views updated Jun 08 2018


ETHNONYMS: Awigaza, Istopa, Mantannes, Nuitadi, Numangkake, Nuptare


Identification. The Mandan are an American Indian group located in North Dakota, their aboriginal home. Unlike many Indian tribes, the "Mandan," despite various spellings, have been known by that name since the earliest contact with non-Indians. Although they were sometimes identified by a name belonging to one of the four divisions of MandanNuitadi, Nuptadi, Awigaxa, or Istopaor by one of the village names, there is no evidence that these were as Significant as "Mandan."

Location. In early historic times, the Mandan lived along the Heart River, a major tributary of the Missouri, in western North Dakota. In 1804, Lewis and Clark found they had moved north and settled on the Knife River. Today, they live in the southern segment of Fort Berthold Indian Reservation, about one hundred miles northwest of their original location.

Demography. Prior to the smallpox epidemic of 1837 there were an estimated one thousand Mandan. Although they are no longer enumerated separately, there are probably that many today.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Mandan language belongs to the Siouan language family.

History and Cultural Relations

Some Mandan say they originated underground near the ocean and migrated from the point where they reached the earth's surface to their historic location on the Missouri River. Other Mandan say they were created on the Missouri River and were living there when the migrants joined them. The Mandan were closely affiliated with the Hidatsa and maintained trade relations with many other tribes of the northern plains. The Assiniboine, Cree, Arikara, and Crow were frequent visitors to the villages, and the Cheyenne, Yanktonai, and Lakota (Teton) were sometimes peaceful, sometimes unfriendly, to the Mandan and their allies. The first known European contact with the Mandan occurred in December 1738 when Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de La Verendrye, and his sons visited the villages. Not until the late 1700s are there reports of other visits. One of the best known is the 1797 visit of the Canadian explorer David Thompson. The most famous White visitors to the villages were Lewis and Clark in 1804 and 1806, George Catlin in 1832, and Prince Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied in 1833-1834.

The Mandan and Hidatsa villages on the Knife River became centers of commerce on the upper Missouri and steam-boats regularly docked there. But the Sioux and smallpox reduced the number of warriors to the point where defense became difficult, and around 1845 refugee Mandan and Hidatsa moved upriver to establish Like-a-Fishhook Village. In 1862, the Arikara moved into the village, where the three tribes lived until the early 1880s, when government officials convinced them to move to ranches scattered across the Fort Berthold Reservation.


Aboriginal settlements of the Mandan are found along the Missouri River in North and South Dakota. Early historic documents suggest that before the smallpox epidemic of 1781 there were from six to nine Mandan villages along the Heart and Missouri rivers. Following the epidemic, these villages merged and moved north to the Knife River where Lewis and Clark found the Mandan living in the villages of Mitutanka and Nuptadi and the Hidatsa living nearby in three villages. David Thompson found the Mandan and Hidatsa sharing Villages, but by the time of Lewis and Clark, each village was inhabited primarily by members of a single tribe. The Mandan villages were composed of earthlodges arranged randomly around a central plaza with a shrine and ceremonial earthlodge. The earthlodges were constructed with four center support posts and an outer wall of smaller logs. Roof beams were laid close together from the wall to the center supports and covered with mats. Everything was covered with sod, so the whole structure took the shape of a windowless earthen dome with an elongated earth-covered entryway. Today, the Mandan and the associated Hidatsa and Arikara live in Modern ranch-style houses on the reservation.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Buffalo or bison hunting formed the primary subsistence activity of the Mandan. The women planted maize, squash, beans, and sunflowers in river-bottom garden plots, but left the crops for part of the summer while the tribe went bison hunting. Tribes that did not grow vegetables often visited the Knife River villages to trade for surplus garden products, and these trade opportunities were enhanced by the fur trade. Fur traders moved into the villages or made regular visits to them to buy furs and hides from the Mandan. The Mandan trapped and prepared furs, but they also acquired furs and hides by trading maize and items received from the traders to the nonagricultural tribes of the region. Acting as middlemen, the Mandan and Hidatsa grew rich and became targets for raids by other tribes. The decline of the fur trade was accompanied by an increased military and bureaucratic presence that provided employment opportunities for men as woodcutters, scouts, teamsters, interpreters, and agency employees. The women continued to plant their gardens.

