Lesson Plan

Knife River: Early Village Life on the Plains

Reconstructed Earthlodge

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Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.9, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.6, 9-10.RH.7, 9-10.RH.8, 9-10.RH.9, 9-10.RH.10
Additional Standards:
US History Era 1 Standard 1A: The student understands the patterns of change in indigenous societies in the Americas up to the Columbian voyages.
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies from the National Council for the Social Studies
Thinking Skills:
Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.


1. To describe the life of the Hidatsa and Mandan groups in the early 19th century and to explain how the villagers shaped their environment and adapted to it;
2. To compare the seasonally nomadic Plains villagers with the popularized history of nomadic horse-culture Indians;
3. To use archeological and historical data to understand the daily life of the villagers;
4. To discover American Indian groups who once lived in their region and compare their cultures to the Hidatsa and Mandan peoples.


Time Period: 18th and 19th centuries
Topics: The lesson could be used in American history units on American Indian culture or westward movement during the 18th and 19th centuries.


High 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 European-American 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.

Lesson Hook/Preview

The 1,758-acre Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site in North Dakota preserves historic and archeological remnants of the culture and agricultural lifestyle of the Northern Plains Indians. More than 50 archeological sites suggest a possible 8,000-year span of inhabitation. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, the site was a relatively urban settlement with three large villages occupied by the Hidatsa and Mandan tribes. Three of the most striking cultural aspects of the Hidatsa and Mandan tribes were their practice of living in large villages with houses set close together, their skill as architects and builders, and the richness of their culture, due in part to their role as brokers in a widespread trading network and their control of an important product—Knife River flint—which was valued for the quality of tools and weapons it produced.

As centers of trade, these villages attracted Indians and European Americans alike. Direct contact with Europeans began in 1738 when Frenchmen from Canada came to the region. Soon British and Canadian traders began to filter into the region for the prized beaver pelts and for the skins of wolf, fox, and otter. The Knife River villages also became known as a trading post for high quality horses that would be exchanged for guns and ammunition. In this manner, the Hidatsas and Mandans obtained considerable affluence and power among the Northern Plains tribes.


Getting Started Prompt
Map: Orients the students and encourages them to think about how place affects culture and society
Readings: Primary and secondary source readings provide content and spark critical analysis.
Visual Evidence: Students critique and analyze visual evidence to tackle questions and support their own theories about the subject.
Optional post-lesson activities: If time allows, these will deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.



Additional Resources

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site 
Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site is a unit of the National Park System. The park's web pages offer extensive information about the site. Students can learn the history of Knife River, take a tour of an earthlodge, learn about American Indian village life and culture, and view photos from the park's collection.

Historic Places of America’s Diverse Culture
The National Register of Historic Places online itinerary Places Reflecting America’s Diverse Cultures highlights the historic places and stories of America’s diverse cultural heritage. This itinerary seeks to share the contributions various peoples have made in creating American culture and history.

Library of Congress
The Library of Congress's Digital Collections page is an excellent source for documents and images. Students can search "A Century of Lawmaking: Indian Land Cessions in the United States" and read about the land cessions in the Dakotas. They can also search "History of the American West, 1860-1920", a collection of more than 30,000 photos providing documentation of more than 40 American Indian tribes living west of the Mississippi River.

Making of America
Making of America is a digital library maintained by the University of Michigan and Cornell University of primary source material from 19th­century America.

North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission
The North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission's web pages provide publications detailing the history of Indians in North Dakota as well as a map of North Dakota that outlines the territory of the Three Affiliated Tribes and other Native American tribes in the state. The site also offers the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission's mission statement, calendar of events, and news stories relating to Native Americans in North Dakota.

Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation's Three Affiliated Tribes
The Tribes' website is an excellent resource for the Fort Berthold Reservation and tribal history. Included is information on the joining of the three tribes as well as an outline of the similarities and differences between the three groups prior to, and after, the settlement of their native territory by white peoples.

North Dakota History
The North Dakota History web pages offer an excellent resource for Native American history in North Dakota before and after the settlement of the area by white Americans. Taken from the North Dakota Centennial Blue Book 1889-1989, this site explains the adaptation of distinct Native American groups from the time the first white explorers arrived. The groups included the Dakota or Lakota nation, Assiniboine, Cheyenne, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara.

Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe
The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe's web pages provide a brief background of the Cheyenne and the Lakota Tribes. Students can use this site to learn about the Cheyenne and Lakota cultures and compare them to the Hidatsa and Mandan cultures.

The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma
The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma's Web pages offer links to Web pages for other American Indian tribes that may help students find information on tribes in their area.

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Last updated: October 12, 2018