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Cultural Overview - Hidatsa Culture - Lifeways

Mandan Culture | Hidatsa Culture | Sahnish Culture

Creation Narrative | Lifeways | Societies | Present Day


The Hidatsa revered everything in nature. The sun, moon,
stars, all animals, trees, plants, rivers, lakes—everything not
made by human hands, which has an independent being, or
which could be individualized, possessed a spirit, or….shade.
(Matthews, 1877, p.48)

To clarify the Hidatsa concept, for example, the shade of the cottonwood, the greatest tree of the Upper Missouri Valley, is supposed to possess an intelligence that may, if properly approached, help in certain undertakings. The shades of shrubs and grasses are of little importance. It was considered wrong to cut down one of these great trees. When large logs were needed, only the fallen ones were used. Some elders say many of the misfortunes of the people are the result of their disregard for the rights of the cottonwood. The sun is held in great respect and many valuable sacrifices are made to it. (Matthews, 1877, p.48)

The Hidatsa women planted beans, sunflowers, squash, pumpkin, tobacco, and corn. The Hidatsa had nine distinct varieties of corn, five varieties of beans, and several varieties of squash.

Child Rearing Practices

Discipline of children was a family responsibility. The mother’s brother was the boy’s chief teacher and disciplinarian. He was likely to chide a boy for failing to learn to do the things that were expected of a boy his age. Old men of the lodge taught boys by stories and lectures instilling in them the tribe’s idea of manhood. Girls were instructed in feminine labors and skills by their mothers and grandmothers. Young women were disciplined by their sisters and by their mothers’ older sisters.

When a husband died leaving children, his brother would be likely to marry the widow to provide for the children. Death, divorce, and other factors created many kinds of marital situations. There were society standards that governed marital behavior. If one acted otherwise he or she was subject to ridicule, and this was enough to maintain the societies’ standards.

Polygamy occurred among all the tribes in this area. The main reason for this practice was the fact that men, constantly engaging in warfare, were more likely to meet early death than were women. In order that all women be provided with the products of the hunt, have opportunity to bear children, and have their share of work to do, the natural solution was plural marriages. When the fur trade was established, it was to the man’s advantage to have several wives to dress skins that could be traded for white man’s goods.


History indicates that there were two different clan systems of the Hidatsa: the thirteen-clan system of the Awatixa and the seven-clan system of the Awaxawi and Hidatsa Proper. The clan was an important feature of Hidatsa social, economic, and ceremonial life. At birth, the child is a member of his/her mother’s clan or, if the mother was without a clan because she belonged to a different tribe, the child assumed the clan of the other children in the household. In spite of the traditional late arrival of the Hidatsa Proper and the Awaxawi on the Missouri River, the clan names they used were based on incidents or events occurring along the Missouri River.

The general idea of clan origins are two: the origin of the clan from a single female of a household group coming down from the sky with Charred Body; and a local group accustomed to living together. The clan names refer to incidents involving people, animals, or objects. The MaxU’xati (Alkalai Lodge) Clan receives its name from maxoxi, which refers to the dry dust that formed from the decaying of the earthlodge rafters and dropped down continuously, and ati meaning “lodge.” The ME’tsiroku (Flint Knife) Clan means “knife people” and refers to an instance of wife-purchase with a stone knife. The Apukaw’I’u (Low Cap) Clan receives its name from apuka meaning cap or article of clothing worn above the eye to shade them from the sun and wiku meaning “low.” The Low Cap Clan was derived from the supernatural experiences of Packs Antelope with the Thunderbirds and the Grandfather snake of the Missouri who killed by means of lightening which flashed from his eyes. When he returned from his exploits with the supernatural, he shaded his eyes to protect the people. These three clans are grouped together and are known today as the Three-Clan Moiety.

The Itisúku (Wide Ridge) Clan received its name from the custom of being out to the front of the war party along the edges of the hills overlooking the Missouri River. Once a group of young men called on Old-Woman-Who-Never-Dies at her lodge near the Red Buttes and she promised them success in warfare. When they returned to their homes, they called themselves Itis’ku.

The Prairie Chicken Clan was believed to have once been a separate village group. The name was derived from the fact that members of this group were noisy like the prairie chickens. The Prairie Chicken Clan began from the custom of a war party to camp at night in the bushes, the berries of which were eaten by the prairie chickens. (Bowers pg. 66–67)

The AwaxEnawita (Dripping Dirt) Clan derives its name from the childhood custom of building tiny villages with wet clay. Later the people saw hills upstream and nearly opposite the present city of Williston, North Dakota, that reminded them of the work of small children. The people camped there three times; hence the name AwaxEnawita taken from awaxE meaning “hill sliding down” and nawi meaning “three.”

