Manataka American Indian Council












As the largest and most dominant Indian tribe in Montana, the Blackfeet have played a significant role in the state's history.  Like so many of the Great Plains tribes, the Blackfeet originally lived far to the east in the area north of the Great Lakes.  It is thought they even ranged as far east as Labrador.  Therefore, anthropologists sometimes classify them in prehistory as one of the eastern woodlands tribes.  Like the Cheyenne, Gros Ventre and many others, the Blackfeet are members of the Algonquin linguistic group.


After arrival of the Europeans along the Eastern seashore in the 1600's it is believed that the Blackfeet were probably one of the first tribes to begin moving west.  Pushed westward, initially by their traditional enemies, the Cree, the Blackfeet soon were roaming over the huge  portion of the northern plains from northern Saskachenewan and central Alberta to the Rockies, the head waters of the Missouri and as far south as today's prairie fires.

There is some controversy about the origins of the name Blackfeet or Siksika, which probably was derived from the blackened moccasins Blackfeet traditionally wore.  The dark hue may have been painted purposely or the footwear may have been darkened by prairie fires.

It is thought that the Blackfeet Nation has always been loose confederacy of three semi-independent tribes.  The southern tribe was Piegan, the central groups the Bloods and the northern division the North Blackfeet.  Today, the descendents of the Piegans live on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana, and the Bloods and North Blackfeet live on the Canadian reservations (reserves) in Alberta.  Although there were some differences among the Blackfeet groups, all spoke a common language, had a common culture and more or less viewed the entire Blackfeet territory as their own.

When three groups originally emerged onto the Great Plains, they quickly shed the life of woodland hunters and food gathers and adopted the nomadic lifestyle for the Plains Indian.  Originally, the dog was their beast of burden, pulling travois in the Blackfeet's search for buffalo.

At the end of the 17th century, most Blackfeet were in what is now the Province Saskatchewan.  In those days, before they had the horse, driving buffalo over the "piskun" or buffalo jump, it was the common way of harvesting buffalo.  Long bows, lances and stone clubs were used to make the final kill.

Blackfeet typically traveled across the Northern Plains in bands 20-30 people, which seemed to be most effective number for hunting buffalo.  However, the tribes would come together for various ceremonies and rituals like the sun dance or medicine lodge ceremony and to trade, separating again for the winter.  Each band was led by a Blackfeet Chief.  It is debated though, who introduced horses to the Blackfeet.  Some believe that the Blackfeet first got them from Shoshones to the South.  But most historians believe their first horses came from the Shoshone to the south.  But most historians believe their first horses came from the west through encounters with Kootenai, Flathead and Nez Perce.  Soon after the Blackfeet acquired horses, they also obtained guns by trading beaver pelts and buffalo hides with French fur traders.


1700's Blackfeet probably living in valley of the Northern Saskatchewan River near the Eagle Hills in Canada.  Hunt buffalo on foot with bows and arrows.
1730 Blackfeet attacked by Shoshone who are on horseback.  First time the Blackfeet have seen horses which they call "elk dogs."
1730-50 Blackfeet probably acquired their first horses in peaceful trade with their neighbors, the Flathead, Kootenai, and Nez Perce.
1780 Hudson Bay Company builds Buckingham House on the Saskatchewan River in Canada, reaching Blackfeet country.  Blackfeet obtain guns through trade.
1781 Small pox epidemic sweeps through Blackfeet country, killing hundreds.
1780-1805 Blackfeet almost exterminate the Shoshone in battles over hunting territory
1787 Blackfeet warriors journey south toward Santa Fe.  Encounter Spanish miners and steal their horses.


All of these new items produced a technical and cultural revolution for the Blackfeet.  Furthermore, they soon became perhaps the best horsemen of all the Great Plains Indian nations.  They rapidly and aggressively expanded their territory by pushing the Shoshone to the southwestern corner of Montana Territory and pushing the Flathead and Kootenai across the Continental Divide into the western valleys of the territory.  Historians speculate that in this advance west across the plains the Piegans were the vanguard, with the Bloods guarding both the northern and southern flanks, and the North Blackfeet were the last to move west, protecting the rear guard against the Cree and Chippewa.

