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Northern Plains Folklife

Community-based Cultural Conservation Research, Education, and

Nicholas C.P. Vrooman, Ph.D.

502 Chaucer Street
Helena, MT 59601

Cree, Assiniboine, Ojibwa, & Michif:

The Nehiyaw Pwat Confederacy/Iron Alliance in Montana

MHS Annual Meeting, 2:00 pm, September 19th, 2014

My purpose in presenting today at the 41st Annual Montana

History Conference of the Montana Historical Society is twofold: first,

to honor the good works of the Society; and, second, to use this

opportunity to further develop a general historical context (for the

greater Montana society) to better understand and appreciate the

Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana, who embody the

last unresolved circumstance from the Indian Wars of the 19th century

North American West. Both purposes are longstanding interests of

mine. I thank Kirby Lambert for inviting me to submit a topic for

inclusion in this conference, and the MHS staff for all your efforts in

producing this gathering.

The Nehiyaw Pwat Confederacy and Iron Alliance are terms new

in usage for Montana. To whom they refer, and what they designate, is

a new understanding for Montana history. These terms represent a

critical piece in making sense of the reconfiguration period of the 19th

century from an Aboriginal to an Anglo world on the northern Great

Plains. The Nehiyaw Pwat Confederacy/Iron Alliance (two distinct

names applied to the same peoples) is an Aboriginal amalgam familial,

social, economic, political, and military formation comprised primarily

of the Cree, Assiniboine, Ojibwa, and Michif (Mtis) peoples. The

ancestral peoples of this Aboriginal society matched step for step and

head to toe the development and expansion of Euroamerican society

west of the Mississippi Drainage to the Columbia Plateau during the

late 18th and 19th centuries. The Nehiyaw Pwat incorporated all the

innovations, structures, resources, and options accessible to non-

Aboriginal peoples. Indeed, the Nehiyaw Pwat even had the dual

advantages over their Anglo challengers of indigenous experience on

the land, plus Euroamerican cultural history to draw upon, in creating

a new place for themselves amidst a cathartic world unfolding in the

19th century. The Nehiyaw Pwat was, in fact, the main competitor to

Anglo expansion during the nation-state building period of the 19th

century American and Canadian Northwest.

Nehiyaw Pwat Confederacy/Iron Alliance history has been

missed almost entirely by scholars in American and Canadian

academe.1 Learning this history makes immediately evident the more

accurate complexities of the past, and shows us that the ancestral

Little Shell have been, contrary to federal summary and general

perceptions, part of Montanas story since as early as the 1730s, and

in unbroken linage since the 1780s. For all the good work that has

been accomplished drawing new maps in commemoration of the

Corps of Discovery Bicentennial and the Sesquicentennial of the

Stevens Treaties, new maps need to be made that accurately reflect

the fact that Cree, Chippewa, and Michif (i.e., Mtis) peoples have

been in what is now Montana since the first half of the 18th century, if

not before. They are vacant in all existing maps.

The Nehiyaw Pwat Confederacy (meaning Cree Assiniboine) was comprised of the Cree, Assiniboine,
Ojibwa, and Mtis (and after 1862 included the Gros Ventre). It is similar to how we think of the Blackfoot
Confederacy, comprised of numerous independent tribal groups allied in common purpose. The term
Nehiyaw Pwat derives from nehiopwat, which historically referred to one of the oldest bands of
polyethnic origins within the larger group. Todays usage expands the term to express the historic
polyethnic nature and political configuration of the larger group. It is also the Aboriginal form of stating
Cree Assiniboine, as short form for saying Cree, Assiniboine, Ojibwa, and Mtis, both terms used
throughout the primary sources for the fur trade era of the Northern Plains and by scholars. See Patricia C.
Albers, Changing Patterns of Ethnicity in the Northeast Plains, 17801870; Jonathan D. Hill, ed.,
History, Power, and Identity: Ethnogenesis in the Americas, 14891992 (Iowa City: University of Iowa
Press, 1996), 117; Sarah Carter, Lost Harvest: Prairie Indian Reserve Farmers and Government Policy
(Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1993), 45; see also Paul A. H. Chartrand, Niw-Hk-M-Kanak
(All My Relations): MtisFirst Nations Relations, National Centre for First Nations Governance,
Vancouver, British Columbia, June, 2007; William A. Fraser, Plains Cree, Assiniboine and Saulteaux
(Plains) Bands, 187484, 1963, 46, Collection M4379, Glenbow Archives, Calgary, Alberta; Aun nish
naubay (Patrick Gourneau), History of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, (Belcourt, North
Dakota: self-published, 1971), 5; Reuben Gold Thwaites, The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents,
16101791, Vol. LXV, 16961702. (Cleveland: The Burrows Bros. Co., 1901), 193199, 213, 217, 227
243; Isaac Cowie, The Company of Adventurers: A Narrative of Seven Years in the Service of the Hudsons
Bay Company During 18671874 (Toronto: William Briggs, 1913), 289, 297, 30203. The Nehiyaw Pwat
Confederacy is also known as the Iron Alliance. See, Neal McLeod, Plains Cree Identity: Borderlands,
Ambiguous Genealogies and Narrative Irony, Canadian Journal of Native Studies, vol. 20 (2000), 437;
Patricia Albers, Plains Ojibway, in Handbook of North American Indians (Washington: Smithsonian
Institution, 2001), 652; Blair Stonechild, The Iron Alliance and Dominion of the Northern Plains 1690-
1885: Implications for the Concept of Iskunikan, (unpublished manuscript, 2003); and, especially Robert
A. Innes, The Importance of Family Ties to Members of Cowessess First Nation, PhD dissertation,
University of Arizona, American Indian Studies Program, January 2007, 13-14, 17, 46, 69, 72, 129, 172,

Key to seeing the Nehiyaw Pwat in our history is learning

about a people whom to this day remain unrecognized as a distinct

Aboriginal people by the American government, the Michif, aka, the

Mtis. The United States and Canada have a bit of a different take on

who are the Mtis. Only recently have the Mtis come into the

general American consciousness, and then, as a Canadian story that

has bled-through into American history. More accurately, of course, it

is a story about our common history and shared society.

