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Cultural Overview - Mandan Culture - Origin Story Related by Wolf Chief

Mandan Culture | Hidatsa Culture | Sahnish Culture

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

Origin Story Related by Wolf Chief

Wolf Chief, Hidatsa, secured this information from his Mandan father-in-law, Red Roan Cow, Nuptadi Mandan Chief. For other versions of the creation stories see Martha Warren Beckwith, Mandan-Hidatsa Myths and Ceremonies “Memoirs of the American Folk-Lore Society,” Vol. XXX11 (1938), pp.10–11; Maximilian, Prince of Wied, Travels in the Interior of North America, 1832–1834, in Early Western Travels, ed. Thwaites, XXIII, 312–17; and Catlin, Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians, I, 279–80.

A long time ago the Missouri River flowed
into the Mississippi River and thence into the
ocean. On the right bank there was a high point
on the ocean shore that the Mandan came from.
They were said to have come from under the
ground at that place and brought corn up.
Their chief was named Good Furred Robe. He
had one brother named Cornhusk Earrings and
another younger brother called No Hair on Him
or Head for Rattle after the gourds. They had
a sister named Corn Stalk.

In the early time when they came out of the
ground, Good Furred Robe was Corn Medicine,
and he had the right to teach the other people
how to raise corn. The people of Awigaxa asked
him to teach them his songs so as to keep the
corn and be successful in growing their corn.
Good Furred Robe also had a robe which, if
sprinkled with water, would cause rain to come.

When they came out of the ground, there were
many people but they had no clothing on. They
said, “We have found Ma’tahara.” That was what
they called the river as it was like a stranger.
It is also the word for “stranger.” They went a
short distance and planted corn, even though
they were naked. Then they moved north, and no
one knows the number of years they stopped at
the different places. At last they came to the
place where the river flowed into the ocean.
When they came to the mouth of this river,
they saw people on the other side who could
understand their language and they thought they
were Mandan too. The village on the other side
had a chief whose name was Maniga. It was a very
large village.

At last they came to the place where the
river flowed into the ocean.

– Related by Wolf Chief, Hidatsa, 1938

While they were stopping there, they found that
the people on the other side owned bowls made
of shells. At Good Furred Robe’s village they would
kill the rabbits for the hides. They also killed
the meadowlarks for the yellow crescents. They took
them to the people of the other village to trade for
shell bowls. They would also take the rabbit hides
painted red and trade for the shells.

rabbit

Good Furred Robe also owned a boat that was holy.
It could carry twelve men. Each time they wanted
to trade in the other village, they would take the
red rabbit hides and the yellow meadowlark breasts
and float over. There was a rough place in the
middle, and they would drop some of these objects
into the water, and then the water would calm.

All during this time they had enough corn to live
on, but nothing is told in the traditions about their
clothing. They continued moving up the river until
they came to the mouth of the Missouri River. They
saw many trees on the Mississippi River and decided
to go across and live on the Mississippi. They stayed
in that country for three or four years, all the time
planting corn along the river. They said, “We have
discovered fine evergreen trees, and we have called
them medicine trees since that time.

There were no bows and arrows in those days, and
one of the men made a bow and arrow, practicing
with them and picking out sharp bones with which
to tip the arrows. He also found the sinews that
would stretch the bow. We do not know if they
were eating meat or not at that time. There were
many elk, deer, and beaver on this river, and that
is why they called it Good River. At that time they
found a dead buffalo in a mud hole, and one of them
said that they ought to take the hide off and cut
it into a long string to catch deer with. When they
took the hide off, they cut the strings and twisted
them to dry. Then they made a loop on the end.
They would go out and find deer trails to hang
it in to catch the deer. They made many of these
snares and set them out in many places. They would
find some dead deer and even some elk hanging there.

bow and arrow

After they learned how to do this, they had
plenty of meat to eat with their corn. They
stayed at that place for over ten years. It was
at this time that they learned how to use the bow
and arrows tipped with bone, to kill smaller game.

It was at this time that they learned how to
use the bow and arrows tipped with bone,
to kill smaller game.

Again they moved from there farther up the
Mississippi River until they found a place where
there was much timber but the surrounding land
was flat. They found a flat place where the
timber was not so thick, and there they lived
for six years. At that time they called
themselves Nu’itadi, meaning “from us.” Some of
them were called Nup’tadi (no meaning); another
group was called Awi’gaxa (no meaning). One of
the latter two bands moved from the others under
a chief named Four Bulls and came to a place
where there was much timber. The village after
the split must have been in the western part of
Minnesota not far from Pipestone.

