Assiniboin (pronounced uh-SIN-uh-boin; sometimes spelled Assiniboine). The name comes from the Ojibway word Asiniibwaan meaning “those who cook with stones.” Europeans called them Stoney because they heated stones, then dropped them in cooking pots to make the water boil. In Canada they are sometimes still called by that name, although the tribe that officially bears the name “Stoney” is not part of the Assiniboin. The tribe refers to themselves as the Hohe Nakota or Nakoda Oyadebi.Nakota means “generous ones.”
The Assiniboin originally lived in the area around Lake Superior in present-day northern Minnesota and southwestern Ontario. They migrated to the northern plains in Manitoba and to Saskatchewan. Some moved to North Dakota and Montana in the United States. In the early twenty-first century the Assiniboin lived on two reservations in Montana and on six Canadian reserves (Canadian name for reservations) in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Others lived off reserve in those provinces as well as in Manitoba. Some Assiniboin Sioux lived on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakota.
In the early 1800s the tribe numbered between eight thousand and ten thousand. After the smallpox epidemics of the 1930s that total dropped to approximately six thousand in 1836. The U.S. Indian Report of 1890 placed the population at 3,008; in 1904 it was 2,600. In 2000 the U.S. Bureau of the Census conducted a count of the population, and 4,109 people said they were Assiniboin, while 5,120 indicated they had some Assiniboin heritage. In Canada, in 2007 the number of people both on and off the jointly shared Assiniboin reserves totaled 9,460.
Origins and group affiliations
Many historians believe the Assiniboin were part of the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota tribes when they lived in the Great Lakes region. During the 1600s the Assiniboin split from the Yanktonai. According to Assiniboin oral history, however, the people say they are Algonquian. In either case, as they moved from the woodlands to the prairies, they allied with the Cree, Chippewa (Ojibway), and Monsoni against the Sioux, Cheyenne, Blackfeet, Arikara and Gros Ventre. They later traded with the Europeans and the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara.
In 2007 the Assiniboin in Montana shared reservations with the Gros Ventre and Sioux. Canadian Assiniboin shared reserves with the Sioux, Cree, and Ojibway. The Assiniboin of Canada are closely linked to the Stoney First Nations people of Alberta, but are not the same.
Assiniboin oral history indicates that the tribe originated in the Lake of the Woods (Ontario) and the Lake Winnipeg (Manitoba) areas of Canada and that they were descendants of the Algonquian. Historians, though, believe the tribe began as part of the Yanktonai band of Nakota (see entry). In the 1600s the Assiniboin allied with the Cree (see entry), and the two tribes occupied the area around Lake Nipigon in present-day Minnesota. At one time Assiniboin territory covered the area from the Saskatchewan and Assiniboin river valleys in Canada to the region north of the Missouri and Milk Rivers in the United States. Nomadic (wandering) hunter-gatherers, the Assiniboin traded with other tribes as well as with the Europeans. Settlers gradually pushed them west toward the Great Plains. By the early to mid-1800s most of the bands, decimated by diseases like smallpox, had been moved to reservations.
Recent archaeological evidence suggests that Assiniboin oral history may have some basis in truth. In examining pottery from Sandy Lake, Minnesota, and Duck Bay, Ontario, scientists established a connection between these cultures, the Ojibway (see entry), an Algonquian culture, and the Wanikan and Psinomani (both Siouan cultures). One theory suggests the Algonquian and Siouan may have been united at one point and later separated into two distinct cultures. Both the pottery and the languages are similar. The Assiniboin, also a Siouan culture, may have been part of these earlier cultures from 1250 to 1500. The Assiniboin emerged as a distinct tribe, however, by 1550.
The first written mention of the tribe comes from the Jesuit Relation of 1640. According to one early historian, Edward S. Curtis, the Assiniboin split with the Yanktonai (see Nakota entry) over a wrong done to their chief’s wife. The Assiniboin moved north of Lake Superior, where they joined the Cree. Together the two tribes moved west toward Lake Winnepeg (Manitoba) and defeated the Blackfoot (see entry) who lived in the area. They settled along the Saskatchewan and Assiniboin Rivers. There they became known for their canoeing skills and earned the nickname the “Paddlers.”
Because their main livelihood was hunting buffalo, the Assiniboin migrated in search of the herds. Before horses were introduced they traveled on foot and used dogs travois (pronounced truh-VOI) to pull their supplies (see “Transportation”).
1640: First mention of the Assiniboin as separate from the Dakota tribe.
1744: The tribe splits into Stoneys and Assiniboin.
1804: The Assiniboin meet Lewis and Clark expedition at Mandan village and warn Mandans not to trade with Americans.
1830–37: The Assiniboin decimated by smallpox.
1883–84: More than three hundred Assiniboin die of starvation at Wolf Point.
1927: Fort Peck tribes adopt their Constitution.