In 1970, though, the U.S. government, before the Indian Claims

Commission, was still purporting that, the mixed blood Chippewas,

or so-called Half-breeds, were non-Indians, and that land use by the

mixed bloods would not be used by the Chippewas. And, as late as

2009, the federal government yet claimed that Montanas Mtis, who

are among the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, can not

demonstrate they are Indians and, indeed, are not even American, but

Canadian in heritage. The U.S. has no place in their taxonomy for

Mtis as Aboriginal peoples, in contrast with Canada. Although

officially, by blood-quantum, Halfbreeds may qualify as Indian,

many in the government, to this day, who make decisions of whos in

and whos out, believe that Mtis are miscegenated whites.2

(Please excuse my use of this term, but it is one that informs a

BIG piece of the rationale behind the federal government not
recognizing the Little Shell people for the last 122 years, since the
McCumber Agreement of 1892/Ten Cent Treaty, i.e., the Little Shell

Nicholas C. P. Vrooman, The Whole Country was ... One Robe: The Little Shell Tribes America,
(Helena, MT: Drumlummon Institute, 2012), 14n6, 154n17.

are not real, whole, full, true, or 100% Indian, therefore not
worthy of all the rights and obligations the federal government holds
for Americas first peoples. Like the words Nigger, Jap, and
Squaw, the use of Halfbreed and Breed have been used to
demean a whole sector of American society, even as it is at once
inaccurate, untrue, unkind, and unacceptable. The Little Shell Tribe
has a Bill addressing the use of these words on Montanas landscape
that just last week passed unanimously before the State-Tribal
Relations Committee and will come before our full Legislature in

The words Halfbreed and Breed are used to basically form a

political perception and strategy that allows the government to not

bear trust responsibility for a far larger population of American First

Peoples. It dates back to the Dawes Act of 1887, the creation of the

blood quantum mechanism for identifying legitimate Indians, the

stripping of tribal rolls, and the usurpation of two-thirds of 19th

century reserved Aboriginal treaty lands.

The Mtis are a variant cultural manifestation of the indigene

peoples of the northern Great Plains, who exist within an Aboriginal

biosphere predating the externally imposed construct of nation-

states or any effective control of land by Euro North Americans. They

are the matrix that binds the Nehiyaw Pwat together as one new,

modern Aboriginal peoples.

The underlying basis of this story is geographical and starts

with those peoples the Cree and Assiniboine coeval to this land, in

place around the topographical gateway from the Great Lakes and

Mississippi Basin to the Northern Plains, a place now known as

Pembina, North Dakota. The Michif, i.e., Mtis, of the Northern Plains

are rooted in the history of their indigene relatives and allies, the

Cree and Assiniboine. By the mid-to-late 16th century, the Cree and

Assiniboine alliance (i.e., the Nehiyaw Pwat, Nehiyaw = Cree/Pwat =

Assiniboine) was firmly established in the Red River Settlement Zone.3

During the first part of the 17th century, the Cree received

French trade items from Montreal that passed through numerous

tribes before reaching them on the north side of the Great Lakes,

through the Rainy River country, and on to Red River. These trade

partners were Algonquian cousins such as Ojibwa, Odawa,

Potawatomie, and Saulteaux/Michif, then accumulating around Sault

Ste. Marie and the southern shores of the Great Lakes.4

It was then those peoples ventured toward the Pembina/Red

River region. During the 1650s, the Great Lakes Ojibwa made alliance

with the Cree and Assiniboine in the Pembina region, the ecosystem

divide where the Woodlands turn to Plains. Here, says William

Warren (writing in the 1840s), his people first came in contact with

the Assiniboins . . . and from that point, after entering into a firm and

lasting peace with the Assiniboins and Knis-te-nos [Cree], they first

joined their brethren. . . .5

After 1670, the Hudsons Bay Company (HBC) opened shop on

the Bay, directly downstream from the Red River Settlement Zone.

The Cree and Assiniboine were the primary grounded network trade

Jennifer S. H. Brown, History of the Canadian Plains Until 1870, in Raymond Demallie and William
Sturtevant, eds., Handbook of North American Indians, Vol.13: Plains (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian
Institution, 2001), 302.
The term Michif is the Algonquian vernacular pronunciation of the word Mtis, the French word
meaning mixblood, stemming from the seventeenth-century French pronunciation.
William Warren, History of the Ojibway People (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1884), 82

