Friday, January 06, 2006

The Mandans

January 6, 1975: The last full-blooded Mandan dies today in Twin Buttes, North Dakota. She was Mattie Grinnell, and she lived to be 108 years old.

Recreated Mandan Lodge



The first known account of the Mandan is that of the French trader, Sieur de la La Verendrye, in the fall of 1738. McKenzie visited the Mandan in 1772. Written accounts came from Lewis and Clark who arrived among the Mandan in the fall of 1804. They furnish only the location and early condition of the archaeological remains both of the Mandan and Arikara. Alexander Henry, a trader for the Northwest Company, came to trade fur with the Mandan in 1806. After Henry Brackenridge and Bradbury came to the area together in 1810. They wrote additional information about the Mandan, but mostly about the Arikara. The next visitor was the artist, George Catlin, who visited in the spring of 1833. Maximilian, Prince of Wied-Neuwied, spent the winter months of 1833-34 among the Mandan. Maximilian may be recognized as the best of the various authorities. (Will, Spinden, pp. 86-88).

According to McKenzie and Sieur de la La Verendrye, the nine villages they visited in 1738 and 1772, were the oldest villages. Verendrye described the Mandan as being in full power and prosperity. The Mandan had not yet suffered the losses by disease and war, which caused them to leave these villages.

Lewis and Clark wrote in their journals on March 10,1805, "The Mandan's formerly lived in six large villages at and above the mouth of the Heart River. " Maximilian says, "After the first alliance with the Hidatsa, the Mandan's lived in eight or nine villages at and above the Heart River." These villages were abandoned between 1772 and 1804. (Will, Spinden, p.90).

The Mandan had a origin narrative of coming out of the earth. In relating their story to Maximilian, they came from the east out of the earth and entered the Missouri at the White Earth River in South Dakota.

The eastern origin corresponds with that of the rest of the Siouxan stock to which the Mandan's, both linguistically, and to a considerable extent, culturally belong. The Ohio valley would seem to have served as a point of dispersal where the Plains members of the Siouxan stock are supposed to have moved in four successive migrations. The earliest group to leave consisted apparently of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Crow, and of these the Mandan were probably a number of years ahead of the other tribes. The Mandan's have vivid recollections of the coming of the Hidatsa many years later and established fixed villages on the Heart River. They describe the Hidatsa as a wild wandering people whom they taught to build stationary villages and to raise corn, pumpkins and other vegetables, and who soon moved up to the Knife River. (Will, Spinden, p. 97).

In the earliest historical accounts the Mandan were firmly established in stationary villages in the neighborhood of the Heart River. Verendrye says they were a large and powerful nation and feared none of their neighbors. Their manufactures were almost necessities among the other tribes, and in trade they were able to dictate their own terms. Their forts were well fortified. The smallest village he visited had one hundred and thirty houses. Verendrye's son visited one of the larger villages, declared that it was twice as large. There were at least one thousand houses in several villages. Lewis and Clark declared that in the two villages of one hundred huts there were three hundred and fifty warriors. At this rate there should have been at least fifteen thousand Mandan in 1738 dwelling prosperously in large and well-fortified towns. (Will, Spinden, p. 99).

The Mandan had created an focal point of trade on the Missouri River. All of the plains tribes came to barter for agricultural good and products. Called the "Marketplace of the Central Plains", the Mandan established what was to be the forerunner of trading posts that came later to the area.

There is little information for the next sixty-six years. The Mandan prospered and grew powerful up to 1772. Their remaining history is summed up in their own tradition as related to Lewis and Clark and Maximilian.

Formerly they lived happily and prosperously in nine large villages on the Missouri near the mouth of the Heart River. Six or seven of these villages were on the west side and two or three were on the east side of the river. For a great many years they lived there when one day the smallpox came to those on the east side of the river. The survivors then proceeded up the river some forty miles where they settled in one large village. After the smallpox reduced the villages on the west to five, the five went up to where the others were, in the neighborhood of some Arikara, and settle in two villages. A great many Mandan had died and they were no longer strong and fearless. They made an alliance with the Arikara against the Sioux.

