Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara
Traditional Culture
  Who's Who
Since Time Immemorial
All My Relations
Village Life & the Turning of the Seasons
Great River
Eagle Trapping
References Cited

  Contemporary Culture
  Arts and Artists
Recommended Web Sites

  Relationship with U.S.
  Intertribal Trade
The Fur Trade
Story of a Medal
Making Treaties
The Shrinking Reservation
References Cited

From Foolish Woman's
Mandan winter count
photo by Calvin Grinnell
Painted turtles
photo by Jeffrey G. Olson
Fringe-wing, Chief of the Eagles
Sketch by Goobird (Wilson: 1929)

Knife River > Culture > All My Relations
Beaded pipe
Photo by Calvin Grinnell

The stem of a beautifully beaded pipe points towards the west in preparation
for prayer. Looking closer, the object it rests upon reveals itself to be a buffalo skull. The sacred pipe plays a significant role in the traditional religious life of our Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people.

Wooden ceremonial pipe,
sketch by Gilbert Wilson (Wilson: 1929)
Sweat Lodge
The frame of a sweat lodge waits expectantly for the next ceremony within a few hundred yards of a housing complex near Mandaree, the last stronghold of the Hidatsa people on the Fort Berthold Reservation. The sweat lodge ceremony is the most commonly practiced ritual on the reservation, a source of renewal and purification from the stress of daily life. image
Sweat lodge
Photo by Calvin Grinnell
A Turtle Effigy

Photo by Calvin Grinnell
Within traditional Hidatsa territory, on lands later shared with the Mandans, there is a turtle effigy on the edge of a high ridge. The turtle feature measures twenty-one feet from head to tail and is thought to be at least several hundred years old.
The tribal affiliation of the creators is unknown. Some tribes, however, such as the Ojibway, Blackfoot, Sioux, Mandan, and Hidatsa, recognize the importance of the turtle in their religious beliefs and hunting ceremonies.
This story was told to anthropologist Alfred Bowers by Crows Heart (a Mandan - Hidatsa man) from his memory of a hunting expedition in the late 1860's: image
Crows Heart, 1908 photo
Courtesy of Three Tribes Museum
Photo by Calvin Grinnell

"The next night we camped by a circle of stones in the form of a turtle. The gods had arranged these stones, the older man said, for none living had ever seen one of these effigies made. There was a hill nearby and on it was a pile of rocks. The turtle's head was pointed to the river because turtles stay in the water so the gods must have arranged all the turtle outlines in that direction.

"This is the only effigy I ever saw but heard that the old people knew of many others down the river near their old villages and would go there to make offerings. Anyone could make offerings of knives, pieces of hides, or dry meat and other things to eat when asking for rain or other good luck such as living to be old. If they had children, they would ask the gods that go with the turtle to send good luck. To give to the turtle was the same as giving to all the other gods that went with the bundle.

"While we stopped near the turtle, people made offerings to the turtle and the other gods that went with it. Some left knives but in the olden times the flint knife was given, for the flint was the sign of the big birds who go with the turtle and the other gods in the Missouri and the creeks around.

"After we moved on from this turtle it was so foggy one day that the leader could hardly find his way. The hunters had to hold each other's hands to keep from getting lost. An Arikara brought a knife and gave it to Clam Necklace (Mandan with a Thunder or Big Bird bundle) and asked him to try to clear the fog. Clam Necklace took the knife and marked out the shape of a turtle on the ground. When he finished shaping the turtle, he prayed to the turtle, telling him that the people could not go any farther and asked the turtle to clear the fog away. Then he stuck the knife in front of the turtle image, saying that the knife belonged to the turtle and the other six things in the water. It was not long afterwards, and while the men were standing around the image, that the fog cleared away from where the turtle lay. Then it cleared out in a circle around the turtle, growing larger and larger, until the fog entirely disappeared. Those who were connected with the big birds and the snakes of the Okipa were the ones to pray" (Bowers: 1965).

Turtle and other effigies are rare and fragile resources. Vehicle traffic, unauthorized digging, souvenir collection, and cultivation have destroyed many of these sites.

Link to diagram of a turtle effigy

Spirit Helpers
The first two of the stories told here were written by John Hunts Along, a young Hidatsa Indian. The first story follows:
Long before Lake Sakakawea...

"There is a lake on the bottom lands of the Missouri River between Shell Creek and Elbowoods on the reservation. The old people say that, not many years ago, this lake was very deep. In those times there were people living in the lake, under the water. Many who passed there used to hear the sound of voices, as the dwellers in the lake were talking or singing. Often also dogs were heard barking, and sometimes the sound of the war drum came from under the water when the lake people were having their dances.
Now this lake is only a few feet deep in the deepest places. The old people say that one of the missionaries put poison in the lake and either killed the people there or made them go away. The poison made the lake dry up and become shallow also."

Adapted from 1884 George Cram Map, Dakota.
Courtesy of South Dakota State Historical Society
Sun Dogs, by Matthew Hastings. From the Midwest Jesuit Archives, De Smetiana papaers, Linton Album.
Used with permission from the Midwest Jesuit Archives, St. Louis, MO.

The next story tells how John Hunts Along got the Indian name of John Hunts Along, the Man who stands up in the air:

"He bought the name from his grandfather, Hairy Coat, who obtained it in the following manner. One night while sleeping, he dreamed that he saw the sun standing a little ways above the western horizon. As he looked the sun became a man and talked to him. The sun man told him that he would help him in all he undertook, and told him to make a big shield with the sun painted on it for his medicine. When Hairy Coat woke up he took his name from this man in the sun, and he made a shield as the man had directed. This shield he sold with the name to his grandson.
Hairy Coat was a great medicine man; he could make it rain or hail whenever he wished, and he could go into a fight and never be injured by the enemies' weapons. Once when the Sioux were beating the Hidatsa he made a big hail storm come up, which frightened and confused the Sioux so that they ran away."

The following story tells how a man acquired his guardian spirit, the rabbit:



"Some men went out one time to get into pits so as to catch war eagles. As they were returning toward evening one man stopped on the way and sat down. As he was looking around he saw an eagle chasing a rabbit. The rabbit was running round and round in a circle, and every little while the eagle would make a swoop for him. At each swoop the eagle would come nearer to catching the rabbit. The rabbit kept drawing closer and closer to the man, and as the eagle made a last great swoop the rabbit jumped into the man's lap and the eagle failed to get him.
Then the eagle said to the man, 'Put him down! I am hungry and want to eat him.'
The rabbit said to the man, 'Save me! If you do I will make you very renowned.'
Then the eagle said, 'Put him down. I will help you. Whatever I say is true. My feet never touch the ground, and whatever I undertake I never fail.'
The rabbit answered, 'It is true that my feet are on the ground, but whatever I attempt, I too succeed in.'
And the man saved the rabbit, and the rabbit made him powerful, and always helped him in times of trouble."




(eagle and rabbit images courtesy of North Dakota Game & Fish)

Background: Courtesy of the Linden-Museum Stuttgart,
photo by Anatol Dreyer