|"The Blackfeet tipi was sewn together
by sinew, cut from 6-20 buffalo hides. Most painted lodges also
had two areas of geometric
design. A banded area at the bottom, usually in red, represented
the Earth, while unpainted discs within this field symbolized
fallen stars. The second
area, at the top, was painted black, representing the night
sky. Unpainted discs within this area indicated the constellations
of the Great Bear and
the Pleiades. Near the top and at the back of the cover a Maltese
cross representing the morning star or butterfly was painted.
It was thought to
bring powerful dreams to the tipi owner. These mural paintings
portrayed the animal, bird, or spiritual beings that the owner
regarded as his or
her source of power" (Ewers: 1958).
Tipi image © 1993 Apiisoomahka William
Singer III used with permission of Red Crow College.
Blackfeet people are concerned about the use of images
of ceremonies and ceremonial paraphernalia without seeking approval from
relevant individuals. We make every attempt to do so. For more than a
century, visitors have taken pictures to be used for their own purposes,
without permission and without compensation to the people involved. As
such, we are very cognizant about intellectual property rights and getting
approval for saying and showing documents that reflect other's ownership.
We have chosen to use this picture of a Sun Dance lodge, provided by Charlene
Mountain Horse, as an example of an appropriate picture, because it shows
no close-up ceremonial details.
We encourage others to be respectful of the Blackfeet
|Great Falls > Culture > All My Relations
The world of the Blackfeet , their entire universe, is inhabited
by good and evil spirits. The realm of the supernatural is
part of everyday life, without the need to analyze or rationalize
it. They believe in the "Sun Power" as the source
of all power. It is everywhere; in the mountains, lakes, rivers,
birds, and wild animals, and this power
can be transferred to people. The gift, usually in the form
of songs, comes through the medium of some animal, bird, or
whose pity for the person comes when the person demonstrates
his need through fasting. The songs received are means to
contact the spirit
The power bestowed can heal the sick, help the tribe, or
bring success in war. Today, the Blackfeet belief in the spirit
world remains strong.
S. Thompson photo
Spiritual life for the Nitsitapi is not something relegated to
Sundays. It is a way of walking through the world each and every day.
Prayer, fasting, and purification through sweats are regular expressions
of spiritual life. Prayers always begin with words of gratitude.
Jim Kipp describes his spiritual life as a Blackfeet:
"Our personal relationship with Creator (Nah-doo-si), Indian culture,
religion, tradition, language, and living on the 'red path' of our
ancestors is who the Blackfeet People are today. To continue on,
this way of life
depends upon the future generations, our children. This way of life
has been passed down from our Elders who learned from their Elders.
This oral guidance has very strict, but respectful qualities of perpetual
wisdom that will help us. Four important teachings come through all
interpretations of how to live a good life.
· Creator comes first. Without Creator we are nothing. No person,
beings or laws are above Creator.
· Myself. Creator gave me a choice in life – a
'red road' leading to him or the path that is curving,
dangerous, and leads to death. Being
able to live in a respectful way in Creator's name teaches
how to be humble because it acknowledges that Creator's
presence is in everything.
· My family. Doing and participating in holy ceremonies to strengthen
my spiritual life with Creator will help me to love and respect my family.
· Everything else follows these first three in importance.
"The Blackfeet always pray to Creator first, beginning
with words of gratitude for the beauty of the earth and sky,
for family, for health,
and for all
life. After Creator, then prayers expand to include all those
or 'Grandfathers and Grandmothers' (naahks)
who work for Creator and those 'Holy Spirits' who
pity the people, and will hear their prayers. Praying for
'all my relations' is not just family, but includes the
naahks, who are other than human beings; they are
animals, plants, rocks, the entire ecosystem; all included
in 'Mother Earth' and 'Father
"Certain spiritual gifts have been given to the Blackfeet
by Creator, for their tribal identity, such as the sacred pipe
and the sacred medicine
bundles. The people who keep these gifts for the people have
great responsibilities. They are honored members of the community.
These gifts are to be respected,
dignified and honored. For example, the sacred pipe, the
greatest spiritual power, must always be handled by its keeper
with the greatest respect.
Whenever anyone smokes the holy pipe, they are bound by the
"The sweat lodge is one of the gifts that
Creator gave to the Blackfeet. Just like our physical body
becomes unclean and needs a bath, the body's spirit also needs
a cleansing. Everything used in the sweat lodge has to be
gathered in a ceremonial manner, the rocks for the fire, the
sage for the floor, and the willows that form the frame. The
sweat lodge is ideally built along the bank of a river.
"The oval shape of the
sweat lodge is like that of a pregnant woman lying on
her back, gazing up into the heavens. That is one way
to say that the womb of Mother Earth is the sweat lodge.
When entering the lodge from the east it is as though
you are entering Mother Earth's womb.
Sweat lodge frame
on the Belly River
"Once inside, it is dark, but safe.
Participants pray to Creator and Mother Earth to take
pity on them, their children. The head lodgeman sits
in the west direction and splashes the hot rocks in
the center of the lodge with medicine water. After four
rounds of singing and being purified from Creator's
breath with the steam from the holy rocks, all negative
toxins from the person's body and spirit have been taken
by Mother Earth. The pores of the skin are seeping out
mud to represent the origin of where we came from. The
lodgeman utters, "It is time to leave," and
the door-person lifts the flap of the entryway, now
the exit of the sweat lodge. Crawling out of the lodge
the sweaty and red with life people, are now rejuvenated.