They traveled southward then until they came to
heavy timber and had a big village there. (These
villages were named in the Okipa ceremony, but
the language used was unintelligible to the listener,
as it was an old dialect. The translation was a part
of the secret lore, which passed with bundle sales.)
While there they learned more about bows and arrows
and could shoot even beavers and other game. Then
they had plenty of food. Again they traveled on
through the deep timber and had another village,
staying there for four years. The earthlodges at that
time were of the eagle-trapping type with grass and
dirt covering the sides.

When they stopped there, a man went out looking
for game and followed a creek. He saw some
mud sticking out of a hill, and there was a
spring at that place. The mud was sticky; he
took some of it out and carried it away a short
distance. He left some of it flat on the ground
to dry. When he went back where he had left the
mud, it was hard except that there was one crack.
He thought that there should be some use for that
mud. He thought, “I will get some sand and mix it
with this mud and leave it again. It might be of
some use.” Then he went home again. When he
returned, the mud was still cracked. He thought,
“If I crack some stones and crush them fine to
mix with the clay, It might be better.” He found
some hard stones and put them in the fire to burn
four days. Then he crushed the stones and took the
material to the place where the clay had been left.
He mixed the clay with the crushed stone, shaped it
into a pot, and left it in the sun to dry. Next day
when he went back, he found that it was hard and
could be used. He made many more; some he made
into the shape of spoons. (Spoons have never been
found in Mandan archaeological sites, whereas pots
are abundant). From that time they had pots. After
that they made large ones and baked them to cook
in. The Mandans were the first to discover pottery;
the Hidatsa and other people learned the art from
them. The mud was a special kind, and it was hard to
find. Later they found this clay around the flint
they took out of the tops of hills west of the
Missouri River.

pottery

They stayed there for more than ten years, for
there were many animals suitable for food as
well as good corn grounds. During this time some
of the young men were looking for game, and they
came out of the timber. They could see the flatland
for a great distance, so they thought that they
would move. At first they did not come completely
out of the woods but stayed on the edge.

When they came out of the timber, they had
another large village again. They stayed there a
long time, for there was much game and they had
their gardens in the timber.

When they had the village there, it happened that
they had a dry year. The people who called
themselves Awigaxa made a feast, and they had
some of the women paint their faces and wear
geese on their heads. (The Goose Women’s Society
was founded by Good Furred Robe, and the Corn
Bundle-owner was singer for this society.) First
Creator and Lone Man came at that time. They
asked these people where they came from, and
they replied that they had come up from under
the ground and that they had traveled around
much since then. The two men said, “You seem
to be getting along well here. We came from
the west bank of the Missouri River. We
discovered some prairie dogs in a village there,
but we changed them into humans. We showed them
how to put on the Buffalo Dance, but we see now
that we would rather have you people here put on
that ceremony, for you would be more careful
about giving the dance.”

"We showed them how to put on the
Buffalo Dance, but we see now that
we would rather have you people here
put on that ceremony..."

Then the two men walked off and returned
to the prairie-dog village they had changed
into humans. First Creator and Lone Man had
made the dance for the prairie dogs and, when
they came back, they saw that these people were
not fit to give the dance, for they had left the
drum in an ash pile. They thought, “These people
don’t appreciate the dance, for they are not the
right kind of people to begin with. It would be
much better to take the Buffalo Dance from them.”
The two men took the Buffalo Dance away from the
prairie dogs and gave it to the Mandan. They gave
the prairie dogs a curing ceremony instead. The
Arikara were the prairie-dog people. They have the
Prairie Dog Curing Medicine yet. First Creator and
Lone Man came back to the Mandan village and said,
“We are going to show you the Buffalo Dance.”

They said, “What is it?”

They replied, “It is a good thing for you, and any
time you have a shortage of food, you will pray for
food. This way it will increase your people and bring
you plenty of food.” They showed these people how to
give the ceremony, paint, and dress.

They thought, “How will we paint to make them
good-looking? We might use some of the color of
the snakes; they look nice. It is not a real snake but
the worm on the chokecherry bushes. Between the
shoulders they grow a hook. We will have that
represent the mask and take that color for the
buffaloes. The hook behind will be the buffalo horn
and the branches will be the branches of the worm
nest.”

