Traditional Government

Hidatsa Traditional Governance

The Hidatsa used the term “chief” to name anyone who by virtue of his authority at any particular moment was recognized as leader of a group of people. This term applied whether a segment of the village group, a village group, or the entire population of the three villages and could include other organized groups as might be residing with the people at that time. (Bowers, p. 26) A head chief and a council of twelve lesser chiefs, according to one authority, were elected when the wild roses bloomed. Their election depended upon war honors.

For mutual defense against common enemies, around 1797 or 1798, the three Hidatsa villages of Hidatsa Proper, Awatixa, and Awaxawi, established a tribal council composed of the most distinguished war leaders of each village. Council membership totaled ten, with the head chiefs of Hidatsa and Awatixa as additional members. (Bowers, p. 27) Their duties were confined primarily to general matters concerning warfare and the mutual assistance of the villages. They made peace with neighboring villages and discouraged efforts of the enemy to make alliances with one village and not the other. This council continued until the three village groups united to build Like-A-Fishhook Village in 1845. (Bowers, p. 28)

The council of ten, before the smallpox epidemic of 1837, were outstanding individuals, respected primarily for their good judgment and military accomplishments. They were members of their respective village councils from which they received their authority. When a member died or lost prestige, they did not fill the position until the next year at the time of the summer buffalo hunt and the Naxpike ceremony. Regular meetings were not held. If one of the members had something to discuss with another, a feast was prepared and they discussed the matter at that time. On other occasions, as when a pipe bearer arrived to arrange a peace treaty or the peaceful admission of his band for trading, the council met to learn the attitude of the people. The council would refuse to discuss matters with young men of an enemy tribe, knowing such an arrangement did not carry the authority of the band leaders.

One such incident occurred as reported in Alexander Henry’s journal of 1806: “About thirty Big Bellies [Hidatsas] arrived on horseback, at full speed; they brought an interpreter with them. This party consisted of some of the principal war chiefs, and other great men, who did not appear well pleased, but looked on the Pawnees [Arikara] with disdain. After some private consultation they desired the Arikara to return immediately to their own villages and to inform their great war chief, Red Tail, that if he sincerely wished for peace he must come in person, and then they would settle matters, as they were determined to have nothing to do with a private party of young men.” (Henry, 1897, p. 335, in Bowers, 1992, p. 29)

One’s position and prestige in the council was slowly attained involving a complex process of preparation and training. Leaders selected were those who displayed high respect for age as suggested by their attitude toward their older brothers and fathers, and how they expressed their attitude toward the council. One who had distinguished himself as a leader frequently did not attend meetings until they called him in to render an opinion or to help in solving some difficult problem. All subgroups and households had a voice in decisions. They discussed important matters for quite a time so that all households had an opportunity to express an opinion. (Bowers, pp. 40–42)

During the period 1837–45, the two Hidatsa bands, Awaxawi and Awatixa, joined the Nuitadi Mandan because they were so few in numbers. This was done for protection from the Sioux. These three groups organized a council headed by the Hidatsa Chief, Four Bears, son of Two Tails of the original council, who was then the most distinguished war leader. Four Bears was entrusted with the physical defense of the people, and Missouri River was selected to organize the ceremonies of establishing the new village at the Like-a-Fishhook Bend.

Head Chiefs

The top leaders in 1845 when they built Like-A-Fishhook Village were: Missouri RiverFour Bears, and Big HandMissouri River, from Awatixa, was village chief and keeper of the Waterbuster Clan Bundle. Four Bears, from Awatixa, was war chief and owner of rights in Daybreak and Sunset Wolf ceremonial Bundles. Big Hand, from Awaxawi, was first creator impersonator and announcer for the chiefs.

Spiritual Protectors of the People

Big Cloud (Fat Fox), from Awaxawi, was Thunder Bundle owner and protector of the East; Bear-Looks-Out, from Awaxawi, was owner of the Old-Woman-Who-Never-Dies Bundle and protector of the South; Bobtail Bull, from Awatixa, was Thunder Bundle owner and protector of the West; Bad Horn, from Hidatsa, was owner of the Bear Bundle and protector of the North and Big Hand, from Awaxawi, was village announcer.

This group was entrusted with the spiritual protection of the village. Four Bears, the war chief, took no part in the ritual organization of the village other than outlining the limits of the area on which lodges were to be built.

The council continued to be the principal policy-making body. Any chief could call a council meeting merely by preparing a feast for its members. The council was selected from the population at large without regard to original village origin. The only qualification was in the age group above that of Black Mouths and had distinguished himself in warfare or had participated in recognized ceremonial and social activities. Until the Nuptadi Mandan joined the earlier population at Fishhook, one large Black Mouth society functioned to preserve order until the population went to winter camps. The society then broke into separate camp segments based on their original village ties.

Under the direction of the council, they fortified the village. They obtained and rung a large bell each day by a Black Mouth Society member to announce that the gates were open for the horses to go to pasture. The bell was rung again in the evening to announce gate closing, and people should come in from their work. Once the gate closed, they guarded all sections of the village to keep out intruders, and only those whom they could identify were admitted. Unauthorized war parties were forbidden to leave.

