TwHP Lessons

Knife River: Early Village Life on the Plains

[Cover photo] Aerial View of Earthlodge Depressions
(Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site)

[Cover photo] Earthlodge at Knife River
(Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site)


igh on a bluff overlooking the Knife River in the Upper Missouri River valley, soft winds ruffle the lush grasses that cover, but do not obscure, circle upon circle of raised earth with central depressions. These depressions mark all that remains of a once lively village. In the late 18th century, while European colonists were fighting a revolution with England in the eastern part of the continent, these villagers were conducting their centuries-old trade with remote tribal groups; fashioning weapons needed to hunt the big game that shared the rolling hills; tending their gardens of squash, pumpkin, beans, sunflowers, corn, and tobacco; and carrying on all the other occupations of daily life. From the ceremonial plaza—a spot of land that was once the center of village activities—one can look to the northward hills and see trails left from the travois, sled-like carriers used by hunters and traders.

Looking downward toward the slow-moving river, partly obscured by the cottonwood and willow trees that line the river banks, one can easily imagine groups felling trees to be hauled up the hill and prepared as support beams for new or reconstructed earthlodges. One can almost hear children splashing in the river's cool waters, swimming and playing about in the round bull boats that were used to cross the river.

It is possible to imagine such scenes because we know what to look for. The writings and illustrations of European­American visitors to the villages during the late 18th and early 19th centuries provide a historical record of Plains Indians that is unparalleled in its abundance of information, detail, and diversity of sources. Recent archeological studies have added rich information about the site that goes back at least 3,500 years.


About This Lesson

Getting Started: Inquiry Question

Setting the Stage: Historical Context

Locating the Site: Maps
 1. North Dakota
 2. Knife River Indian Villages National
 Historic Site

 3. Northern Plains prehistoric trading system
 4. Trading relationships of the Mandan
 and Hidatsa Indians, c. 1800

Determining the Facts: Readings
 1. Village Life in the Upper Missouri
 River Valley (c. 1740–1845)

 2. Western Contact

Visual Evidence: Images
 1. Aerial view of Big Hidatsa Village
 2. Twelve-post earthlodge
 3. Hidatsa Village, Earth Covered Lodges,
 on the Knife River

 4. Bird's-Eye View of the Mandan Village

Putting It All Together: Activities
 1. Drawing Conclusions from Art
 2. Making Comparisons
 3. Researching Local Indians

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Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

This lesson is based on the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, one of the thousands of properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places.



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