Mandan Creation Narriatives

There are a number of accounts about the Mandan migration. Some accounts tell of the Mandan being created at the Heart River while others tell of a migration from the Gulf of Mexico along the Missouri, and from the Southeast. One narrative tells of when Lone Man (Mandan term for Creator) made the land around the Heart River, and he also made the land to the south as far as the ocean. He made fish people, eagle people, bear people, corn people, buffalo people, and others whose history was translated into accounts of the sacred bundles.

Origin Narrative Told by Foolish Woman, Mandan/Hidatsa

There are four written and recorded versions of the Mandan origin narrative. First Creator and Lone Man—Version 2—Told by Foolish Woman, Mandan/Hidatsa, at Independence on July 11, 1929, follows:

In the beginning the whole earth was covered with water. Lone Man was walking on top of the waves. He thought to himself, “Where did I come from?” So he retraced his footsteps on the top of the water and he came to a bit of land jutting out of the water. He saw a plant called “big medicine” that grows in the marsh two or three feet high with flat white blossoms that come out in the spring. One branch was broken and hung at the side. At the broken place he saw drops of blood and thought, this must be my mother. As he looked about he saw an insect called “Tobacco Blower” flying about the plant and he thought, this insect must be a father to me.

He thought to himself, “Where did I come from?”

He walked further on the water and saw in the distance an object that he found to be a mud hen. The First Creator came to the same place. “How do you come to be wandering about here?” First Creator said, “I have been considering that you and I should create some land.” Lone Man agreed. They asked the mud hen what food it had for its nourishment. The bird told them, “I dive under the water and there is land and I eat the dirt down there.” They said “Dive down and bring us a sample. Some time later the bird came up with a little mud. Four times it dived and still there was only enough to fill one hand. Lone Man rolled it into a ball and gave half to First Creator and kept the other half. He said.

“We will make a dividing point and leave a river and you may choose which side you will create.” First Creator chose the south side. Lone Man took the north.

First Creator made some places level, ranges of hills, mountains, springs, timber and coulees with running water. He created buffalo—made them all black with here and there a white one. He created Rocky Mountain sheep, deer, antelope, rattlesnakes—all the animals that exist here.

Lone Man created mostly flat land with many lakes and ponds grown with bulrushes and few trees. He created cattle—some white, some spotted, some red, some black—with long horns and tail, and the animals like the badger and beaver that live in the water and the duck and geese that swim on the water, also the sheep of today.

Then they met on the north side of the river and reviewed the creation they completed. Both believed his creation to be the better. They examined first what First Creator had made and Lone Man said the land was too rough. First Creator said, “No, I did this for the safety of the creatures. When they are in danger from a hard winter, they will have protection in the timber and shelter in the coulees. He showed him the tribes of people that he had made (the Indians).

“No, I did this for the safety of the creatures. When they are in danger from a hard winter, they will have protection..."

But Lone Man was displeased with First Creator’s work. He showed him how level the land was on the north side of the river, with lakes, scattered boulders and treeless, so that the eye could see far away. First Creator was dissatisfied. He said, “In the winter there is no protection, in time of war, there will be no place to hide.” “No,” argued Lone Man, “They can see the enemy far away and hide in the bulrushes beside the lakes. He pointed out the beauty of the cattle. First Creator found them too weak to pull through the winter, with too little fur, too long horns compared with the protection of the buffalo against the cold. So he disapproved of Lone Man’s creation.

It was agreed to let the people live first on the creation of First Creator then the generations to come should live on the cattle created by Lone Man. Lone Man’s cattle should drift back to the far east where he had created people, who should come westward later and inhabit the land with the first people.

Of the dirt from the ball some had been left over and this they placed in the center of the created land and formed a heart-shaped butte which they called “The-heart-of-the-land,” to be seen to this day near the city of Mandan near the Heart River. Still some mud was left over. This they took across the river opposite to Bird’s Beak Hill below Bismarck on the north side of the river, and this butte they called “Land.”

They wandered upon the land and one said, “I think I am older.” The other said, “No, I think I am the older of us two.” They laid a bet. Lone Man had a stick strung with a sinew to which goose feathers were tied at intervals. This he stuck in the ground. (If he drew it forth before the other was dead he must acknowledge himself defeated). Lone Man wandered off, and the next year when he came back to the spot he found nothing but a skeleton. The bow was worn and weathered. He came back from year to year. The fourth year there was not a feather left on his bow, and where First Creator lay, the grass grew tall. Lone Man said, “Why leave my bow any longer? He will never get up now!” He took his bow, sang a song, and it was as new as ever. As he walked away, First Creator got up, shook himself, and was fresh as ever. Lone Man looked at him and he was Coyote.

Coyote Pictograph

They separated again and wandered apart. Lone Man went on his way and thought, I have nothing to carry. If I had a pipe and tobacco it would be fine! He saw a buffalo lying down. As he approached, the buffalo was about to run away, but he called out, “do not run, it is I!” He asked the buffalo what it could do for him in this matter. The buffalo passed water and tramped about in a coulee and told him to return at this time of year and he would hear a sound and find his tobacco growing. Sure enough the next year he heard a buzzing sound and there was a tobacco plant growing with a tobacco blower buzzing about it. Buffalo instructed him that the best part grew next to the bud and to dry it he should lay it on buffalo hair taken at the shoulder and put it to dry in the sun. For the bowl he should use oak, for the stem box elder. This was meant to indicate that the land on the south side of the river was male, that on the north side female. “I have nothing to light my pipe with,” said Lone Man—“Go over there to an old man on the side of the hill, he will give you a light for the pipe,” said Buffalo. This old man was the burning lignite. Lone Man was on his way. The Mandan people originated at the mouth of this river way down at the ocean. On the north side of the river was a high bank. At its foot on the shore of the ocean was a cavern, - that is where the Mandan people came out. The chief’s name was Ka-ho-he, which means the scraping sound made by the corn stalks swaying back and forth and rubbing each other with the sound like a bow drawn across a string. Ko-i-roh-kte was the sister of the chief. The name means the testing of the squash seeds. When they plant squash, to test the seed they wrap the seed in dead grass and keep it moist. The brother’s name was Na-c-i. This is the name of a little animal the size of a prairie dog and quite a traveler, which has a yellow streak over the nose from cheek to cheek, but changes color in the fall. In this boy’s system was the spirit that travels far.

The Mandan people originated at the mouth of this river way down at the ocean. –Told by Foolish Woman at Independence, July 11, 1929

Somehow Na-c-i got up on the surface of the land. He went back and told his elder that the land below was not to be compared with that he had seen. He asked the people to come up and inhabit the earth. They found a vine hanging down and that was where they came up. A good number had already emerged when a young girl, big with child, insisted on coming out and she was so heavy that she broke the vine and fell back into the cavern...

Lone Man happened to come to their village and saw that these people were advanced, for they were tilling gardens. Lone Man thought “those are real people, I will manage to be born among them.” A man and a woman had a daughter who was a virgin. The father was a leading man in the village. Lone Man chose their daughter for his mother. So one day when they went to work in their gardens by the river bank, the girl went to the river to drink and there she saw a drowned buffalo drifting close to shore. Where the skin was broken she could see the fat of the kidneys sticking out. She drew the buffalo to shore, fastened it by the feet, and ate of the fat of the kidney. This was really Lone Man, and this is how she conceived by him. She came back and told her parents about the buffalo, but when they ran gladly to the shore, they could find no trace of it—only a loop tied to the bank. They thought no further about it, but as the months went by and they began to notice that she was with child. When the mother questioned the daughter, she said she had known no man and could not tell how she had got in this condition.

When the time came, the daughter delivered a baby boy. The father had not believed that the girl had met no man, but as the child was born, there was a light which shone through a hole in the sky. From year to year, the boy grew stronger and wiser. He was looked upon as unusual. He grew faster than most children. As he grew to manhood, he was looked upon as a leader. In times of hunger, he caused the herds of buffalo to come near the lodges so that they had meat to eat. When they planted corn, he would cause it to rain so that the land had moisture and the people had plenty of corn.

“When they planted corn, he would cause it to rain so that the land had moisture and the people had plenty of corn.”

There were evil beings born into the tribe where he was and when they grew up, they wanted to rule the village and they schemed against him to bring about his destruction. He made a boat called “self-going” that went by itself. They would get in this boat and cross over to an island, whose chief was named Ma-ni-ke. Only twelve people could go in this boat, if more went the trip was unlucky. They would carry offerings, as between the mouth of the river and this island there were obstacles to contend with. In one place was a whirlpool, in another the waves were high. They offered sacrifices in order to escape the whirlpool and calm the waves. At the island the chief would give them beaked shells of many colors in exchange for presents. These shells they used for earrings. Mata-pahu-tou—Shell-nose-with—is the name the Indians give these abalone shells.

One day twelve men were going on a journey, then Lone Man came along and jumped in the boat. They tried to make him leave, but he said he had heard so much about the feasting on the island that he wanted to go along. When they reached the whirlpool, Lone Man was asleep. They were afraid and woke him. He got up, reached out and picked up the objects that had been offered in sacrifice and said, “These are just what I want!” Then he took his bow, smoothed it, and commanded the water to be still. Then he stilled the whirlpool and the high waves. The people said, “When we land on the island, they people usually get up a feast and make us eat everything they set before us and nearly kill us.” So he took a reed by the river and with a stick ran through the points and inserted the reed through his system so that as he sat at the feast, it would reach down to the fourth strata of the earth. He ordered the men to eat only what they wished as the plate was passed at the feast, and let it come last to him and he would empty the whole down the reed. So it happened. There was a great feast. They were brought into a great lodge nearly filled with food and were not allowed to leave anything. They sat about in a half moon shape and ate. When all had eaten their fill they placed the pot before him and he emptied its contents down his mouth. In no time they had cleaned out the whole works.

As they left the island, the chief said, “In four years I will come and visit your village.” He meant to destroy them with water. Lone Man told the people to weave a barricade about the village and hold it together with young cottonwood trees. He brought all the people inside the barricade and when the water came, it only went as far as the cottonwood tree barricade. In the water there were what looked like people and those inside the barricade would throw offerings and the people in the water would pass the shells over. (Beckwith, 1937:7–13)

Origin Story Related by Wolf Chief

Wolf Chief, Hidatsa, secured this information from his Mandan father-in-law, Red Roan Cow, Nuptadi Mandan Chief. For other versions of the creation stories see Martha Warren Beckwith, Mandan-Hidatsa Myths and Ceremonies “Memoirs of the American Folk-Lore Society,” Vol. XXX11 (1938), pp.10–11; Maximilian, Prince of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832–1834, in Early Western Travels, ed. Thwaites, XXIII, 312–17; and Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians, I, 279–80.

A long time ago the Missouri River flowed into the Mississippi River and thence into the ocean. On the right bank there was a high point on the ocean shore that the Mandan came from. They were said to have come from under the ground at that place and brought corn up. Their chief was named Good Furred Robe. He had one brother named Cornhusk Earrings and another younger brother called No Hair on Him or Head for Rattle after the gourds. They had a sister named Corn Stalk.

In the early time when they came out of the ground, Good Furred Robe was Corn Medicine, and he had the right to teach the other people how to raise corn. The people of Awigaxa asked him to teach them his songs so as to keep the corn and be successful in growing their corn. Good Furred Robe also had a robe which, if sprinkled with water, would cause rain to come.

When they came out of the ground, there were many people but they had no clothing on. They said, “We have found Ma’tahara.” That was what they called the river as it was like a stranger. It is also the word for “stranger.” They went a short distance and planted corn, even though they were naked. Then they moved north, and no one knows the number of years they stopped at the different places. At last they came to the place where the river flowed into the ocean. When they came to the mouth of this river, they saw people on the other side who could understand their language and they thought they were Mandan too. The village on the other side had a chief whose name was Maniga. It was a very large village.

At last they came to the place where the river flowed into the ocean.– Related by Wolf Chief, Hidatsa, 1938

While they were stopping there, they found that the people on the other side owned bowls made of shells. At Good Furred Robe’s village they would kill the rabbits for the hides. They also killed the meadowlarks for the yellow crescents. They took them to the people of the other village to trade for shell bowls. They would also take the rabbit hides painted red and trade for the shells.

Rabbit Pictograph

Good Furred Robe also owned a boat that was holy. It could carry twelve men. Each time they wanted to trade in the other village, they would take the red rabbit hides and the yellow meadowlark breasts and float over. There was a rough place in the middle, and they would drop some of these objects into the water, and then the water would calm.

All during this time they had enough corn to live on, but nothing is told in the traditions about their clothing. They continued moving up the river until they came to the mouth of the Missouri River. They saw many trees on the Mississippi River and decided to go across and live on the Mississippi. They stayed in that country for three or four years, all the time planting corn along the river. They said, “We have discovered fine evergreen trees, and we have called them medicine trees since that time.

There were no bows and arrows in those days, and one of the men made a bow and arrow, practicing with them and picking out sharp bones with which to tip the arrows. He also found the sinews that would stretch the bow. We do not know if they were eating meat or not at that time. There were many elk, deer, and beaver on this river, and that is why they called it Good River. At that time they found a dead buffalo in a mud hole, and one of them said that they ought to take the hide off and cut it into a long string to catch deer with. When they took the hide off, they cut the strings and twisted them to dry. Then they made a loop on the end. They would go out and find deer trails to hang it in to catch the deer. They made many of these snares and set them out in many places. They would find some dead deer and even some elk hanging there.

Bo and Arrow Pictograph

After they learned how to do this, they had plenty of meat to eat with their corn. They stayed at that place for over ten years. It was at this time that they learned how to use the bow and arrows tipped with bone, to kill smaller game.

It was at this time that they learned how to use the bow and arrows tipped with bone, to kill smaller game.

Again they moved from there farther up the Mississippi River until they found a place where there was much timber but the surrounding land was flat. They found a flat place where the timber was not so thick, and there they lived for six years. At that time they called themselves Nu’itadi, meaning “from us.” Some of them were called Nup’tadi (no meaning); another group was called Awi’gaxa (no meaning). One of the latter two bands moved from the others under a chief named Four Bulls and came to a place where there was much timber. The village after the split must have been in the western part of Minnesota not far from Pipestone.

They traveled southward then until they came to heavy timber and had a big village there. (These villages were named in the Okipa ceremony, but the language used was unintelligible to the listener, as it was an old dialect. The translation was a part of the secret lore, which passed with bundle sales.) While there they learned more about bows and arrows and could shoot even beavers and other game. Then they had plenty of food. Again they traveled on through the deep timber and had another village, staying there for four years. The earthlodges at that time were of the eagle-trapping type with grass and dirt covering the sides.

When they stopped there, a man went out looking for game and followed a creek. He saw some mud sticking out of a hill, and there was a spring at that place. The mud was sticky; he took some of it out and carried it away a short distance. He left some of it flat on the ground to dry. When he went back where he had left the mud, it was hard except that there was one crack. He thought that there should be some use for that mud. He thought, “I will get some sand and mix it with this mud and leave it again. It might be of some use.” Then he went home again. When he returned, the mud was still cracked. He thought, “If I crack some stones and crush them fine to mix with the clay, It might be better.” He found some hard stones and put them in the fire to burn four days. Then he crushed the stones and took the material to the place where the clay had been left. He mixed the clay with the crushed stone, shaped it into a pot, and left it in the sun to dry. Next day when he went back, he found that it was hard and could be used. He made many more; some he made into the shape of spoons. (Spoons have never been found in Mandan archaeological sites, whereas pots are abundant). From that time they had pots. After that they made large ones and baked them to cook in. The Mandans were the first to discover pottery; the Hidatsa and other people learned the art from them. The mud was a special kind, and it was hard to find. Later they found this clay around the flint they took out of the tops of hills west of the Missouri River.

