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Visiting with the Ancestors: Blackfoot Shirts in Museum Spaces


List of Illustrations

Blackfoot Sacred Protocol


ONE  Gifts from the Sun

TWO  Introducing the Blackfoot Nations

THREE  The Blackfoot and the Fur Trade

FOUR  Blackfoot Clothing

FIVE  Making Relations in the Past

SIX  Making Relations in the Present

The Importance of the Blackfoot Shirts Today

Connecting with Community


SEVEN  Planning the Project and Raising the Funds

Preparing to Travel

Lending a Helping Hand


EIGHT  Visiting the Shirts

“Our People Still Believe”


Visiting the Blackfoot Shirts


Questions About the Shirts

NINE  Community Effects

Preparing for Our Ancestors to Come Home


A Conversation About Blackfoot Quillwork


TEN  Why Were the Shirts Not Repatriated?

Continuing the Relationship

“They Will Matter to Us Forever”





1 Shirt with painted war honours, 1893.67.1

2 Shirt with layers of paint, 1893.67.2

3 Shirt for formal occasions, 1893.67.3

4 Shirt with replaced quillwork, 1893.67.4

5 Shirt for working, 1893.67.5

6 Map of Blackfoot territory

7 Writing-on-Stone area, with Sweetpine Hills (also known as Sweetgrass Hills) in

8 Napi’s playground

9 Encampment of the Peikann Indians, by Karl Bodmer, 1832-34

10 Petroglyph showing shirt, Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park

11 Iron Horn, Mix-ke-mote-skin-na, a Warrior, by George Catlin, 1832

12 Pieced trailer, shirt with layers of paint (1893.67.2)

13 Cloth, beads and sewing equipment, Edmonton House post inventory, 1841

14 Cloth over rosette, shirt with layers of paint (1893.67.2)

15 Cuts in hide from cutting fringe, shirt for formal occasions (1893.67.3)

16 Stamped heads, shirt with painted war honours (1893.67.1)

17 Incised line of paint, shirt with painted war honours (1893.67.1)

18 Man’s legging

19 Digitally enhanced front of shirt with painted war honours (1893.67.1)

20 Digitally enhanced back of shirt with painted war honours (1893.67.1)

21 Battle scene with horse, shirt with painted war honours (1893.67.1)

22 Red fingermarks, shirt with layers of paint (1893.67.2)

23 Detail of yellow and red quills, shirt with painted war honours (1893.67.1)

24 Replaced quillwork, shirt with replaced quilllwork (1893.67.4)

25 Plant fibres with quillwork, shirt with painted war honours (1893.67.1)

26 Quill and plant fibre edging of central panel, shirt with painted war honours (1893.67.1)

27 Shirt collected in 1827 by Lord Elvestone, Reiss-Engelhorn-Museeun, Mannhein, no. V AM2651a

28 Horse and human hairlock detail, shirt with painted war honours (1893.67.1)

29 Membrane wrap on hairlock, shirt with replaced quillwork (1893.67.4)

30 Damaged neck, shirt for working (1893.67.5)

31 Epidermis visible on hide, shirt for working (1893.67.5)

32 Sir George Simpson, Governor of Rupert’s Land, by Stephen Pearce, 1857

33 Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall, by Frances Anne Hopkins, depicting herself and E. M. Hopkins, 1869