1937: Fort Belknap organizes a tribal government under the Indian Reorganization Act and ratifies their Constitution.
1960: Fort Peck Constitution is amended.
1979: Assiniboin Claims Council is reformed.
In 1690 Henry Kelsey of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the largest fur-trading business in the New World, traveled with Assiniboin traders from James Bay to Saskatchewan. In exchange for the hides and furs the tribe provided the company, they received guns, kettles, beads, cloth, and liquor. The Assiniboin earned a reputation as great buffalo hunters and as traders who dealt with not only the Europeans, but also with many of the other tribes in the area, such as the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara. In addition, many people traveled the trails the Assiniboin established, and their camps became important points of contact for European-Indian trade.
The Assiniboin territory extended from the Yellowstone River Valley to the Saskatchewan River in both the United States and Canada. They hunted beaver, bear, antelope, and buffalo, and raided along the upper Missouri River villages. With the many guns they had obtained through trade, the Assiniboin were formidable opponents, and many tribes feared them. They traded widely and also provided canoe fleets and protection for the British traders.
As more fur traders and settlers moved into the area, they pushed the Assiniboin further west and south. Soon the tribe roamed the Great Plains of North Dakota and Montana. With the acquisition of horses, they easily enlarged their territory.
In 1744 the Assiniboin divided, and some bands moved south to the Missouri Valley and roamed the area between the Hudson Bay and the Rocky Mountain regions. Others went west and settled the valleys of the Assiniboin and Saskatchewan Rivers in Canada.
Because many Native bands lived autonomously (acted independently) rather than organizing under a central authority, it was sometimes difficult to tell which tribes were related. In addition, the people were divided into both northern and southern as well as forest and prairie bands. Bands considered part of the Assiniboin in the 1800s included the Itscheabine, Jatonabine (People of the Rocks), Otopachgnato (The Broad Ones), Otaopabine (Canoe Paddlers), Tschantoga (People of the Woods), Watopachnato (Big Devils), Tanintauei, and Chabin (People of the Mountains).
Every year the Assiniboin headed to the Mandan villages in North Dakota for a trading festival. This area was a central location for many tribes, such as the Crow (see entry), Cheyenne (see entry), Cree, and Teton Sioux, who came to barter with the Mandan farmers. The buffalo hunters traded pelts, guns, and horses for corn.
When the Assiniboin arrived in 1804, the Corps of Discovery, headed by Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838), was at the Mandan village. President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; served 1801–9) had sent these men to find waterways to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis and Clark also hoped to persuade the Native Americans to trade with the Americans rather than the British.
Black Cat, the Mandan chief, set up a meeting between the Assiniboin and the Americans. Clark gave the Assiniboin chief some ribbons, and the Americans believed the meeting went well. The Assiniboin, though, feared that trade with the Americans would interfere with British relations. At first they threatened to attack the Mandans if they bartered with Americans, but by 1827, when the American Fur Company built Fort Union, the Assiniboin traded with them as well as the British.
Assiniboin Population: 2000 Census
In 2000 U.S. Census takers asked people in the United States to identify the groups to which they belonged. According to those statistics, 4,109 people identified themselves as Assiniboin, and indicated they belonged to the groups listed below; these numbers do not reflect Canadian Assiniboin.
|Tribe||Population in 2000|
|Fort Peck Assiniboin and Sioux||406|
“2000 Census of Population and Housing. Matrix 7: American Indian and Alaskan Native summary file.” Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Data User Services Division, American FactFinder, 2004.
In addition to trade goods, the whites brought strange new diseases with them to Indian territory. Because the tribes had no immunity to these illnesses, the diseases often swept through the whole tribe, killing many people. In 1830 almost two thirds of the tribe died from smallpox. In 1832 the next outbreak was so great that the people could not even bury their dead. By 1837 the once powerful Assiniboin, who had numbered between 20,000–33,000, had been reduced to 6,000.
Loss of territory
The treaty of 1851 assigned the Assiniboin land south of the Missouri River. Following the 1862 wars in Minnesota, fleeing Sioux (see Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota entries) moved onto this territory. Additional tribes arrived as buffalo became scarce in other areas. In 1871 the Fort Peck Indian Agency opened in an old stockade to aid the Sioux and Assiniboin. By 1876 conflict over the 1851 treaty and the discovery of gold in the Black Hills resulted in the Battle of Little Bighorn (see Lakota entry).
After the war, the Sioux and Assiniboin gave 20 million acres of land to the United States. The tribes at the Fort Peck Agency in Poplar and in Wolf Point, Montana, agreed to the creation of Fort Peck Indian Reservation. The tribes retained 2 million acres. Fort Belknap was also created at this time, and Montana opened former Native American lands to settlers.
