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ETHNONYMS: Agutchaninnewug, Ameshe, Gros Ventres of the Missouri, Hewaktokto, Minitari, Wanukeyena, Wetitsaan


Identification. The Hidatsa are an American Indian group currently located in North Dakota. The name "Hidatsa" is a term of their own derivation that means "willow people," and was used by them to refer to one of their three village Subgroups. Two other subgroups were called "Awatixa" and "Awaxawi." The merging of these latter village groups with the more numerous Hidatsa group led to the use of the latter term as the collective referent for the tribe.

Location. Aboriginally the Hidatsa occupied three villages in the Missouri River valley near the confluence of the Knife River in present-day west-central North Dakota, roughly Between 47° and 48° N and 100° and 102° W.

Demography. As of 1976, the Three Affiliated Tribes (Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara) of North Dakota numbered 2,750. From a precontact high of perhaps 5,000, the Hidatsa decreased to about 3,000 during the early 1800s and approximately 400 by 1876, after which the population began a slow increase to its modern level of about 1,200 in North Dakota. Hidatsa population decline was the result of infectious epidemic diseases of European origin to which the Hidatsa and other tribes had little or no immunity.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Hidatsa language belongs to the Siouan language family. It is most closely related to the Crow language, which was a divergent dialect of Hidatsa. It is more distantly related to Mandan, a separate language spoken by a tribe culturally and geographically close to the Hidatsa. The Hidatsa language is spoken today.

History and Cultural Relations

Mythological evidence suggests that the Hidatsa migrated into the Missouri River valley from the northeast, near Present-day Devils Lake, North Dakota. Acquiring maize agriculture from the Mandan, the Hidatsa established several Villages nearby. Archaeological evidence suggests that some Hidatsa were present in their historically known location by the early 1600s. Nearby groups included the Mandan and Crow, with whom the Hidatsa were allied, and the Dakota, Cheyenne, Assiniboin, and Arikara, all of whom the Hidatsa counted as enemies.

Sustained contact with Europeans began during the late eighteenth century, when the Hidatsa were brought into the fur trade. In 1804, the Hidatsa established peaceful relations with the United States as a result of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. While initially prospering from the fur trade, frequent intertribal warfare with the Dakota, coupled with extensive loss of life from the 1837 smallpox epidemic, caused the Hidatsa to relocate into a single village near the relative safety of Fort Berthold in 1845. The Hidatsa were subsequently joined by the Mandan and Arikara, resulting in the formation of the Three Affiliated Tribes and the Fort Berthold Reservation during the 1860s within traditional Hidatsa territory. Throughout the historic period, the Hidatsa have maintained peaceful relations with the United States.


Aboriginally, Hidatsa villages were built on flood-free terraces of the Missouri River. These permanent villages were located adjacent to bottomland gardening areas and valuable timber stands. Villages were compact and fortified by ditches and palisades. Houses were large, circular, earth-covered Structures built upon a substantial foundation of timber beams and posts. The Hidatsa also constructed more temporary versions of earthlodge encampments in the wooded bottomlands that served as winter quarters.

During the early 1800s, the three Hidatsa subgroups, the Hidatsa proper, Awatixa, and Awaxawi, lived in villages that numbered approximately eighty, fifty, and twenty earthlodges respectively, with populations of about one thousand, seven hundred, and three hundred. By the late 1860s, when the Hidatsa had relocated into a single village and were experiencing the acculturative influences of reservation policies, the square log cabin began to replace the traditional earthlodge. By this time, family size had declined significantly and the Hidatsa were being encouraged to alter their family Structure to the nuclear family model of rural American agrarian life. The cohesive, nucleated earthlodge settlement plan disappeared in the 1880s, when the village was dismantled and the Hidatsa were placed on family allotments and scattered along the Missouri Valley. The creation of Garrison Dam in the 1950s inundated the small farming and ranching communities that the Hidatsa developed in the rich bottomlands of the reservation, and they have been relocated to towns or isolated homes in the upland prairie.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. The Hidatsa were horticulturists, raising maize, beans, squash, and sunflowers using swidden techniques in fertile alluvial bottomlands. Hunting was of equal importance, with major game animals consisting of bison, elk, pronghorn, mule deer, and white-tailed deer. The Hidatsa were able to produce and store surpluses of vegetable crops, which were valuable trade commodities in a widespread Plains intertribal trade system. By the mid-1800s, the Hidatsa began to experience economic hardship as a result of several factors: the military ascendancy of nomadic pastoralist tribes such as the Lakota and Yanktonai Sioux, depopulation from epidemic diseases, and changing fortunes of the fur trade. Beginning with the Reservation era in the 1860s, the Hidatsa incorporated ranching and commercial farming of wheat and other grains into their economy while maintaining subsistence horticulture. The disappearance of bison from North Dakota relegated the hunting of deer and other game to secondary importance. Today, the Hidatsa continue to work as ranchers and Commercial farmers, while commercial/industrial enterprises, government employment, and public assistance augment their economy. As of 1975, however, their unemployment rate stood at approximately 50 percent.

