American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Gros Ventres

"Gros Ventres" is French for "big belly," after a mistranslation of the sign language for their name. They were once known to non-Indians as Gros Ventres of the Prairie as opposed to the Gros Ventres of the Missouri (Hidatsas). The Blackfeet gave these people another of their common names, Atsina; their self-designation is Haaninin, "Lime People" or "White Clay People." Gros Ventre is an Algonquin language.

Two sacred pipes figured prominently in traditional Gros Ventre religion. Gros Ventres also observed other Plains religious customs such as vision quests, medicine bundles, and the Sun Dance. Twelve autonomous bands each had their own chief. Bands camped separately in the winter, coming together in the summer for communal buffalo hunt and celebrations, including the Sun Dance. Descent was patrilineal. People generally found marriage partners outside the parents' band. Girls were often married by age twelve, usually to men around twenty. Polygamy and divorce were common. The mother-in-law taboo was in force (out of respect, sons-in-law did not speak directly to them).

Age-graded male societies had their own costumes, dances, and paraphernalia. Men moved through the various rankings with their peers, each group purchasing the regalia of the next higher group, until the men at the top sold out and retired with a large amount of wealth. Healing, through medicines and ritual, was a job that one might attain by fasting and attaining special powers. Corpses were wrapped in robes and placed on a scaffold, in a cave, or on a high rock.

Buffalo were hunted by driving them into chutes; after about 1730, they were hunted on horseback. Women cut meat into strips and dried it or made pemmican. Fresh meat was roasted over the fire or boiled, using red-hot rocks in a water-filled hole. People also ate deer, elk, and puppies and gathered foods such as rhubarb, berries, and eggs. They did not eat fish.

On the Plains, groups of women made skin teepees with three-pole foundations. Women dressed skins with brains and liver. Men made bows of ash or cherry wood and also of horn. Horn bows were covered with rattlesnake skin. Gros Ventres participated in the regional trade complex, trading horses and animal products for agricultural items and, later, non-Indian items. Both dogs and horses pulled the travois. People made makeshift rafts of teepee covers and poles. Women made the clothing, usually of elk skin or deerskin. They wore dresses; men wore leggings, breechclouts, shirts, and moccasins. Both sexes wore buffalo skin caps and mittens in the winter.

At least 3,000 years ago the Arapahos, possibly united with the future Gros Ventres and other peoples, probably lived in the western Great Lakes region to the Red River Valley, where they grew corn and lived in permanent villages. Under pressure from the Ojibwas (Anishinabes), they migrated to the upper Missouri River region in the early eighteenth century. During the migration, perhaps around Devil's Lake, the Gros Ventres separated from the Arapahos. They acquired horses in the early to mideighteenth century. Shortly thereafter they became a Plains tribe and joined the Blackfeet Confederacy.

The people signed the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty after spending a brief period of time with the Arapahos. Another treaty in 1855 led to further land cessions. In the early 1860s the Gros Ventres joined with their Crow enemies to fight their traditional friends, the Blackfeet, but were soundly defeated in 1867. Following a further decline caused mostly by disease, in 1888 survivors were placed on the Fort Belknap Reservation, which they shared with the Assiniboines, also former enemies.

The Gros Ventres filed a lawsuit in 1897 to gain compensation for lands seized under the 1855 treaty; in the twentieth century the tribe has received several land claims awards. Also around the turn of the century, members of the tribe sold under extreme duress a twenty-eight-square-mile strip of reservation land. Tuberculosis was a severe problem in the early twentieth century, affecting more than 90 percent of the tribal population.


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