My Native American Ancestry

Assiniboine Painted Lodge

A young Assiniboine boy on his horse. His mother looks on proudly

My great-great grandmother was Assiniboine and lived on the plains of present day Montana, North Dakota and Saskatchewan, Canada. She married an Irish woodcutter named Finn. They lived on the banks of the Missouri river where my grandmother and her brother were born.

Two Assiniboine Chiefs


Black Eagle and Mosquito Hawk

These pictures were taken about the time my grandparents were married.

They still had buffalo robes. They are probably not related to me directly but the Chestnut family had similar features.

My uncles knew my grandmother’s family but I know little about them.

 The Assiniboine


The Assiniboine, or Nakoda as they like to call themselves, were like all Native Americans. They were dispossessed of their ancestral homelands by a series of invasions by Europeans. They lived a far different life on their original lands, which were many miles to the southwest of their final Montana location. They never strayed too far from their villages in those early days. They went on to be one of the wandering tribes of the western plains. They are the Nakton branch of the vast Siouan Nation. The Assiniboine and the Sioux split because of differences. They later became enemies.

The Native Americans have been on this continent for more than 30,000 years. New finds keep dating them back farther. At the time of Columbus arrival America had a population of 75,000,000 people that spoke 2,000 languages. Yet they were easily conquered with the help of naiveté, “Germs, Guns and Steel”. Most of what people now know now about the first Americans is myth and legend. Archeology is finding a different story. An advanced civilization is becoming unearthed. Much of it was advanced over Europe in its dark ages.

I was lucky enough to purchase a recently re-released book about the Assiniboine. The original was published in 1942 and was written from interviews taken after the turn of the twentieth century. The author is James L Long (First Boy) and William Standing (Fire bear) illustrates it. Both are Nakoda men who were born in the nineteenth century. They communicated well with the “Old Ones” who were interviewed (The oldest was 105 years old) because they were of the people. Not only did the authors speak the language but they new the land and culture of the people.

I bought the book on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation, the reservation of my grandmother’s people. The book is called “The Land of Nakoda”. Nakoda, as the Assiniboine call themselves, interprets as “People not at war”. Other Indians called them Stone Warriors. Assini means stone.

The Old Ones who told the stories saw firsthand or heard the legends told of how the tribe lived and what they believed. Their recollections went back well before the tribe’s late introduction to the horse. It has been recorded that the plains Indians had horses in the seventeen hundreds. The Assiniboine were one of the last plains Indians to have the horse. It was in the middle of the eighteenth century before they replaced the dog as the beast of burden.

The book reflects the straightforward approach to everyday life and the social structure of the Assiniboine. It also reflects the spirituality and humbleness of a people in harmony with nature. In the book we see a people living a simple life dictated by the seasons and the animals that followed the seasons.

It took centuries to migrate north and west to the area between Illinois and North Dakota from the tribe’s original territory in the southeast part of the United States. It wasn’t until 1610 that they were recorded as being in the Lake Winnipeg area. It took the original tribe centuries to migrate north and west to the area between Illinois and North Dakota.

The tribe grew and transformed itself over the years. The tribe is divided into bands that are separate but interactive. The original bands expanded and divided to many more as they moved. Eventually there were thirty-three bands. Six of the original bands reside on the Fort Peck Reservation today.

The Assiniboine were in the larger area of the Fort Peck Reservation in the late 1600’s. The Hudson Bay Company visited them in the 1690’s in the Saskatchewan River country. Their seasonal turn around at that time included wintering north of the Missouri River. The area of White Earth River, Poplar and the Milk River was always rich in buffalo and other game.

In 1700 they divided into two groups. The woodlands bands to the north hunted fur-bearing animals for trade to the French. They became the middlemen for many tribes in the trade business. The plains bands to the south had less contact with the whites. They were the Stoney bands. Eventually the thriving trading business brought these bands closer together until by the nineteenth century there was little difference between the two.

