Traditional Government | Modern Three Affiliated Tribes Government
Historically, each village had a “war chief” and a “village chief.” Among the Mandan, leadership was closely associated with ownership of sacred bundles. Up until 1885 or so, the village and tribal leadership of the Mandan were vested in the principal bundle owners or spiritual leaders. This group consisted of headmen whose number varied from time to time depending on the status of the various bundles. Two leaders of equal status were selected from this group whose war or peacemaking record exceeded all others or who had acquired considerable popularity with the people. One whose record in warfare was greatest was selected in the council to be war chief. A second chief was selected who had important ceremonial bundles, had given many feasts and had performed many rites for the general welfare of the village. They were entitled to wear a headdress of buffalo horns and ermine during council meetings and on special occasions, and during peace making discussions with neighboring tribes.
The authority of the chiefs extended only over important tribal affairs, such as moving the camp, trading, and peace ceremonies with other tribes. They were expected to cooperate for the general welfare of the village. (Bowers, p. 34) Even in such matters a chief usually consulted a group of prominent men, who in some cases acted as a formal council.
Mandan historians suggest that sons of chiefs were usually selected, since they were better trained and were exposed to sacred bundles. A study of Mandan lineage could not establish the accuracy of this opinion, since all family bloodlines with chiefs, except Four Bears, were broken by smallpox. This lineage has the following inheritance of chiefs: Good Boy was chief at On-a-Slant Village (near present-day Mandan, North Dakota) after the first smallpox epidemic and lived at Fort Clark for nine years as first chief, where he died. Four Bears, son of Good Boy, was chief for many years. An essential function of a chief was to mold public opinion so that a village could act in unison. A chief was considered eminent if there had been little conflict during his leadership. Good Boy, chief of Slant Village after the smallpox epidemic, was able to unite the remnants of several villages into a single village and to coordinate elements with a minimum of friction. He was a village leader who devoted himself to tradition and to rebuilding the tribe to its former prominence. He died of smallpox in 1837. Bad Gun, son of Four Bears, was selected chief after he had sold his rights in the Black Mouth Society.
The Mandan had a society known as the Black Mouths, who policed and enforced rule at the villages, hunting expeditions, and winter lodges. Their duties were to keep order.