MHA Education Dept., New Town, ND



  1. The Hidatsa language and people
  2. Smallpox and Other Diseases
  3. Reservation Settlement and White Expansion
  4. The Construction of the Garrison Dam (1953)
  5. Fort Berthold Map(Special thanks to John Bearstail, Scott Baker, Pete Coffey, Randy Baker and Leslie Baker)
  6. References


The Hidatsa language and people


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Our traditional stories tell of various bands, or groups, of our people moving to the area around the Missouri river in the distant past. Although these bands shared social and linguistics ties, we were not a homogeneous group. In addition to the Hidatsa-proper (the largest of the groups) there were also the Awatixa and the Awaxawi.

Our life style was one of semi-sedentary horticulturists. Historically, we lived in earth lodge villages close to the Missouri River and its northern tributaries, the Little Missouri and Knife Rivers. Our people established a kinship with the land, where we utilized the river flood plains to grow garden crops, most notably corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers. We also hunted in the adjoining upland grasslands for game, especially bison but also antelope and deer (Lehmer 2001:248; Wood 2001:188). Archeological evidence suggests that earth-lodge villages existed in this area as far back as 900 years ago (Wood 1980:22; Wood 2001:186).

The Hidatsa are a matrilineal society. Children belong to their mother’s clan. In pre-contact times, the Hidatsa had thirteen clans. Our traditions tell us that these were consolidated into the present day seven clan system after numerous epidemics of old world diseases. These clans are divided into two main groups, the Three Clans and the Four Clans. The clan breakdown can be seen in Table B.

Table B – The Hidatsa Clan System
The Three Clans (naagiraawi)
The Low Cap Clan apuhkawigaa
The Knife Clan meʔcirooga
The Alkali Salt Clan maʔxooxadi
The Four Clans (naagidooba)
The Water-Buster Clan miribaad
The Wide Ridge Clan ihdishuga
The Prairie Chicken Clan ciicga
The Dripping Dirt Clan awaxe (awaxeraawihta)

Hidatsa society was highly complex with specific roles that differed for men and women. Women tended the gardens and crops, made and repaired clothes, and cooked and tended the home. The earth lodge belonged to the woman. The women were the backbone of the Hidatsa family. When couples married, the women of the wife’s clan would often build the newly weds a new earth lodge. Men hunted, grew tobacco, and protected the villages from raids. They also carried out retaliatory raids, most often against the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Blackfeet. Hidatsa society was further divided into age grade societies. Men and woman would move through their respective societies as they grew. The different societies had different village jobs and obligations. By the time one became an elder in the tribe they had carried out all of the major jobs in the village and thus could make wise decisions for their village based on years of accumulated experience.


Smallpox and Other Diseases

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There is some contention as to when the Plains Villages reached their peak populations.


Population numbers have been revised upwards in recent years, but no consensus has arisen. The main reason for this is a lack of good archeological evidence as to where and when Plains villages were occupied. An estimate of the populations for the Hidatsa Villages can be seen in Table C.


Table C – Estimated Hidatsa Population from pre-1700-1780
Tribe Oral Traditions (pre-1700) 1700-1750 1780
Hidatsa 20,000 8,300 2,500
Adapted from Lehmer (2001:248)

The reason for the decline in population shown in Table C is the introduction of Old World diseases. While many contagious diseases infected the Plains tribes, including measles, cholera, malaria, whooping cough, and influenza, the most deadly was smallpox (Trimble 1979). One of the first deadly epidemics to strike the Plains villages occurred in 1730 (Swagerty 2001:257) and another occurred around 1750.


Both of these epidemics were probably smallpox (Dobyns 1983: 15-26).

Another outbreak of smallpox spread through the Plains in 1780-81. This virulent pandemic may have began in Boston in the summer of 1775 during the American revolution. While more people had immunity in the bustling seaports and commercial hubs of the East coast thanks to previous contact with milder forms of the virus and inoculation, Native Americans had no such resistance and they appear to have had extraordinarily high fatality rates when the virus struck (Fenn 2001).


Beginning in Boston, this epidemic swept down the coast to Mexico where it then proceeded to move south, into the interior, and to the North back into what would become the continental United States. From here, and from ports on the Mississippi, it swept up the Great Plains, hitting the villages of the Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara in 1780-81. From the Northern Plains it moved into Canada and northwards into Alaska. In its wake, it left unspeakable suffering and while the survivors were now immune to further outbreaks, many of them were blind, scarred, and maimed. Although no one can be sure, the epidemic is estimated to have killed over 200,000 people and to have destroyed entire villages and communities (Dobyns 1983, Fenn 2001).

As a result of this outbreak of smallpox, the Arikara were reported to have been reduced to two villages centered at the confluence of the Missouri and Cheyenne rivers. The Mandan villages around the mouth of the Heart river were abandoned and the survivors moved upstream near the mouth of the Knife river where in 1804 Lewis and Clark describe them living in two villages near three Hidatsa villages (Lehmer 2001:255). Archeological evidence indicates that these Hidatsa villages were themselves remnants of larger pre-1780 populations (Lehmer 2001:255).

The third major smallpox outbreak to affect the Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara was introduced by a steamboat sent up the Missouri river to supply the fur trade posts in 1837 (Dollar 1977, Meyer 1977, Trimble 1979). Mortality rates for this epidemic are well documented for the three tribes. The Mandan suffered the worst outbreak and approximately 98% of the population died. Among the Arikara 50% of the population died, and the Hidatsa suffered the lowest mortality rate of 33%. This lower rate was because most of the Hidatsa villages were out on the plains engaged in the annual bison hunt (Lehmer 2001:255).

A final outbreak of smallpox occurred in 1856. This outbreak devastated the remaining Hidatsa and Mandan, now living together at Like-a-Fishhook Village on the confluence of the Missouri and Little Missouri rivers. The Arikara, living near Ft. Clark below the Knife river were similarly affected (Lehmer 2001:255). The U.S. Census Office, in 1894, estimates that total population for the Northern plains had declined by well over 80% from reports of first contact in the early 1800s. This drastic reduction of population left few warriors among the three tribes and the earth lodge villages of the Northern plains became easy prey for their enemies, most notably the Sioux.


Reservation Settlement and White Expansion

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Due to their northern location, the Hidatsa and Mandan were not close to the westward emigration routes and as a result they were not subject to many pressures that affected other Native Americans, such as ceding of village lands to white settlers. In 1845, the Mandan joined the Hidatsa at Like-a-Fishhook Village and in 1862, the Arikara also moved there for safety from constant harassment by the Sioux (Fowler 2001:281). In 1870, President Grant formally created the Ft. Berthold reservation, which was 7.8 million acres and included this main village, out of lands assigned to the Hidatsa in 1851.


The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara shared this village and each group had its own section (in addition to a fourth section headed by French-Canadian men and their wives). Although the Mandan and Hidatsa consolidated many of their clans and societies, the separation of the village into sections helped keep the respective traditions and languages distinct and alive (Schneider 2001:391). Although generally removed from the emigration process, for the Northern plains tribes this period was one of accommodation to growing U.S. expansion (Fowler 2001:281). The Hidatsa and Arikara worked as army scouts and the Indian agency helped provide food for the newly created reservation. This relationship helped to avoid hostile contact between what would become the Three Affiliated Tribes, the U.S. government and settlers.

The treaties signed with the U.S. inevitably brought Indian agents who attempted to get the Indians to adopt non-Indian culture, most prominently by trying to get men to work for wages and to become farmers. The second goal proved the most difficult since farming had traditionally been done by women. In 1880, President Hayes signed an executive order reducing the reservation size to 1.2 million acres. In 1887 the Dawes Severalty Act was passed by Congress. This act did several things. First, it provided personal allotments of land to Indians on various reservations, including Ft. Berthold; second, it allowed land not awarded to individuals to be opened to public sale. Then in 1889, the tribes were forced to accept yet another reduction of the reservation, bringing it almost to its modern size. In 1912 the northeast third was opened for white settlement.


This portion contained the best grazing land for cattle and horses and wasn’t returned to the tribes until 1970.

By the late 1880s, Like-a-Fishhook Village was abandoned due to overcrowding and the depletion of natural resources in the immediate area, most notably wood. The abandonment of the village and the allotment of tribal lands to individuals fit into the federal government’s plans to get the Indians to adopt white ways of farming and ranching. Missionaries also began to move onto the reservation, including, in 1876, the Reverend Charles Hall. The missionaries and the U.S. government hoped that the Indians would adopt Christianity and thus make the process of assimilation easier. To assist the missionaries’ work, the government and its agents worked diligently to stop native religious ceremonies in the late nineteenth century. They also tried to prohibit gatherings and gift exchanges (Fowler 2001:286), which were central to the Plains Indian way of life.

A central part of the government’s policy of assimilation was the education of Indians. The federal government established day schools on the reservation and boarding schools much further away in order to bring the people into white cultural norms and practices. Although these schools were welcomed by some members of the tribe as they thought it important to be able to read treaties and other government documents (Schneider 2001:393), they were actively resisted by others. Children were often forcefully sent to these schools, which were usually located far outside of the child’s native community. The schools emphasized vocational rather than academic training. These schools advanced a curriculum that, in addition to teaching trades, farming and domestic work, demeaned native institutions (Fowler 2001:288). The children were kept away from their communities as much as possible. They were forced to cut their hair and were severely punished for speaking their native language. The schools also acted as a breeding ground for disease. The educational policy of the U.S. government was one of the most important factors in breaking up the traditional way of life. It helped to destroy kinship systems and the role of the extended family. In addition, it was the main factor in the decline of native language use as many returning students could no longer fluently speak their own native language.

Despite the best efforts of the agents and missionaries, the three tribes managed to maintain their languages and traditional customs. By the early part of the 20th century, life on the reservation had come to combine both Indian and non-Indian elements. Although traditional earth lodges had been abandoned and men and women wore nontraditional clothes, kinship relations and linguistic identities were maintained (Schneider 2001:349). For example, both young and old continued to attend traditional dances as well as powwows despite opposition from tribal agents and the various missionaries on the reservation. This strong sense of culture and language use continued until the coming of Garrison Dam in 1953.


The Construction of the Garrison Dam (1953)

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During the 1930s the Army Corps of Engineers proposed a series of flood controls for the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. However, it was not until 1943 that Congress took interest due to a series of floods and droughts. The Flood Control Act passed Congress in 1944 and although the Three Affiliated Tribes opposed the construction of the Garrison Dam plans for reconstruction of the reservation were drawn up in 1945. The proposed dam would be located right outside of the southeast corner of the reservation. The water behind the dam would flood most of the bottom land of the reservation. This bottom land was where most of the tribal members still lived. The construction of the dam would necessitate moving all of the Indian homes, building new roads and sanitation systems, and moving or building schools, bridges, and other structures (Schneider 2001:396).

Prior to the construction of the dam, most people were bilingual, trilingual, or multilingual with Hidatsa being the common language among Indians and English spoken by all people except some of the elders. The traditional kinship system was still very strong and people still had strong ties to the resources of the bottom land. Many people still lived in log cabins that were heated with wood that grew along the river. Women still planted and tended gardens and collected berries and wild plants that grew along the riverside, and men supplemented family income by hunting deer that lived along the wooded terraces of the river (Schneider 2001:396). Tribal members were not prepared for the move out of the bottom lands.

The construction of Garrison Dam and the subsequent formation of Lake Sakakawea destroyed a way of life that had survived much adversity. Not only were homes lost, but also sacred sites were inundated and the river itself was changed forever. 90% of the three tribes were forced to move out of the bottom lands and onto the rough and windy plateau overlooking the river. Communities and families that were once separated by a fordable river now found themselves cut off by a huge lake. The reservation tribal center of Elbowoods was inundated, as were the non-Indian communities of Sanish and Van Hook. As a result of the creation of the lake, three new Indian communities replaced those lost by the Dam (Schneider 2001:396). These communities were no longer close to each other. The Hidatsa community became centered at Mandaree, the Mandan at Twin Buttes, and the Arikara at White Shield. Forever lost was the close contact that had existed between the tribal communities prior to the construction of the Garrison Dam.



1.Much of this section is adapted from Boyle 2007.

2.Lehmer (2001:248) puts the peak population for the Plains Villages in the mid-eighteenth century, however Stewart (2001:344) puts the peak population point in the 15th century, which fits oral tradition. This can be seen in Table C.

3.I give a pre-1700 population number of 20,000, which is in accord with oral traditions. Given the effect of old-world disease on Native populations, this does not seem to me to be too high. Population numbers for indigenous groups prior to 1492 are generally being revised upwards (see Mann 2005) and we have no way of knowing how many epidemics struck the North American continent prior to the 1780-81 smallpox outbreak. We know that there was at least one smallpox outbreak in 1750. If both the 1750 and the 1780-1 outbreak killed between 50 – 75% of the population and in 1780 (after the smallpox outbreak) there were approximately 2,500 tribal members the estimate of 20,000 is at the higher end of the possible population range. This would suggest that the Hidatsa lived in more than just three villages, however there is no archaeological evidence to unequivocally support this (for more on the problem of pre-epidemic population numbers see Hanson 1983).

4.It is likely that epidemics occurred prior to 1730. Swagerty (2001:256-58) states that old world diseases may have infected the Plains as early as 1617. From 1687-91 smallpox is documented to have hit the Southern Plains areas and this probably spread further north. Crosby (1972, 1976:289-90) and Dobyns (1983) argue that a pandemic swept northwards from Mexico as early as 1520-1524 and infected many Plains villages.

5.Fenn (2001) discusses whether this North American pandemic was really one outbreak or two. For simplicity in the discussion, I have treated the pandemic as one.

6.The 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie guaranteed the Hidatsa 12.6 million acres for their reservation. This landgrant included most of their original living territory from the Heart and Knife Rivers to the Yellowstone River. However, it did not include all of the territory that the Hidatsa claimed for hunting, which was much greater. This hunting territory extended from the Yellowstone River in the west to Spirit Lake in the East and from the Southern Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba in the north to the Black Hills and Teton mountains in the South. Neither Congress nor the Hidatsa ever agreed to the reduction that occurred in 1870.

7.At this point in time, the reservation was approximately 170,000 acres.



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