partners with the HBC. The Cree Assiniboine Confederacy (i.e.,

Nehiyaw Pwat, now including other Algonkian peoples from the Great

Lakes) began to be noted in the primary source records; they were the

major conduit for the English through whom furs passed one way and

goods the other. 6 With guns, metal-tipped arrows, axes, knives,

needles, pots, and pans, Nehiyaw Pwat took control of the river

systems that drained to the Bay. The Nehiyaw Pwat, including their

new Ojibwa, Odawa, Potawatomie, and Saulteaux allies and relatives,

controlled all access to and from Hudsons Bay to the northern Great

Plains and western Great Lakes for the next 100 years. Thus their

nom de guerre, Iron Alliance.7

At least as early as 169092, we know from Henry Kelsey, the

Nehiyaw Pwat was deep into the Montana/Saskatchewan border

region.8 By the late 17th and 18th century, as the Cree and Assiniboine

regularly adopted Ojibwa/Saulteaux into their families (many already

intermarried with the French), they were as well adopting Orkney

men from Hudsons Bay. All through that period, they also

incorporated les coureurs de drouine (itinerant traders) et les

hommes libre (freemen) singular men of European heritage trekking

David G. Mandelbaum, The Plains Cree, Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural
History, Vol. XXXVII, Part II, New York City (1940), 173; and Floyd W. and Susan R. Sharrock, A
History of the Cree Indians Territorial Expansion From the Hudsons Bay to the Interior Saskatchewan and
Missouri Plains, in Chippewa Indians VI (New York: Garland Publishing, 1974), 20608. This work was
prepared for the Indian Claims Commission, 1974, Docket 221b191.
David G. Mandelbaum, The Plains Cree: An Ethnographic, Historical, and Comparative Study (Regina,
Saskatchewan: Canadian Plains Research Center, 1979), 2025.
Brown, History of the Canadian Plains, 301.

inward from the British and French spheres.9 (Remember, there is no

European sphere at play here; all mixed heritage children were born

into and raised within the Aboriginal sphere.) In the 1730s40s, they

took in more Frenchmen who came to the Northern Plains with the

LaVrendrye Expedition. Through LaVrendrye, the French opened up

a second front in the burgeoning market economy, competing with the

HBC. The Nehiyaw Pwat held a fulcrum position between both.

With this advantage, in the 1730s, the Nehiyaw Pwat

Confederacy allied with the Blackfoot Confederacy from

Saskatchewan and Alberta deep into Montana.10 Ojibwa and

Saulteaux/Michif participated in those Nehiyaw Pwat excursions.11

Jennifer Brown, the Grand Dame of Ruperts Land Studies, tells us

that by the mid-1700s through the end of the 18th century, several

thousand children of mixed [Indian-European] parentage had probably

been born in that region [of the Great Lakes] and in Ruperts Land

[including Montana and North Dakota].12 The groundbreaking

scholarship of Floyd and Susan Sharrock (at the University of

Montana in the early 70s) affirm that, by the late 1780s at least, and

probably before that time, it can be documented that the Crees [with

Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Verendrye, Journals and Letters of La Verendrye and His Sons
(Toronto: Champlain Society, 1927), 61, 108, 24849; Albers, Changing Patterns, 106; and John E.
Foster, Wintering: the Outsider Adult Male and the Ethnogenesis of the Western Plains Mtis, in
Theodore Binnema, Gerhard J. Ens, and R. C. MacLeod, , eds., From Ruperts Land to Canada (Edmonton:
University of Alberta Press, 2001), 17980. See also Brown, History of the Canadian Plains, 303.
Brown, History of the Canadian Plains, 304.
Gary Clayton Anderson, Kinsman of Another Kind: Dakota-White Relations in the Upper Mississippi
Valley, 16501862 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984), 41, 43; Sharrock, A History of the Cree
Indians, 209.
Brown, History of the Canadian Plains, 306.

Assiniboine, Ojibwa, and Michif] were inhabiting . . . [the

Saskatchewan/Montana border region]. They occupied this land

jointly with Pikani, Aaniih, Tsuu Tina, Siksika, and Kainah [i.e.,

Piegan, Gros Ventre, Sarcee, Blackfoot, and Blood].13

It was then (178082) that the devastating Pox Americana

converged on the Northern Plains, causing immense catastrophe. In

1781, a Cree, Assiniboine, Ojibwa, Michif war party attacked a Gros

Ventre village on the upper Missouri, contracting smallpox. They

brought the disease back to their villages along the Assiniboine and

Red Rivers. For the Nehiyaw Pwat, the plague claimed as much as half

of their population.14 The Ojibwa and Ottawa people from Lake

Superior throughout northern Minnesota lost between 50 to 70

percent of their families. The epidemic significantly contributed to the

combining of Ojibwa and Ottawa bands, and to the increased

movement of newly formed Chippewa/Saulteaux bands into the

Nehiyaw Pwat.15
Following the epidemic, new ceremonies and bundles were

required. At the Pembina Hills (now Walhalla, North Dakota, on the

east side of the Turtle Mountains), Chippewa and Michif relatives

were ritually brought into a renegotiated alliance with the Nehiyaw

Pwat and invited to live out on the Plains with them fulltime. Ojibwa

Chief Peguis told that, after smoking and feasting for two or three

days . . . [we] were formally invited to dwell on the plains to eat out
Sharrock, A History of the Cree Indians, 22829.
Arthur Ray, Indians in the Fur Trade (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1974), 111.
Laura Peers, The Ojibwa of Western Canada, 17801870 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press; St.
Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1994), 7, 20.

of the same dish, to warm ourselves at the same fire, and to make

common cause with them against their enemies the Sioux. Thus

became, by the mid-1780s, the Plains Ojibwa (a people whose culture

includes the full spectrum from those who self-identify with drum

dance to those who hold fiddle dance mores and customs, i.e.,

Chippewa and Mtis). By the ceremony described by Chief Peguis,

being told by the Cree and Assiniboine that, [y]our presence will

remove the cloud of sorrow that is in our minds and strengthen us

against our enemies, the Plains Ojibwa formally entered the

regenerated Nehiyaw Pwat Confederacy/Iron Alliance.16

Following the smallpox epidemic of the 1780s, very quickly

tribal peoples understood that they subverted their common interests

fighting each other over the American, British, and Spanish struggle

for supremacy in western trade. Tribes moved, once again, to protect

their preeminent and superseding interests in the land and resources

of the Great Plains. On the Northern Plains, as in the Central and

Southern Plains, confederations and alliances were renegotiated and

reaffirmed. The other Northern Plains Aboriginal league of nations

The Blackfoot Confederacy of Pikani, Kainai, Siksika, Tsuu

Tina (Sarcee), and Aaniih (aka Atsina or Gros Ventre), who ranged the

land from Edmonton, Alberta, along the Rocky Mountain Front south

to the Yellowstone caldera, and east to where the Missouri and

Ibid., 21; Brown, History of the Canadian Plains, 30405; and Innes, The Importance of Family
Ties, 4668. To reiterate, the name Plains Ojibwa includes and refers to those related Ojibwa and Mtis
who moved out onto the Northern Plains in the late eighteenth century.

