Second essay in the series on original Plains culture (matriarchy)


The sa-ar-si (Sarsi, Sarcee) people don’t like their Blackfoot name. It means something like ‘doesn’t listen’ or ‘stubborn’ in a sense a native grandmother would be irritated with an out of control child. It never bodes well to irritate the women.

There is one clan of ‘Sa-ar-si’ that claims no Blackfoot descent (due to their pure luck of absence from the area during a particular incident) in the history of the tribes the outsiders never hear about because “Us Indians don’t air our dirty laundry in public” as one Blackfoot had put it to me. So these people stereotyped as ‘noble red savages’ are burdened with more typical human frailties despite the romantic view. Maybe certain Indians are not proud of everything that has happened in the case of the Sa-ar-si, and perhaps they just don’t care to share history the outsiders would not understand, in the case of the Blackfoot.

Related to this ‘suppressed’ history and attending underlying behaviors, there is an incident of a grandmother’s discipline of a male Pikuni (southern Blackfeet or Piegan) child that stands out in my memory. Indians allow children to learn from making mistakes, and one of the biggest mistakes you can make, is to piss off the women. This little kid (by his own admission, when relating the story to me as an adult) was a real terror who simply would not listen. After the ‘fourth’ warning from an old lady (his grandmother), she suddenly grabbed this four year old by his ear and pulling him to his toes with iron grip, she shoved her large buckskin stitching needle through his outstretched ear and kept him like that for a long moment while she explained to him the practical function of learning to listen.

Sort of like the Cheyenne women who guarded and refused to allow Custer’s body to be mutilated, but put their buckskin sewing awls through Custer’s ears, so he would ‘learn to listen in the afterworld’ (to his own words, Custer was related to these women by a child he’d had with a woman of the Cheyenne southern branch and had promised he would never make war on his relations, the Cheyenne.)

When the Sa-ar-si people encroached on Blackfoot territory, they not only refused to listen, they were misbehaved. The record of this is sketchy but a few things are known. The Sa-ar-si broke away from their main group in the north because they had no choice in the matter. A small tribe cast adrift in hostile territory which does not belong to them, is invariably a group of miscreant exiles. They had been expelled.

Reinforcing this is, when they necessarily entered into a hostile relationship with the Blackfeet subsequently, the main group in the north did not come to their aid. The Blackfeet finally, after the ‘fourth’ warning, killed every Sa-ar-si male from puberty and up, every one of them (except for an extended family group that happened to be absent.) After, the Sa-ar-si women were given Blackfoot husbands, Blackfoot Sundance (Okan) and were told ‘now you can stay.’

When the one small group of Sa-ar-si who’d been absent showed up and discovered what had happened, they had no choice but to adopt the Blackfoot cosmos, with a decision taken ‘I guess we had better behave, we see what happens to people who don’t listen.’ For whatever reason, this  entire event had been engineered at the insistence of (ordered by) the Blackfeet women, the Sa-ar-si must have done something that really made the Blackfeet women angry.

Pointing to the practical aspect of matriarchy, the Sa-ar-si, although now entered into the Blackfoot cosmos via Okan and Blackfoot tipi designs reflecting this, a requirement of residing in Blackfoot territory, they did not adopt Blackfoot language because it is the women educate all the children to the age of puberty, at which time the male children are exiled to male society. Thus, the Sa-ar-si kept their distinct identity but now as a related people and hybrid cultural entity.

Previous to this, there was a near identical reverse circumstance relating to the Blackfeet and Crow. The ‘Small Robes’ were an expatriate Blackfoot speaking band, belonging to the Crow tribe. They had no choice but to adopt the Crow cosmos to occupy Crow territory, excepting language. Because they had been rehabilitated as Crow Indians and because of the indisputable rights of women in matriarchy determining they would keep Blackfeet language, the relationship to the greater Crow tribe in relation to the greater Blackfeet tribe, was one of circumspect enemies with a great deal of respect. They recognized they were related. It was the women of both tribes, determined this relationship. In the present day, if you go to a meeting of the Crow council, it is yet clear who runs the show and it’s not the men. These people had been allowed to keep a more traditional form of government (likely their reward for being ‘army scouts’)

If it was the women who sent the plains nations to war, and it certainly at times was, no Blackfoot man wished to endure the public shaming they would receive from the women if they did not do so, so far as the women would, in extreme case of male reluctance, sometimes threaten to make up their own war parties and the men knew this would be followed through. It was also the women made these men humble themselves in a case of a (senseless) war gone wrong, such as when the Amskapi Pikuni (South Piegan branch of the Blackfeet) became embroiled in a hard hitting war with the Atsina (Gros Ventres, Arapaho speaking former allies.)

This war had begun with a patent male stupidity, some members of the old Mutsaix (previous incarnation of the Crazy Dogs, the old Brave Dogs warrior society) had made fun of an Atsina warrior ritual and this caused a war of male pride. When the Blackfeet women had become utterly exasperated with it, as a war that simply went on and did not wind down, they intervened and the Blackfoot males were forced to adopt the ritual they’d made fun of, as an honorable gesture to bring peace with the Atsina. This is the ritual dance you see to this day, at the Blackfeet Crazy Dogs society events.


The ‘mythical woman’ who humbles the Blackfoot male


Essay 1 ‘Tobacco’

Essay 2 ‘War

Essay 3 ‘Women

Essay 4 ‘Conflict

Essay 5 ‘Birds


Life in Indian Country

Collected stories, folklore and anecdotes concerning my many years life with Blackfeet Indians and traversing Native American territories