Gros Ventres (Native Americans of the Great Plains)

Gros Ventres (Gro vant) is French for "big belly," after a mistranslation of the sign language for their name. They were once known to non-Indians as Gros Ventres of the Prairie as opposed to the Gros Ventres of the Missouri (Hidatsa). The Blackfeet gave these people another of their common names, Atsina; their self-designation is Haaninin, "Lime People" or "White Clay People."

Location In the late eighteenth century, Gros Ventres lived from north-central Montana to southern Saskatchewan. Today, most live in north-central Montana.

Population The Gros Ventre population was about 3,000 in the late eighteenth century. It was approximately 2,900 in 1992.

Language Gros Ventre is an Algonquian language.

Historical Information

History At least 3,000 years ago the Arapaho, possibly united with the future Gros Ventres and other peoples, probably lived in the western Great Lakes region to the Red River Valley, where they grew corn and lived in permanent villages. Under pressure from the Ojibwa (Anishinabe), they migrated to the upper Missouri River region in the early eighteenth century.

During the migration, perhaps around Devil’s Lake, the Gros Ventre separated from the Arapaho.

They acquired horses in the early to mid-eighteenth century. Shortly thereafter they became a Plains tribe and joined the Blackfeet Confederacy.

The people signed the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty after spending a brief period of time with the Arapaho. Another treaty in 1855 led to further land cessions. In the early 1860s the Gros Ventres joined with their Crow enemies to fight their traditional friends, the Blackfeet, but were soundly defeated in 1867. Following a further decline caused mostly by disease, in 1888 survivors were placed on the Fort Belknap Reservation, which they shared with the Assiniboine, also former enemies.

The Gros Ventres filed a lawsuit in 1897 to gain compensation for lands seized under the 1855 treaty; during the twentieth century the tribe has received several land claims awards. Also around the turn of the century, members of the tribe sold under extreme duress a 28-square-mile strip of reservation land. Tuberculosis was a severe problem in the early twentieth century, affecting more than 90 percent of the tribal population.

Religion Two sacred pipes figured prominently in traditional Gros Ventre religion. Gros Ventres also observed other Plains religious customs such as vision quests, medicine bundles, and the Sun Dance.

Government There were 12 autonomous bands in historic times, each with its own chief.

Customs Bands camped separately in winter, coming together in summer for communal buffalo hunt and celebrations, including the Sun Dance. At this time they camped in a circle, with each band having a designated place.

Descent was patrilineal. People generally found marriage partners outside of the parents’ band. Girls were often married by age 12, usually to men around 20. Polygamy and divorce were common. The mother-in-law taboo was in force.

Age-graded male societies had their own costumes, dances, and paraphernalia. Men moved through the various rankings with their peers, each group purchasing the regalia of the next-higher group, until the men at the top sold out and retired with a large amount of wealth. Healing, through medicines and ritual, was a job that one might attain by fasting and attaining special powers. Corpses were wrapped in robes and placed on a scaffold, in a cave, or on a high rock.

Dwellings On the Plains, groups of women made skin tipis with three-pole foundations.

Diet Buffalo were hunted by driving them into chutes; after about 1730, they were hunted on horseback. Women cut meat into strips and dried it or made pemmican. Fresh meat was roasted over the fire or boiled, using red-hot rocks in a water-filled hole. People also ate deer, elk, and puppies and gathered foods such as rhubarb, berries, and eggs. They did not eat fish.

Key Technology Women dressed skins with brains and liver. Men made bows of ash or cherry wood and also of horn. Horn bows were covered with rattlesnake skin. Sewing equipment included buffalo sinew thread and bone awls.

Trade Gros Ventres participated in the regional trade complex, trading horses and animal products for agricultural items and, later, non-Indian items.

Notable Arts Gros Ventres made fine painted leather items and tanned and embroidered clothing.

Transportation Horses arrived around 1730. Both dogs and horses pulled the travois. People made makeshift rafts of tipi covers and poles.

Dress Women made the clothing, usually of elk skin or deerskin. They wore dresses; men wore leggings, breechclouts, shirts, and moccasins. Both sexes wore buffalo-skin caps and mittens in winter.

War and Weapons Weapons included buffalo-hide shields and bows and arrows. In the mid-nineteenth century, Gros Ventres fought Crows with the Blackfeet and then fought the Blackfeet in alliance with the Crow. Other enemies included the Shoshone, Salish (Flathead), and Assiniboine. Traditional allies included the Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Cree.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Fort Belknap Reservation (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. A constitution and by-laws based on the Indian Reorganization Act were approved in 1935. The community council has 12 elected members, 6 Gros Ventres and 6 Assiniboines, as well as 3 appointed officers.

Economy Income is generated through land leases to non-Indian farmers and ranchers. There is also some reservation farming and ranching. The federal government is a major employer. Un- and underemployment is chronic.

Stores and a bingo hall provide more money, although some gambling money comes from tribal members who can least afford it. Interest from land claims payments is used for burial assistance as well as for annual direct family payments.

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

Daily Life The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which has long dominated the Fort Belknap Reservation, has traditionally viewed both native groups as one community, to the detriment of Indian self-determination and cultural identity. The strip of land sold in 1897 is now, still under protest, being mined for gold. The mines have severely contaminated the regional environment and are associated with health problems on the reservation.

As of 1993, the Gros Ventres were considering officially changing their name to Ah-ah-nee-nin, as well as instituting a confederation form of government, in the interests of preserving individual tribal identity. Most children attend reservation public schools. There is also a mission school, and some attend off-reservation boarding schools. Fort Belknap Community College, containing a library and tribal archives, opened in 1984. A museum is proposed.

Hardly anyone in the early 1990s spoke the language fluently, although it is taught at the elementary and community college levels, and language and cultural retention are a major priority. Traditional religion is still practiced. Many Gros Ventres are also Christians, especially Catholics. The reservation hosts annual powwows.

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