Program 208 – Historical Introduction

George Catlin.

George Catlin Stu-mick-o-súcks, Buffalo Bull's Back Fat, Head Chief, Blood Tribe, 1832 Blackfoot/Kainai Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr

The Blackfeet

with Arlie Neskahi

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From the journal of William Clark::
Meriwether Lewis, July 26th, 1806. I had scarcely ascended the hills before I discovered to my left at a distance of a mile an assemblage of about 30 horses. I halted and used my spyglass by the help of which I discovered several Indians on the top of an eminence just above them… This was a very unpleasant sight, however I resolved to make the best of our situation and to approach them in a friendly manner.

Arlie Neskahi:
Welcome to Wisdom of the Elders. I’m Arlie Neskahi.

It was midsummer. Rain fell, obscuring the mountains. The young Piegan warriors, returning from a successful horse raid against the Crow, had stopped at the two medicine river to water their stock. They were a half day ride from their home camp. One of them may have made a vow to the keeper of one of the sacred bundles of the Blackfeet, that upon his return, the keeper would hold a Ceremony to give thanks for his victory.

A sentry noticed a tall white man with a rifle walking in the brush along the river. He was dressed like one of the French traders from the north who sold them guns. He seemed to be tracking an animal, as every now and again he stooped and looked at the ground. Then they caught sight of three more men advancing across the bottom. One of the men held a flag of red stripes, and a blue field of stars. Some of the warriors were sent to gather their captured horses and return to the hill to defend their position. Another rider mounted his horse and galloped at full speed to within a hundred paces of the advancing men, where he stopped and studied them. One of the white men got off his horse and beckoned. But the young warrior spun around and raced back to report.

Makoce Wakan
Red Thunder
Red Thunder
Eagle Thunder

Images below are from the National Gallery of Art:
Click for larger view:

Two Blackfoot Warriors and a Woman, George Catlin

George Catlin American, 1796 - 1872 Two Blackfoot Warriors and a Woman, 1861/1869 oil on card mounted on paperboard, 46.7 x 61.5 cm (18 3/8 x 24 1/4 in.) Paul Mellon Collection 1965.16.27

It was July 1806, the return journey of the Corps of Discovery. While Clark had taken the main body of the Corps on a southern route through Crow country, Lewis took a small group of men to seek the headwaters of the Marias River in order to determine the northern most reach of the Missouri watershed.

Reaching the Two Medicine River, at a point just 12 miles south of present day Browning, Montana, Lewis came upon the small party of Piegan Blackfeet. It was an encounter that would result in the only Native fatality during the entire expedition. But that death would mar Blackfeet/American relations for decades to come.

Some say the eight Piegan warriors who watched Lewis and his men were no older than 13 to 19 years of age. They rode toward Lewis, got off their horses and shook hands with the corpsmen in a friendly manner. That evening, they sat in a shelter with the Captain, smoked and, through Droulliard’s sign language, shared some mis-information. Lewis told the Piegan he had come to their country to ask the Blackfeet to make peace with their enemies. The Piegan claimed they were Gros Ventre hunters and had three chiefs among them. Lewis gave them some trinkets, and to the one named Sidehill Calf, he gave a peace medal.

A Day Before Tomorrow
Visions and Rhythms, Vol. 2
Natural Visions

Three Blackfoot Men, George Catln

George Catlin American, 1796 - 1872 Three Blackfoot Men, 1855/1869 oil on card mounted on paperboard, 46.1 x 62 cm (18 1/8 x 24 3/8 in.) Paul Mellon Collection 1965.16.29

The next morning, as the corpsmen slept, the Piegan warriors attempted to capture their guns. In the confusion that followed, Reuben Fields wrestled his brother’s gun from the hands of Sidehill Calf and stabbed him in the heart with his hunting knife. The boy ran fifteen paces and fell dead. Lewis shot another boy in the belly, a wound that was probably fatal. Later, when Lewis examined the body of Sidehill Calf, he found the peace medal he had given him still around his neck. He left the medal on his body “so that they might be informed who we were.”

The Blackfeet are made up of three politically independent tribes, the Pikuni, or Piegan, the Kainah, or Blood, and the Siksika, or Northern Blackfoot. The three tribes speak the same Algonkian dialect and share the same customs. Long ago, they moved from the Great Lakes region onto the Northern Plains. Their oral history is filled with stories of the dog days, before the horse, when dogs were the principle beast of burden and the buffalo were hunted by driving them off cliffs. Today, they live east of the Glacier Mountain range in northern Montana and Alberta.

I’m Arlie Nesakhi, And this is Wisdom of the Elders.