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#13. Natawista Iksina (Medicine Snake Woman)

August 2 - 9, 1853 (continued)

Isaac Stevens’ journal describes in great detail the work occupying the men in preparing for their continuation of the surveys westward of the mountains:

The men were occupied in making Pembina [ox] carts, and additional transportation was purchased of the Fur Companies. Our experience thus far had shown how well adapted ox-trains were to transportation, and accordingly two additional teams were added at Fort Union. In all these arrangements both Fur Companies zealously co-operated, placing at my disposal not only all the animals they could spare, but guides, hunters, and their information in regard to the country. We were much pleased and much benefited by the good offices of the Indian women at the two posts, the wives of the factors and officers of the companies, who fitted us out with a good assortment of moccasins, gloves, and other guards against the severity of the weather in the fall and winter.”

On the 5th of August Mr. Lander reached Fort Union, from his reconnaissance of the River of the Lakes, Côteau du Missouri, and the upper waters of the mouse river. This reconnaissance was a very extended one, and enabled me to report as to the source of the River of the Lakes, the character of the côteau in the vicinity of the 49th parallel, and the most favorable lines for crossing it and descending to the valley of the Missouri. He found Lignite on the River of the Lakes, and in his trip was brought in contact with several bands of Indians, who, although somewhat uncertain and even hostile at first, became entirely satisfied with the operations of his party, and offered no obstruction to his progress.[1]

Perhaps the above provides us with an idea of the enormity of surveying being performed by the different teams. The “River of the Lakes” is in present day Wisconsin. The Côteau du Missouri is a large plateau that stretches along the eastern side of the valley of the Missouri River in central North Dakota and north-central South Dakota. Mouse River stretches from its source in Saskatchewan (Canada) south to Velva, North Dakota, and returns northward to Manitoba, Canada. The transportation, supplies and manpower required and the logistics; it was a massive undertaking.

In one of Lieutenant Donelson’s report to Stevens, he describes the area near Mouse river as salt marshes with deposits of salt near a quarter inch thick. However, the Mouse River valley and its tributaries resembled the Shyenne river valley with rolling hills, prairies and sections well wooded with maple, oak, ash and elm.

Lithographic print of art by John Mix Stanley "Near the Mouse River" Plate XV

On the 7th of August there was another dissemination of gifts to the Assiniboine.Stevens wrote that he had a “deep interest in the welfare of these Indians, from their kind treatment of my party…I took on this occasion to give my mite in the way of cultivating friendly feelings on their part towards their own agenda and the government of the United States.”[2]

Lithographic print of art by John Mix Stanley "Fort Union and Distribution of Goods to the Assinniboines"" Plate XVI.

Also in the journal entries for the 5th - 9th of August Stevens mentioned daguerreotypes, a recent form of photography:

Mr. Stanley, the artist, was busily occupied during our stay at Fort Union with his daguerreotype apparatus, and the Indians were greatly pleased with their daguerreotypes. The scientific parties were also diligent in making their observations[3].

Stevens had been ill a few times during their journey thus far and thus determined to make arrangements so that he would be relieved from much of “detail duties”. (Stevens 1853)

I was anxious to cover as much of the country as possible, and determined to organize two parties to explore the country – one party, under Lieutenant Donelson, to pursue the general course between the Missouri and Saskatchawan towards the Cypress mountains; and the other, under Lieutenant Grover, to continue on the usual travelled wagon route, via Milk river, to Fort Benton…The point of separation of the two parties was the Big Muddy river…[4]

On the 9th of August both parties began their journeys and Stevenson remained behind to settle accounts and complete arrangements generally with the companies. Stevens began his journey toward Fort Benton on the 10th, followed by a war party of Blackfoot, “consisting of twenty Blood Indians[i] and forty Piegan Indians[ii] whom he had visited and had “the most friendly interchange of civilities.” (Stevens 1853) This successful interaction is directly attributed to the wife of Albert Culbertson, Natawista; known to her people as Natawista Iksina (Medicine Snake Woman). Stevenson wrote “On this, as on previous occasions, Mrs. Culbertson, a native of the Blood tribe of the Blackfeet, was unwearied and efficient in her good offices.”[5]

Prior to the visit with the visit with the Blackfoot and Piegan Indians, both Albert and Natawista were concerned that through some misspoken word or action by a member or members of the surveying party might cause a declaration of war. Natawista was reported to have stated that “My people are a good people, but they are jealous and vindictive. I am afraid that they and the whites will not understand each other; but if I go, I may be able to explain things to them, and soothe them if they should be irritated.’” [6] That she was of service is substantiated in Stevens’ narrative.

Born into the Kainai tribe (Blood Indian), Natawista was 15 years old, she accompanied her father (Chief Two Suns) from Alberta, Canada to Fort Union, a fur trading post in what is known as North Dakota, near the Montana border. It was during that 1840 visit to Fort Union that Natawista was married to Albert Culbertson, who was approximately 30 years old. This may seem unthinkable to our modern standards, however, in the 1820s the age of consent was as young as 10 years of age. Competition for trade with the Blackfoot between American and British fur traders was intense. Albertson was the chief trader for the Upper Missouri Outfit of the American Fur Company and it was common for officers to marry the daughters of chiefs to solidify or seal trade relations. Native American women played an important role in the 19th Century fur trade industry, often mirroring the roles they held within their native communities such as procuring and trading food, hides, and clothing. Combine their traditional roles with interpretative and diplomatic skills, these women were at the center of the fur trade and desirable, necessary, partners for fur traders.

Natawista traveled frequently to the Blood Indian camps and nurtured friendly relations between the Blood Indians and American traders. In 1854, during these surveying expeditions, Natawista insisted on accompanying a party of United States government negotiators led by her husband to the Blackfoot camps. Her efforts are given shared credit for a treaty that was signed a year later. The Blackfoott “agreed to live in peace with other tribes, to remain within designated hunting-grounds, and to allow white settlers and military personnel to settle in their region in exchange for the United States government’s promise of annuity payments and other assistance.”[7] After many years of service, around 1870 Natawista returns to the Kainai tribe and spends the remainder of her life with them. She died in 1895 and had never returned to her husband. No further information has been found as of this date.

1863 image of Albert, Natawista and a son. (National Park Service)

[1] Stevens, Isaac. “Part I, General Report, Narrative of 1853” Page 86.

[2] Ibid. Page 87.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. Page 88.

[7] “Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Natawista” Hugh A. Dempsey. Biography – NATAWISTA – Volume XII (1891-1900) – Dictionary of Canadian Biography ( Accessed 1/6/2021.

ENDNOTES: [i] Blood Indians: Also known as the Kainai; one of the major cultural divisions of the Blackfoot Confederacy of the northern plains. The Bloods lived primarily in what is known as Alberta, Canada. These were the people of Natawista Culbertson, wife of Albert Culbertson.

[ii]Piegan Indians: Algonquian-speaking people from the North American Great Plains. They were the largest of three Blackfoot-speaking groups that made up the Blackfoot Confederacy; the Siksika and Kainai were the others.


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