Pottery Pictograph

They stayed there for more than ten years, for there were many animals suitable for food as well as good corn grounds. During this time some of the young men were looking for game, and they came out of the timber. They could see the flatland for a great distance, so they thought that they would move. At first they did not come completely out of the woods but stayed on the edge.

When they came out of the timber, they had another large village again. They stayed there a long time, for there was much game and they had their gardens in the timber.

When they had the village there, it happened that they had a dry year. The people who called themselves Awigaxa made a feast, and they had some of the women paint their faces and wear geese on their heads. (The Goose Women’s Society was founded by Good Furred Robe, and the Corn Bundle-owner was singer for this society.) First Creator and Lone Man came at that time. They asked these people where they came from, and they replied that they had come up from under the ground and that they had traveled around much since then. The two men said, “You seem to be getting along well here. We came from the west bank of the Missouri River. We discovered some prairie dogs in a village there, but we changed them into humans. We showed them how to put on the Buffalo Dance, but we see now that we would rather have you people here put on that ceremony, for you would be more careful about giving the dance.”

"We showed them how to put on the Buffalo Dance, but we see now that we would rather have you people here put on that ceremony..."

Then the two men walked off and returned to the prairie-dog village they had changed into humans. First Creator and Lone Man had made the dance for the prairie dogs and, when they came back, they saw that these people were not fit to give the dance, for they had left the drum in an ash pile. They thought, “These people don’t appreciate the dance, for they are not the right kind of people to begin with. It would be much better to take the Buffalo Dance from them.” The two men took the Buffalo Dance away from the prairie dogs and gave it to the Mandan. They gave the prairie dogs a curing ceremony instead. The Arikara were the prairie-dog people. They have the Prairie Dog Curing Medicine yet. First Creator and Lone Man came back to the Mandan village and said, “We are going to show you the Buffalo Dance.”

They said, “What is it?”

They replied, “It is a good thing for you, and any time you have a shortage of food, you will pray for food. This way it will increase your people and bring you plenty of food.” They showed these people how to give the ceremony, paint, and dress.

They thought, “How will we paint to make them good-looking? We might use some of the color of the snakes; they look nice. It is not a real snake but the worm on the chokecherry bushes. Between the shoulders they grow a hook. We will have that represent the mask and take that color for the buffaloes. The hook behind will be the buffalo horn and the branches will be the branches of the worm nest.”

The people inquired how they would fix up that way and Lone Man said, “Go out and kill a buffalo; take all the flesh off the skin and bring the hide to me.” The people went out and killed a buffalo and brought the hide to the two men. They called one of the young men to stand before them. They took the horn off with the horn core removed. The young man had long hair hanging down. They put the horn on his back with the brush over it, reaching over his head and hanging down nearly to the ground. They painted him on the chest, legs, and arms with red, black, and white. All this was representative of this bug in color. When he was painted, he was very beautiful.

Hide Pictograph

At this time they had a hide for a drum. They wanted to practice the songs that belonged to this drum, but the drum was not very solid. It would sink into the ground and soon wear out. Lone Man was doing the drumming, and he said to First Creator, “You show them how the dancing is done, and I will do the drumming.” Lone Man sang the song, and First Creator danced, stretching his arms out. He danced and showed the painted man how to dance.

Lone Man said to the people, “You must not touch this drum, for it is very holy. We are going out to look for another drum, and will be back after a while.”

They went out, and after a while they came back with a badger. Even before they had the Buffalo Dance, Lone Man had a flat stick. Before he touched the badger, he held the stick up, the badger sank into the ground.

They said, “The badger has no strength and it is not suitable.” They went to the beaver, but, before he ever hit the beaver, the animal sank into the ground. Each time he held his stick up, the earth shook. They went out again and came to a turtle. They asked him but the turtle replied, “I have no strength or power. I would rather that you went to the big turtle that is in the ocean. He would be a better drum, for his life will be so long that he will last forever. He will be better for the drum.” When they came to the shore, they found a large turtle; it was brown. They talked to the turtle saying, “We are looking for a drum to use in the dance, and now we need you for the drum.”

Each time he held his stick up, the earth shook.

The Turtle said, “That is all right. I do not think I can go myself, but you can look me over and then make one yourself out of a buffalo hide. When you fix it that way, I will be there just the same, for you will be taking the shape of my body. If you do that, I will last forever.”

Turtle Pictograph

When they returned, they killed a buffalo, took the hide off of the bull, and made a turtle. They made the legs out of oak and covered it with a hide from which the hair had been removed. Then they painted the outside with red paint. They finished the turtle, and in two days the hide was all dried up. First Creator said, “We must pick out a young man to dance in the costume; you show him how to dance.” Lone Man made a motion as of striking the turtle. At the same time there was a noise as if the earth were cracking and dust came up, but the turtle was not driven into the earth like the other animals had been. Then Lone Man said,” That is the kind of drum we want; it will last forever. After this if any of you people dream of this dance or have a dream in which it is a part, then you must put up this dance. We are not going off right away but will be around near by.”

He said, “When a young man is dancing, he may want to smoke the pipe. If you feel like smoking it, fill it up. I made it out of a green buffalo tail, bent it on one end to hold the tobacco, and filled it with sand until it was dry. The men with the buffalo heads must not touch the pipe. If he wants to smoke, you hold the pipe while he smokes.”

About this time, Good Furred Robe, who was always traveling, found a red spot and wondered what it was. Going there, he saw that it was a stone. He thought that it might be a good thing to make a pipe from. Up to this time the people had used black stones for smoking. He brought the red stone back. He thought how in the Buffalo Dance they used the buffalo tail and how it would be a good thing to fix up the red stone pipe and let them use that. He made a pipe with no elbow; the hole was in the end.

They had another Buffalo Dance, and one young man danced. At that time Lone Man came back. God Furred Robe took the pipe to him and said, “I saw you using the buffalo tail, and I think this is better.” Lone Man said, “It looks pretty, but I am afraid of it, for it is the color of human blood.”

The Goose Women had put up a feast because the fields were drying up. Good Furred Robe took the pipe to them and said, “I have a good pipe here; it is a nice color. You should use it instead of the one you have that is not pretty.” They said, “We are afraid of it because it is the color of human blood.” The people were wondering where he had found the red stone, and he took some of them to the place and showed them where he had found it. They saw some of the pretty stones and made a few pipes for their personal use. (Bowers tried to claim the pipe stone quarries by this story, but some people did not believe it. Mrs. White Duck has Good Furred Robe’s skull, but some of the younger men do not claim it because they are not familiar with this old story.)

Later three men were traveling around a great deal, and each time they would get farther and farther. One time they came to the Missouri River and saw timber on each side. They reported this to the people, who thought that it must be a branch of the river they passed farther to the south. They decided to move from their village toward the river. They came to the Missouri River at what they called White Clay Creek. (This is White River, which enters the Missouri River below Chamberlain, South Dakota.) It is below the Cheyenne River today. The camp was just opposite that river on the east side.

They built a camp there, and after three years the Awigaxa disappeared. They thought that the Awigaxa must have gone up the Cheyenne or White Clay River to the west. Two years afterward, about twelve families of the Awigaxa came back.

They built a camp there, and after three years the Awigaxa disappeared.

When they came back, they said, “They sent us back because the people out there do not think you know the Corn Medicine rites. They asked us to teach them to you.”

Lone Man came back. He related his dream to Lone Man, who said, “That is all right. You should try to put up the ceremony.”

In the dream he had seen the four turtles. They had eagle feathers on their heads, but Lone Man said, “It would be hard for you to save that many feathers. You will have time to save some. Take your time saving all those feathers. If you think there are enough for four turtles, call me, and I will hear even though I am far away.”

He saved all the feathers, knowing that it would take him a long time. In three or four years he had the necessary feathers, and then he called Lone Man. They made three more turtles just like the other one they had fixed before on the pattern of the ocean turtle.

When the two finished the turtles, they arranged them in a row, first the small one, then the two medium-sized ones, and then the large one which had been made first. Lone Man said, “You should give them what you can.” It was the speckled eagle feathers that he was giving them. When he came to the last one, thinking it would like the calumet eagle’s feathers best, he decorated it with those feathers. The one at the head said to the man, “You did not give me the right kind. That feather I do not like. For this reason, I am going back to the water.”

They tried to hold him but could not. He walked away and went in to the water. They called to Lone Man to help them. He came back and walked toward the turtle in the water. He took his lance up, sang his song, motioning with it at the water which ran apart. He could see the turtle in the water. He said, “They gave you the best of all. What is the matter?”

The turtle said, “That is all right.” Then the water covered over the turtle again. I was never at the place (Note: Crows Heart has been to the spot and says that it is upstream from the mouth of the Cannonball River at an old village near Butte without Hair on the east bank. This is probably the Shermer Site. There is another Butte without Hair directly opposite on the west side of the Missouri River.) where it went into the water, but it was about opposite where Fort Yates now stands. The place or village is called “Where Turtle Went Back.”

When Lone Man saw that the turtle was in the water, he turned around and walked back. Then they started the ceremony, and Lone Man said, “It is all right, for there are three left.” They selected a big lodge and by that time the buffalo masks were taken inside. Lone Man was there and the Ho’Kaha, a tall blue-gray bird with a long bill and a short tail (probably the heron), was in its place.

There were forty families that went out to White High Butte, now called Sheep Butte. These people separated from the others over in the woods before the Mandan reached the Missouri River. There is a river, which runs north at Minot, North Dakota. There is a high butte up there called White High Butte. It is to the north of the Turtle Mountains. Their chief was Four Bulls, as you recall earlier in the story. Four Bulls and all his people had moved up there, building villages along the way until they reached this spot. Sometime in the spring they were living there. The Indians would make a trap of brush and woven hair and put bait inside. The birds going inside were taken. They birds were fat and good to eat. In the spring a young man, not knowing any better, pulled all the feathers off one of the birds and stuck one of the feathers through the bird’s bill and nostrils. There were four medicine men there named Spring Buffalo, Winter Buffalo, Middle of the Summer Buffalo, and Autumn Buffalo.

At the time of the young men in the village went out and caught young buffalo calves and brought them into the village. It was customary to blow up the entrails to dry. The young men blew up some, dried them, putting them over the calves’ heads and telling them to go. When the Lone Man created these birds, he had them represent the water by the little spots under their wings. The four medicine men were angry at the way the calves were treated. The birds were angry too. They caused rain to fall for a long time. The water kept rising, getting nearer and nearer to the villages. The people called for Lone Man, saying that the water was coming and covering them. He fixed up the sticks in a circle with a water willow around them. When he finished, he took all the people of the village into the corral around the village. The four medicine men changed into buffaloes. They had a younger brother who was the magpie.

Bison Pictograph

When the water began to cover the village, they started to swim to the Missouri. Magpie had a string around his neck, which held the corn. One of the buffaloes was exhausted and said, “In the future there will be plenty of buffalo here and people can come here and hunt them.” Then there were three. After a while one more of them was exhausted, and, before sinking, he said, “In the future there will be plenty of buffaloes if the people come here,” and he sank.

A third one became exhausted, and he said, “In the future if people come here they will find plenty of buffaloes,” and then he sank. There was one buffalo left, and he was swimming along. He saw a high butte in front of him. It was Birds Bill Butte (also known as Eagle Nose Butte) and he swam toward it. He was completely exhausted when he reached the butte.

Back where Lone Man had the people in the corral, they were saved by the power of the corral. He said, “This cedar and corral is my protector. From this time on, you will always have it.” The Mandan under Good Furred Robe traveled northward along the Missouri River until they reached the Heart River, where they joined the others whom Lone Man and First Creator had created at that place. At this time the flood was coming. These people built a large corral south of the Heart River on Eagle Nose Butte where they also were safe from the flood.

The Mandan under Good Furred Robe traveled northward along the Missouri River until they reached the Heart River. – Wolf Chief, Hidatsa, 1938

The Awigaxa did not have the turtles and cedar to protect them, for they had the Corn to worship. While living on the White Clay Creek and Cheyenne River, the Awigaxa became separated. The group not having the Corn ceremonies was lost while making sinews near the Black Hills. Before the flood, the others came back to the Missouri River, for the river bottoms were not so large where they had been and not much corn could be grown. They built large villages at the mouth of the Cheyenne, Moreau, and other streams until they reached the mouth of the Grand River. At this time they had corn rites, but there is no mention of the Okipa or the sacred cedar.

When word reached the people who were living at the Grand River that a great flood was coming, they must not have had a sacred cedar since those who remained in their villages were drowned while those who escaped to the Rocky Mountains were saved. After the waters had retreated, those in the mountains planted corn out there, but the seasons were too short and the yields were small. The people wanted to return to the Grand River, but other people were living there. Scouts sent out reported that the other Mandan who had lived on the west bank of the Missouri near Painted Woods had left their village, the ruins of which were still standing, to seek shelter in a large corral built by Lone Man near the Heart River. The people decided to move from the mountains and built a village near Painted Woods at a spot where there was much wood.

While living in this village called Awigaxa, Lone Man and First Creator came along and found them. They came along when the water was high during the spring floods and told the people that higher floods might come and that they should have something to protect them. Some of the people thought it would be easier to escape to the mountains, since it took so much goods to perform the Okipa and the rites at the sacred cedar. Others thought that it was more costly to travel so far. Still others thought that the cedar would be useful for other purposes. Lone Man sent a young man a dream in which he saw the buffaloes dancing at the sacred cedar, and the old men interpreted the dream to mean that they should give the Okipa. Some thought that goods should be paid in large quantities equal to the inconvenience of moving to the mountains, and from this time the Awigaxa were the most liberal of the villages in supplying goods for the ceremonies. Lone Man and First Creator came and taught young men who were brave and intelligent how to impersonate the different characters. There were more people in the ceremony than when the other Mandan were taught the ceremony while living far to the southeast.

Even the Awaxawi and Awatixa who were living on the Missouri at that time came to make offerings and to fast. The Hidatsa must not have come south yet from the place where they had gone to escape the flood, for nothing is said of them in the old story. After the Okipa ceremony was given, the people were very lucky because there were so many more gods to protect them. Because the people were so lucky, when the wood was exhausted at one place, they built another village near by. No bad luck came to them until smallpox was brought in by the white men. (Bowers, 1991, pp. 156–163 reprint)


Mandan Lifeways

The Mandans moved very little since prehistoric contact. Their basic culture changed very little except for changes when the horse and European trade goods were acquired. They were semi-sedentary having rich material wealth setting them apart from the nomadic buffalo hunters of the plains.

Extensive archaeological studies correlate traditions of both the Mandan and Hidatsa migrations and residence on the Missouri River. Their economy was based on agriculture and hunting. They hunted buffalo and small game on foot. The Mandans planted mainly corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers on their bottomland farms. They were a people who consistently planned ahead and who stored their agricultural products to sustain them during the lean years.

They commonly transmitted sacred property through the matrilineal line. The Mandans preserved their ceremonial structure with minor variations after the smallpox epidemic. The clan system and age-grade organization was modified to meet the new conditions of a reduced population.

Although each permanent Mandan village was a separate economic, social, and ceremonial unit, the villages were not entirely independent. The turtle drums, which were considered the most sacred objects of the tribe, were held by the Nuptadi band of East-side Mandan. The sacred cedar in the center of each village was a symbol of village unity, and the Mandan considered the turtle drums a symbol of tribal unity. The other villages were able to borrow them for ceremonial purposes.

