Myths & Legends



Blackfoot: How Societies came into Being

Blackfoot: How Societies came into Being

In the Blackfeet tribe the secret societies served an important role in education and social solidarity. The origin of these societies is tied to attributes of specific totems. The fable that follows incorporate the origin story of many such societies.

This origin fable is found in Blackfeet Indian Stories edited by George Bird Grinnell. George Bird Grinnell (September 20, 1849 – April 11, 1938) was an American anthropologist, historian, naturalist, and writer. Grinnell was born in Brooklyn, New York, and graduated from Yale University with a Ph.D. in 1880. Originally specializing in zoology, he became a prominent early conservationist and student of Native American life. Grinnell has been recognized for his influence on public opinion and work on legislation to preserve the American bison.
— Orly


For a long time the buffalo had not been seen. Every one was hungry, for the hunters could find no food for the people.

A certain man, who had two wives, a daughter, and two sons, as he saw what a hard time they were having, said, "I shall not stop here to die. To-morrow we will move toward the mountains, where we may kill elk and deer and sheep and antelope, or, if not these, at least we shall find beaver and birds, and can get them. In this way we shall have food to eat and shall live."

Next morning they caught their dogs and harnessed them to the travois and took their loads on their backs and set out. It was still winter, and they travelled slowly. Besides, they were weak from hunger and could go only a short distance in a day. The fourth night came, and they sat in their lodge, tired and hungry. No one spoke, for people who are hungry do not care to talk. Suddenly, outside, the dogs began to bark, and soon the door was pushed aside and a young man entered.

"Welcome," said the man, and he motioned to a place where the stranger should sit.

Now during this day there had been blowing a warm wind which had melted the snow, so that the prairie was covered with water, yet this young man's moccasins and leggings were dry. They saw this, and were frightened. They sat there for a long time, saying nothing.

Then the young man spoke and asked, "Why is this? Why do you not give me food?"

"Ah," replied the father, "you see here people who are truly poor. We have no food. For many days the buffalo did not come in sight, and we looked for deer and other animals, which people eat, and when these had all been killed we began to starve. Then I said, 'We will not stay here to die from hunger,' and we set out for the mountains. This is the fourth night of our travels."

"Ah," said the young man, "then your travels are ended. You need go no farther. Close by here is our piskun. Many buffalo have been run in, and our parfleches are filled with dried meat. Wait a little; I will go and bring you some," and he went out.

As soon as he had gone they began to talk about this strange person. They were afraid of him and did not know what to do. The children began to cry, and the women tried to quiet them. Presently the young man came back, bringing some meat.

"There is food," said he, as he put it down by the woman. "Now to-morrow move your camp over to our lodges. Do not fear anything. No matter what strange things you may see, do not fear. All will be your friends. Yet about one thing I must warn you. In this you should be careful. If you should find an arrow lying about anywhere, in the piskun or outside, do not touch it, neither you nor your wives nor your children." When he had said this he went out.

The father took his pipe and filled it, and smoked and prayed to all the powers, saying, "Hear now, Sun; listen, Above People; listen, Underwater People; now you have taken pity; now you have given us food. We are going to those mysterious ones who walk through water with dry moccasins. Protect us among these to-be-feared people. Let us live. Man, woman, and child, give us long life."

Now from the fire again arose the smell of roasting meat. The children ate and played. Those who so long had been silent now talked and laughed.

Early in the morning, as soon as the sun had risen, they took down their lodge and packed their dogs and started for the camp of the stranger. When they had come to where they could see it, they found it a wonderful place. There around the piskun, and stretching far up and down the valley, were pitched the lodges of the meat eaters. They could not see them all, but near by they saw the lodges of the Bear band, the Fox band, and the Raven band. The father of the young man who had visited them and given them meat was the chief of the Wolf band, and by that band they pitched their lodge. Truly that was a happy place. Food was plenty. All day long people were shouting out for feasts, and everywhere was heard the sound of drumming and singing and dancing.

The newly come people went to the piskun for meat, and there one of the children saw an arrow lying on the ground. It was a beautiful arrow, the stone point long, slender, and sharp, the shaft round and straight. The boy remembered what had been said and he looked around fearfully, but everywhere the people were busy. No one was looking. He picked up the arrow and put it under his robe.

Then there rose a terrible sound. All the animals howled and growled and rushed toward him, but the chief Wolf got to him first, and holding up his hand said, "Wait. He is young and not yet of good sense. We will let him go this time." They did nothing to him.

