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ETHNONYMS: Assiniboin is an alternative spelling; contemporary Assiniboine prefer the spelling with an e, and also often refer to themselves and the language they speak as Nakota, meaning "the people".


Identification and Location. The Assiniboine (a'sini,boin) are a Siouan-speaking people closely related linguistically to the Sioux and Stoney. Contemporary Assiniboine live on two reservations in northern Montana and on four reserves in southern Saskatchewan. The Stoney ('ston e), often confused with the Assiniboine, developed from the Assiniboine and became an independent people during the eighteenth century. Their descendants live in the foothills of the Rockies in Alberta.

The name Assiniboine derives from Ojibwa assinispwas n, "stone enemy" meaning "stone Sioux" and often with the -ak plural suffix and later a final -t, and by the nineteenth century the final -n or -ne.

By the last decades of the nineteenth century Assiniboine reservations and reserves were located in Montana and Saskatchewan, within the larger region they occupied during the previous century. In Montana, the Upper Assiniboines were located with the Atsina Gros Ventre on the Fort Belknap Reservation, and the Lower Assiniboines with Yanktonai, Sisseton/Wahpeton Dakota and a small number of Hunkpapa and other Teton stragglers of Sitting Bull's followers on the Fort Peck Reservation. In Saskatchewan, Assiniboines within Treaty 4 were the reserve bands of Pheasant's Rump, Ocean Man, Carry the Kettle and Long Lodge, and Piapot's Cree-speaking Assiniboines, and within Treaty 6 the bands of Grizzly Bear's Head and Lean Man, which often were known as the Battleford Stoneys.

Demography. The population history of the Assiniboines remains incomplete until well into the nineteenth century. A number of major disease episodes proved to be quite intrusive. The population before the 1780-1781 epidemic was estimated at 10,000; afterward, only half to one-third were left. The 1819-1820 epidemic of measles and whooping cough may have again reduced the population by half. By 1838 the population had recovered as much as 30 percent to between 6,000 and 7,200, but after the steamboat brought smallpox to the upper Missouri, the Assiniboine lost as much as 60 percent of the population, down to 3,375-3,690 persons. After a slow recovery, two more smallpox epidemics struck the Assiniboine in 1856-1857 and 1869.

Assiniboine population figures in the initial reservation/reserve period were complicated by tribal undifferentiated figures for the shared reservations in Montana, and similarly for some of the reserves in Canada. Contemporary population figures reflect the mixed heritage of many intermarriages and their offspring. The total maximum population for Assiniboines in Canada was 5,618 as of December 2000 and 6,442 in the United States as of November 2001.

Linguistic Affiliation. Assiniboine is a Siouan language. Folk tradition suggests a separation from the Yanktonai Sioux, but this is not supported linguistically or historically. While Assiniboine is coordinate with the other Sioux dialects, it is no closer to one than to any other, suggesting that Assiniboine diverged from the Sioux at the same time the other Sioux dialects were differentiating from one another. The language is endangered, with few speakers living; most Assiniboine today speak English.

History and Cultural Relations

Assiniboines were first encountered by European fur traders in the woodlands in Lake Nipigon, north of Lake Superior in the 1640s and the parklands of Manitoba in the 1730s, and were adept canoe users, which facilitated their role as trade middlemen.

In the seventeenth century Assiniboine territory extended westward from Lake Winnipeg and the forks of the Red and Assiniboine rivers into much of central and southern Saskatchewan. From the earliest descriptions, the Assiniboines were allied with Algonquian-speaking Crees, and later in the early to mid-nineteenth century, Saulteaux or western Ojibwas. Historical sources suggest a westward expansion of Assiniboine territory during the eighteenth century through the parklands of the central Saskatchewan River and into eastern Alberta, but these farthest reaches represented interaction spheres and not a migration of fully articulated social groups, and reflected the fur traders' knowledge of the western prairies. Population movements during the early nineteenth century shifted Assiniboine territory southward, and by 1840 three-quarters of the nation lived along the Missouri River in the area of northwestern North Dakota and northeastern Montana. By the mid-nineteenth century Assiniboine territory extended east from the Moose and Wood mountains to the Cypress Hills and north to south from the North Saskatchewan to the Milk and Missouri rivers.