By then the Assiniboine were veteran middlemen in the fur trade business. French-Canadian explorer, La Vérendrye recorded accompanying a regular annual trade expedition by eastern Assiniboine to the Mandan Villages in 1731. The Mandan Village was the intertribal trade center on the northern plains and a key trade center for the Hudson’s Bay Company.

As the Assiniboine gradually moved more of their population onto the prairies and out of the woodlands, they continued to ally themselves with the Cree, Chippewa and the Manzoni against the Sioux, Arikaras, Cheyenne, Blackfeet and Gros Ventres. The Sioux were then located in the Black Hills of North Dakota.

Though the Assiniboine had been long been tied to the Hudson’s Bay Company, they gradually accepted the Quebec French traders who became the Northwest Company. That was spurred on when the Hudson’s Bay Company replaced the Assiniboine as their canoe men. Soon the Assiniboine became adept at playing one company against the other.

Independent traders, some out of Spanish St Louis, started coming to the Mandan Villages. The pragmatic Assiniboine now saw the villages as trade fairs intent on the exploitation of the Indians. They sometimes attack the merchants and their clients while continuing to trade cautiously to their benefit.

The competition for access to the villages and the overall flow of goods became their focus. The Assiniboine were able to effectively control the lands between the Assiniboine River in Canada and the Mandan Villages.

That control weakened with the smallpox epidemic and the coming of the white man following the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1803-04. The Assiniboine signed their first treaty in 1826. The next year a post was built at the mouth of the White Earth River to trade specifically with Assiniboine. The next year the newly formed American Fur Company built Fort Union at the confluence of the Yellowstone River and the Missouri also to trade with the Assiniboine.

For the next four decades the Assiniboine continued to produce fur and hides while roaming the regions between the Saskatchewan River to the north and the Missouri River branch lands to the south, The cypress Hills and Milk River to the west and the White Earth River to the east.

Large contingents of white trappers were gradually taking over the fur business. They would eventually deplete most of the streams of fur bearing animals.

In 1837 an expedition from the American Fur Trading Company came up the Missouri river into present day Montana. The men were infected with smallpox. They exposed Wichiyabina or Little Girls Band of Assiniboine. It was the third time a smallpox epidemic depleted the Assiniboine. This time Ninety-four percent or the Wichiyabina Band died. Eventually the disease spread to the entire band and the result was decimating. In 1838 the remainder of eight bands formed into one band. They called themselves the Hudesabina Band or the Red Bottom Band. They, and the Canoe Paddler bands, are the two bands now on the Fort Peck Reservation.

By 1839 the Assiniboine were firmly established as an American tribe, living throughout northeastern Montana and northwest North Dakota. That year sixty lodges came down from Canada to join their relatives. There were still several bands living in Canada.

By the end of the Civil War the white traders were living with them and marrying their women. They learned the Indian ways and taught them the ways of the white man. This helped them in the trade business. Many items of the white man were prevalent in the daily lives the tribe, kettles; awls; tools for hide dressing and even fire steels. Guns and metal knives were indispensable. White man’s whiskey,”a scourge worse than smallpox for the Redman”, was accepted. Riverboat traffic on their river further complicated the way of life they had established over the centuries.

In1851 the first far-reaching Indian treaty with the U.S. federal government was agreed upon at Fort Laramie. It involved the Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Crow, Gros Ventre, Mandan, Arikara and the Assiniboine Nations. It marked the first cession of land by the Assiniboine and the creation of the original reservation. Because of the treaty, the government thought they needed one person who represented the entire Assiniboine Nation. Crazy Bear became the first Tribal Chief of the entire Assiniboine nation. The treaty united all of the bands for the first time since their early existence.

The first Assiniboine reservation covered all of northern Montana east of the Sweet Grass Hills and north of a line from the mouth of the Musselshell River to the mouth of the Powder River, the up and across the northeast corner of North Dakota.

Four years later, under a treaty with the Blackfoot, the range west of the mouth of the Milk River to a point near present day Havre became common hunting grounds. The Blackfeet used the land less and less and finally abandoned it to the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine.

The Blackfeet, Crow, Flathead, Northern Cheyenne and the Rocky Boy’s reservations also had extensive land in Montana.

