Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara
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Since Time Immemorial
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Village Life & the Turning of the Seasons
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Eagle Trapping
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The Fur Trade
Story of a Medal
Making Treaties
The Shrinking Reservation
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Note: The contents of this page are selected from stories gathered by Gilbert Wilson while living with the Hidatsa people in the early part of the 20th century. The sketches were drawn by Goodbird.
The Mandan leaders Red Buffalo Cow and Bad Gun or Rushing Eagle (Charging Eagle) in full ceremonial dress.
Courtesy State Historical Society of North Dakota Museum Collections 0410-066.

Knife River > Culture > Eagle Trapping
A Third Eagle


Goodbird and the Old Eagle Pit

"This account was given me by Goodbird on a visit we made by wagon to the pits described, in the summer of 1910. It was written after our return to camp. - G. L. W."

image "The pit used by Packs-wolf's father about 1885, was about two and a half feet deep. Goodbird said an eagle pit should be about five feet square (the measurements of the present pit) and three and a half or four feet deep, permitting the hunter to sit with his head free of the cover.

"The pit was dug in the earth, the dirt walls being sufficiently strong to prevent a cave-in. After it was abandoned, the rains and winter's snows were apt to cause the pit walls to cave in, so that if the pit were used a second year, the walls had to be rebuilt with stones and small logs or poles. In the pit here described, the small logs and stones were still embedded in the walls. Some of the sticks that made the frame of the cover remained.

"A small stone lying on the ground near by, Goodbird thought might be the 'eagle stone.' It was the size of one's fist and was placed in a sacred hole a foot under the surface of the ground (apparently in the pit's wall), on a bunch of sage. The Hidatsa name of the stone is mi-daka, from mi', stone, and daka, the young of an animal, as a colt of calf.

"The hunter sat in an eagle pit on a bunch of grass, with his head to the north, his feet to the south. A stuffed, white jack rabbit or stuffed coyote was placed outside for bait, with the lung of a buffalo secured near by. Fresh blood was poured over the lung each day. The bait lay on the west side of the pit.
image "The pit was always dug on a promontory into the Missouri River, or between two points where eagles were likely to fly, looking for food. Pits might be dug on either side of the Missouri, but always on bluffs that faced the west, since eagles always came down on a west wind.
"The pit cover was made of small poles that crossed one another like lattice work and was covered with small brush and grass. The hunter raised the cover with his head.
image "The hunter tied the feet and wings of the eagle and carried it to the camp in the timber. "If only one or two eagles were caught, they might be released after the tail feathers had been plucked. If a larger number were caught, some of them would be killed for the wings to make fans and plume arrows.
"Three eagle tails yielded enough feathers to make one good war-bonnet, or maicu-mapuka" (eagle-hat) (Wilson 1929).
Goodbird's sketch of the framework of the Hunting Lodge.
A Third Eagle

The following is from a narrative by Wolf-chief, a Hidatsa, born about 1849, interpreted by Edward Goodbird, his nephew, and recorded in 1915.

"Finally, a good wind blew and we took our bait to the pits. Looking up out of my pit I saw a white spot in the air. 'That is an eagle,'I said to myself. I watched a long time and was growing inattentive, when I heard a slight rustling noise. I carefully raised my head and peeking out over the pit's edge, I saw the head of an eagle that was walking toward the pit. It was a white-headed eagle. It came up on the east side of the pit, quite to its edge, and appeared to be looking upon it. I was eager to catch the bird but was afraid, for I had heard that white-headed eagles never get excited, and that it was very difficult to catch one as it faced the hunter.

"The eagle stood on the edge of the pit a long time. 'I had better try to catch it,'I thought, 'or the bird will fly away.'But I was still fearful lest the bird fight me. I had heard many tales from old men; how dangerous white-headed eagles were and how they struggled and fought, so that it was almost impossible to catch one facing the hunter. No matter how quick the hunter is with his hands, I was told, the eagle will be quicker!

"Kneeling in the pit on one knee, I raised my hands carefully and thrust them suddenly forward to seize the eagle's legs. The eagle appeared to be looking right down at me as I did this and was so close that I thought it could hear the beatings of my heart. I caught the bird by both legs simultaneously; but in my excitement I raised my head, thus lifting the pit cover a little and the eagle struck at me with its beak. I turned my head slightly and avoided the blow. I climbed out of the pit and twisting over the eagle's legs turned it over on its breast; I put my left knee on the bird's back and tried to tie its legs and wings. image

"The eagle struggled fiercely, nearly throwing me off and threatening at times to fly away with me on its back! I was in real fear of being hurt, for white-headed eagles are strong. When at last I had the eagle bound, it began to quiver and pant, and seemed to get excited.

"I caught all three eagles, thus, crouched on one knee. One had to be constantly alert. An eagle never stopped long on the bait, only a moment, and one must be ready to seize it.

"My father once seized a four-spot eagle that put its claws through his arm; however the wound was not deep, because the eagle did not have a firm hold. Another man also was wounded by an eagle; the bird's claws went quite through his arm.
"With my eagle's legs tied, I plucked out the tail feathers in the usual way and wove them into a naksúti. I bore the eagle to our camp. It was not quite noon yet. I now had three eagles on the log.
"In olden days the hunters of my tribe did not care to catch white-headed eagles because they were dangerous birds that fought and because their feathers were not used to make war-bonnets and their value therefore was not high" (Wilson: 1929).
A Look Back through Time

"This eagle-trapping lodge is located along the Little Missouri River in the Badlands of North Dakota. These lodges were used to conduct the rites associated with the complex eagle-trapping ceremony; eagle-trapping pits were dug on top of prominent buttes for the actual act of catching eagles. This lodge is probably over a hundred years old; a picture was taken of this lodge in 1916. It is located over 150 miles from the ancestral village sites of the Mandan and Hidatsa. Our people were well-known for their ability to trap eagles, and craftwork with feathers" (Calvin Grinnell).

Calvin Grinnell
stands next to the remains of an eagle trapping lodge.

Note: The contents of this page are selected from stories gathered by Gilbert Wilson while living with the Hidatsa people in the early part of the 20th century. The sketches were drawn by Goodbird.

Background courtesy of North Dakota Game and Fish: Missouri River.