Viewpoint: Where did the People Come From?

Some of the people living in what became North Dakota—the Sioux, Chippewa, Arikara, and Hidatsa, as well as the Mandan encountered by La Verendrye—believed (and many of their descendants agree) that they were always here in this place. Archeologists who study the things left behind by ancient people offer another explanation for how people came to this place. Just as descendants of European immigrants to this place have several explanations for how the first people came to be on earth, those who trace their ancestors to the early people of North Dakota have more than one answer to the question, “How did we get here?” 

Traditional Mandan Creation Story

The Mandan first came out of the ground where we had a great village, and we saw light. Some of our people ascended by the grapevine upon the earth. We saw buffalo and every kind of animal. We also saw grapes and plums.

We were the first people on earth. Some of us did not come from inside the earth until after a great flood. Some of us once lived beneath the ground near a great sea. But there were always Mandan here at the Missouri, and there are many places here where we were helped by First Man, Good Furred Robe, and other holy helpers who had special powers.

Pachtuwa-Chta, Arikara Man by Karl Bodmer.  Courtesy of the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation.

First Creator and First Man made the land around the Missouri. First Creator made the southwest bank of the river with hills, valleys, forests, and thickets. First Man made the north bank of the river flat, although there were many woods in the distance. First Creator said to First Man, “You have not done this well; all is level, so that it will be impossible to surprise buffaloes or deer and approach them without the animals seeing the Mandan. The Mandan will not be able to live there. They will see each other at too great a distance, will not be able to avoid each other, and, as a result, will destroy each other.”

First Creator then took First Man to the side of the river he created and said, “See here, I have made springs and streams, hills and valleys, and added all kinds of animals and fine wood. Here the Mandan will be able to live by the chase and feed on the flesh of those animals.”

First Man, also called Lone Man, was born among the Mandan as a superman with great powers. One time an evil half-human named Hoita put all the animals in prison; Lone man freed them. Another time there was a great flood which would have drowned all the Mandan, but first man made a sacred willow fence around the village and saved them.

Mother Corn Led Arikara to Missouri River Valley

Mother Corn led the Arikara from the womb of Mother Earth. Once on Earth’s surface, they began a westward journey. Obstacles got in their way.

First, there was a huge body of water. A bird led them on a path through the water. Some Arikara were covered with water; they became the fish and other living things of the sea. Second, there was a very high cliff. Again a bird helped them. Again, some did not make it, and they became the birds and creatures of the air. Third, a thick forest stood in their way. An owl led them through the forest, but again some Arikara stayed in the woods. They became the deer, bears, and other creatures of the forest.

Mother Corn taught them how to live on the earth in a beautiful land. When Mother Corn died, she left the corn plant as a reminder that she was always present.

Hidatsa Came From Under Devils Lake

One day, hunters found a root of vine hanging down to their home beneath Devils Lake, where they lived in earthlodges.

The hunters climbed up to the earth. Almost half of the tribe followed. But then a fat woman tried to climb up. The vine broke. Left behind were half of the Hidatsa.

At this time, the Hidatsa did not know about corn and squash.

After a time, a group of Hidatsa saw lodges like their own across the Missouri River, where they had wandered from their home. When the water ran low in the fall, the Mandan parched some ears of corn, stuck pieces on the end of their arrows, and shot the food across to the Hidatsa. “Eat!” shouted the Mandan to the Hidatsa.

The group at the Missouri went back to the other Hidatsa and told them of the wonderful food. Then a party of Hidatsa went to visit the Mandan, who gave them some kernels from the corn for seed. Soon every family in the village was planting corn.

Note:  The creation stories are among the earliest written down by such visitors as William Clark in 1804, and George Catlin and Maximilian in the 1830s, as told by the native people they visited.

Summary of Archeologists’ Study

Archeologists generally agree that people have lived in what is now North Dakota for at least 11,000 years. The earliest were big game hunters who came to North America by crossing a land bridge that connected Asia and Alaska at a time when ice covered much of the world. That bridge is called Beringia.

The archeological record indicates that people have lived on this continent for at least 19,000 years. These were the ancestors of the North American Indians. The earliest people to live in what is now North Dakota were Paleo-Indian who followed herds of buffalo and mammoth. There is evidence of their being in this place as early as 9,500 B.C. The Paleo-Indian were not at all like the tribes we know about today.

Archeologists are not sure whether or not the Archaic people who lived in this area from 5,500 B.C. to 400 B.C. were ancestors of those who developed into Woodland peoples of a later period. The Woodland peoples who lived here from 400 B.C. to A.D. 600 built the earliest house we have found in this place—along the James River. After 600, peoples we call the Late Woodland lived here. They probably were the ancestors of the Mandan people who greeted La Verendrye. In addition to hunting for food, these peoples raised some crops. At the same time as the Late Woodland people (from 600 to 1851), there were “nomads” (people who travel constantly to find food)—ancestors of the Sioux and Assiniboine and Cheyenne. Finally there were peoples we call the Plains Village (A.D. 1000 to A.D. 1851). These people lived in villages in earthlodges. Their homes eventually became trading centers for nomadic peoples from a wide area who came to get their extra crops in exchange for hides, meats and goods from other places. The movement of people into this place was from the south, the north, and the east.


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