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The Nakoda Nation – Customs and Traditions

Stoney/Assiniboine Nakoda custom and tradition was fairly constant, as the Nakoda did not embrace European trade goods as readily as other First Peoples, like the Cree. European-made items still found their way into Nakoda life, but affected a slower change among the Nakoda than some of their contemporaries. Here, we will focus primarily on the following aspects of Nakoda life: the hunting and gathering of food and supplies, the mode of clothing used by the Nakoda, and the shelter and camp life of the Nakoda. For other aspects of Nakoda custom and tradition, see the Spiritual Life and Social Life sections of this website.

The Nakoda were similar to the Cree in the sense that they could be roughly split into two main lifestyle groups based on their geographic location: a northern woodlands hunting and trapping people, and a bison hunting plains people. The Nakoda who dwelt in the northern woodlands subsisted by hunting moose, deer, caribou, and other animals for food, trapping beaver, muskrat, fox, and other animals for food and for fur pelts to be traded with European fur traders for European made items such as beads and blankets. Fishing was an excellent means of supplementing their diet. Hunting in the woodlands was done on foot, and involved careful tracking and to their kill prey.

The Nakoda who lived on the Great Plains subsisted mainly on bison and lived a nomadic lifestyle, following the summer and winter migrations of bison herds. Bison was always hunted for food but also provided the main source for hide, which had many different uses depending on the time of year. In the summer, when their fur was light, bison hide was useful for making clothes and covers for shelters. In winter, when their fur was thick and shaggy, the hide was a valuable commodity as it could be used in the making of bison robes, a popular trade item. So critical was the bison to the Nakoda of the plains, that they developed three main methods of bison hunting: the surrounding method, the buffalo pound method, and the approach method. The surround method involved a large number of mounted riders surrounding a herd and killing them with bows and arrows (guns were too cumbersome for use on horseback). The buffalo pound method involved leading bison herds down a narrow trench that led to a bluff, and then scaring the herd into stampeding over the bluff. Those bison not killed in the fall could be easily dispatched by hunters waiting at the bottom. The approach method was a small scale method of hunting, and involved the stalking and killing of the bison by one or two hunters.

Once a bison was killed, its meat was prepared either by roasting it fresh, or by cutting it into thin slices and drying it slowly in the sun, which allowed the meat to be preserved for a longer period of time. The diet of bison meat was supplemented by the gathering of berries, roots, and other edible plants.

Nakoda clothing was primarily fashioned from animal hide. Men’s shirts and leggings were fashioned from antelope, deer, or bison hide. Breech cloths were fashioned from material from blankets, or from cloth. Blankets were also used in the making of capotes, a hooded coat that was used in the winter. Fur caps were also used for warmth in the colder months.

Women’s clothing consisted of a dress made of bison cow hide bound at the waist by a leather thong. Leggings for women were made from elk hide, and reached to the calf. Both women and men wore soft hide moccasins with rawhide soles. In the winter, moccasins had bison hair lining for warmth.

If used for special occasions or for war, clothing was adorned with dyed porcupine quills, coloured glass beads (an imported European item), or paint. At times, shells obtained from distant coastal First Peoples were used to decorate clothing. Locks of human hair could be used for trimming garments.

A typical dwelling for the Nakoda was the tipi. In the early days of the Nakoda, before the adoption of horses, tipis were small, consisting of three poles lashed together at one end, spread into a tripod, and covered with animal hide. Such dwellings were practical because they allowed dogs to pull them along. After horses were introduced into Nakoda culture, tipis became much larger and more elaborately designed. Tipi design and decoration in Nakoda culture was the job of the women, as women were in charge of the set-up and take down of the camp. Even as large as they were, tipis were still designed to be quickly taken down if need be, a suitable design for a nomadic lifestyle.

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.

Denig, Edwin Thompson. The Assiniboine: Forty Sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution 1928-1929. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 2000.

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

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