34 Tack hole, shirt with painted war honours (1893.67.1)

35 Left to Die, Frances Anne Hopkins, 1872

36 Frank Weasel Head and Andy Blackwater at Pitt Rivers Museum, 2004

37 Rufus Goodstriker and Louis Soop at Pitt Rivers Museum, 2000

38 Blackfoot shirts exhibition, Galt Museum and Archives

39 Torso mounts being prepared for display of shirts, Glenbow Museum, 2010.

40 Allan Pard with shirt and project team, Pitt Rivers Museum, 2009

41 Damaged quills on rosette, shirt with replaced quillwork (1893.67.4)

42 Cleaning soot from rosette on shirt with layers of paint (1893.67.2), showing cleaned and uncleaned sections

43 Digitally annotated condition report, back of shirt with replaced quillwork (1893.67.4)

44 Shirt in crate drawer

45 Shirts crate in transit

46 Trina Weasel Moccasin and Josh Scout-Bastien looking at shirt

47 Byron Jackson wearing replica shirt, Glenbow Museum, 2010

48 Lonny Tailfeathers and Donovan Tailfeathers wearing replica shirts, Galt Museum, 2010

49 Students from Red Crow Community College (Kainai Nation, Alberta) visiting the shirts, Glenbow Museum

50 Students and instructors from Blackfeet Community College (Browning, Montana) visiting the shirts, Glenbow Museum, 2010

51 Terran Last Gun Kipp, Frank Weasel Head, and shirt with layers of paint (1893.67.2), Glenbow Museum, 2010

52 Winston Wadsworth, Jr., with his own quillwork and shirt with replaced quillwork (1893.67.4), Glenbow Museum, 2010

53 Bull’s Back Fat, monotype by Mari King, 2010

54 Blackfoot shirts exhibition, Glenbow Museum, 2010

55 Crowshoe family members with shirts, Glenbow Museum, 2010

56 Untitled oil on canvas by Delia Cross Child, 2011

57 Shirt for formal occasions (1893.67.3), folded for ceremony, Galt Museum, 2010

58 Kainai High School students with quillwork

59 Montage, paintings made as gifts to ancestors by students at Kainai High School, 2010

60 Quilled baby garment by Debbie Magee Sherer, purchased by the Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.


Blackfoot Sacred Protocol

Hairlock shirts are sacred to the Blackfoot people. Sacred items are made, used and cared for by those who have acquired the ceremonial rights to them. To obtain the rights to a sacred item, an individual must go through a ceremony specific to that item. Even someone who has acquired rights to certain items must go through another ceremony to acquire the rights to hairlock shirts.

The Blackfoot ceremonial leaders who helped to guide this project respectfully remind readers of this book that only those people who have had the appropriate rights transferred to them in a ceremony should make or wear hairlock shirts.

The Blackfoot ceremonial leaders with whom we collaborated on this project offered advice about the themes and content of this book. They also raised concerns that they wish to highlight and spoke about why they and others chose to participate in this project.

HERMAN YELLOW OLD WOMAN: When we were starting to talk about reviving our ceremonial societies back home, one of the words I kept hearing in prayers was aaksisstoyi’ta’kssin: it’s bravery, accepting a challenge; these people took this challenge, they never looked back.1 That was a prayer that I kept hearing, even after transfers had taken place: a lot of our elders kept saying, mooksi aomoopiiksi: these people have taken this challenge, they never looked back. Today they’ve succeeded, by taking the guidance of us elders. There’s another word that I kept hearing in the prayers for us: aomoopiiksi. The thing about taking up this challenge, taking over the stuff that we repatriated: we sat for days, we sat for nights, listening to our elders, how we were going to proceed, because it was a very difficult thing that we were going to go through. So this word, aomoopiiksi: what they were talking about was this kind of setting [that we are in now]. We don’t know what we are going to do, we don’t know what we are going to hear. We are sitting here, looking at what we want for our children, our children’s children, the generations ahead of us: that’s why we’re sitting here, for hours and hours.

FRANK WEASEL HEAD: In our culture, in our way, we don’t look at ourselves. We’re always talking about our children, our grandchildren. When I was young, at the end of each elder’s prayer was a’ahssaistawa’tsimaani.2 And that means bringing our children up in the right way. Bringing them up. That was always the end of a prayer. And that’s what I’m doing now. In all my prayers. And this is why I’m doing this.

ALLAN PARD: We’re already on our horses! We’ve already started that journey! We can’t look back now. Let’s make the best of it, let’s do the best we can be doing with this project. And hopefully our people—not only our people but mainstream people—will get the benefit of what we’ve endeavoured.

