Rocky Mountain House National Historic Site of Canada

Cultural Treasures

Atsina (Also referred to historically as Gros Ventre, Big Belly, Rapids, Waterfall, Fall, A’aninen)

Territory and Population

European traders first identified this nation in the 1770s, although they had probably met them before then. At that time, the Atsina (Gros Ventre) were living near the forks of the Saskatchewan River. English-speaking traders translated the Anishinabe (Ojibwa) and Nehiyawak (Cree) name for them as “Fall Indians”, “Waterfall Indians,” or “Rapids Indians”: these names all referred to the strong current in that stretch of the river. Although American traders often called them “Blackfeet” (Nitsitapii), the Atsina were actually related to the Arapaho and Cheyenne further south: several rivers south of the Missouri had Atsina names.

Estimates of the Atsina population are often vague or confusing. In 1800, they may have numbered around 1,800 people, but by 1820 they had grown to nearly three times that size – despite losing as much as one third of their people to measles in 1819 and 1820. They had suffered more from smallpox than their Nitsitapii allies had in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which gave them some immunity. In the major smallpox epidemic of 1837/8, they lost less than 10% of their population, while some neighbouring nations lost as much as three quarters.

Conflict and Uncertainty

The Atsina were first described by European traders as one of the friendliest and most cooperative of the Plains First Nations. However, their attitudes changed in the late 18th century, when war broke out between the Nitsitapii and the Nehiyawak and Nakoda (Assiniboine): being the easternmost of the Nitsitapii’s allies, the Atsina often bore the brunt of Nehiyawak and Nakoda attacks. After one defeat in 1792, some bands of Atsina, with a few Siksika (Blackfoot) allies, took out their anger on the nearby European traders who were trading arms to the Nehiyawak. The furs traded by the Atsina and other plains nations were mostly wolf and bison, and were not valued as highly by the Europeans as the Nehiyawak’s beaver pelts: therefore, the Atsina could not afford as many guns or as much ammunition as the Nehiyawak could.

The conflict with European traders did not last long, partly because the Nitsitapii and Atsina recognised that the Europeans were their best source of guns and ammunition. Also, the Nehiyawak and Nakoda launched a series of devastating raids, apparently in retaliation for the attacks on Europeans. The memory of this violent episode was fresh in the traders’ minds when they fortified Rocky Mountain House and Acton House in 1799.

Nehiyawak and Nakoda aggression pushed the Atsina south during the early 1800s. This movement had some advantages: in the 1830s, American traders on the Missouri River began offering good prices for bison robes. By the 1840s, Atsina traders had abandoned the Hudson’s Bay Company’s posts completely. The relationship between the Atsina and their Nitsitapii allies also began to break down in the 1850s and ‘60s. The Atsina were one of eight First Nations who signed Lame Bull’s Treaty with the US government in 1855, and they settled on the Fort Belknap reservation in Montana in 1888.