A chief had little or no authority apart from the council of which he was a member. His principal authority was derived from his ability as an orator to persuade the council of older men to give consent to his opinions. He was never demoted. Younger ones who had distinguished themselves replaced the older man in public esteem. A chief’s greatness was based on how long his opinions were accepted above others. He was expected to conform strictly to all village and tribal custom.

A chief could prevent warfare between villages and within the villages only to the extent to which he could keep the tribe unified. The chief or the council could not prevent a portion of a village from separating and establishing a separate village.



Mandan Traditional Governance

Historically, each village had a “war chief” and a “village chief.” Among the Mandan, leadership was closely associated with ownership of sacred bundles. Up until 1885 or so, the village and tribal leadership of the Mandan were vested in the principal bundle owners or spiritual leaders. This group consisted of headmen whose number varied from time to time depending on the status of the various bundles. Two leaders of equal status were selected from this group whose war or peacemaking record exceeded all others or who had acquired considerable popularity with the people. One whose record in warfare was greatest was selected in the council to be war chief. A second chief was selected who had important ceremonial bundles, had given many feasts and had performed many rites for the general welfare of the village. They were entitled to wear a headdress of buffalo horns and ermine during council meetings and on special occasions, and during peace making discussions with neighboring tribes.

The authority of the chiefs extended only over important tribal affairs, such as moving the camp, trading, and peace ceremonies with other tribes. They were expected to cooperate for the general welfare of the village. (Bowers, p. 34) Even in such matters a chief usually consulted a group of prominent men, who in some cases acted as a formal council.

Mandan historians suggest that sons of chiefs were usually selected, since they were better trained and were exposed to sacred bundles. A study of Mandan lineage could not establish the accuracy of this opinion, since all family bloodlines with chiefs, except Four Bears, were broken by smallpox. This lineage has the following inheritance of chiefs: Good Boy was chief at On-a-Slant Village (near present-day Mandan, North Dakota) after the first smallpox epidemic and lived at Fort Clark for nine years as first chief, where he died. Four Bears, son of Good Boy, was chief for many years. An essential function of a chief was to mold public opinion so that a village could act in unison. A chief was considered eminent if there had been little conflict during his leadership. Good Boy, chief of Slant Village after the smallpox epidemic, was able to unite the remnants of several villages into a single village and to coordinate elements with a minimum of friction. He was a village leader who devoted himself to tradition and to rebuilding the tribe to its former prominence. He died of smallpox in 1837. Bad Gun, son of Four Bears, was selected chief after he had sold his rights in the Black Mouth Society.

The Mandan had a society known as the Black Mouths, who policed and enforced rule at the villages, hunting expeditions, and winter lodges. Their duties were to keep order.



Sahnish Traditional Governance

Governance over the Sahnish people was vested in chiefs who guided them spiritually. They were chosen as leaders because the people believed they were the wisest, most unselfish and honorable men of the tribe.

During the early 1700s, twelve bands existed among the Sahnish, of which there were four main bands. Each had a chief and three sub-chiefs. The four main bands were the Huawirate (they came from the East), Tuhkatakux (Village Against a-Hill), Tuhkasthanu (Buffalo Sod Village) and Awahu (Left Behind). The head chief of the Awahu presided over the four main bands. When any chief died, the men of the tribe assembled at an honoring feast, at which the first chief of each band had the right to make a speech and nominate a candidate for the vacant position. No votes were cast, and the chief was chosen by consensus.

When a chief was selected, they gave a special shirt or robe to him that was worn to show his status as chief. Some duties of the chiefs were to extend hospitality to strangers, preserve peace within the tribe, order hunts, and decide tribal movements. Any needy person or stranger in the village would be welcome in the house of the chief. Hunters kept the chiefs’ lodge supplied with food.

According to Sahnish oral historians, it was also the role of the chief to decide when to leave an area and where the new villages were to be settled. Scouts rode out and found an appropriate place for the villages and with the chief’s approval, the move began. The Hukawirat (Eastern band) was the first and they all traveled in a row. When they reached the new area, they settled in the same order as they traveled: first the bands of the southwest area followed by the northwest area, the northeast area and the last three bands were the Awahu of the southeast area. (See charts of chiefs and bands in the leaders section.) They maintained this process during the 1800s to assure the transfer of the powers of the chief. That role changed drastically during the Like-A-Fishhook era.

Today the governance of the Sahnish is combined with the Mandan and Hidatsa. The change in government was a result of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Sahnish accepting the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, and the development of a constitution and by-laws patterned after the U. S. Government.

Currently, the role of the traditional chief of the Sahnish is as keeper of the Sahnish Awahu Village Pipe, and, by choice, he exerts little leadership. The Tribal Business Council carries out the leadership role, and the traditional chief works with the business council. However, the Tribal Business Council has little governance over traditions and ceremonies of the Sahnish.


