Pitamakan; Braver than the Braves
My latest painting for the CM Russell Museum Art Auction shares the story of the Blackfeet woman warrior, Pitamakan.
Please enjoy this historical retelling of her story, told by historian Ken Robison (used with permission)
The Saga of Pitamakan, the Pikuni Blackfeet Joan of Arc
Nestled between Upper and Lower Two Medicine Lakes in Glacier National Park is one of the most remarkable and most beautiful waterfalls in America, Pitamakan, or Running Eagle Falls. In the spring so much water rushes over the upper falls that the lower falls is completely hidden. During the summer, as the river flow decreases, the water appears to change course and flows out of the lower falls, a jagged hole half way up the side of an almost perpendicular cliff. This is why white men named it Trick Falls. In recent years, the name has returned to its historic name, Pitamakan or Running Eagle Falls, to honor the memory of the only famous woman warrior of the Pikuni Blackfeet.
Pitamakan, or Running Eagle, is a man’s name, and it is a high and unique honor for a woman to be allowed by the Blackfeet to bear it. In fact this woman is said to be the only woman of the tribe honored by being given a man’s name. She died about 1836, but her name and her history were long known by older tribal members.
As a girl this woman’s name was Weasel Woman. She was the eldest of two brothers and two sisters, and her early years were spent in learning the domestic chores of the women of her tribe. Even though she had no interest in women’s work, she learned them well and did perform these duties whenever her mother became ill, or was not able to care for the family.
Weasel Woman’s real interests and talent were formed when her father, a respected warrior in the tribe, began teaching her to shoot a bow and arrow. Her skills soon became proficient so that she was allowed to go on buffalo hunts with the men, and she killed her share of buffalo. On one such hunt when she was 15 years old, the group encountered a large Crow Indian war party. In their attempt to flee, the horse of Weasel Woman’s father was shot from under him, and he was killed. She turned back, picked up her father’s body, loaded the fresh buffalo meat onto her horse, and escaped to her village. She was given great praise for her fighting spirit and her bravery in the face of the enemy.
Very shortly after the death of her father, Weasel Woman’s mother died of a broken heart. This left Weasel Woman responsible for her brothers and sisters, and forced her to make serious choices. Since she had no love for domestic chores, she brought a widow woman into the household to care for the family, and Weasel Woman assumed the role of family head. She carried her father's rifle with pride and perfected her hunting and fighting skills. She managed to keep the little family together.
Weasel Woman was a very attractive young woman and soon had many admirers among the young warriors of the tribe who wished to marry her. The girl refused them all, however, and it soon became apparent that her mind ran much more to war than to love. Wherever a party of warriors gathered for a dance or feast, she would be found looking on, listening to their talk. Whenever a party returned from war, she was foremost in hearing of their exploits and praising them. All she thought about was warfare and brave deeds.
As with much oral history, the times and events of Weasel Woman’s emerging exploits are blurred. One evening in her 20th year a large party of Blackfeet started out to cross the Rocky Mountains for a raid in the Flathead country. They traveled all night, and when day broke discovered that Weasel Woman was with them. The war chief bade her go home, but she calmly refused, saying, “If you will not let me go with you, I shall follow behind.”
The medicine man spoke up and said: “I advise you to let her go with us; something tells me that she will bring us good luck.”
“As you advise, so shall it be,” said the chief, and so the woman joined the band of warriors. No man of the party teased her or bothered her in any manner. Each one treated her as he would a sister.
On the edge of Flathead Lake a large camp of Flatheads was discovered with a party of their friends, the Pend d’Oreille. The Blackfeet waited till night and then quietly approached the circle of lodges of the enemy. Then Weasel Woman said to the war chief, “let me go in first to see what I can do. I feel that I shall be successful in there.”
“Go,” the chief told her, “and we will wait for you and be ready to help you if you get into trouble.”
Weasel Woman went into the camp and found where the best horses were tied—the fast runners, the Flatheads’ best racers and their stallions. They were picketed close to the lodges of the various owners. By the faint moonlight she was able to select the best horses and she made her choice carefully. She cut the ropes of three fine pinto horses, and led them quietly out to where the party of Blackfeet awaited. There she tied them and again went into the Flathead camp and again came out with three horses. Then she said: “I have taken enough for this time. I will await you here and take care of what we have.”
Then the warriors made many trips and brought out a number of the best horses of the Flatheads. Striking out for the mountains with them they finally reached the Blackfeet camp in safety without the loss of a single man or horse.
A few days after the party returned the medicine lodge was erected and the warriors, according to custom, gathered and related their exploits on the trip to the Flathead camp. Two or three young men who had performed their first exploits in stealing horses from the enemy were given their new names as warriors, and then an old medicine man called Weasel Woman and had her tell of her own performances in the Flathead camp—of going twice among the enemies’ lodges and taking six horses. All the Blackfeet shouted approval at that, and then the medicine man gave her the name, Pitamakan, or Running Eagle, a very great name. It was the name of a famous chief whose shadow had some time before gone to the Sand Hills, where the Blackfeet believe the spirits of the departed live.
