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Cultural Overview - Hidatsa Culture - Hidatsa Creation Narrative

Mandan Culture | Hidatsa Culture | Sahnish Culture

Creation Narrative | Lifeways | Societies | Present Day

Hidatsa Creation Narrative

There are three Hidatsa bands each having their own origin narrative. The following is the origin narrative of the Awaxawi Band.

The land was then mainly under water. First Creator
was alone and wandering about by himself. He
thought that he was the only one when he met
another person named Lone Man. They discussed
their origins. Lone Man concluded that he came
from the western wheat grass, for in tracing
his tracks he saw blood on the grass, and that
his father was the Stone Buffalo, an earth-
colored wingless grasshopper, for he saw its
tracks near where he was born. First Creator
did not know who his father and mother were but
he thought that he had come from the water. The
two men undertook to learn who was the older;
Lone Man stuck his staff in the ground while
First Creator lay down as a coyote. Years later
Lone Man returned to the place where coyote was
lying and, seeing the bones scattered about,
took up the staff, whereupon First Creator came
back to life and was declared the older.


First Creator and Lone Man decided to make the
land inhabitable and, seeing a goose, mallard, teal,
and red-eyed mudhen, they asked the birds to lend
assistance by diving below for mud. . . . Goose,
Mallard, and teal failed; only the mudhen succeeded
in bringing earth from below. Lone Man divided the
earth and gave half to First Creator.

First Creator made the lands on the west-side of
the Missouri from the Rockies to the ocean while
Lone Man made the land on the other or east side,
each using half of the mud brought up by the
mudhen. First Creator made many living things later
occupying the land and from the mud left over he
made Heart Butte. Lone Man made his side flat and
with the mud left over he made Hill, a small butte
north of the present town of Bismarck, North
Dakota. He made the spotted cattle with long horns
and the wolves.

First Creator caused the people who were living below
to come above, bringing with them their garden
produce. The people continued to come up, following
a vine, until one woman heavy in pregnancy broke
the vine.

When first encountered, Lone Man carried a
wooden pipe but he did not know what it was
used for. First Creator then ordered Male Buffalo
to produce tobacco for Lone Man’s pipe. (This act
explains the use of pipes in the various ceremonies,
which later were introduced, and the concept of
tobacco as being sacred.)

First Creator decreed that people in seeking a
living would scatter into small groups all over the
land and would fight. (This degree established the
various bands and linguistic groups.)

Because the spotted cattle could not stand the
cold winters and the wolves sometime went mad,
First Creator did not think they should be kept.
So the spotted cattle and the maggots around a
dead wolf, representing the white people was thrown
eastward across the waters until a later time when
they would return as the white men and their
cattle. Finding the land to the east too level
for shelter from storms, they roughened it with
their heels to form land as it is seen today. The
people dispersed over the land into tribes and the
two men visited them in their villages and camps.
At this time the people, whom we know as River
Crow, Hidatsa, and Awaxawi, moved northward toward
Devils Lake and lived together as a single group.
There were many lakes where they lived at that time.

Finding the land to the east too level for
shelter from storms, they roughened it
with their heels to form land as
it is seen today.

Hungry Wolf of good reputation lived in the village
with a younger brother named High Bird. Young
men would line up along the path by the young
women getting water to ask for a drink. When
water was offered one, it indicated that she
was fond of him. High Bird’s friend, an orphan,
lived with him. Hungry Wolf’s wife offered High
Bird water; he refused it because she was his
brother’s wife and she became angry. She told
her husband that High Bird had attacked her.
Although witnesses denied the charge, Hungry
Wolf did not believe them. He announced that he
was organizing a war party and High Bird and the
orphan decided to go along. To cross a large lake,
forty bullboats were made to carry the eighty men.
They traveled four days by water. High Bird as
scout brought in an enemy’s scalp for his brother,
but Hungry Wolf ordered his party to leave quietly
by water while his brother slept, leaving him no
means of reaching the mainland.

high bird

Hungry Wolf called back to his brother that the
Water Buffalo, his “father,” had ordered him to do
this. His gods, who ate those who assisted Hungry
Wolf, protected High Bird. (The narrative here
introduces the sun as a supernatural guardian and
also as a cannibal. The concept of the sun as a
cannibal appears throughout Hidatsa sacred

Hungry Wolf called back that if High Bird crossed
the water, the Sharp Noses would kill him so High
Bird matched the supernatural powers of the Sharp
Noses with that of the Thunderbird, his supernatural
father. (This conflict provided the setting for at
least one of the Thunderbird ceremonies performed
by the Hidatsa in recent years.)

Before the war party was out of sight, Hungry
Wolf threatened that Owns-Many-Dogs dogs would
eat High Bird (the narrative at this point describes
the penalties to the social group when brothers
quarreled. People were quick to put brothers aright
if they showed a tendency to quarrel or fight. This
applied also to clan brothers. As a result of the
destruction of a large part of the population,
people learned that brothers must always aid and
support each other, revenge the others death by the
enemy, and provide for those the brother loved and
respected while he lived.)

Thunderbird came down from the sky, learned
from High Bird the cause of the quarrel, and gave
High Bird advice on escaping from the island. High
Bird learned from Thunderbird that the water buffalo
was in reality a large snake living in the lake.
(Conflict between the sky gods represented by the
big birds and the water gods represented by the
snakes runs throughout Hidatsa mythology).

