Federal Food Programs, Traditional Foods and the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Nations of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation

Year: 1999

Research Center: American Indian Studies Program, The University of Arizona

Investigator: Grant, Rachel C., Misty Arcand, Caroline Plumage, and Max G. White, Jr.

Institution: Fort Belknap College

Project Contact:
Rachel C. Grant
Fort Belknap College
P.O. Box 159
Harlem, MT 59526
406-353-2607 ext. 267


Eating habits and food preparation among the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine peoples have changed dramatically since the establishment of the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation and the introduction of Federal food distribution programs on the reservation. This project documented such changes from the perspective of tribal elders, community members, and associated service providers. Data were collected from both men and women over the age of 50 through a survey designed by Fort Belknap College’s principal investigator, a consultant, and three student researchers who were graduates of the college. The survey was administered in and around Fort Belknap Indian Reservation communities during the summer of 1999.

The story that emerges from the study is one of change and loss. Primary food sources have changed dramatically. The results reflect change from traditional modes of obtaining food (hunting, fishing, and gathering) to reliance on store-bought food. Small gardens, which were prominently featured as a food source historically, have greatly diminished in present times. The use of some dairy products (milk and butter) has varied little over time, but cheese and cottage cheese make up a larger portion of the dairy products consumed today. Survey results also indicated a majority of elders do not receive any type of assistance from the food programs available on Fort Belknap Reservation. Surplus commodities are distributed on the reservation, but not widely.

Traditional food preparation has been replaced by consumption of fast foods, and the traditional Indian diet of buffalo, deer, antelope and elk meats, wild turnip, onion, and carrot, and choke cherries, June berries, service berries, Morgan grapes and Indian peanuts has all but disappeared. Use of traditional foods is now limited to reservation-wide cultural events. The knowledge and skills of tribal elders concerning traditional hunting sites, traditional food preparation, and the use of traditional herbs and plants for healing purposes has not passed to the next generation and is at risk of being lost and disappearing altogether from reservation life and culture.

The study findings suggest that opportunities may exist for less conventional food assistance and nutrition education programs to support the development of traditional food resources on the reservation. Such programs might promote improved nutrition and increased self-sufficiency for the reservation community while at the same time encouraging the preservation of the tribes’ productive natural resources, heritage, and culture.