Knife River Indian Villages
National Park Service
For centuries the Upper Missouri River Valley drew Northern Plains Indians to its wooded banks and rich soil. These earthlodge peoples, like the nomadic tribes, hunted bison and other game, but were essentially farmers who dwelled in villages along the Missouri and its tributaries.
At the point of contact with Europeans, the Mandan and Hidatsa had already been in the area for over 500 years. Traditional oral histories link their ancestors living along the Knife River with tribal groups east of the Missouri. After migrating for many hundreds of years along waterways, they had settled along the Upper Missouri. A Mandan story tells of the group’s creation along the river. As the result of conflict with other tribes, the Mandan moved north to the Heart River where they adopted round earthlodge building traditions.
The Hidatsa Tribe was originally made up of three distinct subtribes— Awatixa, Awaxawi, and Hidatsa Proper. According to tradition the Awatixa were created on the Missouri River. Awaxawi and Hidatsa Proper stories place the Awatixa along streams to the east. The Hidatsa 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) about 1600. The Hidatsa borrowed from the Mandan, learning corn horticulture, and adopting some pottery patterns. Intermarriage and trade helped cement relationships, and over time the two cultures became almost indistinguishable. With the Arikara to the south, they formed an economic force that dominated the region.
The three tribes adapted to the conditions in the Upper Missouri River Valley. They located their summer villages, with up to 120 circular lodges, on natural terraces above the river. Each lodge sheltered a family of 10 to 30 people from the region’s extreme temperatures. For defense purposes the villages were often built on a narrow bluff with water on two sides and a palisade on the third. In winter the people moved into smaller lodges along the river, where trees supplied firewood and served as windbreaks.
A smallpox epidemic in 1837 greatly reduced the populations of the Indian nations. By 1845 the Mandan and Hidatsa moved about 40 miles up the Missouri River to form a new village,
Like-A-Fishhook. For mutual defense the Arikara joined them in 1862. In 1885 the federal government forced the tribes to abandon Like-A-Fishhook and move to the Fort Berthold Reservation as part of the Fort Laramie treaty. Today their tribes are known as the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation.
Western ContactFrench-Canadian trader Pierre de la Verendrye, first European to record contact with Indians of the upper Missouri, entered a Mandan village in 1738. He found a society at the height of its prosperity.
When explorer David Thompson reached the area in 1797 Hidatsa culture was still healthy, despite increasing contacts with French, Spanish, English, and American traders. The pace of change quickened after Lewis and Clark’s visit in 1804. An influx of fur traders undermined the tribe’s key role as middlemen in the economy.
Village people grew dependent on European horses, weapons, cloth, and iron pots. Diseased and overhunting of the bison weakened an evolving culture. Explorer Prince Maximilian of Wied and artists Karl Bodmer and George Catlin’s portrayals reveal a society in transition.
The federal government removed the tribes to reservations, gave members allotted lands, and forced them to grow wheat. It banned Hidatsa societies and rituals. The changes— in only one generation—eroded ancient relationships with the land and ended a way of life.
ImagesBottom Right Image: Péhriska-Rúhpa (Two Ravens), leader of the Hidatsa Dog Society, in full regalia.
Bottom Left Image: Prince Maximilian (green coat) and Karl Bodmer (beaver hat) meet Hidatsa people.
Reading the PastThe Knife River story unfolds as new data emerge. Archeological research has produced evidence that Hidatsa peoples occupied the Knife River region as early as 1300 CE (Common Era).
Nomadic Paleo-Indians left the earliest artifacts, 11,000 to 6,000 BCE (Before Common Era). They hunted large game now extinct. Archaic hunter-gatherers came next, 6000 BCE to 1 CE. Signs of semi-sedentary living and crude agriculture appeared in the Woodland period, 1000 BCE to 1000 CE.
Permanent earthlodge villages and a horticultural economy marked the Plains Village period, 1000 CE to 1885. The Knife River sites represent a final phase.
Help us preserve this unique record of cultural development. Do not disturb artifacts and remains. All natural and cultural resources in the park are protected by federal law.
For firearms regulations check the park website.
About Your VisitThis area is 60 miles north of Bismarck, ND. The park has a visitor center, reconstructed earthlodge (furnished with replica artifacts in summer), a film, exhibits, the remains of three village sites, and trails.
AccessibilityWe strive to make our facilities, services, and programs accessible to all; call or check our website.
Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site
PO Box 9
Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site is one of over 400 parks in the National Park System. To learn about national parks visit www.nps.gov.
Images:Top left image: a painting of a Mandan girl
Top right image: native americans watching steamboats on a river.
Bottom left image: a map of Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site.
Bottom right image: a photo of the Knife River beside earthlodge indentations.
Village Life on the Upper Missouri. Artist Karl Bodmer.