The Mandan played an important role in the growth of Plains culture. Because of their central position in the Central Plains, the high development in trade for agricultural products with their neighbors, and the admitted borrowing by the Hidatsa of many significant elements of their culture. They were a sustaining force of Missouri River economy and culture.



The Mandan earthlodge villages were comprised of a mass of circular houses from forty to ninety feet in diameter, closely crowded together. The houses were of earth with a smooth coating of pounded clay on the top, where most of the inhabitants were usually stationed. Before each house was a scaffold, fronting the covered entrance. These scaffolds were six feet high, twenty feet long and ten feet broad and were used for hanging up corn and meat to dry. They had a good floor, which was covered with drying beans. The stage for drying corn and meat was as follows: posts were set up on the scaffolds themselves, across these rafters were laid, and upon these cross rafters or poles the corn, meat, and sliced squashes were hung. Before almost every house were one or more poles about twenty feet high, to which images of the gods or sacrifices to them were attached.

Cache Pit
Figure 21. Cache Pit. Cache pits sometimes contained twenty
to thirty bushels of beans and corn where it kept for several years. 
(Photo by Gwyn Herman)


The sedentary character of the Mandans and the fact that they practiced agriculture led to the development among them of several culture features not found among the purely hunting tribes. In common with most sedentary tribes they made use of caches or storage pits. Henry gives a description of them saying that, in the fall after harvest, the corn was dried, shelled, and put in deep pits. These were about eight feet deep, with a mouth just wide enough for a person to get in; the inside was hollowed out larger and the sides and bottom were lined with straw. The cache contained twenty to thirty bushels of beans and corn where it kept for several years. (Will, Spinden, p. 110)

Marriage Customs

The parents arranged marriages among the Mandan, though this does not mean that the young people’s wishes were disregarded. Divorce was not difficult. Elopement even of married people did not cause much of a stir unless both parties had children. A man who lost his wife by elopement would usually receive gifts from the relatives of the man who had taken his wife. He was expected to give his unfaithful wife fine new clothes and a horse, to show that he was above jealousy over a woman.

Marriage ceremonies were complex and depended on the social status of the families involved. The Mandan, with their long history of stable life, had what amounted to class distinction. Families who owned important medicine bundles and rights in ceremonies were of importance to the tribe as a whole. A wedding of the highest order involved a ceremony in which the groom gave away many valuable presents to people owning rights in this father’s bundle. The bride’s parents gave the young man an albino buffalo skin that at the end of the ceremony was disposed of according to which bundle was owned by the father.

There were distinct words for the different kinds of marriage. Another class of marriage was the groom’s father presented the bride’s parents some horses. If the bride’s parents approved of the marriage, they gave her the horses and she gave them to her brothers. Her brother then gave her an equal or greater number of horses, which she presented to her father-in-law. Then the girl’s mother and her brothers’ wives prepared a feast that they took to the groom’s lodge and left there. His relatives feasted with the young couple, and the women among them brought presents that were picked up by the bride’s female relatives when they came back for the empty pots and bowls after the feast.

The Kinship System

Mandan clans were organized groups and elected a leader who acted in an advisory capacity, usually an older person who had been successful in warfare or in hunting. The clan was a property-holding group. It was the duty of the clan to assist its own members, to care for orphaned children and its old people having no blood children. Older people were invited to be fed and clothed by younger members of their own clan. The clan was the medium for the transfer of property when a family died without leaving descendants.

The social structure of the Mandan was based on clan membership. The Mandan and Hidatsa are the only tribes in North Dakota who have a two-part hereditary division. The Mandan and Hidatsa members were related by blood, clan, and marriage.

The Mandans described their groups or moieties (a moiety is a combination of clans) as “East side” comprised of seven clans: Prairie Chicken, Speckled Eagle, Bear, Red Hill, Crow, Badger, and Bunch of Wood Clans; and “West side” consisting of six clans: Waxi’kEna, Tami’siK, Tami’xixiKs, and three extinct clans. The terms “East side” and “West side” referred to the positions the members took in the ceremonial lodge during the Okipa ceremony. The East side clans erected their side of the lodge and placed yellow corn in each post hole. The West side clans erected the west side of the ceremonial lodge and placed small mats of buffalo hair in the central post holes of their side. The Okipa, or ceremonial lodge, occupied a position on the north side of the village open circle, with the entrance facing the sacred cedar. All clans participated in the construction of the ceremonial lodge.

Before the smallpox epidemic of 1837, the moieties could not marry anyone belonging to the same moiety. Moiety also decided the division of buffalo killed in the old-time way; each had a leader for this activity. There was considerable rivalry between moieties in seeking war honors.

There were thirteen clans. Of the thirteen clans, nine have become extinct. The WaxikEna and Tamisik constitute one moiety and the Prairie Chicken and Speckled Eagle make up the other moiety. The major bundles of the Okipa ceremony were held in the WaxiEna Clan, which also owned the sacred cedar Lone Man shrine and controlled the Okipa lodge and sacred turtles. (Bowers pg. 45–57)

Kinship terms applied to members of the biological family who also were a part of clan and moiety groups. The entire tribe was classified as relatives and treated as such.

Each village was divided into a series of matrilineal (inheriting or determining descent through the female line), exogamous (marriage outside the tribe), nontotemic clans grouped into moieties (one or two units into which a tribe is divided). Each clan was composed of one or more lineages that were closely associated with the lodge groups. In Mandan theory the lodge group was based on matrilineal descent and matrilocal (residence with the wife’s family) and consisted of several families held together by women.

Lodges belonged to the women occupying the lodge. The lodge holdings, also belonging to the female, included the corn scaffold, storage pits, cooking utensils, bedding, dogs, harnesses, mares and colts, gardens, and gardening equipment. Geldings and stallions belonged to the men.

Ceremonial Life

Indian Ceremony Pictograph

Mandan ceremonial life was involved with medicine bundles. Each bundle was owned by a small group of individuals within a clan, and was inherited or transferred within the clan. When a bundle was transferred, a feast was given in its honor, and feasts were also given to the bundles at other times to increase their power. The bundle ceremonies were prayers to the particular Supreme Being involved in the bundle, for those favors over which they had control. Individual Mandan men also owned bundles based on visions, and these could be transferred, but never became established as to tribal importance. (Schulenberg, 1956:51)

In 1832, Catlin was privileged to witness the four-day Mandan ceremony called Okipa, which included fasting and self-piercing. The Okipa was a reenactment of events from the tribe’s past. It took place in the Okipa lodge and in the open space in front of the lodge. The Okipa was given in fulfillment of a vow based on a dream. Clan membership and bundle rights determined the role of the main participants. The purpose of the ceremony was to secure plenty of buffalo and well being for the village.

Their sacred bundles fall into two categories. They are the hereditary tribal bundles, and personal bundles. Great value is placed on those bundles and ceremonies that were instituted in very early times. These included the Okipa, founded by Lone Man and Hoita, and Corn ceremonies, founded by Good Furred Robe. (Bowers)

The Mandan system of bundle inheritance shows evidence of change. Certain bundles and ceremonial rights, traditionally inherited through the clan and more specifically from the mother’s brother, such as the Okipa belonging to the WaxikEna clan and the Shell Robe Bundle of the Prairie Chicken clan, showed a tendency to change to a father-son inheritance of the Hidatsa pattern. The eagle-trapping lodges were still inherited through the clan as late as 1929, but the associated bundles had changed from clan inheritance to father-son inheritance after 1875. The system of inheritance was more flexible than for the Hidatsa, with whom they were intimately associated. The Mandan parents often selected their daughters’ husbands and gave them preliminary assistance in ceremonial matters. The sons and daughters of a household usually purchased the parents bundles collectively and designated one, generally the oldest son, to be the custodian. A family having only daughters sold to the son-in-law provided he had been successful in warfare and had removed the mother-in-law taboo.


Hidatsa Creation Narrative

There are three Hidatsa bands each having their own origin narrative. The following is the origin narrative of the Awaxawi Band.

The land was then mainly under water. First Creator was alone and wandering about by himself. He thought that he was the only one when he met another person named Lone Man. They discussed their origins. Lone Man concluded that he came from the western wheat grass, for in tracing his tracks he saw blood on the grass, and that his father was the Stone Buffalo, an earth-colored wingless grasshopper, for he saw its tracks near where he was born. First Creator did not know who his father and mother were but he thought that he had come from the water. The two men undertook to learn who was the older; Lone Man stuck his staff in the ground while First Creator lay down as a coyote. Years later Lone Man returned to the place where coyote was lying and, seeing the bones scattered about, took up the staff, whereupon First Creator came back to life and was declared the older.

Staff Pictograph

First Creator and Lone Man decided to make the land inhabitable and, seeing a goose, mallard, teal, and red-eyed mudhen, they asked the birds to lend assistance by diving below for mud. . . . Goose, Mallard, and teal failed; only the mudhen succeeded in bringing earth from below. Lone Man divided the earth and gave half to First Creator.

First Creator made the lands on the west-side of the Missouri from the Rockies to the ocean while Lone Man made the land on the other or east side, each using half of the mud brought up by the mudhen. First Creator made many living things later occupying the land and from the mud left over he made Heart Butte. Lone Man made his side flat and with the mud left over he made Hill, a small butte north of the present town of Bismarck, North Dakota. He made the spotted cattle with long horns and the wolves.

First Creator caused the people who were living below to come above, bringing with them their garden produce. The people continued to come up, following a vine, until one woman heavy in pregnancy broke the vine.

When first encountered, Lone Man carried a wooden pipe but he did not know what it was used for. First Creator then ordered Male Buffalo to produce tobacco for Lone Man’s pipe. (This act explains the use of pipes in the various ceremonies, which later were introduced, and the concept of tobacco as being sacred.)

First Creator decreed that people in seeking a living would scatter into small groups all over the land and would fight. (This degree established the various bands and linguistic groups.)

Because the spotted cattle could not stand the cold winters and the wolves sometime went mad, First Creator did not think they should be kept. So the spotted cattle and the maggots around a dead wolf, representing the white people was thrown eastward across the waters until a later time when they would return as the white men and their cattle. Finding the land to the east too level for shelter from storms, they roughened it with their heels to form land as it is seen today. The people dispersed over the land into tribes and the two men visited them in their villages and camps. At this time the people, whom we know as River Crow, Hidatsa, and Awaxawi, moved northward toward Devils Lake and lived together as a single group. There were many lakes where they lived at that time.

Finding the land to the east too level for shelter from storms, they roughened it with their heels to form land as it is seen today.

Hungry Wolf of good reputation lived in the village with a younger brother named High Bird. Young men would line up along the path by the young women getting water to ask for a drink. When water was offered one, it indicated that she was fond of him. High Bird’s friend, an orphan, lived with him. Hungry Wolf’s wife offered High Bird water; he refused it because she was his brother’s wife and she became angry. She told her husband that High Bird had attacked her. Although witnesses denied the charge, Hungry Wolf did not believe them. He announced that he was organizing a war party and High Bird and the orphan decided to go along. To cross a large lake, forty bullboats were made to carry the eighty men. They traveled four days by water. High Bird as scout brought in an enemy’s scalp for his brother, but Hungry Wolf ordered his party to leave quietly by water while his brother slept, leaving him no means of reaching the mainland.

Highbird Pictograph

Hungry Wolf called back to his brother that the Water Buffalo, his “father,” had ordered him to do this. His gods, who ate those who assisted Hungry Wolf, protected High Bird. (The narrative here introduces the sun as a supernatural guardian and also as a cannibal. The concept of the sun as a cannibal appears throughout Hidatsa sacred mythology.)

Hungry Wolf called back that if High Bird crossed the water, the Sharp Noses would kill him so High Bird matched the supernatural powers of the Sharp Noses with that of the Thunderbird, his supernatural father. (This conflict provided the setting for at least one of the Thunderbird ceremonies performed by the Hidatsa in recent years.)

Before the war party was out of sight, Hungry Wolf threatened that Owns-Many-Dogs dogs would eat High Bird (the narrative at this point describes the penalties to the social group when brothers quarreled. People were quick to put brothers aright if they showed a tendency to quarrel or fight. This applied also to clan brothers. As a result of the destruction of a large part of the population, people learned that brothers must always aid and support each other, revenge the others death by the enemy, and provide for those the brother loved and respected while he lived.)

Thunderbird came down from the sky, learned from High Bird the cause of the quarrel, and gave High Bird advice on escaping from the island. High Bird learned from Thunderbird that the water buffalo was in reality a large snake living in the lake. (Conflict between the sky gods represented by the big birds and the water gods represented by the snakes runs throughout Hidatsa mythology).

High Bird fed the large snake four cornballs to reach shore where the snake was killed by Thunderbird. High Bird cut up the snake and Thunderbird called the other large birds to a feast. (This feast is reenacted by those performing rites to White Fingernails Bundle). These big birds then gave High Bird advice on overcoming the magical powers of Owns-Many-Dogs and the Sharp Noses. Thunderbird decreed that the village where the two young brothers lived would be destroyed unless Hungry Wolf gave High Bird enough tobacco for one pipe filling. Then High Bird started for home.

Northeast of Devils Lake he overcame the Sharp Noses and when he was nearer to Devils Lake he encountered Owns-Many-Dogs and sent her northward beyond the great fire which was to destroy the village. Far to the east, where the rivers flow southward, High Bird heard a man weeping and discovered that it was his friend, the orphan. They reached home and found that a Mourners Camp has been set up, for his relatives had concluded that he was dead. Each day the people from the other camp came there to mimic them by singing victory songs. The Hidatsa and Awaxawi often set up the Mourners Camp. It was not customary for either the Mandan or Awatixa to establish a separate camp of hide tipis as did the other village groups.)

High Bird sent his mother to Hungry Wolf four times for tobacco and each time he refused so the people of the Mourners Camp dug deep holes in which to protect themselves from the celestial flames. Each day the mourners would go to Hungry Wolf’s camp to sing under the direction of seven singers. They sang the Tobacco songs. (Here is the first reference to an institution highly developed with the Crows, who were traditionally a part of the original Hidatsa, and Awaxawi cultures.)

Each day the mourners would go to Hungry Wolf’s camp to sing under the direction of seven singers.

One day a fire came down from the sky. High Bird’s people were in deep cellars and were saved. All of the others were destroyed except Hungry Wolf’s wife who was the cause of the quarrel. She was given the name Calf Woman after the fire. She described the destruction by the fire and it was then decreed that from this time there would always be women who would make trouble between married couples. Because the seven Tobacco singers were with the mourners, the Tobacco rites were saved. Even today one sees the results of this fire, for there are no trees to the east except along the Red River and its tributaries where the fire could not burn.

After this fire the survivors separated, the Awaxawi lived to the south of Devils Lake where they planted corn while the Hidatsa and the Crow with their Tobacco rites stayed farther north near the large lakes. There Magpie discovered an approaching flood, the penalty for sticking a feather through Fat Bird’s nostrils and ordering a buffalo calf to carry its mother’s entrails. Those Awaxawi who believed Magpie escaped to Square Buttes on the Missouri River where they were joined by Magpie, his mother named Yellow Woman who represented corn, and Spring Buffalo. The buffaloes of the other three seasons drowned on the way to establishing three important hunting areas between the Missouri and Devils Lake. (Bears Arm explained that the linguistic differences between the Hidatsa-River Crow and the Awaxawi developed as a result of the separation after the celestial fire. He interpreted this flight from Devils Lake as evidence that the Awaxawi brought gardening to the Missouri and did not adopt the practice from the Mandan. He believed the flight northward to avoid destruction from the flood involved only the Hidatsa and River Crow. We see that the traditional migrations are intimately associated with magical beliefs. (It would appear from the accounts of David Thompson that these migration myths have at least some historic validity.)