By 1780, there were as many as 15,000 members of the Blackfeet Nation.  Their hunting grounds had shrunk somewhat, since other tribes also had obtained guns and horses, which made it difficult to maintain such large territorial borders.  Nevertheless, the Blackfeet, the premier wayfaring tribe of the northern plains, were battling almost everyone on the prairies by the 1800s.  Their large numbers, horse skills and marksmanship enabled them to continue to be the dominant tribe on Montana's northern plains.

When Lewis and Clark moved through Montana in 1805 and 1806, Piegans controlled all of north-central Montana.  In June of 1806 Captain Lewis caught a party of Gros Ventre, thought to be Blackfeet, near the mouth of the Milk River trying to steal some of the exploration party's guns.  In the ensuing skirmish two Indians were killed, projecting in the minds of Non-Indians the image of the Blackfeet as hard-nosed warriors and scoundrels unfriendly toward white people.

The Blackfeet didn't particularly like American fur trappers, by their hostility toward the Missouri Fur Company, which tried to open a trading post in Blackfeet Country during the year of 1810 and immediately had to close down.  It was re-opened in 1821, only to close again.  Finally, in 1832, the American Fur Company opened an outpost, called Fort Piegan, on the Missouri River near the mouth of the Marias River.  By then the Blackfeet had tempered their dislike for these intruders because the Indians enjoyed the goods that traders brought with them.  Besides, the American trappers had adopted the British trade systems the Indians knew in Canada.  This was far more palatable to the Blackfeet then the "Big Knife" American trappers of a few years before who were interested in only trapping and ignored a viable trade relationship with Indians.


1806 Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis and Clark) encounters Blackfeet (Piegan) at the junction of Two Medicine River and Badger Creek.  Lewis kills one Piegan who was trying to steal a gun. 
1809 Trader Alexander Henry compiles a census of the Blackfeet, finding a total of 5,200 people among the Piegan, Blackfeet, and Blood tribes.
1824 The Bureau of Indian Affairs established within the U.S. War Department.
1831 First peaceful trade between the Americans and Blackfeet by Blackfeet by Kenneth McKenzie. 
1831 Blackfeet horse raiders recorded at Arkansas River in southern Colorado.
1833 Prince Maxmillian, a German scientist-explorer, and Karl Bodner, a Swiss artist, spend a month with the Blackfeet at Fort McKenzie.  Maxmillian becomes the first white observer to describe the Blackfeet men's societies;  Bodner paints portraits of Blackfeet leaders. 
1837 Second smallpox epidemic kills nearly 6,000 Blackfeet, two-thirds of the total population.
1844 Blackfeet kill a trader.  Traders retaliate.
1846 Father DeSmet conducts the first Catholic Mass among the Blackfeet, mainly children are baptized.
1849 War party of 800 Blackfeet attack Assiniboine horse  raiders and kill 52.

From 1840 to 1860, the three Blackfeet Tribes became more distinct and their home regions better defined.  The Bloods and North Blackfeet stayed north of the Canadian border and the Piegan lived south of the Border.  Although the Piegan Blackfeet were not involved directly in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, the federal government named them as one of the tribes authorized to use the huge part of Montana north of the Missouri River and east of the Continental Divide.  This treaty formed the eventual Blackfeet Reservation.

In 1855, the hostility between the Blackfeet and the U.S. government culminated in the Baker Massacre.  This incident was precipitated by a band of Piegans having killed a prominent settler, Malcolm Clark, outside of Helena in the Fall of 1869.  The army decided to retaliate that winter, so Colonel E.M. Baker departed from Fort Shaw and went north to the Marias River and in a surprise attack on January 23, 1870, killed almost all of Heavy Runner's band--mostly women and children who were ill with smallpox.

Although Baker was supposed to attack the band of Mountain Chief and not that of the peaceful Heavy Runner, the massacre did stop the Piegans from making further raids on white settlements.  The Piegan and Blackfeet continued to hunt buffalo as best they could.  On what remained of their lands north of the Missouri.  However, their territory shrank again by President Ulysses S. Grant's executive orders of 1873 and 1874, removing the land between Marias River on the north and Sun River on the south from the Blackfeet.

In 1877, the Bloods and the north Blackfeet signed a Treaty Number Seven with the Canadian government, restricting them to designated reservations in Alberta.  The Piegan Blackfeet remained south of the 49th parallel, occupying part of the vast reservation north of the Missouri and Marias rivers.

Even though, in 1880-1881, the Blackfeet still had some successful buffalo hunts, their staff of like had been virtually eliminated.  By the winter of 1882, the Blackfeet were destitute.  They were forced suddenly to rely on their enemy, the U.S. government.  That winter more than 600 Blackfeet died of starvation.

