The Blackfeet
Traditional Culture
  Since Time Immemorial
Homeland of the Blackfeet
All My Relations
Camp Life and Seasonal Round
Buffalo Hunt
Further Reading
References Cited

  Contemporary Culture
  Arts and Artists
Tribal Government
Tribal Colleges
Recommended Web Sites

  Relationship with U.S.
  Before the Long Knives
The Long Knives
Making Treaties
The Shrinking Reservation
References Cited

Changes to Blackfeet Reservation Through the 19th Century
Click on a date to the right of the map to see the extent of the Blackfeet Reservation at that time. The reservations, as shown in 1895, are virtually unchanged today.
Badger Valley
Badger Valley at twilight, Ghost Ridge in the distance.
S. Thompson photo
Treaty 7
Siksila camp
Siksika camp at Blackfoot Crossing, ca.1900.
The signing of Treaty 7 occurred at "Blackfoot Crossing" on the Bow River, which is located on the Siksika Reserve east of Calgary, Alberta.
Image courtesy of Glenbow Archives.
Canada Map
Portion of 1888 Dominion of Canada map, showing the section of the Bow River with Blackfoot Crossing marked.
Courtesy of the Glenbow Museum Archives.

Regional map of Blackfoot homelands with present day reservations.
(Samek, 1987).

Great Falls > Culture > The Shrinking Reservation

Life continued on, much as it always had, for Blackfeet people for the first years after the Lame Bull Treaty of 1855. One difference was the addition of an agent, based at Fort Benton, who was assigned to distribute annuities promised by the treaty. The annuities were not always sent, and after years of trade in buffalo robes, this mainstay was less predictable. People starved in 1861, the year the Mullan Road carried newcomers along the old trail between Fort Benton and Fort Walla Walla.

(Raczka: 1979)
1861 - When they eat dogs.
Again, starvation times.
Then with the Gold Rush of 1862, the traditional Blackfeet world began to fall apart. Within a few short years, more than 15,000 miners were working and exploring in and around Blackfeet country. Some traditional hunting grounds were overrun by miners and diseases, for which the people had no resistance. Scarlet fever killed more than 1,000 Blackfeet in 1864.
1865 Treaty
In 1865 a small group of tribal leaders agreed to sell their lands south of the Missouri River to the U.S. government. They sold 2,000 square miles of land for $1 million. The new treaty was never ratified, but with the assent of the Indians, the Executive Order of 1873 set apart a reserve for the joint occupancy of the Gros Ventres, Piegan, Bloods, Blackfeet, and River Crows. This new Great Northern Reservation, defined by an Act of Congress in 1874, was in part composed of territory assigned the Blackfeet by the Treaty of 1855. It did not, however, comprise all of that territory, for the U.S. government moved the southern boundary of the reservation 200 miles northward, opening lands to settlement without any compensation to the tribe.
Massacre of the Small Robes, 1870
As pressures grew, so did intertribal conflicts, especially with the Cree and Assiniboine and with the rapidly growing numbers of settlers. Some bands tried to avoid trouble, yet the young men were hard to control during these difficult times. One of the most peaceful bands was the Small Robes, led by Chief Heavy Runner.
Blackfoot lands in Montana, 1855-74.
Ewers, 1958.

On a cold January morning of 1870, with much suffering in the lodges because of smallpox,Chief Heavy Runner's camp was attacked by U.S. troops. A total of 173 Indians (many of whom were women and children) were killed in retaliation for the killing of a white man by some young Piegans. Some 2,000 Blackfeet died of smallpox that winter.

The Last Buffalo

The last buffalo hunt took place in 1882, south of the Sweet Grass Hills. What Isaac Stevens had predicted–the extinction of the buffalo–had come true. The Blackfeet became completely dependent on government annuities for their survival. Thousands of hungry people moved to the agency on Badger Creek, yet rations were not available. People starved. The winter that followed is still known among the people as "starvation winter." Hundreds of Piegans died. The ridge behind the agency is still known as "Ghost Ridge" because so many people were buried there that year. Since the time of the first treaty, 80 percent of the Piegans had died, and the buffalo were gone. Life would never be the same.

"The End", 1913. Martin S. Garretson.
Courtesy of National Museum of Wildlife Art.

Act of Congress, 1887
With growing numbers of settlers surrounding the shrinking reservation, the U.S. government responded to pressure from white ranchers by negotiating another land treaty with the tribes of the region. These land cession hearings were held in the dead of winter, when many Blackfeet could not attend. A bare majority of Blackfeet leaders passed an agreement to split the Great Northern Reservation into three separate agencies and to relinquish all but 45 square miles. In exchange for $125,000 per year for 10 years, the Blackfeet ceded 17 million acres of their homeland.
Act of Congress, 1895

One final land cession of the 19th century, the "ceded strip," reduced the reservation by another 800,000 acres along the "Backbone of the World." For the Blackfeet this land was like their church. The mountains held gifts from the Creator, provided for their long-term health and well-being. Many plants, animals, minerals, and pure water used in their customary practices are found there, and the high peaks allow seekers to reach toward Creator Sun while staying connected to Mother Earth. White Calf, the Piegan chief, told the treaty commissioners how he felt about the loss of these mountain lands and his other concerns for his people:

White Calf
Image courtesy of Montana Historical Society.

"Chief Mountain is my head. Now my head is cut off. The mountains have been my last refuge. We have been driven here and now we are settled. From Birch Creek to the boundary is what I now give you. I want the timber because in the future my children will need it....The right to hunt...the grazing fish in the mountains...we will sell you the mountain portion of our land....We don’t want our Great Father to ask for anything more. We will have to send you away. We don’t want our lands allotted....There are many little children going to school and getting an education; there is no end to civilizing our children. They are the ones that will get the benefits from these lands" (White Calf in U.S. Senate doc. 118: 1896, from Sept. 1895 proceedings).



The Blackfeet sold this land, now Glacier Park and part of the Lewis and Clark Forest, for $1.5 million with the agreement (codified in Article 5) that tribal lands would not be subjected to allotments.
Blackfoot Lands in
Montana, 1875-Present.

Ewers, 1958.
1912 Allotment of Lands
"The opening of reservation lands to settlement was legislated without the tribe's consent, as per the General Allotment Act. Each enrolled member of the Blackfeet tribe was granted an allotment of land within the reservation. Any lands not accounted for within this allocation were opened for sale to the public. A survey of the reservation identified just over 1.5 million acres, which would be allocated to some 2,500 Blackfeet, leaving nearly 800,000 acres to be opened for settlement" (Samek: 1987).

Often without Blackfeet participation or agreement, this tribe lost approximately half its land base, much of it without compensation.

Background: Portion of 1892 Rand McNally Montana map,
courtesy of Malcolm MacCalman