Full Circle: The Subsistence Path of the American Blackfeet from 1880 to 1920
"Between 1880 and 1910 the federal government pursued one of the most intense and persistent efforts in social engineering the nation had ever witnessed. The government's goal was no less than the transformation of an entire race. Driven by righteous self-confidence and firm in their convictions, government officials and private reform groups initiated a program to convert the American Indians from savage warriors to sedentary farmers."
Thomas Wessel, "Agent of Acculturation"
"It was as if the earth had swallowed up the animals. Where once there were rivers of dark blackhorns, now there were none. . . . Then he saw the lodges pitched around the square compound and there was snow on the ground. He saw people standing around the tipis and the buildings. . . . Some had scarves tied around their heads. Many had scraps of cloth tied around their feet. They were a pitiful people, and Fools Crow did not recognize them."
James Welch, Fools Crow
The American Blackfeet, or Southern Pikuni, were once among the largest and most powerful northern Plains Indians. They are the southernmost division of a larger group of tribes known collectively as the Blackfeet Nation. Before 1882, their culture revolved around the enormous bison herds that roamed Montana and the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan. From 1750 until the early 1880's, the Pikuni moved with the seasons, following the bison herds and stealing horses from neighboring tribes. They were a vigorous and self-determined tribe that flourished under the influences of a booming bison robe economy between 1840 and 1882. But at the height of their power the Blackfeet civilization suffered a catastrophic blow, the extinction of the bison herds from the northern plains. The loss of the Blackfeet "staff of life" resulted in their sudden and total reliance on the United States government for their very existence. Sadly for the Blackfeet, the United States government was largely ill-prepared to receive them.
The years between 1882 and 1920 were not entirely bleak, however, and they proved that the Pikuni could produce for themselves given the chance. But the efforts of the U.S. government provided as many obstacles as they did aid. The government approached the issue of promoting Blackfeet self-sufficiency in various ways. The driving force of policy makers and reformers alike was the cultural genocide of American Indians and the opening of Indian held territory to whites. While the government expressed the desire to create opportunities for Blackfeet individuals, the execution of this policy was largely haphazard and ignorant of environmental and human conditions unique to the Pikuni situation in Montana. From 1882 to 1920, the Blackfeet traveled a path the led full circle, from nomadic self-sufficiency to utter dependence, to a measure of self-reliance before a return to dependence.
The separation of the Pikuni from the bison occurred between 1882 and 1884. When the bison herds disappeared from the northern ranges, so too did the culture they had helped create and nourish. There were two new arterial paths available to the Pikuni's long term survival; agriculture and cattle ranching. The introduction and development of these new subsistence paths, along with the lesser industries and employment opportunities they produced, were heavily influenced by an evolving United States policy towards Indians of the time, initiatives like the General Allotment Act of 1887 and the Burke Law of 1906, and their specific application to the Blackfeet. But it also includes the individual agents as well due to their wide latitude in the application, promotion and execution of official policy. The most immediate influences on Pikuni subsistence, however, came from Montana's seasonal extremities, the needs and aspirations of local white settlers, ranchers and politicians, and the persistence of traditional ideas in Pikuni culture after the loss of the bison.
In 1855 Blackfeet territory was defined by treaty with the United States government, a treaty designed to end the tribal warfare in the region. Nestled up against the eastern portion of the Rocky Mountains, Blackfeet country originally spread north into the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, south to the Yellowstone River and east along the Missouri River to encompass some 34,000 square miles. The "Backbone-of-the-World" as the Rockies were known to the Pikuni, gave birth to a number of alluvial river valleys that spread east to feed the Missouri River. The river valleys provided heavy timber and winter feed and protection for bison and other game. The valleys stretched east and slowly gave way to the high prairie and wide expanses of billowing grasslands.
The land supported great herds of bison that migrated seasonally from the Yellowstone Valley to Alberta, as well as antelope, elk, moose, and other small game. Aside from the wild grasses, the region also seasonally offered wild strains of camas root, potato, onion and turnips as well as service berries and wild cherries. It was a rugged world with long, cold winters often followed by flooding and droughts. Hot summer prairie winds or the occasional June freeze often made summer temperatures extreme. The civilization that flourished under the vagaries of these conditions was shaped by its collective experiences and contoured by its exposure to the landscape.