Assiniboines first learned of the jurisdiction of the United States with the visit of Lewis and Clark. Their incorporation commenced with the arrival of the first Indian agents on the Upper Missouri River in 1820s and the building of Fort Union in 1828, constructed particularly for trade with Assiniboines and points west.


Before the 1880s, Assiniboines lived in seasonal camps. When the buffalo herds were reconstituted in the summer, Assiniboines came together in larger camps. During the fall when the herds dispersed, the summer camps also broke up, individual bands eventually settling in sheltered river bottoms for the winter.

The locations upon reservations in Montana in the United States and reserves in Saskatchewan in Canada remain homes for these respective tribes and first nations in the beginning of the twenty-first century. In every case a large proportion of their populations reside off reserve mostly in cities, encouraged to do so both by increased economic opportunities, but also by various government policy initiatives in the decades following the World War II.


Subsistence. Buffalo were the primary goods and materials resource for Assiniboine subsistence. Three methods of hunting buffalo were used: the group surround, the park or buffalo pound, and single hunter. Communal buffalo hunting, using dogs, was regulated by a soldier society. The introduction of horses in the nineteenth century allowed them to chase their prey on horseback. Hunters surrounded a herd of buffalo and used bows and arrows to kill as many as they could. Assiniboines used the buffalo pound to trap and process larger quantities of animals than could be taken by single hunters. The buffalo pound was a fenced enclosure of approximately an acre surrounded by a series of posts. Rock cairns were built at intervals forming a driveway toward the entrance of the surround, allowing a religious leader to call buffalo and lead animals into the "park," where the animals were then slaughtered using bows and arrows, and later guns. Grease, rendered from boiling bones, was used to make pemmican from dry meat and berries and to seal parfleches used for food storage. Armed with bows and arrows, and later guns, single hunters also stalked buffalo. Often in winter, individuals went out on snowshoes to find buffalo trapped in deep drifts. The meat and other constituent parts were dried or otherwise prepared, stored, or traded.

Assiniboines were not adverse to eating fish and were reported to have utilized fish weirs on a seasonal basis where this was productive.

Industrial Arts. In butchering, a buffalo carcass was cut down the backbone and lengthwise along the belly so that the hide was removed in two pieces. After tanning, the two pieces were sewed together with sinew. Each hide required at least three days to process into a robe. Tipi covers were made of sewed hide and trimmed to size. They were recycled into other objects when a new cover was made.

Both horse and dog travois were used to transport goods, but because they owned relatively few horses, the Assiniboine made greater use of the dog travois throughout the nineteenth century. Bull boats constructed of a willow frame and covered with buffalo hide were used to ferry goods and people across streams.

Trade. Assiniboine cultural history is bound intricately with the history of the European and later American and Canadian fur trades. A portion of Assiniboines specialized as trade middlemen, joining with a portion of the western Crees in the seventeenth century to assume these roles. For groups further inland, these portions of the population became the concentrated producers of furs and buffalo robes, which their middlemen took to trade at the trade factories on Hudson Bay. When the European traders came inland after the mid-eighteenth century, trade was still conducted by headmen on behalf of the band.

Division of Labor. The Assiniboine observed a clear division of labor between men and women. Young men went to war, but after marriage their primary concern was with hunting. Men made all of their tools and weapons, provided and cared for the family's horses, and trapped fur-bearing animals. In addition they participated in councils, feasts, and ceremonies. Women would accompany men on the hunt to help butcher game. In camp, women dressed the hides and cut up and dried the meat. They made the family's clothing as well as the tipi cover, cooked, cared for the young, gathered food and hauled water. They were also responsible for packing, unpacking, and setting up the tipi when the camp moved. Sometimes a man, as the result of a vision, rejected male roles, dressed in women's clothing, and performed the work of women.

Land Tenure. No Plains tribes claimed a special right to any circumscribed or limited territory. Consequently, the Assiniboines and their neighbors believed in their general right to the whole of the hunting grounds, where buffalo were to be found and particular Indians could be stationed. Each autonomous unit of tribes was in possession of a portion of these lands, necessary for its preservation. In defending their portion from aggression they used every means in their power. Should the game fail, they could encroach upon other regions and neighbors. This attitude toward land tenure changed, however, when the Assiniboines were forced to abandon their nomadic lifestyle for a sedentary one on reservations.


Kin Groups and Descent. Assiniboine bands were bilateral, although women usually joined the husband's band after marriage, and the couple acquired their own lodge as soon as possible. Descendants believed they were equally related to the relatives of their fathers and mothers.

Kinship Terminology. Kinship terminology was of the Dakota type, in which father and father's brother were classed together as father, and mother and mother's sister were classed together as mother; parents' opposite-sex siblings were uncle and aunt. The children of all fathers and mothers were brothers and sisters to one another, and the children of aunts and uncles were called cousins. Kinship terms were used for address instead of personal names among the immediate and extended family members within the camping band, and the customary patterns of kinship behavior gave order to everyday life. For example, a man was forbidden to speak directly to his parents-in-law; however, a man could lessen the tension of this avoidance relationship and allow for some communication by presenting them with a scalp taken in battle.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Men married for the first time between the ages of twenty and twenty-five, while women married after age twelve. The sound of a courting flute outside a girl's lodge or the use of love medicines were employed by a suitor to persuade her to run off with him. Precautions were taken to protect eligible girls from violators, since virginity at the time of marriage was highly valued. The formalities of marriage required the prospective groom to send a horse and some cooked meat to the girl's lodge. If her family was resistant, he might send another horse and other presents. Once the offer was accepted, the girl was sent with her belongings to the man's lodge to live there as his wife. In-law avoidance prevented the new couple from being able to live with the wife's family; the new husband did not enter his parents-inlaw's lodge. Until children were born from the union, the groom performed bridge service, hunting for his in-laws. The labor necessary to process buffalo hides was so great that a successful hunter took more than one wife. A man had the right to marry his wife's younger sisters as co-wives when they came of age. Upon the death of a wife, a man waited a year before remarrying, while a widow might wait as long as three years. Divorce rarely happened if a couple had children, but a man did have the right of divorce. If there were children, older ones went with the father and younger ones with the mother. Adultery and barrenness were the usual reasons for divorce.

Domestic Unit. The core of a band was a cluster of related families composed of a number of brothers and cousins. Each nuclear family lived in its own lodge, a bison hide tipi erected with the three-pole style of foundation. The average size tipi was thirty-one feet in circumference, requiring a minimum of twelve hides for the cover, and could house a family of eight, as well as two or three visitors. Space within the lodge was formally organized, indicating relationships and proscribed behaviors. To the right of the doorway as one entered was the family storage place, filled with storage containers both of family as a whole and of individuals. Next in sequence was a place for a widowed grandmother, then the man of the household with his first wife, then their children, and finally, a place for male visitors. At the back of the lodge was the place of honor, where a visiting brother-in-law or other relative might stay. To the left of the doorway was another storage area, beyond which were places for an unmarried grandfather or uncle, for co-wives, and, toward the back, additional places for female relatives or visitors. Additional lodges for co-wives and their children were created if the main family residence became too crowded.

Inheritance. The personal property of Plains tribes consisted of horses, and a measure of wealth was related to the number possessed at any given time. Over all, Assiniboines had few horses, being at the furthest end of the trade continuum, though they did take some horses from their enemies. All objects, e.g., clothing, robes, arms, etc., that one made were considered personal property. While dying wishes of an individual were taken into consideration, the division of property remained the prerogative of the closest relatives.

Socialization, Newborn babies, when not being carried, were placed in buckskin cradles, which were sometimes fastened to cradleboards obtained in trade from the Cree or Saulteaux. The first name for a baby was bestowed three to four weeks after birth. A successful warrior or holy person was asked to give the name, for which he received a horse, and he would lead the horse about the camp announcing the new name of the child. Girls generally kept this given name throughout their lives, in contrast to the boys, who as they grew older, would obtain new names in recognition of their first accomplishments.

When children were age two or three, they were weaned. At this same age, without fanfare, grandmothers pierced the ears of children. Parents trained their same-sex children, never striking them when punishing, but rather chastising them and teaching them in proper behavior. Men taught their sons to hunt and use weapons. The kill from the first hunt was left as a sacrifice for the carrion eaters, with prayers offered for future success in hunting and war. Proficiency in hunting was usually achieved by age eighteen, when many also joined their first war expeditions, although some went to war as young as age twelve. Girls were taught a range of skills necessary to women's work, from making clothing to preparation of foods for preservation, and participated from an early age in the care of younger children. When a girl's first menstruation occurred, she was secluded in a small shelter erected near the family tipi. In earlier times this was the practice of all women of childbearing age during their menstrual periods, but this tradition was apparently abandoned by the mid-nineteenth century.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization, Autonomous bands organized Assiniboine society, each having its own preferred territory. The core of a band was a group of related families, usually comprising a number of brothers and cousins. A system of status was tied to accomplishments of young men in warfare and in hunting, before they were allowed to marry and participate in other social and cultural responsibilities.

Political Organization. The band constituted a large extended family under a headmen known as a chief. The chief addressed band members collectively as "my children," emphasizing the significance of kinship as the basis for political organization. The position of chief was not hereditary but was based on merit. The chiefs family was often the largest and most prestigious in the band; therefore, when a chief died he was usually replaced by a relative. The chief served as the chair for a council of "little chiefs" who were the heads of families in the membership of the band, and supported the chief as long as they had confidence in him and accepted his leadership. Bands could fission, and often did if they became larger than was viable to sustain easily in the summer seasons; the configuration of political leadership of the new entities would sort out and chiefs would be made as new ones were needed and others retired or died. Decisions of the chief and council were enforced by the Soldier's society, whose members were appointed by council.

The band was the largest political unit; there was no other overarching structure as a tribe. Bands would coalesce regionally for ceremonies, buffalo hunts, or to plan military expeditions. On these occasions they camped in an expanded circle with each band occupying its own section and maintaining its own autonomy.

Social Control. The soldiers served both as police and as a paramilitary force, maintaining order with the camp and supervising hunts and camp moves, and had the authority to punish transgressors by destroying their property. Crimes, including murder, were considered private matters, left to the parties to resolve without the interference of the chief or council.

Conflict. Warfare was integral to Assiniboine culture. The defense of family and village from the aggression by other tribes necessitated such practices, and status was earned in two types of offensive warfare: horse-stealing raids and war expeditions. Both types of ventures were discussed and organized in the Soldiers' Lodge, and any plan had to be sanctioned by the leader's fasting for a vision. Once received, the leader's family made a feast for lodge members to explain the intention of the expedition. Dancing prefaced departures as warriors prepared themselves for the rigors ahead. Horsestealing parties left on foot, each man taking extra pairs of moccasins. If at any point the leader or followers had dreams of failure, the party would turn back.

War expeditions were organized to seek revenge against an enemy as part of a cycle of blood feuds for the purpose of taking scalps. Expeditions varied in size, but could be as many as three hundred men. However, the larger the group, the more problems of leadership arose, which could endanger the success of the venture. Holy men were consulted to divine the overall success and to secure protective medicines for the group and for individuals. Some might go on foot, others mounted, depending on the overall plan for the engagement, and scouts were sent ahead to ascertain the enemy locations and strength. Dressing themselves in finery and sacred war charms, and sometimes in clothes or carrying shields upon which were designs of visions, they carried bows and arrows and guns for fighting at a distance, as well as lances, war clubs, and battle axes for hand-to-hand combat.