…the Awaxawi lived to the south of Devils Lake where they planted corn while the Hidatsa and the Crow with their tobacco rites stayed farther north near the large lakes. – Origin Narrative of the Awaxawi Band

These people who came to the Missouri in advance of the flood were the Awaxawi who had separated sometime before from the Hidatsa and River Crow while still living northeast of Devils Lake; the flood destroyed those who were on lowlands. After the waters had subsided, the Awatixa were found living on the Missouri also. (This is the first reference in this important sacred myth to the Awatixa whose large village at the mouth of Knife River shows evidence of longer occupation than the traditional villages of the Hidatsa and Awaxawi of the same area.)

When the waters subsided, there were lakes and sloughs to the northeast where First Creator and Lone Man had roughened the earth with their heels. Fish became abundant in all of the lakes. (Bowers, pp. 298–301, 1963, appendix C)

Some of the creation stories say that Devils Lake in northern Dakota is the birth lake of the tribe. The Hidatsa call it Mirí-zubáa (pronounced Midihopa) which means sacred water.

In addition to this story, the Hidatsa have an extensive account of what happened to them during their long wanderings on the prairie, from the time they left the lake until they reached the Mandan village. This account is included in a separate story—the almost endless legend of Idawaabísha (pronounced Idi-wabi-sha), when told properly, takes three or four long winter evenings.

In this story they were often on the verge of death by starvation, but were rescued by a miraculous supply of buffalo meat. Stones were scattered on the prairie by a divine order, and from them sprang to life the buffalo, which they slaughtered. It was during these years of wandering that the spirit of the sun took a woman of this tribe up into the sky. She had a son, who came to Earth under the name of idi-wabi-sha, meaning grandchild, and became the great prophet of his mother’s people. (Bowers)


Hidatsa Lifeways

The Hidatsa revered everything in nature. The sun, moon, stars, all animals, trees, plants, rivers, lakes—everything not made by human hands, which has an independent being, or which could be individualized, possessed a spirit, or….shade. (Matthews, 1877, p.48)

To clarify the Hidatsa concept, for example, the shade of the cottonwood, the greatest tree of the Upper Missouri Valley, is supposed to possess an intelligence that may, if properly approached, help in certain undertakings. The shades of shrubs and grasses are of little importance. It was considered wrong to cut down one of these great trees. When large logs were needed, only the fallen ones were used. Some elders say many of the misfortunes of the people are the result of their disregard for the rights of the cottonwood. The sun is held in great respect and many valuable sacrifices are made to it. (Matthews, 1877, p.48)

The Hidatsa women planted beans, sunflowers, squash, pumpkin, tobacco, and corn. The Hidatsa had nine distinct varieties of corn, five varieties of beans, and several varieties of squash.

Child Rearing Practices

Discipline of children was a family responsibility. The mother’s brother was the boy’s chief teacher and disciplinarian. He was likely to chide a boy for failing to learn to do the things that were expected of a boy his age. Old men of the lodge taught boys by stories and lectures instilling in them the tribe’s idea of manhood. Girls were instructed in feminine labors and skills by their mothers and grandmothers. Young women were disciplined by their sisters and by their mothers’ older sisters.

When a husband died leaving children, his brother would be likely to marry the widow to provide for the children. Death, divorce, and other factors created many kinds of marital situations. There were society standards that governed marital behavior. If one acted otherwise he or she was subject to ridicule, and this was enough to maintain the societies’ standards.

Polygamy occurred among all the tribes in this area. The main reason for this practice was the fact that men, constantly engaging in warfare, were more likely to meet early death than were women. In order that all women be provided with the products of the hunt, have opportunity to bear children, and have their share of work to do, the natural solution was plural marriages. When the fur trade was established, it was to the man’s advantage to have several wives to dress skins that could be traded for white man’s goods.


History indicates that there were two different clan systems of the Hidatsa: the thirteen-clan system of the Awatixa and the seven-clan system of the Awaxawi and Hidatsa Proper. The clan was an important feature of Hidatsa social, economic, and ceremonial life. At birth, the child is a member of his/her mother’s clan or, if the mother was without a clan because she belonged to a different tribe, the child assumed the clan of the other children in the household. In spite of the traditional late arrival of the Hidatsa Proper and the Awaxawi on the Missouri River, the clan names they used were based on incidents or events occurring along the Missouri River.

The general idea of clan origins are two: the origin of the clan from a single female of a household group coming down from the sky with Charred Body; and a local group accustomed to living together. The clan names refer to incidents involving people, animals, or objects. The MaxU’xati (Alkalai Lodge) Clan receives its name from maxoxi, which refers to the dry dust that formed from the decaying of the earthlodge rafters and dropped down continuously, and ati meaning “lodge.” The ME’tsiroku (Flint Knife) Clan means “knife people” and refers to an instance of wife-purchase with a stone knife. The Apukaw’I’u (Low Cap) Clan receives its name from apuka meaning cap or article of clothing worn above the eye to shade them from the sun and wiku meaning “low.” The Low Cap Clan was derived from the supernatural experiences of Packs Antelope with the Thunderbirds and the Grandfather snake of the Missouri who killed by means of lightening which flashed from his eyes. When he returned from his exploits with the supernatural, he shaded his eyes to protect the people. These three clans are grouped together and are known today as the Three-Clan Moiety.

The Itisúku (Wide Ridge) Clan received its name from the custom of being out to the front of the war party along the edges of the hills overlooking the Missouri River. Once a group of young men called on Old-Woman-Who-Never-Dies at her lodge near the Red Buttes and she promised them success in warfare. When they returned to their homes, they called themselves Itis’ku.

The Prairie Chicken Clan was believed to have once been a separate village group. The name was derived from the fact that members of this group were noisy like the prairie chickens. The Prairie Chicken Clan began from the custom of a war party to camp at night in the bushes, the berries of which were eaten by the prairie chickens. (Bowers pg. 66–67)

The AwaxEnawita (Dripping Dirt) Clan derives its name from the childhood custom of building tiny villages with wet clay. Later the people saw hills upstream and nearly opposite the present city of Williston, North Dakota, that reminded them of the work of small children. The people camped there three times; hence the name AwaxEnawita taken from awaxE meaning “hill sliding down” and nawi meaning “three.”

The Mirip’ti (Waterbuster) Clan derives its name from a quarrel that occurred in the village. The mirip’ti separated and built near the village of Xura, who, at that time, had a separate village. Water was brought from the river and stored in bladders for use in case of a prolonged attack. One man became angered because of the cowardice of his people and cut up the water bag hanging in his lodge; after this the group was known as Mirip’ ti from Miri meaning “water” and pati meaning “to break open.” The Xura Clan, after the smallpox epidemic of 1837, merged with the Waterbuster Clan and became extinct. The Xura Clan functioned as a named lineage in the Waterbuster or Mirip’ti Clan, is believed to have been a separate village at one time. The name is derived from the noise of the cicada. The village, except for one woman and her baby daughter, disappeared mysteriously during the night. The survivors moved to the village of the Waterbuster of Awatixa and formed a friendship with that group. (Bowers, 1950)

In addition to the eight clans, there were a few members of the Speckled Eagle Clan in the tribe. According to tradition, this clan was of Mandan origin although many members can no longer trace their lineage back to any particular Mandan village group. They lived at the Awaxawi village shortly after 1780 at the time of the smallpox epidemic of Nuptadi village. Like the Mandan Speckled Eagle Clan, they have been assimilating with the Prairie Chicken Clan in recent years and marriage with the Prairie Chicken Clan was generally disapproved.

The clan was responsible for the care of its own members. Old people and orphans were cared for and often taken into the households of clan members. When the wife died, the man generally left the household to live in one where the females were of his clan.

The clan was responsible for the behavior of its members. It was the duty of older persons of the clan to instruct and supervise the children as they grew up. It was the duty of the clan not only to discipline its own members but also to protect them from the attacks of others. An important role was in directing and supervising the fasting of its younger members, and encouraging their participation in all ceremonies.

The clan revenged the murder of a member by killing the offender and demanding goods of his clansmen to make up for the loss. Women of the clan who were ill and could not do the work were assisted in caring for their households and gardens. One might even be brought into the lodge of clanswomen and nursed back to health. Goods and horses were contributed when a clansman performed a ceremony.

Burial Customs

At death, both the person’s own and the father’s clan had important duties. It is the duty of the members of the father’s clan to take care of, or handle, all of the funeral arrangements. The members of the father’s clan who officiated were selected in advance, sometimes years beforehand. It was the duty of the clan to provide goods, horses, and food for the funeral rites as payment for the official mourners who comprised the adults of the father’s clan. The clan members would begin bringing in the property and displaying it on lines within the lodge where those caring for the sick person and friends coming in for a last visit would see them. It was believed that a lavish display of goods expressed the generosity and solidarity of the clan. The sick person was happy in the belief that in the spirit world he could boast of the goods that had been given away when he died. The clan had no other role when death of a member occurred. Individuals of the father’s clan were in charge of the last rites.

Other duties of the father’s clan included naming ceremonies. Informal feasts were given to the people of the father’s clan from time to time. All through life, the people of the father’s clan offered prayers and sold sacred objects and rites to the clan children, “sons” and “daughters,” and in death they sent the spirit of their clan children away with appropriate rites.

The clan played an important part in uniting households and integrating the village population. It brought together many households for common purposes. It also united households with those of other villages. Visitors from surrounding villages were housed with clansmen, and assisted and participated in the ceremonial activities. A common clans system played an important role in holding the tribal population together and avoiding inter-village warfare.

Kinship System

Kinship plays an important part in the lives of the Hidatsa people. Relatives address each other by the term of relationship instead of by proper names, and each person’s behavior and attitude towards his relatives depended upon the kind of kinship. The requirements for special usage extended beyond blood relationship into larger groups such as clans and moieties. The many loyalties, obligations, and associations of the individual were determined at birth.

Tribal custom laid down certain rules for attitude and behavior toward people of each degree of relationship. Hidatsa kinship influenced behavior of individuals toward each other. For example, a boy could be disciplined by his elder brother and by his mother’s brother. A man could have no conversation with either of his in-laws, or certain of their relatives, but brother-in-law were intimate friends, often exchanging gifts. A man and his sister had great respect and affection for each other, but after puberty they rarely spoke to each other. People whose fathers were of the same clan were expected to chide each other about any weaknesses or breach of a custom.

Among the Mandan and Hidatsa the ideal lodge would include an elderly man and his wives, their unmarried sons and daughters, and the married daughters with their husbands and children. When a lodge became crowded, one of the daughters would build her own lodge and move there with husband and children. The lodge was the property of the women who lived in it. They also owned the household furniture, the tipi, the corn scaffolds, cache pits, dogs, and gardening equipment.

Societies of the Hidatsa and the Mandan

The purpose of societies was mainly to provide opportunity for visiting, feasting, and dancing with a group of people of the same sex. The distinctive features of each society were characterized by a series of songs and a dance, peculiar forms of rattles and other instruments, certain articles of dress and adornment, a specified face and body painting, and hair dress. Society traits were borrowed freely from tribe to tribe and functions were purchased. Though not primarily concerned with the supernatural, a few societies contained sacred elements; most evident is the buffalo-calling dance of the White Buffalo Cow Society of the Mandan and Hidatsa.

Mandan and Hidatsa societies were graded according to age of members. The members of any one society tended to be about the same age. When they became older, they sold their membership in that society and bought membership in the next higher society. Most societies had a leader, and a set number of singers, waiters, and pipe-bearers. In several cases, the acceptance of an emblem, such as a special kind of lance, obligated the owner to behave in a certain way in battle. Two officers in the Hidatsa Black Mouth Society carried “raven lances” into battle. If one was pursued by the enemy, he was to plant the lance in the ground and fight beside it until killed, or until a fellow tribesman pulled up the lance.

There was a society especially for pre-adolescent boys to hunt as soon as they were able. Boys began fasting at the age of nine.

Since kinship ties were strong in these cultures, any adult had responsibilities far beyond the ties of his household. Both men and women had duties to perform for their relatives in matters of marriage, burial, society entry, bundle feasts, and religious rites. Ceremony took up a good deal of the time of the adult Mandan and Hidatsa.


The Mandan and Hidatsa were making pottery as far back as their villages can be traced by archaeology, and continued to do so up to the time of the 1837 epidemic. The art was declining because of the introduction of more durable metal pots and pails by traders.

They used paint to decorate robes, tipi covers, rawhide packing cases, scabbards, shields, drums, and shirts. The usual tint was earth colored and some vegetable colors. Commercial paints became available through traders by the 1800s. The designs were of two styles—the men usually had life forms and women used geometric designs. Men often painted their war exploits and figures of horses. Their paintings were dominated by fighting men. They often painted symbols of their bundle rights on their robes.

Baskets were made of the inner bark of willow and of box elder on a frame of willow sticks. Three colors were available—a reddish brown, blacks, or white—the basic colors of the willows and the box elder. These baskets were used for carrying corn and other plant products, and often used as a measure of commerce.

Articles of clothing were made of tanned deer and elk skin and were often decorated with colored quills and later beads. The porcupine quills were usually dyed with vegetable dyes at first then aniline dyes brought by traders.

Men painted and made their own weapons, society regalia, musical instruments, and ceremonial equipment. In primitive times they made projectile points, knives, and drills from stone. A few individuals had learned to melt glass, using the blue beads brought by the traders, and pour it into clay forms to make plain, but highly prized, pendants.


Certain games were restricted to men, women, and children—other games were not. When adults played games they were likely to bet heavily; gambling on games of chance, guessing, and skill was noted by most travelers who went among the tribes. Gambling was an annoyance to missionaries and government agents. Most games were played only at fixed seasons. This was because of weather conditions or the mythical associations of the games.


The circular huts described by Alexander Henry measured ninety feet from the front door to the opposite side. The whole space was first dug out to a depth of about two feet below the surface. In the center was a fireplace, about five feet square, dug out about two feet below the surface. The lower part of the hut was constructed by erecting strong posts about six feet out of the ground and set at equal distances from each other. Upon these were laid logs as large as the posts to form the circle. On the outside were placed pieces of split wood, seven feet long, in a slanting position, one end resting on the ground and the other leaning against the cross logs. Upon these beams rested rafters the thickness of a man’s leg, twelve to fifteen feet long, slanting enough to shed water, and laid so close that they touched each other. Four large posts in the center of the lodge supported four, square beams on which the upper end of the rafters were laid.

Earth Lodge
Figure 22. Mandan Earthlodge. This replica of an earthlodge illustrates the type of dwelling used by early Mandan. (Photo by Neil Howe)


At the top there was an opening about four feet square which served for chimney and window. There was no other opening to admit light, and when it rained even this opening was closed. The whole roof was well thatched with willows, laid onto a thickness of six inches or more, fastened together in a very compact manner and well secured to the rafters. Over the whole hut was spread about a foot of earth. Around the wall to the height of three feet or more, earth was laid to the thickness of about three feet, for security in case of attack and for warmth in winter. The door was five feet broad and six high, made of raw buffalo hides, stretched on a frame and suspended from one of the beams that formed the circle. Every night the door was barricaded with a long piece of timber supported by two stout posts on the inside of the hut, one on each side of the door. A covered porch, seven feet wide and ten feet long, extended from the door. (Loundsberry, 1917, p. 82)


Men of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes wore hard-soled moccasins with soft tanned uppers that were quilled or beaded. They also wore leggings of skin or trade cloth that came high on the hip on the outside and there fastened to the belt. A strip of quill or beadwork was fastened along the seam, at the outer edges of the leggings. Shirts of soft skin, usually antelope, deer, or mountain sheep, were worn mostly for dress occasions. The shirts in primitive times were of poncho type, made of two skins with the rear parts of two hides forming front and back, and the front parts of the hides forming the sleeves. The buffalo robe was part of the attire of every man and every woman.