After that Pitamakan did not have to sneak after a war party. She was asked to go, and Pitamakan had her first war experience with Crow warriors who had stolen horses from her village. Upon reaching the Crow camp, she and her cousin were responsible for reclaiming eleven of their horses. While the main party rested under cover on their way back home, Running Eagle kept watch from a nearby butte. She attacked two enemy riders trailing her main party, killed one warrior and took his rifle. Shooting both her rifle and his, she chased away the remaining rider.
After this experience, Running Eagle was directed by the tribal elders to go on a Vision Quest in order to learn her true destiny. During her ceremony, she slept in the cave under a waterfall and received a vision and the power necessary to become a successful warrior in the tribe. She was never questioned again by her people, and was given the respect of one who had received special powers from the Spirit World.
After many successful raids against the Sioux, Crow, and Flatheads, in all of which she distinguished herself as a warrior and showed the most extraordinary bravery, she, herself, was made a war chief and led expeditions on which warriors begged to be allowed to go because they believed that where she was leader, nothing but good luck could come to them. On the warpath she wore men’s costume, but at home dressed like a woman and was very modest and self-effacing. But she gave feasts and dances like the other warriors, as was her privilege, and the greatest chiefs and medicine men came to them and were glad to be there.
Once Pitamakan led a large war party against the Flatheads, and somewhere on the west side of the mountains fell in with a war party of Blood or Kainai Indians, one of the brother tribes of the Blackfeet. For several days the two parties traveled together, and then one evening the Blood chief, Falling Bear, said to Pitamakan’s horse herder: “Go tell your chief woman that I would like to marry her.”
The boy told the Blood chief that he could not give her the message. “She is not that kind,” the boy said. “Men are her brothers—nothing more. She will never marry and she would be angry with me for carrying your offer.”
The next day, as they were traveling quietly along, the Blood chief rode up to Pitamakan and said to her: “I have never loved; but I love now. I love you; my heart is all yours; let us marry.”
“I will not say ‘yes’ to that; nor will I say ‘no,’” the woman chief answered. “I will consider what you ask and give you answer after this raid.”
That very evening the scouts ahead discovered a large camp of Flathead and Kootenai—more than 100 lodges of them, and when night fell both parties drew close to it. Pitamakan then ordered her followers to remain where they were and told the Blood chief to go into camp and take horses, and he went in and returned with one horse.
“It is now my turn,” said Pitamakan, and she went in and brought out two horses. The Blood chief then went in and returned with two horses. Pitamakan went in and brought out four horses. The Blood chief got two the next time and Pitamakan got one more.
Then she said to the Blood chief, “Our men are becoming impatient to go in and take horses. We will each of us go in once more and then let them do what they can. So the Blood chief went in for the fourth and last time and came back leading four horses, making nine in all. And then Pitamakan went in and cut the ropes of eight horses and safely led them out, making in all 15 that she had taken. The warriors then went in and stole all the horses that could be driven easily, and the big double party headed for home.
On the next day the Blood chief approached Pitamakan and said: “I love you so much that I must have your answer.”
Pitamakan said: “I gave you your chance. My answer would have been ‘yes’ had you taken more horses than I did from the enemy’s camp. But I took most; therefore I cannot marry you.”
That was her way of getting around refusing to take the chief as her husband. She had beaten him, an old, experienced warrior, in one of the games of war, and he could not again ask her to marry him. The Blood chief felt very badly, but said no more.
Pitamakan went on to become a mighty warrior. She took part in many raids, and was permitted to tell of her adventures in the medicine lodge ceremonies. She became a member of the Braves Society of young warriors, and successfully led many war parties. It is told by old chiefs of the Blackfeet that Pitamakan was one of the first of the Blackfeet to use a gun in warfare, and she was a fine shot for those times of crude firearms. Three enemies fell before her musket in different fights.
Then, one day, she led a party against the Flatheads near the Sun River, and while she and her men were in the large enemy camp stealing horses, the Flathead cornered them and attacked. Pitamakan was clubbed from behind and killed along with five of her warriors.
So passed Pitamakan, which the French traders used to call the Blackfeet Joan of Arc. The whole tribe mourned her death and the next spring bitter warfare was waged on the Flatheads till more than six of their warriors had fallen in tribute to the brave young woman chief.
The beautiful waterfall between the lakes of the Two Medicine was the place of Pitamakan’s Spirit Quest, and it was named Pitamakan Falls in her honor. For many years Blackfeet children were told around the campfire at night of her exploits in war. It was later renamed Trick Falls in Glacier National Park, and the name Pitamakan or Running Eagle disappeared from white man’s history until the Pikuni storytellers passed on the story of this great Blackfeet woman. Through the efforts of The Apikuni Society (the James Willard Shultz Society) the name Pitamakan Falls was restored in 1977 to this historic and beautiful waterfall.
Today, you can visit fantastic Pitamakan Falls once again and enjoy the area sacred to the Blackfeet People.
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