#10. The Assiniboine


The first one came toward us with the back of his uplifted hand toward us, as a signal of friendship, and then they shook hands with every man of our party. We found them to be under the command of the chiefs Blue Thunder and Little Thunder, the latter probably 36 years of age. As soon as we were encamped, they informed me that they had reserved a present of skins for me, and were making preparations to have a talk.[1] (Stevens)


Stevens described the Assiniboine camp to be a sort of irregular corral with about 150 lodges accommodating about 10 persons in each lodge. Their approach to the camp was greeted by the barking of a large number of dogs, a prominent feature in every Indian camp. The dogs were used for “drawing lodges, provisions, and property, from place to place, indeed furnishing the entire transportation of the Indians in winter. A sledge drawn by four dogs will carry two hundred pounds over the snow with great ease.” (Stevens 1853)


Everyone, women and children included, turned out to greet their guests and yet despite the appearance of plenty (many horses, skins, poles of meat drying), “they all had a look of poverty, judging from the meagreness of clothing and the length of time it appeared to have been worn” and filthy. This appears at odds with the ceremonial reception in which Stevens was presented with a quantity of skins and food for the 80 participants. A dignitary of the tribe prepared the “pipe of reception”, only smoked on great occasions.


The stem was decked with ribbons of various colors, and when it stood obliquely feathers would drop down like the wing of a bird. At the lower end of this pipe, where it enters the bowl, was a duck’s head. The pipe stem was supported against a small stick stuck in the ground and crotched at the end. The pipe was turned towards the sun…sweet grass, platted, was then set on fire and used in the manner of incense, both to the bowl and the stem. After lighting the pipe with the scented grass it was planted near by in a small hole and burned. [2]


The tribal elder shook hands with each guest, then shared the pipe with each. Afterward another possibly less senior elder shook their hands as well which was followed by a communal bowl from each man drank. The last part of the ceremony of the pipe included eating of a special soup made from buffalo and Typsina (turnip family) which was described as rich and greasy but quite palatable. At the close of the ceremony a much older elder slowly greeted each guest and shook their hands as well. With considerable fluency and many gestures he spoke:


My father, the Great Master of Life made us all for good purposes. He had a design when he made me. I have not yet fulfilled his wishes; but before I die, though an old man, I hope to be able to do something for my people.


My father, we are glad to see you here to-day to hear from the Great Father afar off, who sent you. We have never yet been taken under his protection, nor experienced his kindness. We are glad of this opportunity to show our own kind of feelings towards him, and we hope the peace now commenced may last forever.


My father, you see us now as we are. We are poor; we have but few blankets and little clothing. The Great Father of Life who made us and gave us these lands to live upon, made the buffalo and other game to afford us subsistence; their meat is our only food; with their skins we clothe ourselves and build our houses. They are our only means of life - food, fuel, and clothing. But I fear we will soon be deprived of these; starvation and cold will destroy us. The buffalo are fast disappearing and before many years will be destroyed. As the white man advances, our means of life grow less. We will soon have to seek protection in our poverty from the Great Father, who can so well supply it.


My father, we hear that a great road is to be made through our country. We do not know what this is for; we do not understand it; but I think it will drive away the buffalo. We like to see our white brothers; we like to give them the hand of friendship, but we know that as they come our game goes back. What are we to do?[3]


Reading this speech one can feel the anguish that was expressed on behalf of a people who were experiencing a great loss; of their land, their independence and eventually, their traditions and way of life. You can understand that they see their immediate loss of so much being corralled into an unsought reliance upon the goodwill of a government so foreign to their heritage. Stevens was asked to respond to that speech by the chief, through interpreters.


I am happy to meet you this day. I shake hands with you all as friends and brothers. I feel deeply grateful to you for your expression of kindness made to me this day, and for the hospitality you have shown my party. My four men who first met you were safe, though so few among so many of you. They enjoyed your best accommodations, and a lodge was built for them to sleep in.