It was this desperate situation that led the Piegan leaders, White Calf and Three Suns to sit down with a United States treaty commission in 1887 to again sell part of the Reservation for survival needs.  The Sweetgrass Hills Treaty was agreed to and was ratified by Congress in 1888.  This land agreement broke up the big northern Montana Indian reservation and set up the reservations of Fort Peck, Fort Belknap and Blackfeet with more or less their present day borders.


"Lame Bull's Treaty is signed.  As first such peace treaty between the Blackfeet and  the US Government it defines the boundaries of "The Blackfeet Nation."


 White settlers begin to enter Blackfeet country.


Annuity payments from the US Government to the Blackfeet do not arrive.  Blackfeet send letter of protest to Washington.


Fighting breaks out between the Blackfeet and white settlers.


Malcolm Clark killed by Piegan warriors in retaliation for the killing of Mountain Chief's brother.


Massacre on the Marias River.  U.S. Soldiers mistakenly attack the camp of Heavy Runner, a friendly chief, while looking for the murderers of Clark.  Over 200 killed, 140 women and children captured.  Blackfeet never face the U.S. Army in battle again.


First school for Blackfeet children opened at Teton River Agency.


By act of Congress, the Blackfeet reservation boundary moved northward to Birch Creek-Marias River line.  The Blackfeet are neither consulted nor remunerated.


Agent John Wood urges the Blackfeet to organize.  Little Plume elected as head chief, Generous Women and White Calf as subordinate chiefs. New tribal code written.


Prairie fires destroy grasslands west of Canada's Cypress Hills, driving the great buffalo herds south into Montana, never to return north again.


Blackfeet winter buffalo hunt in Montana is successful. No hint that the buffalo would disappear.


Starvation Winter. Buffalo herds suddenly disappear. 600 Blackfeet starve during the winter and spring.  The Blackfeet become sedentary people, dependent on government rations.


First group of Blackfeet admitted to Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.


Boarding school for the Blackfeet opens at Willow Creek, west of present-day Browning.


Completion for the Great Northern Transcontinental Railroad through Blackfeet country.


Blackfeet sell the land that is to become Glacier National Park for the sum of $1,500,00 to be paid at $150,000 per year for ten years.

From a reservation that once took in almost two-thirds of Eastern Montana, the Blackfeet now found themselves on a small piece of land in the northwestern corner of Montana's Great Plains.  In return the Blackfeet got tools, equipment and cattle to help them become self-sufficient as farmers and ranchers.  However, the nearly nomadic hunters did not take to farming nor was it a lucrative occupation on the marginal land of the reservation.  Once again, in 1885, the federal government offered a treaty; and took more Blackfeet land, seeking valuable minerals in the western portion of the reservation in what is now Glacier National Park.

George Bird Grinnell, a friend of the Blackfeet, and two other officials made up the treaty commission.  After heated discussion the Blackfeet were pressured into selling the scenic and revered portion of the reservation.  When minerals were not found, this land in 1910 became part of Glacier National Park from the Continental Divide to the boundary of the reservation.

By the time the Great Northern Railroad was built across the reservation in 1890-1891, the Blackfeet bore little resemblance to the fiercely proud and majestic tribe that had dominated the Montana plains only a few decades before.  With no buffalo, a reduced land base, the iron horse cutting the reservation in two and non-Indian trespass for cattle grazing, mining and timber cutting, the Blackfeet at the turn of the century were in a sad state of affairs.

Even though most Blackfeet and non-Indian observers recognized that the reservation lands were far more conducive to raising cattle than to farming, Indian agents continued to try to turn the Blackfeet into farming people.  Agents argued that sedentary family farm-life was the Blackfeet individuals way to self-sufficiency and that, with irrigation, the arid plains could be made productive.  In 1907, the U.S. government gave the Blackfeet the authority to allot lands to individual families on the reservation, and a year later, it started building a large irrigation project.  The allotment process was completed in 1911 and bitterly contested by recalcitrant tribal members.  Finally in 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed legislation repealing the 1907 Blackfeet allotment act, returning all surplus lands to the tribe.  Without Wilson's intervention the tribe and its members would have very little of the Blackfeet reservation today.  Allottees were selling land to Non-Indians just to survive.



