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The men were thorough sportsmen, loving horse-racing, foot-racing, and gambling. They were graceful winners, and good losers in games of chance. And they were firm believers in luck, and in the medicine conferred in dreams. Men often starved, and even, tortured themselves, in preparation for desired medicine-dreams. Then, weakened both physically and mentally by enervating sweat-baths and fatigue, they slipped away alone to some dangerous spot, usually a high mountain-peak, a sheer cliff, or a well-worn buffalo-trail that might be traveled at any hour by a vast herd of buffalo; and here, without food, or water, they spent four days and nights (if necessary) trying to dream, appealing to invisible "helpers," crying aloud to the winds until utter exhaustion brought them sleep, or unconsciousness—and perhaps a medicine-dream.
If lucky, some animal or bird appeared to the dreamer, offering counsel and help, nearly always prescribing rules which if followed would lead the dreamer to success in war. Thereafter the bird or animal appearing in the medicine-dream was the dreamer's medicine. He believed that all the power, the cunning, and the instinctive wisdom, possessed by the appearing bird or animal would forever afterward be his own in time of need. And always thereafter the dreamer carried with him some part of such bird or animal. It was his lucky-piece, a talisman, and he would undertake nothing without it upon his person.
In each of the three tribes of Blackfeet there were several societies, some of them being secret organizations. Most of them were military in character, some of them originally having police power over villages; and at least one of them was composed of boys who were not yet old enough to go to war. The Horn society of the Bloods, and the Kit-Foxes of the Pecunnies, seem to have been much the same society; and it may have been the most honorable and exclusive. The women of the Pecunnie also had a society which is said to have been secret. It was evidently not unlike the Horns in standing, since none but women of middle-age whose lives were known to have been upright were eligible to membership. This society selected its members, electing them before solicitation, one dissenting vote excluding a proposed woman.
Like all Indians of the plains, the Blackfeet formerly placed deep faith in the medicine-men, the "wise-ones" of their tribes; and even though these men resorted to intricate ceremonies which fascinated patients and onlookers there is no doubt that they often healed the sick and wounded through this faith alone. They did, however, possess considerable knowledge of the medicinal properties of herbs and roots, and often prescribed them. There was little sickness, since the daily lives of the plains Indians kept them in perfect physical condition. Sunrise saw most of the men and boys in the icy streams, winter and summer alike.
Burial of the dead was usually on platforms lashed to the limbs of trees beyond the reach of wolves. Securely wrapped in buffalo robes, firmly bound with rawhide thongs, the bodies were safe from ravens, crows, and magpies. Weapons and pipes were buried with warriors, root-diggers and cooking utensils with the women. Often a number of horses were killed at the burial of a warrior, so that his spirit might ride in The Sand Hills, the Heaven of the Blackfeet. In mourning for a son, or other male relative, both men and women scarified themselves, and cut off their hair, the women wailing piteously, sometimes for long periods. The mourning for women was of shorter duration, and not so wild.
The Blackfeet were meat eaters. Meat constituted fully 90% of their daily fare. It was either boiled or roasted, "meat-holes," which operated as fireless-cookers, being sometimes used. Roots and bulbs were also cooked in the ground; and the eggs of water-fowl were often steamed. Berries were eaten fresh; and they were dried for winter use, the latter being used in making the best pemmican, a mixture of dried, lean meat thoroughly pulverized and seasoned with the berries and bone-marrow. Ordinary pemmican was made with dried meat and melted tallow, no berries being used. The Blackfeet did not have salt, and like all the plains tribes dried their meat in the sun, unsalted, packing it away for winter use, the pemmican in buffalo-skin bags.
In the days before the white man came to the plains the Blackfeet were a happy people. An abundance of material for their food, clothing, and sheltering lodges was constantly in sight on every hand. Beyond these necessities their needs were few, so that with a firm belief in the exhaustless bounty of their loved grass-lands these practical folks lived each day for itself. And they knew how to live. Their pride in themselves forbade too much ease, even in their land of plenty. No successful hunter, no tribesman who, with crude weapons, plentifully fed a family, could have been a lazy man, no perfect horseman a weakling. The arms and wrists of men who could send arrows down to their feathers into the bodies of huge buffalo bulls were as powerful as spring steel; and men who loved war for its excitement could not have been weak-hearted.
The power of endurance of the plains Indians has always been beyond comprehension by white men. These tribesmen hunted, feasted, gambled, and eagerly made war, young men often faring forth alone over the unmarked plains to count coup, so that they might marry the young women of their choice, and be numbered among the tribe's warriors. Killing and scalping an enemy did not entitle them to count coup. They must strike an armed enemy with their hands, or with something held in their hands, without otherwise injuring the enemy; or they must capture an enemy's weapons, or be first to strike an enemy who had fallen in battle, etc., the rules for coup-counting differing somewhat among the plains tribes. And this coup-counting was expected of young men. For centuries, during the long, winter nights on these northern plains, red patriarchs feelingly extolled bravery and fortitude, reciting hero-tales, some of which may have had origin in far lands.* They were a change- less people, a romantically happy people, until the white man came to the plains. * I once found one of them in a translation from the Sanskrit.
The Blackfeet instinctively opposed the coming of white trappers and traders. Nevertheless the fur companies built forts on the upper Missouri in the heart of the Pecunnie country; and nowhere has the white man stooped so low for gain as in the fur trade of the Northwest; nowhere has he been so reprehensible as in his treatment of the plains Indian. Besides his trade-whisky he brought infectious maladies to a people whose blood was clean. Nobody will ever know half the crimes that were committed by these avaricious traders. The enforced inoculation of a large band of visiting Indians with the virus of smallpox taken from the pustules on the body of a stricken white engages at Fort Union, whose blood was known to be otherwise unclean, is revolting enough, especially when one knows that the step was taken wholly in the interest of the traders who hoped to have the scourge over with before the fall trading began.
It is even more revolting when one learns that all the vaccinated Indians perished; and yet this deed is no more fiendish in character than the discharge of a cannon loaded with ounce trade-balls into a crowd of unsuspecting Pecunnies who were visiting at Fort McKenzie, a little below Fort Benton, in the year 1843.