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Manitoba History: Review: Edwin Thompson Denig, The Assiniboine

by David McCrady
University of Winnipeg

Number 44, Autumn / Winter 2002-2003

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Edwin Thompson Denig, The Assiniboine. J. N. B. Hewitt, ed., with an introduction by David R. Miller, Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, 2000. pp. xxxiv, 290, illus., index., $24 paper.

The Assiniboine first appeared in 1930 in the Forty-sixth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology as “Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri.” It is an invaluable work, constituting the point of departure for studies of the Assiniboine people, while also providing important information about the Sioux, Crow, Blackfoot, Plains Cree, Arikara, Hidatsa and Mandan. A vast storehouse of information, virtually every student of the Aboriginal peoples of the Northern Plains has read it and found it useful. Perhaps the most curious fact about this classic book is that the original manuscript sat for seventy years before it was published and, once published, another seventy years passed before it was reprinted. This was long overdue.

Edwin Denig was born in Pennsylvania in 1812 and became a trader with the American Fur Company. He was assigned to Fort Union, at the junction of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers, in 1837, and remained there until he left the trade in 1855. The post had been founded in 1829 to capture the Assiniboine trade, and, over the course of his career, Denig came to know the Assiniboine people as an insider. This relationship was accomplished through the trade, but more importantly through his marriages to two Assiniboine women, who each bore him two children.

Denig had an avid interest in natural history, collecting materials for naturalists John James Audubon and Thaddeus Culbertson. In addition, he acted as host and correspondent of Pierre-Jean De Smet, S.J., and the artist Rudolph Friederich Kurz, who were both interested in the post and its denizens. An opportunity to write an extended piece about the Assiniboine arose when he received a copy in the early 1850s of a circular sent by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, then secretary of war and responsible for Indian affairs. The circular asked Indian agents and other knowledgeable persons to answer a series of detailed questions regarding specific Native peoples. Schoolcraft then used the replies to construct the six-volume Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Conditions, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States (1851-1857). It is not known how Denig obtained a copy of the circular, but he spent a year researching his replies before writing, in about 1854, the manuscript that became The Assiniboine.

Denig’s book is unique in the literature of the fur trade. Other traders who were stationed along the river (Chardon and Larpenteur are well-known examples) penned memoirs of their careers on the Missouri—and scholars are able to glean much about the Native peoples of the Northern Plains from them—but Denig set out to write a monograph specifically about the Assiniboine. The Assiniboine is an encyclopedic account of pre-reservation Assiniboine life, providing information on—among many other things—history, social organization, medicine, hunting, family life, entertainment, material culture, language and spirituality. The prose is rather nineteenth-century in style and tone, yet the comprehensiveness of the work and Denig’s interest in, and cultural tolerance toward, the Assiniboine foreshadow the twentieth-century ethnographies of Boas and his students. The result is, by far, the best account of any Aboriginal group from the Plains written during the pre-reservation period.

The Assiniboine is an attractive product. It reprints the entire text and illustrations of the original, includes an excellent introduction by David Miller and reprints Schoolcraft’s circular as an appendix. Because it was published in the annual reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology, “Indian Tribes of the Upper Missouri” is still widely available in university, college and larger city libraries. But, because individual volumes of this massive set rarely find their way into the used book market, it is an infrequent item in private collections. Credit must be given to the Canadian Plains Research Center for making this important work available once again. It will be welcomed by a new generation of students.

Assiniboine Warriors painted by Bodner, circa 1830.
Source: National Archives of Canada

Page revised: 14 October 2012

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