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The Nakoda Nation – Historical Overview

Nakoda (Assiniboine) camp History to 1876
The Nakoda can trace their history back to 800 and 1500 C.E., when early Siouan speaking cultures had inhabited the Great Lakes Woodlands area before being pushed by other First Peoples south and west, into what is now the state of Minnesota in the United States. These cultures settled between the Mississippi River, Red Lake in Minnesota, and also in southwestern Ontario. They adopted many of the nomadic, bison hunting practices of Great Plains culture. Around the mid-1500s, bands of Nakoda split from the larger southern group and made their way north into the present-day Lake Superior region. About a century later, these Nakoda had made their first contacts with explorers and Jesuit missionaries from Europe. The Europeans began to record these encounters, and also began to refer to the northern Nakoda, whom they termed the Assiniboine, as a culturally distinct group from the southern Nakoda, whom they termed the Sioux. Some Nakoda Elders have since challenged this assertion of cultural separation, claiming that the Nakoda people have always maintained a close cultural kinship, despite occasional historic conflicts.

Whatever the case may be, the northern Nakoda or Assiniboine did become enemies of the southern Sioux sometime after 1670, the year that British traders established a post on Hudson Bay. The Cree began trading animal pelts for guns with the British and with newfound power and strength they began to assert control over other peoples in the region by attacking them. The northern Nakoda were physically closer to the Cree, attacking them more often than the Sioux to the south. The Nakoda opted to end their conflict with the Cree by making peace and intermarrying with them. This decision of the northern Nakoda estranged them from the Sioux to the south, who remained enemies of the Cree.

By the 1700s, now closely tied to the Cree and the European fur trade, the Nakoda of the north began a gradual move westward in search of new sources of beaver pelts. They traded for European goods, and in turn, traded some of these goods with other First Peoples along the way. The Nakoda at this time had split into two main westward moving groups: some holding to the northern woodlands, and the others camping and hunting further south on the plains. The aggressive push west by the Nakoda brought them into conflict with other First Peoples who occupied the northwest regions of what is now Canada. Hostilities developed with other First Nations like the Blackfoot Confederacy, the Crow, the Chipewyan, and southern bands of Nakoda, forcing the northern Nakoda to ally themselves with the Cree and the Saulteaux in an effort to assert their position in the northwest.

The mid to late-1700s saw a gradual push south for the Nakoda. Smallpox, a disease which emerged through European contact, was a factor in their migration. The Nakoda had suffered terrible losses (from one third to one half of the existing northwest population) during the smallpox epidemic of 1781 to 1782, forcing the survivors to push southward. New trade opportunities also presented themselves further south, also motivating their move.

By the 1800s, change was emerging on the plains. The number of plains bison, the main source of food, clothing and shelter for the peoples of the Plains, was dwindling, and poor hunts left many Nakoda bands starving. The Nakoda who had been ravaged by smallpox, and, left weakened, were vulnerable to attacks by enemy peoples like the Blackfoot. The whiskey trade had crept up into the north from the United States, leading to lawlessness and violence. In April and May of 1873, bands of Nakoda living in the Cypress Hills region of what is now southern Alberta, were attacked by a band of drunken American wolf hunters. The May attack, in which 16 Nakoda were killed and mutilated, became known as the Cypress Hills Massacre, prompting the Canadian government to send the North West Mounted Police (NWMP) to bring law to the region. Once the NWMP were present, they protected the Nakoda from whiskey traders and wolf hunters, but they also protected an influx of European settlers as they moved into Nakoda territory. In an effort to curb the suffering experienced by their people, Nakoda leadership entered into treaties with the Canadian government around the mid-1870s. In 1876, bands of Nakoda led by Chief’s Alexis and Paul and living in territory in what is now southern Alberta, signed Treaty 6. In 1878, bands of Nakoda living in Saskatchewan, led by Chiefs Miskito, Grizzly Bear’s Head, and Lean Man, signed adhesions to the treaty. Though the Nakoda Chiefs regarded the treaty as a land sharing agreement, the treaty, as it was, surrendered traditional Nakoda territory in the northwest to the Crown.

Red Pheasant 1876 and After
Treaty signing forced the Nakoda to relocate to tracts of land set aside as reserves, and to watch as their traditional territories were opened up by the Canadian government for settlement. Reserve life meant a shift from their traditional hunting and trapping lifestyle in the woodlands and plains of the northwest, towards a life based on agricultural production. The Nakoda proved industrious and adaptable, and were able farmers; but they were limited by Canadian policy which restricted overall production. In 1896, the government implemented a policy whereby Nakoda farmers could purchase mechanized farming equipment to increase production. This unfortunately led to debt, which was then offset by further land surrenders on reserves.

Some cultural revival for the Treaty 6 Nakoda took place starting in the 1960s, with Sun Dances were held after years of being outlawed by Christian missionaries and government officials. Sweat Lodge Ceremonies were also revived at this time. Powwows were held starting in the 1970s. The late 1970s and early 1980s also saw a push for First Nations based education among the Nakoda, as well as the development of business infrastructure, including farming, oil and gas development, casinos, and other small businesses. In the 1990s, several Nakoda bands successfully filed for land claims based on the contention that the original lands surveyed for reserves were smaller in area than those stipulated in the treaty agreement.

DeMallie, Raymond J. and David Reed Miller. “Assiniboine,” in DeMallie, Raymond J. Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 13, part 1 of 2. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2001.

Malinowski, Sharon and Anna Sheets, eds., “Assiniboine.” The Gale Encyclopedia of North American Tribes, Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1998.

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