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Spotlight on Culture:

The Indigenous Nations, our first inhabitants



The Mandan, Hidatsa, & Arikara Nations

(Three Affiliated Tribes)



In the past, the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras lived in separate villages and each had their own government and leadership. But after many of their people died of smallpox in the 1800's, the three allies merged. Together, they are known as the Three Affiliated Tribes.


The Mandan

The Mandan are a tribe of the Great Plains who have lived for centuries primarily in what is now North Dakota. They named themselves Numakiki. About half of them still reside in the area of the reservation; the rest reside around the United States and in Canada.

The Mandan historically lived along both banks of the Upper Missouri River and two of its tributaries—the Heart and Knife rivers, in present-day North and South Dakota. They were referred as "the tattooed people" because they traditionally decorated their skin, and were hunters, traders and farmers who lived in fortified villages of earth lodges on the Great Plains.

Portrait of Sha-kó-ka, a Mandan girl, by George Catlin, 1832

Speakers of Mandan, a Siouan language, they developed a settled, agrarian culture. They established permanent villages featuring large, round, earth lodges, some 40 feet (12 m) in diameter, surrounding a central plaza. Matrilineal families lived in the lodges. The Mandan were a great trading nation, trading especially their large corn surpluses with other tribes in exchange for bison meat and fat. Food was the primary item, but they also traded for horses, guns, and other goods.

The Mandan population was 3,600 in the early 18th century. It is estimated to have been 10,000-15,000 before the European encounter. Decimated by a widespread smallpox epidemic in 1781, the people had to abandon several villages, and remnants of the Hidatsa also gathered with them in a reduced number of villages. In 1836, there were more than 1,600 full-blood Mandans but, following another smallpox epidemic in 1836-37, this number was estimated to have dropped to 125 by 1838.

In the 20th century, the people began to recover. In the 1990s, 6,000 people were enrolled in the Three Affiliated Tribes. In the 2010 Census, 1,171 people reported Mandan ancestry. Some 365 of them identified as full-bloods, and 806 had partial Mandan ancestry.

The English name Mandan is derived from the French-Canadian explorer Sieur de la Verendrye, who in 1738 heard it as Mantannes from his Assiniboine guides, which call the Mandan Mayádąna. He had previously heard the earth lodge peoples referred to by the Cree as Ouachipouennes (the Sioux who go underground). The Assiniboine are Siouan speakers. Nearby Siouan speakers had exonyms similar to Mantannes in their languages, for instance, Teton Miwáthaŋni or Miwátąni, Yanktonai Miwátani, Yankton Mawátani or Mąwátanį, Dakota Mawátąna or Mawátadą, etc.

The Mandan have used differing autonyms to refer to themselves: Numakaki (Nųmą́khų́·ki) (or Rųwą́ʔka·ki) (many men, people) was inclusive and not limited to a specific village or band. This name was used before the smallpox epidemic of 1837-1838. Nueta (Nų́ʔetaa), the name used after this epidemic (ourselves, our people) was originally the name of Mandan villagers living on the west bank of the Missouri River.

The Mandan probably used Nųmą́khų́·ki / Rųwą́ʔka·ki to refer to a general tribal entity. Later, this word fell to disuse and instead two divisions' names were used, Nuweta or Ruptare (i.e., Mandan Nų́ʔetaa or Rų́ʔeta). Later, the term Nų́ʔetaa / Rų́ʔeta was extended to refer to a general tribal entity.

The name Mi-ah´ta-nēs recorded by Vandeveer Hayden in 1862 reportedly means "people on the river bank", but this may be a folk etymology.

Various other terms and alternate spellings that occur in the literature include: Mayátana, Mayátani, Mąwádanį, Mąwádąδį, Huatanis, Mandani, Wahtani, Mantannes, Mantons, Mendanne, Mandanne, Mandians, Maw-dân, Meandans, les Mandals, Me-too´-ta-häk, Numakshi, Rųwą́'kši, Wíhwatann, Mevatan, Mevataneo. Gloria Jahoda in Trail of Tears states that they also call themselves the "Pheasant people". George Catlin also said that the Mandans called themselves See-pohs-kah-nu-mah-kah-kee, "people of the pheasants".


The Hidatsa

The Hidatsa are a Siouan people. They are also enrolled in the federally recognized Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota. Their language is related to that of the Crow, and they are sometimes considered a parent tribe to the modern Crow in Montana. They were known for their well cared for gardens, where they grew 9 different varieties of corn, beans, sunflowers and squash.

Hidatsa women tilling the soil.

The Hidatsa's autonym is Hiraacá. According to the tribal tradition, the word derives from the word "willow"; however, the etymology is not transparent and the similarity to mirahací (willows) is inconclusive. The present name Hidatsa was formerly borne by one of the three tribal villages. When the villages consolidated, the name was adopted for the tribe as a whole.

They are called the Mį́nįtaree (″to cross the water″) by their allies, the Mandan; the Assiniboine, called Hidusidi by the Hidatsa, know them as: wakmúhaza yúde, ȟewáktųkta.

Occasionally they have also been confused with the Gros Ventres in present-day Montana and Prairie Provinces of Canada, which were part of the Arapahoan languages speaking peoples. The nomadic Gros Ventre were called Minnetarees of Fort de Prairie, Minnetarees of the Prairie, Minnetarees of the Plains or Gros Ventres of the Prairie while the semisedentary Hidatsa were known as Minnetarees of the Missouri or Gros Ventres of the Missouri.

The Hidatsa are a matrilineal people, with descent determined through the maternal line. As the early Mandan and Hidatsa heavily intermarried, children were taught to speak the language of their mother, but understand the dialect of either tribe. A short description of Hidatsa-Mandan culture, including a grammar and vocabulary of the Hidatsa language, was published in 1877 by Washington Matthews, a government physician assigned to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

Buffalo Bird Woman

During the early 20th century, Gilbert Livingston Wilson carried out extensive ethnographic work with the elderly Hidatsa woman, Buffalo Bird Woman. He also interviewed members of her immediate family at Fort Berthold. From his information gathered from them, Wilson described traditional economy, ceremony, and day-to-day practices as remembered by Buffalo-Bird Woman, who lived at Like-a-Fishhook Village. More information about this remarkable woman and her gardening methods can be found here.


The Arikara

The Arikara (English: /əˈrɪkərə/), are also known as Sahnish, Arikaree, Ree, or Hundi. Today, they are enrolled with the Mandan and the Hidatsa as the federally recognized tribe known as the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation.

Their name is believed to mean "horns", in reference to the ancient custom of wearing two upright bones in their hair. The name also could mean "elk people" or "corn eaters".

The Arikara language is a member of the Caddoan language family. Arikara is close to the Pawnee language, but they are not mutually intelligible. As of 2007, the total number of remaining native speakers was reported as ten. Saddly, Maude Starr- one of these speakers, died in January 2010. She was a certified language teacher who participated in Arikara language education programs.

Arikara man wearing a bearskin, 1908

The Arikara lived as a semi-nomadic people on the Great Plains. During the sedentary seasons, they lived primarily in villages of earth lodges. While traveling, or during the seasonal bison hunts, they erected portable tipis as temporary shelter.

They were primarily an agricultural society, whose women cultivated many varieties of corn (or maize). The crop was such an important staple of their society that it was referred to as "Mother Corn."

The Arikara women were excellent cultivators as well, like the Hidatsa. The surplus corn and other crops, along with tobacco, were traded to the Lakota, the Cheyenne and more southern plains tribes during short-lived truces. The amount of trading items passing through the Arikara villages made them a "trading center on the Upper Missouri". Before smallpox epidemics brought by the Europeans hit the three village tribes, they were the "most influential and affluent peoples in the Northern Plains".

Traditionally a family owned 30–40 dogs. The people used them for hunting and as sentries, but most importantly for transportation, in the centuries before the Plains tribes adopted the use of horses. Many of the Plains tribes had used the travois, a lightweight transportation device pulled by dogs. It consisted of two long poles attached by a harness at the dog's shoulders, with the butt ends dragging behind the animal; midway, a ladder-like frame, or a hoop made of plaited thongs, was stretched between the poles; it held loads that might exceed 60 pounds. Women also used dogs to pull travois to haul firewood or infants. The travois were used to carry meat harvested during the seasonal hunts; a single dog could pull a quarter of a bison.

The Arikara played a central role in the Great Plains Indian trading networks based on an advantageous geographical position combined with a surplus from agriculture and craft.

Historical sources show that the Arikara villages were visited by Cree, Assiniboine, Crow, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, Kiowa, Plains Apache and Comanche.


Notable people

The name of the most famous chiefs of the Mandan tribe included Abdih-Hiddisch, which translates as "Road-Maker" and Mah-to-toh-pe (Chief Four Bears), and Chief Shaheke (Big White).

The following list is of notable people of recent times,

  • Ruth Buffalo, elected to the North Dakota House of Representatives in 2018. She is the first Indigenous Democratic woman elected to the North Dakota Legislature.

  • James Dancing Bull, Professional Heavyweight Boxer, 4-0-1, 2 KO, As an amateur 4 time (2014-2017) Region 3 Golden Gloves Champion 201+lb, 2014 and 2017 Upper Midwest Golden Gloves Champion 201+lb, Amateur MMA Record 3-0, 3 KO

  • Samuel Demaray, Amateur Boxer, 2017 Region 3 Golden Gloves Champion 126lb, 2018 Region 3 Golden Gloves Champion 138lbs

  • Zebadiah Demaray, Amateur Boxer, 2017 Region 3 Golden Gloves Champion, 2017 Upper Midwest Golden Gloves Champion 201lb, 2017 Ringside World Champion Novice 201lb, 2018 USA Boxing Western Nationals Bronze 91kg Elite, 2018 Region 3 Golden Gloves Champion, 2018 USA Boxing #10 Ranked Elite Male 91kg

  • Chloe Fredericks, Singer, Songwriter

  • John (Buzz) Fredericks, National Indian Cattleman’s Association president from 1974-‘79, American Indian Agricultural Credit Consortium as president and board member in the 1970s and the American Quarter Horse Association

  • Maroni Hale, 2019 National Silver Gloves National Champion 138lbs

  • Tex G. Hall, Chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes from 1998 to 2006

  • Denise Juneau, State Superintendent of Public Instruction for Montana

  • Edward Lone Fight (b. 1940), former Chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes

Every One, 2018, an installation by Cannupa Hanska Luger. It is made of composed of 4,000 individually handmade ceramic beads, collected from Native and other communities throughout the United States and Canada, to represent a collective portrait of missing or murdered indigenous women, girls and LGBTQ victims of gender violence
Cannupa Hanska Luger (artist), Peter Burka (photographer)
  • Cannupa Hanska Luger, visual artist.

  • Alyce Spotted Bear (1945-2013), educator and Chairwoman of the Three Affiliated Tribes (1982-1987)

  • Erica Thunder, Commissioner, North Dakota Department of Labor and Human Rights, youngest and first Native American to hold such Cabinet position.

  • Destrey Zarfos, Disc Jockey for 93X Minneapolis-St. Paul rock radio station.




In Mandan mythology the Creator god, Tirawa, was believed to have taught the Mandan people the art of tattooing. Their tattoos were highly symbolic, marking an important event in a person's progress in life and often accompanied by sacred ceremonies. The Mandan tribe used a variety of dyes and pigments for tattoos.-     Black Tattoos: Natural black dyes were achieved by the application of soot or bone black which was an animal charcoal produced by charring animal bones- Brown / Reddish Tattoos: Reddish dyes and pigments were achieved by the application of ochre mixed with clay- Blue Tattoos: Blue dyes were achieved by the application of indigo, a dye that was plentiful in North America
Mandan Tattoos- Artist: George Catlin © Musée du Château Ramezay


---- To be continued next week ----



Edward S. Curtis Collection/Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (neg. no. LC-USZ62-114582)Earth lodge dwelling of the Plains tribes of North America, photograph by Edward S. Curtis, c. 1908.
Earth lodge dwelling of the Plains tribes of North America, photograph by Edward S. Curtis, c. 1908


Next week we'll continue this series with the Three Affiliated Tribes' history, their art, dancing and music, and religious traditions. Stay tuned for more information, and more cultures in future posts. Our area is blessed to be called home by many people of many cultures, and they deserve to be acknowledged.