Yellowstone Rivers merge at the present-day border of Montana and

North Dakota.
The Crow, Shoshone, and (early on) Kiowa who contested the

country into Blackfoot-controlled southern Alberta, allied with the

northern Great Basin and Columbia Plateau tribes of the Paiute,

Bannock, Nez Perc, Kootenai, and Salish. Some Shoshone and Kiowa

moved east and south onto the Plains to mix with the Pawnees,

Cheyennes, Arapahoes, and Athabascans as well as Hispanos and

French to form the Comanche Confederacy.

The northern Siouan people of the Mdewakantons,

Wahpetons, Wahpekutes, Sissetons, Yanktons, Yanktonais, and Tetons

formed the Dakota Confederacy. They bridged the whole of the Great

Plains by creating ties with their French/Scot relatives among the

Nehiyaw Pwat, and their Central Plains Siouan cousins, the Omaha,

Osage, Kansa, Quapaw, Ponca, and the Comanche Confederation,

through the inclusion of their Cheyenne and Arapahoe allies.17

The four major confederations of the Northern Plains (Nehiyaw

Pwat, Blackfoot, Dakota, and Crow/Shoshone) overlapped at the

margins and had junction at the earth lodge villages of the Mandan,

Hidatsa, and Arikara on the Big Bend of the Missouri River, at the

center of the continent in todays North Dakota (as the free trade zone

of their place and times). The intertribal relationships that

regenerated in that period did so through intermarriage, captivity,

trade, and war. The whole of the enchorial (of the place, native)

John C. Ewers, Intertribal Warfare, 397410; Gary Clayton Anderson, Little Crow: Spokesman for the
Sioux (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1986), 6.

population in the North American West reformed into a new

polyethnic reality that lasted into the Anglo American and Canadian

apartheid period, and to this day. As Euro North Americans showed

up, that same aboriginal kinship dynamic incorporated them into the

Indian trade and socio-economic-political networks. In literal terms,

much of the population in the continental interior was fluid and

miscible, both genetically and culturally.18

Tribal grounded networks and alliances were not limited to the

lands imprimis peoples. Not to be forgotten in this new Aboriginal

mtissage, the French and Scots were long-time allies against the

English in Europe from the 12th to the 17thcenturies, a legacy that

exists to this day. This European Auld Alliance of the Scots and

French played out significantly on the Great Plains as, essentially, a

North American continuation, grafted in adhesion onto the Nehiyaw

Pwat, Comanche, and Hispano peoples. 19 The NWC Scots traders,

For a good overview of the development of polyethnic Aboriginal society, see Gary Clayton Anderson,
The Indian Southwest, 15801830: Ethnogenesis and Reinvention (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press,
1999). See also James F. Brooks, Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest
Borderlands (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); Thomas N. Ingersoll, To Mix With
Our White Brothers: Indian Mixed Bloods in the United States from Earliest Times to the Indian Removals
(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005); James H. Merrell, The Indians New World:
Catawbas and Their Neighbors from European Contact through the Era of Removal (New York: W. W.
Norton & Co., 1989), 12233; Theda Perdue, Mixed Blood Indians: Racial Construction in the Early
South (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2003); Claudio Saunt, A New Order of Things: Property,
Power, and the Transformation of the Creek Indians, 17331816 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
1999); and Tanis C. Thorne, The Many Hands of My Relations: French and Indians on the Lower Missouri
(Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996), 114. What happened in the Northern Plains had already
happened in the Thirteen Colonies and the Mississippi Drainage, as well as in the American Southwest.
From the early eighteenth century, mixblood communities flourished in the Piedmont and Appalachian
backcountry, and up and down river along the Mississippi and its tributaries on both sides of its drainage,
and across the Gulf of Mexico to the Rio Grande. In the center of the country, Thorne tells us that, during
that period, family relationships were attenuated, extending into Canada, Illinois, and the various Indian
communities more sedentary residency and endogamous marital practices knit the mixed-blood and Creole
population of St. Louis into an intimate community with the birth of its second generation. According to
one estimate, two-thirds of St. Louiss residents became cousins.
Elizabeth Bonner, Scotlands Auld Alliance with France, 12951560, History 84, no. 273 (January
1999), 530.

