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Representational image of a chief of the Blackfoot people, produced with AI.  Source: cristian / Adobe Stock

Genetic Analysis Bolsters Blackfoot People’s Land Claims


The advancement of DNA collection-and-analysis technology has had significant consequences for anthropology and archaeology, resulting in surprising revelations about genetic connections between modern populations and ancient peoples. In the latest example of this fascinating phenomenon, a team of genetic scientists, in collaboration with representatives of the indigenous Blackfoot nation, have just completed a study that establishes an unexpected relationship between modern Blackfoot people and some of the earliest inhabitants of the Americas.

“We show that the genomics of sampled individuals from the Blackfoot Confederacy belong to a previously undescribed ancient lineage that diverged from other genomic lineages in the Americas in Late Pleistocene times,” the scientists and their Native American colleagues wrote in an article published in the journal Science Advances. “Using multiple complementary forms of knowledge, we provide a scenario for Blackfoot population history that fits with oral tradition and provides a plausible model for the evolutionary process of the peopling of the Americas.”

Six Blackfeet Chiefs painted by Paul Kane along the North Saskatchewan River in Saskatchewan Canada. (Public Domain)

The Ancient History of the Blackfoot People

The ancient group linked to the modern Blackfoot genome apparently came into being approximately 18,000 years ago, during the glaciation stage of the last Ice Age. As the study authors mentioned, this is the first time this particular genetic lineage has been detected in the DNA of any Native American people, giving the Blackfoot people a unique identity that separates them from other existing Native American groups.

Archaeological finds and oral histories suggest that the indigenous communities who comprise the Nations of the Blackfoot Confederacy first occupied their traditional homelands in southern Saskatchewan and Alberta in Canada and northern Montana in the United States more than 10,000 years ago.

The legends tell of Blackfoot ancestors pursuing herds of bison through deep valleys and along huge lakes carved out by the retreat of the glaciers as the last Ice Age was ending. This new DNA-based evidence certainly supports such a contention, linking the Blackfoot people to the very earliest stages of the evolution of modern indigenous groups, back to a time before the glaciers began to melt away. 

Bison hunting was integral to the culture of the Blackfoot people hunting bison. Hunting buffalo by Alfred Jacob Miller. (Public domain)

Rare DNA of Blackfoot People Reveals a Unique Evolutionary History

For the purposes of this new study, the researchers collected saliva samples and accompanying DNA from six living members of the Blackfoot nation. These individuals were specifically from the Blood Tribe/Káínai group that is currently based in southern Alberta.

Additionally, they obtained permission from the Blackfeet Tribal Historic Preservation Office to collect DNA samples from the skeletal remains of four Blackfoot ancestors kept under their curation. They were also allowed to extract DNA from the skeletal remains of three Blackfoot ancestors that are stored at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Based on radiocarbon dating, it is believed that these deceased individuals all lived between 100 and 200 years ago.

After completing a comparative analysis of the old and new DNA of the Blackfoot people, the genetic scientists involved in the study concluded that they all belonged to the same genetic lineage. This research served to demonstrate that these “genomic patterns are grounded in the traditional Blackfoot Confederacy homelands at the time of European contact.”

But the scientists and their Native American colleagues wanted to delve much deeper into the genetic history of the Blackfoot people. The idea was to complete another comparative analysis of genetic material, but this time the study would compare the Blackfoot DNA, both ancient and modern, with genetic samples taken from other Native American people separated from the Blackfoot nation in space and time. This would identify Blackfoot ancestral relationships with other indigenous groups.

Painting of a warrior of the Blackfoot people by Karl Bodmer, circa 1840. (Public domain)

Analysis of Ancestral Ties of Blackfoot People with Other Indigenous Groups

In the existing genetic databank, an ancient lineage has been identified that can be associated with all modern Native American peoples. The goal of the new study was to discover when the Blackfoot lineage diverged from that common ancestral group. Much to the surprise of the research team they discovered that the Blackfoot genetic line dates back to approximately 16,000 BC, or to the waning days of the last great period of glaciation.

It had been assumed that the Blackfoot people would have genetic relationships with some of their traditional neighbors in southern Canada and the northern United States. But it has long been known that the Blackfoot language has minimal overlap with other indigenous languages in that region, specifically with the languages grouped under the label Central Algonquian that were spoken by the various Algonquian peoples who occupied the Great Lakes region to the east.

Now that it is known that the ancestors of the modern Blackfoot people came from a separate and previously undiscovered genetic lineage, it is much easier to identify them as a distinct people with a unique history.

“Certain elements of Blackfoot are older than proto-Algonquian language and likely were spoken by indigenous peoples in the aboriginal homelands of the Blackfoot Confederacy,” the study authors explained in their Science Advances article. “This finding changes the traditional anthropological assumption that the Blackfoot language (and, by extension, its speakers) originated in the North American Great Lakes, where Algonquian purportedly evolved.”

Rather than migrating from the east, the study authors concluded that the ancestors of the Blackfoot people likely traveled from the west to arrive on what has come to be recognized as their traditional homelands on the Northwestern Plains (i.e., the lands of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana).

Genetic Evidence and Land Rights: Will it Make a Difference?

The Blackfoot people have had many disputes with both the US and Canadian governments over treaty and land use rights, some of which continue into the present day. The research team responsible for this new genetic study hope that their findings might help the Blackfoot Confederacy substantiate some of their historical claims of sovereignty.

“The DNA study also provides the Blood Tribe/Kainai with a new line of evidence to help further treaty and aboriginal rights,” the study authors said, in a statement appearing in the online publication Science

But Kim Tallbear, a University of Alberta professor of Native studies who was not involved in the new study, is uncertain how much of an impact these genetic results are likely to have on long-term disputes with government agencies. “We know Indigenous people were here before settlers,” he stated. “It’s not a forgone conclusion that adding genetic information to what we already know about Indigenous history in the Americas is going to make a big difference."

Top image: Representational image of a chief of the Blackfoot people, produced with AI.  Source: cristian / Adobe Stock

By Nathan Falde

Nathan Falde's picture


Nathan Falde graduated from American Public University in 2010 with a Bachelors Degree in History, and has a long-standing fascination with ancient history, historical mysteries, mythology, astronomy and esoteric topics of all types. He is a full-time freelance writer from... Read More

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