FIGURE 1. Shirt with painted war honours, 1893.67.1. Elk, mountain sheep, or deer hide; porcupine quill; sinew; glass beads; paint. Collected by E. M. Hopkins, 1841. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.


FIGURE 2. Shirt with layers of paint, 1893.67.2. Elk, mountain sheep, or deer hide; porcupine quill; wool cloth; sinew; glass beads; paint. Collected by E. M. Hopkins, 1841. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.


FIGURE 3. Shirt for formal occasions, 1893.67.3.Elk, mountain sheep, or deer hide; porcupine quill; sinew; glass beads; paint. Collected by E. M. Hopkins, 1841. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.


FIGURE 4. Shirt with replaced quillwork, 1893.67.4. Elk, mountain sheep, or deer hide; porcupine quill; wool cloth; sinew; glass beads; paint. Collected by E. M. Hopkins, 1841. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.


FIGURE 5. Shirt for working, 1893.67.5. Elk, mountain sheep, or deer hide; sinew. Collected by E. M. Hopkins, 1841. Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford.


In May of 1841, Sir George Simpson, governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company—the principal fur trade company operating in North America at the time—set out on his annual tour of inspection of the company’s trading posts, a journey that was made possible by an elite crew of Metis and First Nations voyageurs. Taking with him his secretary, Edward Hopkins, Simpson left from Montréal, travelling by canoe across the Great Lakes, then to Lake Winnipeg, down to Red River, over the prairies to Fort Edmonton, and across the plateau and the Rockies to Fort Vancouver. The group then continued on to San Francisco, where Simpson sent Hopkins back eastward, while he kept heading west, to Hawaii, across Russia, and eventually to England (Simpson 1847).

As they travelled, Simpson and Hopkins amassed a large collection, which included hunting equipment, such as a gun case, bows and dozens of arrows, a hunting hood, a cradleboard and an embroidered bag, two scalps, and a mask from the northwest coast of Canada, as well as carved clubs and swords edged with shark teeth from the Pacific—over two hundred objects in all. Five shirts and five pairs of leggings, described as Blackfoot, were also acquired on this journey. Edward Hopkins kept the collection, which he displayed first in his house in Montréal and then in his homes in London and later in the town of Henley-on-Thames, near Oxford, when he retired there in 1870. After his death in 1893, Hopkins’s family transferred the collection to the Pitt Rivers Museum, in Oxford.

The five shirts are all quite different. Three of them are “hairlock” shirts, that is, shirts adorned with locks of either human or horse hair. Another has intricate quillwork and long hide fringes, while the fifth has no decoration and is made of poorer quality hides. Each of them has stories to tell, stories that are now partially lost but that remain important to Blackfoot people today.

At the request of Blackfoot ceremonial leaders, these five shirts—and the spirits of those who made and wore them—came home to Blackfoot territory for a visit in the spring of 2010. This book is about what happened: about how this visit became possible, about how Blackfoot people responded to the presence of the shirts, about the significance of these shirts for Blackfoot people today, and about why projects such as this one need to happen.

This is also the story of developing relationships across cultures and between Indigenous communities and institutions. Both the Blackfoot and non-Blackfoot partners in this project hope that our experiences will assist others in building similar relationships—relationships that will contribute to changes in the way that museums care for and interpret Indigenous material heritage and that will allow this heritage to become more readily accessible to those whose ancestors created it. Developing these relationships is a challenge, and one of the things we try to convey in this volume is a sense of the tensions in that process, as well as why it was necessary to work in the way we did. This was, in many respects, a difficult project: it challenged the assumptions on which museums ordinarily operate, and it challenged Blackfoot cultural protocol. For that reason, it was also profoundly transformative for all who participated in it.