The people who dominated this region prior to 1882 were a number of tribes known on both sides of the international border as the Blackfeet Nation. The bands south of the international border called themselves Pikuni and would come to be known in the United States as the American Blackfeet. Their culture and society was focused on the great bison herds that roamed northern Montana. Before the introduction of horses to their society in the early eighteenth century, the Pikuni bands worked in groups of twenty to thirty families comprising about one hundred and twenty people. These groups participated in collective bison hunting that depended on a corralling strategy. The bison required a great deal of labor to process, particularly for women, who were expected to handle a majority of duties outside the actual kill. Bands came together seasonally for hunting, gathering and celebration.
Before the introduction of horses, dogs were the only labor available to the Pikuni. The use of the dogs for hauling possessions had the effect of limiting personal property and wealth in bands often on the move. The result was a very egalitarian group that shared and had neither rich nor poor because the "limited transportation facilities made the accumulation of wealth, even in foodstuffs, impossible." The cultural patterns of the Blackfeet were intensified after the introduction of the horse. The horse expanded the range of the Blackfeet considerably, and brought them into greater contact with the surrounding tribes, who were trading with French, English and later, Anglo-American traders. New technologies like steel arrowheads, knives, pots and pans and rifles were quickly utilized by the Blackfeet and greatly improved their hunting and warring capabilities.
The Blackfeet, however, largely ignored direct contact with white traders and concentrated instead on hunting and horse raiding against neighboring tribes. As mounted hunters, the Blackfeet experienced strong numerical growth and began to dominate the political economy of the region. The beaver trade that had brought white fur traders to the area experienced a decline in the 1830's and was slowly replaced by new markets for bison robes and other skins. The Blackfeet, who had no trapping tradition and had not been interested in the beaver skin trade, considered the robe trade a fitting vehicle for their social and commercial interests, one that did not require significant change to their seasonal rhythms. The Blackfeet competed with neighboring tribes and white hunters in the robe trade, and the result was the creation of another source of wealth besides the horse in their society.
After the introduction of the horse, wealth and leadership became a function of a number of factors in Pikuni life. The Pikuni were divided in gentes or bands, "each gens being a body of consanguineal kindred of the male line." Each band had a chief, chosen from among, and by, the male members of the band. Their influence was a product of several factors. Leadership was gained from demonstrated courage in combat, bravery and stealth in horse raids, and hunting ability. Wealth was measured largely in terms of horses. But leadership also required the ability to take care of the less fortunate members of a band in times of need, or to loan horses for camp moves and hunting. A headman shared his wealth with the rest of his band and demonstrated his generosity publicly. In this way, he earned the influence of the rest of the band. If a headman was unable to provide adequately, poorer members naturally turned to others in the band, or perhaps moved to another band, to suit their needs. Pikuni wealth was highly concentrated in about five percent of the population during the pre-reservation period, and distributed primarily among elder tribal members who had made enough raids to own more horses then they needed for their own use.
The disappearance of the "tail of the last buffalo" changed the political economy of northern Montana forever. The extinction of the great northern herds resulted from a vigorous robe trade that encouraged whites and Indians alike to slaughter bison in numbers that greatly exceeded their subsistence needs. From 1870 to 1880, herd populations plummeted, and the Canadian bison herds in Alberta and Saskatchewan were completely gone by the late 1870's. The increased pressure on the herds south of the border brought by displaced hunters was easing by 1880, when Canadian Blackfeet in Montana left because "the buffalo were gone." John Young, who served as Blackfeet agent since 1876, also reported in August of 1882 that his rolls had gone down since the "failure of buffalo," because Canada had begun to issue rations to the northern tribes.
After a second successive unsuccessful winter hunt in 1880-81, the Pikuni again found great numbers of bison grazing northeast of the confluence of the Milk and Missouri Rivers during the winter of 1881-82. The imminent threat of the loss of bison from Montana, spurred by the description of the disappearance of Canadian herds, seemed far off that winter and the tribe sold over $12,000 worth of robes. But this was the last bison hunt the Pikuni enjoyed. When the bison disappeared as a means to subsistence at the end of 1882, the Pikuni had no choice but to turn to the agency for help in greater numbers. The agency ration rolls at Badger Creek, which contained 605 names at the beginning of 1881, swelled to over 4,500 names by August of 1883.