When night came some one shouted out, calling people to a feast and saying, "Listen, listen, Wolf, you are to eat; enter with your friend."

"We are invited," said the chief Wolf to his new friend, and together they went to the lodge from which the call came.

Within the lodge the fire burned brightly, and seated around it were many men, the old and wise of the Raven band. On the lodge lining, hanging behind the seats, were the paintings of many great deeds. Food was placed before the guests—pemican and berries and dried back fat—and after they had eaten the pipe was lighted and passed around the circle. Then the Raven chief spoke and said, "Now, Wolf, I am going to give our new friend a present. What do you think of that?"

"It shall be as you say," replied the Wolf; "our new friend will be glad."

From a long parfleche sack the Raven chief took a slender stick, beautifully ornamented with many-colored feathers. To the end of the stick was tied the skin of a raven—head, wings, feet, and tail.

"We," said the Raven chief, "are those who carry the raven (Măs-to-pāh´-tă-kīks). Of all the fliers, of all the birds, what one is so smart as the raven? None. The raven's eyes are sharp, his wings are strong. He is a great hunter and never hungry. Far off on the prairie he sees his food, or if it is deep hidden in the forest it does not escape him. This is our song and our dance."

When he had finished singing and dancing he placed the stick in the sack and gave it to the man and said, "Take it with you, and when you have returned to your people you shall say, 'Now there are already the Bulls, and he who is the Raven chief said, "There shall be more. There shall be the All Friends (Īkŭn-ŭh´-kāh-tsĭ), so that the people may live, and of the All Friends shall be the Raven Bearers."' You shall call a council of the chiefs and wise old men, and they shall choose the persons who are to belong to the society. Teach them the song and the dance, and give them the medicine. It shall be theirs forever."

Soon they heard another person shouting out the feast call, and, going, they entered the lodge of the chief of the Kit-Foxes (Sĭn´-o-pah). Here, too, old men had gathered. After they had eaten of the food set before them, the chief said, "Those among whom you have just come are generous. They do not look carefully at the things they have, but give to the stranger and pity the poor. The kit-fox is a little animal, but what one is smarter? None. His hair is like the dead grass of the prairie; his eyes are keen; his feet make no noise when he walks; his brain is cunning. His ears receive the far-off sound. Here is our medicine. Take it." He gave the man the stick. It was long, crooked at one end, wound with fur, and tied here and there with eagle feathers. At the end was a kit-fox skin. Again the chief spoke and said, "Listen to our song. Do not forget it, and the dance, too, you must remember. When you reach home teach them to the people." He sang and danced. Then presently his guests departed.

Again they heard the feast shout, and he who called was the chief of the Bear society. After they had eaten and smoked the chief said,

"What is your opinion, friend Wolf? Shall we give our new friend a present?"

"It shall be as you say," replied the Wolf. "It is yours to give."

Then spoke the Bear, saying, "There are many animals and some of them are powerful; but the bear is the strongest and greatest of all. He fears nothing and is always ready to fight."

Then he put on a necklace of bear claws, a band of bear fur about his head, and a belt of bear fur, and sang and danced. When he had finished he gave the things he had worn to the man and said, "Teach the people our song and our dance, and give them this medicine. It is powerful."

It was very late. The Seven Stars had come to the middle of the night, yet again they heard the feast shout from the far end of the camp. In this lodge the men were painted with streaks of red, and their hair was all pushed to one side. After the feast the chief said, "We are different from all others here. We are called the Braves (Mŭt´-sĭks). We know not fear; we are death. Even if our enemies are as many as the grass we do not turn away, but fight and conquer. Bows are good weapons, lances are better; but our weapon is the knife."

Then the chief sang and danced, and afterward he gave the Wolf chief's friend the medicine. It was a long knife and many scalps were tied on the handle. "This," said he, "is for the All Friends."

To one more lodge they were called that night and the lodge owner taught the man his song and dance, and gave him his medicine. Then the Wolf chief and his friend went home and slept.

Early next day the Blackfeet women began to take down the lodge and to get ready to move their camp. Many women came and made them presents of food, dried meat, pemican, and berries. They were given so much that they could not take it all with them. It was long before they joined the main camp, for it had moved south, looking for buffalo.

When they reached the camp, as soon as the lodge was pitched, the man called all the chiefs to come and feast with him, and told them what he had seen, and showed them the different medicines. Then the chiefs chose certain young men to belong to the different societies, and this man taught them the songs and dances, and gave its medicine to each society.



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