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
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  Intertribal Trade
The Fur Trade
Story of a Medal
Making Treaties
The Shrinking Reservation
References Cited

The Mandan leader,
Bad Gun or Rushing Eagle (Charging Eagle) in full ceremonial dress. From the photographic archive of the State Historical Society of North Dakota Museum Collections 0410-066.
Bad Gun
Courtesy of Three Tribes Museum
In 1946, a Boundary Convention was held at Shell Creek (one of the villages before the Garrison Dam), to discuss the territorial boundaries established by the Fort Laramie Treaty. At this time, it was confirmed that "Pipestone, Minnesota, is said to be a Mandan Village once upon a time."

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Hazel Blake tells Hidatsa origin story.

Knife River > Culture > Who's Who

Portion of Knife River Villages, from pictograph by Sitting Rabbit.
Courtesy of State Historical Society of North Dakota

The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (Sahnish) now live together as the Three Affiliated Tribes on the Fort Berthold Reservation in west-central North Dakota, encompassing Lake Sakakawea. Origin stories and anthropological evidence document a complex sequence of movements prior to the arrival in the Knife-Heart region of the Missouri River by various bands of the Mandan with the Hidatsa over the last 900 years, followed by the Arikara in the early 19th century.

The cultural roots of the Siouan-speaking Mandan and Hidatsa are very different from those of the Caddoan-speaking Arikara, but for the last thousand years they have lived similar lifestyles along the Missouri River. At the time the Magna Carta was signed in Europe, the grandparents' grandparents of these Missouri River tribes were raising corn, beans and other cultigens and participating in a vast network of inter-tribal trade.

The ancestors of the Hidatsa and Mandan came from the same roots, long, long ago but their migration traditions are separate and distinct. The Hidatsa are believed to have separated from other proto-Siouan-speakers over two thousand years ago, based on the study of language differences among the different groups. The Mandan appear to have separated somewhat later, perhaps sixteen centuries ago. Prior to arriving on the Great Plains, along the Missouri River, their stories tell of living in the woodlands to the east.

Leggings, a Mandan man, and his daughter in 1904
. Olin D. Wheeler photograph courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago


Before the smallpox epidemic of 1837, when so many Mandan people died, they called themselved Numakaki, or simply "People" (Matthews 1877:14). The Mandan retain two distinct origin stories; one in which they originated in their traditional territory around the mouth of the Heart River, and another in which they originated on the west bank of the Mississippi at its mouth, near the ocean, where they emerged from beneath the earth, bringing corn with them (Bowers 1950:156-163).

Edwin Benson
Photo courtesy of Calvin Grinnell
Long, long ago the Numakaki traveled northward along the Mississippi to the mouth of the Missouri, where they lived for a time. Then they moved far to the north along the Mississippi, planting corn as they went. Later they traveled overland to the southwest and settled near the pipestone quarries in Minnesota. Then one clan moved to a place north of the Turtle Mountains where they stayed for a time before moving to the Missouri River. The other clans moved southward, then westward to the Missouri, where they settled opposite the mouth of the White River. According to tradition, the Awigaxa band vanished around this time. Some of them returned later, but they talked differently. The rest of the tribe moved northward until they settled around the mouth of the Heart River. Here the ancestral Buffalo People were created.

At the same time that one group of Mandans settled the Heart River area, other Mandans remained far to the south, still wandering. According to their oral tradition, for a time they even lived away from the Missouri, around the Black Hills, where they fought with the Cheyenne (Schlesier 1994:343). Eventually
they settled around the mouths of the Cheyenne, Moreau, and Grand Rivers (Bowers 1948:96). About 500 years ago, these villages moved to the Heart
and Knife River area, where they settled with some of the Hidatsa people.


