Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara

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MANDAN, HIDATSA, ARIKARA. The tribes known today as the Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Bert-hold Indian Reservation had separate origins but shared a village lifestyle in the Missouri River Valley. They built fortified towns of circular earth lodges on the river terraces, and lived by hunting buffalo and farming corn, squash, melons, beans, and tobacco. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries their villages were commercial hubs; at annual trade fairs they exchanged agricultural produce, horses, and goods, such as flint tools and fine quillworks for the products of the Sioux, Cheyennes, Pawnees, Arapahos, Crees, Assiniboines, and Crows. Village life was organized around age-grade societies, which had ceremonial, social, and civic duties, and matrilineal clans. Both individuals and clans attained power through ownership of sacred bundles, the oldest of which were linked to mythic cycles that were periodically re-enacted in spectacular ceremonies. The most famous ceremony, the Mandan's Okipa, was a weeklong observance that culminated in the Sun Dance.

The languages of the three tribes were mutually incomprehensible. The languages of the Mandans and the Hidatsas were both Siouan, but dissimilar. The Arikaras (Sahnish) spoke a Caddoan language and were closely related to the Pawnees of Nebraska, where they probably originated. By the 1600s, the Mandans lived in a cluster of villages around the Heart River near present Bismarck, North Dakota, where they were first visited in 1738 by Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, sieur de la Vérendrye. The Hidatsas were comprised of three village groups—the Awatixa, Awaxawi, and Hidatsas—with disparate origins to the north and east, who were living near each other on the Knife River near Stanton, North Dakota, by the eighteenth century. Early visitors referred to them confusingly as Gros Ventres, Big Bellies, or Minitarees.

The movement of Sioux tribes onto the Plains in the eighteenth century gave the village Indians a formidable new enemy. A smallpox pandemic from 1780 to 1782 decimated the villages and left them vulnerable.

The Mandans and Hidatsas consolidated for mutual defense. In the 1830s, they were made famous by artists George Catlin and Karl Bodmer, who visited the flourishing Knife River Villages and their attendant trading

post, Fort Clark. Yet, a new smallpox epidemic in 1837 reduced the Hidatsas by half and nearly wiped out the Mandans, including their great leader Four Bears. Again the tribes moved north to found a single village named Like-a-Fishhook, to which was attached the American Fur Company post of Fort Berthold. There, traditional life again took hold. The Arikara joined them in 1860s.

The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 defined over 12.6 million acres of western North Dakota as Mandan Hidatsa land, but executive orders in 1870 and 1880 reduced that to 1.2 million without tribal consent. Starting in 1886 the Fort Berthold Reservation was allotted to individual tribal members, breaking up the age-old village lifestyle and scattering families on 160-acre farms. Unallotted land was sold; by 2000 the reservation was still 53% owned by non-Indians. Farming and ranching gave the tribe a measure of prosperity by 1934, when an elected tribal business council was established under the Indian Reorganization Act.

In the 1940s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers devised the Pick-Sloan plan to build a chain of massive dams on the Missouri River. When the Garrison Dam was completed in 1954, all the arable bottomland on Fort Berthold Reservation, where 90% of the tribe lived, was covered by Lake Sakakawea—ironically named for the Indian heroine Lewis and Clark had met among the Hidatsas. Only the arid, rugged uplands remained. The result was instant poverty.

The years after 1954 were spent in recovery from the dam's devastating effects. New towns such as New Town, Mandaree, and White Shield replaced older communities. The tribe developed the Four Bears Recreation Area, the Four Bears Casino, and the Fort Berthold Community College to provide training, employment, and cultural renewal. Tribal enrollment in 2000 was 8,400, of which 3,776 lived on the reservation.


Gilman, Carolyn, and Mary Jane Schneider. The Way to Independence: Memories of a Hidatsa Indian Family, 1840–1920. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987.

Meyer, Roy W. The Village Indians of the Upper Missouri: TheMandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977.

Schneider, Mary Jane. North Dakota Indians: An Introduction. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt, 1986.


See alsoTribes: Great Plains .