Today, several treaties later, there are seven reservations that take up only nine percent of the state. The Indians own only a small percentage of the land on the reservations. The rest was given to homesteaders by the government or sold by the Indians in order to survive.

The six bands of Assiniboine that currently reside on the Fort Peck Reservation are the Canoe Paddlers, the Rock Band, the Red Bottom, the Cree Speakers, the Fat Horse Band and the Canoe Paddlers of the Prairie Band.

There are 2,093,318 acres of land within the reservation boundaries but only 950,000 are still held by the Tribes and Indian people.

The Assiniboine before the white man

Life before the white man was well structured and surprisingly comfortable for the more prosperous Indian tribes. The Assiniboine were, on the most part, very prosperous. Family and the community were very important. The wealthier shared with the needy. The old and widowed were respected and care for.

Tales of the old going off to die are exaggerated. It happened only when the band was forced to move to survive and the old or maimed person was unable to travel. That was very rare, especially before the white man. The old and the young mothers with children were normally pulled between camps on a travois by horses or dogs.


Once the Assiniboine moved out of the woodlands onto the plains they lived as vagabond hunters. Their main source of food and nearly all other essentials of life was the buffalo. The buffalo had their seasonal movements and the plains Indians followed them. They relied on the buffalo for their food, clothing, tool, utensils and other paraphernalia. The women were also great at gathering food and medicines from the land. Those provisions did not provide enough proteins to survive the harsh weather of the plains. The needed the buffalo.

For many centuries the buffalo had roamed all of the United States and the plains of Canada as far north as the Yukon. By the time the Assiniboine reached the plains there were two buffalo ranges. Both were west of the Mississippi River and East of the Rocky Mountains. The lower range was from northern Texas to the Platt River. The northern range was the largest. It was present-day Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas and north through Canada.

The buffalo was more than a creature to be hunted and harvested. The buffalo was revered. Children were given the named so they would grow up hardy and mature quickly. Organizations were named after it. Medicine men relied on the Spirit Buffalo to help them perform their rituals more successfully. The forelock of a bull buffalo was often tied on top of the chief’s tent.

The buffalo gave so much to the Indian people that they studied them more than any other animal. The Assiniboine knew the buffalo well. The buffalo were not just thought of as bulls, cows and calves. To them there were many kinds, sizes and varieties of buffalo.

Calves were called little yellow buffalo. As they matured the buffalo were named for the signs of their maturity.  One year olds were called Black Haired Ones, two year olds were Two-teeth, a three year was called Curved-horn, four year old were Four-teeth. By the age of six the cows known as Big Females, meaning matured. The bulls were called Horns Not Cracked. Old bull’s horns were cracked and grooved. They usually died of old age because no one wanted their meat or hides.

All buffalo were not the same. Some females were spotted. Some had smaller heads and shorter horns than normal. Others had very curved horns and still others were called Narrow-cows because of their narrow built bodies. Mourning-cows had short forelocks like they were shorn. Assiniboine women cut their hair short as an act of mourning.

Mating time for the buffalo was in the month of Red Berries Moon (July). The Assiniboine had a twelve-month calendar. Each month, or moon, was named by what was happening in nature at that time. Normally bulls traveled peacefully without the cows. They might be grouped in small or large herds. When they joined the cows they became vicious. Bulls fought to the death for dominion over the heard as the rest of the heard stood surrounding the battle. Every fight continued until the death of the loser. Yet the other bulls in the herd were allowed to mate with the cows. The fights were strictly for domination. The older bulls usually mated with the young cows and the young bulls mated with the more mature cows.

Sometimes to avoid conflict, a bull would take one or more cows and stay in the deep coulees. When this was seen by the Indians they would say the “He has stolen the women so he hides out with them.”

In late summer to early fall the buffalo got fat for winter. Not harassed by hunters, they fed peacefully with little or no bull fighting. In the heat of the day they lay around in herds. They would leisurely wander back and forth in single file to water. Deep buffalo trails can be seen today.