I will write to the Great Father [President Franklin Pierce - Democrat] at Washington of all we do to-day. I will tell him of your kindness and good will toward his people; of your dependence on the buffalo for food and clothing. I will tell him that when you are deprived of these by the advance of the whites he should relieve your poverty. He will, I know, give you protection; he is warmly interested in you and, I am confident, will soon send you proofs of his kind consideration.[4]


Stevens then explained what the “great road” was - a railroad. He assured them it would go through the land of the Blackfeet and other Indians beyond the Yellowstone, “carrying friendly messages of the Great Father, and insisting on peace among all to secure the safety of the whites.” (Stevens 1853) Stevens assured them that while the buffalo may diminish, they would “provide other articles in place of them. They would receive from the President implements of agriculture and learn to till the soil, so as to obtain food with less labor than now.” (Stevens 1853) Stevens further assured his hosts that he would “write to their good friend Governor Gorman, the Indian superintendent;” and told them “I knew him well, that he was a good and just man, and certainly their friend.” (Stevens 1853)


Stevens’ response appeared to have found favor and after a consultation among the elders the “Old Brave” who had spoken earlier stepped forward and spoke again.


My father, I have heard of our Good Father to-day with much joy. I trust this will be the day of hope for the Indians, for my children, and for my grandchildren. The Father of Life made us all wish to live. I wish to live yet a good while. I wish to live for my children. You see around you our young men, our children, and our families. They are almost naked and destitute; you see them clad from the animals of these plains.


My father, we have always been friendly to the whites since they first came into our country; we have observed our obligations with them; we have always treated them with kindness and hospitality, and we will continue to do so.


My father, not long ago the Indians of the Missouri were called to a council at Fort Laramie; a treaty was made, fixing the hunting grounds of each tribe. We have sacredly kept this treaty, and have never gone out of our allotted lands. But the Sioux, on one side, have come into our hunting grounds. The half-breeds, on the other side, have hunted on our plains; we have submitted patiently, knowing, my father, that the Great Father, when he heard these things, would do us justice. We ask you to relieve us from these troubles.


Our good father has told us about this road. I do not see how it will benefit us, and I fear my people will be drive from these plains before the white men. My father, our hearts are good; we are poor and have not much, but as a token of our kind feelings, accept those skins and robes on which you are seated. [5]


Stevens responded with politeness and added his warmest thanks for their present and invited them to visit them on the next day to receive their presents, though due to the distance travelled they were not many; however, he assured them that more would be sent soon. They rest of the visit was spent visiting lodges and, when some of the elders learned that Dr. Suckley was a physician, he was able to inoculate eight or nine individuals and treated a good many more for various illnesses.


The following day, the Assiniboine people came to accept their gifts from Stevens’ camp. The Assiniboine sat, forming 3 sides of a square with a chief or senior brave sitting in each corner. Those in the corner never accepted gifts as they considered it degrading to accept anything that wasn’t of their own prowess. Several elderly braves accepted the gifts and placed them in the center of the square as they were received; all in complete silence.




“Distribution of Goods to the Assiniboine” by Stanley Del



When the gift-giving was completed, the women and children returned to their camp while the chiefs and braves remained for coffee, food and conversation. At the end of the evening, after the chiefs and braves returned to the Assiniboine camp, Stevens’ recounted the day with gratification and remarking on the kindness and goodness of these people. He also provided a little bit of history:


They are the offspring of the Sioux. In the war of 1812 a number of these Sioux fought against a number of Chippewas, and took a good many of the latter prisoners. They tied these prisoners to a stake upon a large rock and burned them to death. Since that time they have been called Assini Boines, which, in the Chippewa language, means burnt rock.[6]


This description above differs from the definitions provided last week through the Assiniboine website. A perfect example as to why our history can be very complex as well as controversial.

[1] Ibid. Page 73 [2] Ibid. Pages 73-74. [3] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853” Page 74. [4] Ibid. [5] Ibid. Page 75. [6] Ibid. Page 76