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Even though the Blackfeet may have brought their social customs from the northern forests, they did not differ greatly from those of the other plains people. Each of the three tribes was subdivided into clans, or gentes of blood kin in the male line, there being in the Blackfeet nation perhaps fifty such clans known as Black-Elks, Lone- Fighters, Fat-Roasters, White-Breasts, etc. A man was not permitted by tribal law to marry a woman who belonged to his own clan; and the children of any union belonged always to their mother's clan. Young women were closely guarded. There was little courting. Marriages were arranged by parents, with the consent of near relations. And yet, when possible, the desires of young people were given consideration.
Smoking was a sacred ceremony. Old plains Indians sealed oaths and agreements with the pipe. In smoking, the host or master of ceremonies, filled and lighted the stone pipe, offering its stem first to the sun (the father) and then to the earth (the mother) before smoking, himself. Next he passed the pipe to the guest on his left, "as the sun travels." After smoking, usually taking three deep draughts, this guest handed the pipe to the man on his left, the pipe's stem being kept pointed at the lodge-wall in its movements. And the pipe must not be handed across the doorway. When the man nearest the door on the host's left hand had smoked, the pipe must go back to the "head" of the lodge where the host passed it to the guest on his right, the pipe going, unsmoked to the guest nearest the door on that side. When this guest had smoked he passed the pipe to the guest on his left, so that the pipe again began to move "as the sun travels." If the pipe needed refilling it was handed back to the host who replenished it, the guests passing it along, unsmoked, to the man who had discovered its emptiness. Nobody might properly pass between smokers and the lodge-fire.
Hereditary leadership was unknown. Men became chiefs by their prowess in war; and because he must ever be generous, a chief was usually a poor man. With the Blackfeet, as with the other Indians of the Northwestern plains, a chieftainship had to be maintained by constant demonstration of personal ability. It might easily be lost in a single day, since these independent tribesmen were free to choose their leaders, and were quick to desert a weak or cowardly character. This independence was instilled in the children of the plains people. They were never whipped, or severely punished. The boys were constantly lectured by the old men of the tribes, exhorted to strive for renown as warriors, and to die honorably in battle before old age came to them. The names of tribal heroes were forever upon the tongues of these teachers; and everywhere cowardice was bitterly condemned.
The girls were taught by their mothers and grandmothers to look seriously upon life, to shun the frivolous, and to avoid giggling. With the Blackfeet, women "gave" the sun-dances, the most sacred of their religious ceremonies; and because the "givers" of these sun-dances must have lived exemplary lives to have dared offer dances to the sun, they were forever afterward highly honored by both the men and women of the tribe. "Look, my daughter," a woman would say, "there goes Two-Stars. She is The-Sits-Beside-Him-Woman of White-Wolf. Two summers ago she gave a sun-dance, and she yet lives. If you try to be like her you may some day give a sun-dance, yourself."
The lodges, or tepees, of the plains Indians were the most comfortable transportable shelters ever devised by man. They were made of grained, and partially dressed, buffalo cow skins, from fourteen to twenty-four skins being required for a lodge. Indian women could easily pitch or strike a lodge within a few minutes. In cold weather the lodges were made comfortable, besides being brightened interiorly, by handsomely decorated linings which reached well above the heads of seated occupants, thus protecting them from draughts. From fourteen to twenty-six slender poles were required for each lodge, their length depending upon the height of the lodge. New sets of poles were usually cut each year, since dragging them over the plains in following the buffalo herds wore them out in a season. Lodges were often decorated with picture-stories of medicine-dreams, scalps, and buffalo-tails. In the village each clan, and each individual lodge, had its rightful position, the lodges of clan chieftains being pitched in a small circle within the village-circle, each always occupying its hereditary post.
Indians of the plains respect dignity and love formality. Conventional decorum, easy and masterful, was always evident in the lodges of old plains warriors. From the host's place at the "head" of a lodge his sons sat at his left, according to age; his wives, and their visiting women friends, on his right. A male guest, upon entering a lodge, turned to his right, around the lodge-fire, and was promptly assigned a seat on the host's left, according to his rank as a warrior. If a visitor had a message he stood while delivering it; and he was never interrupted for any reason until he had finished speaking, and had so declared. Once within a lodge even an enemy might speak as he chose without interference or heckling. After leaving the village he must look out for himself, however.
Basketry and the making of pottery were unknown to the Blackfeet. Their weapons, clothing, and robes received most of their artistic attention, the three-pronged design representing the three tribes of the nation being commonly used. Most of their bows were made of ash, or the wood of the chokecherry, their arrows being made of the shoots of service-berry bushes. Their shields were of rawhide taken from the necks of old buffalo-bulls. They would turn an arrow, and are said to have often turned bullets fired from old-fashioned rifles. The old time pipes of the Blackfeet were made of black, or greenish, stone, "straight" pipes sometimes being used in ceremonials.
The men wore shirts, breech-clouts, leggings, and moccasins, the latter soled with rawhide. In summer they wore no head-gear unless attending a ceremonial. In winter the men often wore caps made from the skins of animals or water-fowl. Eagle feathers were often worn by the men, beautiful war-bonnets being made with them. The women wore gowns of dressed deer, antelope, or mountain-sheep, skins that reached nearly to their ankles; and they also wore leggings, moccasins, and decorated belts carrying knives in painted scabbards.