Assiniboine (preferred spelling now Assiniboin) received their name from an Ojibwa word for their practice of boiling food by dropping heated rocks into water. They were first described in the Jesuit Relations as having split off from the Yanktonai Sioux sometime prior to 1640.
Assiniboine (preferred spelling now Assiniboin) received their name from an Ojibwa word for their practice of boiling food by dropping heated rocks into water. They were first described in the Jesuit Relations as having split off from the Yanktonai Sioux sometime prior to 1640. From a homeland around the Mississippi headwaters, they moved northwestwards, to the Lake of the Woods and towards Lake Winnipeg. At the peak of their power their territory ranged from the Saskatchewan and Assiniboine river valleys in Canada to the region north of the Milk and Missouri rivers in the US. Linguistically they belong to the Siouan family, speaking a dialect of Dakota or Lakota.
First Contact with Europeans
The Assiniboine people (who call themselves Nakoda Oyadebi) are representatives of the original Plains people of the North American buffalo hunters first described by Henry Kelsey in the 1690s. A young employee of the Hudson's Bay Company, Kelsey accompanied Assiniboine trading parties from the James Bay posts westward along the canoe route into present-day Saskatchewan, thereby ensuring that the fur pelts went to the Hudson's Bay Company in return for European trade goods such as metal utensils, firearms and gun powder, beads, cloth, tobacco, liquor and other manufactured goods.
Later traders and explorers such as La Vérendrye and his sons (1730s), Anthony Henday (1754-55) and Alexander Henry the Younger (1800s) confirm the widespread location of the Assiniboine throughout the western prairies and extending into North Dakota and Montana. Their way of life was recorded through the cultural perspective of these early travellers, who valued them for their economic contribution for the fur trade.
The Assiniboine trails became major travel routes to the south and their traditional camps sites became centres for the distribution of trade goods and for the collection of furs at trading posts built on the network of rivers flowing from the Rocky Mountains to Hudson Bay.
Impact of Fur Trade
Trading with the Hudson's Bay Company from the late 17th century, they were noted for their Pemmican production and their key role as middlemen, trading European goods to the distant Aboriginal people of the Plains. The acquisition of horses several decades before Henday's arrival in present-day Alberta (1754) and their early access to guns and metal trade goods enhanced their role in the fur trade economy with both the HBC and later the North West Co. Their new wealth as middlemen traders, successful horsemen, respected warriors and as providers of fresh meat to the numerous trading posts reached a peak from the 1780s to the early 1800s.
Through the 19th century they were closely allied with the Cree, while intermittently in conflict with the Blackfoot, the Gros Ventres and their Siouan relatives to the south. They suffered greatly from European diseases, especially smallpox. From an estimated population of over 10 000 in the late 18th century, their numbers declined catastrophically to 2600 by 1890. Numbers began to increase dramatically in the 1920s, owing to improved health and living conditions.
Assiniboine culture exhibited most of the classic Plains native traits. They were noted for their expertise in constructing buffalo pounds, and made a greater use of dogs to haul Travois loaded with Tipi poles, hides and personal possessions as they followed the buffalo herds during the seasonal hunts. The forest/parkland people also hunted big game (deer, elk and moose) and snared small fur bearers for food and tanned hides.
Religious and Spiritual Life
Their most sacred ceremony was the Sun Dance, which was held in early summer after the spring buffalo hunt. Men and women honoured the Great Spirit through sacred ceremonies involving praying, singing, drumming, dancing and fasting, and concluded with a feast. Young men would go on vision quests to sacred grounds in order to observe their guardian spirits and sacred songs or rituals (see Native People, Religion).
Political and Social Life
Assiniboine political and social structures are based on an extended family system residing in nomadic camps ranging in size from a few hundred members to as many as 3000. Based on a patrilineal society the men held positions of leadership and decision-making. A headman or chief was a "good man" chosen to deal with the outsiders, but his actions were guided by a Council with representation from each extended family group who came together to form a Band or a nation of people. Leadership was earned by superior hunting skills, through personal achievement in battle or attacks on an enemy, and by showing kindness and generosity to others.
