Texts by and about Natives: Texts

12. James Willard Schultz, "The 'Pis-Kan' of the Blackfeet"

Ap-pe-cun-ny [James Willard Schultz], “The ‘Pis-Kan’ of the Blackfeet,” Forest and Stream 18:18 (June 1, 1882): 344.

The Blackfeet Indians, and perhaps many others, have a peculiar habit of going up on high hills and bluffs conveniently close to camp and sitting there motionless and rigid as statues for hours. Near the close of the day seems to be the particular time for indulging in this practice. Why they do so is a mystery. I have often asked them the reason, and have invariably received the reply, Kis-tohts, meaning “for nothing.” Sometimes I have hidden myself in the coarse rye grass which grows so tall and luxuriantly in the river bottoms, and with the aid of a powerful field glass have closely scrutinized their countenances, but to no purpose. The expression of their faces never changed. Their eyes had a far-off dreamy look which could not be interpreted. Perhaps, as they look over the broad, almost limitless prairies, nowadays so seldom dotted with the dark forms of the buffalo and the graceful bands of antelope, pleasant memories of boyhood days come crowding up in their minds. More likely, however, as they gaze over the great rolling prairie, at the blue mountains looming up so grandly in the distance, and at the broad timbered valley of the river so long the homes of their ancestors, their hearts are sad to think how everything is changing; how in a short time the buffalo shall have passed away; and how where the rich bunch grass used to grow the white man will plant strange weeds and roots. No wonder that their hearts are sad and that their prayers against the whites are bitter.

Unperceived I once heard an old man thus address his medicine or “secret helper.” He said:

I-yu, Ksis-tuk-ki, Ke-nuk-o-qui-tup-pi.
Listen, Beaver, so I can get something.
Kim-at-o-kit! Kim-at-o-kit! un-is-tuh-kuh so-ohts-uh pek-se at-se-mo-ye-kah-quo-to-mo-kit.
Take pity on me! Take pity on me! That little under the water animal, pray for me.
An-is-tis nat-os o-nis-ti nat-os ne-tap-i pah-kok-sin-e-kah-pah nap-i-quot.
Tell him the sun, wonderful sun regularly [Curse.*] white man.

The earnestness of the old man as he delivered this prayer, and the intensity of the curse, the most forcible in the Blackfoot language, firmly impressed it upon my memory. Let me here add, for the benefit of those who may be interested in such subjects, that the Blackfeet pray to the Sun, the supreme power, through the medium of their medicine, or in their own language, “secret helpers,” which are generally animals.

But when I began this article I intended to tell you how the Blackfeet caught buffalo in ancient days; and I now turn to that subject.

Not so very long ago I happened to be camped with a gent of the Pe-gun-ny, at the place called Willows Round, situated some fifteen miles above here, on the Marias River. Early in the evening I saw old Po-kah-yah-yi, in whose lodge I was stopping, ascend a steep bluff not far off, and, giving him time to reach the top, I followed and was soon seated by his side. Directly opposite us across the river were the remains of a pis-kan, or, as the white men out here call it, a “buffalo pond.” Why so called I cannot say, the literal translation of the word “pis-kan” being “falling-off place.” “Now my friend,” said I after I had regained my breath, “tell me about that pis-kan. How did you make it; how many buffalo did you catch in one day; and how many winters ago did you use it?”

The old man’s story was as follows:

“In those says we had no guns, but used to kill many buffalo with bows and arrows; and sometimes, we used the pis-kan. When we made a pis-kan, we first found a little open glade by the river where the prairies came down and ended in a cut bank as high as a man. From this cut bank we built a strong fence clear around the edge of the glade. We used big trees to make the fence—logs and sticks, and anything that would help to keep the buffalo from breaking out. Then we built two lines of stone piles far out on the prairie, two lines that ever diverged from each other. Then the pis-kan was built.

“The night before we intended to make a drive we always had a buffalo dance. All the people danced. The medicine men all wore buffalo robes and sung the buffalo songs. Everyone prayed to their secret helpers for good luck. Early the next morning the people went out, and hid behind the stone piles on the prairie. The medicine man who was going to call the buffalo put on a buffalo robe, hair side out, and sitting down smoked one pipe to the Sun. Then he spoke to his wives and all the women of his lodge, saying, ‘You must not go outside until I return. You must not look out of the doorway or any hole. Take this sweet grass,’ giving it to his head wife, ‘and every little while burn a small part of it so that the Sun will be glad. Pray that we will have good luck.’ Then he mounted a dark colored horse and rode out on the prairie. When he came near a band of buffalo he began to ride quickly in circles and cried out to the buffalo, saying, ‘E-ne-uh! E-ne-uh!’ [meaning “Buffalo!”]. The buffalo were first a little scared; then they began to follow him slowly; and soon ran after him as fast as they could. Then the medicine rode into the shoot, and after the buffalo had also run in he jumped out to one side of the stone piles, and the herd passed by. The people behind kept rising up and shouting, which made them run all the faster. The buffalo in the head of the band were afraid of the stone piles, and kept right on in the middle of the shoot; those in the rear were scared by the people continually rising behind them, and so pushed the leaders ahead. When the band had got close to the edge of the pis-kan, all the people closed in on them and with a great shout drove them over the cut bank into the enclosure. Then with their bows and arrows, the men killed all the buffalo; even the old bulls were killed. The fattest cows were then marked for the chiefs and medicine men by placing sticks on the tails, and the rest were divided among the people.”

The above narrative is true in every respect. As late as 1865 the Pe-gun-ny used these pis-kans on the Upper Marias. Mr. Jos. Kipp, the well-known Indian trader, tells me that in 1864 he saw the Pe-gun-ny capture over seventy-five head of buffalo in this manner. Sometimes three or four drives were made in one day. About seventy-five buffalo were the average drive, though sometimes more than a hundred were taken.

UPPER MARIAS RIVER, M. T., April 15, 1882

*Cannot be translated.

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