Information on the Assiniboin Indians
Recorded by Members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition
The following excerpts from the journals of Lewis and Clark and their men present a picture of the Assiniboin people as the Anglo-Americans saw them (or, in this case, heard about them from other tribes and traders). The modern reader must be careful to understand that what these white men saw and recorded was not necessarily correct from the Indian perspective. Lewis and Clark were particularly biased against this tribe from information gathered from the Assiniboin enemies.
The following passages have been freely adapted and excerpted from the original texts, and the spelling has been corrected to make them easier to read. For students wishing to quote these passages, the Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, edited by Gary Moulton and published by the University of Nebraska Press, is the recommended source. For those who wish more in-depth information about Lewis and Clark's relations with various Indian tribes, including background from the Indian perspective, the best book is James P. Ronda's Lewis and Clark among the Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984. The very best way to obtain accurate information from the tribal perspective is to contact tribal councils for individual tribes - in other words, to consult the people themselves.
The Assiniboin speak a Siouan dialect, although the name by which they are popularly known is Algonquian and means "those who cook with stones." They once lived in what is now northern Minnesota and were part of the Yanktonai Sioux, but split off from that tribe and moved to Manitoba and Saskatchewan sometime in the 1600s. They became semi-nomadic tipi dwellers who followed the buffalo and obtained their subsistence from that animal. The Assiniboins were great hunters who traded the pelts they obtained for European trade goods. Today they are centered on reservations in the United States and Canada. In the U.S. they live on the Fort Belknap Reservation with the Gros Ventres (Atsina) and the Fort Peck Reservation with the Sioux.
President, Fort Belknap Community Council
P.O. Box 249
Harlem, Montana 59526
Chairperson, Fort Peck Tribal Executive Board
P.O. Box 1027
Poplar, Montana 59255
Nov. 13th 1804
We moved into our hut, visited by the Grand Chief of the Mandans, and Che chark Lagru, a chief of the Assiniboins & 7 men of that nation. I Smoked with them and gave the chief a cord & a carrot of tobacco. This nation rove in the plains above this and trade with the British Companies on the Assiniboin River. They are divided into several bands, the descendants of the Sioux, & speak nearly their language. A bad disposed set & can raise about 1000 men. In the 3 bands near this place, they trade with the nations of this neighborhood for horses, corn &c. Snow all Day. Capt. Lewis at the village.
13th Nov. Tuesday 1804
At 10 o'clock A.M. the Black Cat the Mandan chief and Lagru Che Chark (Assiniboin) chief & 7 men of note visited us at Fort Mandan. I gave him a twist of tobacco to smoke with his people & a gold cord with a view to know him again. The nation consists of about 600 men, hunt in the plains & winter and trade on the Assiniboin River. They are descendants of the Sioux and speak their language. They come to the nations to this quarter to trade (or take presents) for horses (& robes). The method of this kind of traffic by adoption shall be explained hereafter. [This Assiniboine chief's name was probably "The Crane." He owed his life, in 1806, to Le Borgne (One Eye) of the Hidatsas, who protected him, as a guest, from the Cheyennes. The adoption ceremony allowed enemies to become temporary fictional relatives and trade in peace].
14th of April Sunday 1805.
I saw the remains of two Indian encampments with wide beaten tracks leading to them. Those were no doubt the camps of the Assiniboin Indians (a strong evidence is hoops of small kegs were found in the encampments). No other nation on the river above the Sioux make use of spirituous liquors. The Assiniboins is said to be passionately fond of liquor, and it is the principal inducement to their putting themselves to the trouble of catching the few wolves and foxes which they furnish, and receive their [liquor] always in small kegs. The Assiniboins make use of the same kind of lodges which the Sioux and other Indians on this river make use of. Those lodges or tents are made of a number of dressed buffalo skins (dressed, sewn together with sinew & decorated with the tails & porcupine quills. When open it forms a half circle with a part about 4 inches wide projecting about 8 or 9 inches from the center of the straight side for the purpose of attaching it to a pole to the height they wish to raise the tent. When the[y] erect this tent four poles of equal length are tied near one end. Those poles are elevated and 8, 10 or 12 other poles are annexed, forming a circle at the ground and lodging in the forks of the four attached poles. The tents are then raised, by attaching the projecting part to a pole and encompassing the poles with the tent by bringing the two ends together and attached with a cord, or laced as high as is necessary, leaving the lower part open for about 4 feet for to pass in & out. The top is generally left open to admit the smoke to pass. The (country) borders of the river has been so much hunted by those Indians who must have left it about 8 or 10 days past and I presume are now in the neighborhood of British establishments on the Assiniboin; the game is scarce and very wild.
