ETHNONYMS: Atsina, Fall Indians, Gros Ventre of the Prairie, Hitunena, Minnetarees of Fort de Prairie, Rapid Indians, White Clay People
The Gros Ventre (Aaninena, Haaninin) are an Algonkian-speaking American Indian group closely related to the Arapaho. In the eighteenth century they lived on the Canadian plains in the forks of the Saskatchewan River region. Late in the century, weakened by the smallpox epidemic of 1780, they moved south to the Milk River region in northcentral Montana and have remained there ever since. From 1818 to 1823 some moved further south and lived with the Arapaho, but later rejoined the group. Their long alliance with the Blackfoot effectively ended when they aligned themselves with the Crow, and both groups were defeated by the Blackfoot in 1867.
The U.S. government established the Fort Belknap Reservation for them and the Assiniboin in Montana Territory in 1888, and they have mostly remained on the reservation since then. Estimates place the 1950 Gros Ventre reservation Population at 1,100 and the combined Gros Ventre-Assiniboin population at 1,870 in 1980. On the reservation, the Fort Belknap Community Council is the governing body. It has twelve members from four districts with the Gros Ventre and Assiniboin having equal representation. Tribal income derives mainly from land leases. There are some small Indianowned stores and a tribally owned utility commission. There are large deposits of gravel, bentonite, gas, and oil on the Reservation, with only gravel extracted and sold. The Labor Day Celebration and the Mid-Winter Fair are the two major Reservationwide festivals.
Aboriginally, the Gros Ventre were divided into twelve autonomous bands. Each band was led by a chief who usually made decisions in consultation with other male members of the band. Each band also had other chiefs, afforded that Status because of their prowess in war. In winter, the bands camped separately, usually in wooded areas along waterways as protection from the harsh weather. In the warmer months they coalesced for the spring and fall bison hunts, and for various ceremonies, including the Sun Dance. At these times, they camped in a circle, with an opening facing to the east, and with each band having its own place in the circle. Subsistence was based on the bison, every part of the animal being used in some way—the meat was roasted, boiled, or dried, the hides used for clothing, tipi covers, and trade with Whites. The tipi covers could also be converted into round boats for crossing large rivers. Deer, elk, and antelope were also hunted, and berries, fruits, and roots were collected by women. There was once a tradition of pottery making, but almost none has been made in the last two centuries. Men engaged in hunting and warfare, while women did most of the work around the camp.
All girls were given in marriage before puberty to older men, but men usually delayed marriage until they were twenty years old. Polygyny was common, as was divorce, which was usually initiated by the husband. Most women married three or four times during their lifetime. The sororate and levirate were customary. Each child belonged to the band of his or her father. There was strict mother-in-law avoidance, with mother-in-law and son-in-law forbidden to speak, look, or be in the same tipi with each other. Father-in-law avoidance was less restrictive. At adolescence, boys entered one of the age-graded societies and also became a member of either the Star Society or the Wolf Society, each of which had peacekeeping and social functions. At death, the individual had a scaffold burial, in a tree or in a cave, with some personal possessions. The Flat Pipe and Feathered Pipe Rites were important Ceremonies, with personal supernatural powers and visions also significant. Today, the Gros Ventre are predominatly Roman Catholic.
Cooper, John M. (1956). The Gros Ventre of Montana. Pt. 2, Religion and Ritual. Catholic University of America, Anthropological Series, no. 16. Washington, D.C.
Flannery, Regina (1953). The Gros Ventre of Montana. Pt. 1, Social Life. Catholic University of America, Anthropological Series, no. 15. Washington, D.C.
Fowler, Loretta (1987). Shared Symbols, Contested Meanings: Gros Ventre Culture and History. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.
Kroeber, Alfred L. (1907). Ethnology of the Gros Ventre. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers 1, 145-281. New York.