The wind blew across the vastness of the Great Plains and a party of the Siksikáwa people travel in a crooked line. Men, women, and children walk barefoot in the summer air. They’ve put away the distinctive dark, ash-stained moccasins that gave them the name “Blackfoot people.” Dogs pulled loads behind them, each loaded with all of their worldly possessions and the tipis they call their homes.
They move, traversing the broad flat lands in what are now Saskachawan in Canada, Montana in the U.S., and the places in between. A nomadic people, the Blackfoot hunted the buffalo from one end of the prairielands to the other, never staying in one place too long. They tracked the wandering buffalo herds, and have even been called roving buffalo hunters by some historians. The animal was the staple of their predominantly meat-eating diet, but was also the source of their clothing and shelter.
In the centuries before the horse was introduced to them in 1730, the lives and traditions of the Blackfoot people centered around travel by foot. They ran in pursuit of the buffalo, the soles of their feet pounding on the rich grass of the plains. The hunt for the buffalo was as much an athletic activity as a religious one, and the Blackfoot medicine man said a special prayer to the Sun god to ensure a good hunt.
Of course, that all changed once they adopted the use of the horse from other tribes living on the Great Plains.
They chased the buffalo astride stallions, their people spread even more widely across the terrain. For the next century and half, the Blackfoot made the horse a big part of their lives and running after the buffalo was no longer a necessity. As encroachments by European settlers increased, the precious buffalo came under attack. Buffalo hunters multiplied and the herds were slaughtered almost to the point of extinction.
The Blackfoot were hit hard by the loss, and the decimated buffalo population sent shockwaves among the people. Throughout the 19th century conflict arose between the Blackfoot and other tribes, as well as with the new settlers. Eventually, the Blackfoot were relocated to reservations, but even today, the culture is one of the more persistent native ones in North America.
The image of the Blackfoot hunter racing barefoot on the plains after those gentle giants is vivid; it evokes the idea of humanity in touch with the physical world, something that certainly resonated with those who choose to take up barefoot running today.
Photo Credit: BillMcDavid on Flickr