The people inquired how they would fix up that way
and Lone Man said, “Go out and kill a buffalo; take
all the flesh off the skin and bring the hide to me.”
The people went out and killed a buffalo and brought
the hide to the two men. They called one of the young
men to stand before them. They took the horn off with
the horn core removed. The young man had long hair
hanging down. They put the horn on his back with the
brush over it, reaching over his head and hanging
down nearly to the ground. They painted him on the
chest, legs, and arms with red, black, and white.
All this was representative of this bug in color.
When he was painted, he was very beautiful.

buffalo hide

At this time they had a hide for a drum. They
wanted to practice the songs that belonged to
this drum, but the drum was not very solid. It
would sink into the ground and soon wear out.
Lone Man was doing the drumming, and he said
to First Creator, “You show them how the dancing
is done, and I will do the drumming.” Lone Man
sang the song, and First Creator danced,
stretching his arms out. He danced and showed
the painted man how to dance.

Lone Man said to the people, “You must not touch
this drum, for it is very holy. We are going out to
look for another drum, and will be back after a while.”

They went out, and after a while they came back
with a badger. Even before they had the Buffalo
Dance, Lone Man had a flat stick. Before he touched
the badger, he held the stick up, the badger sank
into the ground.

They said, “The badger has no strength and it is
not suitable.” They went to the beaver, but, before
he ever hit the beaver, the animal sank into the
ground. Each time he held his stick up, the earth
shook. They went out again and came to a turtle.
They asked him but the turtle replied, “I have no
strength or power. I would rather that you went to
the big turtle that is in the ocean. He would be a
better drum, for his life will be so long that he
will last forever. He will be better for the drum.”
When they came to the shore, they found a large
turtle; it was brown. They talked to the turtle
saying, “We are looking for a drum to use in the
dance, and now we need you for the drum.”

Each time he held his stick up,
the earth shook.

The Turtle said, “That is all right. I do not think I
can go myself, but you can look me over and then
make one yourself out of a buffalo hide. When you
fix it that way, I will be there just the same,
for you will be taking the shape of my body. If
you do that, I will last forever.”

turtle

When they returned, they killed a buffalo, took the
hide off of the bull, and made a turtle. They made
the legs out of oak and covered it with a hide
from which the hair had been removed. Then they
painted the outside with red paint. They finished
the turtle, and in two days the hide was all dried
up. First Creator said, “We must pick out a young
man to dance in the costume; you show him how to
dance.” Lone Man made a motion as of striking the
turtle. At the same time there was a noise as if
the earth were cracking and dust came up, but the
turtle was not driven into the earth like the
other animals had been. Then Lone Man said,” That
is the kind of drum we want; it will last forever.
After this if any of you people dream of this dance
or have a dream in which it is a part, then you must
put up this dance. We are not going off right away
but will be around near by.”

He said, “When a young man is dancing, he may
want to smoke the pipe. If you feel like smoking it,
fill it up. I made it out of a green buffalo tail,
bent it on one end to hold the tobacco, and filled it
with sand until it was dry. The men with the buffalo
heads must not touch the pipe. If he wants to smoke,
you hold the pipe while he smokes.”

About this time, Good Furred Robe, who was
always traveling, found a red spot and wondered
what it was. Going there, he saw that it was a stone.
He thought that it might be a good thing to make a
pipe from. Up to this time the people had used black
stones for smoking. He brought the red stone back.
He thought how in the Buffalo Dance they used the
buffalo tail and how it would be a good thing to fix
up the red stone pipe and let them use that. He made
a pipe with no elbow; the hole was in the end.

They had another Buffalo Dance, and one young
man danced. At that time Lone Man came back.
God Furred Robe took the pipe to him and said,
“I saw you using the buffalo tail, and I think
this is better.” Lone Man said, “It looks
pretty, but I am afraid of it, for it is the
color of human blood.”

The Goose Women had put up a feast because the
fields were drying up. Good Furred Robe took the
pipe to them and said, “I have a good pipe here; it
is a nice color. You should use it instead of the
one you have that is not pretty.” They said, “We
are afraid of it because it is the color of human
blood.” The people were wondering where he had
found the red stone, and he took some of them to
the place and showed them where he had found it.
They saw some of the pretty stones and made a
few pipes for their personal use. (Bowers tried
to claim the pipe stone quarries by this story,
but some people did not believe it. Mrs. White
Duck has Good Furred Robe’s skull, but some of
the younger men do not claim it because they are
not familiar with this old story.)