This has been a collaborative project from the start. It originated with Alison Brown’s doctoral research, which focused on collecting expeditions in Canada and involved fieldwork with Blackfoot communities in southern Alberta as well as research in Canadian museums (Brown 2000; see also Brown 2014). The two of us then spent five years working with the Kainai, one of the four Blackfoot nations, on a project about historical photographs (see Brown et al. 2006). During this time, we also got to know Blackfoot from the other three nations—Piikani and Siksika, in Canada, and Blackfeet, in the United States—at community events celebrating Blackfoot cultural heritage. Although we knew little about the Blackfoot shirts in the Pitt Rivers Museum at that time, we suspected that they were important and relatively rare, so we sometimes showed photographs of them to Blackfoot friends and colleagues and asked whether they were familiar with this kind of clothing and whether they had any suggestions about how best to look after the shirts. In 2004 an opportunity arose to invite Andy Blackwater and Frank Weasel Head to Oxford to view the shirts themselves. After that visit, Frank and Andy asked the staff of the Pitt Rivers Museum whether the shirts could come home for a visit, to inspire other community members, and the Blackfoot Shirts Project was born. We then embarked on a year of formal consultation with all four Blackfoot nations, with the support of the universities of Aberdeen and Oxford. This consultation work was crucial to ensure that community needs and cultural protocols for handling sacred items would be built into our work with the shirts before we submitted a grant application for project funding.

Just as the project itself was developed with guidance from Blackfoot colleagues, so was this book. At a meeting in the spring of 2011, held at the Pitt Rivers Museum, we sat with many of the people who had most intimately guided this project and worked through the themes they wished to include in the book, the basic story of the project, what the goals of the book would be, and for whom it would be written. Our Blackfoot mentors wanted to emphasize the relationships that have surrounded the shirts from the time they were made and then acquired by George Simpson and Edward Hopkins and compare these relationships to those developed in the course of this project. The book is therefore as much about the process underlying this project as it is about the shirts themselves.

The book begins with the story of Paya’kskii, who was given hairlock shirts by the Sun. We then discuss the historical context in which George Simpson and Edward Hopkins acquired the shirts, including the nature of the relationships between Blackfoot people and fur traders at the time. Relationships are at the heart of Blackfoot world view and are central to understanding how this project unfolded. We discuss how the relationships essential to this project evolved and how both Blackfoot people and museum and university project partners negotiated different needs and goals. Bringing the shirts from Oxford to Alberta required extensive preparation, and, in chapter 7, we describe the fundraising, community consultation process, and conservation of the shirts that occurred prior to travel. The following chapter, “Visiting the Shirts,” then describes how people from Blackfoot and Blackfeet communities (in Canada and the United States, respectively) encountered the shirts at the Glenbow and Galt museums and how they responded to their presence. The project spilled over from these sessions into Blackfoot and Blackfeet communities in many ways, including special school projects and learning of different kinds, and we discuss some of these as well. We then address what has happened since the shirts returned to Oxford and how this set of relationships might continue into the future to ensure that new generations of Blackfoot people continue to have access to the shirts.

We have written this book with two very different audiences in mind. We hope that the book will be useful to Blackfoot people, in part for the information about the shirts that it contains but also as a series of reflections on why access to heritage items is needed and on some of the issues that surround efforts to dismantle existing barriers to access. The second audience is museum professionals and students of museum studies and museum anthropology, for whom we hope the book will serve as a case study of a challenging but ultimately successful model of collaboration between museums and Indigenous peoples. We also hope that the experiences described will be of value to Indigenous peoples in other parts of the world and to museum professionals and students beyond those whose regional interests centre on North America.

The book brings together many voices. All those involved in the Blackfoot Shirts Project—whether as core project team members, as students who had the opportunity to visit the shirts up close, or as residents of Blackfoot communities in southern Alberta and northern Montana who viewed the exhibition—experienced the project differently. To capture a sense of these differing perspectives, we invited several participants in the project to reflect on their experience in written contributions to this book. These sections are identified with the author’s name. We co-authored all the other sections. All persons quoted in this book were asked how they wished to be named in the text. In some cases, individuals have chosen to use both their Blackfoot name (with or without a translation) and their English name; others have chosen to use their English name only.