High Bird fed the large snake four cornballs to
reach shore where the snake was killed by
Thunderbird. High Bird cut up the snake and
Thunderbird called the other large birds to a feast.
(This feast is reenacted by those performing rites
to White Fingernails Bundle). These big birds then
gave High Bird advice on overcoming the magical
powers of Owns-Many-Dogs and the Sharp Noses.
Thunderbird decreed that the village where the two
young brothers lived would be destroyed unless
Hungry Wolf gave High Bird enough tobacco for one
pipe filling. Then High Bird started for home.

Northeast of Devils Lake he overcame the Sharp
Noses and when he was nearer to Devils Lake he
encountered Owns-Many-Dogs and sent her northward
beyond the great fire which was to destroy the
village. Far to the east, where the rivers flow
southward, High Bird heard a man weeping and
discovered that it was his friend, the orphan.
They reached home and found that a Mourners Camp
has been set up, for his relatives had concluded
that he was dead. Each day the people from the
other camp came there to mimic them by singing
victory songs. The Hidatsa and Awaxawi often set
up the Mourners Camp. It was not customary for
either the Mandan or Awatixa to establish a separate
camp of hide tipis as did the other village groups.)

High Bird sent his mother to Hungry Wolf four times
for tobacco and each time he refused so the people
of the Mourners Camp dug deep holes in which to
protect themselves from the celestial flames. Each
day the mourners would go to Hungry Wolf’s camp to
sing under the direction of seven singers. They sang
the Tobacco songs. (Here is the first reference to
an institution highly developed with the Crows, who
were traditionally a part of the original Hidatsa,
and Awaxawi cultures.)

Each day the mourners would go to
Hungry Wolf’s camp to sing under the
direction of seven singers.

One day a fire came down from the sky. High
Bird’s people were in deep cellars and were saved.
All of the others were destroyed except Hungry
Wolf’s wife who was the cause of the quarrel. She
was given the name Calf Woman after the fire. She
described the destruction by the fire and it was
then decreed that from this time there would always
be women who would make trouble between married
couples. Because the seven Tobacco singers were
with the mourners, the Tobacco rites were saved.
Even today one sees the results of this fire, for
there are no trees to the east except along the Red
River and its tributaries where the fire could not burn.

After this fire the survivors separated, the Awaxawi
lived to the south of Devils Lake where they planted
corn while the Hidatsa and the Crow with their
Tobacco rites stayed farther north near the large
lakes. There Magpie discovered an approaching flood,
the penalty for sticking a feather through Fat
Bird’s nostrils and ordering a buffalo calf to carry
its mother’s entrails. Those Awaxawi who believed
Magpie escaped to Square Buttes on the Missouri River
where they were joined by Magpie, his mother named
Yellow Woman who represented corn, and Spring
Buffalo. The buffaloes of the other three seasons
drowned on the way to establishing three important
hunting areas between the Missouri and Devils Lake.
(Bears Arm explained that the linguistic differences
between the Hidatsa-River Crow and the Awaxawi
developed as a result of the separation after the
celestial fire. He interpreted this flight from Devils
Lake as evidence that the Awaxawi brought gardening to
the Missouri and did not adopt the practice from the
Mandan. He believed the flight northward to avoid
destruction from the flood involved only the Hidatsa
and River Crow. We see that the traditional migrations
are intimately associated with magical beliefs. (It
would appear from the accounts of David Thompson
that these migration myths have at least some historic

…the Awaxawi lived to the south of
Devils Lake where they planted corn
while the Hidatsa and the Crow with their
tobacco rites stayed farther north near
the large lakes.
– Origin Narrative
of the Awaxawi Band

These people who came to the Missouri in advance
of the flood were the Awaxawi who had separated
sometime before from the Hidatsa and River Crow
while still living northeast of Devils Lake; the
flood destroyed those who were on lowlands.
After the waters had subsided, the Awatixa were
found living on the Missouri also. (This is the
first reference in this important sacred myth
to the Awatixa whose large village at the mouth
of Knife River shows evidence of longer
occupation than the traditional villages of the
Hidatsa and Awaxawi of the same area.)

When the waters subsided, there were lakes and
sloughs to the northeast where First Creator and
Lone Man had roughened the earth with their heels.
Fish became abundant in all of the lakes.
pp. 298–301, 1963, appendix C)

Some of the creation stories say that Devils Lake in northern Dakota is the birth lake of the tribe. The Hidatsa call it Mirí-zubáa (pronounced Midihopa) which means sacred water.

In addition to this story, the Hidatsa have an extensive account of what happened to them during their long wanderings on the prairie, from the time they left the lake until they reached the Mandan village. This account is included in a separate story—the almost endless legend of Idawaabísha (pronounced Idi-wabi-sha), when told properly, takes three or four long winter evenings.

In this story they were often on the verge of death by starvation, but were rescued by a miraculous supply of buffalo meat. Stones were scattered on the prairie by a divine order, and from them sprang to life the buffalo, which they slaughtered. It was during these years of wandering that the spirit of the sun took a woman of this tribe up into the sky. She had a son, who came to Earth under the name of idi-wabi-sha, meaning grandchild, and became the great prophet of his mother’s people. (Bowers)

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