Knife River People

For centuries the Upper Missouri River Valley was a lifeline winding through a harsh land, drawing Northern Plains Indians to its wooded banks and rich soil. Earthlodge people, like the nomadic tribes, hunted bison and other game but were essentially a farming people living in villages along the Missouri and its tributaries. At the time of their contact with Europeans, these communities were the culmination of 700 years of settlement in the area. Traditional oral histories link the ancestors of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes living on the Knife River with tribal groups east of the Missouri River. Migrating for several hundred years along waterways, they eventually settled along the Upper Missouri. One Mandan story tells of the group's creation along the river. Coming into conflict with other tribes, the Mandans moved northward to the Heart River and adopted an architecture characterized by round earthlodges.

The Hidatsas were originally divided into three distinct sub-tribes. The Awatixa were created on the Missouri River, according to their traditions. Awaxawi and Hidatsa-Proper stories place them along streams to the east. The Hidatsas moved farther north to the mouth of the Knife, settling Awatixa Xi'e Village (Lower Hidatsa Site) around 1525 and Hidatsa Village (Big Hidatsa Site) around 1600. They were never as sedentary as the Mandans, but did borrow from them, learning corn horticulture and adopting some of their pottery patterns. Intermarriage and trade helped cement relations, and eventually the two cultures became almost indistinguishable. With the Arikaras to the south, they formed an economic force that dominated the region.

After contact with Europeans in the early 18th century, the villages began to draw a growing number of traders. Tragically, the prosperity that followed was accompanied by an enemy the Indians could not fight: European disease. When smallpox ravaged the tribes in 1781, the Mandans fled upriver, nearer Hidatsa Village. The people from Awatixa Xi'e abandoned their village, returning to the area in 1796 to build Awatixa Village (Sakakawea Site). The weakened tribes were now easier targets for Sioux raiders, who burned Awatixa village in 1834. After another epidemic in 1837 almost destroyed the Mandans, the villages broke up. Their movements for the next few years are obscure. In 1845, the Mandans and Hidatsas founded Like-A-Fishhook village upriver, where they were joined in 1862 by the Arikaras. The tribes were forced in 1885 to abandon their village and make their final move onto the Fort Berthold Reservation. Today the tribes, now called the Three Affiliated Tribes, continue to practice their traditional ways.

Last updated: April 10, 2015

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