American “wolfers” in Canada
In Canada in the 1870s, a band of Americans crossed the border to engage in illegal whiskey sales. More and more furs were exchanged for liquor, and the Hudson’s Bay Company lost some of its trading power in the area, because it did not pay in alcohol. Drunkenness became an increasing problem as the possession of alcohol denoted a man’s status as a successful trapper. Fights broke out frequently; many resulted in death.
One gang of thirty to one hundred “wolfers” had stolen U.S. cannons and set up base at an abandoned trading fort across the border from Montana. They smuggled in whisky to trade for buffalo hides. They earned the name “wolfers” because they poisoned the buffalo carcasses after the Native Americans had skinned them. Wolves and coyotes that came to eat the meat would die; the Americans also sold those furs. Native American dogs and even some people died, too, from eating the poisoned meat.
In 1873 the “wolfers” lost some horses. They took their revenge on an Assiniboin camp. Twenty-three Native Americans died, including women and children. Only one wolfer was killed. Although the murderers were later tried, not one was convicted. Because of incidents like these, Canadian authorities formed the North West Mounted Police, or “Mounties,” to establish law and order, control illegal whiskey trade, and move the Native Americans to reserves.
Struggle to survive
By the late 1800s many tribes faced starvation. The buffalo population had declined due to overharvesting for trade, the large quantities shot by white hunters, and the diseases passed to the herds by horses. In the United States an influx of settlers claimed Native American land. In Canada many tribes were relocated onto reserves (Canadian name for reservations). With states (in the United States) and provinces (in Canada) now officially recognized by the white governments, more and more Native Americans were forced to give up their land.
As the buffalo disappeared from the area, thousands of Native Americans relied on federal agencies for food. Many of these agencies had insufficient rations to meet the growing needs, and several severe winters added to the problem. In addition, frequent changes in agents, dishonest or cruel agents, and too little medical attention left many Native Americans starving and dying. During 1883–84 more than three hundred Assiniboin died of starvation at the Wolf Point sub-agency.
To add to the tribes’s suffering, Congress passed the General Allotment Act (also known as the Dawes Act) in 1887 and the Fort Peck Allotment Act in 1908. Native Americans, who had always held land in common and worked together to farm it, had to accept small individual plots of land. Even Native Americans who had never farmed, like the Assiniboin, had their reservation land divided up and parceled out to them. The government gave some of the reservation land to the Great Northern (Burlington Northern) Railroad and the remaining 1,348,408 acres to white settlers.
When gold was discovered in the Klondike, Canadian treaties took more Indian land to create routes for goldseekers. The districts of Assinboia, Saskatchewan, and Athabaska became the province of Saskatchewan, and soon the whole area was under treaty to the Canadian government. The Assiniboin were moved to reserves, where each family of five was entitled to one square acre of land.
Early twentieth century
By the early twentieth century the Assiniboin had all been relocated to reservations or reserves. Once again their total population had declined from the 6,000 reported in 1837 to 2,600 in 1904. In Montana, Assiniboin Canoe Paddler and Red Bottom Bands shared the Fort Peck Reservation with the Dakota, Nakota, and Lakota. The Fort Belknap Reservation was home to both Assiniboin and Gros Ventre tribes. Together these two reservations had an Assiniboin population of a little over 1,200. The other half of the Assiniboin lived in Canada.
The Assiniboin had difficulty adjusting to life on their small land allotments. The change from hunting to farming was difficult; adjusting to living in confined spaces after roaming the prairies left many struggling to survive. Most became dependent on government handouts. In addition government policies designed to assimilate them (make them more like whites), took away their religious freedom and made it difficult for them to retain their culture. Many children were sent to boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their language and were forced to adopt white ways.
In 1934 the U.S. government passed the Indian Reorganization Act. In addition to stopping land allotments, it also provided for tribes to organize their governments with federal assistance. Fort Belknap accepted the new law and began their tribal government under it, but Fort Peck, who had written a constitution in 1927, refused to comply.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century the Assiniboin lived on two reservations in Montana and several reserves in Canada. Most of these are shared with other tribes. Many people faced the difficulties of poor housing, high unemployment, limited education, and alcoholism.
The Assiniboin believed in a Great Creator, and they prayed, fasted and made sacrifices to this power who made all things. They also revered Thunder, Sun, and Anú k-ite, or “Double Face,” who often appeared during the Sun Dance.To appease him, an Assiniboin might cut off his fingertip or some flesh from his arm. Double Face had two faces that looked the same, but he had two different voices. If he spoke to a war party, they could tell whether or not they would win the battle by the voice he used. The Sun Dance was held after the spring buffalo hunt. The people prayed, sang, drummed, danced, and fasted (went without food and water) to honor the Great Spirit. A feast concluded the ritual.
Vision quests were important to the tribe. Each person had his own spirit, obtained by fasting. Spirits could be animals or inanimate (non-living) objects. Individuals performed rites alone or in groups. They sang, prayed, made offerings, and had a special pack of sacred objects (see “Puberty”).
