Texts by and about Natives: Texts

11. James Willard Schultz, “Life Among the Blackfeet”

James Willard Schultz, “Life Among the Blackfeet,” Forest and Stream 21:26 (January 24, 1884): 512.

Ninth Paper

In each tribe of the nation are two painted lodges, one colored red, the other white. The owners of them, like the Bear-men, are supposed to be favorites of the gods, and able to cure sickness. The value of one of these lodges is about equal to fifteen heads of horses, and they are frequently bought and sold. The tradition regarding them is this:

Long ago, the three tribes of the Nation were camped on Bow River. One day two young men were sitting by the river making arrow shafts. Directly beneath them, where the water ran swiftly against a cut bank, was a large whirlpool. One of the young men happening to look down, saw a large lodge in the bottom of the whirlpool, and he said to his companion, “Oh look! See that beautiful lodge down there,” and his friend looked but could see nothing but the water ever whirling round and round. Then said the other, “I am going down into that lodge,” and his companion tried to dissuade him, saying, “Do not go, for the River people will grasp you and you will never return.” But the young man was not afraid, and pulling off his clothes, he dived into the water.

When he had got to the bottom of the river, he came to the lodge, and it was painted red, and he went round to the doorway and entered it. Only one person sat in the lodge, an old man whose hair was very white and long.

He did not speak or look up but kept singing a strange song. Hanging up, on the inside of the lodge, were many buffalo robes, and weapons, all of them painted red, and at the doorway hung a bunch of hoof bells also painted red. Now, after a long time, the old man raised his head and he said, “On the bank of the river I was making arrows, and way down in the water I saw your lodge; and I wished to see the way you live. That is why I came.” Then said the old man, “Your heart is brave, return to your people and make a lodge like mine; it shall be Nät-os-e (of the sun) and the Sun will be glad.”

When the young man returned to the bank he found his companion weeping and calling him by name, for he thought he was drowned, and he told all that he had seen in the underwater lodge. As they stood looking down into the whirlpool the other young man saw a lodge at the bottom and quickly dived into the water. After a time he returned and told his companion of his adventure; the lodge which he found was painted white, and inside were white buffalo robes, and white furs, and white painted weapons, and there was an old man who had spoken just as the other old man had spoken to the first young man who went down. Then the young men hurried home and told what they had seen, and they each made a lodge like the ones they had found in the whirlpool.

Nearly all the different tribes of Western Indians with which the writer is acquainted, build “sweat lodges.” The Blackfeet are not an exception, but it is very probable that their traditions regarding the origins of the “sweat lodge” and the purpose for which it is used are different from those of any other Indians. According to tradition, the Old Man first built a sweat lodge and told the people to do so that the sun would quickly hear their prayers.

A sweat-lodge consists of a framework of light willows, covered with cow skin. It is in the shape of a hemisphere, about three feet high and six or seven feet in diameter. In the center a small hole is dug in the ground, in which are placed red-hot rocks. Everything being ready, those who are to take the sweat crawl inside, the cow skins are pulled tightly down, so as to exclude all circulation of air, and water is thrown on hot rocks, causing a dense steam which makes the perspiration fairly drip from one’s body. When the sweat is over (it generally lasts for an hour and a half), the cow skins are removed and the framework left for the sun, it never being used a second time. During the process of sweating, prayers are offered by the Bear-man or painted lodge man. If neither of these be present, the oldest warrior makes the prayer. Occasions for building a sweat-lodge are: To pray for the success of a war party; to pray for the recovery of persons from illness, and for a continuance of life. E-nŭks-äp-ĭ! e-nŭks-äp-ĭ! “Let me (be) old, let me (be) old,” is the constant prayer of every Indian. Women never enter a sweat-lodge.

Mr. Joseph Kipp once told the writer that when the smallpox was raging among the Indians they would crowd into sweat lodges, take an unusually hard sweat, and then jump into the icy waters of the river. Many, he said, never reached the bank again; hundreds of them being chilled and powerless to combat the strong current were swept away.

When a war party is made up, the one most noted for his bravery and success is chosen for leader. Before starting it is the duty of the leader to build a sweat-lodge for a Bear-pipe-man and any other whom the Bear-pipe-man may invite. Prayers are offered for the success of the party, and beside the sweat-lodge the leader erects a pole on which is hung a valuable present for the sun. Each member of the war party also makes the sun a present and sometimes a sacrifice. This sacrifice consists in cutting off a long lock of hair or a piece of flesh, and sometimes a joint of a finger and giving it to the sun. Women may also make these sacrifices, the reason for so doing being that if they give the sun a piece of their body he will be glad and preserve them and their relatives from death. Every day during the absence of a war party the Bear-pipe-man mounts his horse, and rattle in hand, rides all through the camp, calling out in a loud voice the names of the absent ones. He also visits the lodges of the relatives of the absent war party and sings and prays that they may be successful, the women all joining in the songs. In the event of a war party returning with scalps of the enemy, a war dance or scalp dance is held. All the women wear the shields, weapons and finery of their husbands, and have their hair parted and their faces painted just like a man’s. One or more women carry the scalps on slender poles, and have the lower half of their faces painted black. The men, most of them having drums, form into a line, and opposite them stand the women. All sing, and in time to the music the women gradually advance and come up to the men, then fall back, and again advance, and soon. When an enemy is killed near camp it is customary to bring in his feet and hands, which are shot at and kicked around by the women.

When a person dies, and as soon as life is pronounced extinct, the female relatives of the deceased securely wrap the body in cow skins and robes, and having built a stout scaffold between the branches of an adjacent tree, they fasten the corpse to it with innumerable thongs. Contrary to a statement by John Young, of the Piegan Agency, all persons—men, women and children—are buried in this manner. Sometimes, however, chiefs are buried in their own lodges. There are two ways of burying in lodges; one is to suspend the deceased on a platform high enough from the ground to prevent the wolves from reaching it; the other method, as described by Mr. Kipp, is to dig a grave directly under the accustomed sitting place of the chief. After the body has been laid in it a strong platform is built just above it and covered over with stones and dirt. The weapons of a dead person were always buried with him, and in the graves of women and children articles of housewifery and toys were always placed. At the burial place of a chief or a noted warrior several horses were generally killed. At the burial lodge of a chief which the writer once found, were the skeletons of four horses. Mourning observations devolve chiefly upon the women. The wife or mother of a deceased person lacerates the calves of her legs, cuts off her hair and a joint of a finger to show her grief. The father or husband cuts off part of his hair and goes without leggings for a number of days.

For the first few days succeeding a person’s death all the near relatives of the deceased spend the greater part of the time on hills adjacent to the camp, where they sit and mourn, calling the name of the dead person over and over again, until they become so hoarse they cannot speak. After a short period the men give up mourning altogether. A wife or mother, however, mourns for a year or two, not daily, but at irregular periods.

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