Mandan Indians


Mandan Indians Essay, Research Paper

The History of the

Mandan Indians

in North Dakota

and the impact of the

European invasion

History 262

“A North Dakota winter” (Encarta 95)

Life on the plains is hard. The winters are long and so very cold. Few trees block the strong winds out of the mountainous west. The plains yield little to sustain a family. So we work, we grow food, we hunt, and we trade our surplus for goods brought by the nomadic tribes.

The Mandan people were a Native American tribe of the northern plains. They struggled against a hostile climate, prospered though harassed by hostile tribes, and created a rich cultural lifestyle in prehistoric America. This is the story of the Mandan people before, during, and after the invasion of the Europeans.


The Mandans believed they were created beneath the earth, and lived there for a long time. After a dispute between “First Man” and “Lord of Life” a hole opened that allowed a grapevine to grow down to them. With the vine came light and the chance to leave their subterranean confines. With the help of other animals (spirit animals) the hole was enlarged and they began to climb out, but the vine broke leaving half of them behind to live beneath the earth. This was said to have happened near a lake to the east when “Good Fur Robe” was chief. “Good Fur Robe”, is believed to be the father of agrarian life for the Mandans, he is thought to have taught them to live on the earth (Densmore, pg 7) They called themselves “Numakake” or “men” (Dictionary of Indian Tribes, pg 438) .The name Mandan is thought to be a corrupted version of “Miwatani” which is believed to be a name the Sioux used to refer to the Mandan villagers (Densmore, pg 3). The Mandans survived by constructing earthen lodges in which they lived , stored food, wintered their livestock and rode out the cold North Dakota winters. These lodges surrounded a plaza that contained a ceremonial lodge and a sacred cedar post enclosed by wooden planks. Life centered around the lodge. There were smaller family lodges around a larger ceremonial lodge for meetings, music, story telling, and of course ceremonies. The structure of these lodges was quite elaborate. Large log posts were erected in circles one inside the other with the outer circle about twenty five feet across and the innermost ten feet across. The ceremonial lodge was somewhat larger. The outer ring of posts were about four feet tall and the innermost about fifteen feet tall. Across each pair of posts beams were laid, forming rings that decreased in size as they increased in height.


(Holloway, “Mandan-Hidatsa Tribes Earth Lodge”)

On these beams successively smaller limbs were laid until earth would not fall through. Then earth was built up thick enough for grass to take root. This would hold the earth together and prevent the erosion of the protective and insulating layer of earth. Fires built in the center of the lodge would provide heat so a hole was left in the center of the roof to allow the smoke to escape. The villages were always located on the high ground at the junction of two rivers. This was a more defensible position since attacking tribes could only come from one direction and provided the Mandan people greater safety and security. The side of the village not protected by a river was protected by two pickets of sharpened stakes with a three to four foot ditch between them.

The Mandan people were not only farmers. The men also hunted the buffalo and other plains animals for food as well as ceremonial purposes. When the village went on a hunting trip they lived in teepees so they could follow the herd while collecting meat and fur. These trips were embarked on each spring after a ceremony called the buffalo dance.

“The Buffalo Dance”

The most exciting event of the years festival was the Buffalo Dance. Eight men participated, wearing buffalo skins on their backs and painting themselves black, red, and white. Dancers endeavored to imitate the buffalo on the prairie.

Each dancer held a rattle in his right hand, and in his left a six-foot rod. On his head, he wore a bunch of green willow boughs. The season for the return of the buffalo coincided with the willow trees on full leaf.

Another dance required only four tribesmen , representing the four main directions of the compass from which the buffalo might come. With a canoe in the center, two dancers, dressed as grizzly bears who might attack the hunters, took their places on each side. They growled and threatened to spring upon anyone who might interfere with the ceremony.

Onlookers tried to appease the grizzlies by tossing food to them. The two dancers would pounce upon the food, carrying it away to the prairie as possible lures for the coming of the buffaloes.

During the ceremony, the old men of the tribe beat upon drums and chanted prayers for successful buffalo hunting.

By the end of the fourth day of the Buffalo Dance, a man entered the camp disguised as the evil spirit of famine. Immediately he was driven away by shouts and stone-throwing from the younger Mandans, who waited excitedly to participate in the ceremony.

