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Cultural Overview - Mandan Culture - Introduction & Origin Narrative Told by Foolish Woman, Mandan/Hidatsa

Mandan Culture | Hidatsa Culture | Sahnish Culture

Intro & Origin by Foolish Woman | Origin by Wolf Chief |
Lifeways | Ceremonial Life

Mandan Creation Narratives

There are a number of accounts about the Mandan migration. Some accounts tell of the Mandan being created at the Heart River while others tell of a migration from the Gulf of Mexico along the Missouri, and from the Southeast. One narrative tells of when Lone Man (Mandan term for Creator) made the land around the Heart River, and he also made the land to the south as far as the ocean. He made fish people, eagle people, bear people, corn people, buffalo people, and others whose history was translated into accounts of the sacred bundles.

Origin Narrative Told by Foolish Woman, Mandan/Hidatsa

There are four written and recorded versions of the Mandan origin narrative. First Creator and Lone Man—Version 2—Told by Foolish Woman, Mandan/Hidatsa, at Independence on July 11, 1929, follows:

In the beginning the whole earth was covered
with water. Lone Man was walking on top of
the waves. He thought to himself, “Where did
I come from?” So he retraced his footsteps on
the top of the water and he came to a bit of
land jutting out of the water. He saw a plant
called “big medicine” that grows in the marsh
two or three feet high with flat white blossoms
that come out in the spring. One branch was
broken and hung at the side. At the broken place
he saw drops of blood and thought, this must be
my mother. As he looked about he saw an insect
called “Tobacco Blower” flying about the plant
and he thought, this insect must be a father to me.

He thought to himself,
“Where did I come from?”

He walked further on the water and saw in the
distance an object that he found to be a mud hen.
The First Creator came to the same place. “How
do you come to be wandering about here?” First
Creator said, “I have been considering that you
and I should create some land.” Lone Man agreed.
They asked the mud hen what food it had for its
nourishment. The bird told them, “I dive under
the water and there is land and I eat the dirt
down there.” They said “Dive down and bring us
a sample. Some time later the bird came up with
a little mud. Four times it dived and still there
was only enough to fill one hand. Lone Man rolled
it into a ball and gave half to First Creator and
kept the other half. He said.

“We will make a dividing point and leave a river
and you may choose which side you will create.”
First Creator chose the south side. Lone Man took
the north.

First Creator made some places level, ranges of
hills, mountains, springs, timber and coulees
with running water. He created buffalo—made them
all black with here and there a white one. He
created Rocky Mountain sheep, deer, antelope,
rattlesnakes—all the animals that exist here.

Lone Man created mostly flat land with many lakes
and ponds grown with bulrushes and few trees.
He created cattle—some white, some spotted, some
red, some black—with long horns and tail, and the
animals like the badger and beaver that live in
the water and the duck and geese that swim on the
water, also the sheep of today.

Then they met on the north side of the river
and reviewed the creation they completed. Both
believed his creation to be the better. They
examined first what First Creator had made and
Lone Man said the land was too rough. First Creator
said, “No, I did this for the safety of the creatures.
When they are in danger from a hard winter, they will
have protection in the timber and shelter in the
coulees. He showed him the tribes of people that he
had made (the Indians).

“No, I did this for the safety of the
creatures. When they are in danger from
a hard winter, they will have protection..."

But Lone Man was displeased with First Creator’s
work. He showed him how level the land was on
the north side of the river, with lakes, scattered
boulders and treeless, so that the eye could see
far away. First Creator was dissatisfied. He said,
“In the winter there is no protection, in time of
war, there will be no place to hide.” “No,” argued
Lone Man, “They can see the enemy far away and hide
in the bulrushes beside the lakes. He pointed out
the beauty of the cattle. First Creator found them
too weak to pull through the winter, with too little
fur, too long horns compared with the protection of
the buffalo against the cold. So he disapproved of
Lone Man’s creation.

It was agreed to let the people live first on the
creation of First Creator then the generations to
come should live on the cattle created by Lone
Man. Lone Man’s cattle should drift back to the far
east where he had created people, who should
come westward later and inhabit the land with
the first people.

Of the dirt from the ball some had been left over
and this they placed in the center of the created
land and formed a heart-shaped butte which they
called “The-heart-of-the-land,” to be seen to this
day near the city of Mandan near the Heart River.
Still some mud was left over. This they took across
the river opposite to Bird’s Beak Hill below Bismarck
on the north side of the river, and this butte they
called “Land.”

They wandered upon the land and one said, “I
think I am older.” The other said, “No, I think I
am the older of us two.” They laid a bet. Lone Man
had a stick strung with a sinew to which goose
feathers were tied at intervals. This he stuck in
the ground. (If he drew it forth before the other
was dead he must acknowledge himself defeated).
Lone Man wandered off, and the next year when
he came back to the spot he found nothing but a
skeleton. The bow was worn and weathered. He
came back from year to year. The fourth year
there was not a feather left on his bow, and
where First Creator lay, the grass grew tall.
Lone Man said, “Why leave my bow any longer? He
will never get up now!” He took his bow, sang a
song, and it was as new as ever. As he walked
away, First Creator got up, shook himself, and
was fresh as ever. Lone Man looked at him and
he was Coyote.