Drawing of Mandan Woman
Figure 23. Mandan Woman.  (SHSND 970.1 C289i V.1)


Women’s moccasins were not much different from men’s. Women’s leggings were shorter, reaching from ankle to just below the knee. Dresses were also of a poncho style, alike in front and back. Generally, the front end of the animal skin was used to form the bottom of the dress and the hind legs to extend out to form the sleeves. Finer dresses included fringes of skin with bits of hoof attached and sewn on the sleeves and at the bottom hem. This gave a pleasant rattling sound when the women moved about. Some dresses were decorated with elk teeth; later cowry shells and carved bits of bones were used.

Ceremonial and war clothing worn by men was unlimited. Each society had different gear according to the office held by the individual. War clothing worn by the men was often determined by his dreams. Certain dances and ceremonies not associated with the societies required elaborate costumes and sometimes masks. A number of designs and colors were used in painting the face and body. Colored clays were used in primitive times and were never replaced by the trade product. Paintings were symbolic. A good example of this was the Okipa ceremonial impersonators. These types of clothing described were rapidly being replaced by European style clothing as early as 1850. (Schulenberg, 1956, pp.64–65)

No single institution had more devastating effects on the culture of the Three Tribes and other tribes in the state than did the fur trade. They began to build log cabins instead of their native earthlodges as it took the same amount of logs to build. The native technology was lost when homemade goods were replaced by Euro-American substitutes. Trade goods were transported by the ton on fur trade company steamboats. Those natives, skilled in making strictly Indian implements, died in the numerous disease epidemics that often killed the tribes on the northern plains. When sheet metal, files and chisels, metal pots, glass beads, and cloth were brought into the area, the tribes used these materials instead of the goods they had made themselves. Metal pots took the place of clay pots. Sheet metal was cut and sharpened to make spear and arrow points instead of chipped stones. Glass beads of many colors replaced fine stitchery and the flattened and dyed porcupine quills used as clothing decorations. Cloth was used to make clothes and blankets, replacing tanned hides.

Present Day Culture

The Mandan and Hidatsa tribes actively practice their tribal clanship ties. At present, many persons are adopted into a clan, but it should be noted that adoption is only on an individual basis—the entire family doesn’t immediately belong to that clan—only the individual who is adopted. The children of the woman who are adopted become members of the mother’s clan, not a member of the father’s clan. The members of the father’s clan are considered clan aunts and clan fathers. Members of the mother’s clan are clan brothers and clan sisters.

The Miripati (Waterbuster) Clan has a keeper of the sacred bundle who prays for all tribes. Once a year, the clan gets together for praying, feasting, and dancing in celebration of the bundle return, and to maintain the safe daily storage of the bundle. The Three Clan (Flint Knife, Low Cap, and Alkalai Lodge) maintains a sacred bundle with a keeper.

Active societies include the Antelope Society, Fox Society, and Enemy Women’s Society. Although the traditions have adapted to modern times, members still maintain their identities as being a member of these societies. Other societies sponsor annual celebrations throughout the reservation.


Sahnish Creation Narratives

Sahnish Genesis and its teachings are part of the sacred bundles. The sacred bundles are ancient, mysterious wrappings that hold sacred and holy items of the people. Some of these items were used as reminders for tracing their history. Part of the ceremony of the bundles includes the following statement about the history of the Sahnish: “The tribes and nations of the Caddoan stock migrated originally from the south from the borders of Mexico, northward into the Great Plains. In the migration of these nations northward the Arikara were in the lead, so in their final settlement they were found farthest north of any of the stock. The Caddoan tribes brought with them from the south the practice of agriculture, which they taught, to other cruder tribes whom they encountered.” (Gilmore)

Arikara Genesis

As told by Four Rings, Priest of the Hukawirat Sacred Bundle. Interpreted by Albert Simpson and as told to Melvin Gilmore.

Earth Lodges Pictograph

The Sahnish nation is one of the nations of the Caddoan stock. This stock includes the Caddo of Louisiana, the Waco of Texas, the Wichita of Oklahoma, the Pawnee of Nebraska, and the Arikara of North Dakota. Arikara is not the name by which these 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, the word for “white” in their language.

The tribes and nations of the Caddoan stock migrated originally from the south from the borders of Mexico (Central America), northward into the Great Plains. In the migration of these nations northward the Sahnish were in the lead, so in their final settlement they were found the farthest north of any of the stock. The Caddoan tribes brought with them from the south the practice of agriculture, which they taught to less civilized tribes whom they encountered. The cultivated crops which they brought with them from the south, and which they gradually acclimated farther and farther north, were corn, beans, squash, pumpkins, and sunflowers. All these good food crops made for them a more certain and secure living than could be obtained by the less civilized tribes, who depended wholly upon the harvest of wild plants. Agriculture, the cultivation of corn, had been practiced by the Sahnish for so many centuries that it was thoroughly ingrained in the national and individual life of the people. From time immemorial agriculture had been their life, so that their unwritten literature (oral narration), their religious and social forms were imbued with allusions to their agricultural practices and products.

Chief Four Rings
Figure 24. Chief Four Rings.  (SHSND 0101-021)


The northward migration of the Sahnish brought them into the drainage area of the Missouri River many centuries ago and they have been associated with that river ever since, so that it has had influence in the form of some of their rituals. Their name for this stream signifies “The Mysterious (Holy) River.” The former population of the Sahnish nation was very greatly more numerous than in modern times since contact with the white race. In former times there were twelve villages of this nation. Each village had its own “Sacred Bundle,” an object which was likened to the ancient Hebrew Ark of the Covenant. The Sahnish tell of a glorious and prosperous time of their people when they dwelt at the “Place of the Holy Lodges.” This location was near the Grand River, a tributary of the Missouri River, in what is now South Dakota. At the time the people of the twelve villages were so numerous as to require four “Holy Lodges” or tribal temples to accommodate them in the celebrations of their religious festivals.

“It will be noted that the numbers four and sixteen, and the square of four, are conspicuous in their symbolism in the ritual and philosophy of the Sahnish as they are in many other tribes of that region. As we proceed with the account of a certain ceremony, mention must be made of a personal name, Paa’xu (Grandson) which was conferred upon me in the Pawnee nation. The Pawnee are, as said before are related to the Sahnish so since I made the acquaintance of the latter people they have always liked to call me by my Pawnee name.”

The human mind is always searching for some explanation to account for all phenomena which it encounters. Consciousness of the immensity of numbers and the wonderful profusion of forms of living things in the world has always challenged the thinker to produce a reasonable explanation. Such explanation has taken various forms according to the strength and facility of the mind of the thinker. The seers and prophets of the Sahnish nation in ancient time pondered the problem of the origin and progressive development of the living world. The volume of their thoughtful conclusions upon these matters has been formulated and orally transmitted from generation to generation in the recital of the rituals of their Sacred Bundles. Each of the twelve villages or tribes of this nation possessed a Sacred Bundle which was its palladium, constituting a mystic bond which drew the people of the village together and firmly bonded them into a coherent unit.

When religious festivals were celebrated, a Sacred Bundle was brought into the Holy Lodge and opened to view upon the altar. Parts of the ritual proper to the occasion were recited by the priests, and the appropriate songs and chants were sung.

The various objects contained in the Sacred Bundle were emblematic of the several items of the sacred teachings. One of these revered tokens was a sheaf of thirty-four small sticks made from peeled shoots of sandbar willow. These sticks are of uniform size, about the diameter of a grain of corn and one span in length. This bundle of sticks was for the purpose of laying out a circular diagram employed in reciting the account of the good beginning of all things in the world, and the progress from chaos to cosmos, from confusion to order, from crudity to perfection.

When this teaching is recited, the thirty-four sticks are laid out on the ground in a circle surrounding the fireplace, with each one having its particular station, connotating a certain item in the doctrine. Part of them designate the fundamental powers or elements of the world and part of them signify the stages of advancement of forms of life from the primitive to the more advanced. The circular space about the fireplace, typifying the first four sticks; then the remaining sticks are laid in groups determined by these first four which mark the quarters. The sticks are laid out according to their significance in relation to their prototypes of the cosmogonic order, as enunciated in the sacred teachings. Ritualistic ceremony accompanied the laying of the sticks and the reciting of the teaching.

I obtained one of these symbolic sheave of sticks, and received orally the volume of their teaching from Four-Rings, an old Sahnish since deceased, who was a priest of the Hukawirat Sacred Bundle, and thoroughly conversant with lore of his people. This ceremony took place on August 29, 1924, in Four-Rings’ house about fifteen miles southeast of Elbowoods, on the Fort Berthold Reservation, North Dakota. The information from Four-Rings was afterwards verified and supplemented by information from Crow Ghost, an old man who was exceptionally well versed in the ceremonies and sacred teachings but who also is since deceased.

At the ceremony of transferring the sticks to me and transmitting to me their teaching, there were present only Four-Rings and our interpreter and myself. The interpreter was a young man named Albert Simpson. We three were in a room of Four-Rings’ house. During the time while we were engaged inside, the wife of Four-Rings went out and occupied herself with some work in her garden.

In the room in which we sat an ear of corn, dressed like a woman to represent Mother Corn, was elevated on the wall just as a crucifix is elevated on the wall of a Christian household, and was similarly venerated. Attached to this corn shrine was a braid of dried sweet-grass (haaNUtwaraakha’) to be used as incense in ceremonies in which the corn shrine was employed. I have related and described the uses of such a symbolic ear of corn in “An Arikara Household Shrine to Mother Corn,” Indian Notes, Vol.2 (1925) pp. 31–34, publication of the Museum of the American Indian.

When we were seated in the room, Four-Rings brought out the bundle of sticks, carrying them in his left hand, he took position at a point way to the southeast of the fireplace. Starting from that point, he walked hurriedly once around the circle of the fireplace in sun wise direction to the place of beginning, the southeast quarter, where he laid down the second stick. Likewise, he walked hurriedly three times round the circle and stopped at the northwest quarter, and laid down the third stick; then four times hurriedly round and laid down the fourth stick at the northeast quarter. Then he walked round once again and laid down at the west of the circle two sticks crossed at right angles to each other. Then he walked round to the east of the circle and laid down two sticks parallel to each other and extending east and west. Then he walked round and laid down two sticks by the one which had been first laid at the south east; one of these was laid a little apart from the other. Next he laid four more in a group by the southwest; then four more beside the one at the northwest; finally, the remaining sixteen beside the one at the northeast.

All the sticks in place Four-Rings returned and sat down. The interpreter, acting pipetender for the occasion, filled the pipe and handed it to the old man. Four-Rings took the pipe, lighted it and walked round the circle making smoke offerings, first to the southwest, the northwest and the northeast; then to the two crossed sticks at the west; then to the two sticks laid parallel to each other at the east. After this he walked round the circle once more and made smoke offerings successively to the several groups of sticks, which had been laid down in association with each of the four sticks first laid down, at the four quarters, namely, first to the two by the first stick at the southeast, then to the four by the stick at the southwest, then to the four by the stick at the northwest, and finally to the sixteen by the stick to the northeast. After all those smoke offerings had been made we three participants in the ceremony drew smoke in turn from the pipe, after which the old man smoked out the pipe, cleaned the pipe and put it away in due form.

Then he rose and reverently took down from the wall the ear of corn and the wisp of sweet-grass. These he laid at the west side of the circle, near the two crossed sticks. Then he returned to his place, sat down, and began his formal recital of the sacred teachings:

“There is one supreme being of power and wisdom, the Chief Above {Nishanu Natchitak}.” He rules the world. But he gave mother Corn authority over all things on earth. Nishanu Natchitak is above all, but he made Mother Corn intermediary with human beings on earth. Reverence and gratitude are due from mankind to Nishanu Natchitak for all the good things which we have, and to Mother Corn, through whose mediation we enjoy all these benefits.

We lay down these thirty-four sticks in the way which you see in order to represent to our minds the teachings which we have received in regard to the constitution of the world, and the agencies which work the wise and good purposes of the Chief Above.

All the different kids and tribes of living beings, including the human race, the various kinds of fishes, reptiles, birds, mammals, all things which live and move in the water and on land; all the tribes of flowers and grasses, of trees and shrubs, and every kind of plant—all living things in the world—were first contained and took substance within the womb of Mother Earth. With the first stirring of life in this state of quiescence there came to all living things an apprehension of the imperfection of their state, and they felt more and more an impulse to emerge from their passive condition, from darkness and restraint, to come out into the light, and to attain to liberty of movement over the surface of the earth.

"...all living things in the world—were first contained and took substance within the womb of Mother Earth."

At that time of beginning there were none of the living creatures as we see them now. There was no vegetation; no fishes were in the waters; no birds nor any insects in the air, nor were there any animals; there was no living creature of any kind in the light of the sun on the lap of Mother Earth. All were still covered beneath her bosom. All things were still in embryo. But the living creatures were exerting themselves and making all endeavors, for they strongly aspired to come up into the light and to attain to freedom. So they constantly continued to group and to pray to do their best to explore and find some way to accomplish the purpose. All the creatures were striving and doing their best, each in its own way; but they met many difficulties and obstacles which were hard to overcome. Different kinds of creatures tried to make their way through to come to the surface of the earth into the light and air. One of the first of the animal people which tried was the badger. Then the Shrew, which the Arikara people call suchit, bored through the ground to the surface and come out into the light. But he was blinded by the brightness of the sun coming suddenly upon his sight. He drew back from the dazzling light, and so to the present time the shrew still lives most of the time just below the surface of the ground, and when he does come out on the surface he does so only at night. When the first opening thus had been made by the shrew people, then all the other people, that is to say, living creatures of all kinds began to come forth from the opening of the earth. But it seemed that after a time the earth began to close upon them, and all those which had not already succeeded in making their way to the surface were now held back. So it is that the snakes (nut), the badgers (suunukatox), the gophers and several other kinds of animals still have their dwelling in the ground.

Then a voice was heard which bade the people to travel toward the west, and promised that if they did so they would find a suitable place to dwell. “Go forward with confidence; said the Voice, “and turn not back. If you turn back you will suffer.”

“So the living things which had come forth on the surface of the earth began to move, and they traveled forward in accordance with the admonition of the Voice. In their journeying they met many difficulties, many things which were dismaying to their spirits, many things which at first filled them with terror; but they were continually exhorted and encouraged by the mysterious Voice, and so they kept on and made progress, overcoming one obstacle after another, never being completely balked and never turning back.”

“As they traveled they came to a great water. To overcome this difficulty their powers must be exerted. There seemed to be no way to cross. Then came a mysterious bird (loon) (konit) which made its way through the water. But before all had overcome the difficulty, the waters closed on part of them; and so we still have the people of the waters, such as the fishes (ciwahts) of all kinds, and all of her creatures which live in the water.

“They came to an impassable cliff. The mysterious bird (loon) (konit) which had helped them before now again helped them; it flew up against the bank and broke out a way for passage.

“After a time they came to a great, dense forest which seemed impenetrable. Here again, as before, they prayed and called upon the elements of the world, and tried their best to put open a way to pass through this great forest. The screech owl (WAhuroosis) found a way and the other people followed. But some, as in previous cases, did not wind through. These remained in the woods and still live there. These people are the deer (Nahnunahts), the moose (weesUxarut), the bears (kuuNUx), the porcupines (suunu’), and the forest-dwelling kinds, large and small.