Prior to important ceremonies, the Assiniboin purified the body and soul by sweating in a sweat lodge. This is a special building with a floor made of broad leaf sage. A hot rock is placed in each of the four directions; two more rocks represent Earth and heaven. One man touches the pipe to each rock before they light it and pass it around. Each man sings, prays, and pours water on the hot rocks to create steam.
One ceremony called Watíchaghe, or Make a Home, included building a nest for the Thunderbird. Similar to a Sun Dance, the rite lasted four days, but they called on Thunder rather than the sun. To begin this ritual, a man who had a vision begged other warriors to accompany him into the woods the next day. They brought back a thirty-foot (nine-meter) tree to use as the center pole for a lodge covered with skins. They made a Thunderbird nest in the tree fork from a bundle of sticks and carved symbols of a Thunderbird, lightning, and Double Face. At sunset they began the dance, which lasted two more days. Women could dance, but only in the western part of the lodge, and they did not join in the piercing ceremony. Men’s chests were pierced and tied to ropes. They danced until they had a vision, then tore themselves free of the ropes.
Dancing was an important part of many religious rituals. When the missionaries arrived in the 1800s they tried to convert the Native Americans and pressured the government to pass laws to prohibit the dancing, especially the Sun Dance. After dancing was outlawed, most tribes practiced their religion in secret. They also planned their celebrations to coincide with the missionaries’ religious holidays, so their dancing would not be interrupted. The Assiniboin gave up the Sun Dance in 1935 after two men at Fort Peck were hit by lightning.
In spite of that, other cultural traditions remain strong, and all generations take part in ceremonies. In the United States, many Assiniboin participate in the Medicine Lodge religion. In Canada they call it the Rain Dance.
The Assiniboin, often called Nakota or Nakoda by its own speakers, is a Siouan language, related to Dakota. The Stoney, who split from the original tribe, speak another dialect (variety) of the Nakoda language. Although the languages are similar, the two tribes do not understand each other well. About two hundred people in Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan spoke Assiniboin in the mid-2000s. In studies conducted in the early 2000s, the majority of Canadian and American Assiniboin speakers were over age sixty.
- winyan …“woman”
- wincha …“man”
- čhaŋté …“heart”
- čhuŋwíŋtku … “daughters”
- hokšína …“boy”
- haŋyákhena …“early morning”
- khuwápi …“They chased it”
- wi …“sun”
- hanhepiwi …“moon”
- mini …“water”
- šúŋga-šana …“red fox”
- waŋgáŋgaŋna … “old woman”
- witháŋga …“large tipi”
- yá! … “go!”
The Assiniboin lived in nomadic camps that contained anywhere from several hundred members to as many as three thousand, most of them members of an extended family. Because their society was patrilineal, men took charge of leadership and decision-making. The bands selected a headman or chief to handle relations with other tribes. They chose a good man who had superior hunting skills, outstanding achievement in battle, and a kind and generous heart. In certain situations special leaders were selected—a war chief for battles, a hunting chief for buffalo hunts, or a chief for the soldiers’s lodge.
A council guided the chief’s actions. Elders, medicine men, pipe carriers, women, and heads of households were all part of the council. When the council met, the people listened to anyone who was wise. Decisions were made by consensus, which meant everyone had to agree.
Under the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, the U.S. government gave tribes the opportunity to write their own constitutions. The Fort Belknap Indian Community Council adopted a constitution in 1937. It created a governing body composed of eight elected council members, four each from the Assiniboin and the Gros Ventre, elected every two years. The council also has three officers; the president and vice president appoint a secretary-treasurer who serves a four-year term.
The tribes at Fort Peck Reservation, however, rejected the Reorganization Act because they had already written a constitution in 1927. The tribe amended this constitution in 1952 and rewrote and adopted another in 1960. The Fort Peck constitution is one of the only modern Native American constitutions that still includes provisions for traditional tribal government. A Tribal Executive Board governs the reservation; it is made up of twelve members and four officers—a chairman, vice-chairman, secretary-accountant, and sergeant-at-arms. With the exception of the secretary-accountant, the members serve two-year terms. Council members handle nine business committees and deal with tribal policy and business management.
In Canada the Assiniboin formed Band Councils and are governed by a chief and councilors. They must obey the laws established by the Indian Act and the Canadian Constitution and be guided by the minister of Indian Affairs.
When the Europeans arrived the Assiniboin were nomadic, migrating with their tipis wherever they found game. Once they had horses, they could cover even greater distances. After the Europeans arrived the Assiniboin engaged in trade, exchanging pemmican and buffalo skins for guns, liquor, and other goods that they traded with various tribes in the area.
After the buffalo grew scarce and the bands were relocated to reservations, they struggled to support themselves. Losing their lands and being forced to become farmers left many Assiniboin poverty-stricken and starving. Most ended up dependent on governments rations.