Agent Young, who was charged with transforming Pikuni pursuits into more agrarian interests, was pleased about the new humble disposition of his charges and pronounced them ready to "do as they are instructed in tilling the soil and raising such crops as the rigor of the climate allows." His comment is representative of the difficult position that agents were in to show that Indians were making progress. Young understood, despite his comment, that the Pikuni would require a great deal more provisions then were supplied if they were to survive a winter with no bison. He made repeated attempts to secure provisions for the winter of 1883 from early February of that year. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs reported to the Department of Interior in 1882 that provisions for the Blackfeet amounted to less than one ounce of beef and less than one and a half ounces of flour. When the rations Young received in January proved insufficient, he wrote to Washington several times reiterating the crucial nature of securing winter stores for the Pikuni.
In September of 1883, Young received a commission composed of Senators George Vest of Missouri and Martin Maginnis of Montana who confirmed Young's assessment of the imminent tragedy awaiting the Pikuni that winter. Commissioner Price responded to Young's request for aid with an explanation that expenditures for the Blackfeet were exhausted for that year and that "nothing could be done." Young immediately presented his resignation but was required to maintain his post until a replacement arrived the following spring. Young responded by slaughtering the agency herd and reducing rations on several occasions during the winter of 1883. He received a large supply of bacon in December that the doctor condemned. The Blackfeet peeled the bark from saplings and eat the underside to satisfy their hunger. Parents offered their daughters to whites in exchange for their word that the girl would be fed. By the end of that winter, Young had witnessed the starvation of over 500 people.
The government’s slow response to the repeated warnings of their own on-site officials reflects the general lack of concern Washington policy makers had for the welfare of the Pikuni tribe. In fact, it appears that without the assistance of local government and business, casualties in the winter of 1884-85 would have been much higher because appropriations were insufficient to supply for the Blackfeet. But for the Pikuni, the "starvation winter" of 1883 played an important role in directing their remaining energies towards finding new means for their own future support.
Agriculture was the centerpiece of official U.S. policy towards Indians at this time. The "establishment of a Jeffersonian yeoman economy" was their principal goal. Farming was looked upon by reformers and politicians alike as an appropriately "civilizing" pursuit for settling nomadic hunters. The problem was that the plan had nothing to do with the realities of life in Montana. The Pikuni lived in a region with less than 80 frost free days per year. There were also cultural reasons why agriculture as a means to itself did not appeal to the Pikuni. And yet the agents and the Pikuni had little choice but to follow the mandates of Washington.
The years from 1884 to 1891 were lean years for the Pikuni. Reuben Allen replaced Young in April of 1884 and described conditions as "deplorable." Most of the potatoes issued in the spring for planting had been eaten immediately and not planted. Allen recognized that the Blackfeet were capable and willing to work for their subsistence, "but they must be shown how and furnished with implements." Allen and his successors echoed the refrain that the Blackfeet needed only the tools and education because they were "willing and anxious to farm." Like Young, Reuben Allen was also optimistic about the likelihood of Blackfoot self-sufficiency in the near future through agriculture. Their optimism proved invalid during the 1880's, and a large majority of the tribe remained dependent on rations for their survival.
But during the years immediately following the "starvation winter" of 1883 there was no serious effort to make the Blackfeet independent of government rations. The agency produced 800 bushels of oats and 150 bushels of barley and rye in 1885, and 80 ton of hay for the agency cattle herd. But the Blackfeet produced nothing and 80% received their subsistence from rations. By 1887, Mark Baldwin in his second year as agent, reported that the Pikuni had produced 1,500 bushels of barley and rye, and 2566 bushels of vegetables on 182 cultivated acres. Outside of farming, Pikuni also worked as freight transporters, chopping wood and fencing. Despite all of this, 67% still relied exclusively on rations for their survival through the end of the 1880's. Again and again, successive agents reported the need for more tools and farmers to teach agriculture to the Pikuni. Given the repetitive nature of the requests, it appears that the agents were largely ignored.
