The Blackfoot Tribe once spread across America and Canada, the tribe members pursuing trails of buffalo and giving thanks to the Sun Spirit. Small groups of kin were scattered south of the Saskatchewan River, across Montana, and west of the Great Sand Hills in Nebraska (Conaty and Beierie, 1999). The Northern Cheyenne Tribe lived close by in Northwestern Montana and Southern Canada, and the two tribes were allies (Ewers, 1958).
Their proximity and friendliness towards each other shows in certain cultural similarities, and the Blackfeet and Cheyenne had many similar rituals regarding funerary rites (though their concepts of the afterlife were different).
Like many Native American tribes, the introduction of Christianity altered many Blackfoot traditions. Before the introduction of Christianity and its ideas of heaven and hell, the Blackfeet’s mourning rituals centered more on erasing the deceased’s memory than saving his or her soul. They believed all souls traveled east to the Sand Hills and lived in a paradise there, and they had no concept of a moral judgment after death (Hanks, 1950).
If a man died, his possessions and land were immediately given away to more distant relatives or other members of the tribe (Ewers, 1958). The Blackfeet were nomadic, and fear of ghosts prompted them to abandon the campsite for a new area (Ewers, 1958). Since the spirit needed to find its way to the Sand Hills, the body was left in a tree or out in the open. Burying the body would have trapped the spirit in the earth. Sometimes, if the deceased was a man, he would be placed inside his abandoned home (Ewers, 1958).
The Cheyenne also believed leaving the body above ground was essential to a departed soul’s wellbeing, though they eventually buried their deceased. They placed the deceased’s personal belongings around him or her and even painted the body with distinctive markings to make sure the soul could find his or her body again in order to rest on the long journey to Seana—the destination for the average Cheyenne who dies a good death—located “at the end of the long fork of the Milky Way” (Straus, 1979).
The Blackfoot mourning process could last between four days to as long as four years (Hanks, 1950). Male and female mourners would wear old, torn clothes and cut their hair, as well as smear white clay on their skin (Ewers, 1958). Men would often go to war, grieving by losing themselves in dangerous acts of bravery (Ewers, 1958). In contrast, women would sing mournful chants and cut their calves with sharp rocks (Ewers, 1958). (Singing was an important part of Blackfoot life, for everything from healing to stomping the prairie grass flat.) Sometimes they even cut off parts of their fingers if the death was important, such as the death of a husband (Ewers, 1958).
For the Cheyenne, ghostly encounters weren’t a huge fear. After four days, the soul was considered to have reached Seana (Straus, 1979). During that time, the ghost of the deceased visited his or her loved ones, begging for company (Straus, 1979). After this period, the ghost reached Seana and the end of loneliness.
Death was also seen as a rite of passage in the Cheyenne. Part of the person’s essence sank into his or her bones, and could even be revived as a skeleton with enough magic (Straus, 1979). The person also continued to participate in society as a dream visitor, and often gave advice or power to people on Earth, having transitioned into a powerful and respected member of the community (Straus, 1979).
Loneliness was the worst part of mourning for the Cheyenne, and losing a close loved one could even depress the mourner to the point of losing the will to live (Straus, 1979). After the customary four days, however, the body was buried and mourners were expected to stop crying; their loved one had reached paradise (Straus, 1979).
The Blackfoot and Cheyenne tribes may have lived close to each other before the Europeans settled the West, but their separate cultures still flourished in different ways. Their similarities are just as fascinating as their differences.
Conaty, G., & Beierie, J. (1999). Culture Summary: Blackfoot. 1. Retrieved February 10, 2015, from EHRAF World Cultures.
Ewers, J. (1958). The Blackfeet: Raiders of the Northwestern Plains. 108, 196-197, 284. Retrieved February 10, 2015, from EHRAF World Cultures.
Hanks, L., & Hanks, J. (1950). Tribe under Trust: A study of the Blackfoot Reserve of Alberta. 159. Retrieved February 10, 2015, from EHRAF World Cultures.
Straus, A. (1979). The Meaning of Death in Northern Cheyenne Culture. In A. Robben (Ed.), Death, Mourning, and Burial: A Cross-Cultural Reader. Blackwell Publishing.
Laurence C. Gerckens (Photographer). Cheyenne camp with tipis [Photograph]. Retrieved February 12, 2015, from: http://encore.unl.edu/iii/encore/record/C__Rx1623495__SCheyenne__P2%2C55__Orightresult__U__X3?lang=eng&suite=cobalt
National Museums of Canada (Photographer). Blackfoot (Blood) Burial Scaffold [Photograph]. Retrieved February 12, 2015, from: http://sain.scaa.sk.ca/items/index.php/blackfoot-blood-burial-scaffold