Modern U.S. economy
In the mid-2000s agriculture was the main industry on the Fort Peck Reservation. The tribe also had one of the first jointly owned oil wells in the United States. Manufacturing, mining, and tourism, along with an industrial park, provided employment opportunities.
Fort Belknap also has agriculture and ranching, tourism, a meat-packing plant, mining stone, and developing industrial space. The tribe’s unemployment rate, however, was 71 percent, meaning that almost three-fourths of the population cannot find jobs. Government taxes on tobacco products bring in about $150,000 each year; those funds are a necessity with so many people unemployed.
Present-day Canadian economy
The Alexis band operates several business as well as a casino. They also have more than 148 oil and gas companies operating on tribal land.
Mosquito-Grizzly Bear’s Head Reserve joined six other First Nations to form Battlefields Tribal Council, a business-development enterprise.
Carry the Kettle Assiniboine Reserve has agricultural land, and they also operate a plastics plant, a potato plant, a service station, and a store that sells tobacco products. Paul Band’s main income comes from farming operations and harvesting equipment. The Whitebear Reserve depends on their recreational lands and tourism along with their natural resources—oil and gas.
Like other Plains Indians, the Assiniboin lived in tipis, which allowed them to easily assemble and take down their homes as they followed the buffalo herds. Women were responsible for erecting the tipis, and dogs carried the poles and hides on travois (pronounced truh-VOI; see “Transportation”). Some times villages contained as many as two hundred tipis. Some tipis could be as large as thirty feet (nine meters) in diameter; they housed extended families or more than one family.
Tipis were supported by poles placed in the ground that met in the center. Women tied three main poles together and hoisted them up to brace the tipi. Then the other poles were set in place and covered with as many as fifteen to fifty buffalo hides sewn together. Men decorated their tipis with dream visions or scenes from their hunts or battles.
Tipis were not evenly shaped cones as some movies depict them. They were shorter on one side and tilted away from the wind to make them secure even during storms. The Assiniboin angled the smoke hole to prevent cold winds from entering the tent. Angling also pulled the smoke from inside the tent, making it less smoky inside. By changing the direction the tipi faced in summer, the smoke hole could draw cool air inside. Though the smoke hole usually remained open, a rope attached to it wound around the outside of the tent. The owners could pull the flap closed to protect them from rain or snow.
Because they moved often and needed to transport the large tipi poles, the Assiniboin used dogs to pull their home-building materials. They hitched a pole on either side of a dog and lashed a webbed frame (or poles) to the ends on the ground, so the dog dragged this triangle-shaped carrier behind it like a sled. The Assiniboin piled these carriers, called travois (pronounced truh-VOI), with their possessions. Each dog could pull up to seventy-seven pounds (thirty-five kilograms) on a travois, and families often owned several animals. After horses were introduced, the larger animals took over the job of transporting the tipis.
Because the Assiniboin originally lived near the lakes, they were known for their canoeing skills. They often transported traders along the rivers with their loads of furs. This earned them the nickname “Paddlers.” During the 1800s, some of the Assiniboin called themselves Otaopabine, meaning “Canoe Paddlers.” In modern times a band by that name still lives on the Fort Peck Reservation.
Clothing and adornment
The Assiniboin made most of their clothing from the skins of elk, deer, and mountain sheep. Women painted dresses and shirts with scenes of wars or hunts. The clothing they made often told of their father’s or husband’s skill in battle or during a hunt.
Clothing designs indicated the wearer’s status. If her husband was an outstanding hunter or trader, a wife’s dress might be covered in elk teeth or animal claws. Sometimes men collected elk teeth to give to their brides. During winter the people wore buffalo robes for warmth, and men wore white wolfskin caps and used snowshoes for hunting.
Men rarely cut their hair. They twisted it into long, thin locks or tails and often added horsehair or other hair to make it even longer. Some men’s hair touched the ground. Most of the time they wound it on top of their heads in a coil. Women’s hair was usually shorter.
In the early twenty-first century traditional costumes may be worn for weddings, naming ceremonies, powwows, or other special celebrations. Girls and women wear beaded elkhide, deerhide, or cloth dresses covered with shells, elk teeth, or jingles (cone-shaped pieces of tin that make sounds when they walk). The designs on their dresses often tell family stories or honor family members. Men may wear beaded outfits or beaded accessories like moccasins, belts, headbands, or vests.
Preparing animal skins so they were soft enough to wear took time and talent. The hide had to stay in one large piece, so skinning an animal required skill. To make clothing, women first removed the hair and meat from the skin. Some tribes preferred dry scraping (using an animal bone or a stone tool to rub the meat from one side of the skin and the hair from the other). Other tribes mixed ashes into water and soaked the skins for a few days. Then they pegged the hide to the ground or laced it to a wooden frame to keep it taut while they scraped.
