They called themselves the "White Clay People"; the Arapaho called them the "Atsina", but it is the name given by the French traders that has stayed with this tribe of the northern plains throughout history. Thousands of languages and dialects among the Nations of North America made it necessary to develop a way to communicate among friends and enemies alike. Silent languages evolved which delivered messages quite clearly: the language of the feathers, body paint, face paint, horse paint, and hand signals. The Gros Ventre would pass both hands across their stomachs indicating that they were big eaters. The French interpreted this to mean "big belly", and this is the French definition of the words gros ventre. In their own Algonquian language, the words mean "to eat fat while eating meat".
The Gros Ventre were originally a band of the Arapaho Nation. However, when the Arapaho began their migration toward the southwest, the Gros Ventre chose to move toward the northwest instead. History does not give us a reason for this separation from the Arapaho, but there does not seem to be a major disagreement or conflict involved. They moved into the area which is now Montana, and ranged as far north as the Saskatchewan River. During their travels, they came upon another Algonquian speaking nation -- the mighty Blackfoot Confederacy. They joined with the Blackfoot, and lived peacefully among them for over 60 years.
The Gros Ventre quickly adopted the lifestyle of the northern plains. They became nomadic and followed the buffalo herds for their primary source of food and clothing. They lived in the easily moved tipis, and excelled at the elaborate and beautiful creations of that region. In addition to intricate beading and quill work, the Gros Ventre favored pictographs and many of their pieces of clothing, shields, tipis and other possessions told their stories in this original art form.
By 1780, there were some 3,000 Gros Ventre in the northern plains. However, these numbers were soon to change. Following mighty differences of opinion on cultural and social issues, they left the Blackfoot and became friendly with the Crow. During their escapades sometime in 1866, the Gros Ventre killed the powerful Piegan chief Many Horses. Outraged, the Piegan rode against a village of Crow and Gros Ventre in a battle that left over 300 dead. The killing stopped when the Piegan tired of it, and decided that they had killed enough. This was the most resounding defeat experienced in the history of the Gros Ventre.
Even in the face of such defeat and humiliation, the Gros Ventre joined with the Crow to ride into battle against the mighty Blackfoot. Another mistake. After substantial losses to the Blackfoot, the Gros Ventre left their alliance with the Crow in 1867. They re-grouped along a branch of the Missouri River called Milk River. Here they became friendly with the Assiniboine, a Siouan speaking people who had suffered greatly due to losses in battle and white man's diseases. Shortly thereafter, the Gros Ventre were ravaged with smallpox, cholera, influenza, and the diseases brought to the Native populations by the white man. By 1910, there were only 500 who could be counted as Gros Ventre.
The Assiniboine and the Gros Ventre remain together to this day. In 1888, when they agreed to give up their territorial lands in favor of a government reservation, they learned of plans to house other tribes on the same reservation. This was met with vehement opposition, as was the government's plan to take the mountains of the area for gold mining. Using the threat of starvation as punishment for their opposition, the government was able to secure a strip of land 7 miles long and 4 miles wide for mining purposes. It was agreed that no other tribes would be placed on the reservation. This mining operation continues in spite of contaminated land and water, and documented health hazards to the reservation. Strong voices in tribal government continue their opposition, which has never stopped for over 100 years.
The total population of the reservation is now around 2,500, but
these are both Assiniboine and Gros Ventre. Since these numbers reflect
only those who are registered and can be tracked by the government, it
is not known how many people today are of Gros Ventre heritage.
Innerspace Main Page
E-Mail to Julia