The main hunting time for the Assiniboine was in Join Both Sides Moon (October). The buffalo were fat and the bulls were still in the herds. A lot of meat was needed to dry and store away for winter. The fat was rendered and used for many purposes.

The chase for robes came later. By First Frost Moon (November) the bulls had left the heard. Hides from four year olds were taken then. They were the best hides for lodges. Hides of the four year olds taken in the Middle Moon (January) and Long Day Moon (February) were considered the best for clothing. Hides from calves were yellow. They were tanned with the hair on and used for children’s robes.

When hunters rode into a herd they looked for “Small built ones”, both male and female. They had trim neat bodies whose coats of hair looked like fine fur. They had the best meat and the hides were good.

The Assiniboine are a tall people. They can be well over six feet tall. They were well known for their running skills. Before the horse and even afterward, one of the ways the hunted buffalo was to run with the herd and slash the animal withers or legs. When the animal fell they were killed by the following hunters, then dressed out by the women close behind. A good hunter was not allowed to ride a horse for fear that he might become bow-legged and they would slow him down.

A tale is told about a runner who ran down an antelope. Though an antelope can run over thirty miles an hour, he was finally run down after the animal became exhausted. It’s obvious that they had a lot of endurance as well.

Tribal Life

In the very early days there was only one band. As the tribe grew the distribution of food became more difficult. Often there was not enough to reach every lodge. Families and their relatives gradually moved away and hunted separate from the tribe. As these small groups increased in size they formed a separate band.

They grew large enough to form their own societies, have their own dances and select their own chief. They lived separate and occupied a particular district. This separation brought about new habits and dress as was suitable for their location. Though the separated bands were looked upon as deserters by the original band, there was still friendship between them.

As they moved out each group was given a name by the original people. The name suggested the kind of country the moved into. They were given such name as Ptegambina, Swamp People; Osnibi, people of the cold and Hebina, Rock Mountain People. Other names ridiculed them such as Cantidada, Moldy People or Wazinazinyibi, Fat Smokers.

At the peak of their population the original tribe had thirty-three bands. Each band had between seven hundred and a thousand people. In 1823 the estimated population was 28,000 (7, 000 warriors and 3,000 lodges). In 1908 the Assiniboine population was 1,217 in the U.S. and 873 in Canada.

A major reason for the rapid decline was the white man’s diseases.  The first outbreak of smallpox was in 1771. Again in 1800 they were hit. Canadian fur traders were the purveyors of the disease. The bands of Assiniboine were spread out then so the death rate was not as devastating as the final outbreak in 1837. The tribe was then nearly wiped out.

Assiniboine language was the bond that tied all of the bands together. However those bands occupying the northern parts of the country, which extended into Canada, spoke with an accent different from the Missouri River bands.

Speech was unique to our way of thinking. Women’s speech was distinctly feminine. They pronounced words differently and even had words not used by the men. Fathers-in-law and daughters-in-law did not speak to each other. The same was true between mothers-in-law and sons-in-law.

Conversation was allowed between two men and between two women but third person plural was used and in a soft tone to show respect. They never spoke directly to each other. They always spoke in a roundabout way.

No chief presided over the whole tribe until the federal government insisted on talking to one central person following the treaty of 1851. Each band had its own chief. There could be as many as three chiefs and many headmen if the band was large enough.

The chief was not always a chief’s son. A person who distinguished himself in battle and hunting and gave generously to the poor was often the next chief. Sometimes a medicine man skilled enough in herbs and magic to scare the people was made chief. Such men often made poor chiefs.

Usually, a good man was brought to the attention of the chiefs and headmen at their council meeting. The requirements were impressive. The man must have a good war record, be a successful hunter and possess many fast horses. He must have brought back an enemy’s scalp and presented it to his mother-in-law. On hunting trips he must kill more than his household could eat and distribute the surplus to the poor.

Not all men accepted the offer. Chiefs and headmen were expected to give away much of his wealth generously. If the man knew about the proposal and didn’t want the position he went on a trip or visited another band until the matter was dropped. If the offer was accepted there was a great ceremony. The new chief was given a new lodge and many horses. He was also expected to present generous gifts to each chief and headman in return some time in the future.

