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Cultural Overview - Mandan Culture - Lifeways

Mandan Culture | Hidatsa Culture | Sahnish Culture

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


The Mandans moved very little since prehistoric contact. Their basic culture changed very little except for changes when the horse and European trade goods were acquired. They were semi-sedentary having rich material wealth setting them apart from the nomadic buffalo hunters of the plains.

Extensive archaeological studies correlate traditions of both the Mandan and Hidatsa migrations and residence on the Missouri River. Their economy was based on agriculture and hunting. They hunted buffalo and small game on foot. The Mandans planted mainly corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers on their bottomland farms. They were a people who consistently planned ahead and who stored their agricultural products to sustain them during the lean years.

They commonly transmitted sacred property through the matrilineal line. The Mandans preserved their ceremonial structure with minor variations after the smallpox epidemic. The clan system and age-grade organization was modified to meet the new conditions of a reduced population.

Although each permanent Mandan village was a separate economic, social, and ceremonial unit, the villages were not entirely independent. The turtle drums, which were considered the most sacred objects of the tribe, were held by the Nuptadi band of East-side Mandan. The sacred cedar in the center of each village was a symbol of village unity, and the Mandan considered the turtle drums a symbol of tribal unity. The other villages were able to borrow them for ceremonial purposes.

The Mandan played an important role in the growth of Plains culture. Because of their central position in the Central Plains, the high development in trade for agricultural products with their neighbors, and the admitted borrowing by the Hidatsa of many significant elements of their culture. They were a sustaining force of Missouri River economy and culture.


The Mandan earthlodge villages were comprised of a mass of circular houses from forty to ninety feet in diameter, closely crowded together. The houses were of earth with a smooth coating of pounded clay on the top, where most of the inhabitants were usually stationed. Before each house was a scaffold, fronting the covered entrance. These scaffolds were six feet high, twenty feet long and ten feet broad and were used for hanging up corn and meat to dry. They had a good floor, which was covered with drying beans. The stage for drying corn and meat was as follows: posts were set up on the scaffolds themselves, across these rafters were laid, and upon these cross rafters or poles the corn, meat, and sliced squashes were hung. Before almost every house were one or more poles about twenty feet high, to which images of the gods or sacrifices to them were attached.

Cache pit, similar to one used by the Mandan Indians.
Cache Pit. Cache pits sometimes
contained twenty to thirty bushels
of beans and corn where it kept
for several years. (Photo by
Gwyn Herman)

The sedentary character of the Mandans and the fact that they practiced agriculture led to the development among them of several culture features not found among the purely hunting tribes. In common with most sedentary tribes they made use of caches or storage pits. Henry gives a description of them saying that, in the fall after harvest, the corn was dried, shelled, and put in deep pits. These were about eight feet deep, with a mouth just wide enough for a person to get in; the inside was hollowed out larger and the sides and bottom were lined with straw. The cache contained twenty to thirty bushels of beans and corn where it kept for several years. (Will, Spinden, p. 110)

Marriage Customs

The parents arranged marriages among the Mandan, though this does not mean that the young people’s wishes were disregarded. Divorce was not difficult. Elopement even of married people did not cause much of a stir unless both parties had children. A man who lost his wife by elopement would usually receive gifts from the relatives of the man who had taken his wife. He was expected to give his unfaithful wife fine new clothes and a horse, to show that he was above jealousy over a woman.

Marriage ceremonies were complex and depended on the social status of the families involved. The Mandan, with their long history of stable life, had what amounted to class distinction. Families who owned important medicine bundles and rights in ceremonies were of importance to the tribe as a whole. A wedding of the highest order involved a ceremony in which the groom gave away many valuable presents to people owning rights in this father’s bundle. The bride’s parents gave the young man an albino buffalo skin that at the end of the ceremony was disposed of according to which bundle was owned by the father.

There were distinct words for the different kinds of marriage. Another class of marriage was the groom’s father presented the bride’s parents some horses. If the bride’s parents approved of the marriage, they gave her the horses and she gave them to her brothers. Her brother then gave her an equal or greater number of horses, which she presented to her father-in-law. Then the girl’s mother and her brothers’ wives prepared a feast that they took to the groom’s lodge and left there. His relatives feasted with the young couple, and the women among them brought presents that were picked up by the bride’s female relatives when they came back for the empty pots and bowls after the feast.

The Kinship System

Mandan clans were organized groups and elected a leader who acted in an advisory capacity, usually an older person who had been successful in warfare or in hunting. The clan was a property-holding group. It was the duty of the clan to assist its own members, to care for orphaned children and its old people having no blood children. Older people were invited to be fed and clothed by younger members of their own clan. The clan was the medium for the transfer of property when a family died without leaving descendants.

The social structure of the Mandan was based on clan membership. The Mandan and Hidatsa are the only tribes in North Dakota who have a two-part hereditary division. The Mandan and Hidatsa members were related by blood, clan, and marriage.

The Mandans described their groups or moieties (a moiety is a combination of clans) as “East side” comprised of seven clans: Prairie Chicken, Speckled Eagle, Bear, Red Hill, Crow, Badger, and Bunch of Wood Clans; and “West side” consisting of six clans: Waxi’kEna, Tami’siK, Tami’xixiKs, and three extinct clans. The terms “East side” and “West side” referred to the positions the members took in the ceremonial lodge during the Okipa ceremony. The East side clans erected their side of the lodge and placed yellow corn in each post hole. The West side clans erected the west side of the ceremonial lodge and placed small mats of buffalo hair in the central post holes of their side. The Okipa, or ceremonial lodge, occupied a position on the north side of the village open circle, with the entrance facing the sacred cedar. All clans participated in the construction of the ceremonial lodge.

Before the smallpox epidemic of 1837, the moieties could not marry anyone belonging to the same moiety. Moiety also decided the division of buffalo killed in the old-time way; each had a leader for this activity. There was considerable rivalry between moieties in seeking war honors.

There were thirteen clans. Of the thirteen clans, nine have become extinct. The WaxikEna and Tamisik constitute one moiety and the Prairie Chicken and Speckled Eagle make up the other moiety. The major bundles of the Okipa ceremony were held in the WaxiEna Clan, which also owned the sacred cedar Lone Man shrine and controlled the Okipa lodge and sacred turtles. (Bowers pg. 45–57)

Kinship terms applied to members of the biological family who also were a part of clan and moiety groups. The entire tribe was classified as relatives and treated as such.

Each village was divided into a series of matrilineal (inheriting or determining descent through the female line), exogamous (marriage outside the tribe), nontotemic clans grouped into moieties (one or two units into which a tribe is divided). Each clan was composed of one or more lineages that were closely associated with the lodge groups. In Mandan theory the lodge group was based on matrilineal descent and matrilocal (residence with the wife’s family) and consisted of several families held together by women.

Lodges belonged to the women occupying the lodge. The lodge holdings, also belonging to the female, included the corn scaffold, storage pits, cooking utensils, bedding, dogs, harnesses, mares and colts, gardens, and gardening equipment. Geldings and stallions belonged to the men.

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