with their Franco-outlander gens libre mixed-heritage denizen

workforce, traveled on the same routes established during the New

France era and used the same voyageurs and interpreters. John

Tanner (capture at 12 in 1787 and raised within the Nehiyaw Pwat)

noted in his 1830 autobiography, when referring to NorWesters, that

the company was called by the Indians Ojibbeway-met-e-gosh-she-

wug, (the mixed Chippeway Frenchmen).20

Following 1763 and the fall of New France, and then the

American War ending in 1781, many Indian-French-Scot polyethnic

DPs and refugees from the Mississippi Valley (from numerous tribal

groups within the old French sphere) moved to integrate within this

new amalgam of peoples occurring west of the Mississippi. This

bouillabaisse of peoples was an ever increasing presence among, and

intermarried as prairie forage into, the combined Nehiyaw Pwat-style

Rubaboo.21 This was also happening, concurrently, within all the other

confederated bands of people. By the start of the 19th century, the

Nehiyaw Pwat Confederacy had morphed once again to become an

even newer, more complex, and very modern polyethnic mlange

society. This society now had both urban and rural manifestations,

paralleling the development of Euro North American society as it

grew west of the Mississippi.22 This is seen in the close relationship,

Tanner, Narrative, 88.
Rubaboo is a soup made from dried pemmican boiled in water, thickened with flour and prairie forage.
Roux is French for soup or gravy thickening; aboo is Algonkian for soup.
Reuben Gold Thwaites, The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, 16101791, Vol. LXV, 16961702
(Cleveland: The Burrows Bros. Co., 1901), 193199, 213, 217, 227243. By these dates the social mixing
between Indian and French was commonplace, i.e., licentiousness (as stated in EuroAmerican terms;

yet significant contrast, between the citified Mtis of Red River

Settlement who became part of a growing dominant colonial control

network, and their grounded tribal buffalo culture country cousins out

on the plains, who preferred closer association with their enchorial

heritage as Otchipemsuuk, i.e., they who owned themselves.

Another such example is Kawsmouth, located to the south where

the Kansas River joins the Missouri. It was a haven of racial tolerance

and attracted people from throughout the region. They were in such

regular contact with the Red River Settlement that, by the 1830s,

many sent their children to schools there. Included in their community

rolls were Flathead, Kutenai, Cree, Gros Ventre, as well as Sioux,

Kickapoo, and Potawatomi, Comanche and Michif. Representation

from tribes west of the Continental Divide, along with people formerly

from the Great Lakes, and from the North, Central, and Southern

known as kinship bonding in Aboriginal understanding), the social grease to economic custom. Indian
women were critical as a basis for cross-cultural bargaining. Mixed-culture children by this time were
common. Social interaction, with taverns, drunkenness, sex, and gambling, was the norm at all French
trading forts. The Jesuits complained greatly, to no avail. Within fifty years, as the Fur Trade evolved to
encompass the Great Lakes area, the rise of a complete mixed-culture society had occurred. See also E. E.
Rich, Copy-Book of Outward Letters &c, Begins 29th May 1680 Ends 5 July 1687, Vol. 11 (London:
Hudsons Bay Company: 1948), xxxvi: Since apart from going out with a shot gun or fishing-line there
were no recreations other than drinking, gambling, brawling and gossip, it is not surprising that some of the
men relieved the loneliness and monotony by introducing Indian women into their quarters. The Committee
deplored this, but it could not be stopped so long as family life was impossible. Govr. Nixon, himself a man
of dour, puritanical habit, observed this licentiousness of conduct as current when he first came out in
1679, and in spite of strict orders to the contrary there were native women at the forts when the French
attacked them in 1686. See also E. E. Rich, James Ishams Observations on Hudsons Bay, 1743, Vol. 12
(London: Hudsons Bay Co., 1949), xxx. Within fifty years of the HBCs beginnings, the Indians within
their realm had become dependent on the company. This infers that by the early eighteenth century a mixed
culture, a Fur Trade Culture, had come into full form. See also Susan R. Sharrock, Crees, Cree-
Assiniboines, and Assiniboines: Interethnic Social Organization on the Far Northern Plains, Ethnohistory
21, no. 2 (Spring 1974), 95122; Isaac Cowie, The Company of Adventurers: A Narrative of Seven Years in
the Service of the Hudsons Bay Company During 18671874 (Toronto: William Briggs, 1913), 289, 297,
30203; William A. Fraser, Plains Cree, Assiniboine and Saulteaux (Plains) Bands, 187484, 1963, TS,
46, Collection M4379, Glenbow Archives, Calgary, Alberta; and Aun nish naubay (Patrick Gourneau),
History of the Turtle Mountain Band, 5. See also, LS 2005, Criterion (a), 1819.

Plains, tells us the degree, complexity, sophistication, and

expansiveness of the mixing that was au courant. As Red River

Settlement became Winnipeg, Kawsmouth became Kansas City. Its no

wonder barbeque and the blues flourish there.23

The formation of the new protean culture and society of the

Nehiyaw Pwat came into being simultaneously with Indian horse

culture on the Northern Plains in the mid-18th century. Indeed, many

of the Great Lakes proemial (introductory) peoples, who lived within

the New France sphere east of the Mississippi River, already had

knowledge of and experience with European horse culture, which they

brought with them to the Great Plains. In 174243, Franois

LaVrendrye, traveled from Red River to the Big Horn Mountains of

Montana and Wyoming, encountering the earthlodge villages of

Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa, as well as Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, and

Shoshone. Quoting an Arikara chief, LaVrendrye wrote of the

Spanish influence in the Upper Missouri country, saying that, they

have a large number of slaves whom they settle on their lands in each

tribe; they have separate apartments; they marry them to one another

and do not oppress them, so that they like being with them and do not

seek to run away. They breed a great many horses and other animals

to till the land. They have many chiefs for their soldiers and have

Bulletin of the Pan American Union, Union of American Republics, Washington, DC, Vol. L, No. 1,
(Jan.-June, 1920) 140-46; Gilbert Garraghan, Catholic Beginnings in Kansas City (Chicago: Loyola
University Press, 1920), 12, 15-16, 33, 78-79, 92.

some also for prayer.24 LaVrendrye is describing the formation of the

Comanche and the Nehiyaw Pwat.