Warfare ceased by the late 1880s when groups were placed on their reservations or reserves.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Assiniboine religious life is centered by living among myriad forces. The greatest and organizer of these is the great power, the first cause of creation, and is called Great Mystery, the Creator, which encompasses all that was incomprehensible to humans. Contemporary Assiniboines pray to First Born Boy (Hokshi togab) as their intercessor with Creator. The spirits are omnipresent and omnipotent, and humans can call on their power for good or for evil.

Individual prayer is the core practice in Assiniboine religion. It includes the requisite burning of sweet grass; the filling, lifting, and smoking of pipes; a range of sacrifices; and weeping and self-mortification so that men and women make themselves pitiful, and therefore, pitiable. Prayers often contain the phrase, "I know you (the Creator) pity no one, but I ask that you pity me." While Assiniboines believe that the created world was a gift for human beings, the spirits were called upon to help humans cope with their inadequacies and provide security against the insecurities of the world. Both young and old men seek visions, which are the venue for encounters with spirits who bestow power for war, hunting, and curing. Those with such visions and accompanying dreams often construct a medicine bundle according to the instructions received from spirit helpers; these are buried with the individual's bodies when they die.

Religious Practitioners. Repeated visions meant an individual was being selected to become a religious specialist. Ceremonial leaders were considered "holy men" with power to find lost objects, cure particular ailments, cause illness by shooting evil into others, and interpret dreams. Their chief influence, however, was teaching others about the revelations that resulted in the faithful practice of their particular ceremonies. Other specialists, called "medicine men" had unique powers with medicines, using mostly herbs and organic animal materials to heal the sick or wounded. Sweat baths were also used in curing. Both men and women were curers, women receiving their powers exclusively in dreams and in training as midwives; the majority of curers, however, were men.

Ceremonies. The most important religious ceremony of the ceremonial calendar is the Lodge Building Dance (Sun Dance), held in the first part of summer, bringing together relatives and others after the long winter. More than one, performed by different makers, might be held in various parts of Assiniboine country. Individuals come together after having made vows and become a community in the village specially constituted for the preparing for the lodge. Individual dancers prepare themselves by fasting in isolation and purifying themselves in advance of helping construct the lodge structure. The building takes place on the first day, the center pole found, captured and its life taken as a sacrifice, and brought to the site of the lodge. During the four-day cycle, dancers pray and sacrifice themselves for the vow they have made and for the well-being and future of the people. Dancers are painted to give them strength. Formalized self-mortification for the men consists of piercing their chests with cherry wood skewers attached by ropes to the center pole. Women dancers make offerings of small bits of flesh cut from their arms or legs, all deposited at the base of the center pole. Singers perform special songs throughout, singing nonstop during the time when the piercing and flesh offerings are made.

Horse society curing rituals both for horses and humans are next in degrees of sacredness. Both men and women belong to a society that held its rituals every two or three years, lasting several days, and was held primarily for renewal of the power of the bundles and the initiation of new members. Prayers are for increase in numbers of horses among the people and that children would grow up free from sickness.

Fool Dance is performed by a maker who called upon various individuals to constitute a society at the commencement of the ritual. Contrary behavior is used in a two-day ritual to give those chosen, and by extension all present in the camp, powers for war and hunting. The maker is said to possess the power for doctoring eyes. Held once a year, at the time of the Sun Dance, the selected dancers wear masks and clothes to disguise their identities. The ritual culminated with the retirement of the maker and his dancers to the society's lodge, where those needing eye treatment could come.

A number of men and women sodalities' (societies) rituals include both public and private performances, each revolving around distinctive rules, regalia, songs, and dances. Borrowed from the Blackfeet, the Tea Dance or "drunken dance" involved drinking large quantities of tea and mimicking drunken behavior, while fostering abstinence. It was revived at Fort Belknap in 1891 with men and women participating. Small-scale giveaways were expected from the sponsor.

