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Cultural Overview - Hidatsa Culture - Societies of the Hidasta and the Mandan

Mandan Culture | Hidatsa Culture | Sahnish Culture

Creation Narrative | Lifeways | Societies | Present Day

Societies of the Hidasta and the Mandan

The purpose of societies was mainly to provide opportunity for visiting, feasting, and dancing with a group of people of the same sex. The distinctive features of each society were characterized by a series of songs and a dance, peculiar forms of rattles and other instruments, certain articles of dress and adornment, a specified face and body painting, and hair dress. Society traits were borrowed freely from tribe to tribe and functions were purchased. Though not primarily concerned with the supernatural, a few societies contained sacred elements; most evident is the buffalo-calling dance of the White Buffalo Cow Society of the Mandan and Hidatsa.

Mandan and Hidatsa societies were graded according to age of members. The members of any one society tended to be about the same age. When they became older, they sold their membership in that society and bought membership in the next higher society. Most societies had a leader, and a set number of singers, waiters, and pipe-bearers. In several cases, the acceptance of an emblem, such as a special kind of lance, obligated the owner to behave in a certain way in battle. Two officers in the Hidatsa Black Mouth Society carried “raven lances” into battle. If one was pursued by the enemy, he was to plant the lance in the ground and fight beside it until killed, or until a fellow tribesman pulled up the lance.

There was a society especially for pre-adolescent boys to hunt as soon as they were able. Boys began fasting at the age of nine.

Since kinship ties were strong in these cultures, any adult had responsibilities far beyond the ties of his household. Both men and women had duties to perform for their relatives in matters of marriage, burial, society entry, bundle feasts, and religious rites. Ceremony took up a good deal of the time of the adult Mandan and Hidatsa.


The Mandan and Hidatsa were making pottery as far back as their villages can be traced by archaeology, and continued to do so up to the time of the 1837 epidemic. The art was declining because of the introduction of more durable metal pots and pails by traders.

They used paint to decorate robes, tipi covers, rawhide packing cases, scabbards, shields, drums, and shirts. The usual tint was earth colored and some vegetable colors. Commercial paints became available through traders by the 1800s. The designs were of two styles—the men usually had life forms and women used geometric designs. Men often painted their war exploits and figures of horses. Their paintings were dominated by fighting men. They often painted symbols of their bundle rights on their robes.

Baskets were made of the inner bark of willow and of box elder on a frame of willow sticks. Three colors were available—a reddish brown, blacks, or white—the basic colors of the willows and the box elder. These baskets were used for carrying corn and other plant products, and often used as a measure of commerce.

Articles of clothing were made of tanned deer and elk skin and were often decorated with colored quills and later beads. The porcupine quills were usually dyed with vegetable dyes at first then aniline dyes brought by traders.

Men painted and made their own weapons, society regalia, musical instruments, and ceremonial equipment. In primitive times they made projectile points, knives, and drills from stone. A few individuals had learned to melt glass, using the blue beads brought by the traders, and pour it into clay forms to make plain, but highly prized, pendants.


Certain games were restricted to men, women, and children—other games were not. When adults played games they were likely to bet heavily; gambling on games of chance, guessing, and skill was noted by most travelers who went among the tribes. Gambling was an annoyance to missionaries and government agents. Most games were played only at fixed seasons. This was because of weather conditions or the mythical associations of the games.


The circular huts described by Alexander Henry measured ninety feet from the front door to the opposite side. The whole space was first dug out to a depth of about two feet below the surface. In the center was a fireplace, about five feet square, dug out about two feet below the surface. The lower part of the hut was constructed by erecting strong posts about six feet out of the ground and set at equal distances from each other. Upon these were laid logs as large as the posts to form the circle. On the outside were placed pieces of split wood, seven feet long, in a slanting position, one end resting on the ground and the other leaning against the cross logs. Upon these beams rested rafters the thickness of a man’s leg, twelve to fifteen feet long, slanting enough to shed water, and laid so close that they touched each other. Four large posts in the center of the lodge supported four, square beams on which the upper end of the rafters were laid.

Mandan Earthlodge. This replica of an earthlodge illustrates
the type of dwelling used by early Mandans. (Photo by Neil Howe)

At the top there was an opening about four feet square which served for chimney and window. There was no other opening to admit light, and when it rained even this opening was closed. The whole roof was well thatched with willows, laid onto a thickness of six inches or more, fastened together in a very compact manner and well secured to the rafters. Over the whole hut was spread about a foot of earth. Around the wall to the height of three feet or more, earth was laid to the thickness of about three feet, for security in case of attack and for warmth in winter. The door was five feet broad and six high, made of raw buffalo hides, stretched on a frame and suspended from one of the beams that formed the circle. Every night the door was barricaded with a long piece of timber supported by two stout posts on the inside of the hut, one on each side of the door. A covered porch, seven feet wide and ten feet long, extended from the door. (Loundsberry, 1917, p. 82)


Men of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes wore hard-soled moccasins with soft tanned uppers that were quilled or beaded. They also wore leggings of skin or trade cloth that came high on the hip on the outside and there fastened to the belt. A strip of quill or beadwork was fastened along the seam, at the outer edges of the leggings. Shirts of soft skin, usually antelope, deer, or mountain sheep, were worn mostly for dress occasions. The shirts in primitive times were of poncho type, made of two skins with the rear parts of two hides forming front and back, and the front parts of the hides forming the sleeves. The buffalo robe was part of the attire of every man and every woman.

Mandan woman; image showing dress.
Mandan Woman. (Drawing by
George Catlin, State Historical
Society of North Dakota, 970.1
C289i V.1)

Women’s moccasins were not much different from men’s. Women’s leggings were shorter, reaching from ankle to just below the knee. Dresses were also of a poncho style, alike in front and back. Generally, the front end of the animal skin was used to form the bottom of the dress and the hind legs to extend out to form the sleeves. Finer dresses included fringes of skin with bits of hoof attached and sewn on the sleeves and at the bottom hem. This gave a pleasant rattling sound when the women moved about. Some dresses were decorated with elk teeth; later cowry shells and carved bits of bones were used.

Ceremonial and war clothing worn by men was unlimited. Each society had different gear according to the office held by the individual. War clothing worn by the men was often determined by his dreams. Certain dances and ceremonies not associated with the societies required elaborate costumes and sometimes masks. A number of designs and colors were used in painting the face and body. Colored clays were used in primitive times and were never replaced by the trade product. Paintings were symbolic. A good example of this was the Okipa ceremonial impersonators. These types of clothing described were rapidly being replaced by European style clothing as early as 1850. (Schulenberg, 1956, pp.64–65)

No single institution had more devastating effects on the culture of the Three Tribes and other tribes in the state than did the fur trade. They began to build log cabins instead of their native earthlodges as it took the same amount of logs to build. The native technology was lost when homemade goods were replaced by Euro-American substitutes. Trade goods were transported by the ton on fur trade company steamboats. Those natives, skilled in making strictly Indian implements, died in the numerous disease epidemics that often killed the tribes on the northern plains. When sheet metal, files and chisels, metal pots, glass beads, and cloth were brought into the area, the tribes used these materials instead of the goods they had made themselves. Metal pots took the place of clay pots. Sheet metal was cut and sharpened to make spear and arrow points instead of chipped stones. Glass beads of many colors replaced fine stitchery and the flattened and dyed porcupine quills used as clothing decorations. Cloth was used to make clothes and blankets, replacing tanned hides.

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