Blackfoot Traditional Models of Aggression and Healing

Russel Barsh, Native American Studies, University of Lethbridge

Research Grant, 1995, 1996

The Blackfoot of Montana and Alberta were once regarded as the most aggressive tribal people of the North American prairies. Between 1820 and 1870 they repelled Cree, American, and Canadian encroachments, and retained control of Canada’s largest Indian Reserve (the Blood Reserve, Alberta) and second-largest U.S. Indian reservation through treaties negotiated in 1868 through 1877. However, outsiders who lived with Blackfoot people—from eighteenth-century British fur traders to early-twentieth-century ethnographers—witnessed very little interpersonal violence within Blackfoot communities.

In Never in Anger, her study of a Canadian Inuit community nearly fifty years ago, anthropologist Jean Briggs explored the paradox of an externally very violent society that is internally peaceful. Briggs focused on child-rearing practices that emphasized respect for the human body, as opposed to the bodies of the marine mammals that comprised the bulk of the Inuit diet. Since Briggs’s study, most Inuit have stopped hunting—and grown considerably more violent towards each other. In Blackfoot country, a thousand miles to the south, interpersonal violence has also increased sharply since the 1950s.

With a team of Blackfoot students and elders, researcher Russel Barsh asked two questions: Could the recent growth of interpersonal violence amongst the Blackfoot have been the result of changing child-rearing practices (weak socialization), as well as decreasing economic self-sufficiency (a source of frustration and conflict)? Could self-awareness of changes in child-rearing promote action by the Blackfoot community to address violence through the revival or adaptation of traditional socialization strategies?

Participants concluded that Blackfoot traditional child-rearing focused initially on making the child fully human, that is, understanding and accepting social responsibilities, by about age seven.

Over the course of nearly three years, Barsh and his team organized a number of retreats with a wide cross-section of Blackfoot “grandmothers and grandfathers”—people highly regarded among their peers as virtuous and knowledgeable. The work began with an All-Smokes ceremony hosted by the research team that was facilitated by members of the Horn Society, one of the traditional sacred societies that keep Blackfoot knowledge. The approach taken was ethnomethodological: helping knowledgeable Blackfoot people address the research question in their own way, challenging them from time to time with empirical evidence and further questions. All work was done in the Blackfoot language, analyzed in Blackfoot, and only summaries and conclusions were translated into English. This made full use of the distinctive semantics and conceptual vocabulary of Blackfoot, and helped protect the intellectual property of Blackfoot participants. At the same time, it was expected that the retreats would foster a wider discussion throughout the community of more than twenty-five thousand Blackfoot people in Alberta and Montana.

Participants concluded that Blackfoot traditional child-rearing focused initially on making the child fully human, that is, understanding and accepting social responsibilities, by about age seven. The collective role of the community in this maturation process was underscored, and especially the role of the sacred societies and individual “grandparents” (collectively recognized older teachers or mentors). Self-control and deference to others’ feelings and needs were uppermost, older participants recalled. Contemporary violence was attributed to the breakdown of mentoring relationships between “grandparents” and young children, and to public education programs (although administered by Blackfoot school boards) that stressed information acquisition and individual success, as opposed to kinship, moral philosophy, shared responsibility, and the feelings of others.

Consequences of this collaborative community study were mixed. Participants presented their findings and recommendation to Blackfoot educators and elected leaders but were gently rebuffed; mainstream curricula, and mainstream training of teachers and young parents would continue unaltered. Nevertheless, the issues raised continue to be debated within the community. Both Blackfoot researchers completed graduate degrees and are teaching younger Blackfoot professionals at a community college and university. One of the facilitators recently launched a social research institute on the Blood Reserve, as well as a University of Calgary–based Canada Fund for Innovation project, The Virtual Circle, aimed at promoting socially useful research by Native scholars.

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