How to Use
Reading 1: Village Life in the Upper Missouri River Valley (c. 1740-1845)
A Way Of Life
The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes shared a culture superbly adapted to the conditions of the Upper Missouri River valley. Their summer villages, located on natural terraces above the river, were ordered communities with as many as 120 earthlodges. An earthlodge is a circular, earth-covered structure which usually has its entire interior area dug out to one foot below the ground surface. Each earthlodge sheltered an extended family of 10 to 30 people from the region's extreme temperatures. The summer villages were strategically located for defense, often on a narrow bluff with water on two sides and a palisade (a fence of upright logs or poles set on end into the ground for enclosure or defense) on the third. In winter the inhabitants moved into smaller lodges along the bottomlands, where trees provided firewood and protection from the cold wind.
In this village society, men lived in the household of their wives, bringing only their clothes, horses, and weapons. Women built, owned, and maintained the lodges and owned the gardens, gardening tools, food, dogs, and horses. Related lodge families from numerous villages made up clans, whose members were expected to help and guide each other but who were forbidden to marry other clan members. Clans were competitive, especially in war, but it was the age-grade societies, transcending village and clan, that were looked to for personal prestige. Young men purchased membership in the lowest society at 12 or 13 years of age, progressing to higher and more expensive levels as they reached the proper age. Besides serving as warrior bands, each group was responsible for a social function: policing the village, scouting, or planning the hunt. Most important, the age-grade societies were a means of social control, setting standards of behavior and transmitting tribal lore and custom.
The roles of men and women were strictly defined. Men spent their time seeking spiritual knowledge, hunting, and horse raidingall difficult and dangerous but relatively infrequent undertakings. Women performed virtually all the routine work: gardening, preparing food, maintaining the lodges, and, until the tribes obtained horses, carrying burdens. The lives of these people were not totally devoted to subsistence, however. They made time for play. Honored storytellers passed on oral traditions and moral lessons, focusing on traditional tribal values of respect, humility, and strength. The open area in the center of each village was often given over to dancing and to ritual, which bonded the members of the tribe and reaffirmed their place in the world.The Village Economy
Agriculture was the economic foundation of the Knife River people, who harvested much of their food from rich flood-plain gardens. The land, which was controlled by women, passed through the female line, and the number of women who could work determined the size of each family's plot. They raised squash, pumpkin, beans, sunflowers, and, most important, tough, quick-maturing varieties of corn that thrived in the meager rainfall and short growing season of the Knife River area. Summer's first corn was celebrated in the Green Corn ceremony, a lively dance followed by a feast of corn. Berries, roots, and fish supplemented their diet, while upland hunting provided buffalo meat, hides, bones, and sinew.
These proficient farmers traded their surplus produce to nomadic tribes for buffalo hides, deer skins, dried meat, and other items in short supply. At the junction of major trade routes, they became brokers, dealing in goods within a vast trade network: obsidian from Wyoming, copper from the Great Lakes, shells from the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Northwest, and, after the 17th century, guns, horses, and metal objects. High quality flint quarried locally found its way to tribes spread over a large part of the continent through this trading system.The Battle and the Hunt
In this tribal culture, raiding and hunting were the chief occupations of the men. When conflict was imminent, a war chief assumed leadership of the village. Although horses and loot often came from the raids, the conflicts were more important as stages on which warriors could prove themselves. Hunting parties were planned in much the same fashion, with a respected hunter choosing participants and planning the event. Prowess in battle and hunt led to status in the village, both individually and for the hero's society and clan. Ambitious young men would risk leading a party, which was highly rewarding if successful but ruinous to their reputation if not.
The primary weapon was the bow and arrow, used along with clubs, tomahawks, lances, shields, and knives. Even more prestigious than wounding or killing an enemy was "counting coup"touching him in battle. But ambition did not spur every action: warriors often had to defend the village against raids by other tribes. When men prevailed in battle, the women would celebrate with dance and song.Spirit and Ritual
Spirits guided the events of the material world, and from an early age, tribal members (usually male) sought their help. Fasting in a sacred place, a boy hoped to be visited by a spiritoften in animal formwho would give him power and guide him through life. The nature of the vision reported to his elders determined a man's role within the tribe. If directed by his vision, he would make a great sacrifice to the spirits, spilling his blood in the Okipa ceremony. The Okipa was the most important of a number of ceremonies performed by Mandan clans and age-grade societies to ensure good crops, successful hunts, and victory in battle. Ceremonies could be conducted only by those with "medicine," which was a bundle of sacred objects associated with tribal mythology purchased from a fellow clan or society member. With bundle ownership came responsibility for knowledge of the songs, stories, prayers, and rituals necessary for spiritual communication. Certain bundle owners were looked upon as respected leaders of the tribe.
Questions for Reading 1
1. What natural conditions of the Upper Missouri River valley did the village Indians use to their advantage?
2. These villagers had a governmental structure quite different from those we know today. What elements of their political system fostered a well-ordered society?
3. What evidence is presented that gender roles were clearly defined?
4. The villagers were a preliterate society, meaning they did not have a written language. How do you think they educated their children?
5. How did the villagers make their living?
Reading 1 was compiled from The National Park Service visitors' guide for Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site.