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Fort Belknap History

The Fort Belknap Indian Reservation is located in north-central Montana. The reservation is the homeland of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre people. Established in 1888, the reservation is what remains of the vast ancestral territory of the Blackfeet and Assiniboine Nations. The Gros Ventre, as members of the Blackfeet confederacy, and the Assiniboine Nation signed the Fort Laramie treaties of 1851 and 1855 with the United States Government establishing their respective territories within the continental United States. The Fort Belknap Reservation is part of what remains of these two nations’ ancestral territory that included all of central and eastern Montana and portions of western North Dakota. The Blackfeet and Fort Peck Indian Reservations are also part of these territorial boundaries.

The concepts of self-determination and tribal sovereignty have been a long-standing tradition. As part of the treaties and agreements between the U.S. Government and Indian tribes, health, education, and welfare are to be provided to Indian people in perpetuity. This was in exchange for the many lands given up by the Indian people for things such as the railroad, homesteading, roads, and reservoirs.

The Gros Ventre call themselves “AH-AH-NE-NIN” meaning the White Clay People. They believed that they were made from the White Clay found along the river bottoms in Gros Ventre country. Early French fur trappers and traders named this tribe “Gros Ventre” because other tribes in the area referred to them as “The Water Falls People.” The sign for waterfall is the passing of the hands over the stomach, and the French thought the Indians were saying big belly, so they called them “Gros Ventre,” meaning “big belly” in the French language.

The Assiniboine refer to themselves as “Nakoda,” meaning the generous ones. This tribe split with the Yanktonai Sioux in the seventeenth century and migrated westward onto the northern plains with their allies, the Plains Cree. “Assiniboine” is a Chippewa word meaning “One who cooks with stones.” The Assiniboine are located on both the Fort Belknap and Fort Peck Indian Reservations in Montana and on several Saskatchewan and Alberta reserves.

The Gros Ventre and Assiniboine were nomadic hunters and warriors. They followed the buffalo, which provided them with all the necessities of life. Their food, clothing, and teepees all came from the buffalo. The buffalo was the Indian staff of life, and the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre, and other plains tribes lived a good life with the buffalo. The last herd of buffalo in the continental United States in the nineteenth century existed between the Bear Paw Mountains and the Little Rocky Mountains in the lush Milk River valley.

Today, the two tribes are united as one government called the Fort Belknap Indian Community. Together, the tribes have formed and maintained a community with a deep respect for its land, culture, and heritage. Fort Belknap derives its name from the original military post established on the Milk River, one mile southwest of the present town of Chinook, Montana. The Fort, named for William W. Belknap, the Secretary of War at that time, was a military fort combined with a Trading Post. It became a Government agency for the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Indians living in the area.


Assiniboine History

The Assiniboine are people of the northern Great Plains of North America who call themselves Nakoda or Nakota. To the Chippewa, they are known as AS’see’nee pai-tue (those who cook with stones). In Canada, they are called the Stoney, while in the United States, they are known as the Assiniboine. Through years of separation, differences in dialect and custom have developed between the two branches. But they still remember their common origins and consider themselves a single people.

Origins, location, and language. Pierre Jean Desmet, a French Jesuit missionary of the early 19th centuries stated that the Assiniboine were once members of the Yanktonai band of Dakota (Sioux). The oral tradition for the Assiniboine, however, refutes that claim. According to oral history in all Assiniboine tribal bands, their origins are Algonquian. Scholars of Assiniboine descent have been involved in research in the area since the mid-1970s.

Tribal oral history states that the Assiniboine originated in the Lake of the Woods and the Lake Winnipeg area of Canada and became allied with the Cree. In 1744, a division was noted, and “the people” divided again. Some bands moved west into the Assiniboine and Saskatchewan Rivers valleys in Canada, while others moved south into the Missouri Valley. The bands inhabited an area from the White Earth, Minnesota, region west to Montana’s Sweet Grass Hills. They also lived and roamed north of the U.S.-Canadian border to a line running east and west from Hudson Bay to the Rocky Mountains.

Thirty-three bands of Assiniboine have been identified. According to Edwin T. Denig, the Assiniboine returned to the Missouri region between 1800 and 1837, numbering about 1,200.

The Assiniboine language is a dialect of Dakota, a subdivision of the Siouan family. In many respects, it could be considered a simple language. A mini-analysis was conducted by Ken Ryan, an Assiniboine from the Fort Peck Reservation, utilizing the International Phonetic Alphabet. He developed a phonetic Assiniboine alphabet and found 26 phonemes, 20 consonants, and six vowels in the language.

Tribal Culture - The Assiniboine were typically large game hunters, dependent on the buffalo for a considerable part of their diet. They used buffalo hides for clothing and receptacles and lived in hide tipis. By about 1750, the Assiniboine hunting grounds embrace all the Canadian prairies. Both the Canadian and U.S. branches occasionally slaughtered entire herds by driving them into compounds. The meat was roasted on spits or boiled in hide bags by means of hot stones. The Assiniboine also made pemmican, which they traded or ate themselves. The dog was the only aboriginal domestic animal and was generally used to carry packs and pull travois, although the pups were sometimes eaten for religious purposes.

