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Alberta Online Encyclopedia

Gros Ventre

One tribe which once had but no longer has a presence in Alberta is the Gros Ventre. The name is French and means, literally, "big stomachs." Russell offers two theories as to the origins of the Gros Ventre. The generally accepted theory is that they are a branch of the Arapaho (an American tribe) which experienced a split in the early 1700s.

Dempsey suggests the Arapaho Gros Ventre (or Atsina) moved up into the Saskatchewan region to hunt, that they formed ties with the Blackfoot and after numerous conflicts with other Indians moved southwest so that part of their domain was in Alberta. The other theory, not so popular, is that the Gros Ventre were a splinter of the Hidatsa Indians of the middle Missouri region (Russell, p.202 - 203).

However, Russell suggests there were two groups of Plains Indians referred to as Gros Ventre: "The evidence indicates that a Hidatsa group occupied southeastern Saskatchewan while the Atsina were to the southwest" (Russell, p.212).

Russell finds merit in the Hidatsa explanation of Gros Ventre in eastern Saskatchewan giving as evidence the testimonies of David Thompson, Henry the Younger and also John McDonald of Garth, a NWC trader whose men were attacked in 1805 by Indians, supposedly Gros Ventre.

"On his return down the South Saskatchewan from Chesterfield House, his men were attacked by Indians near Noose Woods. They are noted as being Hidatsa for they were seen at their villages on the Missouri with both scalps and booty from the incident . . . this event, alone, means that we should re-evaluate the evidence for Hidatsa in Saskatchewan" (Russell, p. 210).

Gros Ventre have been described as allies of the Blackfoot nation (Siksika, Kainah and Pikuni) yet enemies of the Cree. Writes Milloy of Cree-Gros Ventre hostilities c. 1690: "For reasons not known, the Cree and some of their Assiniboine allies were enemies of the Nayawattame Poets (Gros Ventre), attacking them frequently" (Milloy, p.6-7).

Russell, whose thesis seeks to disprove the theory of a Cree military sweep over the Plains tribes, finds some evidence the Cree and Gros Ventre had alliances. "In 1772-1773 Cocking wrote of Cree living with the Gros Ventre at their bison pound and listed the various allies of the Cree: Gros Ventre, Peigan, Blood. Blackfoot and Sarcee" (Russell, p. 151).

At any rate, there are ample references to the Gros Ventre being in what is now Alberta. Chesterfield House. near the modern hamlet of Empress at the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, was the site an altercation between Gros Ventre and fur trade employees resulting in fourteen of the latter being killed in the spring of 1802 (Dempsey, p.92). Dempsey cites records which show that in 1796 a camp of 400 Gros Ventre arrived at Fort Edmonton to trade (Dempsey, p. 92).

In 1815 the tribe still hunted in southern Alberta as far west as Lethbridge, as far east as the Saskatchewan border and south into Montana, although within a few years they were hunting and trading exclusively in the United States and had no further involvement north of the border (Dempsey, p. 93).

There are five place names of Gros Ventre origin in Alberta all of which are commemorative names. Gros Ventre Creek, twenty-five kilometres southeast of Medicine Hat, named to commemorate a Gros Ventre raid on a Blackfoot encampment in 1868 (DB) and Belly River twenty-five kilometres southeast of Medicine Hat forming the western border of the Blood Reserve (DB). Mokowan Ridge (formerly Butte) can be translated as "Belly." The Blackfoot are said to have named the feature after the Gros Ventre. Likewise, the nearby Mokowan River and another Mokowan Butte nine kilometres southwest of Lethbridge (DB).

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