The Assiniboine are a Siouan people. The word Assiniboine means "They
Who Cook With Rocks." Today many Assiniboine prefer to be called "NAKODA," in reference to their
Sioux ancestry (Though for nearly 300 years the Sioux were their enemies.) Once a warrior, hunting tribe, they
now live on several reservations in Canada and the U S and are farmers.
The Nakoda broke away from the Yanktonai early in the 1600's in a bitter civil war. They became avowed enemies of the Sioux. After the break, they moved north into what is now Alberta and Saskatchewan, Canada. They lived an numerous small bands, eventually spreading out so widely they ceased to become a single unified tribe. (Today there are 564 recognized Assiniboine bands.) One group, the southern bands began to settle on the north bank of the Missouri, just before the river makes a great bend and heads south. The southern Nakoda sought to become the dominant trading group on the Upper Missouri. They were considered war-like, for they continuously fought the Sioux and sometimes raided the Hidatsa. It was probably one of these bands who came to trade with Lewis and Clark.
As more Nakoda drifted into the area from the north, they became well established along the upper Missouri, proving a formidable foe to the Sioux. Slowly at first their culture began to change. They began to dabble in farming, perhaps learning from their neighbors to the south. They became more sedentary and tended to band together in larger numbers. This "before/after" painting by George Catlin was meant to symbolize the "corruption of the Indian culture" after contact with "whites." It depicts the Assiniboine chief, Win-Jun-Jon (Pigeon's Egg Head, or "Light") before and after he visited Washington in the 1830's. The Nakoda say he was not "corrupted"; rather, he should be considered more like a tourist. Likewise, they explain their changing culture of that period not as an imitation of other peoples, but as a necessary adaptation to changing circumstances. Whatever the reason, becoming more sedentary would cost them dearly.
The price came in the form of the small pox epidemics of 1837-1839. More than half of their people dies of the disease. Survivors believed this new land to be "cursed" and moved west to join the Chan Tonga band of Nakoda in the Milk River area. Other Nakoda from the north replaced them, but soon left, most returning to Canada and a few moving to Montana. The 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie (see the Sioux pages) guaranteed them a large tract of land in north central Montana along the Missouri River. In 1855 the Nakoda joined the Black Feet and Nez Percè in signing a treaty with Isaac Stevens, Governor of the Washington Territory more clearly defining their land. They would live on some 8 million acres bordered on the west by the Black Feet reservation, on the south by the Missouri and on the east by the Sioux nation. An Indian Agency was located at Fort Peck, near the present day town of Poplar, Montana.
For various reasons this area became a magnet for displaced Indian peoples. The Gros Ventre had followed the Nakoda into the area. Though the peoples had warred for fifty years, they made peace; the Gros Ventre settled south of Fort Peck, on what would become the Fort Belknap Reservation. Sisselton and Wahpoten Sioux, fleeing the back lash of the 1862 "Sioux Rebellion" in Minnesota. Again once bitter enemies would live together in peace, out of necessity. Then in the early 1880's a number of Hunkpapa Sioux, part of Sitting Bull's Lakota band settled near Fort Peck; rather than return to their designated home at Standing Rock.
The next decade was hard on the people. It is estimated that at one time nearly 15,000 Indians lived on the Reservation, too many to feed, at least from the stand point of the Indian Agency which had been provided insufficient funding to meet the Government's promises to the Indians. There were no buffalo to hunt. Without irrigation the land wasn't particularly productive, and the growing seasons were short anyway. Then came the winter of 1886, the coldest winter ever recorded on the plains. Cattle died by the tens of thousands, as did people who were inadequately housed or clothed. As many as half the native population would die of cold or hunger. Many others would die over the next five years.
In the mean time, the Indian Agency had decided the population had become too large to feed and manage from one location. They established another post at Fort Belknap. In 1886, predating allotment by a few years, the Nakoda and friends agreed to the formation of two separate reservations, one at Fort Peck and the other at Fort Belknap. This agreement would cost them half their land. In 1895 gold would be discovered on "ceded" land. Though the discovery of gold was not so disastrous to the Indians, as it had been elsewhere, the First Americans got none of it and today live with the environmental consequences.
