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Three Affiliated Tribes Government - Traditional Government - Hidatsa Traditional Governance

Traditional Government | Modern Three Affiliated Tribes Government

Mandan Traditional Governance | Hidatsa Traditional Governance | Sahnish Traditional Governance

Hidatsa Traditional Governance

The Hidatsa used the term “chief” to name anyone who by virtue of his authority at any particular moment was recognized as leader of a group of people. This term applied whether a segment of the village group, a village group, or the entire population of the three villages and could include other organized groups as might be residing with the people at that time. (Bowers, p. 26) A head chief and a council of twelve lesser chiefs, according to one authority, were elected when the wild roses bloomed. Their election depended upon war honors.

For mutual defense against common enemies, around 1797 or 1798, the three Hidatsa villages of Hidatsa Proper, Awatixa, and Awaxawi, established a tribal council composed of the most distinguished war leaders of each village. Council membership totaled ten, with the head chiefs of Hidatsa and Awatixa as additional members. (Bowers, p. 27) Their duties were confined primarily to general matters concerning warfare and the mutual assistance of the villages. They made peace with neighboring villages and discouraged efforts of the enemy to make alliances with one village and not the other. This council continued until the three village groups united to build Like-A-Fishhook Village in 1845. (Bowers, p. 28)

The council of ten, before the smallpox epidemic of 1837, were outstanding individuals, respected primarily for their good judgment and military accomplishments. They were members of their respective village councils from which they received their authority. When a member died or lost prestige, they did not fill the position until the next year at the time of the summer buffalo hunt and the Naxpike ceremony. Regular meetings were not held. If one of the members had something to discuss with another, a feast was prepared and they discussed the matter at that time. On other occasions, as when a pipe bearer arrived to arrange a peace treaty or the peaceful admission of his band for trading, the council met to learn the attitude of the people. The council would refuse to discuss matters with young men of an enemy tribe, knowing such an arrangement did not carry the authority of the band leaders.

One such incident occurred as reported in Alexander Henry’s journal of 1806: “About thirty Big Bellies [Hidatsas] arrived on horseback, at full speed; they brought an interpreter with them. This party consisted of some of the principal war chiefs, and other great men, who did not appear well pleased, but looked on the Pawnees [Arikara] with disdain. After some private consultation they desired the Arikara to return immediately to their own villages and to inform their great war chief, Red Tail, that if he sincerely wished for peace he must come in person, and then they would settle matters, as they were determined to have nothing to do with a private party of young men.” (Henry, 1897, p. 335, in Bowers, 1992, p. 29)

One’s position and prestige in the council was slowly attained involving a complex process of preparation and training. Leaders selected were those who displayed high respect for age as suggested by their attitude toward their older brothers and fathers, and how they expressed their attitude toward the council. One who had distinguished himself as a leader frequently did not attend meetings until they called him in to render an opinion or to help in solving some difficult problem. All subgroups and households had a voice in decisions. They discussed important matters for quite a time so that all households had an opportunity to express an opinion. (Bowers, pp. 40–42)

During the period 1837–45, the two Hidatsa bands, Awaxawi and Awatixa, joined the Nuitadi Mandan because they were so few in numbers. This was done for protection from the Sioux. These three groups organized a council headed by the Hidatsa Chief, Four Bears, son of Two Tails of the original council, who was then the most distinguished war leader. Four Bears was entrusted with the physical defense of the people, and Missouri River was selected to organize the ceremonies of establishing the new village at the Like-a-Fishhook Bend.

Head Chiefs

The top leaders in 1845 when they built Like-A-Fishhook Village were: Missouri River, Four Bears, and Big Hand. Missouri River, from Awatixa, was village chief and keeper of the Waterbuster Clan Bundle. Four Bears, from Awatixa, was war chief and owner of rights in Daybreak and Sunset Wolf ceremonial Bundles. Big Hand, from Awaxawi, was first creator impersonator and announcer for the chiefs.

Spiritual Protectors of the People

Big Cloud (Fat Fox), from Awaxawi, was Thunder Bundle owner and protector of the East; Bear-Looks-Out, from Awaxawi, was owner of the Old-Woman-Who-Never-Dies Bundle and protector of the South; Bobtail Bull, from Awatixa, was Thunder Bundle owner and protector of the West; Bad Horn, from Hidatsa, was owner of the Bear Bundle and protector of the North and Big Hand, from Awaxawi, was village announcer.

This group was entrusted with the spiritual protection of the village. Four Bears, the war chief, took no part in the ritual organization of the village other than outlining the limits of the area on which lodges were to be built.

The council continued to be the principal policy-making body. Any chief could call a council meeting merely by preparing a feast for its members. The council was selected from the population at large without regard to original village origin. The only qualification was in the age group above that of Black Mouths and had distinguished himself in warfare or had participated in recognized ceremonial and social activities. Until the Nuptadi Mandan joined the earlier population at Fishhook, one large Black Mouth society functioned to preserve order until the population went to winter camps. The society then broke into separate camp segments based on their original village ties.

Under the direction of the council, they fortified the village. They obtained and rung a large bell each day by a Black Mouth Society member to announce that the gates were open for the horses to go to pasture. The bell was rung again in the evening to announce gate closing, and people should come in from their work. Once the gate closed, they guarded all sections of the village to keep out intruders, and only those whom they could identify were admitted. Unauthorized war parties were forbidden to leave.

A chief had little or no authority apart from the council of which he was a member. His principal authority was derived from his ability as an orator to persuade the council of older men to give consent to his opinions. He was never demoted. Younger ones who had distinguished themselves replaced the older man in public esteem. A chief’s greatness was based on how long his opinions were accepted above others. He was expected to conform strictly to all village and tribal custom.

A chief could prevent warfare between villages and within the villages only to the extent to which he could keep the tribe unified. The chief or the council could not prevent a portion of a village from separating and establishing a separate village.

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