Hidatsa Flintknappers, Potters, and Smallpox

Grassy landscape with horizon and cloudy skies
The park landscape today still shows circular impressions of former earthlodges. NPS photo.
Before 1845, the Hidatsa tribe was a loose confederacy of three Siouan-speaking cultural groups: the Awatixa, Awaxawi, and Hidatsa-Proper. Despite shared language and culture, the three groups spoke their own dialects and had their own origin and migration traditions, social and ritual customs, and autonomous territory.

Each group occupied a socially, politically, and economically autonomous earthlodge village in a tribal territory that spanned from Painted Woods Creek in the south to the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers to the north. The extent of Hidatsa territory changed somewhat over time, but the core Hidatsa heartland was the area around the junction of the Knife and Missouri Rivers.

The Missouri and Knife Rivers provided water and aquatic resources for the earthlodge villagers, who lived in large, round, tightly clustered earthlodge houses. The floodplain adjacent to the rivers provided much needed timber, fertile soils for crops, and shelter during inclement winters. The villages were located on the upper river terrace bluffs, safe from seasonal flooding and hostile groups. The upland grassland prairies afforded access to wild resources such as prairie turnips and one of the most essential resources for the Hidatsa—bison.

The Impact of Smallpox

Artistic rendering of a Buffalo Chase
George Catlin, Buffalo Chase with Bows and Lances, 1832-1833. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.
The 1782 smallpox epidemic greatly reduced much of the indigenous population of North Dakota. Previously, the Hidatsa lived in single villages in their respective, traditional territories, but as populations began to recover, tensions with the neighboring Arikara and Sioux bands increased. Short-term village movements eventually concentrated all three Hidatsa groups on the Knife River, and competition in the fur trade led to further community relocation.

At Knife River, the three groups built new communities on or near the sites of their old settlements and set the stage for a unified Hidatsa tribal identity to form in the late eighteenth century. The Hidatsa-Proper returned to the village of Big Hidatsa and the Awaxawi settled a new village, Amahami. Between 1787 and 1797, the Awatixa established a village known today as Sakakawea. It is named after Lewis and Clark’s famous female guide who reportedly resided there with her French-Canadian husband, Toussaint Charbonneau.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark resided near the Knife River in the winter of 1804-1805 and wrote accounts of life in the Hidatsa villages. In 1834, warfare with the Lakota nearly destroyed the Sakakawea and Amahami villages. The village of Big Hidatsa remained the permanent home of the Hidatsa until 1837, when another smallpox epidemic resulted in further social reorganization.

The Material Remains

Base of a stone point
Hatched base of a point. NPS photo.
At Sakakawea, archeologists discovered hundreds of stone tools. The Hidatsa who manufactured them were not the eighteenth-century villagers, but people who lived several decades earlier. The villagers scavenged for and reused existing artifacts at Sakakawea. Such recycling behavior is common after an epidemic since many crafters died of disease before passing on their knowledge to the next generation.

Big Hidatsa tells a similar story, since the Hidatsa occupied this village continuously throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Later villagers took artifacts from deep, stratified contexts beneath the village. Excavations yielded 2,200 classifiable stone tools, and all except five showed evidence of reuse. Some of these artifacts dated back thousands of years. Archeologists uncovered a 7,000-8,000-year-old side-notched dart point known as a Simonsen point, which was retouched and reused by eighteenth-century villagers as a cutting tool.

Archeologists found many projectile points at both sites that do not quite fit in with the rest of the artifacts within the soil stratigraphy. These points are mixed rather randomly among the more recent midden deposits, providing further proof of scavenging. For Hidatsa people who needed to construct weapons for hunting or protection from enemies, searching for the points their ancestors made offered a practicable solution when smallpox took the lives of so many. In the face of such devastation and population loss, tool production might have been a relatively diminished activity for villagers while the community recovered.
Artistic rendering of Big Hidatsa Village
George Catlin, Hidatsa Village, Earth-covered Lodges, on the Knife River, 1810 Miles above St. Louis, 1832. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.
During times of strife, it is likely that earthlodge village artisans altered resource procurement behaviors. Besides the increased recycling behavior, female potters adapted to growing tribal tension and hostility by collecting nearby, alluvial clays instead of traveling farther to upland terraces. Archeologists studied the ceramic artifacts recovered from the three Hidatsa villages and discovered the clays were procured locally, as opposed to the more traditional gathering areas farther away. Hidatsa women often collected clays alone or with their children, so the lack of safety at greater distances from the village caused them to harvest their materials closer to home.