Later three men were traveling around a great deal,
and each time they would get farther and farther.
One time they came to the Missouri River and saw
timber on each side. They reported this to the
people, who thought that it must be a branch of
the river they passed farther to the south. They
decided to move from their village toward the
river. They came to the Missouri River at what
they called White Clay Creek. (This is White River,
which enters the Missouri River below Chamberlain,
South Dakota.) It is below the Cheyenne River
today. The camp was just opposite that river on
the east side.

They built a camp there, and after three years
the Awigaxa disappeared. They thought that the
Awigaxa must have gone up the Cheyenne or
White Clay River to the west. Two years
afterward, about twelve families of the
Awigaxa came back.

They built a camp there, and after three
years the Awigaxa disappeared.

When they came back, they said, “They sent us
back because the people out there do not think
you know the Corn Medicine rites. They asked us
to teach them to you.”

Lone Man came back. He related his dream to
Lone Man, who said, “That is all right. You should
try to put up the ceremony.”

In the dream he had seen the four turtles. They
had eagle feathers on their heads, but Lone Man
said, “It would be hard for you to save that many
feathers. You will have time to save some. Take your
time saving all those feathers. If you think there
are enough for four turtles, call me, and I will hear
even though I am far away.”

He saved all the feathers, knowing that it would
take him a long time. In three or four years he had the
necessary feathers, and then he called Lone Man. They
made three more turtles just like the other one they
had fixed before on the pattern of the ocean turtle.

When the two finished the turtles, they arranged
them in a row, first the small one, then the two
medium-sized ones, and then the large one which
had been made first. Lone Man said, “You should
give them what you can.” It was the speckled eagle
feathers that he was giving them. When he came to
the last one, thinking it would like the calumet
eagle’s feathers best, he decorated it with those
feathers. The one at the head said to the man,
“You did not give me the right kind. That feather
I do not like. For this reason, I am going back to
the water.”

They tried to hold him but could not. He walked
away and went in to the water. They called to Lone
Man to help them. He came back and walked toward
the turtle in the water. He took his lance up,
sang his song, motioning with it at the water
which ran apart. He could see the turtle in the
water. He said, “They gave you the best of all.
What is the matter?”

The turtle said, “That is all right.” Then the
water covered over the turtle again. I was never
at the place (Note: Crows Heart has been to the
spot and says that it is upstream from the mouth
of the Cannonball River at an old village near
Butte without Hair on the east bank. This is
probably the Shermer Site. There is another
Butte without Hair directly opposite on the
west side of the Missouri River.) where it went
into the water, but it was about opposite where
Fort Yates now stands. The place or village is
called “Where Turtle Went Back.”

When Lone Man saw that the turtle was in the water,
he turned around and walked back. Then they started
the ceremony, and Lone Man said, “It is all right,
for there are three left.” They selected a big lodge
and by that time the buffalo masks were taken inside.
Lone Man was there and the Ho’Kaha, a tall blue-gray
bird with a long bill and a short tail (probably the
heron), was in its place.

There were forty families that went out to White
High Butte, now called Sheep Butte. These people
separated from the others over in the woods before
the Mandan reached the Missouri River. There is a
river, which runs north at Minot, North Dakota.
There is a high butte up there called White High
Butte. It is to the north of the Turtle Mountains.
Their chief was Four Bulls, as you recall earlier
in the story. Four Bulls and all his people had
moved up there, building villages along the way
until they reached this spot. Sometime in the
spring they were living there. The Indians would
make a trap of brush and woven hair and put bait
inside. The birds going inside were taken. They
birds were fat and good to eat. In the spring a
young man, not knowing any better, pulled all the
feathers off one of the birds and stuck one of
the feathers through the bird’s bill and nostrils.
There were four medicine men there named Spring
Buffalo, Winter Buffalo, Middle of the Summer
Buffalo, and Autumn Buffalo.

