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Tribal Historical Overview - Introduction

Intro | Trade | Laws and Treaties | Early Reservation Life | Change | 1900s | Economic and Social Change | Present Day

Intro | Mandan | Hidatsa | Sahnish | Three Tribes


These resources are written to provide information about the histories and cultures of the Three Affiliated Tribes—the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Sahnish.

The Tribes believe their presence in North America is from the beginning of time. The Mandan call themselves “the People of the First Man.”

The Hidatsa were known as Minnetaree or GrosVentre. “Hidatsa” was formerly the name of a village occupied by these tribes. The term “Hidatsa” became a corruption of the word “midah-hutsee-ahti” translated meaning “house/ lodge made with willows.” The name Minnetaree, spelled in various ways means, “to cross the water.”

Oral and written history says the names “Arikara, Arickara, Ricarees and Rees” were given to them by the Pawnee and other informants to describe the way they wore their hair. The name “Sahnish” is the chosen name used among themselves which means “the original people from whom all other tribes sprang.” For purposes of this guide, the name of “Arikara” and its derivations which appear in treaties and in reference to legal documents will be used to preserve historical accuracy. All other references to these people will use the term “Sahnish.”

Although sharing cultures and histories for so long, the people keep a distinct sense of tribal relationships.

Tribal Historical Overview

map showing the migration of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara (Sahnish) tribes in the United States
Migration of the Arikara, Mandan,
and Hidatsa.
Map of migration of
the Arikara, Mandan, and Hidatsa to
Fort Berthold. (Map by Cassie
Theurer, adapted from Marcia
Busch, in Cash, et. al., 1974,
page 30.)

The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara live in the Missouri River area. Historians document the first tribe to occupy this area was the Mandan with the Hidatsa, and the Arikara moving up the river later. One group of Hidatsa came from the east.

The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara have separate and distinct narratives of their origins. The origins of the several bands within each group are separate. The Mandan indicate that there are two prevalent origin theories. One theory is that the Mandan migrated north along the Mississippi River area through southern Minnesota and northern Iowa to the plains in South Dakota. Archaeological findings and carbon dating indicates that the Mandan inhabited a village in the Heart Butte area about 900 A.D. Another theory is that the Mandan originated in the area some distance south of the Scattered Village site in what is now Mandan, North Dakota. The Hidatsa moved from central Minnesota to the eastern part of what is now North Dakota near Devils Lake, and moved to join the Mandan at the Missouri River about 1600 A.D. The Mandan and Hidatsa believe they were created in this area and have always lived here. According to anthropologists, the Sahnish people lived in an area that extended from the Gulf of Mexico, across Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

Dates of migrations of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara have been determined by archaeological investigation of village sites constructed along the Missouri River and elsewhere. Many of these sites, although collapsed and abandoned long before, were excavated along the Missouri River during the 1950s and 1960s.

In 1995 the State Historical Society of North Dakota completed the Missouri Trench National Historical Landmark Theme Study that summarized the archaeological investigation of the Missouri River area from southern South Dakota through North Dakota to Montana. Many of the sites were of Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara origins.

Ethnographers (people who study cultural societies) group people by the languages they used or were likely to be used by a single group at one time. Indian nations were divided into several linguistic groups. The Mandan and Hidatsa tribes belong to the Siouan linguistic group, along with the Crow, Dakota, Lakota, Yanktonai, Assiniboine, Iowa-Oto-Missouri, Quapaw, and Omaha-Ponca-Osage-Kansa. The Arikara (Sahnish) belong to the Caddoan linguistic group, along with the Pawnee, Caddo, Wichita, Anadarko, Skidi, Tawakoni, and Waco.

This guide links the oral and written histories of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Sahnish to provide a more accurate viewpoint. The oral tradition preserved the history and ceremonies of the Tribes through a strict and sacred process, thereby adding to the validity of oral tradition.

Continue to the Mandan...