After scraping the hides women washed them, then stretched them on frames until they were almost as thin as paper. Once the hides dried, some tribes hung them over the fire for several hours to smoke. This gave them a brown color; many Plains tribes left the hides white. To finish and soften the hides, women mashed animal brains and rubbed them into the hides. More scraping and stretching followed until the hides were supple enough for clothing.
In early times women mixed minerals or clays with buffalo fat in turtle shell bowls. They soaked the hipbone of a buffalo in water until it became like a sponge, then painted designs on clothing. In addition to painting scenes of battles or hunts, women also adorned their clothing with dyed porcupine quills, animal teeth, bones, or claws. Many women covered the yokes of their dresses with animal teeth. Later most tribes used beads obtained through trade to decorate clothing and moccasins.
The Assiniboin depended on buffalo for most of their food, clothing, shelter, and tools. They often trapped the herds by driving them into compounds or over cliffs. They sometimes roasted the meat on spits, but most of the time they boiled it. They made containers from hide, put meat and water into them, then added hot stones to make the liquid boil. Their tribe’s name came from this practice.
Northern bands of Assiniboin also hunted moose, bear, elk, porcupine, and beaver. In addition most bands also ate deer, antelope, mountain sheep, rabbit, gopher, chipmunk, fish, duck, partridge, and other birds. They traded furs for crops, especially Mandan corn. European traders often bartered for their pemmican, which they made from pounded, dried buffalo meat mixed with fat and dried berries.
Some gathered wild rice, and most ate plants, seeds, and roots that grew wild, such as turnips, chokecherries, raspberries, and bulrushes. Some sources indicate that they may have sacrificed and eaten dogs as part of religious rituals.
Assiniboin Game Stew
Many Assiniboin, especially those who lived in the North, hunted moose and elk. In the spring people tapped maple trees for their sap, which was then boiled for maple syrup. This recipe combines both syrup and moose as well root vegetables that could be gathered from the wild.
- 2 pounds Cubed moose, elk, deer or lean beef
- 1/3 cup Maple syrup
- 4 cups water
- Salt to taste
- 4 Green onions, sliced
- 4 White turnips, peeled and diced
- 4 medium Potatoes, peeled and diced
- 1 Leek, chopped
Place meat on skewers and sear over an open fire or brown in a large skillet. Place browned meat and remaining ingredients in a large pot. Simmer over an open fire or on the stove over medium-low heat for about 1 hour, until meat is tender.
Cox, Beverly, and Martin Jacobs. Spirit of The Harvest: North American Indian Cooking, (accessed on July 27, 2007).
Learning to hunt was an important part of a young boy’ education. Children learned by playing games and modeling the behavior of their elders. In 1877 the government opened a boarding school to assimilate Native Americans (make them like whites). Assiniboin children who were sent there could not speak their native language or practice their customs.
In the early twentieth century Mormons and Presbyterians ran missionary schools, but had little success. Today students on the Fort Peck Reservation attend five public school districts for elementary through high school. Fort Peck Community College, a tribally-controlled college, is located on the reservation, and Native American Education Service College, with one of strongest tribal studies programs in the United States, offers scholarships for its four-year programs, so students can attend college on or off reservation.
The Fort Belknap Education Department was established in 1977. Students have several different educational options for attending school on the reservation. Lodge Pole has a public school for grades K–6; while Hays has both a public school for K–12 and St. Paul’s Mission, a Catholic day school, for grades K–6. Some children attend off-reservation boarding schools. Fort Belknap Community College opened in 1984.
Medicine men received their power from the spirits through visions. They healed people using songs, herbs, and sucking objects out of the patient’s body. Some medicine men put the object in a wooden bowl, covered it with a cloth, and made it disappear. If herbs and sucking did not work, the medicine man played a bone flute.
One healing ritual was done by both sexes. They set up a long tipi, and the members of the healing society each carried the skin of an animal that contained wakán, or sacred, power. Healers sat in two rows on each side and sang while they made throwing motions with the skins. When the patient fainted, they piled the skins on his body to draw out the evil and illness.
Some medicine people had the power to cause disease or death. People paid them for their services, and these medicine men worked their spells on birchbark or rawhide, punched four holes in important parts, then buried it on a hilltop. Those who made deals with these men kept it secret for fear of retribution.
As of 2007 Fort Belknap has a hospital and health center in Hays operated by the Indian Health Service. The tribe also offers health education programs. At Fort Peck people have access to both the Verne E. Gibbs Health Center in Poplar and the Chief Redstone Clinic in Wolf Point. They, too, have community health programs in addition to mental health, dental, and eye care services.