They separated again and wandered apart. Lone
Man went on his way and thought, I have nothing
to carry. If I had a pipe and tobacco it would
be fine! He saw a buffalo lying down. As he
approached, the buffalo was about to run away,
but he called out, “do not run, it is I!” He asked
the buffalo what it could do for him in this matter.
The buffalo passed water and tramped about in a
coulee and told him to return at this time of year
and he would hear a sound and find his tobacco
growing. Sure enough the next year he heard a
buzzing sound and there was a tobacco plant
growing with a tobacco blower buzzing about it.
Buffalo instructed him that the best part grew next
to the bud and to dry it he should lay it on buffalo
hair taken at the shoulder and put it to dry in the
sun. For the bowl he should use oak, for the stem
box elder. This was meant to indicate that the land
on the south side of the river was male, that on the
north side female. “I have nothing to light my pipe
with,” said Lone Man—“Go over there to an old man
on the side of the hill, he will give you a light
for the pipe,” said Buffalo. This old man was the
burning lignite. Lone Man was on his way. The
Mandan people originated at the mouth of this
river way down at the ocean. On the north side
of the river was a high bank. At its foot on
the shore of the ocean was a cavern, - that is
where the Mandan people came out. The chief’s
name was Ka-ho-he, which means the scraping
sound made by the corn stalks swaying back and
forth and rubbing each other with the sound
like a bow drawn across a string. Ko-i-roh-kte
was the sister of the chief. The name means the
testing of the squash seeds. When they plant squash,
to test the seed they wrap the seed in dead grass
and keep it moist. The brother’s name was Na-c-i.
This is the name of a little animal the size of
a prairie dog and quite a traveler, which has a
yellow streak over the nose from cheek to cheek,
but changes color in the fall. In this boy’s
system was the spirit that travels far.

The Mandan people originated at the mouth of this river way down at the ocean. –Told by Foolish Woman at Independence, July 11, 1929

Somehow Na-c-i got up on the surface of the
land. He went back and told his elder that the
land below was not to be compared with that he
had seen. He asked the people to come up and
inhabit the earth. They found a vine hanging down
and that was where they came up. A good number
had already emerged when a young girl, big with
child, insisted on coming out and she was so heavy
that she broke the vine and fell back into the cavern...

Lone Man happened to come to their village and
saw that these people were advanced, for they
were tilling gardens. Lone Man thought “those are
real people, I will manage to be born among them.”
A man and a woman had a daughter who was a virgin.
The father was a leading man in the village. Lone
Man chose their daughter for his mother. So one
day when they went to work in their gardens by
the river bank, the girl went to the river to
drink and there she saw a drowned buffalo
drifting close to shore. Where the skin was
broken she could see the fat of the kidneys
sticking out. She drew the buffalo to shore,
fastened it by the feet, and ate of the fat of
the kidney. This was really Lone Man, and this
is how she conceived by him. She came back and
told her parents about the buffalo, but when
they ran gladly to the shore, they could find
no trace of it—only a loop tied to the bank.
They thought no further about it, but as the
months went by and they began to notice that
she was with child. When the mother questioned
the daughter, she said she had known no man and
could not tell how she had got in this condition.

When the time came, the daughter delivered a
baby boy. The father had not believed that the
girl had met no man, but as the child was born,
there was a light which shone through a hole in
the sky. From year to year, the boy grew stronger
and wiser. He was looked upon as unusual. He grew
faster than most children. As he grew to manhood,
he was looked upon as a leader. In times of hunger,
he caused the herds of buffalo to come near the
lodges so that they had meat to eat. When they
planted corn, he would cause it to rain so that
the land had moisture and the people had plenty
of corn.

“When they planted corn, he would cause
it to rain so that the land had moisture
and the people had plenty of corn.”

There were evil beings born into the tribe where
he was and when they grew up, they wanted to rule
the village and they schemed against him to bring
about his destruction. He made a boat called
“self-going” that went by itself. They would get
in this boat and cross over to an island, whose
chief was named Ma-ni-ke. Only twelve people
could go in this boat, if more went the trip was
unlucky. They would carry offerings, as between
the mouth of the river and this island there
were obstacles to contend with. In one place
was a whirlpool, in another the waves were high.
They offered sacrifices in order to escape the
whirlpool and calm the waves. At the island the
chief would give them beaked shells of many
colors in exchange for presents. These shells
they used for earrings. Mata-pahu-tou—
Shell-nose-with—is the name the Indians give
these abalone shells.

One day twelve men were going on a journey,
then Lone Man came along and jumped in the
boat. They tried to make him leave, but he said
he had heard so much about the feasting on the
island that he wanted to go along. When they
reached the whirlpool, Lone Man was asleep.
They were afraid and woke him. He got up, reached
out and picked up the objects that had been
offered in sacrifice and said, “These are just
what I want!” Then he took his bow, smoothed it,
and commanded the water to be still. Then he
stilled the whirlpool and the high waves. The
people said, “When we land on the island, they
people usually get up a feast and make us eat
everything they set before us and nearly kill us.”
So he took a reed by the river and with a stick
ran through the points and inserted the reed through
his system so that as he sat at the feast, it would
reach down to the fourth strata of the earth. He
ordered the men to eat only what they wished as the
plate was passed at the feast, and let it come last
to him and he would empty the whole down the reed.
So it happened. There was a great feast. They were
brought into a great lodge nearly filled with food
and were not allowed to leave anything. They sat
about in a half moon shape and ate. When all had
eaten their fill they placed the pot before him
and he emptied its contents down his mouth. In no
time they had cleaned out the whole works.

As they left the island, the chief said, “In four
years I will come and visit your village.” He meant
to destroy them with water. Lone Man told the people
to weave a barricade about the village and hold it
together with young cottonwood trees. He brought all
the people inside the barricade and when the water
came, it only went as far as the cottonwood tree
barricade. In the water there were what looked like
people and those inside the barricade would throw
offerings and the people in the water would pass
the shells over. (Beckwith, 1937:7–13)

Continue to Origin Story Related by Wolf Chief...