Modern Government

Modern Three Affiliated Tribes Government

From the mid 1800s to the early 1900s, much of the leadership for many tribes was by government appointed agents and superintendents, and the Indian Bureau. Like many tribes, through a series of executive orders and allotment acts, their land base was severely diminished.

In 1910, the Three Affiliated Tribes formed a ten-member business council. This body was referred to as “The Ten,” whose function it was to advise the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Early leadership was represented by members of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (Sahnish) members who attended church and boarding schools, such as Carlisle and Hampton Institutes. In later years, some of these individuals returned and assumed leadership roles in the tribal government.

Between 1887 and 1934, Indian tribes throughout the United States lost 190 million acres of land. During this period, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (Sahnish) lost approximately 12 million acres, mostly through Congress adding provisions to legislation without notification to the tribes. The major shift in government policy was brought on by the passage of the Wheeler-Howard Act of 1934, known as the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA). The federal government designed this legislation to stop the rapid loss of Indian lands. Tribes were presented with the opportunity to reorganize as legal entities under this legislation. As a result, many tribes drew up constitutions. Others did not. The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (Sahnish) formally joined together under this legislation in 1934 and became the Three Affiliated Tribes.

Tribal Administration Building
Figure 18. The Three Affiliated Tribes headquarters is located just west of New Town, North Dakota.  (Photo by Neil Howe)


Indian Reorganization Act

The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ policy makers during the 1930s supported the revival of Indian culture and sovereignty and adopted a policy that “Indians best solved Indian problems.” John Collier, then Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was the leading force behind the Indian Reorganization Act. This milestone legislation, known also as the “Collier Plan—the Indian New Deal” or “Home Rule,” was a broad-based legislation that allowed Indian tribes across the United States to be self-governed. Collier envisioned a program that would: (1) strengthen tribal governments and restore the relationship between the federal government and tribes, (2) stop the sale of allotments and restore tribal lands to communal holdings, (3) provide procedures and funds for tribal economic development, (4) grant preferential hiring of Indians in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and (5) recognize and aid tribes in maintaining and developing their cultures, especially their language, religion, and craft.

On November 17, 1934, more than 93 percent of the eligible voters of the Three Affiliated Tribes cast ballots and approved the Collier Plan by a margin of 477 to 139. With assistance from Indian Bureau personnel, the Three Tribes drew up a constitution and bylaws. These constitutions, and those of other tribes during this time, resembled uniform American political institutions, and bore no resemblance to traditional tribal governance structures.

The constitution for the Three Affiliated Tribes was adopted on May 15, 1936 by a vote of 366 to 220, and approved by the Secretary of the Interior on June 29, 1936. The corporate charter was ratified on April 24, 1937 which was later amended on November 28, 1961.

The new constitution provided for a tribal council to replace the old business committee that the Tribes had established in 1910. The old business committee, which consisted of equal representation from each tribe, did not function as a government, did not hold regular meetings, and was primarily advisory. The new council was composed of two members from Independence, Shell Creek and Nishu (formerly called Armstrong), and one member each from the communities of Santee (Lucky Mound), Ree (Beaver Creek), Elbowoods, and Little Missouri/Red Butte. The new council was essentially the same, except Independence, which had two representatives and Little Missouri and Red Butte were combined into one district.

Between 1934 and 1968, governance gradually shifted from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the Three Affiliated Tribes. It was a period during which the tribes established a measure of autonomy. By 1961, the tribe had changed the constitution to elect the chairman at large. (“Robert Fox Wins Tribal Election,” Minot Daily News, September 30, 1960) This change in tribal constitution represented a shift in government by consensus.

When the Flood Control Act of 1944, proposed to flood much of the prime land of the Three Affiliated Tribes, the Tribal Business Council traveled to Washington, D.C. to protest the action. Contemporary leadership of the Three Tribes emerged both within the state and in national Indian Affairs. Many of the leaders of the Three Affiliated Tribes were among the group who formed the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI). However, NCAI was a new organization and was unable to stop the Garrison Dam.

National Congress of American Plains Indians
Figure 19. National Congress of American Plains Indians.  (SHSND B1010)


In 1968, Congress passed the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act, Public Law 93-638. This legislation allowed tribal entities to administer and manage programs and services previously administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Indian Health Services.

In 1982, through a tribal constitutional revision, the Three Affiliated Tribes reasserted the Tribal Business Council’s authority to exercise jurisdiction over the reservation and its people.

At present, changes in the tribal constitution (1982) reduced the tribal council to one representative from each of the six districts. The tribal chairperson is elected at large and six tribal council members are elected from vote of their respective political subdivisions or segments. Council members serve staggered terms. The council elects its own officers. Elections are held the third Tuesday in September in even numbered years, and the primary election is held the second Tuesday in November in even numbered years.

Modern Tribal Administration

The Three Affiliated Tribes, as a modern government, administers many programs. Revenues are generated primarily from various government programs and grants. The Three Affiliated Tribes, as the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation, contracts for the administration of many of its programs. A majority of the funds used within the administrative budget are tribal and federal trust funds.

Three Affiliated Tribes logo
Figure 20. The Three Affiliated Tribes logo. (Photo by Neil Howe)

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