For over a century and a half, the Blackfoot shirts were kept in private homes and then in museum storage, far away from Blackfoot people. This is what happened when they came home for a visit.

ONE  Gifts from the Sun

Hairlock Shirts

Blackfoot origin stories mention a gift of hairlock shirts by Naatosi, the Sun, to a man known as Paya’kskii or Poia (Scarface). Paya’kskii saved Naatosi’s son, Morning Star, from an attack by giant cranes, and, in gratitude, Naatosi gave Paya’kskii powerful gifts. These included the Sun Dance and hairlock shirts. Crane tracks are sometimes painted on men’s leggings, such as those collected by Hopkins and Simpson along with the shirts, to commemorate Paya’kskii’s victory over the cranes. Many versions of this story have been translated into English and published, though none of these are as detailed as the versions told by Blackfoot people in ceremonial contexts.

This version of the story was recorded by David C. Duvall, son of a Blackfeet mother, Yellow Bird (Louise Big Plume), and a French Canadian father, Charles Duvall, who recorded many Blackfoot stories during the early twentieth century (Kehoe [1995] 2007, xiv-xvii). Duvall worked closely with Clark Wissler, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, to collect stories and objects from Blackfoot people, who were experiencing great changes in their lives as a result of the imposition of the reservation system and other forms of colonial control. Many of these stories were subsequently published by Wissler, with Duvall credited as co-author, in Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians, a book that is still in print (Wissler and Duvall [1908] 2007).

The story was told by Three Bears, a noted Blackfeet warrior and ceremonial leader, to Duvall, who translated it into English from the original Blackfoot. Duvall spoke Blackfoot fluently, and Wissler specifically asked him to keep as closely as possible to the original meaning in his notes. Sending Duvall an example of one story they had recorded together, Wissler instructed: “I should like if you would make such changes in it as may be necessary so as to make it as much like the real story as possible. Of course in rewriting this I have put in our own style, but should like your own copy to be written as nearly in the Indian style as possible” (Wissler to Duvall, 27 January 1906, quoted in Kehoe [1995] 2007, xvii). Duvall’s version reflects some of the rhythm of formal Blackfoot oral discourse for storytelling, such as the repeated use of “Now” to begin sentences—probably a translation of the Blackfoot kii, “Now then …;”1 At the same time, some of the language he uses (for example, the English term “chum,” to describe a close friend) is decidedly contemporary.

We have selected this version of the story in conjunction with Blackfoot colleagues for its detailed description of the shirt and leggings, decorated with hairlocks and quillwork, given to Paya’kskii (here referred to as Scarface). The circumstances of this gift serve to underscore the meaning of hairlock shirts within Blackfoot culture, as powerful sacred items that originated from a relationship with the Above People, or Sspommitapiiksi.2 The original handwritten transcription, dated 17 December 1910, is housed in the archives of the American Museum of Natural History (The Papers of David Charles Duvall, 1877-1911, American Museum of Natural History, Division of Anthropology Archives, cat. no. D883), and a scan of the original document is available at https://www.albertaonrecord.ca/iw-glen-636. The first part of the story (pages 162 to 173 in the original) explains how hairlock shirts came to human beings. We have transcribed and very lightly edited Duvall’s handwritten notes.


Narrated by Three Bears

Once there was a poor young man, he had a chum. Now in the camps there was a very fine girl, the daughter of a chief, with whom all the young men were in love. Now the poor young man was in love with her also, but he had an ugly scar on his cheek. One day he asked his chum to go over and ask the girl to marry him.

The chum went and told the girl what Scarface had said. The girl said that she would marry him whenever that ugly scar disappeared. Now this chum returned and told Scarface what the girl had said. This hurt Scarface’s feelings very much, and he decided to go away to seek someone who could aid him in removing the scar. He travelled for many days and nights, but every place he went to, no one seemed to have the power to remove the scar.

