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

Mandan Bullboat; made by Owl Woman and Many Growths. Collected by Gilbert Wilson, 1916. Cowhide stretched hair side out over a frame of wooden rods tied with tanned hide and cotton strips. H. 55 cm, D. 138 cm. Science Museum of Minnesota A76:2:399
(Gilman: 1987).

"Bullboats, so called because the largest were made from buffalo bull hides, were made by stretching a hide over a framework of pliable wood. The boats were almost round and the best ones were flat on the bottom for stability. Goodbird explained, "A bullboat is usually paddled by one person, kneeling, (or sometimes sitting,) in the forward part of the boat and dipping the paddle directly before. In old times the bullboat was rather a woman's craft, tho men used it also (Wilson: 1911)."

Knife River > Culture > Great River
Distant View of the Mandan Village. Plate 45. Catlin. The Manners, Customs and Condition of the North American Indians. London, 1892. Archives & Rare Books Department, University of Cincinnati;
Copyright, University of Cincinnati Digital Press.
Life Along the Missouri
"Missouri River was a lifeline. Awati is Hidatsa name for river. It was very important to them." - Hazel Blake, Hidatsa elder.
Swimming & Fishing

George Catlin gave a detailed account of swimming technique he observed in 1833:

"The mode of swimming amongst the Mandans, as well as amongst most of the other tribes, is quite different from that practiced in those parts of the civilized world, which I have had the pleasure yet to visit. The Indian, instead of parting his hands simultaneously under the chin, and making the stroke outward, in a horizontal direction, causing thereby a serious strain upon the chest, throws his body alternately upon the left and the right side, raising one arm entirely above the water and reaching as far forward as he can, to dip it, whilst his whole weight and force are spent upon the one that is passing under him, and like a paddle propelling him along; whilst this arm is making a half circle, and is being raised out of the water behind him, the opposite arm is describing a similar arch in the air over his head, to be dipped in the water as far as he can reach before him, with the hand turned under, forming a sort of bucket, to act most effectively as it passes in its turn underneath him.

"By this bold and powerful mode of swimming, which may want the grace that many would wish to see, I am quite sure, from the experience I have had, that much of the fatigue and strain upon the breast and spine are avoided, and that a man will preserve his strength and his breath much longer in this alternate and rolling motion, than he can in the usual mode of swimming, in the polished world" (Catlin: 1891).

Dr. F.V. Hayden reports:

"The Arikaras are also good fishermen, and take the fish by placing pens made of willows in the eddies of the Missouri. The fish entering the door of the pen or basket, it is closed, and often large numbers are thus secured. The Arikaras are also good swimmers, venturing out on floating cakes of ice when the Missouri breaks in the spring, and bringing ashore the bodies of drowned buffalo that are drifting by" (Hayden: 1862).

Crossing the River

This crossing story told to Gilbert L. Wilson in August, 1913, by Wolf-chief, an Hidatsa, born about 1849 (sketches by Goodbird: 1913):

"On the bluff on the west side of the river was an eagle's next. I wanted to cross to see if I could capture the young ones which I thought old enough to be taken from the nest. I made a raft of two logs joined together in a V shape, with cross pieces laid on top and lashed down with rawhide ropes. I made a temporary paddle of cottonwood bark around which I doubled a green willow, cut a little thinner in the center, with the two ends joined and twisted together, and lashed it with willow withes.

image "I did not take long to make the raft. I picked up a few logs on the bank and bound the cross pieces with two rawhide ropes which I wound in and out, as I needed. Two extra pieces of logs about eight inches thick were laid lengthwise on top of the raft to receive the robe upon which I sat.


"I laid my leggings and moccasins with the robe, thus making a cushion to sit on. I kept on my shirt. In paddling, I used the paddle alternately on either side of the raft. Sometimes I let my feet dangle in the water.

"Whenever we crossed the Missouri, even in a bull-boat, we always removed our moccasins and at least partly stripped, laying aside our leggings. Crossing was always dangerous; a bull-boat might be punctured and sink, or some other accident might befall us and we would be thrown into the water. Therefore, we stripped to the clout whenever we crossed the river, for the water of the Missouri is very muddy and soon filled one's clothing, making it hard to swim. In crossing the river in old times a woman removed her leggings and moccasins, but retained her dress" (Wilson: 1929).


Buffalo Bird Woman
gathering wood by boat.
Drawn by Goodbird;
blue carbon and pencil
on tracing paper.

"Near Like-a-Fishhook Village [wood] was rather scarce because we sold so much of it to steam-boats," Buffalo Bird Woman said (Wilson 1913a:303). So women often walked as far as two miles upriver, carrying skin boats along to bring the wood back. "If we went for a whole day we took a lunch along, biscuits, bacon and coffee." Wilson noted that this picture of the loaded boat returning "invoked quite a laugh" from Buffalo Bird Woman when she saw it" (Wilson 1913a: 304-6; Goodbird 1913).

When John Bradbury, a Scottish botanist, visited the Mandan and Hidatsa villages in 1810, he used a traditional method of crossing the river — a ferry!

[1810, June] 28th — "Having selected some silver ornaments which I purposed presenting to She-he-ke, Mr. Brackenridge agreed to accompany me to the Mandan village. We obtained horses from Mr. Lewis for the journey, and about ten o'clock set off. We crossed Knife River at the lower of the Minetaree [Hidatsa] villages, and paid the accustomed price to the squaw who ferried us over; which was, for each of us, three balls and three charges of powder" (Bradbury: 1986).

Background photo of Missouri River near Bismarck, looking south.
Courtesy of North Dakota Game and Fish.