In modern times, Assiniboin women are known for their decorative clothing. In the past, elk teeth and porcupine quills adorned dresses, shirts, and moccasins. Women also painted decorations onto the fabric (see “Creating Northern Plains Clothing”). Later beading also became popular. Although beading is easier, many people still use porcupine quills. The quills must be pulled from the porcupine hide, washed, dyed, dried, and sorted by size before they can be used. Artists then soften the quills in their mouths to make them pliable and flatten them before creating decorations on hide or cloth.
The Assiniboin believe the Thunder Beings gave their people the first song and drum, so music is very important to their culture. Singing involves all ages. Each person receives a special song during a vision quest (see “Puberty”); it is sacred and only used at appropriate times. Other ceremonial songs include the Sun Dance and Sweat Lodge songs, Ghost Dance Songs, and Death Songs accompanied by the hand drum. Social Songs accompany the Tea Dance or Round Dance (see “Festivals”); they signify friendship, and may also be used at weddings or memorials. These are usually sung to both the hand drum and the big drum. Community members also engage in singing with the big drum during powwows, celebrations that also include tribal dances.
To invite people to a powwow, a singer would sing outside some homes to get friends to accompany him. Then the group went from house to house and sang Doorway Songs (some people called them “Begging Songs” or “Counting Buckets”). People would emerge from their houses and tell the singers what they would bring to the powwow. Although it is rarely done anymore, it was a way to invite people and solicit donations of food for the celebration.
The Assiniboin tell many tales of boys who are despised and considered ugly, but prove their worth and end up handsome.
There was once an orphan boy [Teze’xnin, or “Sore-Belly”], whom no one cared for. He stayed with his grandmother at some distance from the camp. One man asked him, “How do you get so fat? Where do you get food from?” “My grandmother has plenty of food.” The man went to the boy’s lodge, and, finding plenty of food, stole it. The old woman cried. The boy said, “Don’t cry, we’ll get more food. In the morning we shall find moose and buffalo meat.” They went to sleep. The next morning, there was moose and buffalo meat in their lodge. The orphan said, “Don’t go near their camp, those people don’t like us.” The people said, “Sore-Belly is fat again, they must have some food.” Sore-Belly knew they were going to steal the meat. He went home. When the men tried to steal his meat, he seized them by the wrist and broke their arms. The chief saw that he was strong and gave him his daughter for a wife. The boy was very ugly. The chief ordered the couple to make a sweat-lodge. “What kind of a young man would you like for a husband?” the boy asked his wife. “A handsome young man.” Then Teze’xnin went inside and sweated, while his wife waited outside. At last he told her to open the door, and came out as a handsome youth.
Lowie, Robert. “Teze’xnin (b)” Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. IV, Part 1: Assiniboine. New York: The American Museum of Natural History, 1909. (accessed on July 27, 2007).
Young men went on vision quests to receive a guardian spirit and sacred songs to help them throughout their lives. They traveled to sacred grounds and fasted (went without food and water) for a period of one to four days. During that time a vision of the young man’s guardian spirit appeared to him. He might also be given a special song. Those who were pipe carriers received a bundle containing a pipe, wrapped in red cloth and tied with sage. To prepare themselves, they learned to use the sweat lodge, tobacco for offerings, and sacred songs. They received a song from the spiritual grandfathers that was only used at this special time.
Originally the Round Dance was a healing ceremony that became a social dance. Held in winter, it is a time for those who have died to dance with the living. People join hands and circle in a clockwise direction, moving up and down like the Northern Lights (the people say these are the ancestors dancing).
Annual celebrations at Fort Belknap Reservation include Milk River Indian Days, Hays Powwow, and Chief Joseph Memorial Days, which feature traditional dancing and cultural activities. Throughout the year they have rodeos, county fairs, and sporting events for residents.
Fort Peck holds Poplar Indian Days on Labor Day weekend with a powwow, dancing competition, and honoring ceremonies. Wolf Point Wild Horse Stampede in July attracts cowboys from all over the country.
If a person died in winte, the tribe took the body with them and placed it on a scaffold, out of reach of animals at each stop until they arrived at the burial grounds. Then they placed the body in a sitting position in a 5-foot (1.5-meter) deep circular grave, lined with bark or skins. They covered it with logs, then heaped dirt on top.
The Assiniboin believed everyone had four souls. Three died with the body and the fourth lived inside a “spirit bundle.” Friends of the deceased offered gifts until that spirit was released to follow the others.
Current tribal issues
Environmental issues concern many Assiniboin in the mid-2000s. At Fort Belknap the tribe struggles with water contamination and reclamation of a landfill and gold mining area. In 1996 they received a Wetlands Program grant and have been working to preserve area wetlands. In 2006 the Alexis Band identified more than two thousand oil wells on tribal ground, which is a concern for the tribe.
Water contamination also plagued Fort Peck. They initiated a Municipal and Industrial Rural Drinking Water Program and began an irrigation system along the Missouri River in 2003. The tribe also met with nearby towns and began a $180 million water project to serve all the communities as well as the reservation.