At last he came to where a number of spiders were and explained to them what he was travelling for. The Spiders advised him to go to the Sun, and that they would help him to get there. As the Sun lived high up in another land, the Spiders could get him up there by their webs, one of the Spiders said to Scarface, shut your eyes and do not look until I say so. Scarface did as he was told and when he looked he was in a different land. Now the Spider pointed out a lake to him: “You see that lake, you dig a hole in the ground near it, and at night you stay in the hole, and at day time lay in the lake, for the Sun gets very hot and might burn you up. The Sun’s home is just a little beyond the lake, and his boy comes and plays around this lake in the day time, and I shall wait here for you and when you get ready to go back down, come back to me and I’ll take you back down.”

Scarface did as the Spider told him. One day Morning Star came along and saw Scarface. The young man asked Scarface where he was a going, and he said, “I am going to the Sun.” The young man then asked Scarface to follow him. The two young men went to the Sun’s lodge. The Sun was away but the old woman was home. Then Morning Star addressed his mother, saying, “I have brought a strange young man here. I wish him for a companion.” “No,” said his mother. “He might get killed by the cranes, same as all others that come here, and your father might not like for him to stay here.” But Morning Star said, “Mother, take pity on him, and let him come in and stay with us for I get very lonesome and wish to have his company.” Then the old woman told Morning Star to bring the young man in.

Now when the Sun came to his lodge, he stood outside and said, “What is it that smells so bad?” Now the woman was the moon, and [she] said to the Sun, “Morning Star has a chum.” Then Sun said, “Make a smudge and take him out and wash him and give him some of Morning Star’s clothes to wear.” The moon took Scarface out and gave him a bath and dressed him up with some of Morning Star’s old clothes and made a smudge with juniper, in which Scarface stood all over until the smoke reached all through his clothes. Then he went in the Sun’s lodge. Now the Sun knew that this was a poor unfortunate boy and took pity on him. Now Sun addressed his son: “Do you wish this young man for a companion?” Then Morning Star replied, “I would like him very much, as I get very lonesome when travelling around alone.” Sun asked Scarface, “What did you come here for?” Scarface told him all about what the woman had said about the scar on his cheek. Then the Sun said to him, “Since my son likes you and wants you to stay, you may do so. But you must not go in that direction,” said Sun, pointing toward the west.

Now often the two young men travelled around. Scarface said to Morning Star, “There is a lake, let us go over there and get some feathers.” “No,” said Morning Star, “Father forbade us to go in that direction.” But Scarface insisted on going, then Morning Star consented. Just as they got to the lake, Morning Star said, “Look out Scarface, they are after us,” and at the same time ran away as fast as he could. Now Scarface did not run but picked up a club and [when] the first crane came near him, he killed it, and the second crane came, and just about the time he was to peck at Scarface, he killed this crane. Now these cranes were very dangerous and had killed many people, but as Scarface had secured some power while on his way to the Sun, it became easy for him to overpower the cranes.

Scarface took hold of the two cranes and went to the Sun’s lodge. When he got there, Morning Star was there ahead of him. Now the Moon was very much astonished when she saw the cranes, and asked Scarface, how he killed them. He replied, Oh, it was easily done I killed them with a club. Now when the Sun got home and heard of this he was well pleased with what the young man did for the young Scarface showed great courage in killing these dangerous cranes. Now had not Scarface killed these birds or cranes, they would always kill people, but when he overpowered them, they feared people, and have been so ever since. Now the Sun, and Moon, and Scarface, and Morning Star, all went outside and had a scalp dance, and the Moon and Sun sang songs of cheers or praise for the benefit of Scarface. Now the Sun said to Scarface, “When your people kill their enemies, they must scalp them and have scalp dances same as we are doing now, and when any one is counting coups, someone must sing the song of praise and cheer for him while he is telling of the war deeds.” And it has been so ever since, when a man is telling of his war deeds, some old man or sometimes it is an old woman, who sings the song of praise for the speaker, and repeats his name several times during her singing.