The tribes, especially at Fort Belknap, began to pursue ranching and farming as a means of survival. They were no longer a warrior tribe, feared by their neighbors. In the early 1900's a group of Nakoda from the Canadian Rockies visited the Reservation. The Fort Belknap Nakoda were amazed at these "wild Indians," dressed in their buffalo hides and riding half wild horses. They had forgotten; these were their near cousins.
To successfully farm or raise livestock on the plains requires a reliable water supply, a rare commodity in this arid region. Irrigation would be the answer. Here, the history of Fort Belknap is unique. After the reservation was created in 1888 the Government, through its Indian Irrigation Project provided capital which did allow the tribes to start a modest irrigation project. The Project provided a canal and storage facilities. On hearing this news, however, white settlers, Charles Winter in particular, constructed a larger diversion upriver. There would not be enough water in dry years for both projects, and indeed the river did run dry one summer. An Agency Attorney brought suit on behalf of the Tribes, and the result was the famous "Winters Doctrine," the genesis of "Reserved Rights.
The Winters aftermath is typical of federal and state policies at the time. The Courts in Montana acted as if Winters did not exist, allocating water rights according to state law, and in too many cases allocating rights to more water than actually existed. The federal government, by virtue of the National Reclamation Act of 1902 built a reservoir for Winter and friends. The settlers would get their water, the Indians would not. The Fort Belknap Tribes would, and do, watch water flow by their parched crops for they lack the money to finance a diversion project. Just as it looked like they might get aid from the federal government in the 1980's, the Regain Administration severely cut funding for Indian projects. There is hope that soon the federal government will provide aid, but today Belknap water is "paper only." In 1994, the Tribes entered into negotiations with the State of Montana to determine exactly how much water they were entitled to. Thus far no specific agreements have been reached. There is simply no way to allow the Tribes use of their entitlement without limiting consumption of non-Indians, a situation hardly conducive to a quick settlement. If that settlement is concluded, will the Tribes get their "wet water?" Perhaps Fort Peck holds the answer.
In 1934 construction commenced on the Fort Peck Dam, the first of the massive dams that changed the Missouri. Indian land wasn't inundated as it would be down river, but the Tribes have as yet to derive significant long term benefits from it. (The ten year project did provide employment for some Indians.)
The Tribes have received funding sufficient to irrigate about 5,000 of some 280,000 irrigable Indian owned acres. In 1977 the State of Montana realized that future development of the state depended on a clarification of water rights. The legislature created the Montana Reserved Rights Compact Commission to negotiate with the various Tribes in the state. In 1980 the Commission entered into negotiations with the Fort Peck Tribes and various federal entities. It took five years to reach a settlement and this process was supposedly easy. The water would come from the Missouri River, and no non-Indium users would be damaged. Furthermore the Federal Government would spend no money to build facilities for the Indians. The Government said spending for new irrigation would not produce sufficient benefits. (Of course this little detail had not stopped the government from subsidizing "White" projects.) So what could the Tribes do with the million acre feet of water? (This is enough water to meet the needs of two million families.) They were allowed to lease their water for on reservation use, and to a limited extent, off reservation use. Each transaction would require the approval of Congress. To date, no significant transactions have occurred. It would cost too much to get Fort Peck water to where it is needed. Things could change, however, should the increased demand for western water continue. If the Belknap agreements are reached perhaps they will be able to market some of their water and use the proceeds for non agricultural development.
Today the two Reservations offer a mixed bag of hope and despair. Per capita income at Fort Peck is less than $5,000 per year; it is less at Fort Belknap. Unemployment hovers between 25 and 30 per cent. An estimated third of students drop out of high school, and these figures may under estimate the real situation. Oil has been discovered on Fort Peck land, and unlike the tribes of Fort Berthold, the Nakoda and Sioux have decided to manage the resources themselves. Certainly the current oil "bust" can't last forever. Currently prospects for non agricultural economic development at Fort Belknap seem more limited than at Fort Peck. Both reservations do boast colleges. Perhaps the education "industry" will provide some aid, And perhaps some day water marketing will provide an economic boost Though the streets may not be paved with gold (The mines have closed and the Corporations have declared bankruptcy.) hopefully these long suffering people will live comfortably and respect. Essentially, that is all they ask.