Although the agents reported various examples of success in growing wheat, oats and barley, 100% of the Pikuni were dependent on rations in 1890. The crops that were planted were individual patches that often produced less seed than was required in their production, and no effective system of irrigation had been established to attempt larger scale production. And the constant crop failures retarded Pikuni enthusiasm for the endeavor. But the agents were nearly unanimous in their recommendation of cattle as a means of support for the Pikuni. And the Pikuni, whose dependence had only deepened since the the winter of 1883, were willing to trade for cattle the only thing they had left of value to whites; land.
In a treaty ratified on May 1, 1888, the Blackfeet sold 17,500,000 acres of their total reserve of over 21,000,000 acres. The government promised 12 years of annuities totaling $1,500,000 as well as $150,000 in immediate assistance for the "purchase of cows, bulls, and other stock, goods, clothing, subsistence, agriculture and mechanical implements . . . ." The commission that conducted the negotiations flatly stated that northern Montana was inhospitable to agriculture and that "stock raising has become the principal industry of the people." The commissioners emphasized that the promise of cattle was a major inducement in getting the tribes to sign. The Blackfeet, having experienced a long series of crop failures, were revived by an opportunity to be free of the soil. George Steell and George Bird Grinnell were among those agitating for the issuance of cattle to the Pikuni for industry, and the 1000 or so cattle issued in 1890 appeared to hold the promise of a future for the Blackfeet.
White ranchers in Montana had recognized early on that the disappearance of the bison meant an abundance of choice grazing land and they preceded the Pikuni in the cattle industry. Many ran their herds onto reservation lands illegally during the 1880's, and suffered little or no consequence. A permit system was initially established because the imminence of allotment made leasing appear unwise and agent Baldwin reported four thousand dollar in grazing earnings in August of 1887. But this represented only a tiny fraction of potential lease earnings. Cattle’s trespassing was a constant complaint of agents. In 1894, Agent John Catlin reported the removal of 10,000 to 15,000 head of cattle and horses trespassing on reservation pasture. Many of these were there through arrangement with needy Blackfeet who had no cattle of their own to run, and the agents went to great lengths to secure reservation pastures. Indeed, the entire reservation was enclosed by fence by 1904.
The beginnings of the Blackfeet cattle industry coincided fortuitously with the coming of the Great Northern Railway. One stipulation of the 1888 agreement provided for railroad access through the reservation. In December of 1889, John Stephens discovered what would turn out to be the lowest pass through the Rocky Mountains just northwest of the Marias River. This discovery proved critical to the growth of the emerging Pikuni cattle industry. The Pikuni cattle industry did not emerge in isolation, however. There were also ranchers, settlers, traders, miners and prospectors who were vying for the resources held by the government in trust for the Pikuni. At the urging of whites seeking access to reservation lands, a commission that included Grinnell negotiated another cession of approximately 800,000 acres from the eastern portion of the Blackfeet reservations in 1895. The treaty also provided the Pikuni with an exception from allotment and the continuance of communal grazing tracts. The area remaining to the Blackfeet was about 2,000,000 acres, and more importantly, it was not allotted.
An important consideration in the development and maintenance of the Blackfeet cattle industry was the issue of feed, particularly winter feed. Agents had begun irrigation project requests as early as 1884. Indeed, following the debacle in the winter of 1883, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs stated that "repeated trials have shown that successful farming on these reservations would be impossible, even to whites, without the necessary irrigating ditches, fences, stock, &c., and for such purposes no funds have been supplied." The long winters meant that Blackfeet involved with cattle needed to put up significant amounts of feed for winter as well as build and maintain fences to protect pastures. The Blackfeet were busily employed in a myriad of activities during the ladder half of the 1890's and the early twentieth century with projects that contributed to their emerging cattle industry.
The cattle obtained in the 1888 treaty arrived in July and August of 1890, and Agent John Catlin noted in his annual report that the "issue of cattle has induced many Indians to work that were never known to try to do anything for themselves before." The cattle prospered in their initial years, and the herd experienced a 50% increase between August of 1890 and August of 1891. The cattle also brought a need for winter feed, and the Pikuni produced 450 tons of hay in 1891, while the agent provided the Commissioner a compelling argument for more mowers and equipment to match the productive capacity of Pikuni labor.