All this happened before 1796 and is chronicled in Henry and Schoolcraft. Lewis and Clark found the two villages one on each side and about fifteen miles below the Knife River. Both villages consisted of forty to fifty lodges and united could raise about three hundred and fifty men. Lewis and Clark describe them as having united with the Hidatsa and engaging in continual warfare against the Arikara and the Sioux. The description given by Lewis and Clark agrees with the conditions two years later when Henry visited them.

In 1837, smallpox attacked them again, raged for many weeks and left only one hundred and twenty-five survivors. The Mandan's were taken in by the Arikara, with whom they intermarried. They separated, again forming a small village of their own at Fort Berthold. In 1850 there were three hundred and eighty- five Mandan, largely of mixed blood, living. There are only a few of the full-blooded Mandan left. The culture has changed, the language has changed, and as a nation the Mandan are practically extinct. (Will, Spinden, p. 101).

In 1700, the entire section of the Missouri from the Cannonball to the mouth of the Yellowstone was occupied by groups of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Crow. The largest villages were near the mouth of Heart River. The Nuptadi and Nuitadi bands were living on both banks of the Missouri. The Awigaxa band of Mandan and the Awaxawiband of Hidatsa lived further upstream at the Painted Woods. All these bands practiced agriculture and were less nomadic than the Awatixa band of Hidatsa and the Crow. These groups moved little until the close of the 18th century, when their populations were sharply reduced by smallpox and other epidemics.

Each village had an economic unit, hunting and protection for older remaining people, and each had a garden section. The Mandan were divided into bands while living at the Heart River. The bands were Is' tope, meaning "those who tattooed themselves"; Nup'tadi (does not translate), which was the largest linguistic group; Ma'nana'r "those who quarreled"; Nu' itadi "our people"; and Awi' ka-xa (does not translate). These groups combined as the tribe was decimated with each smallpox epidemic. (Bowers, 1950).


Excerpted from

The Mandan, according to their own accounts, originated somewhere near the Great Lakes. During the 17th century, as Amerindian groups were pushed further west by Euroamericans, the Mandan moved into what is now Ohio. From there they moved first to the mouth of the White River where it empties into the Missouri River in what is now South Dakota, then to the Moraue River. Eventually the Mandan built nine settlements along the Heart and Missouri Rivers where they were discovered by Varendrye in 1738. By 1776, the nine principle villages of the Mandan had merged into two and settled on the Missouri River at the mouth of the Knife River, approximately 1800 miles west of St. Louis, where Lewis and Clark found them in 1803 (Swanton 1952: 277; Catlin 1989: 73).

A smallpox epidemic reduced the Mandan from an estimated population of between 1600 and 2000 to a mere 31 in 1837. They joined with the Hidasta and moved to Fort Berthold in South Dakota where they continue to reside with the Hidasta at the present time (Swanton 1952: 277; Catlin 1989: 73). The Mandan are of the Siouan linguistic family but are more closely related to the Winnebago and Tutelo. They were known by many names. The Hidasta called them the Arachbocu; to the Crow they were the Asakashi. There are other names by which they were known to various American Indian groups and Swanton notes that most of these coincided with translated names of their villages. The Mandan called themselves the Numaka , meaning simply "people," until the smallpox epidemic of 1837 when they changed their name to match that of their single remaining village, Metutahanke (Swanton 1952: 276). However, George Catlin who lived with the Mandan for some time and is probably the most reliable Western source of information on this group, notes that the Mandan also called themselves "Seepohskahnumahkahkee" that literally translates to People of the Pheasant (Catlin 1989: 73)....

