Originally published in Points West magazine
“We cared for our corn in those days…” The Industrious Women of the Upper Missouri River Tribes
By Anne Marie Shriver
“Upon each side were pleasant cultivated spots, some of which stretched up the rising ground on out left, whilst on our right they ran nearly to the Missouri. In those fields were many women and children, at work, who all appeared industrious.” 1
—Alexander Henry the Younger, 1806 English fur trader visiting the Upper Missouri River
The women of the historic Mandan and Hidatsa tribes of the Upper Missouri River valley were indeed industrious. They worked hard in the fields and in their homes, keeping in the background and busily going about their daily tasks. Because the Indian men were wonderfully dressed for the meetings and trade with the Europeans and Americans, it would be hard for the visitors not to be in awe of the men, and to relegate the women to the typical role of powerless drudges and workhorse.
The Hidatsa and Mandan were closely allied and lived in semi-permanent, fortified earth lodge villages along the Heart and Knife Rivers, tributaries of the Missouri. Their vast gardens on the river terraces amazed the Euro-American visitors who travelled down the Missouri trying to become established in the thriving trade network or to winter-over in the villages. Unlike the nomadic tribes who came to rely heavily on the bison and the men who hunted them as their economic mainstay, corn and other vegetables were central to the economies of the village tribes. It was the women owned the gardens, working them with their sisters and daughters. Along with their families, they lived in the earth lodges which they had constructed.
Village women did not have an easy life, as no woman did before electricity. The European men’s perceptions of their powerlessness makes the village women voiceless in the historical record, although they were powerful in the roles they play in their own cultures. Through the continuity of traditions, the women of the Hidatsa, Arikara and Mandan tribes of the Upper Missouri River passed down their personal histories which were deeply intertwined with those of their tribes and clans, through ritual, story-telling, and the hands-on learning of daily tasks.
In the first years of the twentieth century—as result of ethnologist Gilbert Wilson’s work with a Hidatsa woman named Buffalo Bird Woman (Maxidiwiac)—a much clearer picture of village life from the woman’s point of view emerged. Buffalo Bird Woman experienced the transitions of her people from life in an earth lodge village to life on a reservation.
Buffalo Bird Woman was born on the Knife River in the Five Villages in the Upper Missouri valley where the Mandan and Hidatsa came together to live. The Mandan lived in two of the villages, the Hidatsa in three. This is where George Catlin first saw them in 1832, eight years before the birth of Buffalo Bird Woman. When speaking to Gilbert Wilson in 1914 she said, “My people had had the smallpox…so they speak of the smallpox year. My birth was three years after the smallpox year, I was born in an earth lodge.”2 In the one horrific year of 1837 – 38, the Hidatsa were reduced to about “500 persons” and the Mandan to no more than 150. The trade network had brought a rich cultural and economic prosperity to the village tribes, but it was also the trading contacts and the close quarters of the permanent villages, that made the tribes more vulnerable to the devastating sweeps of smallpox. Buffalo Bird Woman tells how in 1845, “When I was four years, my tribe and the Mandans came to Like-a-Fishhook bend. This was seven years after the smallpox year.” The new village “was inhabited in the summer time, and was in prairie country. Our fall and winter home was in the winter village which we built down in the woods along the Missouri.”3 The Arikara joined the Mandan and Hidatsa in 1862.
By passing on her knowledge of the old ways of village tribes, Buffalo Bird Woman has both preserved knowledge and taught new generations about the farming traditions of her grandmothers. She tells how in the variable and often extreme environmental conditions of the Northern Plains, the women produced enough corn and vegetables to feed their own, as well as a substantial surplus to offer as trade goods. The Hidatsa and Mandan had several varieties of flint, flour and sweet corn, and prior to the smallpox epidemics of 1782 and 1837, there were undoubtedly many more varieties, each family having their favorites. The family diet was a combination of food grown in the extensive gardens, and from the bison, elk, antelope and fish of the prairies and rivers. Beans, squash and sunflowers supplemented the corn harvest. As it is for gardeners today, the size and quality of the harvest would vary from year to year. Native gardeners had to contend with hail, high winds, grasshoppers, early and late frosts, droughts and animals. They also had to deal with raiding enemy tribes, and concealed their produce in underground cache pits.
Before the Euro-American trade brought iron tools to the village tribes, the rich soil of the river bottoms was worked with digging sticks (a substantial, pointed stick about four feet long), buffalo shoulder blade hoes, and rakes made from deer antlers. The digging stick was the most important tool in the garden. It was used to expand the garden borders each spring, till the soil, dig wild turnips, make postholes, and when necessary could be used as a weapon. Even after moving to Like-a-Fishhook Village (around 1845) a few older women, like Buffalo Bird Woman’s grandmother, Turtle, still preferred to use traditional tools, which were a curiosity to the children. “She always kept [the hoe] back under her bed. Sometimes we children would take it out, out of curiosity, and want to take it to the garden and try to use it. She would say ‘Leave that alone; put it back! I fear you will break it.'”4
Before the planting began, the plot had to be cleared, and the piles of the dried vegetation were burned. Some trees were cut and used in the building of earth lodges or fortification of the village, although a few trees remained as shade for the corn watching stage. As she grew up, Buffalo Bird Woman learned not only how to cultivate the corn, but also how to care for it. One of the duties of young girls was to watch the corn, as Buffalo Woman describes:
“A platform was often built in a garden where girls and young women came to sit and sing as they watched that crows and other thieves did not destroy the ripening crop. We cared for our corn in those days as we would care for a child; for we Indian people loved our gardens, just as a mother loves her children, and we thought our growing corn liked to hear us sing.” 5
An incredible amount of hard work was involved in the preparation, planting, cultivating, and harvesting of the food from the garden. Of course, there was always time for fun, socializing and courting in the village. At the late summer harvest time, the family would have a husking feast. The garden owner would pile the corn into the center of the field. The next morning a crier from one of the men’s societies would announce for all members to “go husking.” The young men would gather together, and sing as they passed through the gardens to a particular pile. The young women were dressed in their best, as they waited for their young man to pass by. After the day’s work, the family gave a feast of meat and corn.
Women’s work played a crucial role in the village tribes’ economics. The women owned the products of their labors. Those who farmed, dressed skins, built houses, and produced clothing made themselves and their families rich. Because men did not engage in these types of activities, they needed industrious wives to be considered affluent. The women produced the clothing to be worn, as well as the food and gifts to be distributed at the men’s ceremonies. The profit the tribes realized from the trading of corn created the economic surplus that allowed the tribes to hold their ceremonies. Consequently, a hard-working woman was a source of wealth and prestige.
The voice of Buffalo Bird Woman, as recorded by Gilbert Wilson, brings to life the villages of the Hidatsa people – men, women and children.
I am an old woman now. The buffaloes and black-tail deer are gone, and our Indian ways are almost gone. Sometimes I find it hard to believe I ever lived them. Sometimes at evening I sit, looking out on the big Missouri. The sun sets, and dusk steals over the water. In the shadows I seem again to see our Indian village, with smoke curling upward from the earth lodges; and in the river’s roar I hear the yells of the warriors, the laughter of little children as of old.
1. Wood, R. & Thiessen, T., (1985). Early Fur Trade on the Northern Plains: Canadian Traders among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians, 1738–1818. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
2. Wilson, G. (1917). Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians: An Indian Interpretation. Bulletin of the University of Minnesota.
3. Gilman, C. & Schneider, M.J., (1987). The Way to Independence: Memories of a Hidatsa Family, 1840 – 1920. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press.
4. Wilson, G. Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians.
5. Wilson, G. Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians.