Bureau of American Ethnology
Photo courtesy Museum of the Plains Indian Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin Volume 159
Photo courtesy Museum of the Plains Indian The Horse in the Blackfoot Indian Culture by John C. Ewers

October 12, 2001

Introduction by Candace S. Greene

When a 19th century Plains Indian artist drew a picture of a mounted warrior, he started with the horse, carefully delineating it before turning his attention to the rider. The resultant images appear like X-rays, with the fundamental outline of the horse clearly showing through all subsequent additions. In similar fashion, John Ewers chose the horse as the starting point for his verbal picture of Blackfoot culture. In The Horse in Blackfoot Indian Culture he works from the hoof up, taking readers from the fundamentals of hobbling and shoeing through the intricacies of social status, political organization, religion, and economic relations. The influence of the horse is clearly visible throughout his treatment of Blackfoot culture, society, and history, here and in subsequent works (1958).

The Horse in Blackfoot Indian Culture is a remarkable blending of two different approaches to the study of culture. On the one hand it is a detailed technological study, harkening back to classic studies of the late 19th and early 20th century; on the other it is a nuanced analysis of social differentiation and class structure, reflecting interests that would engage anthropologists for decades to come. The successful integration of these two differing approaches contributes to the lasting interest of the book. Following its original publication by the Smithsonian in 1955 as Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 159, it was reprinted by the Bureau in 1969, and subsequently issued again in 1980 in the Classics of Smithsonian Anthropology series. This new digital edition will make it readily available to another generation interested in Plains Indian history and culture.

Plate 15- Wallace Night Gun; courtesy Great Northern RailwayIn his later years, Ewers' often reflected that it would no longer be possible to carry out the type of study that he had pursued in the early 1940s, interviewing elderly people who were the last generation to have grown up in a horse-based society. Ewers moved to Browning, Montana on the Blackfeet Reservation in 1941 when he was hired by the Department of Interior to build and oversee the new Museum of the Plains Indian. His job brought him into close contact with Blackfoot people. During the long winter months when the museum needed little attention, he interviewed many members of the community with a leisureliness seldom available to anthropologists making field trips from their university teaching positions. Ewers sought out old people who remembered life in buffalo days, but he also valued the contributions of the younger generation, such as Calvin Boy, who prepared many of the illustrations appearing in the book. The Ewers family became a part of the local community on many levels. One of the illustrations in the volume is of a toy horse made by a Blackfoot friend as a gift to Ewers' young daughter Jane.

The technological orientation of the book is a natural outgrowth of Ewers' own interest in the material aspects of culture (cf. Blackfeet Crafts, 1944) and his willingness to explore whatever the people he interviewed were interested in. He found that they not only retained an enormous interest in horse days, but also an enormous amount of detailed technical knowledge. Through explanations of how horses must be watered and pastured, trained and protected, how rapidly they could travel and how much they could transport, he quickly came to appreciate that adoption of the horse represented a substantial investment in a new technology. Plains Indian ethnographers of an earlier generation had accepted but not explored the many and far ranging implications of that change. Ewers' examination of the details associated with that technology revealed the extent to which horses placed significant demands upon their owners. He defined three primary areas in which the horse had a major impact: hunting, moving camp, and warfare. While the change to mounted hunting had long been recognized as providing a richer yield and more certainty of success, in this volume Ewers explores how bands had to balance the needs of horses against the movements of the bison, as well as the impact of mounted hunting upon the social structure of the tribe. In considering the horse as a source of transport, he translates much of the material culture of the Blackfoot into pounds per horse and calculates how many horses would be required for the transport of tipis, dried meat, and other camp supplies (p.138). Such calculations led directly to the conclusion that support of the new horse-based technology created an enormous demand for a continuing supply of horses, a demand that could only be met through raiding the stock of neighboring tribes. Horses thus became a cause of war as well as transforming the methods by which war was waged.