In 1895, the Pikuni shipped from the new Durham Station on the reservation over "$30,000 worth of prime steers to Chicago." And in 1896, the Blackfeet agent reported over 520 individual Blackfeet brands. The irrigation projects moved in fits and starts with no long term plan or goal in mind before 1900. The annual hay yield, however, continued to grow, producing 300 tons in 1889 and increasing to 2,050 in 1895 and helped provide the Pikuni with a cash income from selling their surplus to white ranchers. Despite the interruption of eight different agents in 20 years, the Pikuni managed to reduce their dependency on U.S. rations to the point where half the tribe maintained their own living from 1888 to 1901.
The Pikuni faced many obstacles to maintaining control over their material existence. The most significant was the effect of disease on the tribe, particularly trachoma, which induces blindness, and tuberculosis. Smallpox and measles appear intermittently in the doctor’s reports to the agents, and a 1913 survey found that the death rate for Indians on reservations was three times higher than among the white population. When chief inspector E.B. Linnen made his report to the Department of the Interior in January of 1916, he found "tuberculosis and trachoma alarmingly frequent, 75 and 50 per cent respectively," among those located in the southern Heart Butte district, where nearly all full-bloods lived.
Another impediment to Pikuni self-determination was the wide latitude allowed to individual agents. Agents were given the responsibility of determining who was "deserving" and who was not. They appointed leaders to the tribal council, they determined which teams got the freight work, who actually got cattle and who got rations instead. One key problem was the combination of broad authority with little guidance and little money. Agents, under pressure to produce self-sustaining, Christian citizens while reducing appropriation requests, often inflated their figures in reports of Blackfeet agricultural pursuits and production to radiate the vision of a people well on their way towards "civilization."
The leadership societies that had developed at the height of Pikuni power lost much of their meaning in the new economy. The early justice system that the U.S. government provided put elders in control of rations and disputes, likely in an effort to promote government legitimacy to the tribe. Agents took to the practice of replacing deceased leaders with close relatives and a hereditary system began to take root. The Blackfeet were universally excited to receive cattle. To some, characterized in the documentation as "full-bloods," they represented a means to some other end, often food or horses. To others, the "mixed-bloods," they represented a stake, and these people quickly bought and traded for more. "Full-bloods" owned only twenty-five percent 20,000 head herd by 1903. Many full-bloods still measured wealth in horses, and they made no objection to the mixed bloods monopolization of cattle, particularly the communal herd branded with the agency "ID" brand. The agent controlled the trade and slaughter of all "ID" branded cattle. The agents tried to make the "ID" brand more attractive by allowing them to graze without fee, while charging those without a surcharge of $1.00 per head over one hundred cattle. The result was the concentration of the tribal herd into a minority of people and large scale evasion of the fees. It is interesting to note that during the height of Blackfeet power, the majority of wealth was held by a tiny percentage of those old enough to have acquired it, and the new distribution of wealth mimicked that distribution. The difference was that age was not a factor in the new economy.
The government provided the impetus for an elected tribal council when it reacted to charges that the ration system was creating an impediment to the Indians progress toward "civilization," and began to strike mixed bloods and those unwilling to work for their rations off the rolls. The rolls were reduced by seven hundred in 1902, the first year of the program. When White Calf, the last of the plains chiefs, died in 1903, the legitimacy of an appointed council was openly questioned by the Blackfeet. When James Monteath arrived at his new post in 1903, he was confronted by the newly elected tribal council. Monteath refused to recognize them, and stated that an appointed council would remain at his call. There was little the Blackfeet could do but agitate more publicly and in the courts.
Robert Hamilton, Sr., was among the generation not old enough to have seen the prairies to earn his place through traditional means. But he is representative of the changing demography of the Pikuni and their increasingly vocal intervention on their own behalf. Hamilton quickly made enemies with Monteath, who ultimately had him jailed on a questionable charge of horse thievery. This response by Monteath only served to intensify the respect of Hamilton by the full bloods that looked upon horse stealing with a measure of respect, and he became their leading spokesman over the following years.