At the time of the young men in the village went
out and caught young buffalo calves and brought
them into the village. It was customary to blow up
the entrails to dry. The young men blew up some,
dried them, putting them over the calves’ heads and
telling them to go. When the Lone Man created these
birds, he had them represent the water by the little
spots under their wings. The four medicine men were
angry at the way the calves were treated. The birds
were angry too. They caused rain to fall for a long
time. The water kept rising, getting nearer and
nearer to the villages. The people called for Lone
Man, saying that the water was coming and covering
them. He fixed up the sticks in a circle with a water
willow around them. When he finished, he took all the
people of the village into the corral around the
village. The four medicine men changed into buffaloes.
They had a younger brother who was the magpie.

bison

When the water began to cover the village, they
started to swim to the Missouri. Magpie had a string
around his neck, which held the corn. One of the
buffaloes was exhausted and said, “In the future
there will be plenty of buffalo here and people can
come here and hunt them.” Then there were three.
After a while one more of them was exhausted, and,
before sinking, he said, “In the future there will
be plenty of buffaloes if the people come here,”
and he sank.

A third one became exhausted, and he said, “In
the future if people come here they will find plenty
of buffaloes,” and then he sank. There was one buffalo
left, and he was swimming along. He saw a high butte
in front of him. It was Birds Bill Butte (also known
as Eagle Nose Butte) and he swam toward it. He was
completely exhausted when he reached the butte.

Back where Lone Man had the people in the corral,
they were saved by the power of the corral. He
said, “This cedar and corral is my protector. From
this time on, you will always have it.” The Mandan
under Good Furred Robe traveled northward along the
Missouri River until they reached the Heart River,
where they joined the others whom Lone Man and
First Creator had created at that place. At this
time the flood was coming. These people built a
large corral south of the Heart River on Eagle Nose
Butte where they also were safe from the flood.

The Mandan under Good Furred Robe
traveled northward along the Missouri River
until they reached the Heart River.

– Wolf Chief, Hidatsa, 1938

The Awigaxa did not have the turtles and cedar
to protect them, for they had the Corn to worship.
While living on the White Clay Creek and Cheyenne
River, the Awigaxa became separated. The group not
having the Corn ceremonies was lost while making
sinews near the Black Hills. Before the flood, the
others came back to the Missouri River, for the
river bottoms were not so large where they had
been and not much corn could be grown. They built
large villages at the mouth of the Cheyenne,
Moreau, and other streams until they reached the
mouth of the Grand River. At this time they had
corn rites, but there is no mention of the Okipa
or the sacred cedar.

When word reached the people who were living
at the Grand River that a great flood was coming,
they must not have had a sacred cedar since those
who remained in their villages were drowned while
those who escaped to the Rocky Mountains were saved.
After the waters had retreated, those in the
mountains planted corn out there, but the seasons
were too short and the yields were small. The
people wanted to return to the Grand River, but
other people were living there. Scouts sent out
reported that the other Mandan who had lived on the
west bank of the Missouri near Painted Woods had left
their village, the ruins of which were still standing,
to seek shelter in a large corral built by Lone Man
near the Heart River. The people decided to move from
the mountains and built a village near Painted Woods
at a spot where there was much wood.

While living in this village called Awigaxa, Lone Man
and First Creator came along and found them.
They came along when the water was high during
the spring floods and told the people that higher
floods might come and that they should have
something to protect them. Some of the people
thought it would be easier to escape to the
mountains, since it took so much goods to perform
the Okipa and the rites at the sacred cedar. Others
thought that it was more costly to travel so far.
Still others thought that the cedar would be useful
for other purposes. Lone Man sent a young man a
dream in which he saw the buffaloes dancing at the
sacred cedar, and the old men interpreted the dream
to mean that they should give the Okipa. Some thought
that goods should be paid in large quantities equal
to the inconvenience of moving to the mountains, and
from this time the Awigaxa were the most liberal of
the villages in supplying goods for the ceremonies.
Lone Man and First Creator came and taught young
men who were brave and intelligent how to impersonate
the different characters. There were more people in
the ceremony than when the other Mandan were taught
the ceremony while living far to the southeast.

Even the Awaxawi and Awatixa who were living on
the Missouri at that time came to make offerings
and to fast. The Hidatsa must not have come south
yet from the place where they had gone to escape the
flood, for nothing is said of them in the old story.
After the Okipa ceremony was given, the people were
very lucky because there were so many more gods to
protect them. Because the people were so lucky,
when the wood was exhausted at one place, they
built another village near by. No bad luck came to
them until smallpox was brought in by the white
men.
(Bowers, 1991, pp. 156–163 reprint)

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