The traders had many different names for the Hidatsa Indians. They were often called Gros Ventres or the English translation of that, Big Bellies, and also Minnetares. The name Minnetaree, spelled in various ways means, "to cross the water," a name given to them by the Mandans when they first came together, and the Mandans helped them to cross the water. They were also called the Willow Indians tribe and the Ena-sa, which is what they called themselves. Hidatsa was formerly the name of a village occupied by these tribes, which has been said to mean "willows." Some people mistakenly believe they were called the Flying Fall, or simply Fall, Indians, but this was a term used to refer to the Gros Ventres of the Prairie, the Atsina, not the Gros Ventres of the Missouri.

What is now known as the Hidatsa tribe is the amalgamation of three groups, the Hidatsa proper, the Awatixa, and the Awaxawi (or Amahami) (Bowers 1965). These groups had different histories and only came together after they settled on the Missouri.

The Amahami have a tradition similar to that of the Mandan, where they emerged from the earth, long ago, far to the southeast. Like the Mandan, they traveled northward, where they settled at Devil's Lake. Later they moved westward to the Painted Woods (near Square Buttes) and settled near a village of Mandan and another of Awatixa.

The Awatixa originated not from the earth, but from the sky, led by Charred Body (Wood and Hanson 1986:34). According to their tradition, their first people lived near Painted Woods, "where they were created" (Bowers 1948:17-18). After that they always lived between the Heart and Knife Rivers along the Missouri.

The Hidatsa proper, still with those who would become the River Crow, separated from the Amahami in what is now western Minnesota. First they settled to the north, then later moved south to Devil's Lake. In their travels they met the Mandans and then moved westward and settled with these distant relatives north of the Knife River. Later they moved to the mouth of Knife River.

Anthropologists place approximate dates on all of these migration stops based on archaeological evidence and linguistic information. The Mandan are believed to have moved from the area of southern Minnesota and northern Iowa to the plains in South Dakota in about 900 A.D., and slowly migrated north along the Missouri River to North Dakota around 1000 A.D. The Hidatsa moved from central Minnesota to the eastern part of North Dakota near Devil's Lake, and moved to join the Mandan at the Missouri River about 1600 A.D.

Arikara (Sahnish)

Oral historians say the names "Arikara", "Arickara", "Ricaree"s, and "Rees" were given to them by their relatives, the Pawnee, to describe the way they wore their hair. In the Arikara Genesis as told by Four Rings, Priest of the Hukawirat Sacred Bundle, Sahnish means "people". Melvin Gilmore tells that,

"Arikara is not the name by which this people call themselves, but the name by which they were called by the Mandan. They call themselves Sahnish, meaning "people". Other Indian people they call saNIsahnis, while they call white people sahNIstaaka, 'take' being word for 'white' in their language."

Like the Mandan and Hidatsa, the Sahnish are comprised of many small bands or villages of Caddoan-speaking people who ultimately, after much traveling and strife, came to live together and to be recognized by others as one people. These groups, along with those who became the Pawnee, lived for hundreds of years along the Platte and Loup and other rivers in the Central Plains, where they raised crops and hunted. They were living in northeast Nebraska when the Omaha arrived, and the Arikara taught them to build earthlodges and to plant and tend corn (Fletcher and LaFlesche 1911).

Arikara chief White Parfleche (White Shield),
drawing by Philippe Regis Denis de Keredern de Trobriand(Manchou). Photographic archive of the State
Historical Society of North Dakota, no. 87.35.3.

According to Arikara tradition, they came from the east. They faced many dangers and obstacles, but continued moving westward until they stopped at a beautiful place where Corn Mother taught them how to live and work. They say that this beautiful place was along the Loup River, where they lived before they wandered westward, and eventually settled along the Missouri. The story upon which this is based was passed down from an Arikara elder named Hand to a Skiri Pawnee who could speak Arikara (a related language), and published by George Dorsey in 1904 (Schneider 1994:29-30).

Although sharing cultures and histories for so long, and governing the reservation jointly, the people keep a distinct sense of tribal relationships. They have their own communities on the Fort Berthold Reservation where they continue to practice their own distinct traditions.