On special occasions special leaders were chosen, such as a war chief to lead in battle, or a hunting chief for large-scale buffalo hunts, or as chief of the soldiers' lodge. People of recognized wisdom or talent were heard at council meetings where elders, medicine men, pipe carriers, women and heads of families met periodically to reach consensus on issues. James L. Long listed 33 bands within the Assiniboine people in the 1930s. Stretched across the prairies, over the centuries the different village groups developed language variations, different histories and eventually formed separate autonomous groups in Saskatchewan, Alberta and the northern US. They also gathered wild vegetables according to location and season, which included picking Saskatoon berries and other fruits to mix with dried meat and bannock. Their image among European traders and settlers was generally positive, with frequent reports of their hospitality.
The making of modern treaties in the 1870s confirmed the government to government relationship between the British Crown and the right of Canada and their respective First Nations. Promises of annuity payments (ranging from $5 to $25), medical aid, schools for education, agricultural assistance and economic assistance were made by treaty commissioners in return for peaceful co-existence and for sharing the land and its resources with the newcomers, settlers, ranchers, police, missionaries and developers. With the near extinction of their main resource, the buffalo, in the 1880s, the First Nations people reluctantly submitted to living on Indian reserve lands based on a family of 5 retaining one square mile of reserve land. They came to suffer from poor housing, deteriorating health, high unemployment, discrimination, limited education and training, and government restrictions on religious ceremonies and political activity until a revised Indian Act was passed in 1951 (see Native People, Social Conditions).
Today the First Nations exercise various degrees of Aboriginal Self-Government through elected Band Councils (comprised of a chief and councillors), but within the constraints of the Indian Act, the Canadian Constitution of 1982, court decisions and under the guidance of the minister of Aboriginal Affairs.
In Manitoba, the Assiniboine currently survive only as individuals, with no separate reserves.
In Canada the White Bear and Carry the Kettle bands were signators to Treaty No 4 (1874), and the Mosquito-Grizzly Bear's Head bands were signators to Treaty No 6 (1876), while those bands residing south of the international border signed the Judith River Treaty (1855). In Canada they are now located on 3 Saskatchewan reserves: Carry the Kettle Band #378 (shared with a Sioux group); Mosquito-Grizzly Bear's Head #343; and White Bear Band #365 (shared with Ojibwa and Cree).
The Carry the Kettle Assiniboine reserve is located 11 km south of Sintaluta (east of Regina), covering 40 695 acres of good agricultural land. The community services include a day school, community complex, fire hall, warehouse and a water treatment plant. In 1996 the population was 1788 with about 670 living on the reserve and the remainder off reserve.
The Mosquito-Grizzly Bear's Head reserve is located 27 km south of Battleford comprising 31 500 acres of mixed agricultural land. The community services include a band office, medical clinic, fire hall, school and teacherages serving about 200 students. In 1996 the population numbered 981, with 489 members living on the reserve and 445 off-reserve.
The Whitebear reserve is located 13 km north of Carlyle, comprising 42 539 acres of farm land. Community services include a band office, arena, health clinic, school and gymnasium. In 1996 there were 1682 members with 671 living on-reserve and about 1000 off-reserve. The band is benefiting from recent oil and gas development and recreational lands acquired under a treaty land entitlement.
In Alberta there are 2 Assiniboine-Stoney reserves located in Treaty 6 territory west of Edmonton. Paul Band #133 A, B and C encompasses 18 112 acres with a population of over 1400 (1996). The band operates a golf course and multiservice gas bar/food store. The main economic base is the band farming operations and harvesting equipment.
Alexis Band #133 encompasses 15 259 acres with a population of 1169 (1996). The band operates a successful food store and gas bar. The community enjoys many community services, including an administrative office, community hall, fire hall, water plant, seniors' lodge, schools, day care, arena, health clinic, golf club house and several public workshops.
Those residing in Treaty 7 in southern Alberta are known as Stoney. In the US Assiniboine reside on the Fort Belknap and Fort Peck reservations in Montana.
J.L. Long, "The Assiniboines," in M. Kennedy, ed, From the Accounts of the Old Ones Told to First Boy (James Larpenteur Long) (1961); D.R. Miller, "The Assiniboine and Their Lands: The Framework of a Primordial Tie," Chicago Anthropology Exchange (1981); D. Rodnick, The Fort Belknap Assiniboine of Montana: A Study in Culture Change (1938); D.F. Symington, Hunters of the Plains: Assiniboine Indians (1972); E. Leigh Syms, The Important Role of the Assiniboine Nation in Manitoba's History (1991); D. Ward, The People: A Historical Guide to the First Nations of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba (1995).