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

Sandhill Crane
Photo courtesy of North Dakota Game and Fish

Swainsons Hawk
Photo courtesy of North Dakota Game and Fish

Photo courtesy of Calvin Grinnell


Indian Cornfield
From Gilbert Wilson Papers, courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society, neg #23389.

Hidatsa Woman
From Gilbert Wilson Papers, courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society, Neg #8377.

Winter Berries
S. Thompson photo

Snow Drifts
North Dakota Game & Fish.

Photo courtesy of North Dakota Game and Fish
Horses, in Turtle Mountains
Photo courtesy of North Dakota Game and Fish

Wood duck pair
North Dakota Game & Fish.

Painted turtles
Jeffrey G. Olson photo.

Knife River > Culture > Village Life and Turning of the Seasons
Fall: Ptahna Maa-Dah Weego
K. Furrow photo

The year begins as the sun begins to wane. Nights turn cold and daylight gets noticeably shorter as the earth turns away from the sun. Cold winds remind everyone of the need to prepare for the long winter.

In days past, the flocking together of the waterbirds in preparation for their journey south marked the beginning of fall, and time for one of two annual corn dances, after which the sweet corn was harvested.
Canada Geese
Courtesy of N. Dakota Game and Fish

"In this dance each woman carried a whole stalk of corn. The corn was called by the name of the water bird which represented it, and a prayer was made to the Old Woman Who Never Dies through these birds. The birds going south were supposed to carry these prayers to their mistress, and in this dance each old woman made a sacrifice of some valuable article" (Will and Spinden, 1906:145).

Knife River flint artifacts.
Photo by Weber Greiser
Ripe corn and beans were harvested during "the moon of ripe corn." These villages grew much more than they would ever consume. This bounty and their pivotal location allowed them an important role in the native trade network and, later, in the trade with Europeans, Canadians and Euro-Americans. Other tribes came to them for dried produce, tanned hides, for which they were highly regarded, and painted plumes (Verendrye, cited in Will and Spinden 1906:128). Before metal became available, Knife River Flint was another important commodity within Hidatsa control.

During "the moon of the fall of leaves" the women had the important work of drying the crops and fruits for winter. They filled their huge underground cache pits with their labors. Prince Maximilian was impressed by 500 to 800 bushels of corn cached in the Mandan village, in addition to great quantities of beans, squash, meat, berries, and roots. Lewis and Clark were able to buy corn in 30-bushel lots throughout their winter with the Mandans.

Red gumbo soil
N. Dakota Game & Fish Dept.
Since the 1950s, the harvest comes from the grocery store rather than the fields. The gumbo soils of the uplands, where most members of the Three Affiliated Tribes have been settled since the flooding of their fields and villages, are not made for planting.

Tillie Walker has planted a traditional garden of corn, beans and squash at the Fort Berthold Community College, using seeds cached in villages at Knife River by her ancestors more than 160 years ago. When the crops are harvested, community elders are guests at a feast of the produce.

Black Bear taught the Hidatsa how to catch eagles, and the Mandan trapped them too.

"The hunters usually went to the Bad Lands to hunt them. There a pit was dug in some likely place. Bait of small pieces of meat was scattered about, after which the hunter concealed himself in the pit, dragging over the top a covering of branches with bait upon them. Then he waited patiently, often for a day or more 'till a bird should alight on the branches; as soon as this happened the bird was grasped and pulled down into the pit where it was dispatched and the hunter waited for another" (Will and Spinden, 1906:121-22).

The first snows signaled the time for hunting buffalo, antelope, elk, deer, and bighorns. Small groups of hunters, under the leadership of the Soldier Band (Mandan), would go out until they had meat to bring back to the village, where it was distributed throughout the community. The Mandans stayed close to home on these hunting expeditions, whereas their Hidatsa neighbors traveled far and wide in search of meat. Sometimes they joined their Crow cousins on the Yellowstone for bison hunts.

A winter chief was chosen from the successful warriors to lead the move to a winter settlement before snow covered the ground. Firewood was the most important factor in choosing a site, although protection from winter winds was also important, as was potable water. Where the terraces provided ideal summer village locations, winter camps were placed in protected, wooded bottomlands, several miles from the summer village.

During "The Moon of the freezing rivers," the people settled into their winter camps. Lodges, generally like the summer lodges, were quickly erected but, because they would only be used for a season, they were simpler, cruder, and smaller. Once the lodges were ready for occupancy, the people were ready to face the long winter of the northern plains.
Missouri River
S. Thompson photo
Winter: Mahna Maa-Daah Psi'u
Knife River
S.Thompson photo

When winter stores had been safely put away and people had settled at the winter village, the story-telling season began and lasted during the long months of "the moon of the seven cold days," "the moon of the rut of wolves," and "the moon of the sore eyes." Long nights in the lodges were the time for the stories of the people to be passed on to the next generation. In lodge days, only certain people owned rights to particular stories, and others could not tell them. With publication of many traditional stories, ownership has shifted to the community.

The winter chief had the privilege and responsibility of calling the buffalo herds during "the moon of the little cold." This was a ritual calling, important to the success of winter hunting. Calling the Buffalo began on the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Bundle holders and women who were members of the Buffalo Cow Society fasted and made sacrifices for the successful call. They continued until an adequate supply of buffalo gathered near the camp.

