In a surprise dawn attack in January 1870, the US Army massacred 173 men, women, and children from Chief Heavy Runner's Amskapi Pikuni (Piegan/Blackfoot) band at their winter camp on the Marias River in Montana. The massacre capped a decade of violence between the Blackfoot and whites in Montana that was dubbed the “Piegan wars.” This essay explores a dimension that has not hitherto received sufficient attention: the simultaneous deployment of diplomacy and contestation in the relationship between the Blackfoot divisions (Pikuni, Kainai and Siksika) and the Americans during the 1860s. It views the massacre against the background of a long history of Blackfoot-American relations in order to assess why Blackfoot diplomatic maneuvers failed in this instance. Blackfoot leaders signed three peace treaties (1855, 1865, and 1868) with the United States, each of which decreased the size of Blackfoot territory. When the Civil War interrupted the payment of treaty annuities in 1863, young Blackfoot men increasingly targeted horses belonging to whites in their raids. The raids had been deployed as a compensatory mechanism meant to restore balance for trespasses against the Blackfoot, a strategy also employed in inter- and intratribal relations. Since they first acquired horses in the early eighteenth century, the Blackfoot regarded them highly as possessions as well as commodities of exchange. A gift of horses to an aggrieved party precluded the creation of damaging feuds. In the 1860s, horse stealing was a means by which the Blackfoot bands could ensure their own viability and survival within a complex intratribal, intertribal, intercultural, and international political context. The article emphasizes the triggers for the breakdown of Blackfoot-American relations that culminated in the massacre on the Marias.

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