Gros Ventre / Atsina

Gros Ventre / Atsina Indians

Today the Gros Ventre / Atsina people are enrolled in the Fort Belknap Indian Community of the Fort Belknap Reservation of Montana, a federally recognized tribe with 3,682 enrolled members, that also includes Assiniboine people or Nakoda people, the Gros Ventre’s historical enemies. 

Native Name:  They called themselves A’ani or A’aninin, which means ‘white clay people.’

The Gros Ventre (pronounced GROH-vont, meaning “big belly”),are  also known as the Atsina, Aaniiih, A’aninin, Haaninin, and White Clay.

The French used the term Gros Ventre, which was mistakenly interpreted from their sign language. They were once known as the Gros Ventres of the Prairies, while the Hidatsa people were once called the Gros Ventres of the Missouri. 

The Piegan Blackfoot, enemies of the Gros Ventre throughout most of history, called them Aaniiih Piik-siik-sii-naa, which translates as “snakes.”

According to the Piegan Institute, the contemporary Piegan name for the Atsina is Assinee, meaning either “gut people” or “like a cree,” which is similar to the falsely translated label applied by the French. Further research is needed.

After the division of peoples, their relations the Arapaho, who considered them inferior, called them Hitúnĕna, meaning “beggars”.

Other interpretations of the term have been “hunger,” “waterfall,” and “big bellies.”

Tribal Origin: Algonquian Family

The Gros Ventres are believed to have lived in the western Great Lakes region 3000 years ago, where they lived an agrarian lifestyle  cultivating maize.

The earliest known contact of the Atsina with settlers was around 1754, between the north and south forks of the Saskatchewan River. Exposure to smallpox severely reduced their numbers about this time.

In the early 18th century, the large tribe split into two, forming the Gros Ventres and the Arapaho. These, with the Cheyenne, were among the last to migrate into Montana, due to pressure from the Ojibwe.  

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 onwards.

The Gros Ventre (Atsina) were reported living in two north-south tribal groups – the so-called Fall Indians (Canadian or northern group) of 260 tipis (2,500 population) traded with the North West Company on the Upper Saskatchewan River and roamed between the Missouri and Bow River, and the so-called Staetan tribe (American or southern group) of 40 tipis (400 population).

They were living in close contact with bands which would become the later Northern Arapaho, and roamed the headwaters of the Loup branch of the North Platte River (Lewis and Clark 1806).

In 1832, the Atsina made contact with the German explorer and naturalist, Prince Maximilian.

Along with the naturalist painter Karl Bodmer, the Europeans painted portraits and recorded their meeting with the Gros Ventres, near the Missouri River in Montana.

Home Territories: Montana and South Saskatchewan

Reservation: The Fort Belknap Indian Reservation is in the northernmost part of Montana, just south of the small town of Harlem, Montana.

Language: Algic Language Family => Algonquian Languages => Arapahoan => Arapaho-Atsina => Gros Ventre (also known as Atsina, Aáni, Ahahnelin, Ahe, A’aninin, A’ane, or A’ananin)

With the ancestors of the Arapaho, they formed a single, large Algonquian speaking people who lived along the Red River valley in northern present-day Minnesota and in Manitoba, Canada. They were closely associated with the ancestors of the Cheyenne.

They spoke the now nearly extinct Gros Ventre language (Atsina), a similar Plains Algonquian language like their kin the Arapaho and grouped therefore as an Arapahoan language (Arapaho-Atsina).

There is evidence that, together with bands of Northern Arapaho, a southern tribal group, the Staetan, spoke the Besawunena dialect, which had speakers among the Northern Arapaho as recently as the late 1920s.

Reservation: The Fort Belknap Indian Reservation is in the northernmost part of Montana, just south of the small town of Harlem, Montana.

Alliances: Blackfeet and then later allied with the Crow; possibly with the Arapaho.

Enemies: Assiniboine, Cree and Blackfeet (when the Atsina allied themselves with the Crow)

Due to the acquisition of guns by their enemies, most of the Atsina Indians were forced to retreat north into Canada.

History: Around 1793, in response to attacks by well-armed Cree and Assiniboines, large groups of Gros Ventres burned two Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts that were providing guns to the Cree and Assiniboine tribes in what is now Saskatchewan.

The Gros Atsina acquired horses in the mid-18th century.

The Gros Ventres joined the Blackfoot Confederacy. After allying with the Blackfoot, the Gros Ventres moved to 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 Blackfoot, Flathead and Nez Perce tribes.

The Gros Ventres signed the treaty as part of the Blackfoot Confederacy, whose territory near the Three Fork area became a common hunting ground for the Flathead, Nez Perce, Kootenai, and Crow Indians.

A common hunting ground north of the Missouri River on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation included the Assiniboine and Sioux.

In 1861, the Gros Ventres left the Blackfoot Confederacy. Allying with the Crow, the Gros Ventres fought the Blackfoot but in 1867, they were defeated.

The Fort Peck Indian Reservation included the Assiniboine and Sioux. In 1861, the Gros Ventres left the Blackfoot Confederacy.

Allying with the Crow, the Gros Ventres fought the Blackfoot but in 1867, they were defeated.

In 1868, the United States government established a trading post called Fort Browning near the mouth of Peoples Creek on the Milk River.

This trading post was built for the Gros Ventres and Assiniboines, but because it was on a favorite hunting ground of the Sioux, it was abandoned in 1871.

The government then built Fort Belknap, which was established on the south side of the Milk River, about one mile southwest of the present town site of Harlem, Montana.

Fort Belknap was a substation post, with half of the structure being a trading post. A block house 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 people receiving annuities at the post were instructed to go to the agency at Fort Peck and Wolf Point.

The Assiniboines did not object to going to Wolf Point and readily went about moving; but the Gros Ventres 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 Ventres, and remaining Assiniboines were again allowed to receive supplies at Fort Belknap.

Jesuits came to Fort Belknap in 1862 to convert the Gros Ventre people to Roman Catholicism.

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.

 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 Ventres.

In 1888, at this site, the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation was established. By an act of Congress on May 1, 1888, (Stat., L., XXV, 113), the Blackfoot, Gros Ventre, and Assiniboine tribes ceded 17,500,000 acres of their joint reservation and agreed to live on three smaller reservations.

These are now known as the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, the Fort Peck Indian Reservation and the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

Fort Belknap was named for William W. Belknap, who was Secretary of War at that time.

By 1904, there were only 535 Atsina tribal members remaining. Since then, the tribe has revived, with a substantial increase in population.

Historically, Gros Ventres had twelve independent bands, each governed by a chief. The current reservation is shared by the Gros Ventres and the Assiniboine.

The government has an elected council, which includes four officers, as well as four members from each tribe.

The constitution and by-laws were ratified in 1935. The tribal council has six elected Gros Ventre members, as well as six elected Assiniboine members, and three appointed members.

US Tribes Today:
Fort Belknap Indian Community of the Fort Belknap Reservation of Montana

Notable Gros Ventre people

Theresa Lamebull (1896–2007), fluent speaker of the Gros Ventre language

George Horse-Capture (1937–2013), anthropologist and author

James Welch (1940–2003), Blackfoot-Gros Ventre author

Jamie Fox, Métis fiddler

White Eagle, the last major Chief of the Gros Ventre people, died at the mouth of the Judith River on February 9, 1881.