When the demon of famine was successfully driven away, the entire tribe joined in the bountiful thanksgiving feast, symbolic of the early return of buffalo to the Mandan hunting grounds.

(Welker 1996) The life of the Mandan tribe was fairly unregimented, divorce and polygamy were common. The work was, however, sharply divided along gender lines. The men did the hunting and fighting, while the women did the gardening and took care of the lodge (Dictionary of Indian tribes. pg 439). When the weather permitted, the families gathered on the lodge. The men played games, told warrior tales, and the women made clothes. In the evening people gathered on the lodges and sang songs. The tops of lodges were also used to store large items like sledges and bull boats(Densmore pg 5). Bull boats were made by stretching hides over wooden frames. Enemy scalps were also displayed on the tops of the lodges so they could be seen from outside of the village. Outside of the lodge a scaffold was made on which corn was dried, this also provided shade for the livestock during the heat of summer (Densmore pg 4).

One of the ancient values of the Mandans that has survived for centuries was the emphasis on the “Good “Man”. The idea of the “Good Man” is that of one who does not seek to glorify himself or rise above his fellow man. This appears to have permeated the Mandan society (Dictionary of Indian tribes. pg 439). They treated friendly visitors as guests and shared their food and homes with many who passed the village. This practice gained the Mandans many trading partners, as did the practice of resisting confederations with Sioux and Chippewa war parties (Densmore, pg 12). Unlike some Siouan tribes that practiced self torture and mutilation for the young to be inducted into society. The Mandans appear to have practiced little discipline when inducting children into society of elders.

The main interactions between separate Mandan villages were conducted in Dance Societies or Clubs that met periodically (Densmore, pg 84). The societies were composed of differing age groups and were progressive from one to another (Densmore, pg 108). Some of these dance societies for men included the Buffalo Society, the White Society, the Foolish Dog Society, and the Fox Society. The dance societies for women included the Goose Women Society, the Little River Women Society, and the Skunk Society. These societies met with some ceremony and reverence described in the oral history of the Mandans (Densmore, pg 84).

Within the village there were important semi-political positions. The corn priest was said to have supernatural powers and always knew what type of corn and other crops each family grew. He also provided all of the seeds to the villagers for the next years’ crop (Densmore, pg 36). Each village also had a War Chief and a Peace Chief. They were chosen from amongst the elder men of the village (Dictionary of Indian tribes pg 439). If a man wanted to make war he would quietly offer a gift of tobacco and ask the other men of the village to join him (The war party left quietly and was often accompanied by the wife of a slain warrior. She would be given the scalps of the enemy to show she had avenged her husband’s death (Densmore, pg 145).

The burial customs of the Mandans are similar to those of other Siouan Indian tribes. The dead were placed on scaffolds outside the village on level ground and left there. When the scaffold fell the skulls were placed on a bunch of wild sage. Villagers would go to where the skulls rested and talk with their deceased friends and relatives (Densmore, pg 6).

In their interactions with other more nomadic tribes the Mandans appear to have profited by trading their surplus crops and livestock for things not available locally. It is believed that through the Arikara to the south corn from the Mandans was traded as far south as Mexico, especially during southern droughts (Fort Berthold College Bulletin).


The Mandans’ oral history describes a steady move to the west and north because of attacks from more hostile tribes and the need to find fertile land to cultivate. In 1738 when Verendrye made the first contact with the Mandan Indians, they lived at the mouth of the Heart River near present day Mandan North Dakota (Densmore, pg 6)(Mandan ND is where this student spent his childhood). Europeans introduced another reason to move Smallpox. The first smallpox epidemic was recorded in 1781 and the population estimated at four thousand dwindled to approximately one thousand five hundred (Dictionary of Indian tribes pg 440). Smallpox was most likely brought to the Mandans by French fur traders. It, along with Sioux harassment, caused the Mandans to leave their homes at the junction of the Heart and Missouri rivers.

They moved north twice more. They stopped where the Knife river joins the Missouri, and built a new village. This was where Lewis and Clark discovered them.

