service berry or cherry, and the manufacture of arrows was the chief employment of many of the men of middle life. Each arrow by the same maker was precisely like every other arrow he made. Each arrow maker tried hard to make good arrows. It was a fine thing to be known as a maker of good arrows.

The shoots for the arrow shafts were brought into the lodge, peeled, smoothed roughly, tied up in bundles, and hung up to dry. After they were dried, the bundles were taken down and each shaft was smoothed and reduced to a proper thickness by the use of a grooved piece of sand-stone, which acted on the arrow like sandpaper. After they were of the right thickness, they were straightened by bending with the hands, and sometimes with the teeth, and were then passed through a circular hole drilled in a rib, or in a mountain sheep’s horn, which acted in part as a gauge of the size and also as a smoother, for if in passing through the hole the arrow fitted tightly, the shaft received a good polish.

The three grooves which always were found in the Blackfoot arrows were made by pushing the shaft through a round hole drilled in a rib, which, however, had one or more projections left on the inside. These projections pressed into the soft wood and made the grooves, which were in every arrow. The feathers were three in number. They were put on with a glue, made by boiling scraps of dried rawhide, and were held in place by wrappings of sinew. The heads of the arrows were made of stone or bone or horn. The flint points were often highly worked and very beautiful, being broken from larger flints by sharp blows of a stone hammer, and after they had been shaped the edges were worked sharp by flaking with an implement of bone or horn. The points made of horn or bone were ground sharp by rubbing on a stone. A notch was cut in the end of the arrow shaft and the shank of the arrow point set in that. The arrow heads were firmly fixed to the shaft by glue and by sinew wrapping.

Although the Blackfoot lived almost altogether on the flesh of birds or animals, yet they had some vegetable food. This was chiefly berries—of which in summer the women collected great quantities and dried them for winter use—and roots, the gathering of which at the proper season of the year occupied much of the time of women and young girls. These roots were unearthed by a long, sharp-pointed stick, called a root digger. Some of the roots were eaten as soon as collected, while others were dried and stored for use in winter.

Buffalo at water, Detroit Publishing Company, 1905

Buffalo at water, Detroit Publishing Company, 1905

After they reached the plains, the main food of the Blackfoot was the buffalo, which they killed in large numbers when everything went right. Many of the streams in the Blackfoot country run through wide, deep valleys bordered on either side by cliffs, or broken precipices, falling sharply from the high prairie above. Long ago the Blackfoot must have learned that it was possible to make the buffalo jump over these cliffs, and that in the fall on the rocks below numbers would be killed or crippled. No doubt after this had been practiced for a time, there came to some one the idea of building at the foot of such a cliff where the buffalo were run over, a fence which would form a corral or pound, and which would hold all the buffalo that were jumped over the cliff. This corral they called piskun.

It is often said that the buffalo were driven over these precipices, but this is true only in part. Like most wild animals, buffalo are inquisitive. It was not difficult to excite their curiosity, and when they saw something they did not recognize, they were anxious to find out what it was.

When run into the piskun, the buffalo were really drawn by curiosity almost to the jumping point, and between two long diverging lines of people, who kept hidden until after the buffalo had passed them, and then rose and showed themselves and tried to frighten the animals. Now, to be sure, for the short distance that remained between the place where they were alarmed and the place where they jumped, the buffalo were driven. Any attempt on the open prairie to drive buffalo in one direction or another would be certain to fail. The animals would go where they wished to. They would not be driven, though often they might be led.

To the people the capture of food was the most important thing in life, and they put forth every effort to accomplish it. For this reason it came about that the effort to capture buffalo was preceded usually by religious ceremonies, in which many prayers were offered to the powers of the earth, the sky, and the waters, many sacrifices made, and sacred objects, like the buffalo stone, were displayed.

When the day for the hunt came, the man who was to bring the buffalo left the camp early in the morning, climbed the rocky bluffs to the high prairie, and journeyed toward some near-by herd of buffalo, that had been located the day before by himself or by other young men. He approached the buffalo as nearly as he could without frightening them, and then, attracting the attention of some of the animals by uttering certain calls, tossed into the air his buffalo robe or some smaller object. As soon as the buffalo began to look at him, he retreated slowly in the direction of the piskun, but continued to call and to attract their attention by showing himself and then disappearing. Soon, some of the buffalo began to walk toward him, and others began to look and to follow those that had first started, so that before long the whole herd of fifty or a hundred animals might be walking or sometimes trotting after him. The more rapidly the buffalo came on, the faster the man ran—and sometimes it was a hard matter for him to keep ahead of the herd—until he had got far within the wings and near to the cliff. If there seemed danger that he would be overtaken, he watched his chance and either at some low place quickly dodged out of the line in which the buffalo were running, or hid behind one of the piles of stones of which the wings were formed, or, if he had time, slipped over the rocky wall at the valley’s edge, so as to get out of the way of the approaching herd.

As soon as the buffalo had come well within the diverging lines of people who were hidden behind the piles of stones called wings, those whom the buffalo passed rose up from their places of concealment, and by yells and shouts and the waving of their robes frightened the buffalo, so that they quite forgot their curiosity in the terror that now replaced it. When the leaders reached the brink of the cliff, they could not stop.

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