Archeologists analyzed over 3,000 body and rim sherds recovered from excavations at the three village sites. For pots, surface treatments and decorations are a manifestation of teaching and learning frameworks. These visible characteristics of vessels signal meanings that are performed in the cultural contexts of feasts and rituals. Archaeologists use these attributes to construct classification schemes, which can reveal chronological patterns changing through time.
Examples of Hidatsa ceramics
Examples of Hidatsa ceramic pots. NPS photo.
Potters varied in their individual styles, but many showcased embellishments like handles, figures, knobs, and other clay alterations added to the surface. Villagers often tied rawhide around the necks of pots as handles to carry water, so potters attached knobs to the pots to keep the rawhide from slipping. The Hidatsa used wooden paddles for stamped, smoothed, or grooved patterns and cordage for impressed patterns. The potters applied knives or beaters to the surface to scratch or incise decorative motifs.

Before firing, potters often burnished the pots, which involved partially wetting the surface and then rubbing it with a smooth stone. Not only does burnishing create a smooth and shiny appearance, but it reduces permeability of the vessel wall and increases effective heating. If vessels broke during firing, the pieces were typically reused for different tasks around the village, such as parching corn, holding hot coals, or serving as palettes for pigments.

By the nineteenth century, manufacturing activities did not take place in the same social contexts as they had before the introduction of the fur trade and Euroamerican diseases. Flintknapping and pottery making were still everyday utilitarian pursuits, but their importance in ritual behavior and social signaling clearly changed. While clay pots and stone tools continued to reflect an artistic and technological industry, archeology suggests the villagers may have held the workmanship and labor to a lower standard.

Traditionally, anyone who wanted to learn a craft bought the rite through gift-giving. That person then became an apprentice who could use the designs of their teacher. For apprentice potters, increased regional warfare and population decline restricted the mastery of their craft. The loss of expert teachers caused higher individual workloads for the surviving potters, who responded by producing vessels with less surface embellishments and personal touches.

Traditional Technologies in the Present

Metal point
Projectile point made from a repurposed kettle. NPS photo.
Some might argue that smallpox permanently weakened traditional technological systems by wiping out the artisan population and forcing the survivors to adopt non-Indigenous technologies.

Yet during this period, Plains tribes did not use many Euroamerican trade objects for the purposes Euroamericans would have ascribed to them. Non-functional metal objects were often dismantled and used to manufacture alternative items such as personal ornaments and weapons. Old, beat-up brass and copper kettles were reused as raw materials for arrows.
Hands making a clay pot
Today, members of the MHA Nation carry on traditional crafting to honor and recognize the old ways. NPS photo.
Earthlodge village technological systems changed dramatically, but many objects, practices, and social processes continue to exist today and are integral to the culture of Hidatsa communities. After smallpox, Hidatsa artisanship was a way to strengthen group identity, signal adherence to traditional practices, and enculturate the next generation. Euroamerican technologies replaced much, but certainly not all, traditional material culture. The persistence of pottery, toolmaking, and other production processes speaks to the importance of craftsmanship and the resiliency of Hidatsa frameworks for knowledge transfer.


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

Baker, Gerard, Calvin Grinnell, Bernard Fox, Carol Fredericks Newman, Wanda Fox Sheppard
2021 Our Story of Eagle Woman Sacagawea: They Got It Wrong. The Sacagawea Project Board of the Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation. The Paragon Agency. Orange, California.

Hollenback, Kacy LeAnne
2012 Disaster, technology, and community: Measuring responses to smallpox epidemics in historic Hidatsa villages, North Dakota. Diss. The University of Arizona.

Nieves Zedeño, Maria, Kacy Hollenback, Christopher Basaldu, Vania Fletcher, and Samrat Miller
2006 Cultural Affiliation Statement and Ethnographic Resource Assessment Study for Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota. Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, University of Arizona, Tucson.

Thiessen, Thomas D.
1993 The Phase I Archeological Research Program for the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site. Occasional Studies in Anthropology, no. 27. National Park Service. Midwest Archeological Center. Lincoln, Nebraska.

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

Last updated: March 6, 2023