Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Hidatsas, an Indian people of the Northern Plains, have lived in what is now westcentral North Dakota for nearly a millennium. The name "Hidatsa," which refers to the willows growing on Missouri River sandbars, was once applied to a single band but later encompassed the entire people. Along with the Mandans and the Arikaras, the Hidatsas were the northernmost Plains people to construct large, permanent earth lodge villages and to practice agriculture intensively. Composed in the early historic era of three closely related bands–the Hidatsa-proper, Awatixa, and Awaxawi–each spoke a distinct dialect of Siouan language and maintained unique identities and traditions of separate origin. Awaxawi and Hidatsa-proper traditions describe the people emerging from an underground world near a large body of water, often identified with Devils Lake in eastern North Dakota, and a migration and later meeting with the Mandans, a people with whom the Hidatsa have been intimately associated to the present day. The Awatixa, in contrast, maintain they have always resided on the Missouri River.

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when European and European American observers began to record their encounters with Northern Plains Indians, the Hidatsas lived in three villages perched on bluffs near the junction of the Knife and Missouri Rivers. Archeologists now believe the Hidatsas, specifically the Awatixa, had established themselves in the area as early as 1100 a.d. Although Hidatsas traveled widely and maintained extensive ties, especially trade ties, to other peoples throughout the Northern Plains and beyond, their villages and river valley environs remained at the heart of their collective life. Villages, with their large numbers of domed, multifamily earth lodges, were principally the domain of Hidatsa women, as well as the children and elderly in their care. For men, villages were a place of return and departure, as their lives frequently led them abroad for hunting and raiding. Rivers provided water, clay for pottery, places for recreation and play, and avenues for travel. Spring floods nourished the river-bottom gardens cultivated by Hidatsa women that yielded an abundance of corn, squash, beans, and sunflowers for their own consumption and for an extensive trade. Men found ample game, including white-tailed deer, along wooded bottoms, but they also turned to the High Plains beyond to hunt bison and pronghorn antelope with friends and family in semiannual hunts.

Clans and societies incorporated each Hidatsa person and bound them together in mutual obligation while also providing care, identity, and community. Membership in the seven or eight clans active in the historic era was matrilineal and cut across the three Hidatsa groups, integrating these distinct communities. Men's and women's societies provided various social services, and membership changed over the course of an individual's life. Likewise, religious observation and devotion were woven throughout daily life. The Hidatsas recognized their world as variously endowed with spirits to be acknowledged and respected, and prayer was offered frequently in a recognition of, and request for, assistance from the power inherent in all things. Individuals, often male, pursued visions and sought guidance even in childhood, presenting acts of self-sacrifice as evidence of their reverence and purpose. Rewarded with a successful vision, an individual would make a small personal bundle as a representation of powers to be called upon for assistance. Larger bundles, associated with clans or societies, afforded power and protection but required observation of unique ritual care by a trained owner.

The encounter with European and, later, European American newcomers placed unprecedented challenges before the Hidatsas. Some aspects of change were welcome, including the adoption of horses and the expansion of the long-established Aboriginal trade network to incorporate newcomers. But disease, decline in population, and the necessity of defense from the more numerous Sioux (Lakotas) proved especially daunting. Before the cycle of epidemics, the Hidatsas may have numbered 5,000 to 6,000 people, but at least as early as the 1780s their population began to decline. In 1837 a smallpox epidemic killed half of the Hidatsa people in a matter of months, leaving only 1,200 to 1,400 survivors. These losses, combined with even more devastating losses suffered by the Mandans, led to the establishment of a single, shared village, Likea- Fishhook, in 1845. There the Mandans and Hidatsas were joined by the Arikaras in 1862. In 1870 the three peoples were placed on the eight-million-acre Fort Berthold Reservation in present-day central North Dakota. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Hidatsa population had declined to some 400 people.

Early in the 1880s, in keeping with the government's assimilation policy, the Hidatsas, Mandans, and Arikaras were encouraged to abandon Like-a-Fishhook Village and to establish family farms on individual allotments. While some Hidatsa families chose to do so, many continued to reside in small towns and communities–Lucky Mound, Shell Creek, and Independence–established close to the Missouri River, where they pursued ranching and other enterprises. The size of the reservation was reduced to less than one million acres by allotments.

The 1930s saw a respite from overt demands for assimilation and a revision of Fort Berthold's tribal government as the Three A.liated Tribes under the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934. But challenges continued. With the construction of Garrison Dam during the 1950s, some 156,000 acres of Fort Berthold Reservation, home to 90 percent of the tribal community, were flooded. Tribal leaders had resisted the project but finally yielded to congressional pressure and accepted a twelve-million- dollar compensation package. Relocation continued even as the water rose, and many Hidatsas moved to the town of Mandaree. An additional $143 million was appropriated by Congress in 1992, but the dislocation and disruption caused by the Garrison Dam are felt to this day.

See also: WATER: Pick-Sloan Plan.

J. Wendel Cox Arizona State University

Ahler, Stanley A., Thomas D. Thiessen, and Michael K. Trimble. People of the Willows: The Prehistory and Early History of the Hidatsa Indians. Grand Forks: University of North Dakota Press, 1991.

Gilman, Carolyn, and Mary Jane Schneider. The Way to Independence: Memories of a Hidatsa Indian Family, 1840–1920. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1987.

Meyer, Roy W. The Village Indians of the Upper Missouri: The Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977.

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