The Whole Country Was … “One Robe”: The Little Shell Tribe’s America

The Whole Country Was … “One Robe”: The Little Shell Tribe’s America


by Nicholas C.P. Vrooman

504 pages
ISBN-10: 0976968444
ISBN-13: 978-0976968443


The American Historical Review, Volume 119, Issue 3, 1 June 2014, Pages 891–892,
Published: 04 June 2014

Those polyethnic bands composed of Cree, Chippewa (Ojibwa), Assiniboine, and métis families who hunted across the Northern Plains of the 49th parallel (now the U.S./Canadian border) have never been easily categorized or understood by either ethnologists or historians. Likewise, governments attempting to nationalize their indigenous populations and control them on reservations/reserves were confounded by these mosaic groupings. It is to Nicholas C. P. Vrooman’s credit that he has attempted to provide an overarching interpretation of these bands from the 1780s to the present. In doing so, he pays attention to both the complexities and the commonalities of these borderland peoples, who for him represent “one robe.”

The stated purpose of the book is to demonstrate that the ancestors of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians were residents of what is now the state of Montana from at least the eighteenth century, and have been in constant occupation of those lands since then. It is in essence the historical basis of the tribe’s claim for federal recognition. As Vrooman notes, the Little Shell Tribe is distinguished from surrounding and associated tribes in being unrecognized by the United States government (p. 17).

This purpose or argument is the thread that ties together the welter of events and vast documentation presented here. To make his case, Vrooman articulates a new interpretation of the native groups on the Northern Plains borderlands of the United States and Canada, and he pursues it relentlessly through twenty-nine chapters. In brief, he argues that the ancestral group out of which the Little Shell Tribe emerged were those Cree, Assiniboine, Chippewa, and métis bands that had originated in the Pembina/Red River region (what he terms the Red River Settlement Zone), and who collectively constituted the Nehiyaw Pwat Confederacy. He argues that this polyethnic confederacy had as its homeland the borderlands of the 49th parallel stretching from Pembina, North Dakota, to the Front Range areas of Montana, with its center at the Turtle Mountains, which straddle the North Dakota/Manitoba border. Component groups of this confederacy, he argues, were in Montana by the 1730s and have been there continuously ever since.

Even if one does not accept this larger argument, Vrooman does present a good deal of supporting documentation, and the story he tells is a fascinating one. His analysis of the various American treaties on the Northern Plains (the Pembina Treaty of 1851, the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, the Blackfoot Treaty of 1855, and the Pembina “Old Crossing” Treaty of 1863) demonstrate, at the least, an ethnic complexity that previous treatments have glossed over. Additionally, his accounts of the creation of the Turtle Mountain Reservation and the Rocky Boy Reservation, as well as the struggle of the Little Shell Tribe for recognition since the 1920s, are the clearest we have.

It is inevitable that a political argument like this one will explain events in terms of the desired aims of the Little Shell Tribe. For the most part, Vrooman avoids the pitfalls of teleological argumentation by concentrating on the complexity of the story. There are points in the book, however, where he veers into more problematic territory. Vrooman has a tendency to endorse ethnologists and historians who support his views as new and correct (Floyd and Susan Sharrock) and those who disagree with him as old or outdated (John C. Ewers) (pp. 378–379). Also, to make the case that the Nehiyaw Pwat transcended the U.S.-Canada border across the Northern Plains, and to make the case that métis from the Red River were resident in Montana in the 1850s, he labels Johnny Grant’s Deer Lodge settlement a “Red River Settlement Zone transplanted community” (pp. 116, 133). One of the props of this argument is his assertion that Johnny Grant was born in 1831 at Fort des Prairies, which he takes to be Fort Assiniboine near Brandon, Manitoba, and the Turtle Mountains (p. 133). While it is true that Grant was born at Fort des Prairies, this Fort des Prairies was Edmonton House on the North Saskatchewan River, almost 800 miles from the Turtle Mountains. Indeed, Grant never lived in the Red River Settlement Zone until he left Montana in 1867.

These examples do not invalidate Vrooman’s larger arguments, but they do raise some questions as to how other sources have been used in the book. That said, “The Whole Country Was … ‘One Robe’” merits a read by anyone interested in the aboriginal history of the Canadian/American borderlands.