The Horse and the Dog

Before the horse each family had from six to twelve dogs. With the help of the travois each dog could pull up to fifty pounds. Because the women did all of the work around the lodge, they named the dogs. They spoke to them like a person. They would scold them or praise them when they deserved it.

All the fuel was gathered by the women and brought back to camp by the travois dogs. The women carried wood on their backs as well.

The aged and young were carried by travois during moves. Two dogs were hitched to one travois. A short stick tied the dogs together. Sometimes the old sat on hides and were pulled by the young men.

When the first horse was found and brought back to camp the people were amazed at the size of the “dog”. They named it Big Dog. Today the horse is called Big Dog in the Assiniboine language.

That one horse gave the tribe an advantage in battle. One or two rode on him on each trip. That got enough men to the front to defeat the enemy. The people worshiped the horse and made sacrifices to it

On one raid the war party brought back a whole herd of horses. It is thought that they were taken from the Blackfeet. The horses were distributed among the people of the band. For the first time the Assiniboine people had horses. Even then there were dogs in the north and horses in the south. The bands in the north used dogs long after the plains bands became dependent on the horse. They still killed the buffalo by the trap method and used the dogs to move the kill from the trap to the camps.

In 1754 horses were recorded among the western Assiniboine. The plains bands used the horse in the chase and packed the meat back on the horses. Fast horses were never used for pack or travois.

Moving Camp

The bands move camp often. When it was time to move camp to another location the camp crier was told by the chiefs and headmen to make the announcement. He sang as he moved around the camp circle “The grass is getting short; the water places are becoming stale; wood is scarce and game is a long distance from our camp, so make ready to move tomorrow.” He repeated the instructions until the circle was completed.

The people looked to the chief’s emblem for more information. The emblem was usually made of hair, skin or feathers and was the chief’s personal emblem. The emblem was normally adorned the top of the chief’s lodge. When there was to be a move it was tied to a long lodge pole. The emblem was pointed in the direction of the move. If the emblem was raised high in the air the move would be a short one. If it hung near the ground the move would be long.

Women, children and old people formed the main body on the move. All walked except mothers with newborn babies and those unable to walk. They rode the travois.

The men walked some distant to the side and to the rear. Chiefs and headmen would ride ahead of the band on horseback.

When the new location was reached the emblem was stuck in the ground and the lodges were built around it in a circle. Women, with the help of the children, pitched the lodges and set up camp. The old women brought in wood. Young maidens brought in the water. Young men lingered by the water hoping for a chance to court a maiden.

Men never helped with these tasks. The men sat in groups visiting until the lodges were set up. It would be up to them to bring in meat to eat and to protect the band.

Fire was made by the friction method so it was very hard to get. When the band moved to a new location the more wise wives carried firebrands from their old campsite. Their grown boys or girls usually carried them. The more “shiftless” women in camp came around begging for a stick to start their fire.

Rivers were crossed in boats built with skins stretched across a framework of large willow branches. If the crossing was made often the boats were left on the bank upside down. If used to move to a new campground, the boats were taken apart after the crossing had been made.

Rafts were made from lodge poles and hides for large river crossings like the Missouri. Equipment, old people and young children were placed on the raft. Able-bodied men and women swam across the river. Several men jumped in the water and swam across the river with the raft in tow. Poor swimmers were permitted to hang on to the sides of the rafts as they were towed across.

Horses crossed with their owners along side of them or holding on to their tails.

Courtship and Marriage

Courtship was not easy because the young girls were always chaperoned. Young men tried to attract girls at gatherings with his manner of dress, hunting ability, war record or game and dance skills. The maiden returned his advances by wearing clothes that showed off her handiwork.

Another time to show interest in a girl was when she was gathering wood or getting water. The young men would maneuver themselves to a position where he would be near the girl. The boy would say something like this “Did you say something? Perhaps I am mistaken. You have been in my thoughts so much that I have imagined many times that you have spoken to me.”

When it was time to marry both the maidens and grandsons were given sage advice by their grandparents. They were told what to look for in a spouse and how to get one.

Often the family arranged the marriage. It was not thought to be ill mannered to refuse such arrangements. Some times a child was promised to a man and he supported the family until the child became of age. The girl could still refuse the arrangement but that was rare.

Sometimes unmarried sisters of a bride were sent to live with their sister’s husband if the wife had more work than she could handle. Several sisters could marry a man if he was prominent, a good provider and entertained a great deal.

Merely living apart dissolved marriages. If the man was a member of a society he announced through the society “He had thrown her away.” Other men were then free to court the woman. If he took her back it was considered a disgrace. All rank and honor would be stripped from the man.

Assiniboine families normally consisted of two or three children born five to seven years apart. Babies were born with the assistance of two or more old women who made a practice of assisting with birthing. Sometimes a medicine man was called in if the birth was delayed. He called upon “the tortoise to chase the baby out”

When the baby was first born a woman of high quality was called in to clean the baby, wrap it up and put it in a cradle. The woman was chosen well because the child inherited the traits of the sponsor.

The baby was kept in a leather cradle filled with dried cattails. This acted a blanket-diaper combination. The child would be given a common name like “The Boy” that they were known by until a later name was given at a ceremony.

It would be the first of several named the child would have over a lifetime.

Bringing up the child usually was left to the grandparents. The parents were always busy with their tasks. Grandparent’s lodges were usually near the son’s lodge. If the wife was an only child her parents were near as well.

When old men were too old for the hunt they taught their grandchildren how to hunt and use weapons. They took great pride to teach and train the children. The boys at a young age took their grandfather’s advice seriously. They matured early and were eager to try out the advice rendered by their grandfathers. Many of their games taught them the skills they would need as warriors and hunters.

Because the grandfathers spoke softly to the boys, the old and the young became close friends. There was a lot of dialogue between them as the old men pervaded their wisdom on the boys. Some day the boys would be call on to tell of their accomplishments.

Girls were watched and trained more than talked to. Wherever they went their grandmother or aunt went with them. They were chaperoned form birth and expected nothing more.

All old people were addressed as grandparents. All other old people other than their own grandparents were addressed as “Grandfather White Shield” or “Grandmother Calf Woman”.

The parents and grandparents loved their children and showed it in many ways. There were celebrations for every event in a child’s life, the naming of the child, first birthdays, first small game killed, and first handicraft of a girl. The celebrations were well attended. Feast were given and things given away.

War Parties

All through their young life, a boy’s ambitions and training was in preparation to joining a war party. To a warrior’s name was added, “He joined many different war parties”. This meant that the man was brave and others knew it. To have only one war achievement was enough to be admitted into a feast in a guest lodge where the man could relate his war deed if called upon.

Men with war experience were called upon to act as masters of ceremony and gave a accounts of their exploits. Warriors were invited to a feast such as one to name a child. They were paid a fee and given the honor of naming the child.

The warrior’s stories were good until the death of the person even though they were retold over again at dances and rituals. A story could be given to a younger person and retold after his death. If a warrior lost his life on a war party he was remembered by telling his story when the part of the country where he died was talked about.

Leaders were chosen based their ability to receive instructions given to them in a visions or dream. When a leader-to-be had fasted for several days, alone and away from camp, he would see a vision of a journey into an enemy’s country. The vision promised him horses, scalps and other brave deeds. He was instructed to make a sacred garment depicting the Being who instructed him. If the Being who spoke to him was the Sacred Wolf, the garment would be made of wolf skin. The garment was only worn into battle.

After a leader was given a suitable vision he called a number of able warriors to his lodge. The number was not large. Twelve was the average. They would start out during the night. Sometimes others from camp followed them and were allowed to join in.

The men started out on foot expecting to return on horseback. Each carried a pack. Several pairs of moccasins were taken. On long trips they took an extra bow. Game was taken and they carried cooked meat. It was necessary because they never lit a fire in enemy territory.

They traveled single file with the leader in front and first timers in the rear. The leader passed back instructions from man to man. When pursued they spread out and ran in line.

