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Tribal Historical Overview - The Three Tribes

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

Intro | Mandan | Hidatsa | Sahnish | Three Tribes

The Three Tribes

The Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara maintained separate bands, clan systems, and separate ceremonial bundles. After the devastation of the smallpox epidemics of 1782, 1836, and 1837, similar societies among the tribes evolved for economic and social survival.

The Three Tribes lived in earthlodges, were farmers, hunted wild game and relied heavily on the buffalo for food, shelter, clothing, and animal parts for making various utensils and garden tools. They maintained a vast trading system and were considered middlemen by neighboring tribes with different types of trade products.


After European contact, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Sahnish were subjected to several devastating smallpox epidemics that nearly destroyed them. They had no immunity and were trusting. Unprotected from these diseases, they became infected. Whole families, clans, specific bands, chiefs, spiritual leaders, and medicine men died quickly, taking with them many of their social and spiritual ceremonies and clan rites.

The great plague of smallpox struck the Three
Tribes in June of 1837, and this horrible
epidemic brought disaster to these Indians.
Francis A. Chardon’s journals state that on
July 14, a young Mandan died of smallpox and
several more had caught it. The plague spread
with terrible rapidity and raged with a
violence unknown before. Death followed in a
few hours after the victim was seized with
pain in the head; a very few who caught the
disease survived. The Hidatsa scattered out
along the Little Missouri River to escape
the disease and the Arikara hovered around
Fort Clark. But the Mandans remained in their
villages and were afflicted worst; they were
afraid of being attacked by Sioux if they ventured
out of their villages. By September 30, Chardon
estimated that seven-eighths of the Mandans and
one-half of the Arikara and Hidatsa were dead.
Many committed suicide because they felt they
had no chance to survive. Nobody thought of
burying the dead, death was too fast and everyone
still living was in despair. The scene of desolation
was appalling beyond the conception of the
imagination. The Mandans were reduced from 1800
in June to 23 men, 40 women, and 60 to 70 young
people by fall. Their Chief, Four Bears, had died.

(Shane, 1959, p. 199)

On July 28, 1837, Chardon translated from Mandan into English the words of Four Bears: “the second chief of the Mandans was the brave and remarkable Four Bears, life-long friend of the whites, recipient of the praises of Catlin and Maximilian, and beloved by all that knew him.” Now, as his people were dying all about him, he spoke:

My friends one and all, listen to what I have to
say—Ever since I can remember, I have loved
the whites. I have lived with them ever since I
was a boy, and to the best of my knowledge, I
have never wronged the white man, on the
contrary, I have always protected them from
the insults of others, which they cannot deny.
The Four Bears never saw a white man hungry,
but what he gave him to eat, drink, and a
Buffalo skin to sleep on in time of need. I
was always ready to die for them, which they
cannot deny. I have done everything that a red
skin could do for them, and how have they repaid
it? With ingratitude! I have never called a white
man a Dog, but today, I do pronounce them to be a
set of black-hearted Dogs, they have deceived me,
them that I always considered brother, has turned
out to be my worst enemies. I have been in many
battles, and often wounded, but the wounds of
my enemies I exalt in, but today I am wounded,
and by whom, by those same white Dogs that I
have always considered, and treated as Brothers.
I do not fear Death my friends. You know it, but
to die with my face rotten, that even the wolves
will shrink with horror at meeting me, and say to
themselves, that is the Four Bears, the friend of
the Whites—Listen well what I have to say, as it
will be the last time you will hear me. Think of
your wives, children, brothers, sisters, friends,
and in fact all that you hold dear, are all dead,
or dying, with their faces all rotten caused by
those dogs the whites, think of all that my
friends, and rise up all together and not leave
one of them alive. The Four Bears will act his
(Abel, 1932 p. 124)

After the devastation of the smallpox epidemic of 1837, the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara combined forces for protection, economic and social survival. They still maintained separate ceremonies, clan systems, and bands and maintained their cultural identity.

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