Beneath the Backbone of the World

Blackfoot People and the North American Borderlands, 1720–1877

By Ryan Hall

272 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 20 halftones, 4 maps

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-5515-4
    Published: April 2020
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-5514-7
    Published: April 2020
  • eBook ISBN: 978-1-4696-5516-1
    Published: March 2020

David J. Weber Series in the New Borderlands History

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Awards & distinctions

Finalist, 2021 Spur Awards (Historical Nonfiction), Western Writers of America

For the better part of two centuries, between 1720 and 1877, the Blackfoot (Niitsitapi) people controlled a vast region of what is now the U.S. and Canadian Great Plains. As one of the most expansive and powerful Indigenous groups on the continent, they dominated the northern imperial borderlands of North America. The Blackfoot maintained their control even as their homeland became the site of intense competition between white fur traders, frequent warfare between Indigenous nations, and profound ecological transformation. In an era of violent and wrenching change, Blackfoot people relied on their mastery of their homelands’ unique geography to maintain their way of life.

With extensive archival research from both the United States and Canada, Ryan Hall shows for the first time how the Blackfoot used their borderlands position to create one of North America’s most vibrant and lasting Indigenous homelands. This book sheds light on a phase of Native and settler relations that is often elided in conventional interpretations of Western history, and demonstrates how the Blackfoot exercised significant power, resiliency, and persistence in the face of colonial change.

Published with support provided by the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas

About the Author

Ryan Hall is assistant professor of history and Native American studies at Colgate University.
For more information about Ryan Hall, visit the Author Page.


“This meticulously researched volume . . . offers a compelling examination of the pivotal role played by the Blackfoot nation in the turbulent history of the northern plains’ borderlands during much of the 18th and 19th centuries. . . . Hall’s mastery of this exceedingly complex history provides important new insights into the continent’s indigenous past, and deserves an appreciative audience.”--CHOICE

“Ryan Hall masterfully illuminates the value of putting Indigenous places at the center of history in his meticulously researched account of Blackfoot efforts to maintain their homeland during the tumultuous changes brought about by British, Canadian, and American encroachment. . . . Hall’s analysis provides a useful methodological approach for scholars of Iowa.”--The Annals of Iowa

"Ryan Hall’s brilliant exploration of the history of the Blackfoot people reveals a creative and supremely dynamic Indigenous nation that rose, against the odds, to control the vast northwestern plains in the midst of two colonial empires. How they achieved such dominance is astonishing, and how they lost it will push readers to think hard about the legacies of conquest. This is a history full of drama and vital lessons."--Pekka Hämäläinen, University of Oxford

"Beneath the Backbone of the World is a singular achievement, not just for the story Ryan Hall tells but also for the way he tells it. The research is remarkable. The prose sparkles. So too do Blackfoot characters like Bull Back Fat, Medicine Snake Woman, Mountain Chief, and Heavy Runner, who drive the narrative forward. What a powerful book this is."--Elizabeth Fenn, University of Colorado Boulder

"This book bridges the typical geographic divide that has parceled up Blackfoot history into its Canadian and U.S. components, tracing it across the fur trade era, and portrays the Blackfoot people as key players in some of the biggest events in Western history. Hall narrates the compelling story with graceful focus."--Michel Hogue, Carleton University

"This accessible and engaging book is a fresh synthesis and analysis of Blackfoot history, knitting together a world of complexity to show how the Blackfoot shaped the process of colonial expansion."--Sarah Carter, University of Alberta