The Spanish to whom LaVrendrye referred were the polyethnic

Aboriginal peoples of New Mexico who commandeered the livestock

of the Spanish colonials in northern New Spain and brought horses

and cattle north following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. By 1700, the

Shoshone and Kiowa had horses. Out of the trade and mixing with

their Hispano/Ute, Athabascan/Uto-Aztecan relatives, rose the

Comanche peoples as a wholly new Aboriginal society.

The Comanches serve as a prime example of Aboriginal-style

empire flowing from the era of hemispheric independence movements

during the 19th century. The Eurocentric nations could not see, and

thus did not recognize, the new Aboriginal nation-formations

occurring simultaneous to their own nation-states. This is clearly

expressed in Pekka Hmlinens exceptional new revisionist history

of the Comanches, The Comanche Empire:

. . . even though the Comanche managed to reverse Europes

material, technological, and organizational superiority [in creating the
Comanche Empire], they did not try to use that advantage to try to
create a mirror image of European Imperialism. Rather than single-
minded conquerors, they were strategic pluralists who achieved
widespread dominance with policies that defy easy categorization.
They relied on strategies and operations that can be easily recognized
as expansionist and exploitive, but the geopolitical order they created
was at once distinctly imperialistic and distinctly indigenous in

Franois la Vrendrye, Journal of the Expedition of the Chevalier de la Vrendrye and One of His
Brothers to Reach the Western Sea, Addressed to M. the Marquis de Beauharnois, 174243, American
Journeys Collection, Wisconsin Historical Society Digital Library and Archives, 2003, 416.
Hmlinen, The Comanche Empire, 349.

As we will see upcoming in this work, distinctions that articulate

the Comanche experience, as well as those of the Hispanos, are

exactly the same and relate directly to those of the Nehiyaw Pwat

Confederacy. Anglo history has not perceived of these new Aboriginal

formations as the new Aboriginal nations they are, true indigenous

political, economic, and social polities arising from the independence

movement era of the 19th century, just as all the other nation-states of

the Americas, and world-wide were doing at that time. By not

articulating that truth, it allowed the Anglo control networks to define

the conquered as dependent domestic nations, rather than deal with

the international law of nations in settling their accounts of war and


The earth lodge villages at Knife River along the Big Bend of the

Missouri, as the ancient trade entrept, concurrently moved those

same Comanche horses and peoples to the Nehiyaw Pwat. By the time

LaVrendrye shows up, the horse just became pervasive throughout

the Great Plains. The Nehiyaw Pwat, developing within that new

matrix of resources, technology, fluidity of movement, ethnic diversity,

and drive for increase, are very much an analog of the Comanche

Confederacy, correlative in the dynamic of human metamorphosis for

their time and place. Where the Shoshone Kiowa Ute Hispano

Comanche turned south, again, to the source of the horse and

commanded the Central and Southern Plains, the Cree Assiniboine

Ojibwa Michif Nehiyaw Pwat embodied the whole of the Upper

Missouri and Saskatchewan River Basins of the Northern Plains. It

wasnt until following the great smallpox epidemic of 1837-38 that the

Dakota Confederacy gained a stronghold on lands bordering the

Upper Missouri and into Montana.

As of 1810, American expansion opened up additional forums for

trade. The Astorians had breached the continental divide at South

Pass in Wyoming. The epic intermontane American fur trade of

national mythology was underway. The market economy was filling in

the continent. Competing interests vied for position from Canada to

Chihuahua. All the Euroamerican players circulated in alliances based

in trade advantage rather than colonial loyalties. Frenchmen worked

for Spanish, English, and American interests. Americans worked for

themselves as well as the Spanish and British. Canadians worked for

British, Spanish, and Americans. A new round of marriage ties united

tribal trade associations. In the two towns of Pueblo and

Hardscrabble, along the Arkansas River in Colorado in 1847, there

were marriages of astounding diversity. A description from a diary of

the time covering 1832-56, tells us:

The male part of it were mostly American, Missouri French,

Canadians, and Mexicans. . . . These wives are of various Indians
tribes, as follows, viz: Blackfoot, Assiniboines, Arikeras, Sioux,
Aripahoes, Cheyennes, Pawnees, Snakes, Sinpach [Sanpete] (from
West of the Great Lake), Chinock [Chinook] (from the mouth of the
Colombia,) Mexicans, and Americans.26

Janet Lecompte, Pueblo, Hardscrabble, Greenhorn: Society on the High Plains, 18321856 (Norman:
University of Oklahoma Press, 1978), 203.

One cant help but marvel at the diversity and geographical

range represented by the people there at that time. Kinship ties, trade

networks, commerce in flesh, and we have to suppose, even true love

simmered in a genetic stew that tasted of the continent. Those

referred to as Spanish were by the beginning of the 18th century

pervasively mestizo; the French in North America were by 1750

pervasively Mtis.27 Euroamericans of all stripes mixed with Indians.

As there were Spanish in the Upper Missouri, French along the Rio

Grande, and Indians everywhere, consanguinity permeated the Plains.