White Calf, last head chief of the Piegan Blackfeet, dies while visiting Washington D.C.


U.S. Census reports that 2,268 Indians are living on the Blackfeet reservation, about the same number that lived there in 1885.


U.S. policy to treat the Indian reservation as property of the entire tribe is reversed in favor of a policy of allotment.   Blackfeet reservation land is divided among individual Indians, each receiving 320 acres, held in trust by the  government. 


Blackfeet cattle herds wiped out by a severe winter.  Starvation follows.


 American Indians become citizens of the United States.


Congress passes the Indian Reorganization Act.  Blackfeet Tribal Council formed.


Museum of the Plains Indian opens to the public in Browning.


President, Lyndon B. Johnson's message, "The Forgotten American" advocates Indian tribal self-determination and rejection of the Federal policy of termini nation.


Pencil factory begins business on the Blackfeet reservation.


Earl Old Person made the chief of the Blackfeet Nation.


Indian Child Welfare Act passed by Congress, granting tribal governments authority in child custody cases.


All Montana public school teachers on or near Indian reservations required to have a background in Native American Studies.


Although big irrigation projects were proposed and allotment took place, by 1915 the federal government changed its farming policy on Blackfeet toward an emphasis on ranching.  But by 1919, a drought eliminated any economic progress that had been started with reservation farming and ranching.  By the early 1920's, the Blackfeet's fragile economy was in shambles with more than two thirds of their members directly reliant on federal handouts.  A succession of Indian Agents tried to farming and ranching started again in ensuing years.  This included a Five-Year Industrial Plan begun in 1921, based on farming, the produced some positive results, oil was discovered also in 1921, but it was not seen as a great new economic self-sufficiency opportunity at the time.  Timber harvesting also began, but provided little employment and income to the Blackfeet.  Widespread poverty continued throughout the 1920's and when Montana Senator Burton Wheeler visited the Blackfeet reservation in 1928, he found deplorable conditions.

The Depression years brought employment and resource improvement through Indian Division of the Civilian Conservation Corps.  The reservation's range and forests were improved and more jobs were available than at any time since the creation of the reservation.  The Blackfeet re-organized under the 1934 Indian Re-Organization Act, the land allotment process was terminated, and there was no further wholesale disposal of reservation lands to Non-Indians.

Vocational training programs and job placement efforts for Blackfeet tribal members who wanted to live off-reservation were promoted and instituted in the 1940's and early 1950's.  There was some talk of federal termination of the reservation, but no real action occurred because the tribe continued to be in dreadful economic state despite the fact that oil leasing and farming was beginning to bring in some revenue for tribal needs.

In 1964, a disastrous flood ripped down Two Medicine River Dam, killing 30 Blackfeet and leaving hundreds homeless.  This proved to be catalyst in getting a huge new housing program started along with a major industrial development program.  The effects of Great Society programs then were felt on the reservation.  They provided temporary relief in certain areas of tribal life as schools were built, hospital facilities improved and adequate housing was made available to more trial members.  The Community Action Program, Neighborhood Youth Corps, VISTA and Senior Citizen Programs provided assistance to the tribe, as did a series of Economic Development Administration projects.  All of this, plus the increasing economic impact of oil and gas revenues, have provided hope for the Blackfeet.  Today, the Blackfeet still face severe unemployment problems and fundamental issues regarding treaty and water rights.  But thanks to oil and gas and improving tribal leadership, the tribe is in a position to realize a bright future.


As of December 1, 2001, Blackfeet tribal enrollment figures showed that there are 15, 441 tribal members with approximately 8,000 living of the reservation.  Enrollment is determined by blood quantum, with one-fourth being the minimum requirement.



The reservation encompasses 1,462,640 acres with a little more than 555,000 acres being owned by non-Indians.  The rest is either allotted to tribal members or is owned by the Tribe.

The Wisconsin Glacier Period once covered the reservation with glaciers from that  period of time.  Remnants of old glacial waterways, and benches, are easily seen throughout the reservation.  The low point on the reservation is 3,400' and the highest is over 9,000 feet.

Before 1945 little logging occurred and most of dead falls was for use by tribal members.  In that year, the first forest-management plan was put together.  It was suggested an annual cut of slightly more than one million board feet a year.  In the 1972 forest management plan,  a more accelerated cutting plan was suggested, with as much as 6 to 12 million board feet a year to be harvested.  In 1980 this was reduced to 3 million board feet per year.  Obviously, timber is not a large resource on the reservation.  Furthermore, the distance from markets and recent market fluctuations in the forest products industry has prevented the tribe from cutting at the maximum end of its allowable cut.  Nevertheless, and despite fickle markets, the tribe has been trying to attract a wood-products manufacturing company on the reservation.

In the fall of 1984, a fire consumed 3,400 acres of Blackfeet timber.  This drastically changed the total amount of the tribe's commercial forest acreage and demonstrated how fragile a resource a small timber base can be.


Because the reservation includes both mountains and high plains, there is a great diversity in wildlife populations, elk, deer antelope, mountain goat, black and grizzly bear, mountain lion and some bighorn sheep are found on the reservation.  Strict regulations have been enacted covering non-tribal members, who are allowed over hunting upland birds and waterfowl.  These are not well enforced and have allowed over hunting and lower than normal population of big game animals.  There are excellent sport fisheries on Blackfeet, particularly in Lower Two Medicine, Lower St. Mary's and Duck Lake.  Trout, salmon, grayling and northern pike are found on the reservation.  All are subject to good tribal regulations and have been managed well by the Tribal Fish & Wildlife Department.



Oil was discovered on the reservation in 1921, but did not become a major economic factor until after World War II.  Most of the oil reserves are found on the eastern edge of the reservation in the Cut Bank and Reagan fields.  However, oil was recently found near the west boundary at Two Medicine and East Glacier.  As of 1982, 238,000 acres of land were under a total of 920 leases.  At that time, there were 643 producing oil wells and 47 producing gas wells.  Production exceeds 50 million barrels a year.

At least 90 percent of the annual income of the tribe is from oil and gas.  Therefore, the demand and price for oil and gas greatly affect the tribe's economic situation.  Some of the largest energy companies in the world have oil leases on the reservation.  Oil and gas leasing practices on the reservation have not favored the tribe.  However, a new leasing contract with Damson Oil in 1975 made leasing much more advantageous to the Blackfeet.  As a result of this contract, the tribe is allowed to participate in management decisions and profit sharing.  In return the tribe assumes some of the financial risks.  The Damson contract has encouraged the Blackfeet to ensure that other oil and gas leases involve the tribe and that royalties and bonuses are more equitable.

In 1981 some discrepancies were uncovered in the accounting of how much oil and gas was being taken off the Blackfeet reservation.  At the time, oil production logs were left solely to the oil and gas companies.  A much publicized case of "missing run tickets" made the tribe's realize how much it needed to monitor closely exploration and production.  Today the tribe's oil and gas office has access to all seismic data, monitors all seismic activity and keeps a close watch on all production.  The office also has employed a tribal elders committee that monitors all lease sales and seismic activity, so that they can promote all leases and seismic activity, so that sacred and religious sites, important in Blackfeet history and traditions, are not damaged.

Besides all of this monitoring the Blackfeet have several joint ventures with energy companies.  They also have developed their venture based on geological, seismic and production information gathered from gas exploration and production activities, so that they can promote their own expertise for profit with oil companies that are entering into new leases on the reservation.


There is more than 3 million tons of sub-bituminous coal estimated to be located on the reservation.  Although, this is adequate for domestic use, it is not enough for any sizeable commercial mine. (for example, Westmoreland Resources on the Crow ceded strip that has the capacity to mine 11 million tons per year for at least 20 years)  A source of Betonies (an adhesive) and titaniferous magnetic (used in the hardening of steel) have been found, but due to poor markets, accessibility and the limited size of the reserves, there has been no development.



The proximity to Glacier National Park provides a unique opportunity for Blackfeet people, in the more than 2.3 million people drive through the reservation each year while visiting Glacier National Park.  There are tribal campgrounds such as Chewing Blackbone, Red Eagle and Duck Lake, and many others that are privately owned by the Tribe, local businesses and individuals.  The Museum of the Plains Indian, at Browning, has excellent dioramas of ancient Plains Indian Life.  The reservation has several buffalo jump sites and approximately 175 miles of rivers and streams and eight major lakes, the reservation also has great potential for more recreation and tourist development.

The annual celebrations of the Blackfeet highlighted by the North American Indian Days Celebration, annually begins the second Thursday of July through Sunday.  The Heart Butte Indian Days is held annually the second Thursday through Sunday of August.  All of these events involve dancing, singing, drumming, stick games, give-aways and rodeos.