The Gardens

Harvested corn, beans, squash, and melons.
Corn, squash, beans, and melons harvested from the garden at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site.

KNRI Staff 2018

2020 Downloadable Garden Guide
An agricultural-based people, the Hidatsa were both farmers and hunters. Serving as the other half of their food income, enormous amounts of work were put into raising these gardens.

The women were the primary caretakers of gardens, from planting to weeding, watering, and protecting these pieces of land from numerous hazards. The men too old to fight would also sometimes help garden or harvest. This page will cover the general ways gardens were raised and cared for based on records from a Hidatsa woman: Buffalo Bird Woman.

A woman raking a field with a deer antler rake.
A woman works in her garden.

Gardening Tools

Many modern tools can find a relative in the tribes' gardens. Rakes were made from deer antlers and gardening hoes were made with bison scapula, also known as the shoulder blade. While a hand trowel is similar to a digging stick, digging sticks had more functions including poking holes for planting seeds, unearthing particularly tough weeds, and making post holes for fences.

The watering system consisted of taking water from the river with bison bladders. Bladders are naturally waterproof and weight very little, but many trips were needed to water the family's entire garden which could span the size of a football field.

For this reason, gardens were usually placed very close to the rivers. Their location so close to the water was also influenced by the winter floods when the rising and falling waters would bring nutrients to the soil.

The gardening tools changed once Europeans brought metal to the tribes, but some, such as Buffalo Bird Woman's grandmother Turtle, still preferred to use the traditional tools.

A tall group of sunflower plants growing in earth.
Sunflowers grown at Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site.

KNRI Staff 2010

The Crops

Corn, squash, and beans; this combination known as the Three Sisters is common with tribes across the country, and the tribes from the Five Villages are no different. These foods were easily preservable and good for trade. Seeds from the best crops were saved to be planted the next year.

The Three Sisters work together to help protect each other. Beans grow up around the corn stalks, and the squash spreads its vines across the earth to entangle any animals.

Less known is the fourth crop raised by the tribes: sunflowers. These were harvested mainly for their seeds which would be pressed for oil. They also would be made into a seedball similar to a granola bar.

Tobacco was an exception to the previous rules. Only men were allowed to handle it and only older men smoked it. The whole plant was smoked, the blossoms being the favorite part which were picked from the plant every four days. The species grown here is Nicotiana quadrivalvis known as "Indian tobacco" or "Native Tobacco," which is different than the common tobacco found commercially today. It was not planted near the main field because it had a strong smell.

The tribes cared deeply for their gardens. They believed the corn plants had souls and loved to hear the women singing. You can listen to one of their work songs performed by Nellie Hall.

Scarecrow in a garden with a tipi in background.
A scarecrow guards the garden near a tipi.

KNRI Staff 2007

Protecting the Fields

Protecting the fields was hard work. Between animals and birds, raids from other tribes, and even little boys within the villages sneaking in to steal a cob, the women had to devise several ways to defend their crops.

One way was to devise a scarecrow. Buffalo Bird Woman described using bison robes and tying a belt around it to make it look like a person. This would work until the crows realized the figure never moved.

Another defense was a fence. Forked posts were set in holes deep into the ground with rails laid in those forks tied with bark strips. Built in a circle rather than a square, the fence was placed twelve to fifteen feet away from the crops themselves. When several gardens adjoined, a single fence usually ran around them all and not around each individual field. The fences were built mainly to prevent horses from nibbling on the corn.

The final technique was to build a watchers' stage to physically guard the crops. Rebuilt every year, this stage was constructed below a tree and raised high enough to see over full grown corn. If no tree was present in the garden, a small cottonwood would be cut down and placed in the ground near the stage for shade. At most, four women would sit on one stage, facing every direction to guard the field. Watching the fields often began during the fall before sunrise and ended at sunset.

Lewis Flax or Blue Flax flowers
Plants at Knife River

Lewix Flax or Blue flax flowers found at Knife River Indian Villages

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

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

Hand holds a smart phone above a clump of purple flowers. Same flowers are displayed on phone.
Citizen Science Opportunities

Knife River Indian Villages NHS needs your help to collect data on the biodiversity of the park's mixed-grass prairie ecosystem.

Last updated: August 21, 2020

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