The family is the foundation of the Blackfoot-speaking people’s social organization. The term for “wife” is extended to all of her sisters and “husband” applies to all of his brothers. Grandparents (and often all elders) are called naas. These terms imply responsibilities in the ways people act toward one another. A man was compelled to care for his wife’s sisters and their families if those husbands died. Polygynous arrangements became more common in the late 1800s as disease and warfare claimed more and more males.
Camps were generally composed of people who were related through marriage, although people were also free to move from camp to camp, depending upon interpersonal relationships. Decisions within a camp were made by consensus. Leaders were recognized for their sound judgement, skill at bringing about a consensus, generosity, war record, and general ability. Leadership often shifted according to the situation; a war leader may not have been the leader of a buffalo hunt.
These camps – or clans as Niitsitapi call them – had preferred camping places throughout the year. Clans, in turn, have been grouped these clans into three Blackfoot-speaking nations: Siksika (meaning Blackfoot) along the eastern edge of the territory; Kainai (meaning Many Leaders) who lived in the centre; and Piikani (meaning Scabby Robes) who lived along the foothills. The creation of the United States-Canada boundary split the Piikani into the Ammskaapipiikani in Montana and the Apatohsipiikani in southern Alberta.
Niisitapi have responsibilities to their relatives. Allegiance and support is given to one’s family and clan. Through inter-marriage these responsibilities extended to other clans within the nation (e.g. Kainai) and then between nations (e.g. Kainai and Siksika). There was never a formal Blackfoot Confederacy.
Niitsitapi males often belong to organizations composed of other males of a similar age. Membership in these “age-grade” or “all comrades” societies begins when a boy is about seven or eight years old. Every four years the entire membership becomes members of the next older society. Gifts are given to those members of the older society who transfer the rights of membership to the newcomers. It is necessary to have a female partner in the more senior societies, as it is the women who care for the holy items associated with the society. Members in the adult societies, which is drawn from all clans in the nation, consider themselves to be brothers. This results in another set of kinship relationships. These societies are also sacred and their ceremonies reinforce Niitsitapi relationships with their world.
Niitsitapi women also had a society, the Motokis, whose membership extends throughout the nation. No men belong to this society.
While Niitsitapi were respected as fierce warriors, they also made peace with their neighbours. The concept of innaihtsookakihtsimaan imples a sacred sanction of peaceful relationships. Treaties were solidified by smoking a pipe, prayer, and calling upon Ihtsitpaitapiyopa to witness the vow of peace.
About the image:
The Blackfoot used a travois to move their belongings. This one is pulled by a horse, but dogs were also used to pull smaller travois. Photograph by Edward Curtis, Glenbow Archives NA-1700-156