The Mirip’ti (Waterbuster) Clan derives its name from a quarrel that occurred in the village. The mirip’ti separated and built near the village of Xura, who, at that time, had a separate village. Water was brought from the river and stored in bladders for use in case of a prolonged attack. One man became angered because of the cowardice of his people and cut up the water bag hanging in his lodge; after this the group was known as Mirip’ ti from Miri meaning “water” and pati meaning “to break open.” The Xura Clan, after the smallpox epidemic of 1837, merged with the Waterbuster Clan and became extinct. The Xura Clan functioned as a named lineage in the Waterbuster or Mirip’ti Clan, is believed to have been a separate village at one time. The name is derived from the noise of the cicada. The village, except for one woman and her baby daughter, disappeared mysteriously during the night. The survivors moved to the village of the Waterbuster of Awatixa and formed a friendship with that group. (Bowers, 1950)

In addition to the eight clans, there were a few members of the Speckled Eagle Clan in the tribe. According to tradition, this clan was of Mandan origin although many members can no longer trace their lineage back to any particular Mandan village group. They lived at the Awaxawi village shortly after 1780 at the time of the smallpox epidemic of Nuptadi village. Like the Mandan Speckled Eagle Clan, they have been assimilating with the Prairie Chicken Clan in recent years and marriage with the Prairie Chicken Clan was generally disapproved.

The clan was responsible for the care of its own members. Old people and orphans were cared for and often taken into the households of clan members. When the wife died, the man generally left the household to live in one where the females were of his clan.

The clan was responsible for the behavior of its members. It was the duty of older persons of the clan to instruct and supervise the children as they grew up. It was the duty of the clan not only to discipline its own members but also to protect them from the attacks of others. An important role was in directing and supervising the fasting of its younger members, and encouraging their participation in all ceremonies.

The clan revenged the murder of a member by killing the offender and demanding goods of his clansmen to make up for the loss. Women of the clan who were ill and could not do the work were assisted in caring for their households and gardens. One might even be brought into the lodge of clanswomen and nursed back to health. Goods and horses were contributed when a clansman performed a ceremony.

Burial Customs

At death, both the person’s own and the father’s clan had important duties. It is the duty of the members of the father’s clan to take care of, or handle, all of the funeral arrangements. The members of the father’s clan who officiated were selected in advance, sometimes years beforehand. It was the duty of the clan to provide goods, horses, and food for the funeral rites as payment for the official mourners who comprised the adults of the father’s clan. The clan members would begin bringing in the property and displaying it on lines within the lodge where those caring for the sick person and friends coming in for a last visit would see them. It was believed that a lavish display of goods expressed the generosity and solidarity of the clan. The sick person was happy in the belief that in the spirit world he could boast of the goods that had been given away when he died. The clan had no other role when death of a member occurred. Individuals of the father’s clan were in charge of the last rites.

Other duties of the father’s clan included naming ceremonies. Informal feasts were given to the people of the father’s clan from time to time. All through life, the people of the father’s clan offered prayers and sold sacred objects and rites to the clan children, “sons” and “daughters,” and in death they sent the spirit of their clan children away with appropriate rites.

The clan played an important part in uniting households and integrating the village population. It brought together many households for common purposes. It also united households with those of other villages. Visitors from surrounding villages were housed with clansmen, and assisted and participated in the ceremonial activities. A common clans system played an important role in holding the tribal population together and avoiding inter-village warfare.

Kinship System

Kinship plays an important part in the lives of the Hidatsa people. Relatives address each other by the term of relationship instead of by proper names, and each person’s behavior and attitude towards his relatives depended upon the kind of kinship. The requirements for special usage extended beyond blood relationship into larger groups such as clans and moieties. The many loyalties, obligations, and associations of the individual were determined at birth.

Tribal custom laid down certain rules for attitude and behavior toward people of each degree of relationship. Hidatsa kinship influenced behavior of individuals toward each other. For example, a boy could be disciplined by his elder brother and by his mother’s brother. A man could have no conversation with either of his in-laws, or certain of their relatives, but brother-in-law were intimate friends, often exchanging gifts. A man and his sister had great respect and affection for each other, but after puberty they rarely spoke to each other. People whose fathers were of the same clan were expected to chide each other about any weaknesses or breach of a custom.

Among the Mandan and Hidatsa the ideal lodge would include an elderly man and his wives, their unmarried sons and daughters, and the married daughters with their husbands and children. When a lodge became crowded, one of the daughters would build her own lodge and move there with husband and children. The lodge was the property of the women who lived in it. They also owned the household furniture, the tipi, the corn scaffolds, cache pits, dogs, and gardening equipment.

Continue to Societies of the Hidasta and the Mandan...