“At the early time the people were unorganized, they had no chief to guide them. They had only the guidance of the mysterious Voice that counseled and encouraged them. But also they had to learn many things by experience, for there was no other way. They had no knowledge of what was good to eat and what was not good, and what was harmful, and they knew not how to clothe or shelter themselves. It was the time when the trees were putting forth leaves. Being hungry they tried eating leaves, stems and roots of various plants. They tried to cover themselves with grasses and leaves and branches.

“And Nishanu Natchitak blessed the people of the human race and showed them still greater favor. To those who sought earnestly with prayer and fasting to know his will he revealed and gave power, He gave them a Sacred Bundle and the pipe to be used in prayer, and taught them religion and instructed them how to worship. And as our ancestors were instructed to do so long ago, so do we even to this day. And the Chief Above gave to the people gifts of roots of all kinds of plants from Mother Earth, that these should be medicines for the healing of wounds and the cure of sickness.

“And Nishanu Natchitak blessed the people of the human race and showed them still greater favor.”

“And the Chief Above blessed all the living creatures on the earth, the trees and vines and flowers and grasses, all the growing, living things upon the lap of Mother Earth which look up to the sun; all the animals on the earth and in the waters, and the fowls of the air. He blessed all the plants and animals and plants should not be abused, but should be treated with respect. It was taught that the pipe should be used to offer smoke to all things that the Chief Above had blessed. And so it has been done by our people through all the ages from that time until the present day.

“It is said that when the smoke offerings first were made to all the powers and elements of the world there were two dogs sleeping at the time which were forgotten, and so no smoke offering was made to them. They awoke and found that they had been forgotten and they were aggrieved and angry because of it.

Therefore they said to the people; You neglected to make smoke offerings to us when all other beings were remembered. In punishment for your neglect of us we shall bite you. And we shall never leave you, we will always abide with you, and we shall follow you forever. The names of the two dogs were Sickness and Death. Wherefore it was said: “Sickness and Death shall be among the people always.”

“And it is even so with all things in the world. Our powers increase and then diminish. We arise and go forth in fresh strength, and then we lie down in weariness. We rejoice in health, and then languish in sickness. The sun arises and shines in splendor, and then it declines and is overcome by darkness. The brightness of day is followed by the darkness of night. The moon waxes to fullness and then wanes away. The flowers bloom in springtime, and are cut down by the frosts of autumn. The wind blows and again there is calm. Water is lifted in vapor and floats in the clouds of the sky above the earth, and again it falls upon the ground in rain. Springs rise in the hills, and their water flows down into the rivers and away to the sea. So changes come to all things. All die and all are born anew. “As the people traveled onward, guided and encouraged by the mysterious Voice, they at least found themselves in a good land. There were streams and woods and open grasslands. There were good fruits in abundance and many kinds of animals and birds were numerous.

“And it is even so with all things in the world. Our powers increase and then diminish. We arise and go forth in fresh strength, and then we lie down in weariness. We rejoice in health, and then languish in sickness.”

“And now in this good land there appeared to them a beautiful woman a stranger. She came into their midst and greeted them with smiles. And even while she was still far off the people smelled from her a fragrance like that of the holy sweet-grass, and then like the odor of the holy cedar tree, then like the fragrance which from a fresh green meadow where young grass, in springing, then of the wild plum tree in bloom, of the blossoms of the chokecherry, of the June-berry, of the blossoms of the wild grape, then the fragrance of the prairie wild rose, and of the blossoms of the evening primrose as they scent the air early on a soft dewy morning in the sand hills, and of many other fragrant wild plants of the prairie and woodland, and the delightful fragrance which comes from a corn-field when the zephyrs slightly rustle its leaves. The odors of all these and many other lovely plants came to the people as their beautiful visitor approached, even before she came near. The people invited her to enter a lodge, and made her sit down and rest in the place reserved for honored guests.

“After she had rested she spoke to the people who were assembled there. She said, ‘why do you seem so fearful of me, and so strange toward me? You have seen me before.’ Then a wise man said: “I believe you are the one whose voice we have heard, the Voice which has directed us on our way. She replied, ‘Yes, it was my voice that you heard. And now I have come to you to give you good teachings from my father, who is also your father, the Chief Above. He loves you and cares for you. And that is why I am sent to you.’

“And the Lovely visitor, whom now they knew to be Mother Corn, taught them with words of wisdom in matters of religion and of the high and deep things of life, of human beings in their duties to the Chief Above and to all the holy mysterious beings all who are aids and assistants to the Chief Above. She also taught the people right ways of living with respect to one another and to all the living things in the world, the plants and the animals.

“She also gave the people instruction in many useful arts. She taught them how to build house to keep them comfortable and protect them from the inclemencies of the weather. They were taught that the house should be the home for the family as the world is the home of the human race. The structure of the dwelling house, and also of the Holy Lodge, should be symbolic of the structure of the world. As the world extends about us like a great circle, so should the house be circular in the ground plan. The circle of the world is a unit, but it consists of four quarters. In the structure of the world the sky appears like a dome above. So in the structure of the house there shall be four main posts and about these a circle of twelve shorter posts, all supporting the domed roof. The four quarters of the world are the aids of the Chief Above to perform all his will in the world. So the four main posts of the house are dedicated, one to each of the four quarters.

“So when we lay down these thirty-four sticks to explain the structure of the world, we lay the first stick at the southeast quarter. This represents to us the light of the Sun. It also represents all vegetation. The power of the Sun is wholesome and revivifying. It will drive away disease and the powers of evil. When sickness comes among the people the smoke of the pipe is offered at the southeast post of the house as a prayer to invoke the potency of these healing powers for deliverance, safety and health.

“In the southwest quarter is another of the powers acting under the Chief Above, the one which gives us the water of life, the Thunder. We lay down the stick at the southwest to represent the Thunder, the giver of the water of life. The stick at this quarter also represents our animal friends, chief of which is the Buffalo (tanaha’). When we contemplate the stick at this quarter we are reminded of the showers of rain, which revive and refresh all vegetation and all animal life. We think of the sweet springs, the pleasant streams, and of the cool lakes which give habitation to the fishes and the waterfowl and shorebirds. We think of the dragonfly (piisuusaaha), of the butterflies (saawiitakaa’), and of other still more for the needful gentle showers of rain when the fields are parched and dry, and also as a prayer that destructive storms of blanking, torrential rain may be averted.

“In the northwest quarter is the Wind, the breath of life, and all the powers of the air. It is the breath of life that gives motion to all things in the world. When the water, which the Thunder gives, flows away down the streams to the great sea, it is lifted in vapor on the air and is carried back by the Wind and distributed again upon the land in rain. It is the Wind that carries the needed moisture to all vegetation. When we lay down the stick at the northwest quarter we think of all these things. We also think of the birds and of the class of insects which includes the grasshoppers (kaapis), crickets (taciRUt) and fireflies (piiRUx kahik). We think also of the echo (sahkaWlhaanu’), the word carrier. That is something that is marvelous.And we think of the ants (pitaru’) for their admirable and wonderful ways of life, working together, as they do, so perfectly. The pipe is offered toward the northwest as a prayer that gentle and refreshing breezes may be breathed over the land, and also those dry withering winds shall not destroy the crops.

“The northeast quarter is dedicated to Night, which brings rest, and which restores and refreshes all things. This quarter is dedicated also to Mother Corn, the mediator, who brings us peace and many other good gifts from the Chief Above. When we contemplate the stick that is laid at the northeast we think of the many good things which Mother Corn has done for us, and of her guidance and encouragement through vast difficulties and dangers in the past, and of the hope she gave us for the future. We think of the successive stages of progress through which our own race and all other living things have passed from the beginning till now; from formlessness to perfection of form; from ignorance to knowledge. Of all these things we are reminded when we contemplate the stick which is laid down at the northeast.

“It is from the northeast quarter that steady, refreshing rains come in the summer and from this quarter also come good snowfalls in winter. It is from the good favor of Mother Corn that bountiful gifts of rain and snow come from the northeast to supply the needful moisture for the abundant growth of our crops and of all vegetation. Smoke offerings are made toward the north east which wish to entreat Mother Corn for her favor or to give thanks for her bounties already received.

“At the west side of the house there shall be an altar. It is here that a Sacred Bundle shall be opened during the celebration of mysteries. During the celebration when thanksgiving is made for the year’s crop, a stalk of corn is placed here before the altar. This is to represent the genius of Mother Corn, who is the mediator of the Chief Above to bring to us all the good gifts which we have in the produce of our fields and gardens, and the harvests of the wild plants and the products from the animals of the hunt.

“Mother Corn has taught us that smoke offerings should always be made toward all four quarters on all occasions, and that at feasts, before we partake, offerings of the food should be made in order that our food may be blessed to us and that we may be blessed in the eating. We should remember and be thankful to all these powers and elements of the world about us and to the Chief Above, who ordains all things in wisdom for our good, and to Mother Earth, in the shelter of whose bosom we rest, and from whose breast we are fed.

“You will observe that there are two sticks crossed at the west side of the circle, at the place of the altar. They are so placed there to commemorate an event in the life of our nation in ancient time, a sign of Mother Corn’s care for us. It is told that once on a time while our people dwelt at the Place of the Four Holy Lodges, a priest dressed a stalk of corn in the manner in which is like a woman would dress and took it down to the shore of the Mysterious (Holy) River (which white people call the Missouri River) and placed it in the current, asking it to travel back down the course of the river along which our people migrated into this land. He asked that is should make a journey to the land of our ancestors and then return to our people. So the stalk of corn floated away down the stream and disappeared from the sight of the priest.

“You will observe that there are two sticks crossed at the west side of the circle, at the place of the altar. They are so placed there to commemorate an event in the life of our nation in ancient time, a sign of Mother Corn’s care for us.”

“The next year a woman who was a stranger appeared in the village. She went directly to the Holy lodge and entered. All the people were astonished, and were wondering who the stranger might be and what might be her mission. The priests assembled at the Holy lodge and took their places and waited respectfully until the stranger should restb and be refreshed with food which was brought for her, and should be composed and ready to announce the place from which she had come, and the purpose of her coming. Finally the priest who had sent away the stalk of corn the previous year, revering it as the symbol of Mother Corn, and asking it to make the journey and fetch tidings from the land of our ancestors, recognized in the raiment of the stranger some article of attire with which he had clothed the stalk of corn, which he had sent away the year before. So now he knew that the stranger was really Mother Corn who had returned in the form of a woman. And he greatly desired to hear what should be the message that she had brought, for he was sure it was something wonderful.

‘When the stranger had finished the repast (meal) which had been provided for her she signified that she would speak, so all the assembled priests and people gave earnest attention to what she would say. She told them she had come a long journey from the land of the ancients, and that the purpose of her visit was to correct their errors and to guide them in the right way of living. She bade them ever to be industrious, to provide for those who should be dependent upon them, and not to indulge themselves in ease; to be not envious nor covetous, to live peaceably with their neighbors, to avoid contention and quarreling, to be generous and forbearing, to practice hospitality to strangers, to be kind to the poor, to be considerate toward the youth, to give good counsel to the erring and restore them to the right way. She also enjoined them to be truthful and just in their dealings, and faithful to trust. She exhorted them ever to be brave to endure suffering and courageous to defend their people against an enemy.

“She then proclaimed her purpose to conduct an expedition against the enemies of our people. She called for volunteers, at the same time warning them that the expedition might entail great danger. All considered that this unusual circumstance must portend some extraordinary and wonderful event ordered by some great mysterious power. A host of young men came forward at her call, wishing to distinguish themselves and to be recognized by whatever mysterious power prompted the proposed action. Out of the number who presented themselves, the strange visitor chose twelve young men.

“It was the time of green corn harvest when the strange visitor arrived at the village. Now when the twelve young men were chosen for the expedition they began at once to make their preparations. When they set out upon their adventure it was the beginning of the ripe corn harvest. After they had marched for some days away from the village they met an overwhelming force of the enemy. They fought with great spirit and courage, but the enemy was too powerful for them, and but one man escaped alive; all the others, together with strange leader, were slain. The one man who escaped made his way back to the village after great difficulties, and brought the sad news of the disaster.

“Another war party was now quickly recruited. The sole survivor of the former expedition went along as guide to his second party, and they marched as soon as possible to the scene of the recent disaster. When they arrived at the place they found the bodies of the eleven men who had perished, but the body of the strange leader was nowhere to be found, nor any trace of it. But at the spot where she had been killed, they found a stalk of corn standing with two leaves. Then they knew that the woman who had been their leader was really Mother Corn. It was in the form of the mysterious visitor that she had come to counsel them and give them instruction and encouragement, and that now she had finally gone away from them to the Chief Above, from whom she had come at the first. They knew that she had left the stalk of corn standing at the place where she had disappeared from human sight to be a token to them and a promise that she would live ever more by the power of the Chief Above, and that she would be forever the mediator of this wise purpose and good favor toward mankind, and that she would always be their unerring but unseen guide.

Then they knew that the woman who had been their leader was really Mother Corn.

“It is for this reason that we have these two crossed sticks at the alter place. And that is why we place a stalk of corn before the altar in the ceremony of thanksgiving for the harvest. We do that so the we may have with bountiful mother. And that is why, when our harvest thanksgiving is concluded, a group of good old women who have lived blamelessly in the precept and example of the virtues of industry, hospitality, quietness and kindness taught by Mother Corn, are chosen to dress the stalk of corn before the altar, the stalk which has participated with us in our rejoicing and thanksgiving, and to carry it down reverently at evening time to the Mysterious (Holy) River (which the white people call the Missouri River) and to place it in the current so that it shall float down the stream, passing all the places where villages of our people existed in ancient time, carrying to them the message that our nation still lives and is faithful to her promise in guiding and sustaining our people through all the years.

‘You will observe that there are two sticks at the east side of the circle, the place of entrance of the lodge, and that these two sticks are laid parallel to each other and lengthwise east and west. The stick on the north side in this pair represents the standing Rock, the most enduring and ancient element of the earth. This was the promise, that the Rock, from its strength and endurance, should give help to the people. We call the Rock “grandfather” (atipa’) as a title of honor and respect because it is old and strong and standfast.

“The stick on the southside in this pair represents the Cedar Tree. The cedar is a wonderful tree; it is always green even in the winter; when other vegetation appears as if dead the cedar yet is living and green. And in drought or wet weather the cedar is ever the same; and it has power to maintain itself not only in good ground, but in poor and dry ground where other trees cannot grow. The promise was that the cedar tree will stand to protect the people and help them to long life. As a title of respect we call the cedar tree “grandmother” (atika’).

“Now we come to the sixteen sticks, which are laid beside the stick of the northeast quarter, the one which represents Night, the time of rest, and Mother Corn, our guide. These sixteen sticks teach us concerning the stages of progress through which we and all living things in the world have come since the beginning.

“The first stick in this group of sixteen tells us that in the beginning we and all living things, all plant and animal life, were covered within the womb of Mother Earth. Although life, then existed in essence, yet there was no consciousness or movement.

“The second stick tells us that the spirit of Mother Corn, as mediator of the Chief Above, quickened all things with life and movement.

“The teaching of the third stick is that with the quickening of all life things moved toward the surface of the earth, but there was yet no power to stand up.

“The fourth stick tells us of the promise which was given that human beings were to stand erect. The bodily form was not yet perfect, but this power was to be given in the future.

“The fifth stick tells of the promise that the human form should be perfected. That was the purpose of the Chief Above, and that gift was promised. There was yet no intellectual power.

The sixth stick also tells of the complete perfection of the physical form of human beings, and of the promise of human intelligence and intellect.

“The seventh stick tells of the perfection of human physical form, and of the gift of mind and intellectual power. But the human beings did not yet have freedom to move about at will upon the surface of the earth. This freedom was promised. The surface of the earth was still without order, but there was the promise that in time to come order and beauty should prevail in the world.