The Winter chief was a source of advice and help for the whole village, and the successes and failures of the winter village were his responsibility. The main work of the men during this time of year was hunting while the women gathered firewood. The men also restored their toolkits and the women prepared clothing and did other household chores.

Spring: We'hinu Mi-Ra-Go-Tah Hunaaneeka

Snow may still fall and the cold wind may still howl, but people near the Big Bend of the Missouri River, ever mindful of the natural world, notice the subtle early signs of spring. The great blanket of ice on the river begins to crack and move, while geese, swans and ducks fill the sky upon their return from the south country. In the days when buffalo still roamed the plains, this was "the moon of the river break-up," when everyone looked forward to the hoop and pole game. Once the snow was gone, the men of the village gathered to throw their poles into the hoop-net, making a spiritual request for a good buffalo hunt. A successful throw meant a successful hunt. When the game was over and the river was flowing, the hoop was thrown into the water as an offering to the spirit powers.

The return of the waterfowl marked the time when people left the winter villages and returned to their summer villages. Unlike the winter camps, which changed every year, the summer villages were used year after year, as long as the land was fertile and wood could be obtained to meet their daily needs.
Snow geese flock
K. Furrow photo

The first task for the women when they returned to the summer village was to restore the lodges to good condition. During "the moon of sowing," as soon as the earth was ready and the Goose Society had welcomed the waterbirds home, the old women of the Mandan villages danced the second annual Corn Dance, each holding an ear of corn on a stick, while old men accompanied them with music. The ceremony gave honor to the "Woman Who Never Dies," and through her the corn was blessed for planting. The "Woman Who Never Dies" protects the plants in winter, and in the spring she helps them back to life. The Arikara still honor Mother Corn with a bundle opening and prayers for the health of the plants. Once the ceremonies had been properly conducted, the adult women began tending their gardens, with the help of their children.

For centuries, until the construction of Garrison Dam, the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara people have planted their gardens along this mighty river. The Mandans and Arikara were more dependent upon their gardens than the Hidatsa, who planted but also spent much of their time on the hunt. All three tribes planted corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers in the rich loam of the Missouri floodplain, while singing songs passed down through the generations. Tobacco, a ritual plant, was also planted and harvested, but the women took no part in this activity; the sacred tobacco gardens were tended only by men.

Prince Maximilian, who, with Karl Bodmer, spent many months with the Mandan and Hidatsa in 1833-34, records that each family cultivated 12 to 15 acres, divided into three fields. They practiced crop rotation when the nutrients had been spent. They used digging sticks and hoes made of buffalo scapulae to work the soil.

"My grandmother was one of the last women of my tribe to cling to these old-fashioned implements. When hoeing time came, she hoed the corn with a bone hoe. This hoe my grandmother kept in the lodge under her bed; and when any of the children of the household tried to get it out to look at it, she would cry, 'Let that hoe alone; you will break it!'
Maxi-diwiac (Buffalo-Bird-Woman) ca. 1912."
Woman with bonehoe
G. Wilson photo
Minn. Historical Society.
Neg #21612

Wood was such an important commodity that these groups gathered, conserved and recycled as much as they could. Alexander Henry, in 1806, described how effectively they acquired driftwood carried by spring run-off in order to minimize depleting all the standing trees in the neighborhood of the summer villages:

Heart River flooded in spring
N. Dakota Game & Fish
"This wood they collect in the spring when the ice breaks up, and when great quantities of this wood floats down and the natives being such expert swimmers and so very active in managing the large trees, that there is scarcely one that escapes them until they have a sufficient stock for the year...I observed laying opposite to each village an immense pile of wood, and some trees of amazing size" (quoted in Thiessen 1980a:93-94).

Today, spring activities include branding of calves, honoring warriors on Memorial Day, and the Warbonnet Dance.

Summer: Nasgah Awa-Aree AwiritkAt

The summer rains and sunshine coax the crops along and bring berries to ripeness. The three moons of summer are named for the sequence of ripening fruit; first the june-berries, then choke-cherries, which are followed by wild plums. Families still pick berries, especially for use in feasts and ceremonies, but they are not as important as they once were. Along with june-berries, women dug for the roots of the prairie turnip, or pomme blanche. These tasty roots were peeled and eaten fresh, raw or cooked, and many more were dried for the winter food supply.

Once the hard work of weeding the gardens was under control, hunting groups left again to bring in fresh meat. They also fished, caught turtles, and hunted rabbits, ducks and geese, giving them a wonderful and varied diet between what they raised, gathered, and hunted.

During these warm months the village was full of life. Children played games and swam. Women had a game played with a large decorated leather ball. Men participated in archery contests, foot races - many miles long - and horse races run in a circle around the village. The men also played Skohpe.

The first crop to ripen was the squash. At the same time the ripening corn had to be protected from birds, always waiting for their opportunity to share in the bounty.
image        image
Hidatsa drying squash
Gilbert Wilson photos
Minnesota Historical Society.
Neg #42094 and #82700

Summer highlights in contemporary culture are the powwow celebrations, the Sun Dance, adopted from the Lakota in the 1980's, and the traditional "Give-away".