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The Kainai Nation - Customs and Traditions

Kainai on trail

Kainai custom and tradition was one that evolved from nomadic life on the plains. Daily activities were sensitive to seasonal changes in the land and climate, and to the movements of bison herds, which the Kainai depended on for food, clothing, and shelter. Spring was the time when Kainai camps, set up in wooded river valleys sheltered from the cold of winter, were packed up and moved out to the plains. This was done to avoid the spring flooding of rivers and streams, and to pursue the bison that were calving and feasting on fresh grass. Camps were usually not set up too far from river valleys, as sources of water would lure bison their way. Tools and supplies were repaired in preparation for summer travel, and the larger camp would split up into smaller family units for the summer hunt. When summer did come, it was a time of harvesting food and furs. Berries were picked in the wooded areas along the river, and bison coming to the water to drink were hunted. As the bison moved, so did the Kainai. Camp was moved by people and dogs, though after the 1700s the horse-drawn travois was used.

As summer faded into autumn, smaller family camps would once again gather for a communal bison hunt. Various methods, ranging from buffalo jumps to corrals, were used to steer large numbers of bison into a position where they could be easily killed by hunters. The bison kill was divided among the various bands and extra meat was dried into pemmican for long term storage and use during the winter. In the winter, family camps returned to the river valleys in order to be close to firewood supplies, and to have shelter from the cold of winter. Bison were hunted during the winter months if they could be found, but pemmican was also relied upon as a source of food. Storytelling was a popular activity during the long winter evenings. Stories were told both to entertain and to teach younger generations of the Kainai traditions.


Like their fellow Blackfoot tribes, the Siksika and Piikani, the Kainai’s main shelter was the tipi. A typical tipi consisted of a conical frame made from long wooden poles taken from lodgepole pine trees, and a buffalohide covering. Tipis were particularly efficient for a nomadic lifestyle because they could be set up or taken down in a relatively short space of time, and were well insulated and waterproof.


Early travel for the Kainai was on foot, so hunting, moving camp, warfare, and other activities requiring movement were done this way. This was a slower and more arduous mode of movement, and this did not change for the Kainai until the introduction of the horse after the 1700s. After the arrival of the horse, the Kainai enjoyed an increase in territory and wealth as travel on horseback was faster and more efficient.


Kainai artwork carried both a functional and aesthetic function; it was a type of art that reflected the human reliance on the land for survival. Quill-work was one form of traditional Kainai art. Porcupine quills were dyed with berry juices or other natural colouring materials and stitched into designs, usually to decorate a practical piece such as a pair of moccasins. Quill-work was the enterprise of Kainai women, and was considered a sacred activity. Special initiation ceremonies were held for women who wished to pursue this art form.
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