To reduce crime, violence, and substance abuse, Fort Peck was one of seven tribes selected to participate in the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance program, Tribal Strategies Against Violence (TSAV). Working with government agencies, the tribe identified problems and developed partnerships to address them.
As an eleven-year-old, Jumping Bull (1846–1890) fought bravely with his small bow when his tribe was attacked by the Sioux, who were under the command of Chief Sitting Bull (1831–1890). When the Sioux tried to kill the boy, Sitting Bull stopped them. He said, “This boy is too brave to die! I take him as my brother.” Later in life, Jumping Bull died defending Sitting Bull.
Two writers known for furthering tribal culture are Susan Braine, who served as Chief Operating Officer of Koahnic Broadcast Corporation and helped launch Native Voice 1, a Native radio station, in 2006. She also writes for children. Bernelda Wheeler (1937-2005), an Assiniboin /Cree/Saulteaux storyteller and journalist, served as an advisor to The Aboriginal Film and Video Art Alliance; and Monica Braine produced If the Name has to Go…, an award-winning documentary.
Fourstar, Jerome, George Shields, and Isabel Shields. How the Summer Season Came and Other Assiniboine Indian Stories. Helena: Montana Historical Society Press, 2003.
Standing, William. Land of Nakoda: The Story of the Assiniboine Indians. Helena, MT: Riverbend Publishing, 2004.
“Assiniboin Indian History.” Access Genealogy. (accessed on July 27, 2007).
“Assinboin Indians.” PBS. (accessed on July 27, 2007).
Denig, Edwin Thompson. The Assiniboine. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.
Fort Belknap Indian Reservation. (accessed on July 27, 2007).
Fort Peck Indian Reservation. (accessed on July 27, 2007).
“Introduction to Carry the Kettle.” Carry the Kettle Band. (accessed on July 27, 2007).
Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation. (accessed on July 27, 2007).
Gordon L. Pullar, Director, Department of Alaska Native and Rural Development College of Rural and Community Development, UAF, Anchorage, Alaska
Brian Wescott (Athabaskan/Yup’ik)
ETHNONYMS: Assiniboine, Assinipwat, Fish-Eaters, Hohe, Stoneys, Stonies
The Assiniboin are a Siouan-speaking group who separated from the Nakota (Yanktonnai) in northern Minnesota sometime before 1640 and moved northward to ally themselves with the Cree near Lake Winnipeg. Later in the century they began to move westward, eventually settling in the basins of the Saskatchewan and Assiniboine rivers in Canada, and in Montana and North Dakota north of the Milk and Missouri rivers. With the disappearance of the bison (the mainstay of their subsistence) in the middle of the nineteenth century, they were forced to relocate to several reservations and reserves in Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. Population estimates for the tribe ranged from eighteen thousand to thirty thousand in the eighteenth century. Today there are perhaps fifty-five hundred living on the Fort Belknap and Fort Peck reservations in Montana and in Canadian reserves, the largest being at Morley on the upper Bow River in Alberta.
The Assiniboin were a typical plains bison-hunting tribe; they were nomadic and lived in hide tipis. They usually employed the dog travois for transporting goods, although the horse was sometimes used. Famed as the greatest horse raiders on the Northern Plains, the Assiniboin were also fierce warriors. They were generally on friendly terms with Whites but regularly engaged in warfare against the Blackfoot and Gros Ventre. Many were converted to Methodism by Wesleyan missionaries during the nineteenth century, but the Grass Dance, Thirst Dance, and Sun Dance remained Important ceremonials. After the Second World War, the Alberta Stoneys became much involved in political activism and cultural betterment through the Indian Association of Alberta. An Assiniboin-language school and university-level courses are offered at the reserve at Morley.
Dempsey, Hugh A. (1978). "Stoney Indians." In Indian Tribes of Alberta, 43-50. Calgary: Glenbow-Alberta Institute.
Kennedy, Dan (1972). Recollections of an Assiniboine Chief, edited and with an introduction by James R. Stevens. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
Lowie, Robert H. (1910). The Assiniboine. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers 4, 1-270. New York.
Notzke, Claudia (1985). Indian Reserves in Canada: Development Problems of the Stoney and Peigan Reserves in Alberta. Marburger Geographische Schriften, no. 97. Marburg/Lahn.
Whyte, Jon (1985). Indians in the Rockies. Banff, Alberta: Altitude Publishing.
Writers' Program, Montana (1961). The Assiniboines: From the Accounts of the Old Ones Told to First Boy (James Larpenteur Long). Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
As·sin·i·boin / əˈsinəˌboin/ (also As·sin·i·boine) • n. (pl. same or -boins) 1. a member of an American Indian people formerly living in southern Manitoba, but now living in Montana, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.2. the Siouan language of this people.• adj. of or relating to the Assiniboin or their language.