Eventually agents of the Bureau of Indian Affairs convinced the Mandan men to turn to farming and ranching, and in the late 1880s the reservation was divided into individually owned allotments to be worked by the men. The climate makes agriculture risky, and today many Indian people prefer to lease their land to White ranchers. Some Mandan make a living as farmer-ranchers, and others work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs or tribal government, teach in the local schools, or work in nearby towns. Those Mandan who cannot find work have income from various federal, state, and tribal assistance programs.

Industrial Arts. Traditionally, the Mandan wove willow baskets, made unpainted pottery from local clays, and embroidered hides with porcupine quills and beads. These and other arts were done by people who acquired the right to do them through ceremonial purchase. The introduction of trade goods and the prohibition of ceremonies resulted in the disappearance of these arts, and recent attempts to revive them have not been successful.

Trade. Prehistorically, the Mandan villages were trade centers that attracted many different tribes and, later, White traders. Goods from the Rocky Mountain tribes were passed to the eastern Plains tribes, while items from the east went west. Even the tribes that maintained hostile relations with the Mandan were welcomed during trade fairs.

Division of Labor. Men were hunters and warriors, and the women were responsible for home and garden. The women constructed and owned the earthlodges as well as the results of their labor. Men and women could own the rights to certain skills and were paid by others wishing to learn those skills. Ownership of major medicine bundles and most ritual activities were the prerogative of the men, but women also held bundles and directed two important ceremonies. Under the influence of Indian agents, the men turned to the more mechanized forms of agriculture and ranching, and the women continued their household and social activities. In Recent times, some women have worked as teachers, nurses, and tribal employees and have been elected to tribal offices.

Land Tenure. The Mandan shared a large buffalo-hunting territory with other tribes of the region. The Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851 recognized Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara claims to 12 million acres of hunting land. In the bottomlands near the village, garden plots were marked out by the leading man of the family and cleared and worked by the women. The products of the gardens belonged to the women. In 1886 some Mandan moved across the Missouri River and established farms that were later allotted to them. In 1954 Garrison Dam flooded the bottomlands where most of the people lived and forced people to take new lands away from the Missouri River. Today, some Mandan still live on their family's allotment, but most of the reservation land has been sold to non-Indians.


Kin Groups and Descent. Aboriginally, Mandan society was divided into thirteen clans, but by early historic times, only four were still functioning. These remaining four, the WaxikEna, the Tamisik, the Prairie Chicken, and the Speckled Eagle, formed two moieties, the west side and east side. These exogamous, matrilineal clans owned earthlodges and sacred bundles, assisted their young men in achieving military and ceremonial recognition, cared for orphans and the Elderly, and avenged murders. Intermarriage with non-Mandan and the influence of non-Indian religious and social mores brought about a change in the clan system, and today clans are primarily social groups that sponsor reservation events.

Kinship Terminology. The Mandan used a Crow-type kinship terminology.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. The major consideration in a marriage was ownership of sacred bundles. A household with an important clan bundle usually selected a son-in-law from the same clan as the daughter's father. A family with an important bundle might arrange a marriage by presenting a sacred white buffalo cow robe to the prospective son-in-law, thereby committing him to sponsoring sacred ceremonies that eventually finalized the marriage. Families with less important bundles simply Exchanged gifts, or, more simply, the young woman moved in with her husband. The ideal marriage was matrilocal, where the young man moved in with the young woman's family, but residence was quite flexible and depended on the type of Marriage ceremony, the amount of space available in a lodge, and relationships within the family. A man could have more than one wife and, in the ceremonial form of marriage, the bride's sisters were contracted to the groom, but most men found one wife sufficient.

Domestic Unit. Until the dispersal to the farmsteads, the basic unit was the lodge group composed of several families of related women who occupied the same earthlodge. Following the dispersal, related families settled near each other, and the extended family continues to be an important factor in Mandan life.

Inheritance. Traditionally, the most important property belonged to the lodge group or the clan and inheritance passed from mother to daughter or father to son. The allotment act contained provisions for inheritance of allotted land and, unless the owner leaves a will, property is now divided equally among the heirs.