Their spirits and bodies have been cleansed. Time has
begun to start a new walk, free from previous negative
energies —just like a baby leaving its mother's
"Traditionally, the Blackfeet religion did not allow
women to participate in sweat lodges. Today, many lodges
are open to any who choose this path" (Kipp:2002).
|Young men enter the world of adulthood by undertaking a quest for
visions, usually at a place high in the mountains. The vision quest
begins with a decision to embark on this journey, which may have been
prompted by a dream. Preparation involves purification through sweating
for four consecutive days.
©Clarence Tillenius, 1988
used with permission
The young man takes along helpers to prepare the sweat lodge, gather
and heat the rocks, and to assist the seeker, as needed. Then the seeker
finds a suitable place, high and isolated, to spend four days and four
nights waiting for a vision. The vision is usually in the form of an
animal or spirit helper who teaches the seeker a power song.
During the Buffalo Days, each tribe of the Blackfeet Confederacy had numerous
The best known societies were the "Bulls", the "Horns", and "Crazy-Dogs",
"Little Birds", the "Braves" and "Kit-Foxes". Each group had its own songs
and dances and its own customs and ceremonial rites.
To become a member of one of these bands, the young man had
to be of proved bravery; "he must have a good heart, honest
and straightforward tongue
and be of a generous nature" (Corbett 1934:35).
Some societies continue today, and young men are still expected to exhibit
these same valued qualities.
Among the Northern Blackfeet bands, women of high character could join
the Motoki Society.
|Sun Dance (Okan)
Sun Dance lodge, Alberta
Charlene Mountain Horse photo
How the Sun Dance Came to the People as told by Ben Calf Robe
The Okan, or Sun Dance, is the Highest Blackfoot ceremony. Held every
summer, when the sarvis berries are ripe, the Okan is a ceremony of
prayer, sacrifice and renewal. It lasts a day and a half, during which
time a hundred songs are sung, each one different from the others.
Ben Calf Robe, MekiApi [Red Man], Siksika Nation, when he was
about 90 years old, told this story of how the first Okan, or Sun Dance,
". . .the way it was told to me. I am going to tell the
about it for the younger generation to be helped.
This is taking place a long time ago. There were no
horses and there was no Okan, yet. Every summer the
People came to camp together in one big circle camp.
This particular day, the girls got tired of playing, so they
just laid back and looked up at the sky. It was evening time,
but it was just like daylight. The moon was full and out, and
all the stars were shining. One pretty young girl who had no husband looked
very hard in one direction. Suddenly
she says: ' Ki yo! [ women's expression of surprise]. That
one star is shining so bright, that is the one that I will marry.'
"The next day was coming to evening when
the same girl went out to gather Buffalo chips with her
mother. On the way back, she had to tie her lace and her
mother told her to hurry for it was getting late. The girl
told her to go ahead. Then she saw a pair of feet in front
of her. She looked up and saw a very handsome young man.
He told her he was the star she said she wanted to marry.
Then he told her to put down the buffalo chips and to stand
on the calf hide that they were wrapped up in. She did
that, and he told her to close her eyes.. When he told
her to open them, they were high up in the sky.
man told her, 'the women come here to dig turnips, and
you can join them, but do not
ever dig up that Big Turnip, because we only eat small
ones.' And so she lived in the sky and she was the wife
of the Sun.
"Every thing went well for some time.
She used to go with the other women to dig turnips. Then
one day she thought she would dig the Big Turnip to see
how large it was. She worked hard with her stick and
dug all around it until it was loose.. Then she took
a good hold of it and she pulled it out. There was a
big hole in the ground and when she looked into it she
could look through the sky and down to earth, below.
She saw the camps of her People and she started to cry.
Old Medicine Lodge,
Two Medicine River
S. Thompson photo
"Her husband figured out that she dug up the Big Turnip
and told her, "I will have to let you go home. But you will take
some things back with you to help your people, to bring them
this is when she was shown about the Sun Dance - the Okan. Because
she was a virtuous girl she was given these things to give to
people.She was taught about the forked- Center Pole and the posts
that go into stand the rawhide that ties them together.
"She was taught the songs for it and what
it means. This was a miracle- a big mystery, how she learned
it all. She was shown the different incense altars and use
of the Earth Paints that go with the Okan. Finally, she was
lowered down to earth with a long rawhide.
"There was a boy on his back, looking
up at the sky. Suddenly, he told his mother, " Nah-ah
( an intimate word for mother and grand mother ), there is something
strange coming down from the sky" and she with others saw it
too. And she went right to her parents' tipi. Pretty soon all the
old wise Elders came to the tipi to hear what she had to say.
K. Lugthart photo
"She told them about the Okan-Sun Dance and
explained the different things that she had been taught. So
they believed her story, the way she explained it. The Wise
Elders counseled and decided to go ahead with a Sun Dance
"It came to be that everything had a
part in the Sun Dance. All the society members come into the
to sing and dance and confess their war deeds. The Weather
Dancers are in there to pray and dance and keep good weather.
The Beaver Men are the leaders, because the songs for the
Sun Dance are like the ones for the Beaver Bundles. The
Holy Pipes go in there to be smoked. It is very mysterious
how all the holy things fit together for the Sun Dance,
once a year" (Calf Robe: 1976).
Wm. Singer III, 1993
Used with permission from Red Crow College