“The eighth stick tells of the accomplishment. The surface of the earth was now beautiful in order and green with vegetation. It was now ready to receive human life. It had been promised from the beginning that human beings should arise, coming up from a lowly condition, to walk about in freedom over the land.

“The ninth stick tells of the invitation to the people to come forward and take their place upon the earth.

“The tenth stick tells of Mother Corn leading the people, all living creatures, those most advanced and those more lowly, adults and children, in constantly moving upward and forward.

“The eleventh stick tells of Mother Corn bringing the people upward. It tells that they had now come very near to the freedom of the earth’s surface. It tells of the promise that their deliverance was to come and light was to appear.

“The twelfth stick tells of Mother Corn leading the people out until they were just at the border of freedom, and enlightenment appeared.

“The twelfth stick tells of Mother Corn leading the people out until they were just at the border of freedom, and enlightenment appeared.”

“The thirteenth stick tells of Mother Corn leading out the people part way, and of the promise of final complete emergence.

“The fourteenth stick tells of the complete emergence of the people into freedom upon the surface of the earth, of the injunction that they should move forward, and of the promise that they should find a place suitable for human habitation.

“The fifteenth stick tells of the complete freedom of the people upon the earth, and that Mother Corn was leading the people on toward the place where they should dwell.

“The sixteenth stick tells how Mother Corn had led the people to a place where they might abide; and there they settled and sought how they might dwell in the land and sustain themselves. All was now complete. There were mountains and plains and hills and valleys. Among the hills were sweet springs of water; there were pleasant streams and lakes. Grasses and herbs and shrubs and trees and flowers and fruits made all the land pleasant and beautiful. In the waters were all kinds of fishes and other forms of life; on the land were four-footed creatures, large and small, also creeping things of all kinds. And in the air were all kinds of birds flying about; those which live among the woods and those upon the prairie, and other kinds which live by the water of the lakes and ponds. There were those which build their nests and rear their young among the grasses, other kinds which build and rear their young in the branches of trees, and still others like the eagle, which fly very high above the earth and build their nests among the rocks and most precipitous cliffs. And there were insects of a multitude of kinds, those which creep and those which hop upon the ground, those which fly at no great height above the ground, and those like the grasshoppers which rise to a great height and fly over long distances in such immense numbers that they are like clouds in the sky. There were bright insects like the butterflies and dragonflies, flittering about in the sunshine, and there were the moths (WAhuruuts) which come out among the flowers only at twilight. And there were the fireflies which flit about over the meadows showing their lights through the darkness like tiny twinkling torches.

“The promise was that all things should be ready for man’s use and enjoyment along with that of all the multitude of other living things. There was provision for man’s needs of food and clothing and shelter. Human beings were bidden to exert themselves and use what was provided for their needs. All living things were to be friends and helpers to each other, and human beings should give due respect to all other things and ‘Not abuse them.

“All living things were to be friends and helpers to each other, and human beings should give due respect to all other things and not abuse them.”

“But the people were yet without experience. They did not know what they could eat nor how they could shelter themselves from storms. And they did not know how to make fire to warm themselves when they were cold.

“They knew not how to protect their bodies from the burning rays of the sun, or from the buffeting of the tempests of wind or from the pelting of cold rain and hail. They tried to clothe themselves with grass and with reeds, with leaves and with branches of trees.

“As they knew not what was good to eat, in their hunger they tried leaves and sterns of many kinds of plants, and also bark from many kinds of trees. With pointed sticks they dug up many kinds of roots and tubers and bulbs. They tried all these for food. They tried many kinds of fruits which they plucked from the trees and bushes. Some things they found good and pleasant to the taste and satisfying to their hunger. But many things they found bitter, pungent, acrid, nauseous, or otherwise unpleasant, and some were found very disagreeable. Also many things which they tried in their ignorance were found harmful. Thus persons were made ill and some died. They were ignorant and weak, naked, cold, hungry, blistered by the sun in hot weather and pinched and shivering from cold in time of frost. They were miserably needy. It was very pitiful.

(At this point in his narration Four-Rings broke down, his voice failed, tears streamed down his cheeks, and he wept aloud. After a little time he recovered himself wiped away his tears, and apologized for his weakness saying, “I am sorry, but I cannot help but weep when I think how pitiful was the condition of the people in that time.” Then he proceeded with his account.)

“They knew not how to shelter themselves from the pitiless storms. A Voice was heard which told them that the Rock (kanits) would be their help. So they looked to the rocks for aid, and took shelter in the caves. The mysterious Voice that was heard promised that the Rock would give the people strength.

“The people were ill and in need and buffeted by the strong winds. The Voice again was heard speaking to them, telling them to lay hold on the Cedar and that it would help them. They heeded the counsel of the Voice and resorted to the Cedar. The Cedar comforted them and promised to help them and protect them. So they had rest and quiet from the storm in the shelter of the cedar trees, for the Cedar was very strong and able to withstand all the angry gusts of stormy wind. And a cedar’s leaves and twigs were used for incense and for medicines also. As a mark of gratitude and respect the Cedar is called “grandmother” (atika).

“Now we shall hear the meanings of the other groups of sticks. First we consider the group at the southeast. There you see two sticks besides the one that was laid to represent the Sun. It has also another significance. Not only does this stick betoken the potent and wholesome power of the light of the Sun, but it also signifies vegetation. It represents all vegetation in general. The People were ignorant, poor and needy, naked, barefoot and hungry. They rested in the caves of the rocks and on the grass in the open, wherever they happened to be when they become weary.

“And then a voice was heard which encouraged the people and gave them hope for better things. It was the voice of Vegetation speaking to them, making the people welcome into the world of living things, offering friendship and companionship and promising that mankind should grow and increase as they saw all vegetation growing and prospering on earth. And Vegetation thus offered the people aid and comfort. So the people were gladdened and encouraged, for all the wonderful variety of vegetation was very beautiful to the eye and in its many shades of restful green, and in they joyous and delightful coloring of the multitude of bright flowers.

“And then a voice was heard which encouraged the people and gave them hope for better things.”

“Of the two other sticks laid down here the one is to represent all the trees and wild fruits and other friendly, useful wild plants which promised to give help to the people. So the people found many fruits very pleasant to the taste and wholesome and nourishing to their bodies. Some trees gave sap from which they could make sugar; many kinds of trees gave wood useful for various purposes. And there were plants that gave roots good for food, and others gave seeds, and still others gave other parts good for food.

“The other stick in this group is laid a little apart from the one next to it. This stick separate from the one before it is to represent the promise that was spoken by the Voice which was heard. A promise foretelling that a time would come when the people would not be dependent upon wild plants only, but that certain useful plants would be protected and propagated by mankind and their quality would be improved by cultivation. By this means the people would have a better quality and more certain quantity of plant producers than they had before. That was the promise given by the beans, squashes, pumpkins and sunflowers. So the people found vegetation helpful and friendly in many ways. And so smoke offerings are made toward the southeast in grateful recognition of the blessings of the sunlight and for the friendship and good gifts of vegetation.

“In the southwest is another of the aids of the Chief Above, the one which brings to us the wonderful gift of the water of life. That is the Thunder (waaruxti’). So the southwest stick is to represent the Thunder. But it also represents our animal friends, the chief of which is the buffalo (tanaha’). It was promised that the flesh of the buffalo should be our main supply of meat; and that its bones, its sinew, its horns, its skin and other parts should be useful to us for many varied purposes. That is why a beef must be slaughtered and given for a public feast, and the choice parts offered as a sacrifice to the Chief Above when a Sacred Bundle is opened to have a thanksgiving ceremony in honor of Mother Corn. This requirement is strictly prescribed. This honor is paid to the Buffalo (tanaha’) because it has contributed more to our benefit than any other of our animal friends.

“By this stick at the south west quarter a group of four other sticks is laid. The first of these four is a represent the water of life, That element so necessary to all life in the world. This stick represents the rivers and creeks and all streams of water which flow through the land, the lakes and all bodies of water which supply the needs of the living creatures, the rains which descend from the clouds wafted by the winds of the sky over the land, and the refreshing dews which revive the dropping vegetation in the cool of the evening and the night, when the restful dusk has come after the blazing rays of the sun are withdrawn. It was promised that water would be given to supply the needs of all living creatures.

“The next stick represents the springs of water which issue in the hills and flow down through the joyous whispering brooks, finally reaching and adding their waters to the rivers forever flowing on down to the mysterious sea. But these sweet water springs first supply the grasses and violets and other shy and gentle little people which dwell by them.

Rain Pictograph

“The next stick represents the worms and other humble forms of animal life dwelling in and under the ground. We are taught to consider and to remember that the most lowly creatures have their proper place and work, and the world would not be perfect without them;

The next and last stick in this group represents those flying creatures which first issue from the egg in a larval form, then pass through a quiescent stage in the pupal form, and then finally come forth in a very different form, winged and flying freely in the sunshine of daytime or the twilight of evening time. This class of flying creatures includes butterflies (sawiitakaa’), dragon-flies (piisuusaaha) and wasps (was) which fly in the daytime, and various kinds of moths which flit about among the flowers in the twilight.

Now we come to the group of sticks laid at the northwest quarter of the circle. The stick which was first laid at this quarter we said was to represent the Wind, that aid of the Chief Above which gives action and movement to all things. Without the air, the breath of life, mankind and animals and all vegetation would die very quickly.

The stick which was first laid at this quarter we said was to represent the Wind, that aid of the Chief Above which gives action and movement to all things.

Of the four other sticks laid down alongside the one which first was laid to represent the Wind the first of the group represents all those forms of insect life which emerge from the egg in the form of adults, without first passing through the larval stage. This class of insects includes grasshoppers (kaapis), crickets (taciRUt) and fireflies (piiRUx kahik). All these have their proper place in the world.

“The next stick of this group represents all kinds of birds (nikUs). Some kinds of birds are helpful to vegetation by keeping a check on those insects which might destroy it if they become too numerous. Other kinds of birds, such as owls (WAhuru’) and hawks (nikutawikusu’), are natural checks against some other kinds of birds which might be destructive if they increased out of bounds, such as blackbirds (kaaxIt); and the owls and hawks also check the inordinate increase of rodents; such as rabbits (waRUx), ground squirrels (ciskarani), and mice (saakAx), which might do damage if they became to numerous. Then there are other kinds of birds which are helpful to us by giving us their flesh and eggs for food and their feathers for use and beauty.

“The next stick represents Echo (sahkaWIhaanu’), which is said to have life, though it does not exist in bodily form which we can see. And because the echo is mysterious and wonderful we pay it reverence and give it the respectful title of grandmother. A grandmother is wise, the teacher of the family. Her words carry to the younger generation the wisdom of experience. And Echo is the word-carrier in the world. It is by words that the fruits of one person’s experience can benefit many other person even the whole people. In this way improvement in methods and manners may come to be and thus conditions of life become better. So in the cultivation of plants, improvement has come by the results of observation and experience being passed from one person to another, and thus the quality of cultivated crops has been conserved and increased.

“Next and last stick in this group represents the ants (pitaru’), those small but very wonderful creatures whose works we see everywhere in the land. There are various kinds of ants; some dig out chambers and passages below the surface of the earth. There they live in underground villages, carrying out the soil and laying it in circular embankments about the entrances to their underground dwellings. Other species build mounds of gravel, and still others of sticks, which they lay up in dome-like form similar to the form of the earth-covered houses of our people. And in these ant villages the ant people are always busy. They are careful of their young, they lay up stores of food, and all about their mounds they keep the ground clean and neat, cleared of all rubbish and all weeds. They work together each for all. And thus by cooperation their condition is improved. The ants are an example for human beings (sahNIstaape). Mother Corn has taught that human beings should cooperate and help one another as the ants do. When a house is to be built the neighbors should come together and help. The slaughtering of buffalo and other kinds of work also require the cooperation of many persons for success.

“Mother Corn taught us that all animals, even such small and seemingly insignificant creatures as the ants, are endowed with the sacred and wonderful quality of life, even as we ourselves are, and that all the different kinds of animals are to be our friends and companions. Though they may be small and humble, and we may think them of no account, we should remember that they have the dignity which belongs to mystery of life, and all have their own special gifts of power. If we sit down by an ant hill we may observe them all working, performing their own tasks, brings material for their dwelling, feeding and caring for their young, all doing their part in the world. We should treat them with respect. We should think of them as our relatives, part of our family.

“Mother Corn taught us that all animals, even such small and seemingly insignificant creatures as the ants, are endowed with the sacred and wonderful quality of life.”

“Now we have finished the round of the circle and have considered the meaning of all the groups of sticks, and each stick in each group severally, in their symbolism of elements and powers in the world, and of the progress made from the crudity of the first to the completeness of the last stick as it has been promised by the mysterious Voice.

Mother Corn has taught us that these four quarters are her guards and helpers on earth; and she has taught us that we should always remember when we have a feast, to make offerings to all these four in acknowledgment of the good gifts we have received and so to show our gratitude and pray for continuance of her favor. She taught us that, when we have ceremonies in her honor, we should lay two crossed sticks at the west side of the circle by the altar. These crossed sticks are to represent her, for the cornstalk in its growth appears as a stem with a foot and a growing point, and with a leaf at each side; so we see it in the form of a cross, as we show by the two sticks.”

When the old man had finished his lecture he brought a piece of dried meat on a plate and placed it as a reverent offering before the ear of corn which had been reposing near the two crossed sticks at the west side of the circle. This ear of corn was a symbol of Mother Corn and so was to be treated with becoming reverence. Then he gathered up again the thirty-four sticks and tied them together in a bundle once more.

Then he said a prayer to some considerable length, commending me to Mother Corn, since I had been given her teachings and was about to assume the custody of the bundle of sticks and the authority and responsibility 6f the teachings. In his prayer he mentioned me not by my legal name, but by my Pawnee name Paa’xu.

Sahnish Council/Medicine Lodge
Figure 25. This drawing shows the seating arrangement of a Sahnish Council/Medicine Lodge.
The arrangement was also used for the layout of the villages. (SHSND-ND Studies)


In his prayer he made allusion to the ancient Sahnish prophecy that in future time a strange people would come into the land, a people of different color, and of strange habits and customs, who would interfere with the ancient customs of the Sahnish (Arikara). He prayed that through the work of Paa’xu the holy teachings of Mother Corn might be put on record and perpetuated for all time so that the sahNIstaaka’ (“White-people”) might come to a knowledge of these holy teachings, and also that they might be preserved for future generations of the children of the Sahnish when the old people all should be gone and the ancient teachings and customs would otherwise be lost and forgotten. His prayer commended Paa’xu to Mother Corn and to the Chief Above. Even though he be sahNIstaaka’ (“Whiteman”), yet he had proved to be united in mind and heart with the Sahnish.

Then he had me kneel down by him and receive from him in ceremonial manner the sheaf of sticks. This ceremonial act of transmitting the bundle of sticks signified the granting of authority to promulgate the teachings of the doctrinal symbolized by the sticks. This ceremonial of formal transfer was made thus. The old priest, grasping the bundle in my right hand with a clasp linked to his. Three times we gripped and relaxed, and the fourth time we gripped I retained my grasp and he relinquished his, leaving the bundle of sticks in my hand. At the time of the fourth gripping and his final relinquishment my left hand was extended along his right arm, I drawing my left hand downward to the bundle of sticks just as he relinquished his grasp leaving the sticks in my right hand thus signifying my assumption of custody, authority and responsibility.