The Louisiana Purchase included the land occupied by the Mandans and had an immense impact on the tribe. In a secret letter to congress, dated January 18th 1803, President Thomas Jefferson requested funds for an expedition to explore this newly acquired land. The expedition was to be led by Meriwether Lewis an Infantry Captain and friend of Jefferson joining Lewis would be William Clark an infantry Captain and cartographer. (Annals of America Volume 4 pg 158). Two thousand five hundred dollars was appropriated from congress and Jefferson’s instructions to Lewis were sent on June 20th 1803.

“In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will permit”. (Annals of America Volume 4 pg 162). As the expedition prepared to leave St. Louis. Lewis and Clark sought out people experienced in Indian communication, trade, and customs. They acquired journals of previous explorers like James Mackay who wrote “The Mandaines, …are in general people as good as they are mild who lay a great value on the friendship of the Whites”(Ronda, pg 12). This kind of information insured that Lewis and Clark would depend on the Mandans to make the expedition a success.

The expedition headed north out of St. Louis on May 4th 1904 with a complement of forty-five men. With them were bundles of gifts for the natives they would encounter to express the peaceful intentions of the explorers. The first Indians encountered were the Otos, followed by the Missouris, and then the Omahas. Each tribe received the same speech that addressed the desire of the “New Father” (President Jefferson) to pursue inter-tribal peace, peaceful trade with the United States, and allegiance to the new Father. The new Father who had made the French, English, and Spanish Fathers return to their homes across the great sea to the east (Ronda, pg 19-20). As a sign of good faith gifts were given to each of the chiefs, smaller gifts for the Indians of lesser status.

Next the expedition encountered the Yankton Sioux. A Yankton Chief called Half Man warned that “those Nations above (north) will not open their ears, and you cannot I fear open them.” (Ronda, pg 26).

September 23rd 1804, the expedition was near present day Pierre South Dakota where the first government sanctioned encounter with the Teton Sioux took place. The Tetons were known to be demanding traders, powerful warriors, and as likely to make war with Lewis and Clark as they were to make peace. Lewis delivered his speech, gifts were exchanged as were veiled threats from both sides. The Teton Chiefs expressed their reluctance to comply and with great difficulty the expedition continued northward. “These are the vilest miscreants of the savage race, and must ever remain the pirates of the Missouri, until such measures are pursued, by our government, as will make them feel a dependence on its will for their supply of merchandise.” (Ronda pg 27 quoting William Clark 1804).

Lewis and Clark left the Tetons on September 29th. A Teton Chief and two of his warriors demanded and received transportation to the Arikara village (Ronda pg 42). Enroute during a storm the Chief began to fear the boat would be turned over and that he would be drowned. He was put ashore. The expedition leaders were relieved to be rid of their hostile passenger . The party passed two abandoned Arikara villages before they came upon the Arikara People. The occupied village was on an island three miles in length and covered with crops (Lewis’s journal DeVoto pg 48). The Arikaras were an agricultural tribe similar to the Mandans in lifestyle, but of Caddoan origin and closely related to the Pawnee (Dictionary of Indian tribes pg 440). The Arikaras were one of the few tribes known to dislike alcohol. A Chief accompanied the expedition northward to keep the peace with the Mandans. The group passed the abandoned Mandan village at the junction of the Heart and Missouri rivers, and passed two more vacant villages as they continued on. The main Mandan village was found at the mouth of the Knife river near present day Stanton North Dakota. The Mandans heard a speech similar to the one told to the Sioux tribes of the lower Missouri, and were much more receptive to the ideas contained therein (Lewis’s journal DeVoto pg 59). The idea of peace between tribes was most appealing because the Mandans had been harassed by the Sioux for as long as could be remembered.

Lewis sent a scouting team farther north and west. The wood supply was determined inadequate and it was decided that the expedition would spend the winter with the Mandans. The party began to erect cabins and a sense of community developed between the Mandans and these soldier statesmen. The new community was called Fort Mandan. While preparations for winter were under way, a man named Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife Sacagawea, a Snake Indian came to the village. Toussaint Charbonneau was hired as an interpreter. Which would prove to be one of the wisest decisions of the expedition, not because of Charbonneau, but because of his wife who became a great interpreter, guide, and peace negotiator.

