nd.gov - The Official Portal for North Dakota State Government
North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends
Main Page About Us Contact Us

Cultural Overview - Sahnish Culture - Lifeways

Mandan Culture | Hidatsa Culture | Sahnish Culture

Creation Stories Part 1 | Creation Stories Part 2 | Lifeways |
Ceremonies and Societies | Culture Today


The Sahnish lived in earthlodges that varied in size and purpose. A standard lodge for a family was built using fifteen-foot, hewn logs or beams that form a circular lodge. The center was open to allow light and to vent cooking smoke. The outside was covered with willows and grassed earth. Inside the lodges, beds were placed in the outer circle of the lodge, divided by buffalo robes for privacy. The Sahnish used cone-shaped tipis made of hides for temporary shelters during hunting and food gathering.

These earthlodges formed villages that contained medicine and council lodges where the government and spirituality of the people were conducted and practiced. The villages were built on high ground for protection, usually near a river. Sometimes moats were built with palisades around the villages for protection.

boy drying corn
Boy Drying Corn. Son of Wolf
Chief, drying corn, circa 1914.
(Courtesy of the State Historical
Society of North Dakota, 0086-0343)

The Sahnish were an agricultural tribe and grew crops adapted from their early ancestral homes in the south. The gardens were tended by the women and children. The tobacco crops were tended by the men of the tribe. The Sahnish gardens were vulnerable to insects, drought, and raids of other tribes. This meant the success or failure of their crops could mean celebration or death from starvation. The most important crop to the Sahnish was, and is, corn. From time immemorial, the Sahnish had a special and sacred relationship with “Mother Corn.” It is told by the people that Mother Corn came to the people in a beautiful and mysterious way and taught them the ceremonies that were necessary for their well-being and survival. It was from Her they learned the knowledge and practice of horticulture.

Corn is native only to regions in Mexico, Central and South America which made the migrating Sahnish the most likely tribe to have brought the corn to the regions where it was not previously found. (Weatherford, 1988) Many tribes talked of “Ree” corn and they described the Sahnish people as “corn eaters.” The corn generally grown by the Sahnish was flint corn, a species of corn that is very hardy and grows quickly. It grows in all colors—red, black, blue, yellow, purple, white, and sometimes a single ear has a combination of all these colors. The Sahnish had many varieties of corn. They also brought beans, melons, turnips, onions, watermelon, gourds, sunflowers, squash, pumpkins, and tobacco.

The Sahnish also harvested wild plants such as turnips, onions, tubular (potatoes), celery, pig weed (spinach), milkweed, sunflowers, and many others. They gathered, preserved, and ate June berries, chokecherries, buffalo (bull berries), plums, goose berries, sand cherries, grapes, wild strawberries, and raspberries.

Historians Hyde and Bradbury reported the Sahnish gardens were “as clean and well kept as any farm in Minnesota” and said further “they had not seen, even in the United States, any crop of Indian corn in finer order or better managed, than the corn about these three Sahnish villages.” It must be remembered that these gardens or crops were planted with little more than digging-sticks and animals shoulder-blade hoes. (Hyde, 1959, Bradbury, 1904)

The Sahnish stored their crops in “caches,” which were holes four feet by six feet, sometimes bottle-shaped, with a layer of grass or straw at the bottom and the corn, either in braids or loose, and other vegetables layered on top. They were ceremonially stored and when they were opened for use, ceremonies were again practiced. Brackenridge reported in his 1803 journal that the Sahnish practiced the art of evaporating brine to make salt.

Crops were grown not only for Sahnish consumption, but also for trade with other tribes and white men. They traded for tools, implements, horses, guns, blankets, and they then turned around and traded those items to other tribes for pelts, game, and other needed items. They supplied many of the roving tribes with food staples for hundreds of years.


Sahnish woman making shoes
Sahnish Woman Making
(Courtesy of
the State Historical
Society of North Dakota,

The men generally permitted their hair to grow long and divided it into several braids, matted at intervals, with a white tenacious clay; sometimes rolled up in a ball, and fixed on the top of the head. The Sahnish always had a quantity of feathers. Those of the black eagle are most esteemed. They have a kind of crown of feathers, such as we see represented in the usual paintings of Indians. The swan is the most esteemed for this purpose. Some ornament their neck with necklaces made of claws of the white bear. To their heels they sometimes fastened foxes’ tails, and on their leggings suspended deer hoofs, so as to make a rattling noise as they moved along.

The women, who worked in the gardens, were dressed appropriate for the role in their Sahnish society. The dress of the women consisted of a long robe made of the dressed skins of elk, the antelope, or the agalia, and ornamented with blue beads, and strips of ermine, or in its place, of some white skin. The robe is girded around the waist with a broad belt, highly ornamented with porcupine quills and beads. (Brackenridge, p. 34)

Kinship Systems

To preserve the integrity of the tribe, the Sahnish adhered judiciously to kinship relationships. What non-Indian families refer to as cousins, the Sahnish called their brothers and sisters. Marriage was not acceptable with cousins because they were brothers and sisters among the Sahnish. Aunts and uncles were mothers and fathers. It was not uncommon for children to lose their parents, and if the parents died, aunts and uncles automatically became their parents.

Lewis and Clark said of the Sahnish they were “poor, kind . . . and that kindness extended to all people, but especially orphans and old people.” Some of the ceremonies and societies were specifically directed to care for the needs of the people. For example, in the Buffalo society men were instructed, as part of their ceremony, “to share his last mouthful with his guest.” The Straight Head Society’s primary goal was to “feed and clothe those who were old, poor, or orphaned.”

The Sahnish knew the importance of sanitary conditions and that disease came from unclean living conditions. There were strong indications the Native people lived to a very old age. Warfare and the extreme conditions were their only enemies.


Mrs Sitting Bear scraping hide.
Scraping a Hide at Fort
Mrs. Sitting Bear
(Black Calf Woman) scrapes a
hide at Fort Berthold. (State
Historical Society of North
Dakota, Libby photo, B0127-1)

Hunting wild game was a vital part of their diet, which made successful hunting critical for their survival. The tribe practiced elaborate ceremonies for hunting buffalo, because the buffalo played a crucial part in the social lives of the Sahnish people. Their weapons consisted of guns, war clubs, spears, bows, and lances. The bows are generally made of elk’s horn, two ribs of a buffalo, or of willow or ash.

According to Sahnish elder historians, the ritual of the hunt and who received the meat was as follows: The game went to the person who got to the animal first, not who killed it. He would then take the animal home, butcher it, and divide it among the other hunters. If the kill was divided, the oldest hunter received the first and best piece, which meant the youngest received whatever was left. The person who killed the game received the hide and back. Hunters prayed and made offerings, then ceremoniously ate a small piece of the raw kidney and liver. It is said that the hunter who did so would gain some of the animal’s strength or courage for his act.


One of the staples of trade for the Sahnish was the horse. The Sahnish were thought to have brought the horse from the South where the Spaniards had left them. In 1811, the Astorian party (explorers) reported the Sahnish were outfitted with horses. Horses have been a part of their lives and culture throughout history. The ceremonies and medicines of the horse were known to the Sahnish. During the middle 1900s, many of the families still maintained large herds of horses. Owning horses was discouraged during this time by the government because horses could not be sold or eaten. (Brackenridge, 1904)


During early contact and up until the early 1900s, the Sahnish refused to use alcohol or liquor. It was viewed with disgust when traders offered it to them. According to elder historians, arguments erupted with the traders because the Sahnish would not trade their goods for liquor. Their refusal to trade for alcohol caused the traders to call the Sahnish ornery, cantankerous, or mean.

Continue to Ceremonies and Societies...