Assiniboine, Dakota (Northeastern Montana)

Standing bull bison

The Place

This circle represents the Fort Peck Reservation. Fort Peck is located in far northeast Montana adjacent to the Missouri River, and is geographically a part of the Great Plains. The landscape is now checkered with agriculture, mineral extraction, and livestock grazing, but it was once a sweeping expanse of mixed grass prairie and home to vast herds of bison.

Assiniboine woman with her child

The People

The Assiniboine and Dakota at Fort Peck are subgroups of two separate nations that span the northern Great Plains. After acquiring horses in the 18th Century, both tribes lived as semi-nomads, following herds of bison through the summer to provision themselves through the winter.

The Plants

Purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea):

Purple prairie-clover

This showy wildflower is a widespread member of the legume family that is an indicator of pristine prairie. It is harvested for its substantial taproot, which can extend up to 2 meters into the ground.  The dried leaves can be brewed into tea.

Shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa):

Shrubby cinquefoil

Shrubby cinquefoil is a flowering shrub that thrives on limited amounts of precipitation characteristic of the northern Great Plains.  Shrubby cinquefoil is used for a variety of medicinal uses, and is ceremonially ground into a fine powder and used as a protective barrier to withstand extreme temperatures (such as immersion of the hands in boiling water).

Creeping juniper (Juniperus horizontalis):

Creeping juniper

This low-growing evergreen shrub inhabits prairie slopes and draws. There are several species of juniper in North America, all widely used medicinally and as a source of wood. The aromatic foliage and fleshy, berry-like cones are particularly valued.

Fuzzy-tongue Penstemon (Penstemon eriantherus):

Fuzzy tongue penstemonFuzzy tongue penstemon flower closeup

Fuzzy-tongue penstemon is a native perennial with a woody caudex and heavy taproot. It has one or more stems that are typically 4 to 16 inches tall, and sometimes decumbent at the base of the plant. The flowers are lavender to pale purple with dark guidelines. It was originally collected in Deer Lodge County, Montana in 1998. This species is considered an important food source for many classes of wildlife and birds and both herbage and seeds are utilized. Native American tribes used penstemons as medicinal remedies for humans and animals. Today its primary use is ornamental.

Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana):

Chokecherry berries

Chokecherry is a North American native, perennial, woody shrub or small tree from the Rosaceae (Rose) family. It’s leaves are dark green and glossy above and paler beneath. It has perfect flowers which are aromatic and arranged in cylindrical racemes 3 to 6 inches long. This shrub or small fruit tree grows to 20 feet in height and is primarily used today as a food product that makes fine preserves, juice, jelly, and syrup. Chokecherry occurs naturally in a wide range of soil types and textures. It was used by Native Americans to make pemmican, mixed with elk, deer meat, and fat back which served as traveling rations as well as everyday food.

Purple Fleabane (Erigeron purpuratus):

Purple Fleabane

Purple Fleabane is generally described as a perennial herb. It’s flower petals are thread-like and can be white, but are more often pink, purple, or even a pale shade of bluish. The stems and leaves are covered with short white hairs and the plants can grow anywhere from one to three feet tall. Flowers appear in late spring or early summer and close at night into feathery buds. Often the buds will stay closed in the early morning or on a very cloudy day. It is primarily used to bring down fever and a diaphoretic that eliminates toxins by inducing sweating. The english name, fleabane, is derived from the belief that when dried, the plant repels fleas.

Species List

  • Blanketflower (Gaillardia aristata)
  • Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
  • Fuzzy-tongue penstemon (Penstemon eriantherus)
  • Maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani)
  • Prairie coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)
  • Prarie-smoke (Geum triflorum)
  • Purple coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia)
  • Purple Fleabane (Erigeron purpuratus)
  • Western snowberry (Symphoricarpos occidentalis)
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)