Earthlodge located at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site
Image of earthlodge on park grounds. The earthen structure is 40 ft across and has timbers that go around the circular structure to hold up the earth and grass on top with a mound shape. The door way has vertical logs in two rows that create the doorway with logs and earth on top.

NPS Staff

With their mastery of agriculture, tribes living in the Upper Missouri River Valley developed a unique earth and wooden home to fit their sedentary lifestyle. The result of centuries of innovation and adaptation, the circular earthlodge of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara people was the perfect home for life on the Northern Plains.


Within traditional Hidatsa society, women owned and maintained the earthlodge or "awahte." An older woman with the sacred and practical knowledge of earthlodge construction supervised the entire building process. The women cut four cottonwood posts and beams and, with the help of the men, erected a central support structure. The women then erected an outer circle of posts and cross beams, leaned split logs to form a wall, and lifted the rafters into place. On top of this framework, the women laid bunches of willow branches, dried prairie grass, and thick sod to complete the structure.

The finished earthlodge would be between thirty and sixty feet in diameter, ten to fifteen feet high, and took approximately seven to ten days to complete from start to finish. The women rebuilt the earthlodges approximately every ten years.

Inside an Earthlodge

An earthlodge housed between ten and twenty people, usually sisters and their families. Beds were located around the outer ring in the areas between support poles. Personal items were kept under the beds while general use items were kept on raised platforms similar to bed frames. A typical earthlodge also contained a corral for prized war and hunting ponies on one side of the door.

The main focus in the earthlodge was the central fire pit with smoke escaping through a hole in the roof. In the event of heavy rain or snow, an old bullboat could be turned over the hole and propped up to allow smoke to escape. Earthlodge occupants sat around the central fire on reed mats including the atuka, a high-sided seat reserved for the oldest man of the household. The atuka was also offered to visitors as a sign of respect.

A five minute earthlodge tour of the reconstructed lodge located on Knife River Indian Village National Historic Site is available to watch. Contact the park to learn more about on-site earthlodge tours.

\\INPKNRIMBRS1\Public\Stephen Bridenstine\Website Text\Earthlodge diagram resized
Diagram of an Earthlodge. Image drawn of bird's eye view of the inside of the earthlodge. Starting on the left of the doorway a windbreak is showing, next to that is food storage platform, continuing to the left a bed structure, the shrine/alter, another 4 bed structures, the cache pit ( in ground food storage pit), area for sweatlodge, and finally the corral, kept for the best pony, next to the entrance again.



Food Storage

The cache pit is a large bell-shaped hole in the floor lined with willow and dry grass and filled with dried corn, beans, squash, and sunflower. The women built several cache pits both inside and outside the earthlodge and covered them over to hide their location. Parfleches were rawhide containers hung from the ceiling used to store a variety of items such as clothes, dried foods, trade items, craft materials, and hides.

A Sacred Structure

The tribes living along the Missouri River considered the earthlodge a sacred structure. The Hidatsa believed the spirit of the earthlodge resided in the four central posts and wrapped them with a hide or trade cloth as an offering. At the back of the earthlodge could be found a shrine containing sacred objects. Only the men who owned the objects were permitted to enter the space near the shrine.

Earthlodges Today

Timber framed houses slowly replaced the earthlodge in the second half of the nineteenth century. The earthlodge lasted into the twentieth century as a ceremonial structure or in a secondary role as a barn or stable. Today, the earthlodge remains an important structure and symbol for the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara).

In 1995, the National Park Service constructed a forty foot diameter earthlodge with traditional materials next to the Visitor Center. It is fully furnished and open to visitors during regular park hours.

A thumbnail of a park ranger standing in front of an earthlodge.
Watch our Videos!

Tours and informational videos about different aspects of the park!

Hidatsa. A painting of a native american man in regalia.
The Hidatsa

A George Catlin painting of a native american man in regalia.

6 students listen to a female ranger's presentation inside an earthlodge.
Field Trips

Knife River Indian Villages NHS invites your class to visit and interact with the park in person.

Last updated: August 21, 2020

Park footer

Contact Info

Mailing Address:

P.O. Box 9
Stanton, ND 58571


701 745-3300

Contact Us