Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Assiniboines (the western portion in Alberta are called Stoneys) refer to themselves as Nakota. They are Siouan speakers, linguistically situated in the Dakota-Lakota-Stoney language continuum. They have been distinct dialectically since before the sixteenth century, and 250 years of enmity between Assiniboines and Sioux peoples resulted in many Assiniboines denying that they were ever Sioux. Their closest allies were the Crees and, later, the Ojibwas. The name Assiniboine comes from the Ojibwa assini-pwa-n, or "stone enemy."

First noted by Europeans in the Jesuit Relations of 1640, Assiniboines were reported in 1658 to be living 100 miles west of Lake Nipigon and trading in the western Lake Superior regions. Other Assiniboines were encountered on the northern Prairies by Hudson's Bay Company trader and explorer Henry Kelsey in 1690–91 as far west as the Red Deer River in the Rocky Mountain foothills. During the winter of 1754–55, Anthony Henday of Hudson's Bay Company in central Alberta was assisted by "Assiniboine" families who were certainly those farthest west, antecedents of the contemporary Stoneys.

Their geographic concentrations in the seventeenth century included the areas continuously westward from Lake Winnipeg into central Saskatchewan. The Mortlach Aggregate archeological tradition has been identified in this region as representing the prehistoric and protohistoric Assiniboine. The first accounts of Assiniboines from the mid–eighteenth century report portions of groups active as middlemen and transporters in the initial postcontact trade networks. La Vérendrye joined an Assiniboine trade expedition to the Mandan villages on the Missouri River in 1738. A portion of the population participated in tribal and intertribal transport expeditions from the interior to Hudson Bay. Other portions of the population were hunters and gatherers, living on processing bison into provisions or, in the case of the Stoney populations, utilizing the variety of resources of the Rocky Mountain foothills. The Stoney territories were reached by competing traders in the 1770s. By 1780 Assiniboines were no longer ranging east of the Forks of the Red River of the North and the Assiniboine River; instead their eastern territories became the confluence of the Souris and Assiniboine Rivers and the White Earth River valley to the Missouri.

The Assiniboine subsistence round primarily exploited the parklands between forest and prairie and a series of microclimates found throughout the forests and prairies. The drainages of the Saskatchewan and Assiniboine Rivers to the North, the Milk River in the west, and the Missouri to the south framed their homelands. Bison and other large game were primarily hunted, with smaller animals and a wide range of flora rounding out the food resources before annuities and commercial provisions. Bison skin was the major substance for clothing and for making tipi covers for shelter.

Assiniboine social organization involved autonomous bands, each comprising a group of families who camped together. Many were related by blood and marriage. Consequently, the band was both the basic political and economic social unit and completely sovereign. Individual a.liation was theoretically flexible, and although kinship bound members to one another, new bands and new headmen could emerge. This caused bands to fragment, as individuals and families realigned themselves to the new social formation. The political order was headed by a group of senior males who comprised the hungabi, or "little chiefs," and from among them a hunga was chosen to be the executor of this council's will. Senior warriors led the agi'cita, or "soldiers' society," and they were empowered by the hungabi to fulfill specific tasks that were within their authority.

Assiniboine religion utilizes the longstemmed pipe, which is the fundamental element in all ceremonies: vision quests, sweat lodges, the Sun Dance (which they call the "Tibi Tanga," or "Big Lodge," also translated as "Medicine Lodge"), hand games (a divinational form of the Pawnee Ghost Dance complex), and feasts, including the Ghost Feast, held within four days of a person's death and during subsequent memorials. Participants in all of these contexts make themselves humble, asking others to pray for them. Individuals pray for their kinsmen and friends and ask that their collective and personal wishes, desires, or vows be fulfilled. A spirit world of helpers is called upon in prayer to prescribe action. Shamans with special powers mediate interpretations and lead ceremonies.

Contemporary Assiniboine life signals an interest in the revival of religious ceremonies and preservation of their language. This has occurred in part because increased numbers of individuals seek advanced education and follow careers that remove them from their reserve communities. Consequently, these communities have become self-reflective about how effectively to reproduce the language and culture in future generations and how best to coordinate or balance individual development and community development, which is mostly economic and cultural.

Estimates of the historic Assiniboine population give a total of 10,000, prior to their decline by as much as half due to the 1780.81 smallpox pandemic. Subsequent recoveries were offset by other disease episodes that left the Assiniboines with fewer than 5,000 individuals on the eve of reserves and reservations in the 1870s. Numbers continued to dwindle as adjustment was made to a sedentary way of life on reservations in the United States after 1873 and on reserves in Canada after 1874. Shortly after 1900, the population began a steady increase to the present. Contemporary populations of Assiniboine communities in Montana, based on the 1990 census are: Fort Belknap, 2,180 (with Atsinas, Gros Ventres, and others resident and enrolled) and Fort Peck, 5,782 (with Sioux and others resident and enrolled). The resident and enrolled populations on Saskatchewan reserves, based on the 1998 census, are: Carry the Kettle, 1,924; Lean Man/ Grizzly Bear's Head/Mosquito, 1,042 (with Crees); White Bear, 1,782, (with Crees); Ocean Man, 321; and Pheasant's Rump, 302. The 1998 populations (on and off reserve) for the Alberta reserves are: Southern Stoney communities at Morley, 3,598 (from among the Bearspaw, Chiniki, and Wesley Bands); the same bands at Eden Valley, 479, and at Big Horn, 133; and Northern Stoney communities at Alexis, 1,274, and Paul, 1438.

Important historic leaders include Crazy Bear, who headed the delegation to the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty Council; Red Stone among the lower Assiniboines in the same period, who led in the transition to reservations in the mid- to late nineteenth century; and Chiefs Jacob Bearspaw, John Chiniki, and Jacob Goodstoney who were the Stoney signers of Treaty Number 7 in Canada in September of 1877. The earliest documentation of oral history and folklore was by Edwin Thompson Denig in the early 1850s, and the earliest ethnographies were by Robert H. Lowie (1909) and David Rodnick (1938).

David Reed Miller Saskatchewan Indian Federated College-University of Regina

Denig, Edwin Thompson. "Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri." In Forty-sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, 1928-1929. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1930: 375-628.

Lowie, Robert H. "The Assiniboine." Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History 4 (1909).

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

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