The ceremony was then concluded by a prayer of the old priest commending Paa’xu to the care of the Neesaanu Natchitak through Mother Corn, Praying that Paa’xu might have a safe return home, that he might meet his relatives and friends again in health, and that he might prosper in all his undertakings. (What is outlined in this text for the Sahnish was taken from journals of people who had contact with them during the late 1700s through the 1800s.)


Sahnish Lifeways

The Sahnish lived in earthlodges that varied in size and purpose. A standard lodge for a family was built using fifteen-foot, hewn logs or beams that form a circular lodge. The center was open to allow light and to vent cooking smoke. The outside was covered with willows and grassed earth. Inside the lodges, beds were placed in the outer circle of the lodge, divided by buffalo robes for privacy. The Sahnish used cone-shaped tipis made of hides for temporary shelters during hunting and food gathering.

These earthlodges formed villages that contained medicine and council lodges where the government and spirituality of the people were conducted and practiced. The villages were built on high ground for protection, usually near a river. Sometimes moats were built with palisades around the villages for protection.

A Boy Drying Corn
Figure 26. Son of Wolf Chief drying corn, circa 1914. (SHSND 0086-0343)


The Sahnish were an agricultural tribe and grew crops adapted from their early ancestral homes in the south. The gardens were tended by the women and children. The tobacco crops were tended by the men of the tribe. The Sahnish gardens were vulnerable to insects, drought, and raids of other tribes. This meant the success or failure of their crops could mean celebration or death from starvation. The most important crop to the Sahnish was, and is, corn. From time immemorial, the Sahnish had a special and sacred relationship with “Mother Corn.” It is told by the people that Mother Corn came to the people in a beautiful and mysterious way and taught them the ceremonies that were necessary for their well-being and survival. It was from Her they learned the knowledge and practice of horticulture.

Corn is native only to regions in Mexico, Central and South America which made the migrating Sahnish the most likely tribe to have brought the corn to the regions where it was not previously found. (Weatherford, 1988) Many tribes talked of “Ree” corn and they described the Sahnish people as “corn eaters.” The corn generally grown by the Sahnish was flint corn, a species of corn that is very hardy and grows quickly. It grows in all colors—red, black, blue, yellow, purple, white, and sometimes a single ear has a combination of all these colors. The Sahnish had many varieties of corn. They also brought beans, melons, turnips, onions, watermelon, gourds, sunflowers, squash, pumpkins, and tobacco.

The Sahnish also harvested wild plants such as turnips, onions, tubular (potatoes), celery, pig weed (spinach), milkweed, sunflowers, and many others. They gathered, preserved, and ate June berries, chokecherries, buffalo (bull berries), plums, goose berries, sand cherries, grapes, wild strawberries, and raspberries.

Historians Hyde and Bradbury reported the Sahnish gardens were “as clean and well kept as any farm in Minnesota” and said further “they had not seen, even in the United States, any crop of Indian corn in finer order or better managed, than the corn about these three Sahnish villages.” It must be remembered that these gardens or crops were planted with little more than digging-sticks and animals shoulder-blade hoes. (Hyde, 1959, Bradbury, 1904)

The Sahnish stored their crops in “caches,” which were holes four feet by six feet, sometimes bottle-shaped, with a layer of grass or straw at the bottom and the corn, either in braids or loose, and other vegetables layered on top. They were ceremonially stored and when they were opened for use, ceremonies were again practiced. Brackenridge reported in his 1803 journal that the Sahnish practiced the art of evaporating brine to make salt.

Crops were grown not only for Sahnish consumption, but also for trade with other tribes and white men. They traded for tools, implements, horses, guns, blankets, and they then turned around and traded those items to other tribes for pelts, game, and other needed items. They supplied many of the roving tribes with food staples for hundreds of years.


Sahnish Woman Making Mocassins
Figure 27. Sahnish Woman Making Mocassins. (SHSND 0200-4x5-0583c)


The men generally permitted their hair to grow long and divided it into several braids, matted at intervals, with a white tenacious clay; sometimes rolled up in a ball, and fixed on the top of the head. The Sahnish always had a quantity of feathers. Those of the black eagle are most esteemed. They have a kind of crown of feathers, such as we see represented in the usual paintings of Indians. The swan is the most esteemed for this purpose. Some ornament their neck with necklaces made of claws of the white bear. To their heels they sometimes fastened foxes’ tails, and on their leggings suspended deer hoofs, so as to make a rattling noise as they moved along.

The women, who worked in the gardens, were dressed appropriate for the role in their Sahnish society. The dress of the women consisted of a long robe made of the dressed skins of elk, the antelope, or the agalia, and ornamented with blue beads, and strips of ermine, or in its place, of some white skin. The robe is girded around the waist with a broad belt, highly ornamented with porcupine quills and beads. (Brackenridge, p. 34)

Kinship Systems

To preserve the integrity of the tribe, the Sahnish adhered judiciously to kinship relationships. What non-Indian families refer to as cousins, the Sahnish called their brothers and sisters. Marriage was not acceptable with cousins because they were brothers and sisters among the Sahnish. Aunts and uncles were mothers and fathers. It was not uncommon for children to lose their parents, and if the parents died, aunts and uncles automatically became their parents.

Lewis and Clark said of the Sahnish they were “poor, kind . . . and that kindness extended to all people, but especially orphans and old people.” Some of the ceremonies and societies were specifically directed to care for the needs of the people. For example, in the Buffalo society men were instructed, as part of their ceremony, “to share his last mouthful with his guest.” The Straight Head Society’s primary goal was to “feed and clothe those who were old, poor, or orphaned.”

The Sahnish knew the importance of sanitary conditions and that disease came from unclean living conditions. There were strong indications the Native people lived to a very old age. Warfare and the extreme conditions were their only enemies.


Scraping a Hide at Fort Berthold
Figure 28. Mrs. Sitting Bear (Black Calf Woman) scrapes a hide at Fort Berthold. (SHSND B0127-1)


Hunting wild game was a vital part of their diet, which made successful hunting critical for their survival. The tribe practiced elaborate ceremonies for hunting buffalo, because the buffalo played a crucial part in the social lives of the Sahnish people. Their weapons consisted of guns, war clubs, spears, bows, and lances. The bows are generally made of elk’s horn, two ribs of a buffalo, or of willow or ash.

According to Sahnish elder historians, the ritual of the hunt and who received the meat was as follows: The game went to the person who got to the animal first, not who killed it. He would then take the animal home, butcher it, and divide it among the other hunters. If the kill was divided, the oldest hunter received the first and best piece, which meant the youngest received whatever was left. The person who killed the game received the hide and back. Hunters prayed and made offerings, then ceremoniously ate a small piece of the raw kidney and liver. It is said that the hunter who did so would gain some of the animal’s strength or courage for his act.


One of the staples of trade for the Sahnish was the horse. The Sahnish were thought to have brought the horse from the South where the Spaniards had left them. In 1811, the Astorian party (explorers) reported the Sahnish were outfitted with horses. Horses have been a part of their lives and culture throughout history. The ceremonies and medicines of the horse were known to the Sahnish. During the middle 1900s, many of the families still maintained large herds of horses. Owning horses was discouraged during this time by the government because horses could not be sold or eaten. (Brackenridge, 1904)


During early contact and up until the early 1900s, the Sahnish refused to use alcohol or liquor. It was viewed with disgust when traders offered it to them. According to elder historians, arguments erupted with the traders because the Sahnish would not trade their goods for liquor. Their refusal to trade for alcohol caused the traders to call the Sahnish ornery, cantankerous, or mean.

Ceremonies and Societies

The Sahnish relate that the Supreme Deity (Nesaanu ti naacitakUx), speaking to the Sahnish said “three things will keep you right: Corn, the Office of the Chief, and the secrets that were revealed in the lodge. These three things you must preserve always.” From time immemorial, the history of the Sahnish has been described through their sacred bundles. The bundles are ancient containers for sacred objects that are necessary to recall and explain the most important events in this nation’s history. There were twelve bundles, one for each of the bands represented among the Sahnish people.

Brackenridge relates in the early 1800s that each Sahnish village had one lodge in the center of the village, larger than the others, with a cedar tree and a large stone before it. This was the holy house or medicine lodge. During this time, the spiritual power of the Sahnish ceremonies was well known among other tribes. The white people who witnessed ceremonies, called it “slight of hand” or magic. Explorers and traders who witnessed sacred ceremonies were unable to explain them any other way. The white men testified they saw a Sahnish man’s head severed then returned to his body and life restored during a ceremony. They talked of Sahnish men who were transformed into bears, buffalo, or wolves. In his journal, Brackenridge tells of the cantankerous and poisonous rattlesnake that was tamed by the medicine man of the tribe. He wrote that skill with the “rattler” was common to this tribe. Even as recent as the early 1900s, men watched as Sahnish priests placed a dead branch of the wild chokecherry or plum bush in the middle of the medicine lodge and it bore fruit during a sacred ceremony. These examples were recorded in journals of white explorers and traders, and verified by the tribe.

Historically, the Sahnish practiced a highly developed, complex, religious, and ceremonial culture of which the priesthood was one of the most important and natural segments. The members of this priesthood were entrusted with the tribal history and law. The priests were an alliance known as the “Medicine Lodge,” consisting of nine powerful and distinct societies. In addition to the Medicine Lodge, there were several sweat lodges or baths used for cleansing before ceremonies.

The Medicine Lodge consisted of four principal priests, and nine priests who knew all the ceremonies and could perform them. The other priests knew the ceremonies of their societies only. By the 1900s there were only two priests who knew the ceremonies. They were Crow Ghost and Pat Star.

The most important ceremony is the “Mother Corn” held in the spring, summer, and fall. Another ceremony is called the setting up of the Holy Cedar Tree followed by a performance known as the “Medicine Lodge.” The Cedar Tree is called Grandmother of all things. She is renewed each summer season and is a symbol of life, bringing vegetation to life, annually renewing, and dying. There were also ceremonies for baptism and naming for people who had not yet received a name.

The Sacred Rock is considered the grandfather of all things, “an emblem of the unchanging.” It is always painted red in ceremonies and covered with red cloth. Red is the color of life or the heart.

Brackenridge, Gilmore, and others agreed that the Sahnish were experts in the use of herbs. The most important use was for the treatment of diseases. The knowledge of herbs has been passed down from generation to generation. Today, only select groups of spiritual people have the knowledge of the healing herbs.

Tobacco, a trade commodity cultivated by the Sahnish, was used on all occasions from infancy to death. It was used with seriousness and dignity by the people. When an infant was named, an important part of the ceremony was making smoke offerings. When a man entered into any undertaking, the Powers were invoked by making tobacco offerings. When a plant of medicinal use was dug from the ground, it was first reverently addressed, begged to have mercy on the person, and asked to give of its virtue for healing. The Sahnish grew a special kind of tobacco which was an herb. This tobacco was not used as cigarettes are today. It was only used for ceremonial purposes with the pipe and with prayers.

Late in the 1800s and early into the 1900s, the Sahnish people were known among other tribes and the white people for their ability to successfully treat and heal wounds. They were sought out as healers by other tribes. White people were amazed at their talents for healing. As an example, the Buffalo Society members were experts at setting bones. If a wound became difficult to heal, they resorted to actually cauterizing it, after which the wound healed easily, the elders reported.

Societies held certain powers and abilities such as healing. The societies of the Sahnish people were explained according to Bear’s Teeth who was interviewed by historian, Robert Lowie. Bear’s Teeth identified Sahnish men’s societies as follows:

THE YOUNG DOGS SOCIETY gives instructions to young men on how they should live and how to become a warrior. It was associated with or helped by the Goose Women’s Society.

THE STRAIGHT-HEAD SOCIETY invited the remaining members of the Young Dog society to join them. They celebrated the warrior’s bravery and aided the poor of the tribe.

BUFFALO-CALLING CEREMONY was for calling the buffalo. They imitated the buffalo and their purpose was to insure a good hunt or to indicate that the buffalo was near. A similar society was the buffalo society who celebrated the bravest man.

THE YOUNG BUFFALO SOCIETY was replaced by a more popular and active society. Then it was called the Big Grass Society. Today that society is called the Dead Grass Society. This society takes a lead role in the dances or celebrations at the White Shield community.

THE BLACK MOUTHS SOCIETY was distinguishable because of the way the members were painted. The top part of their faces was painted red and the lower portion was painted black. They were the guards and policemen of the village.

TARO SOCIETY received its name because members cut a small section of hair on both sides in the shape of a half moon.

THE FOX SOCIETY had elaborate dress and a ceremony. Young women are selected into the society.

THE HOT DANCE SOCIETY’S most distinguishing characteristic is that the members put their arms into kettles of boiling water, take meat out, and carry it on their shoulders and the hot water never burns them. This phenomenon was recorded in other ceremonies and societies.

THE CUT THROAT SOCIETY was a society for young men with no social affiliation.

FOOLISH PEOPLE SOCIETY always did the opposite of what was asked of them. These were the known societies of the men and warriors.

WOMEN’S SOCIETIES: Little is known of the women’s societies because there were rarely informants. Generally, interviews and recordings were done with the men.

RIVER SNAKE SOCIETY imitates the snake. It was a secret women society.

GOOSE SOCIETY membership is inherited through the mother.

It is difficult to understand societies among the Sahnish because they were generally practiced in secret or for the Sahnish people only. When the Sahnish were decimated by diseases and warfare, many of the ceremonies and songs for the societies were lost.

Today, many Sahnish people practice these ceremonies. Among the Sahnish, seven sacred bundles exist and are tended by “keepers.” There are ceremonies for “Mother Corn” held regularly by women keepers in the communities of White Shield and Parshall. The ceremony for the Arikara Bundle is held annually and it is a time when all bundle keepers are invited to participate.

Burial Rites

The rites of death are one of the most sacred ceremonies of the Sahnish people. It is a ceremony that has changed little from the early days and continues to be used by the people.

In the early 1800s, it is said by elders and confirmed by journals that the dead were dressed and painted by the parents and other close relatives. Relatives placed the body on a buffalo robe and carried it to the grave, where the person was wrapped in a robe laid on his/her back, with the head facing the east and resting on a pillow. A special song, carried down from generation to generation, was sung at the gravesite, for the spiritual journey of the deceased. The body was said to be returned to the earth because we come from the earth and are returned to Earth.

The death ceremony has changed little with the introduction of white ways. It remains one of the oldest ceremonies practiced by the people today. The ceremony begins with the death and extends to four days or until the body is buried. A death feast is given by the grieving family. Only elders and the family are invited. The death ceremony ends late at night and the family prepares food for the deceased to send with him or her on their spiritual journey.

The Culture Today

When driving through the Sahnish homeland, one will find fields and remnants of the prairie that once consumed the entire area. Sixty percent of the land is white owned or leased, and has been turned into fields leaving little space for the wild prairie rose or tiger lily.

The once powerful Sahnish, who numbered well over 50,000 people in the early 800 A.D., now number approximately 627. All the old enemies of the Sahnish have been quieted but they face new enemies—the environment and new diseases. Today, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, tuberculosis, and alcoholism plague the Sahnish. Diabetes is one of the most debilitating diseases for the people because historically their diets consisted of naturally healthy, life-prolonging food which was changed to high fat and sugar foods.

A strong community organizes the Sahnish/Arikara Celebration (pow wow) in the summer and several small traditional dances during the remainder of the year. The Dead Grass Society hosts the annual celebration.

The communal lifestyle among the people is still evident. The school and a few small organizations provide the only job opportunities, yet many of the Sahnish people cling to their homeland. In the homes of some of the Sahnish the ceremonies are still practiced even though some of the protocols of the ceremonies have been lost. Of the 13 Sacred Bundles only seven remain, and the people are tenacious about “keeping” the bundles.

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