#24. The Council With the Blackfeet (continued)


While a number of Native Americans had been skirmishing with Americans, “the Blackfeet, had been conducting an unofficial war on Americans since 1806. The major objective of the treaty was to establish a permanent peace "with all the most numerous and warlike tribes" of the region, according to George Manypenny, Commissioner of Indian affairs.”[1] During the 1853 Council, Natawista, to whom you were introduced in a much earlier segment of this series, was vital to the discussions to help avoid misunderstandings that could lead to war.







Medicine Snake Woman, Indian wife of Culbertson. (Point:1842) Natoyist-siksina', or Natawista; www.trailtribes.org

In Stevens’ accounting of Tinkham’s report, there is a great deal of imagery which I will try to convey using his words as much as is possible - space allowing. No date was specified for Tinkham’s party and their Indian counterpart’s journey and when they returned to Fort Benton; a total journey of 160 miles “to and back.” The council took place on September 21, 1853. Among those represented were the Piegans, Bloods, and Blackfeet made up of 100 people. Thirty chiefs, braves, and warriors; along with their women and children made up the group. The principal chiefs of the Gros Ventres who had accompanied Tinkham to the council had become impatient for the process to begin and left before the 21st.


The council was held in a large room in the fort, appropriated for a council chamber. The interpreter was Hammell, an intelligent voyageur, who had been in the country many years.[2] Hammell, as the interpreter, took charge of the Indian contingent. “He provides their quarters, attends to their wants, and is responsible for their safety and comfort.” The primary chiefs were quartered in the council chamber while the others set up their lodges outside of the fort. On this occasion the chiefs and warriors were all richly caparisoned. Their dresses, of softly prepared skins of deer, elk, or antelope, were elegantly ornamented with bead-work. These are made by their women, and some must have occupied many months in making. The other articles of their costume were leggings made of buffalo skins, and moccasins, also embroidered, and a breech-cloth of blue cloth.[3]


Tinkham reported that the Indian’s armaments were the northwest guns and bows and arrows and that on all solemn occasions when he met with them along his route, they were all dressed with the utmost care. He lamented that his duties in the field did not allow the same attention to his attire. “Indians sometimes complained of this, saying, ‘We dress up to receive you, and why do you not wear the dress of a chief?’” This is a good example of the importance Native Americans placed on social/political interactions and perhaps felt a lack of respect was being shown by Tinkham.


The council was opened by Tinkham:


I addressed the Piegans, and first thanked them for their hospitality to Mr. Stanley. Pointing to Little Dog, one of their chiefs, I said: ‘You have shown your good will to us by going through difficult passes and over bad roads. You have promised to go with us further if we desire it. This shows our good faith, and I sincerely thank you for it. I myself have come a great distance, and have passed many tribes on my way to the great ocean of the west. I shall pass through many more tribes, with whom you have waged war for many years, and I wish to carry a message of peace from you to them. Your Great Father has sent me to bear a message to you and all his other children. It is, that he wishes you to live at peace with each other and the whites. He desires that you should be under his protection, and partake equally with the Crows and Assiniboines of his bounty. Live in peace with all the neighboring Indians, protect all the whites passing through your country, and the Great Father will be your fast friend.’


Through our modern lens looking into the past, we know that while these words may well have been an earnest early intention, later actions proved to be far less kindly intended.


Low Horn Piegan Chief' Giclee Print by Gustav Sohon at AllPosters.com.


To this, Low Horn, the principal Piegan chief, replied in behalf of the Indians. He first spoke of the Indians west of the mountains, and said that many years ago they had formed a treaty of peace, and for a long time were on excellent terms with them, meeting each other and hunting together on the Missouri plains. He said that the prominent chiefs of all the bands had adhered to that treaty, and had done all they could to restrain their young men; but their young men were wild, and ambitious, in their turn, to be braves and chiefs. They wanted by some act to win the favor of their young women, and bring scalps and horses to show their prowess…The Blackfeet are generous and hospitable. They always forgive injuries. Some years since, after a Blackfoot had been killed by a Gros Ventre, several Gros Ventres fell into our hands. These Gros Ventres all expected to be put to death, but we fed them, treated them kindly, and gave them horses to carry them home.[4]


Tinkham knew this to true as the Gros Ventres had told him the same story and stated it was a reason that they should not go to war with them. He pointed out that their young men were being killed and their population would continue to diminish. Tinkham said to them: Is it not better that your young men should have wives and children and that your numbers should increase? Won’t your women prefer husbands to scalps and horses? He then stated that the Gros Ventres wanted a council with the Piegans to work through the problems and Low Horn pledged that the Piegans would cooperate.

[1] Blackfeet Relationship with US - Making Treaties (trailtribes.org) [2] Stevens, Isaac. “Reports” Page 115. [3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. Page 116.