Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Siouan-speaking people now called Mandans referred to themselves as Numangkaki, or "People of the First Man," a name that reflected their creation by First Man. Despite this common name, the people lived in separate, autonomous villages that were identified by their locations on the Missouri River and its tributaries. The two main divisions were the Nuitadi, "People of the West Side," and Nuptadi, "People of the East Side." Two other divisions, the Awigaxa and Istopa, mentioned by early European and European American visitors, disappeared under the pressure of epidemics and American settlement.

In 1797 British explorer David Thompson found some Mandans still living in villages on the Missouri while others had settled among the Hidatsa on the Knife River. Mandan villages differed from those of the Hidatsas by the arrangement of the earth lodges around an open space with a shrine in its center. Like the Arikaras and Hidatsas, the Mandans combined bison hunting with corn, beans, squash, and sunflower agriculture, and this combination set the seasonal round of spring planting, summer hunting, fall harvesting, and winter hunting. While hunting, the tribe lived in tipis and carried only the most necessary tools and clothing. At the village, however, the earth lodge provided plenty of room for storing items such as pottery and baskets, which the women made for cooking and harvesting, respectively. Related women, usually sisters, would build and occupy a lodge with their families.

Family relationships were organized on the basis of matrilineal clans. All the women in a family and their children were members of the same clan. A man who married a woman who was not of his clan moved into her earth lodge, but his primary loyalty was to his clan. The clan cared for its members, especially orphans and the elderly, disciplined its children, assisted its members in acquiring membership in military, social, and religious societies, and helped to purchase sacred bundles that allowed a man to perform religious ceremonies. These sacred bundles were earthly manifestations of the Mandans' origins. Each bundle contained objects, songs, and instructions for the sponsor of the ceremony. These ceremonies ensured the continued success of gardening and hunting activities that supported the tribe. The most important ceremony was the Okipa, a dramatization of the creation of the Mandan world by Lone Man and the gift of the animals. Despite their recognition of common identity, the villages were independent in their government. Each village selected two men–one known for his military abilities and the other for diplomacy–from the general council of sacred bundle owners to lead the village. The leaders served only as long as people accepted their ideas.

The first non-Indians to visit the Mandans found them to be hospitable to outsiders, and this established a long tradition of friendship between the Mandans and European Americans. In 1837 a devastating smallpox epidemic killed most of the Mandans and a large number of Hidatsas, leaving the fewer than 200 survivors vulnerable to attacks from hostile tribes. As a defensive measure, the Mandans moved up the Missouri and, with the Hidatsas, established Like-a-Fishhook Village. This became a trade and administrative center for the region, attracting fur traders, government officials, and missionaries. The Arikaras moved to the village in 1862, completing the association that eventually became the Three Affiliated Tribes of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.

After forty years, Like-a-Fishhook was overcrowded and the local resources were exhausted. Consequently, in the early 1880s, even before allotment officially began, its inhabitants moved to new, kinship-based communities along the Missouri. The Mandans moved to the west side, where they established the settlements of Charging Eagle, Red Butte, and Beaver Creek. There they lived as farmers and ranchers, sending their children to the community school and attending church events and traditional ceremonies. In 1934 the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras voted to accept the Indian Reorganization Act and, under its auspices, established a tribal council, adopted a constitution, and took the name Three Affiliated Tribes of Fort Berthold Reservation.

In 1954 Garrison Dam, part of the Pick- Sloan Plan, turned the Missouri River into Lake Sakakawea, causing major changes in Mandan life. People had to leave the small, kinship-based, bottomland communities and move into new houses in new towns. The new Mandan community of Twin Buttes was built, but not everyone lived there, and tribal activities became more difficult to coordinate. Relatives no longer lived next door to each other, and the removal of the bridge isolated this corner of the reservation from New Town, the new administrative headquarters.

In the years that have passed since the dam was built, the Mandans have strived to maintain their language by teaching it in the elementary school and have revived the Sun Dance and other ceremonies. Nevertheless, marriage with outsiders and work opportunities elsewhere on the reservation continue to draw young people away. A tenacious core of Mandan identity survives, however, and their population, which was only 241 in 1874, has rebounded to more than 1,200.

See also WATER: Pick-Sloan Plan.

Mary Jane Schneider

University of North Dakota

Bowers, Alfred W. Mandan Social and Ceremonial Organization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1950.

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

Wood, W. Raymond, and Thomas D. Thiessen. Early Fur Trade on the Northern Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

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