Now the Sun, was so pleased with Scarface, he said to Morning Star and Scarface, make four sweathouses and have them all in a row with the doors facing towards the East, and when the sweathouses were finished, the Sun, Morning Star and Scarface, all three went in one of them, while the Moon stayed outside, to tend to the door of the sweathouse. After Sun had worked over Scarface, some, he had the Moon open the door way and all three went out into the next sweathouse, and when the Moon opened the sweathouse again, the Sun asked the Moon which was her son and she pointed to Morning Star. Then they went into the third sweathouse, and in this one, the Sun had the two men exchange seats, and then asked Moon to look in and point to her son. When Moon looked in, she noticed that the scar on the young man’s face had disappeared but knew her son and pointed to him. Then the three went into the fourth sweathouse and the Sun had the two men change seats, and when the Moon looked in, she pointed to Scarface, saying “This is Morning Star.” And Sun said, “You have mistook him for Morning Star, the other is our son,” and ever since Scarface has went by the name, Mistaken Morning Star.

After this was done, the Sun gave Scarface a buckskin suit decorated with quills of porcupine. On the breast of the shirt was a plate of quills worked in and a plate of the same on the back of shirt, now these plates on the shirt represented the Sun, strips of the quills were worked in, up and down the outside seams of leggings and some on the sleeves, the strips of quillwork being about three to four inches wide. The sleeves and legging were fringed with hair locks, the hair locks representing the scalps of the cranes Scarface killed… . Sun also told Scarface, “As I have given you these clothes and other things, when you go back down to your people, and wish to give me something, you must make a sweathouse first and make your sacrifices or offerings to me at this place and I will hear your prayers and take them.” …

Now Scarface decided to go back down to his people and went back to where the Spider was still waiting for him. The Spider told him to shut his eyes and not look until he told him to. Scarface shut his eyes and the Spider let him down by his web, and when the Spider told him to look, he saw that he was down in the land he started from.

TWO  Introducing the Blackfoot Nations

The lives of Blackfoot people in the twenty-first century differ markedly from those of their ancestors. At the same time, Blackfoot today continue to be guided by the values and beliefs that sustained their ancestors, values that are embodied not only in ceremony and story but in items of material culture. In this chapter, we set the story of the Blackfoot shirts within the broader context of Blackfoot culture and history.


The Blackfoot refer to themselves as Niitsitapi, the “real people,” and recognize three nations among themselves: Siksika, Kainai, and Piikani. Today, the Piikani are divided by the Canada-US border into the Apatohsipiikani, who reside in Alberta, and the Ammskaapipiikani, or Blackfeet, most of whom live in Montana. Blackfoot traditional territory lies within the Northern Plains, extending from the North Saskatchewan River, in Alberta, south to the Yellowstone River, in Montana, and from the Rocky Mountains as far east as the Great Sandhills, along the provincial border between Alberta and Saskatchewan. The Siksika traditionally occupied the northern and eastern part of this territory, with the Kainai living in the central region and the Piikani closer to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains (Blackfoot Gallery Committee 2001, 6). Blackfoot territory largely consists of grasslands—expansive open areas of land, dominated by short grasses but with occasional thickets of shrubs and bushes—bordered by forests near the mountains. This vast territory is rich in natural resources, including game animals, berries, and medicinal plants, all of which were given to the Blackfoot by Ihtsipaitapiiyo’pa, the Source of All Life. In the past, people lived together in extended clans and travelled in small groups throughout this land, assisted by teams of dogs and, after European contact, by horses. They were able to live well by moving camp frequently to avoid overhunting or overharvesting in any one area and every summer would meet together for the aako’ka’tssin, or circle camp, where ceremonies, visits with relatives, and making plans and alliances took place.