Socialization. Children were praised and encouraged and never punished by their parents. When discipline was necessary, the mother's brother or another clan member living outside the lodge was asked. Today Mandan children attend school on or off the reservation and some continue through college.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In the early historic period, the Mandan men and women had similar ways of attaining recognition. Age accompanied by success in warfare and acquisition of sacred bundles brought prestige to the men and Membership in one of the men's societies; women received acclaim for success in women's arts and sponsorship of sacred Ceremonies. The oldest women became members of the Important White Buffalo Cow Society. The shift from the hunting-gardening economy to farming and ranching resulted in a decline in the status of women.

Political Organization. The early villages were autonomous units united by the clans. Each village elected two Leaders from the council of men who owned sacred bundles. These men represented different qualities of leadership in war and ritual. They had no power to force anyone to obey their commands, but their oratorical skills could convince the council to follow them. White traders and others identified certain men as chiefs and provided them with symbols of their authority. In 1934, under the provisions of the Indian Reorganization Act, the Three Affiliated Tribes adopted a constitutional form of government with an elected council.

Social Control. Under normal circumstances, behavior was regulated by tradition, and bad luck would come to anyone who broke from tradition. When necessary, pressure was exerted by the family and clan. For ceremonial occasions, the Black Mouth men's society acted as village police. In 1885 the Major Crimes Act placed major crimes committed by Indians under the jurisdiction of federal courts, and in 1890 the Indian agent at Fort Berthold appointed three men to act as tribal court judges to deal with minor crimes. Today the Three Affiliated Tribes maintain a tribal court system for those crimes not described in the Major Crimes Act.

Conflict. Traditionally, the Mandan had a strong belief in internal harmony and intravillage disagreements usually resulted in the unhappy segment moving to another village. With the establishment of the reservation, the disagreements between conservatives and progressives intensified. Today, these divisions have virtually disappeared.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Aboriginal Mandan religion centered around a belief in supernatural powers that were shared by all living things. Sacred bundles represented some of the powers that could be obtained through participation in ceremonies. In the mid-1800s Father DeSmet, a Catholic priest, made regular visits to Like-a-Fishhook Village where he taught Christianity and baptized children. In 1876, a Congregational missionary established a permanent mission and school that attracted a number of converts. Today, Mandan participate in both Indian and non-Indian religions. The Mandan believed in First Creator who contested with Lone Man to make the region around the Missouri River. Lone Man traveled around, making tobacco and people and precipitating events that resulted in ceremonies. Other people came from above and below bringing other supernatural beings and ceremonies with them. Of these other sacred beings, Old Woman Who Never Dies, the Sun, the Moon, Black Medicine, and Sweet Medicine were most important.

Religious Practitioners. Ownership of sacred bundles, acquired either through a vision or by ceremonial purchase, committed individuals to act as priests during ceremonies and sometimes provided instructions for curing.

Ceremonies. Mandan life was filled with private and public rituals. The principal public ceremonies were held to make the crops grow, to bring buffalo to the village, to ensure success in warfare, and to cure. The Okipa, held in summer, was a four-day event dramatizing the creation of the earth and promoting general well-being and buffalo fertility.

Medicine. The Mandan distinguished between illness from natural causes and ill health brought about by breaking a supernatural instruction. In cases of supernaturally caused illness, a bundle owner was called in to diagnose the cause and prescribe treatment. The bundle owner would pray and give herbal medicines to the patient. Today, people may seek a traditional healer for some health problems, but most go to the Indian Health Clinic or to one of the physicians living on or near the reservation.

Death and Afterlife. Although death was caused by not following tribal customs, it was considered normal because Lone Man decreed that people would die. People had four souls: two went to the spirit world and two stayed on earth. Funerals were conducted by the father's clan. Burial was Usually on a scaffold in a cemetery near the village.


Bowers, Alfred (1973). Mandan Social and Ceremonial Organization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Midway Reprints.

Meyers, Roy (1976). Village Indians of the Upper Missouri. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Wood, W. Raymond (1967). An Interpretation of Mandan Culture History. U.S. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin no. 198. Washington, D.C.



views updated Jun 27 2018

Mandan Dakota name for a Siouan tribe of Native North Americans inhabiting the upper Missouri River area between the Heart and Missouri rivers. From an early population of 3,600, epidemics introduced by European travellers decimated the tribe; today, about 350 live on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota.