In the early 19th century, a Blackfeet woman rose to prominence when she chose to learn the ways of a warrior.
Born to a traditional homemaker mother and a warrior father, Brown Weasel Woman at a young age exchanged housework for the chance to hunt buffalo and protect her people. After participating in several successful war parties—and assuming the role of head of her family—Brown Weasel Woman earned the name Running Eagle, a moniker given to only a handful of warriors before her.
Perhaps the most famous Blackfeet woman of all time, Running Eagle still serves as a role model for women of all ages, said Susan Webber, a Montana state representative who also teaches Indian women’s studies and philosophy at Blackfeet Community College. As mothers, Blackfeet women were the first educators, charged with passing on all tribal knowledge to their children and grandchildren, but they also had the freedom to choose the trajectory of their own lives, Webber said.
“Men took over the education of young boys, teaching them about being hunters and aggressive warriors,” she said. “But women had a choice. They could learn the tasks of homemaking or they could go to war with the men. Education—and whatever that meant—was the realm of the woman.”
Traditionally, Blackfeet women owned their homes and were subservient to no one, Webber said. Prior to the introduction of Christianity and its notions of patriarchy, Blackfeet women existed at the center of the home.
“The home belonged to the woman, and the husband—the man—just resided there,” she said. “She ensured the home was taken care of, that anyone who came in was fed. She even sat at the center as she cooked.”
In the early 1800s, missionaries arrived in the Pacific Northwest, preaching principles of Christianity and forever altering family dynamics in Blackfeet homes, Webber said. These missionaries were the first to insist that women had “a place” in the home.
“Christianity came into our lives, and we had to follow Western thought,” she said. “Before that, we never thought about ‘a woman’s place.’ ”
The new rules disrupted more than relationships between husbands and wives, Webber said. They also changed the way women thought about themselves.
“The Western concepts of women were foreign,” she said. “Our role was always ‘sits beside him,’ not ‘sits behind him’ or ‘walks three paces behind him.’ In our ways, women are men’s greatest support and greatest weapon.”
Among the first written records of the Blackfeet were the journals of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who contacted the tribe in about 1806. Although the journals include descriptions of Blackfeet women, they are largely erroneous, Webber said.
“They started this stereotype that all Indian women were basically just sexual things,” she said. “That’s a Western thought. Perhaps some of that did happen, perhaps there were women who saw that as their purpose, but there are women in our world Lewis and Clark never saw. As Western men, they only saw what they wanted to see—women with less virtue.”
What explorers and traders missed was the tribe’s “high-status” women, Webber said. Although the Blackfeet didn’t crown royalties, they did recognize women as highly respected spiritual leaders.
“In the Western world, the holiest person is the Pope,” she said. “In our world, the holiest person is a woman.”
Although much of that changed with Christianity and boarding schools, women have retained their role as first educators, Webber said. Women know this “intuitively and genetically.”
That role is evident in modern times, Webber said. The first Native American to graduate from college in Montana was a woman, and Blackfeet women seeking a higher education far outnumber their male counterparts.
“More Indian women embrace education because that’s been our role traditionally,” she said. “Also, we’re smart.”
Theda New Breast, master trainer at the Native Wellness Institute, an organization that promotes health through traditional means, said this emphasis on education pre-dates European contact. The Blackfeet, a confederacy of three nomadic tribes straddling the Montana/Canada border, existed long before Europeans divided the land.
New Breast, Blackfeet, said early education for Blackfeet women consisted of an “intricate self-actualization process” that began at birth and included receiving an Indian name, being inducted into societies and embracing traditional teachings. Once women were self-actualized, they could procreate and begin teaching the next generation, New Breast said.
“Women’s role was intricate,” she said. “They were cherished and revered, but they also worked hard. They had to travel and camp. They tanned the hides, dried the meat. They had children, nursed children, built cradleboards, all in addition to meeting the needs of the men.”
Education and self-actualization, New Breast said, allowed women the “stimulus to think out their own choices,” which still holds true today.
“Traditionally, there was no nuclear family,” New Breast said. “In Blackfeet, every child was your child; every decision you made was for the benefit of everyone. Thought was collective, and we all helped each other. When we think this way now, we are healthier.”