... Their clothing was considered to be the most beautiful of the plains peoples. The men wore long shirts made of buckskin or mountain goat hide in addition to a breechcloth, leggings and moccasins, all of which were profusely decorated with beads, quills, hair locks and paint. The women wore long dresses of the same material that were likewise decorated. Head coverings of the men, according to Catlin and Mails, were elaborate and varied. They incorporated feathers to build the familiar "War Bonnet," or might use other materials such as buffalo horn, mounted so that the horns protruded from the side of the hat. Their headwear, like other facets of their culture, was often an exception in the region (Catlin 1989: 89-91; Mails 1991: 356). The appearance of Mandan villages was likewise uncommon for the northern plains.

The houses of the Mandan were most often circular, set in the ground and of heavy timber construction. This frame was then covered with earth and the roof was often used as a place of relaxation. These dwellings ranged in size from single family structures of 20 feet in diameter to large extended family dwellings that reached 60 feet across. Catlin noted that although outwardly the houses appeared to be filthy, he was impressed with the openness and cleanliness of the interior. The floor was packed hard enough to be swept clean and, according to Catlin, held an almost polished appearance. In the center of the dwelling was the fire place, the smoke of which escaped through a 5 foot hole in the roof. Around the room was hung buffalo and elk hides that were decorated with pictographic accounts of the owners exploits. Against the wall were beds made of wood frames and mattressed with buffalo robes that were made private by arranging decorative curtains of the afore-mentioned painted buffalo skins. Nearer the center was an area carpeted with buffalo skins that was used as a communal place for the dwellings inhabitants. Here the children and adults alike gathered to talk and play (Catlin 1989: 74-77)

The houses that made up the village were surrounded by a palisade for protection. The logs used for this defensive work averaged 18 inches in diameter and were set well into the ground leaving about 20 feet of wall. The logs were spaced to allow weapons to be fired between them and the work was lined on the inside with a trench that afforded cover for the warriors in time of attack. Catlin also said that although the houses were spaced close together, there was little chance of fire being a threat due to the earthen covering and that the village in its entirety was built for comfort as well as defense (Catlin 1989: 74-81; Clark 1992: 174-181).

The Mandan, like most groups on the prairie, were buffalo hunters. However, they were horticulturists as well, growing maize and squash as their primary food crops. The maize that was grown was of a small variety, adapted to the climate of the area. In addition to these food crops the Mandan grew a quality tobacco. They produced enough to trade the surplus to surrounding groups that gave them a reputation and functionality as a well defended trade center. The Crow and Hidasta were common sites in Mandan villages and the tobacco for which Crow were famous was acquired from these villages. Although the primary source of sustenance was the buffalo, closely supported by crops, the Mandan also collected a kind of wild turnip that was reported by Catlin to be quite prolific and tasty (Catlin 1989: 124-125; Mails 1994: 4).

Catlin gives no definitive description of political organization. However, from his accounts together with those of the Lewis and Clark expedition it may be inferred that political organization in the village centered around a council of chiefs that were the headmen of family groups. Decisions involving the entire nation were decided by a council of chiefs who were lead by principle chiefs selected from the various towns, some of whom may serve as war-party chiefs in time of conflict. Next in rank were the medicine men. These were actually either religious leaders or medicinal healers who, although carried no actual authority, did possess the ability to affect or sway council decisions. As with many of the plains peoples, there was no absolute authority and a chief's position could be challenged, his real power lying in the amount of popular support from the people as a whole. Peacekeeping within the village was achieved and maintained through warrior societies whose tasks would range from observing fights between young boys to disputes over property. There is little mention of the need for such police in any of the primary sources (Clark 1992: 174-181; Catlin 1989: 103-104, 151-166; Mails 1991: 80-85).

The Mandan myth of origin is recorded by Catlin in detail. It relates how the Mandan were the first people created by the Great Spirit and lived inside the earth where they grew many vines. One of these vines grew up through a hole in the earth and a young man climbed it to see what was above. When he viewed the parry he was impressed with its beauty and climbed back down to tell the people what he had seen. When the people herd this some of them ascended the vine, including two virgin women who were favorites of the Chiefs, and verified what the young man had seen. At once a fat woman, against the will of the chiefs, began to climb the vine. The vine broke, sending the woman to an injurious fall. She was admonished, not for ignoring the chiefs, but for bringing calamity among her people as those who remained in the earth were now trapped there, separated from those above. The first Mandan village was built where this had occurred and those who remained behind were believed to still live in the earth (Catlin 1989: 178-179) It is doubtful that this is the true Mandan myth of origin since it directly counteracts the oral tradition of their travels from the land of great lakes. This tale appears to be more in line with teaching members of the society that their actions affect all the people. ...

... The Pipe was considered to be symbolic representation of the power of the Great Spirit. However, it was treated and used as though the Pipe itself contained that power. It was used as a focal point for the most grandiose of Mandan ceremonies as well as being simply smoked between two people casually talking in their private quarters. Wherever and however the Pipe was used, it reminded those around it that the Creator was continually in their midst (Catlin 1989: 160-163). The records that Catlin as a first-hand observer kept on Mandan ceremony are quite extensive and the confines of this paper preclude their inclusion. Marriage and family life together with the sacred ceremonies served as the "center" of Mandan life.

Women were chosen at 12 to 14 years of age as wives, their value as such being determined by their good virtues and beauty. A man could choose more than one wife with the understanding that he could provide sustenance for the entire household. The women's primary function in everyday living consisted of the usual domestic chores such as cooking, processing food, and processing materials used for clothing and other utilitarian needs. The man was usually responsible for peace-keeping chores within the village, defending the village against aggressors and providing meat, usually buffalo, which was no easy task given the size and tenacity of this creature. It should also be pointed out that the women, although performing the labor, owned and operated the maize and tobacco fields upon which the external economics of the village depended. It should in no way be construed that women were considered a lower class than men as they both provided essential components to the well-being of the community (Catlin 1989: 123-130 et al). There is no doubt, as their prosperity indicates, that the Mandan were a hard-working people, but this by no means prevented them from possessing extensive quantities of leisure time.

In examining the games of the Mandan, once again there rises a mark of uniqueness among the Plains people, that set the Mandan apart from their neighbors. Although they participated in the usual games of the plains, such as ball plays, horse racing and archery competitions, they also played a game recognized as being a hallmark of the Mississippian Period and later the Natchez known as Tchung-Kee. This game was played on a large area covered in clay that had been packed to the consistency of a hard pavement.

Two champions who were representative of a family or faction would collect bets and would hand their Tchung-Kee stakes to a chief or other social elite. The two men would then begin to trot abreast of each other and one of them would roll in advance of themselves a discoidal Tchung-Kee stone. As the discoidal rolled along, the player launches one of his Tchung-Kee sticks so that it slides along the ground attempting to time the throw to coincide with the Tchung-Kee stone falling over and landing on the stick. This game appears to have been a favorite among the Mandan and was the source of much gambling and factional-spiritedness (Catlin 1989: 134-135).

The Mandan were like any society or culture, a group of people with many varied and complex facets. The intimate information provided to the modern scholar mainly through George Catlin's letters and paintings, indicate that the Mandan were a highly-evolved in civilized society. Throughout the large quantity of material, provided by Catlin, the scholar observes time and again that the Mandan were an exception to the rule as a Plains people. There remains to be solved a certain enigma where the Mandan are contemplated by the contemporary anthropologist.


Sources Cited:

Catlin, George
1989. Peter Matthiessen editor. North American Indians. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Clark, William and Meriwether Lewis.
1893, reprinted 1992. Elliot Coues editor. The History of the Lewis
and Clark Expedition, vol. I, II, & III, pp. 1299 vol. 3. Dover, NY.

Kennedy, Roger G.
1994. Hidden Cities: The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North
American Civilization. New York: The Free Press.

Mails, Thomas E.
1991. The Mystic Warriors of the Plains. New York, NY: Mallard

Swanton, John R.
1952 "The Indian Tribes of North America." Smithsonian Institution Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin 145. Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office.


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