|Our History - Page 2||| Print ||
Page 2 of 6
In the 1880s we came close to losing everyone to the Starvation Winter: Our numbers were diminished to perhaps less than 3,000. This occurred due to the near complete annihilation of the buffalo which represented 90% of our diet. (In the 1870s there we 5,000,000 buffalo on the Plains, five years later they were all but gone.) No one told us the buffalo had been wiped out until it was too late, and no one in Washington, D.C. truly understood how reliant we were on the animal. By the time the federal government realized its tragic mistake, we were dying in droves. Help came too little, too late, and if it weren’t for the good people of Montana rushing us food across nearly impassible terrain, there might today be no Blackfeet Tribe at all.
And of course war with invading white soldiers, against whose numbers and guns we didn’t stand a chance, depleted us in numbers, stature, and spirit at every turn.
In our “Dog Days” (when we use dogs to pull our travois from encampment to encampment) and into the horse and gun era which began about 1750, we relentlessly roamed the Plains following the enormous herds of buffalo. The moment our scouts came back with news of a herd, we would instantly pack up the entire camp and be in pursuit in a matter of minutes. The tipi enabled our mobile lifestyle, and that venerable lodge has never been improved on. In all the world, what other large, lightweight, portable home has proven equal to the tipi’s unique ability to withstands prairie winds so powerful that a strong man can barely stand up, buffer its inhabitants from killing cold, and house a large family in such great comfort, yet be easily taken down or set up in minutes?
Before guns we used arrows and lances and sometimes allied with the Gros Ventre and Sarcee to fight our traditional enemies the Crow, Shoshone, Cree, Sioux, Flathead, and Assiniboin. Once we were mounted and armed with guns, we quickly came to dominate the Northern Plains, pushing the Shoshone, Kootenai, and Flathead to the western side of the Rocky Mountains, and every other challenger to distant domains.
Controlling such a large region, rich in wildlife, made us a natural and necessary trading partner for the fur trappers that started to appear in the mid-18th century. For over 100 years thereafter, trading with European trappers and traders was an important part of our economy and social lives.
But we had long been aggressive warriors and raiders, and so we would sometimes attack trading posts and raid settlements. This terrified settlers, so it was just a matter of time before governments and armies got involved. They were after our land in any case, and they would get it by hook, crook, or force. Our fearsome reputation gave them just the excuse needed to take a hard line with us. So before we knew what had happened we had ceded the vast majority of our lands to the federal government through treaties and other agreements that we were not equipped to negotiate or even understand.
The first treaty, known as Lame Bull’s Treaty, was signed in 1855. More would follow, each taking huge chunks of our traditional land. We resisted as best we could, but retaliation was always disproportionate and murderous. In 1870, for example, a small confrontation sparked by the relentless, illegal encroachment of settlers and speculators resulted in the indiscriminate massacre of 173 women, children, and elderly by the U.S. Cavalry at Heavy Runner's Piegan camp on the Marias River. This was a peaceful camp under the protection of a safe conduct pass. It wasn’t the camp the soldiers were hunting for. A Calvary scout named Kipp frantically shouted to the soldiers that this was the wrong camp and they were about to make a terrible mistake. But bloodlust and hatred cannot be diverted by right or reason, and this was our Wounded Knee, our Sand Creek.
In the end, as a small grace, we ended up with the land that was most sacred to us: our present day reservation. But this was not due to any sort of good will or best intentions on the part of the United States. The simple fact is that the land we wanted most was the land they wanted least.
In 1896 we had the Northern Rockies taken from us for a paltry $1.5 million because speculators believed there were rich minerals to be had. When mineral riches didn’t pan out, this most sacred part of our homeland became Glacier National Park in 1910. As recently as 1925, Glacier National Park was still pressuring us to give up more land surrounding the Park.