The Hispanos and Mtis both spoke the most archaic forms of

their paternal heritage languages. The French spoken by the Mtis,

and the Spanish by the Hispanos, contains words long obsolete in

France and Spain. 28 Numerous Indian words, phrases, and syntax are

part of Hispano Spanish. Even more deeply, within the Hispano sphere

of life, the genizaros spoke their own distinct mixed Indian/Spanish

language.29 The Mtis have their own wholly new language created

out of a European paternal side predominantly with French noun

structure, and a maternal Algonkian verb dynamic. Norman Fleury,

language specialist for the Gabriel Dumont Institute says, My

grandmother called Michif . . . a God-given spiritual language born

Reuben Gold Thwaites, The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, 16101791, Vol. LXV, 16961702
(Cleveland: The Burrows Bros, Co. 1901), 93100, 213, 217, 22743; E. E. Rich, Copy-Book of Outward
Letters &c, Begins 29th May 1680 Ends 5 July 1687, Vol. 11 (London: Hudsons Bay Co., 1948), xxxvi.
Nostrand, Commentary, 165.
Ramn A. Gutirrez, When Jesus Came, 305.

with the Michif people.30 What Mtis speak is not creole, trade, or

pidgin, but rather a fully formed, complex, growing, living language. 31

Heres a peak into that language. In 1861, an anonymous

journalist from England visited Red River Settlement (Winnipeg). His

description, even from Eurocentric eyes, offers us a unique glimpse

into a world that once was and (then) might yet have been. Unruly at

their best (such is the way with those who own themselves), there is

an unbounded eloquence and beauty to the freedom of these people

who spread out over the plains, from Red River to the Rocky Mountain

Front, and overflowed into the Columbia Basin. These are the

ancestral Little Shell in all their confidence, lan vital, joie de vivre.

The population is of the most motley sort English, French,

Highland Scotch, Lowland Scotch, Orkney Isle men, Chippewas,
Crees, Assiniboins, English Cree Halfbreeds, French Cree Half-breeds,
Scotch Cree Half-breeds, French Chippewa Halfbreeds, English
Chippewa Half-breeds, Scotch Chippewa Half-breeds, Scotch
Assiniboin Half-breeds, English Assiniboin Half-breeds, French
Assiniboin Half-breeds, Orkney Isle Assiniboin Half-breeds; and so on
through every possible permutation of the series of white and red

A fully-developed Nehiyaw Pwat culture was integrated and

shared among the mixed-heritage, mixed-descent indigenous Mtis

and their cousins. The same holds true for Hispanos and the

surrounding pueblos and nomadic southern Plains groups. Use of

Norman Fleury, Michif Language and Mtis Culture, Heritage Canada, National Gatherings on
Indigenous Knowledge, 2005. Accessed at
Peter Bakker, A Language of Our Own: The Genesis of Michif, the Mixed Cree-French Language of the
Canadian Mtis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 2850; Richard L. Nostrand, Reply, in
Commentary on Nostrands Hispanos and their Homeland, Annals of the Association of American
Geographers, 74(1), 1984, 16465.
Recollections of Manitoba [in 1861] from An American Point of View, Once A Week, New Series,
(London: Sweeting and Company), 13 (August 3, 1874), 70103.

native plants, medicines, foodways, clothing manufacture, tools, and

hunting and gardening techniques kept people alive. Such intangible

culture as songs, stories, geographical knowledge, place-based

pantheism, and animal ways, all blended with surviving forms of

European regional Spanish, French, and Gaelic traditions, filled out

the foundations of a new folk culture specific and distinct to the

Hispanos and Mtis. Together, the tangible and intangible elements

were learned through oral traditions and customary example.33

Patricia Albers, in her benchmark study of changing human

relationships on the Northern Plains, tells of the conundrum faced

specifically by the ancestral Nehiyaw Pwat:

The historic situation of the Plains Assiniboin, Cree, [Michif],
and Ojibwa did not conform to the typical tribal models where
territories were divided, claimed, and defended by discrete
ethnic groups, . . . What appears to have been more important in
defining the geopolitics of access to land, labor, and resources
were social ties based on ties of kinship and sodality in their
varied metaphoric extensions and expressions. Indeed, it was
only after the imposition of U.S. and Canadian sovereignty that
their ethnic names took on any real importance, and then it was
only because these were invested with the legal power of
treaties written by nation-states.34

This statement gives a clear description of the social and

political dynamic directly affecting the ancestral Michif. The

pluralistic pattern of land use and alliance making, and social ties

based on ties of kinship and sodality defined the geopolitics of

access to land, labor, and resources. That is to say, ancestral

Virgil Vogel, American Indian Medicine (Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 1990), 81; Miguel
Ganderts Nuevo Mexico Profundo and Lawrie Barkwell, Mtis Legacy II are two good titles on the subject
of Hispano and Mtis folk culture.
Albers, Changing Patterns, 91.

Nehiyaw Pwat Mtis lived and ranged within a large geography,

settling at different times in various areas of their traditional historic

homeland, ranging from the Red River to the Rocky Mountains, and

beyond all within the context of their Nehiyaw Pwat relations.35 It is

exactly this condition of livelihood that the, at least, U.S. government

used in Montana to say the Michif did not ever exclusively use and

occupy any portion of claimed lands, that an infinity of others

hunted on the same land, and that they were either Canadian or

Great Lakes Indians, or indeed, no Indians at all. Thus, they had no

prima facie rights to any territory.

Yet the documentary record clearly shows the confederated

nature of the Nehiyaw Pwat, within which the Michif exist. Robert

Alexander Innes important work on his ancestral Cowessess Reserve

in southeastern Saskatchewan, tells of their common history, saying,

These four peoples [the Cree, Assiniboine, Saulteaux, and
Mtis], . . . entered into various alignments with each other, as
well as with English and French fur traders, the Blackfoot
Confederacy, Gros Ventre, Shoshone, Mandan and Hidatsa, and
other plains people. Studies by historians and anthropologists,
however, have not emphasized these interconnected
relationships. Rather, scholarship has been preoccupied with
linking band societies within larger tribal contexts. This
perspective of . . . Aboriginal prairie peoples history has
confused and distorted contemporary realities of . . . Aboriginal
relations. Though each groups cultures, beliefs, histories, and
languages were different from each other, they also had
considerable similarities and overlap. These similarities, of
social, political, and economic cultures, have been ignored or
downplayed by most scholars.36

LS 2005, Criteria (b) & (c), 4042.
Innes, The Importance of Family Ties, 46.