Portions of the Ghost Dance complex were introduced by the Arapaho to the Gros Ventres at Fort Belknap, but the Assiniboines were not adherents, beyond a few individuals. Assiniboines however, enthusiastically embraced the ritual hand game that passed from tribe to tribe in association with the Ghost Dance. The hand game was one of chance, but the new hand game of the Assiniboines is considered a religious ceremony of divination in which no gambling occurs. The outcome is considered an answer to the question posed by the ritual's sponsor.

Prayers in sweat lodge and in pipe ceremonies provide venues for individuals to center their thoughts and prepare for other rituals, to ascertain solutions to dilemmas, or to mark special events.

Arts. Most artistic expressions appeared on clothing, buffalo robes, storage containers, and tipis. For ceremonies and going to war, clothing was decorated with porcupine quillwork or beadwork. War shirts and leggings were often trimmed with locks of human hair or ermine skins. Trade items included dentalium shell for women's dresses, cloth, glass beads used for clothes and decorative strips on blankets, small hawk bells, and brass and silver wire for earrings and arm bands. Designs were simple and mostly geometric.

Death and Afterlife. Upon the death of a person, the spirit of the deceased was urge by wailing relatives and friends to travel south to the land of the spirits. The mourners cried until the body was buried. A warrior who died was dressed and painted as for war and wrapped in a blanket. His weapons were placed with the body, which was then wrapped in a buffalo robe painted with pictures of his brave deeds, and wrapped once more in more rawhide. The deceased was placed on a scaffold or high place, with the feet to the south and the upper body slightly raided. A favorite horse, or in the case of a woman, her favorite dogs, might be killed at the grave, to reduce the loneliness of the deceased. When scaffolds rotted and fell to earth, the bones were gathered up and buried.

For the original article on the Assiniboine, see Volume 1, North America.


DeMallie, Raymond J. and David Reed Miller (2001). "Assiniboine." In The Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 13, Part 1, edited by Raymond J. DeMallie, 572-595. Washington, DC: Smithsonian.

Denig, Edwin Thompson (1930). "Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri." Edited by ]. N. B. Hewitt. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology, Annual Reports, 46: 375-628.

Ewers, John C. (1955). "The Bear Cult Among the Assiniboin and Their Neighbors of Northern Plains," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 11: 1-14.

(1956). "The Assiniboin Horse Medicine Cult," Pnmitive Man 29: 57-68.

Long, James Larpenteur (1961). The Assiniboines: From the Accounts of the Old Ones Told to First Boy (James Larpentuer Long). Edited by M. S. Kennedy; illustrations by William Standing. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Lowie, Robert H. (1909). "The Assiniboine." American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers, 4, pt. 1: 1-270.

Miller, David Reed (1987). "Montana Assiniboine Identity: A Cultural Account of an American Indian Ethnicity." Dissertation Abstracts, 48, issue 5: 1247. Publication No. AAT8717766.

Parks, Douglas R., and Raymond J. DeMallie (1992). "Sioux, Assiniboine, and Stoney Dialects: A Classification." Anthropological Linguistics 34(1-4): 233-255.

Ray, Arthur J. (1974). Indians in the Fur Trade: Their Role as Hunters, Trappers and Middlemen in the Lands Southwest of Hudson Bay, 1660-1870. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Rodnick, David (1938). The Fort Belknap Assiniboine of Montana: A Study in Culture Change. New Haven: Yale University Press.



views updated Jun 11 2018

Assiniboine Nomadic tribe of Native North Americans. Their language is Siouan, and they are related to the Dakotas, although they migrated w from Minnesota to Saskatchewan and the Lake Winnipeg area. Their culture is that of the Plains Indians. They were trading partners of the English Hudson's Bay Company, and their trade helped to destroy the French monopoly among tribes of the region. Today they number c.5000; 4000 on reservations in Montana and 1000 in Canada.