Published on September 24, 2012 by Amy
The Gros Ventre people (from French: big belly), also known as the A’ani, A’aninin, Haaninin, and Atsina, are a historically Algonquian-speaking Native American tribe located in north central Montana. Today the Gros Ventre 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.
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A’ani, A’aninin, and Haaninin are the tribe’s autonyms. These terms mean “White Clay People” or “Lime People.”
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 Hidatsa people were once called the Gros Ventres of the Missouri.
The Piegan Blackfoot, enemies of the Gros Ventre throughout most of history, called the A’aninin, “Piik-siik-sii-naa,” which translates to “snakes.” According to the Piegan Institute, the contemporary Piegan name for the Gros Ventre is “Assinee,” meaning “big bellies,” which is similar to the falsely translated label applied by the French. Atsina, a Pieagan word, translates to either “gut people” or “like a Cree.” Further clarification of the name is required. After the division of peoples, the Arapaho, who considered them inferior, called them Hitúnĕna, meaning “beggars”. Other interpretations of the term have been “hunger”, “waterfall”, and “big bellies”.
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. With the future 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.
In the early 18th century, the large tribe split into two; forming the Gros Ventres and the Arapaho. The Gros Ventres, were closely affiliated with the Algonquin speaking Arapaho and Cheyenne. All three tribes together 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 on. The Gros Ventrez acquired horses in the mid-18th century.
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 vastly reduced their numbers during this time. 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. These trading posts were providing guns to the Cree and Assiniboine tribes in what is now present day Canada.
In 1826, the Gros Ventres 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.
The Gros Ventres joined the Blackfeet Confederacy. After allying with the Blackfeet, 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 Blackfeet, 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 grounds for the Flathead, Nez Perce, Kootenia, and Crow Indians. A common hunting ground north of the Missouri River on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation included the Assiniboine and Siuox. In 1861, the Gros Ventres left the Blackfeet Confederacy.
Allying with the Crow, the Gros Ventres fought the Blackfeet but by the 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 originally built for the Gros Ventres and Assiniboines, 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 town site of Chinook, 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.
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 Roman 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 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 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 Blackfoot Confederacy, 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 A’ani tribe members remaining. Since then, the tribe has had a revival and substantial increase in population.
Historically, Gros Ventres had twelve independent bands, each governed by a chief. The current reservation government has an elected council, which includes four officers, as well as four members from each tribe. Today the tribe belongs to the Fort Belknap Indian Community, whose 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.