Monday April 15th 1805
After breakfast Capt. Clark walked on the starboard shore, and on his return on the evening gave me the following account of his ramble. "I ascended to the high country, about 9 miles distant from the Missouri. The country consists of beautiful, level and fertile plains, destitute of timber. I saw many little drains, which took their rise in the river hills, from whence as far as I could see they run to the N.E." These streams we suppose to be the waters of Mouse River, a branch of the Assiniboin which the Indians informed us approaches the Missouri very nearly, about this point. "I passed," continued he, "a Creek about 20 yards wide which falls into the Missouri; the bottoms of this creek are wide, level and extremely fertile, but almost entirely destitute of timber. The water of this creek as well as all those creeks and rivulets which we have passed since we left Fort Mandan was so strongly impregnated with salts and other mineral substances that I was incapable of drinking it. I saw the remains of several camps of the Assiniboins; near one of which, in a small ravine, there was a park which they had formed of timber and brush, for the purpose of taking the cabre or antelope. It was constructed in the following manner. A strong pound was first made of timbers, on one side of which there was a small aperture, sufficiently large to admit an Antelope; from each side of this aperture, a curtain was extended to a considerable distance, widening as they receded from the pound."
Saturday April 20th 1805.
Saw the remains of some Indian hunting camps near which stood a small scaffold of about 7 feet high on which were deposited two dog sleighs with their harness. Underneath this scaffold a human body was lying, well rolled in several dressed buffalo skins and near it a bag of the same materials containing sundry articles belonging to the deceased; consisting of a pair of moccasins, some red and blue earth, beaver's nails, instruments for dressing the buffalo skin, some dried roots, several plats of the sweet grass, and a small quantity of Mandan tobacco. I presume that the body, as well as the bag containing these articles, had formerly been placed on the scaffold as is the custom of these people, but had fallen down by accident. Near the scaffold I saw the carcass of a large dog not yet decayed, which I supposed had been killed at the time the human body was left on the scaffold. This was no doubt the reward which the poor dog had met with for performing the [blank] friendly office to his mistress of transporting her corpse to the place of deposit. It is customary with the Assiniboins, Mandans, Hidatsas, &c. who scaffold their dead to sacrifice the favorite horses and dogs of their deceased relations, with a view of their being serviceable to them in the land of spirits. I have never heard of any instances of human sacrifices on those occasions among them.
Thursday May 2nd 1805
Joseph Field, one of the hunters who was out today, found several yards of scarlet cloth which had been suspended on the bough of a tree near an old Indian hunting cam[p], where it had been left as a sacrifice to the deity by the Indians, probably of the Assiniboin nation, it being a custom with them as well as all the nations inhabiting the waters of the Missouri so far as they are known to us to offer or sacrifice in this manner to the deity whatever they may be possessed of which they think most acceptable to him, and very honestly making their own feelings the test of those of the deity. [They] offer him the article which they most prize themselves. This being the most usual method of worshiping the Great Spirit as they term the deity, is practiced on interesting occasions, or to produce the happy eventuation of the important occurrence, incident to human nature, such as relief from hunger or malady, protection from their enemies or the delivering them into their hands, and with such as cultivate, to prevent the river's overflowing and destroying their crops &c. Sacrifices of a similar kind are also made to the deceased by their friends and relatives. Everything which is incomprehensible to the Indians they call big medicine, and is the operation of the presents and power of the Great Spirit.