Piikani (Peigan, Pikuni, Piikuni) are one of the three nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy. They once occupied a vast hunting ground which ranged along the foothills from Rocky Mountain House to Heart Butte, Montana, and extended eastward onto the plains. As of 2016, the Piikani Nation has about 3,600 registered members living and working both on and off their reserves located near Pincher Creek, Alberta.
Etymology and Language
Their name is an adaptation of the word apiku'ni, meaning "badly tanned robe." They were known to fur traders as the Muddy River Indians. The official spelling of their name in Canada is Piikani (also spelled Piikuni); in the US it is Piegan (although modern day Piegan in the US have adopted the title of Blackfeet Indians of Montana). Due to a historical, geographic division between the American and Canadian bands, the Piikani are also known as Aapátohsipikáni or “Northern Piikani;” the Piegan are also referred to as Aamsskáápipikani or “Southern Piikani.”
Belonging to the Algonquian linguistic family, the Piikani speak the same language as the Kainai (Blood) and Siksika (Blackfoot), with only slight dialectal variations (see Blackfoot Confederacy: Language; Indigenous Languages in Canada).
The Piikani’s vast hunting ground once ranged from along the foothills from Rocky Mountain House to Heart Butte, Montana, and eastward onto the plains. By the mid-1800s, they had moved south to an area around the Milk River in Alberta and the Teton and Marias rivers in Montana. The Piikani also travelled north and east in present-day Alberta to hunt.
Historically, the Piikani were a large community, numbering about 3,000 to 5,000 before colonization. Although it is not clear why, the Piikani divided into northern and southern bands prior to the arrival of White traders. Despite this separation, they often travelled together and were so intermingled that a clear division was impossible.
In the pre-colonial era, the Piikani, like other Blackfoot nations, were dependent on the buffalo (Iinii) for food, clothing and to make tools. While they also hunted other large game, such as deer, and supplemented their diet with vegetables, nuts and fruits, their traditional economy and culture centred on the buffalo hunt.
The Piikani had complex warrior societies. Their enemies included the Crow, Shoshone, Nez Percé, Dakota and Assiniboine. Warfare among Indigenous nations during the 1700s intensified with the introduction of guns and horses by Europeans. Warriors held a high social status in their communities as defenders of the Blackfoot nations.
Culture and Spirituality
The Piikani had a strong religious and spiritual culture that was passed on through oral histories. This culture includes participating in sweat lodges, the Sun Dance, using medicine bundles, and other means of purifying the body and soul.
The arrival of Christian missionaries in the 1870s introduced significant changes to Piikani spirituality and lifestyle. However, oral histories keep many of the traditional beliefs alive today.
Although creation stories differ according to northern and southern oral traditions, the Piikani and Piegan generally believe that the Creator (also known as Old Man or N’api) was light personified, and considered to be the beginning of the day, the beginning of life. In some Piikani stories, Old Man is associated with the sun and therefore referred to as Natos (sun). As in other Indigenous religions, the Creator is non-human and non-gendered. Old Man created and is eternally part of all the living people, creatures and life forms on the earth. (See Indigenous Peoples: Religion).
Contact with Europeans
During the 1700s, the Piikani interacted with traders from the US and the Hudson’s Bay Company. Supported by a large Blackfoot force, the Piikani and their allies were one of the most powerful Indigenous groups on the Northern Plains, temporarily impeding the westward expansion of European settlers (see Indigenous Peoples: Plains).
However, contact with White traders and missionaries had significant effects on Piikani traditional life. Exposure to European diseases and intensified warfare reduced their population after the 1837 smallpox epidemic. In 1870, seven years before the northern and southern groups settled on reserves, their population was further reduced.
Treaty-Making and Its Impact
After signing a treaty with the Americans in 1855, the Blackfoot Confederacy received an initially vast reserve in present-day Montana from the US government. This reserve was reduced after the American government used military force to pressure the Blackfoot Confederacy to surrender more land for settlers. About 220 Piegans died in 1870 as a result of the conflict. While most Piegans settled on the reduced Montana reserve, some joined the northern group in Canada, where they signed Treaty 7 with the federal government in 1877 (see Numbered Treaties).
The Piikani asked for their home base to be their wintering areas, where they hunted buffalo, around the Crow Creeks, Oldman River and Porcupine Hills. However, the disappearance of the buffalo in the late 1800s made life on the reserve that much more difficult. Historians commonly refer to the winter of 1883–84 as the “starvation winter” because of the widespread hunger that plagued the confederacy that season. The end of the buffalo hunt encouraged the Piikani to move to the area around Pincher Creek and to practice ranching, which is still a successful part of their economy (see Ranching History).
As of 2016, the Piikani Nation counts about 3,600 registered members, nearly 40 per cent of whom live and/or work and go to school in urban areas off reserve. The Piikani have two reserves in southern Alberta with a total landmass of 45,677.8 ha. Reserve 147a (located along Highway 3, midway between Fort Macleod and Pincher Creek) is known as the Brocket town site, and Reserve 147b (13 km southwest of Fort Macleod) is known as the Timber Reserve. The Piikani engage in ranching, agriculture and other business ventures on reserve. They are also an active member in Indigenous associations, including Treaty 7 Management Corporation and the Blackfoot Confederacy.
In 2014, the Kainai joined other First Nations in signing the Iinii Treaty or Buffalo Treaty, including: the Blackfeet Nation, Siksika Nation, Piikani Nation, Assiniboine and Gros Ventre Tribes of Fort Belknap Reservation, Assiniboine and Dakota (Oyate, Sioux) Tribes of Fort Peck Reservation, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (see Coast andInterior Salish), and the Tsuut’ina Nation. In 2015, the Stoney Nakoda Nation and the Samson Cree Nation also signed this “open treaty,” which is open to other First Nations from Canada and the US. Among other issues, the signatories agreed to unite the political power of Northern Plains Indigenous nations, work towards bison conservation and strengthen traditional relationships to the land.