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Gros Ventre History

The Gros Ventre Tribe of Montana

The Gros Ventre Tribe of Montana is a tribe of the Northern Plains Indigenous group, located in North central Montana. They live on the Fort Belknap Reservation, which is shared with the Assiniboine tribe. The Gros Ventre live primarily in the south end of the reservation, near the Little Rocky Mountains.

The Gros Ventre, as far as anyone can tell, were once closely affiliated with the Algonquin speaking Arapaho and Cheyenne. It is said that all three tribes together were among the last to migrate into Montana. After they migrated to Montana, the Arapaho moved southwards to the Wyoming and Colorado area. The Cheyenne who migrated with the Gros Ventre and Arapaho also migrated on. Some went to the Oklahoma area, and some stayed in the Tongue River valley. Each tribe was seperate by the time of the signing of the Treaty of Fort Laramie.

The earliest known contact of Gros Ventres with whites was around 1754. This contact placed them between the north and south forks of the Saskatchewan River. Exposure to small pox reduced their numbers during this time. Around 1793, in response to attacks by well-armed Cree and Assiniboine, Gros Ventres burned two Hudson Bay Company trading posts. These trading posts were providing guns to the Cree and Assiniboine tribes in what is now present day Canada. In 1826, the Gros Ventre made contact with the German explorer and naturalist, Prince Maximilian. Along with the naturalist painter, Karl Bodmer, they painted portraits and recorded their meeting with the Gros Ventre, near the Missouri River in Montana.

The Gros Ventre, after their migratory break from the Arapaho, were next closely associated with the Blackfeet. It is from this point that most of what is known about the Gros Ventre is found. After joining up with the Blackfeet, the Gros Ventre roamed north central Montana and southern Canada.

In 1855, Isaac Stevens, Governor of the Washington Territory, concluded a treaty (Stat., L., XI, 657) to provide peace between the United States and the Blackfeet, Flathead and Nez Perce Tribes. The Gros Ventre signed the treaty as part of the Blackfeet Nation, whose territory became common hunting grounds for all signatories, including the Assiniboine. In 1868, the United States government established a trading post called Fort Browning ner the mouth of Peoples Creek on the Milk River. This trading post was originally built for the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine, but because it was built on a favorite hunting ground of the Sioux, it was abandoned in 1871. After the abandonment of Fort Browning, the government built another post. It was called Fort Belknap, and it was established on the south side of the Milk River, about one mile southwest of the present town site of Chinook, Montana. Fort Belknap was a substation post, the last half of the structure being a trading post. A block house stood to the left of the stockade gate. At the right was a warehouse and an issue building, where the tribe received their rations and annuity goods.

In 1876, the fort was discontinued and the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine receiving annuities at the post were instructed to go to the agency at Fort Peck and Wolf Point. The Assiniboine did not object to going to Wolf Point and readily went about moving; but the Gros Ventre refused to go. If they did, they would come into contact with the Sioux, with whom they could not ride together in peace. They forfeited their annuities rather than move to Fort Peck. In 1878, the Fort Belknap Agency was re-established, and the Gros Ventre, and remaining Assiniboine were again allowed to receive supplies at Fort Belknap. It was at this site that the Fort Belknap reservation was established, in 1888. By an act of Congress on May 1, 1888, (Stat., L., XXV, 113), the Blackfeet, Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes ceded 17,500,000 acres of their joint reservation and agreed to live upon three smaller reservations. These are now known as the Blackfeet, Fort Peck and Fort Belknap Reservations. Fort Belknap was named for William W. Belknap, who was Secretary of War.

In 1884, Gold was discovered in the Little Rocky Mountains. Pressure from miners and mining companies forced the tribes to cede sections of the mountains in 1885. Jesuits came to Fort Belknap in 1862 to convert the Gros Ventre people to Catholicism. In 1887, St. Paul's Mission was established at the foot of the Little Rocky Mountains, near Hays. Much of the traditional ceromonies were lost through the course of time following the establishment of the mission. However,the two sacred pipes, The Feathered Pipe and The Flat Pipe remain central to the traditional spiritual beliefs of the Gros Ventre people.

Excerpts are from "The Gros Ventre of Montana, Part I Social Life" by the Catholic University of America Press, All Rights Reserved.