Plate 6- Cheyenne travois;  Bureau of American EthnologyEwers was quick to recognize that this transformative technology was not equally available to all members of Blackfoot society, although all were inevitably affected by it. The Blackfoot expressed a commitment to equal opportunity, an emphasis upon egalitarianism, but the reality was that a family without horses was at a distinct disadvantage once others had them. Social structures, such as the carefully policed communal hunt, preserved the "fiction of equal opportunity" (p.305), but actually best served those with the best horses. He concludes that, "Probably the most distinctive new trait of the Horse Culture Period was social rather than material in nature. The adaptation of horses to the Plains Indian economy brought about a change from a relatively classless society to a society composed of three classes..." (p. 338). Brilliantly painted tipis, fine clothing richly adorned with bead embroidery or quillwork, multiple wives, ownership of medicine bundles, even participation in religious ceremonies were all the prerogatives of the wealthy. As he notes, "Failure to recognize the existence of these classes has in the past, resulted in an idealized portrayal of Plains culture based primarily upon the activities and attributes of the wealthy" (p.339). Blackfoot society was not a monolithic entity, and throughout the volume Ewers explores the differing social and material strategies open to members of society based on personal circumstances.

Although the European-introduced horse was the catalyst that sparked these changes, in Ewers' view the changes were largely internally driven. He assigns major agency to Blackfoot people themselves, asserting that American fur traders and the advancing frontier did not have a significant impact upon them until after the establishment of an American Fur Company post in their territory in 1831. This is a study of culture change but not of acculturation.

Plate 4- Sketch by Sohon 1855; United States National MuseumThe two directions of inquiry in this volume correspond with changes in 20th century anthropology at the Smithsonian and elsewhere in the United States. Early anthropology in this country was largely museum-based, with important centers at the Smithsonian Institution, particularly within its Bureau of American Ethnology, and at the American Museum of Natural History. Both museums produced important publication series, which provided critical and still heavily used sources of descriptive as well as analytical information about the Indians of the Americas. Throughout the early years of the century they focused on "memory culture," capturing a record of a vanished way of life with little attention to people's current ways of living. In some ways The Horse in Blackfoot Indian Culture is a worthy heir to that tradition, fitting comfortably on the shelves alongside BAE publications of 50 years previous. It relies heavily upon fieldwork with elderly informants, it preserves a wealth of meticulous detail that can be applied to further studies, and it makes that information readily available. Yet it is also clearly vested in the new directions in which anthropology had turned by mid-century.

Elsewhere Ewers (1992: x) described the 1930s, his own period of graduate training, as an era of great ferment in Plains Indian studies. Archeological investigations in the region, especially the work of William Duncan Strong, had increased awareness of the long occupation of the region and had stimulated thought about its dramatic cultural changes over time. Ewers was particularly impressed with the wealth of early documentary material David Mandelbaum had been able to meld with his work on the Plains Cree (1940), and he applied the same method here to extend historical information received from living people back into the pre-horse era, working in what is now a well-established ethnohistorical method.

Once a foundation of basic descriptive ethnographic accounts was available, many scholars of Native American tribes turned to finer grained analyses of the internal workings of these societies. Ewers' asserted that an individual's level of participation in cultural practices as described in much of the earlier literature was dependent upon personal wealth. His interest in social differentiation resonated through a number of contemporary studies of Plains tribes, many published in the American Ethnological Society monograph series (e.g. Mishkin 1940, Richardson 1940; Goldfrank 1945). And his firm belief that Blackfoot people have always played an active role in shaping their lives and culture is a fundamental assumption of modern studies of American Indian history and cultures.


Ewers, John C.

1944   Blackfeet Crafts. U.S. Indian Service. Indian Handicrafts Series, No. 9.

1958   The Blackfeet: Raiders on the Northwestern Plains. University of Oklahoma Press: Norman.

1992   Introduction to the Bison Books edition. Changing Military Patterns on the Great Plains, by F. R. Secoy.

1996   Hair Pipes in Plains Indian Adornment. Bulletin (Smithsonian Institution. Bureau of American Ethnology). 164. 4, pp. 29-85, pls. 13-37. (1957). Digital Edition. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Libraries.

Goldfrank, Esther

1945   Changing Configuration in the Social Organization of the Blackfoot Tribe During the Reserve Period (The Blood of Alberta, Canada). Monographs of the American Ethnological Society, No. 8.

Mandelbaum, David G.

1940   The Plains Cree. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Paper No. 37, pt. 2.

Mishkin, Bernard

1940   Rank and Warfare Among the Plains Indians. Monographs of the American Ethnological Society, No. 3.

Richardson, Jane

1940   Law and Status Among the Kiowa Indians. Monographs of the American Ethnological Society, No. 1.

Secoy, Frank R.

1953   Changing Military Patterns of the Great Plains. Monographs of the American Ethnological Society, No. 21.

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