Lewis and Clark Encounter Mandan and HidatsaIn 1804 President Jefferson appointed a Corps of Discovery, led by captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, to locate the Northwest Passage across the newly acquired lands known as the Louisiana Purchase. The corps left from St. Louis and traveled 1,600 miles up the Missouri River to its confluence with the Knife River, north of present-day Stanton, North Dakota. They built a fort, named “Mandan in honour of our Neighbors,” where they spent the winter of 1805.
Mandan and Hidatsa people visited Fort Mandan often to trade corn, beans, and squash and share information. Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian who lived and traded with the Hidatsa, came to the fort with his wife, Sakakawea (Sacagewea), seeking work as an interpreter. Lewis and Clark realized that translations of western tribal languages would be invaluable. They hired Charbonneau, and the couple spent much of the winter at the fort, where Sakakawea gave birth to her first child, Jean Baptiste. Clark nicknamed him “Pomp.”
In April 1805 the Corps of Discovery left Fort Mandan. After many hardships they reached the Pacific—never having found the waterway they sought.
In mid-August 1806, on their return trip to St. Louis, they reached what was left of Fort Mandan. As Lewis and Clark headed downstream they noted in their journals that most of the fort had been washed away by the river and another part had burned. Charbonneau, Sakakawea, and Pomp resumed life with Hidatsa relatives. In September 1806, the corps arrived in St. Louis.
Village EconomyAgriculture provided the base economy of the Hidatsa and Mandan, who grew much of their food in the rich floodplain. Gardens, like earthlodges, descended through the female line. Women raised corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers. A family’s size and the number of women who could work in the garden determined the plot’s size. A Green Corn ceremony celebrated summer’s first green corn. Berries, roots, and fish supplemented their diet. Upland hunting yielded bison, deer, and small game for meat, hides, bones, and sinew.
These proficient farmers also quarried Knife River flint, from which they made points blades, knives, and tools with many uses. Native peoples from throughout the Americas
traveled here to trade their goods. Owing to their location at the intersection of major trade routes, the Hidatsa and Mandan became middlemen.
They also traded goods that other tribes brought into the villages—obsidian from Wyoming, copper from the Great Lakes, and dentalium shell from the West Coast. In the 1800s the items they traded included guns, horses, and metal items from Europeans.
Images:Top Right: A painting of an earthlodge interior with native americans gathered around the center fire pit.
Top Right: A painting of a winter earthlodge village.
Middle Right: A photo of a bison scapula hoe.
Middle Bottom: A hidatsa woman hoeing in a garden.
Battle and Hunt
In this warrior culture, men’s work consisted mainly of hunting and raiding. Raids often produced horses and loot. A war chief assumed leadership of the village when conflict led to war. Men scheduled and planned hunting parties. A respected hunter chose the participants.
Prowess in battle and hunt led to status in the village, individually and for the societies and clans. Ambitious young men would risk leading a party—-highly rewarding if successful, ruinous to a reputation if not. They used bows and arrows, clubs, tomahawks, lances, shields, and knifes as their primary weapons. Ambition did not spur every action.
Warriors often defended villages against raids by other tribes. When the men prevailed in battle or hunt, women celebrated with dance and song throughout the village.
Spirit and RitualSpirits guided events in the material world, and tribal members (usually male) sought their help from an early age.
Fasting in a sacred place, a boy hoped to be visited by a spirit, often in animal form, who would give him power and guide him through life. The nature of the vision that he reported to his elders determined his role within the tribe. If directed by his vision, he would make a greater sacrifice to the spirits, spilling his blood in the Okipa ceremony—the most important of many through which Mandan clans and age-grade societies ensured good crops, successful hunts, and victory in battle.
Only those who had “medicine,” obtained by purchasing a bundle of sacred objects from a fellow clan or society member, could conduct ceremonies.
With bundle ownership came responsibility for knowing the songs, stories, prayers, and rituals necessary for spiritual communication. Certain bundle owners had tribal leadership status.
ImagesTop Left: Bison and elk on the Upper Missouri River.
Middle Left: Mato-Tope. Text: In Karl Bodmer’s portrait of Mandan warrior and chief Mato-Tope (Four Bears), the notched, tufted, split, and painted feathers refer to cutting the foe’s throat and taking his scalp; first coup; arrow injury; and killing the foe. Sticks represent gunshot wounds; a knife in his hair refers to one he wrested from a Cheyenne. His painted hands show that he has taken prisoners. Mato-Tope depicted his battle exploits on a buffalo robe that he showed to Bodmer, who made a watercolor copy of the chief’s design.
Middle Center: Painting of Mato-Tope (Four Bears') exploit robe.
Middle Right: Painting of Hidatsa chief Addih-Hiddisch in regalia.
Bottom Left: Painting. Painting of an offering of the Mandan Indians.
Bottom Left Corner: Drawing of a ceremonial pipe.
Last updated: August 17, 2020