Hamilton was a leading agitator for the interests of the Pikuni tribe during the key events from 1903 to his death in 1932. He fought the roll-reductions by providing legal aid to stricken tribal members to restore their status. In 1907, Congress finally got around to the Blackfeet allotment, although it was a plan that was not submitted to the Secretary of the Interior until 1917. Hamilton was active during the interval. He was incarcerated, but never formally charged, for several months in 1910 after he demanded that an elected council was the only body that could consider an issue as important as allotment. Later that year, Hamilton pressed for and succeeded in convincing the new Superintendent, Arthur McFartridge, to recognize an elected "business committee."
Hamilton used his position on the committee to advocate for greater individual control of cattle, and to forward a claim against the U.S. government stemming from an 1875 presidential decree that did not compensate the Blackfeet. He defended tribal sovereignty over mineral rights, an issue that was partly responsible for delaying allotment, and which ultimately remained with the tribe. And he fought a government plan to segregate the old "full bloods" away from the general population. He fought to get "late" babies included into allotment, and was successful in expanding enrollment. Hamilton continued to represent Blackfeet interests to the government until 1932. He did not win very often, but like the Blackfeet in general, he persevered and made measurable gains.
The Pikuni enjoyed another important legal success. The tribe took the Conrad Investment Company to federal Court in a suit over a water diversion project where the court would find in 1907 that the Blackfeet had reserved rights for their current and future needs. This was a major test of the Winter’s decision of 1906 that found water rights reserved at the time of the creation of the reservation, and could not be lost through non-use. For the Pikuni, irrigation was a key factor in producing winter feed for cattle, and the defeat of diversion project was significant to the tribe’s future.
Because of the specific seasonal nature of the Blackfeet reservation, allotment acreage was doubled from the standard 160 acres, and the Pikuni were offered the opportunity to receive 40 of their acres irrigated under the Blackfoot allotment plan. Few took the irrigated land, and all of the tribal money that had gone into the production of an elaborate ditch system went toward the benefit of whites who leased the land for $5.00 per acre. But the actual allotment of individual Blackfeet was not completed until 1917, when 550,000 "surplus" acres were opened.
Losses from drought and frost outpaced the purchase of new cattle from 1903 to 1913 as the cattle population declined from over 19,000 to 13,000 over the ten year span. Between 1911 and 1915, the number of people the Blackfeet agent reported as "engaged in stock raising" declined by over 73 percent. Farming experienced the opposite, growing from 25 in 1911 to 275 in 1914. When World War I sent prices in 1915, many needy Blackfeet sold their “non-ID" cattle. The combination of providing cattle and hay produced a good living for some, and irrigation projects and ranch work also provided employment.
The government, pursuing the implications of the Burke Law, began issuing fee patents in earnest starting in 1917. This relieved the government of its obligations to people so issued, and by 1920, 1,011 Blackfeet had been awarded fee patent titles. This policy resulted in the alienation of a large Pikuni population who lost their land.
The effect of World War I on beef prices caused the Blackfeet to oversell their herd and when the war ended prices crashed. A devastating winter in 1919 was followed in 1920 by a bad drought, and the vulnerable cattle herds were decimated. By then, many of the more economically successful Blackfeet who had moved off the reservation were forced to return by hard economic times felt across the western states. This increased pressure on an already shrunken pool of resources. By the winter of 1020, the agent reported that over 2,000 were requesting rations. The Pikuni had traveled full circle.
The American Blackfeet produced a proud and rich culture based on a single source, the bison. When they disappeared, the Blackfeet came under the influence of the tidal forces of a government bent on their cultural extinction. The Blackfeet were not lazy or unwilling to work. The climatic variations were simply too powerful to succumb to the government’s desire to turn the Blackfeet into gentleman farmers. Aggressive competition for resources with whites resulted in a constant diminution of lands. The Blackfeet sold their lands as a means of obtaining a future. Cattle ranching, and the ancillary industries it produces, proved to be the most effective method for making the Blackfeet self-sustaining. But lack of capital funding and poor planning on the part the U.S. government as well as bad timing and seasonal extremities worked to keep the Blackfeet from realizing lasting sufficiency.