Industrial Arts. Aboriginal crafts included pottery, basket making and mat weaving, porcupine quillwork, and painted representational art applied to tanned hides, robes, clothing, and containers. After European contact, the Hidatsa incorporated bead manufacture and beadwork as crafts, which, along with quillwork and quiltmaking, are currently practiced.

Trade. In precontact times the Hidatsa carried on an important trade with nomadic tribes, exchanging maize and other garden produce for dried meat and leather products. Historic trade in horses and European technology such as firearms, iron hoes, metal arrowpoints, and beads was superimposed onto this precontact intertribal trade system. Hidatsa villages served as trading centers where numerous tribes would come to exchange goods. The trade in horses was especially lucrative as the Hidatsa amassed short-term surpluses in horses, which served as capital for barter.

Division of Labor. Prior to the reservation period, Hidatsa women were primarily responsible for farming, including clearing fields, harvesting, and processing vegetables. Women also constructed the earthlodges, with men assisting in heavy labor. Women made pottery and baskets, butchered game animals and processed hides into clothes, tipi covers, robes, and other accoutrements. They also engaged in beadwork and quillwork. Men hunted, fished, conducted warfare, trapped eagles, and conducted religious rituals. The alteration of the Hidatsa economy during the reservation period resulted in men becoming storekeepers, farmers, ranchers, and ministers.

Land Tenure. In aboriginal times, hunting and timberbearing lands were theoretically open to all within the Hidatsa tribe, although each village does appear to have had favored areas that were open to other villages by request. Ownership of garden lands was vested in local clan segments, with individual extended family households exercising rights of usufruct on lands they cultivated. With the advent of the reservation system, Hidatsa lands reverted to tribal ownership under the control and supervision of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). During the 1880s, tribal lands were allotted by the BIA to individuals. Today, Hidatsa land on the Fort Berthold Reservation is owned by individuals as well as the tribe.


Kin Groups and Descent. Hidatsa society was divided into eight exogamous matrilineal clans. Within each village these clans functioned as corporate groups that controlled land, arranged marriages, sponsored ceremonies and ritual feasts, and generally served to integrate the population. Clans were aggregated into two moieties. Depopulation, Intermarriage with other tribes and with Whites, and forced acculturation has resulted in a breakdown of the clan system.

Kinship Terminology. Hidatsa aboriginal kinship terminology followed the Crow system.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Traditionally, marriages between members of the same clan or moiety were frowned upon. Historic Hidatsa villages were agamous, as intervillage marriages were Common. Marriages functioned as a bond between both Individuals and kin groups, and occurred by arrangement, purchase, or elopement. Monogamy was rare as polygyny was the prevailing form of marriage. The sororate and levirate also were practiced. Postmarital residence was theoretically matrilocal, but depopulation during the historic period resulted in multi-local residence as households attempted to widen their Strategies for incorporating male and female residents.

Domestic Unit. Traditionally, the domestic unit was the matrilocal extended family, an earthlodge household consisting of a core of matrilineally related women. Since reservation times the domestic unit has been influenced by the nuclear family model, but bilateral extended families are common.

Inheritance. Traditionally, patrilineal and matrilineal Inheritance occurred with the former applying mainly to Medicine bundles.

Socialization. Aboriginally, much of Hidatsa socialization was informal and provided by the matrilineal extended Family. Children were reared permissively into male and female roles. Generosity, self-reliance, and patience were values inculcated by parents. Males during adolescence and young adulthood were taught to be assertive and competitive as preparation for warfare and entrance into age-grade societies. Fasting, ritual self-torture, and mock combat underscored these values. Young girls were taught modesty, diligence, and patience in preparation for adulthood and marriage. Today cooperation, noninterference, kin support, and tribalism are important socialization values.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Aboriginally, the status and prestige of individual Hidatsas depended on personal accomplishments, acquisition of wealth, and membership in male and female age-grade societies. Male status was determined primarily by hunting skills, war honors, and ownership of medicine bundles. Highest status went to older men who belonged to the upper age grades and had fulfilled the social and Ceremonial expectations of Hidatsa society. These men owned the important medicine bundles and had great political and Social influence. As a matrilineal society, women held relatively high status, particularly those who belonged to the higher age grades and were skilled potters, healers, architects, or basket makers. Acquisition of wealth and influence became easier as a result of equestrianism and the fur trade. Depopulation and acculturation resulted in a breakdown of the age-grade system and a shift in status and role determinants to employment opportunities, cash income, education, and church affiliation.

