Assiniboine (Native Americans of the Great Plains)

Assiniboine "those who cook with stones" (Algonquian). Canadian Assiniboines are also known as Stoneys. Their traditional self-designation is unknown. See also Nakota.

Location The Siouan people probably originated in the lower Mississippi Valley and moved north through Ohio and into the Lake Superior region (northern Minnesota/southwestern Ontario). In the seventeenth century, the Assiniboine lived near Lake Winnipeg. From the eighteenth century on they have lived in present-day Montana and Saskatchewan.

Population The seventeenth-century population was roughly 10,000 people. In the 1990s about 8,000 Assiniboines, Gros Ventres, and Yanktonais lived on the two Montana reservations. There is also a Stoney population on Canadian reserves.

Language Assiniboines/Yanktonais speak the Nakota dialect of Dakota, a Siouan language.

Historical Information

History Assiniboines separated from the northern Yanktonai by perhaps the late sixteenth century, moving north from the Ohio Valley through Wisconsin and Minnesota, along the edge of the Woodlands into southern and southwestern Ontario. They became involved in the French fur trade in the early seventeenth century.

By later in that century they had made peace with the Plains Cree, joining them near Lake Winnipeg, and were trading with Hudson’s Bay Company posts there. Assiniboines ranged over an extremely wide territory during that period, from near the Arctic Circle to the upper Missouri River and from James Bay to the Rocky Mountains. When trade with the Hudson’s Bay Company declined, in the later eighteenth century, the Assiniboine became fully nomadic, continuing the westward migration and hunting around the Saskatchewan and Assiniboine Rivers and across much of the northern Plains.

Major smallpox epidemics struck the people in 1780 and 1836, and alcohol and venereal disease also took a heavy toll. During that period, the Assiniboine divided into a lower and an upper division. Decimation of the buffalo herds as well as their own sharp population decline forced them to sign the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty, limiting Assiniboine lands to parcels in western Montana.

Some Assiniboines worked as scouts for U.S. and Canadian armies in their Indian wars. In 1887, upper division Assiniboines (and the Gros Ventres) were confined to the new Fort Belknap Reservation; Fort Peck, which they shared with the Yanktonai, was created in 1873. Several hundred Assiniboine died of starvation at Fort Peck in 1883-1884.

Meanwhile, in Canada, unregulated whiskey sales were taking a great toll on Indian people. In 1877, as a result of national police intervention in the whiskey trade, the Stoneys and some other tribes signed Treaty Number 7, exchanging their traditional territory for reserves in Alberta and Saskatchewan, although some groups attempted to maintain their autonomy. Much of the reserve land was alienated in the early twentieth century owing to allotting and permitting of non-Indian homesteads.

Religion Male and female specialists provided religious leadership. Ceremonial implements and techniques included rattles, chants, charms, and songs. In the eighteenth century, the annual Sun Dance became the people’s most important religious ceremony, although the custom of self-torture was not generally present.

Wakonda was worshiped as a primary deity, although the Assiniboine also recognized natural phenomena such as sun and thunder. Sweat lodge purification was an important religious practice. Spirit visions could be obtained through quests or in dreams. Some ceremonies featured masked clowns.

Government The Assiniboine were composed of up to 30 bands, each with its own chief. The chieftainship was based on leadership skills and personal contacts rather than heredity. Each band also had a council, whose decisions were enforced by the akitcita, or camp police.

Customs The people valued hospitality highly; they enjoyed visits with each other and with friendly tribes. There were a number of men’s and women’s dance societies with various social and ceremonial importance. There may have been clans.

The dead were placed on tree scaffolds with their feet to the west. When the scaffolds fell through age, the bones were buried and the skulls placed in a circle, facing inward. Cremation was also practiced. All burial areas were treated with great respect. Dead souls were said to inhabit a paradise to the south.

Assiniboine and Gros Ventre chiefs adorned for the Grass Dance in Fort Belknap, Montana, circa 1906.

Assiniboine and Gros Ventre chiefs adorned for the Grass Dance in Fort Belknap, Montana, circa 1906.

Dead warriors were dressed in their finest clothes. Their faces were painted red, their weapons placed beside them, and one of their horses was killed for use in the next life. Women’s tools, such as those used for dressing skins, were placed beside them. Mourning practices included cutting hair, dressing in rags, and sometimes slashing limbs.

Pubescent girls were secluded for four days, during which time they observed dietary and behavioral restrictions. Brides were purchased. Marriage consisted of a simple gift-giving ceremony between parents. The people played lacrosse and games of skill and dexterity, such as shinny and the cup-and-ball game, and held athletic competitions. Most games were accompanied by gambling.

Dwellings A village might contain up to 200 skin lodges or tipis. The average, which held two to four families, had roughly a 30-foot circumference and was constructed of about 12 sewn buffalo hides. Assiniboine tipis had a three-pole foundation. A temporary brush field shelter was also used.

Diet Assiniboines on the high plains lived mainly on game such as buffalo, elk, and antelope. Women often accompanied hunters to butcher the animals and cut meat into strips to dry. Fresh meat was usually roasted on a spit, although it was sometimes boiled with hot rocks in a skin-lined hole. Other foods included wild berries, roots (turnip), fruits (grapes, plums), and nuts.

Key Technology The buffalo was the basis of all technology. Most items, such as clothing, tools, and utensils, were made of buffalo and other animal products. The flageolet, or flute, was used in part to convey surreptitious messages between young lovers. Assiniboines also played the rasp and the drum.

Trade The people were known as shrewd traders, especially in their role as middlemen with the Hudson’s Bay Company. Before trade began with non-Indians, they generally traded pelts and meat with farming tribes for agricultural products.

Notable Arts Significant art included decorative beaded quillwork (nineteenth century) and designs on tree bark.

Transportation Dogs (later horses) carried saddle bags and travois. The people acquired horses in about the 1730s. They also used snowshoes.

Dress Dress on the high plains was similar to that of other tribes, particularly the Plains Cree. Men often wore their long hair coiled atop the head.

War and Weapons The Plains Cree were traditional allies, with whom the Assiniboine regularly fought the Dakota, Crow, Gros Ventre, and Blackfeet. The Assiniboine were recognized as highly capable warriors. Counting coup was more important than killing an enemy; four people might count coup on the same enemy, in descending order of prestige. Weapons included war clubs (a stone in a leather pouch attached to a stick), bow and arrow, and buffalo-hide shields.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations Fort Belknap (Blaine and Philips Counties, Montana), established in 1887, contains roughly 616,000 acres, about one-quarter of which are tribally owned. The 1990 Indian population was 2,332. The reservation is governed under an Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) constitution and by-laws.

Fort Peck (Daniels, Roosevelt, Sheridan, and Valley Counties, Montana), established in 1873, contains about 981,000 acres, about one-quarter of which are tribally owned. The 1990 Indian population was 5,782. Their 1927 constitution is not based on the IRA. The reservation adopted a representative government, the Tribal Executive Board, in 1960.

Canadian communities include Carry the Kettle, Pheasant Rump, and Ocean Man in Saskatchewan and Elexis, Paul, Wesley, Big Horn, and Eden Valley in Alberta.

Economy Both reservations lease land to non-Indian farmers and ranchers. Fort Peck owns and operates a profitable oil well. It also contains other mineral resources and has encouraged industrial development.

Legal Status The Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation is a federally recognized tribal entity. The Fort Belknap Indian Community (Gros Ventre and Assiniboine-Sioux) is a federally recognized tribal entity.

Daily Life Maintaining their cultural identity in a community shared with other tribes as well as non-Indians is a major challenge facing contemporary Assiniboines. The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has long dominated the Fort Belknap Reservation, has traditionally viewed both Indian groups as one community, to the detriment of Indian cultural identity. Fort Peck has traditionally enjoyed stronger political leadership and consequently greater self-determination and economic opportunity.

Diabetes is an ongoing and serious health problem. Traditional religion is maintained in the form of the hand game and the Sun Dance. There are also a number of important ceremonies associated with funerals and sweat lodges. The sacred pipe remains central to Assiniboine religion. Some members of the tribe participate in the Native American Church as well as in Medicine Lodge (called Rain Dance in Canada) ceremonies. The Assiniboine language is spoken by young and old alike, although it is used primarily in ceremonies. Assiniboine women continue to make museum-quality star quilts for secular and religious purposes.

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