The Indian People: An Overview

In Prairie Smoke (1929) ethnologist Melvin Gilmore pointed out, “There are many false notions and erroneous ideas about Indians current everywhere. Our people (white) should be better informed. One of the most common errors is that all Indians are one people, of one language and of similar habits all over the continent. This is far from true.”

There are striking similarities among North Dakota’s Indian people, but, at the same time, there are historic differences. Five distinctly different tribes eventually became part of North Dakota’s history:  Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara (Sanish), Chippewa (Ojibwa) and Oceti Sakowin (Lakota, Nokota, Dakota). The Oceti Sakowin is generally referred to as the Great Sioux Nation or the Seven Campfires.

First, they traveled different geographical paths to the region. The Mandan made their way up the Missouri, perhaps as early as the thirteenth century. The tribe who came to be known as the Hidatsa arrived in the Missouri Valley from the east, probably around Devils Lake, as three different groups. The Awatixa settled upriver from the Mandan sometime between 1400 and 1550. The Awaxawi followed, constructing their villages not far from the Mandan. The Hidatsa Proper, the largest group, arrived at the Missouri about 1650 and settled to the north of the others. The Arikara (Sanish) journeyed north along the Missouri River for more than 200 years. Weakened by disease and continual Lakota attacks, some in 1796 moved north to near the Mandan villages.

Archeologists believe that the people who would become the Oceti Sakowin or Great Sioux Nation originated in the East, perhaps North Carolina, and over hundreds of years made their way through the Ohio River Valley, ending up in present-day Wisconsin and Minnesota. Three divisions emerged: the Dakota, also called the Santee; the Yankton-Yanktonai, also referred to as the Nakota; and the Lakota, sometimes known as the Teton. The Dakota remained along the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, although two of its bands, the Wahpeton and the Sisseton, hunted the prairies of eastern North and South Dakota. The Yanktonai and Yankton remained mostly in the valley of the James River. The Lakota moved into the Great Plains which they came to dominate from Kansas into Canada and westward into Wyoming and Montana.

The Chippewa (known as the Ojibwa in Canada, or the Anishinabe today), closely allied with the French, followed the fur trade from the St. Lawrence Valley along the shores of Lake Superior and into Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. Two bands, the Pembina and the Turtle Mountain, followed the trade to the Red River Valley and then onto the Plains.

Second, they did not always get along. The Chippewa, armed with French guns, and the Seven Campfires (Sioux) fought over lands in Minnesota for almost 100 years. The Lakota and the Yankton-Yanktonai were pushed onto the Great Plains. In 1804 the Chippewa and Dakota asked the government to establish tribal boundaries, formally ending the warfare. As the Lakota moved westward, they displaced the Cheyenne and forced the Arikara upstream near the Mandan in a longstanding conflict.

Third, they pursued different ways of life. The Mandan and Hidatsa were successful farmers who lived permanently in earthlodge villages. The Arikara, too, joining the Mandan and Hidatsa, continued in their agricultural ways. The three tribes often traded their foodstuffs with other tribes. The Yanktonai and Yankton who lived in the James River Valley practiced a mixed economy:  agriculture and hunting. The Lakota, a nomadic people, were hunters who followed the buffalo. The Chippewa historically had been traders who served as “salesmen” for French goods. Once the two bands moved onto the Plains, they came to depend on hunting and small gardens.

Fourth, those tribes which became a part of North Dakota’s past spoke three distinctly different languages. The Arikara spoke Caddoan; the Chippewa, Algonquian; and the Mandan, Hidatsa, and the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation, Siouan. Even among the Sioux, the Dakota, the Yanktonai, and the Lakota spoke different dialects. An Arikara could not understand Siouan, just as Chippewa could not converse with a Mandan or an Arikara. Sign language became the universal language of the Plains.