Political Organization. Prior to about 1797, the Hidatsa villages were politically independent, with each village containing a village council of chiefs made up of influential high-ranking men. These were achieved status positions. Each Village also contained an age grade called the Black Mouths, who served as camp police, administered council decisions, and policed bison hunts. After 1797, the Hidatsa villages formed an overarching tribal council composed of the most distinguished warriors of the three subgroups. This council acted as a common cause structure in areas of diplomacy and warfare. Today the Three Affiliated Tribes are governed by an elected tribal council headed by a tribal chairperson.

Social Control. Traditionally, social control was a blend of informal mechanisms, such as gossip, ostracism, and peer pressure, and the formal police functions of the Black Mouth society, which had the authority to administer severe punishments, such as whipping or destruction of property, for violating community rules. Today, social control is maintained by the tribal courts and tribal police, except in the commission of major crimes, such as murder, armed robbery, or arson, which fall under federal jurisdiction.

Conflict. The Hidatsa were by and large an internally peaceful and cohesive tribe, although mythology holds that the Hidatsa proper and Awaxawi subgroups once fought over disputed village settlement areas. In the 1870s, conflict Between Hidatsa chiefs led to a rift, resulting in the separation of a large contingent of Hidatsas, known as the Crow-Flies-High band, from the Fort Berthold group. This separation lasted for several years before ending in the late 1880s.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Traditionally, the Hidatsa believed in a pervasive supernatural force that existed in all animate and inanimate objects. Through vision experiences, fasting, and self-torture, this power could be harnessed by individuals. Personal and tribal medicine bundles were the repositories and symbolic expressions of the Hidatsa spiritual world. This power could be used for good or evil, and successful hunting, war exploits, and healing were defined in terms of strong medicine or power. The Hidatsa supernatural world consisted of a vast array of human personifications, spirits, game keepers, and inanimate forces. Three important culture heroes in Hidatsa origin traditions are Charred Body (founder of the Awatixa Hidatsa), First Creator, and Only Man (both of whom created the earth in Awaxawi tradition). The Awatixa are believed to have descended from the sky, led by Charred Body, whereas the Awaxawi are believed to have emerged from the underground after the earth was created.

Religious Practitioners. Religious and medical practitioners were those men and women who held special medicine bundles and associated songs and rites. Many of these bundles dealt with specialties such as buffalo calling, healing of wounds, or child birth. "Priests" were those influential older men who held the important clan and tribal bundles, which gave them control of major mythological and ceremonial knowledge. They were charged with maintaining harmony Between the tribe and the array of supernatural forces and spirits. Since the reservation era, many Hidatsas have converted to various denominations of Christianity, and some have retained portions of the aboriginal religion.

Ceremonies. Major ceremonies included the Naxpike or the Hidatsa variant of the Sun Dance, the Big Bird rainmaking ceremony, and the Red Stick buffalo-calling ceremony.

Medicine. Traditional Hidatsa medicine was a blend of practical knowledge in treating ailments and injuries like frostbite, wounds, snow blindness, and broken bones and Supernatural intervention through shamanistic healing. Hidatsa doctors were paid for their skills, and the healing process was accompanied by sacred songs, symbolic healing, and sweatbaths. Modern medical etiology and practice now dominate among the Three Affiliated Tribes, although traditional practices such as the use of the sweatlodge and its associated ritual are still followed.

Death and Afterlife. Traditionally, at the death of an Individual, the father's clan was responsible for making funeral arrangements. Forms of disposition included scaffolds, interment, and placing the deceased in trees or under rock overhangs. Concepts of the afterlife varied, although generally it mirrored earthly existence. Murderers were excluded from the villages of the dead and were believed to become aimless wanderers, an eternal banishment. Some Hidatsa (the Awatixa) believed that at death one returned to the sky, the origin place of the culture hero Charred Body. Others, like the Awaxawi, believed that they would return to their traditional homeland on Knife River or to their mythical homeland near Devils Lake. In general, death was attributed to supernatural causes and related violations of ritual prescriptions.


Bowers, Alfred (1965). Hidatsa Social and Ceremonial Organization. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin no. 194. Washington, D.C.

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

Hanson, Jeffery R. (1987). Hidatsa Culture Change, 1780-1845: A Cultural Ecological Approach. Lincoln, Nebr.: J&L Reprint Co.

Meyer, Roy W. (1977). The Village Indians of the Upper Missouri. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Wilson, Gilbert L. (1917). Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians. Studies in the Social Sciences, no. 9. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.



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Hidatsa Sedentary, Siouan-speaking Native American tribe of Montana. Almost entirely wiped out by a smallpox epidemic in 1837, c.1,000 Hidatsa now live on Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. See also Crow