Assiniboine River, Manitoba To Elk Island, Alberta, Metis Country


"From the waterfall he named her, Minnehaha, Laughing Water." The Song of Hiawatha (1855), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Winter began moving into the Great Plains of Canada in 2016 during the last week of September. I passed modest undulations of cultivated land alternating with flatness stretching hundreds of miles from Winnipeg across the Manitoba/Saskatchewan border in the wet. Rain is a somber nutrient for the vast fields of wheat, barley, soybeans and a multitude of crops the make Manitoba and Saskatchewan prosperous but thinly populated. The Assiniboine River basin, along with the Saskatchewan River(s) -- a north and east branch, are the major depressions that carve out irrigation channels within the prairies stretching from the Dakotas to the Arctic lands in the far boreal north.

Josiah Gregg, who crossed the Plains of the US numerous times in its early development days, wrote in Commerce of the Prairies that the prairie country was dangerous but not in the way most people image. Gregg said the danger lay not in Indians but in the magic elixir of freedom and lonesome individualism. "The air of the Plains rendered civilized men unfit for the East–its towns full of narrow streets, its houses full of airless rooms, its people confined by girdles and neckties." (from the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, edited by David Wishart).

Some First Nations (native American) populations in this area are assigned the Assiniboine name, but their closest relations are the Lakota people or the Sioux, who also inhabit large parts of Alberta, Montana, and the Dakotas. The Assiniboine are also known as the Hohe and by the endonym Nakota (or Nakoda or Nakona). They were members of the so-called Iron Confederacy with the Plains Cree.

The Lewis and Clark expedition's journals mention the Assiniboine, whom the American explorers heard about while returning down the Missouri River. Apparently they never met members of this tribe, however. In their time, rain and snow falling on the eastern side of the Plains supported a "veritable meadow": grasses six feet high (tall grass prairie), set among deciduous trees like oak and hickory. To the west, typically at an elevation of 2,000 feet, that virgin prairie gave way to a steppe-like hills where trees were scarce, except for stream bank cottonwoods, and the grass was shorter.