Most Assiniboine attached great importance to visions, and these took precedence in religious life. The elements of ceremonies and rites were performed individually or in groups. They included offerings, prayers, and the solemn unfolding of a pack containing sacred objects, and the singing of sacred songs. Tremendous importance was attached to the songs, which were repeated according to their mystic number. The Assiniboine considered sweating necessary purification before participation in any major ceremony. Their favorite incense for major ceremonies was made from sweetgrass. Tobacco was, as a rule, reserved for ceremonies and other solemn occasions. The pipes were handed and passed according to definite tribal traditions. The Assiniboine believed in great power - The Creator. They lived their religion every day. Therefore, they made sacrifices, fasts, and prayers to this unknown power, which they knew from actual phenomena had an existence. Mythological stories were told mainly for amusement. Most of them, however, contained a moral or ambiguous meaning and were exciting and imaginative.


Source: The Encyclopedia of the American Indians, Volume 1, 1975.


Gros Ventre History

The Gros Ventre Tribe of Montana is a tribe of the Northern Plains Indigenous group located in Northcentral Montana. They live on the Fort Belknap Reservation, which is shared with the Assiniboine tribe. The Gros Ventre live primarily in the south end of the reservation, near the Little Rocky Mountains.

The Gros Ventre, as far as anyone can tell, were once closely affiliated with the Algonquin-speaking Arapaho and Cheyenne. It is said that all three tribes together were among the last to migrate into Montana. After they migrated to Montana, the Arapaho moved southwards to the Wyoming and Colorado area. The Cheyenne who migrated with the Gros Ventre and Arapaho also migrated on. Some went to the Oklahoma area, and some stayed in the Tongue River valley. Each tribe was separate by the time of the signing of the Treaty of Fort Laramie.

The earliest known contact of Gros Ventres with whites was around 1754. This contact placed them between the north and south forks of the Saskatchewan River. Exposure to smallpox reduced their numbers during this time. Around 1793, in response to attacks by well-armed Cree and Assiniboine, Gros Ventres burned two Hudson Bay Company trading posts. These trading posts provided guns to the Cree and Assiniboine tribes in what is now present-day Canada. In 1826, the Gros Ventre made contact with the German explorer and naturalist Prince Maximilian. Along with the naturalist painter Karl Bodmer, they painted portraits and recorded their meeting with the Gros Ventre near Montana’s Missouri River.

The Gros Ventre, after their migratory break from the Arapaho, were next closely associated with the Blackfeet. It is from this point that most of what is known about the Gros Ventre is found. After joining up with the Blackfeet, the Gros Ventre roamed north-central Montana and southern Canada.

In 1855, Isaac Stevens, Governor of the Washington Territory, concluded a treaty (Stat., L., XI, 657) to provide peace between the United States and the Blackfeet, Flathead and Nez Perce Tribes. The Gros Ventre signed the treaty as part of the Blackfeet Nation, whose territory became common hunting grounds for all signatories, including the Assiniboine. In 1868, the United States government established a trading post called Fort Browning near Peoples Creek’s mouth on the Milk River. This trading post was built initially for the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine, but because it was built on a favorite hunting ground of the Sioux, it was abandoned in 1871. After the abandonment of Fort Browning, the government built another post. It was called Fort Belknap, and it was established on the south side of the Milk River, about one mile southwest of the present townsite of Chinook, Montana. Fort Belknap was a substation post, the last half of the structure being a trading post. A blockhouse stood to the left of the stockade gate. At the right was a warehouse and an issue building, where the tribe received their rations and annuity goods.

In 1876, the fort was discontinued, and the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine receiving annuities at the post were instructed to go to the agency at Fort Peck and Wolf Point. The Assiniboine did not object to going to Wolf Point and readily went about moving, but the Gros Ventre refused to go. If they did, they would come into contact with the Sioux, with whom they could not ride together in peace. They forfeited their annuities rather than move to Fort Peck. In 1878, the Fort Belknap Agency was re-established, and the Gros Ventre and remaining Assiniboine were again allowed to receive supplies at Fort Belknap. It was at this site that the Fort Belknap reservation was established in 1888. By an act of Congress on May 1, 1888, (Stat., L., XXV, 113), the Blackfeet, Gros Ventre, and Assiniboine tribes ceded 17,500,000 acres of their joint reservation and agreed to live upon three smaller reservations. These are now known as the Blackfeet, Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Reservations. Fort Belknap was named for William W. Belknap, who was Secretary of War.

In 1884, Gold was discovered in the Little Rocky Mountains. Pressure from miners and mining companies forced the tribes to cede sections of the mountains in 1885. Jesuits came to Fort Belknap in 1862 to convert the Gros Ventre people to Catholicism. In 1887, St. Paul’s Mission was established at the foot of the Little Rocky Mountains, near Hays. Much of the traditional ceremonies were lost through the course of time following the establishment of the mission. However, the two sacred pipes, The Feathered Pipe and The Flat Pipe, remain central to the traditional spiritual beliefs of the Gros Ventre people.

Source: “The Gros Ventre of Montana, Part I Social Life” by the Catholic University of America Press, All Rights Reserved.

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