Reciprocity and Renewal: The Blackfoot Seasonal Round

Written by: Blair First Rider and Laura Golebiowski, Aboriginal Consultation Advisers

Oki! For many of us, the spring season represents new life and a fresh start. But did you know, in Blackfoot culture, the new year begins in the spring? Aboriginal Consultation Advisers Blair First Rider and Laura Golebiowski, both based in Treaty 7, discuss the significance of the seasonal round: a concept that not only structures the year, but also our relationships to the land and one another.

We meet today on Kainai Nation at an area called Weasel Fat Bottom, a flood plain on the south side of the Oldman River. These flats also served as an ideal traditional camping location, with proximity to water, cottonwood tree stands and grazing areas. The trees provide shelter from the wind, and beneath them medicinal plants and berries grow. We are here to learn about the seasonal round: a concept that has guided the travel, occupation and relationships of the Niitsitapi (how the Blackfoot refer to themselves, translating to “the real people”) since time immemorial, and one that still has important teachings today.

Blair First Rider stands in front of a modern medicine wheel, built during a recent Blackfoot Confederacy gathering. Source: Laura Golebiowski.

In the old days, Sky Being Ksisstsi’ko’m (Thunder) gave the Niitsitapi the Thunder Medicine Pipe Bundle. The pipe offered protection, as well as a promise that Ksisstsi’ko’m would bring the rains that would make the berries grow large and ripe. Accordingly, the new year is marked by the first clap of thunder of the first rainstorm. It is commemorated with ceremony: the gathering of the seven Societies and the opening of the sacred bundles. Through prayer, song and dance, the relationships and commitments between Niitsitapi and the Creator, the Sky Beings and the land, are renewed and affirmed. As Betty Bastien wrote in Blackfoot Ways of Knowing: the Worldview of the Siksikaitsitapi, “During these ceremonies we acknowledge and give thanks to our alliances for another cycle. We ask for continued protection, prosperity, long life, growth, and strength.”

Historically, the protocol and ceremony that followed the first thunder served to structure the year ahead. Niitsitapi would determine when and where hunting, harvesting, and social and ceremonial customs would occur. These decisions would map out the route of travel and occupation within the expansive Blackfoot traditional territory. Typically, a seasonal round would begin in a sheltered river valley, with close proximity to water. The springtime rain would make the plants grow and, when the Saskatoon berries ripened, it was time to hold the Sundance. Autumn was spent hunting, drying meat, making clothing and harvesting trees for tipi poles. Winter nights were spent telling stories and transferring knowledge.

Tobacco is offered at Aka-kitsipimi-ota (Many Spotted Horses medicine wheel), to honour the ancestors and to ask for protection during our site visit and travels. Source: Laura Golebiowski.

A safe and sheltered location, like Weasel Fat Bottom, would be ideal to begin and end the seasonal round. The long-time use and significance of this place is evident through the medicine wheels, effigies and tipi rings that dot the landscape. Today, we visit Nitapinaw/Nita-pinn-awa (Real Chief medicine wheel) and Aka-kitsipimi-ota (Many Spotted Horses medicine wheel). Both medicine wheels served as landmarks and memorials to past leaders and warriors. We leave tobacco at Aka-kitsipimi-ota, to honour the ancestors and to ask for protection during our site visit and travels. In the video below, Blair explains how this landscape was used, and how ceremony renews Niitsitapi commitments to the land each year.

The routes traveled and activities conducted during the seasonal round would vary year by year, influenced by the Niitsitapi’s intimate knowledge of their territory and relationship to the land. Changes on the landscape were carefully observed. “For example,” Blair supplies, “the buffalo bean was a good indication of when the bison were calving. Until the buffalo beans appeared, they knew not to hunt because the animals were carrying new offspring.”

Pictured above is the Nitapinaw/Nita-pinn-awa (Real Chief medicine wheel). Balance and reciprocity are foundational to Niitsitapi worldview, and every action strived to sustain this balance. Certain buffalo jumps would be used for hunting, then “given a rest” so as to not deplete herds in a given location. No area would be overused. “It was always selective hunting, selective gathering and selective harvesting—sustainable use of the resources.” Today, irresponsible development and climate change are affecting the seasonal round. It has become increasingly difficult to predict when the rains will fall or when the berries will ripen. “You used to be able to read the signs, through the sky and land and through the animals,” Blair says. “All that has changed now…these places that are familiar to us—and have sustained us—are all under threat.”

The Oldman River valley as seen from Nitapinaw/Nita-pinn-awa (Real Chief medicine wheel). Agriculture and irresponsible industrial development is impacting the seasonal round. Source: Laura Golebiowski.

The seasonal round, and the ceremonies that mark it, are reminders of how we should live in balance with nature and one another. The concept of the seasonal round still contains important lessons for all of us, including reciprocity, respect for the land, maintaining good relations and sustainable resource use.

Blair First Rider is a Kainai (Blood Tribe) Elder and Horn Society grandparent, and an Aboriginal Consultation Adviser with the Historic Resources Management Branch. Thank you Blair for sharing your knowledge with us.

Sources:

Bastien, Betty. (2004). Blackfoot ways of knowing: the worldview of the Siksikaitsitapi. Calgary, AB: University of Calgary Press.

Glenbow Museum. (n.d.). Relationship with the land – seasonal round unit resource. Retrieved online from https://www.glenbow.org/blackfoot/teacher_toolkit/pdf/Land_Resources.pdf.

Pard, Allan, John Wolf Child, Clarence Wolf Leg, Blair First Rider, Kathy Brewer and Trevor R. Peck. The Blackfoot Medicine Wheel Project. Back on the horse: Recent developments in archaeological and palaeontological research in Alberta (Archaeological Survey of Alberta, Occasional Paper No. 36). Retrieved online from: https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/e327fb33-dee0-4c8d-918f-73f557b989ad/resource/14b69136-789c-4b8a-8b5f-bd60d42657af/download/blackfoot-medicine-wheel.pdf.

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