Edward S. Curtis was fascinated by native peoples and memorialized them in photographs taken as he traveled the American West in the early 1900s. One of the tribal groups whose images he captured was the A’aninin, the White Clay people – as they called themselves.
The people were also known as the Atsina or the Gros Ventres of the Prairie. They were a nomadic plains people who followed bison hers and generally were found between the Missouri and Saskatchewan Rivers.
Like most plains groups, they lived in tepees and engaged in trade with other native groups. However, they had received guns and ammunition from the British, which gave them an advantage over many Plains bands like the Shoshone. Unfortunately, their choice of the Blackfoot nation as an enemy left their ranks depleted by war just as the western smallpox epidemic stuck. The combination decimated their numbers and as of the 1990 Census, there were only about 2800 known descendants of the tribe that.
The A’aninin spoke an Algonquian-related language and were related to the Arapaho, but they may have broken off from the Arapaho tribe as early as 1700. Their particular language was unusual because men and women used different pronunciations of the same words. Women used the “k” sound, while men used the “ty” or “ch” sound. Only a handful of elders speak the language today, and in reviving the language, only the male pronunciations were preserved.
They managed to avoid removal to Oklahoma, accepting a reservation in Montana shared by their allies, the Assiniboine people.
(All images reproduced are by Curtis from November 1908 and were retrieved from the Library of Congress photo collection.)