(Charbonneau and Sacagawea Encarta 95)

Because of the friendly relations with these visitors, the Mandans would not object strongly to any forthcoming requests from this “Great Chief of Seventeen Nations”(President Jefferson and successors).

There were some threats from the Teton Sioux who had allied themselves with the Arikara. However the Mandans and the Soldier-Explorers made it through the winter without great difficulty(Ronda, pg 96-97). On April 7th, 1805 the expedition left Fort Mandan only to return in August of 1806.

The experiences of the tribe with the explorers and traders were ripples on a pond compared to the waves of changes to come. The tribe was greatly influenced by the Europeans, but had little if any influence over those same Europeans.

The Mandans lived near the Knife River for some time until another smallpox epidemic in 1837 nearly killed them all. Most estimates put the number of survivors at less than one hundred fifty. This caused them to move again.

They joined the Hidatsa and Arikara and relocated to a place called Like a Fishhook Village (Dictionary of Indian tribes pg 440). This village was located farther north near a trading post called Fort Berthold. The US government forced the Mandans to adopt some of the white man’s ideas like the English language, government sponsored schools, and reservation life. However the tribe now possessed all they had ever possessed, before the white man came. They had hunting lands, land to grow food, and they had peaceful isolation from the Government wars with other Indian tribes. But they were losing their Mandan identity. The Fort Berthold reservation was defined in the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851 Unlike most later government dealings with Native Americans, an Executive Order of April 12th 1870 greatly increased the size of the Fort Berthold Reservation (Densmore pg 11). The Reservation borders were again adjusted in 1880, however this time they would encircle a smaller area. Other redrawing of the reservation borders occurred in 1891and 1910.

Interestingly the Europeans who migrated to North Dakota in the early 1900’s lived much as the Mandan did. My own Grandparents lived in sod houses, cultivated the prairie soil, grew their own food, and sold the surplus to buy other staples.

A third and final smallpox epidemic hit in 1937. By this time the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes were intermingled. It is difficult to asses the Mandans from this point because of the affiliation of the “Three Tribes”. In the 1950’s Garrison Dam was constructed on the Missouri. It flooded many of the older villages on the reservation and forced the residents to move once again. The reservation survives today, with a declining population, of less than four thousand people(Fort Berthold College Bulletin).


The Mandan Indians were a peaceful tribe whose greatest enemy appeared to be a disease called smallpox. Because of their friendly nature, the tribe may have been more susceptible to catching that disease, as they were more likely to have close contact with the white man. They allowed the Europeans into their villages, and unknowingly allowed smallpox in as well. Those tribes that fought the white man lost their warriors in battle, the Mandan lost their warriors to a deadly disease. As a result the Mandan may have suffered more in their dealings with the Government than the tribes who fought it.

The story of the Mandan Indians mirrors the story of Native Americans as a whole. The Natives suffered at the hand of the Europeans through war, disease, or both. Their lands were taken at the discretion of the US government without consideration or compensation. The lack of respect for Native American depth, diversity, and majesty is a great tragedy.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Densmore, Frances. Mandan and Hidatsa Music. Washington Government printing Office,


Annals of America Volume 4 1797-1820. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1968: pages 158-164

Holloway, Dennis. “, “Solar Virtual Reality Tour of Native American Architecture”. Picture of “Mandan-Hidatsa Tribes Earth Lodge” Internet site “

The Journals of Lewis and Clark. DeVoto, Bernard editor. Houghton Mifflin Company Boston:

The Riverside Press Cambridge, 1953: pages 33-87

Welker, Glenn. Return to Indigenous Peoples’ Literature, “The Buffalo Dance”.

Internet site “”, 1996.

Secondary Sources

Ronda James. Lewis and Clark Among the Indians. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London. 1984: pages 42-112

Encarta 95. Microsoft, Encyclopedia. cited pictures used with permission of Microsoft corp. Redmond Washington, 1994

Fort Berthold Community College Bulletin, “Reservation Background Information”.

Author Unknown. Internet site “”

The Dictionary of Indian Tribes of the Americas Volume II. American Indian Publishers,

1980: pages 219-223 & 438-441

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