In spite of these major differences, similarities stood out. First, the buffalo was important to all Indian people: food, shelter, tools, gifts, clothing, and bedding. And the buffalo also took on spiritual importance. The buffalo was most important to the Lakota because of the nature of their hunting society. The Chippewa who moved onto the Plains came to depend on the buffalo almost as much as the Lakota. They traveled as far west as Montana’s Milk River in search of the herds. Although the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara were known primarily as farmers, they conducted well-planned seasonal hunts.

Third, kinship and family were all important to all Native people. Everyone was born into a clan or a band, an extended family. Society was organized along family lines. This approach to life meant that everyone was cared for. Grandparents provided knowledge and wisdom.

Fourth, oral tradition kept the past alive. Each family had someone who was responsible for passing on the stories and traditions of the tribe. Grandparents often assumed the role of record keepers.

Fifth, the Indian people were a spiritual people. Regardless of the tribe, a creator, the Great Spirit or the Great Mystery, controlled the universe and people’s lives. Ceremonies differed somewhat from group to group. The Lakota practiced the Sun Dance; the Mandan, the Okipa; the Hidatsa, the Naxpike. To the Chippewa, the Midewiwan was all important. All the ceremonies had specific objectives: to renew sacred beliefs, to put the universe in balance, and to ensure protection of the spirits for the people.

Sixth, the Indian people had to adjust to a new environment. They moved from the woodlands of the East onto the Plains, life had to change. Food in the form of wild rice, fish, and forest game were no longer available. The buffalo became the new source of food. And, since the buffalo roamed over a vast region, the people, too, had to move with the buffalo. This meant for the Lakota and most of the other tribes that the moveable tipi replaced the permanent wigwam, that the all-important horse replaced the canoe; that breakable pottery gave way to skin pouches for cooking. The soft-soled moccasin, comfortable in the woods, was terribly uncomfortable on the sun-dried plains. So, hard-soled moccasins became common. Life on the plains was much more difficult than life in the woodlands.

Seventh, the coming of white people forever changed the lives of all Native people. Fur traders brought with them the devastating disease of smallpox which ravaged Indian populations. The 1781 epidemic killed upwards of 4,000 Mandan, and the plague of 1837 left 125 Mandan alive. Traders also introduced alcohol to the Native people with, in many cases, disastrous consequences. Pembina fur trader Alexander Henry believed that white traders “destroyed both mind and body with . . . RUM.”

The westward march of white settlers and their demand for land, of course, led to conflict on the plains. The army with its chain of protective forts led the way for white settlement. The ultimate result was the reservation and the restriction of the Native people to those, often too small, reserves. Government policy attempted to turn hunters into farmers, to change Native people into white people. Toward that end Indian ways—ceremonies, religion, long hair, language—were banned. The adjustment to the reservation was severe. The old life, the free life, was forever gone.


By Dr. D. Jerome Tweton


Originally published as The North Star Dakotan student newspaper, written by Dr. D. Jerome Tweton and supported by the North Dakota Humanities Council.

Subject Matter

Social Studies

North Star Dakotan:

Journals and Art Work: The Indian People, The Trade, and The Land

The Indian People

The Purchase and Exploration of Louisiana

The Fur Trade

Dakota Territory

The Military Frontier

The Reservation System

George Armstrong Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

The Great Dakota Boom, 1878-1890

Reservation Troubles, 1886-1890

The Making of a State and a Constitution

The North Dakota Economy, 1890-1915

Life on the Indian Reservations

The North Dakota National Guard and the Philippines

North Dakota, The Great War and After

The Nonpartisan League's Rise to Power

The Nonpartisan League in Power

The Nonpartisan League's Decline

The 1920s

1930s: North Dakota's Economic and Political Climate

The New Deal in North Dakota

The Road to World War II

North Dakota and American Society

North Dakota Optimism and Economic Developments

North Dakota and Political Change

Related Links

North Dakota Department of Indian Affairs has made available on their web site PDF versions of tribal profiles of the several tribes in North Dakota that were published between 1995 and 2002. The History and Culture of the Standing Rock Oyate (1995) The History and Culture of the Mni Wakan (1997) The History and Culture of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa (1997) The History and Culture of the Mandan Hidatsa and Arikara (2002)