 The party stopped before leaving their country. The leader unpacked the garment bundle and spread it before the warriors. He then sang and made a sacrifice to his Being. The other warriors contributed to the sacrifice. The leader would then communicate with the Being. The Being told the leader how to approach the enemy and what would happen. The leader prayed for horses, scalps or a count in a coup.

Killing or capturing an enemy man or woman achieved a coup. Touching a warrior with an object after he was killed was a coup. The first to touch him was considered braver than the shooting. Sometimes the enemy feigned death and killed the coup taker.

Other brave deeds were honored and rewarded, rescuing a wounded member, returning a dead member unscalped, a member fighting off the enemy so others could escape or returning wounded. It was these good deeds that would be reenacted at ceremonies and dances.

Stealing a horse was always a brave deed. When horses were stolen every man had to look after himself. They would meet later at a predetermined spot. If the men didn’t show up they were determined to be dead, captured or hiding and would catch up eventually. Some took the horses and ran for home. They were not to be trusted again.

Leggings were painted with hoof prints and coyote or weasel tails were sewn into his garments to indicate that the person had stolen horses

The first to take a scalp kept it but a second could be taken if there was any hair left. Both were eligible for the scalp dance.

Red dyed eagle tail feathers worn upright in the hair indicated that the warrior had killed an enemy warrior.

Dances and Social Gatherings

Tribal dances, specific to each band and jointly, have bound the Assiniboine people together for as long as the tribe has existed. Social and secret orders also existed in various forms. They established rank and position of tribal members.

After the Assiniboine made peace with other tribes and warfare ended, the dances and social organizations became much more of a part of the tribal life. Before that women had never joined the men in the dances except for the return of a war party or religious ceremonies.

When the fall social functions of a tribe were to begin the chief called a council of all the headmen to the guest lodge. Food was passed and different happening were talked about. Hunting stories and stories of amusing jokes played were exchanged. Those who wanted refills of their beverages left their cups upright those who were through turned theirs over. That way the servers didn’t disturb the storytellers.

When the food was eaten the chief filled the ceremonial pipe. A server placed a coal on the tobacco. The chief gave a few puffs and pointed the mouthpiece to the sky in order to offer it to the Thunderbird who represented the birds that flew through the air. He then offered it to the earth, which produced all things; even things the Thunderbird could kill and take.

After the offerings the pipe was passed to the person on the left as it must go in the direction the sun travels.

Then there was silence as the chief leaned back on the decorated backrest. It was the only backrest in the lodge. Then he spoke. “The crier has invited you to come. You are here. You have eaten and now smoke. The buffalo has been taken and cured meats are stored away by the women. Soon the dances and gatherings will start. Those who have served as the head of the dance circle have served long and they are tired. New names will be mentioned of ones who will lead the dances. Let us meditate in a careful way so we select the ones who will fill the position well and make the hearts of our people glad.”

The selections were well thought out. Young people were added for more interest. The names of favorite children from well-to-do families were placed on the list to assure that those selected would serve.

No one was told who was selected until the first big gathering. Everyone attended because they knew that the new dance leaders would be announced.

The dance started with the old leaders in their accustomed places. When the main part of the dance where the whole tribe took part was over, the announcer made a speech telling the people that it was time to reveal the new leaders and to thank the retiring leaders. A “brave heart song” was sung by the retiring leaders to bolster the enthusiasm of the incoming leaders..

The old leaders with their officers danced in groups. Then all groups stood side my side and formed a circle. Only the leader and officers were eligible to join the circle. Relatives of those in the circle who wanted to make donations in honor of the outgoing dancers were allowed to take part.

When the dance ended the first retiring leader stepped forward and whispered his speech to the announcer. The announcer proclaimed it to the people. Then the leader and his relatives gave away many things. The other leaders and officers followed until all were heard and took their seats. Sometimes horses were given away, usually to someone who needed a horse.

Powwows were and still are social gatherings held for various reasons. They are still held on the reservation. Not only were they a time of bonding and socializing, they were also times of sharing. Everyone brings possessions to give according to their wealth. The needy were taken care of first then there was an exchange of prized items. There were tribesmen whose job it was to make sure everyone participated. The reluctant were penalized so it was rarely done.

Dances of other tribes were sometimes shared with the Assiniboine. The Assiniboine also shared theirs. Though similar, the people of the tribe recognized the differences. The grass dance was of Sioux origin.

Before peace was made with the other tribes there were few social dances where both the men and women danced together as they do today. Nor did they enjoy social activities like the men did. When there was a men’s meetings in progress the women were too busy preparing the food for the men. The women were always busy with routine work around the camp. There was little time for the social activities practiced today

Social and secret organizations were prevalent and were for men only. Only a few of the oldest people remember them. They were very selective in their membership. The person’s wealth and ambitious activities were looked for.

The different societies carried on their activities in the officer’s lodges. Each society had its own decorated small drums and rattles of various shapes. Little is known about them as their ceremonies and activities were extremely secret.

Government Intervention

U.S. Government took back the Black Hills from the Sioux and attempted to move them to agencies along the Missouri in the 1820’s. This led to warfare culminating in the Great Sioux War of 1866-68. It was fought primarily in the Powder River country south of Yellowstone where the Sioux had moved. After the war the Sioux were required to go to Dakota Territory for their annuities. The Sioux wanted to take their rations on the newly established Milk River Agency, which was then the reservation of the Assiniboine and two other tribe’s. Finally the Assiniboine brokered access to their reservation for those Sioux willing to meet their conditions.

The alliance bound Upper Assiniboine to their former enemies. They even agreed to intermarry. In the spring of 1871 500 lodges of Sioux were competing with resident Assiniboine, Gros Ventre and River Crow already under the jurisdiction of the Milk River Agency. There were not enough provisions to go around.

There was warfare between the Sioux and the Assiniboine. The Sioux chief, Standing Buffalo, was killed. Much of the chief’s band fled to Canada but enough stayed that there were still too many mouths to feed. Agent Simmons tried to separate the Sioux out but eventually a new Agency was formed at the mouth of the Milk River in1871.

The new agency was called the Fort Peck Agency. It was to be shared by the Sioux and the Assiniboine. A total of 8,412 individuals were relocated to the Fort Peck Agency and 5,089 were assigned to Fort Belknap reservation outside present day Chinook, Montana.

The fate of the Indians within the agency with no means to protect them was seriously threatened when in 1873 forty lodges of Assiniboine were massacred by white wolf and fur hunters. Although the action was condemned there was never an arrest nor a trial. After that Indians kept close to the agency. In 1878 the Fort Peck Agency was moved out of the Milk River flood plain to its present location in Poplar.

After the battle with Custer at the Little Bighorn was fought in 1876, Sitting Bull moved his people into Red Water country.  Indians supplied him with food from the Fort Peck reservation until he was forced to move into Canada in 1877. When he finally turned himself in at Fort Buford on July 19,1881, some of his followers intermarried with Fort Peck Indians.

The 1880’s brought many changes and much suffering. The buffalo were gone from the region by 1881. The winter of 1883/84 was severe. Over three hundred Assiniboine died of starvation when food and medical attention were in short supply. The rapid turn over of agents complicated the reservation traumas. Few improvements in service were made. By 1885 the tribal population was reduced by 75%.

By 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act, which divided the tribally owned reservations into parcels of land. Homesteaders in the surrounding area, seeing the prime grazing and farmland pressured Congress to open the land up to homesteaders. Finally the Fort Peck Allotment Act was passed. It called for the sale and dispersal of all “Surplus” land. There was also land reserved by the Great Northern Railroad. 1,348,408 acres of land were available for settlement by the non-Indian homesteaders. Several additional allotments were made before the 1930’s.

The question is often asked, is this a story of genocide or a question of the value of American treaties and integrity? Those were different days that generated different values. The Civil War was over and there was a lot of pressure for expansion.

Our government was not alone in the consequences of expansion and the consequential exploitation of the conquered. People and governments around the world lived on the brink of extinction.