By 1810, the Nehiyaw Pwat Confederacy/Iron Alliance, in its

ability to expand and control its domain, was by all accounts a

dominant force across the Northern Plains. Throughout the 1810s,

Americans initiated active trade with the Nehiyaw Pwat. There are

scores of primary source articulations of pervasive Nehiyaw Pwat

habitation of the Northern Plains. Obviously, American politicians,

military leadership, and scholars have, for the most, chose to name

tribal exclusivity and singularity as the defining construct of who was

who, and who belonged where. Being thus named by external control

networks served to separate tribal peoples from the center of their

grounded world, to become outliers at the margins of a newly forming

mass agricultural, mercantile, and industrial Anglo society.

An example: in 1933 the Bureau of Indian Affairs asked the

superintendent of Rocky Boys Reservation to prepare a census roll

and to include in that roll the blood quantum, according to the

recognized tribes in the United States, of each person enrolled. The

superintendent of the Rocky Boys Agency, Earl Wooldridge, wrote to

the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He was frustrated with the

directive, saying,

[i]f this method of listing these people is to be made mandatory,

it will be necessary for the Office to give specific instructions as
to how families are to be divided.

Shall we take for example the family of Chief Stick [aka the
Grant family]. . . . The father is shown as Assiniboine-Blackfeet;
the mother is Cree-Chippewa. We have absolutely no means of
determining which is the predominating blood in either case.

As we have advised the Office repeatedly, there are no separate
tribes here in the sense that is the case on many reservations.
These people had wandered together, and intermarried to such
an extent before they were ever listed anywhere, the majority of
them do not know themselves how much Indian blood they have
or exactly what tribe. It is not uncommon to hear one say, My
mother lived near the old fort, so she must have been
Assiniboine. Or, My father came from Canada, so I suppose he
was a Cree.

It must be remembered that these people have never been

enrolled elsewhere, so that in a majority of the cases there was
no record of them at all until they were adult, or even middle-
aged people. They have become one people in every sense of the
word and it promises to cause a great deal of confusion if we
attempt to separate them into several tribes.37

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs instructed Superintendent

Wooldridge to secure the amount of Indian blood if possible.

Wooldridge ended up making his census. Individuals stated what their

family backgrounds were. The Nehiyaw Pwat nature of the people was

affirmed. The 1934 roll Wooldridge made shows that the ethnic

composition of family groupings was: 42 percent self-identified as

Chippewa Cree; 18 percent as Chippewa Cree Assiniboine Blackfoot;

14 percent as Chippewa; 8 percent as Chippewa Cree Assiniboine; 7

percent as Cree; 6 percent as Cree Assiniboine Arapahoe (Gros

Ventre); 3 percent as Chippewa Assiniboine; and 2 percent as

Chippewa Cree Sioux. Of the 656 people enumerated, 38 percent

were listed as fullblood Indians. That is to say, 62 percent had

European blood with French or Scot surnames in their heritage,

although none named EuroAmerican consanguinity. (The Indian Agent

Dusenberry, The Montana Cree, 52

asked for only Indian heritage and blood quantum.) Yet even these

percentages remain unclear. To some, being mostly Indian means

fullblood. Many others understand fullblood to mean those who

believe in and practice the old traditional cultural ways, i.e., pagan

rather than Christian. From that time on, the Commissioner of

Indian Affairs said that all those on Rocky Boys Reservation were to

be, in his words, designated as Chippewa-Cree.38 All those who

had Assiniboine, or Blackfeet, or Crow, or Flathead, or Sarcee

heritage, as well as Cree or Chippewa, became Chippewa-Cree.39

Nehiyaw Pwat family heritage was wiped clean from the new slate of

federal determination to make a people fit within an Indian

construct of the governments design. Thus, the Rocky Boys

Chippewa Cree Tribe.

In contemporary times, on the Rocky Boys Reservation, as a

consequence of a growing tribe-specific nationalism occurring

throughout Indian Country, a new tribal identity has emerged within

the applied apartheid nomenclature, that has largely forgotten the

older polyethnic reality.40 Neal McLeod, a Cree Michif professor at

Trent University, tells us,

[I]n the last two generations, there has been a tendency for
Bands to proclaim that they are Cree or Saulteaux. The

Indian Census Roll Rocky Boy Jurisdiction, April 1, 1934, taken by Earl Wooldridge, Superintendent.
Copy in authors possession.
Dusenberry, The Montana Cree, 56.
This phenomenon stems from increased self-determination of bands cum tribes, isolated from their
historic socio-cultural foundations, as well as the nation-state political structure imposed on the tribe-
federal relationship, and reinforced by 150 years of non-Indian scholarship emphasizing individual and
distinctive Indian tribes.

multi-layered genealogies are simplified. There has been a
growing tendency . . ., to simplify tribal identity.
Historically, the Cree, Saulteaux [i.e., Plains Ojibwa,
including the Mtis] and Assiniboine were allied with each
other, and there was a great deal of cultural overlap among the
groups. It was natural for people to be multilingual. With the
rapid loss of Indigenous languages . . ., people have begun to
simplify their identities, and gravitate towards one tribal

Fortunately, recent scholarship recognizes the historic

processes at play, and helps describe a more full telling of not only the

Michif/Mtis, and their place within the circle of First Peoples, but the

Nehiyaw Pwat and other enchorial societies as a holistic and

transcendent land-based indigenous reality.


Neal McLeod, Plains Cree Identity: Borderlands, Ambiguous Genealogies, and Narrative Irony, The
Canadian Journal of Native Studies 20, no. 2 (2000), 43839.