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Leaders - Traditional Leaders of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Sahnish

Traditional | Contemporary

Intro | Mandan | Hidatsa | Sahnish pt 1 | Sahnish pt 2

Traditional Leaders of the
Mandan, Hidatsa, and Sahnish

History has generally cast leaders as focused on one individual. Within tribal societies, individuals attained leadership and were distinguished by their ability to shape vision and secure consensus from the people. Traditional structural forms of leadership amongst the Mandan and Hidatsa were of hereditary clanship origin. Political decisions were made with spiritual guidance and served to fulfill both political and spiritual means. (1)

The leaders of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Sahnish (Arikara) represent essentially two time periods. The leadership of each group is listed as they existed in the early 1700s, and after the 1782 and 1837 smallpox epidemics and forward. In no way is this listing complete nor is it representative of all those who achieved the status as leader. It is to offer a list from which students and other readers can begin to research. Historically, bands were too numerous and records too obscure to provide sufficient and accurate information.

Mandan Chieftainship

By 1700, the Mandan had developed an organizational structure composed of the Nuptadi and Nuitadi linguistic groups, and the Awigaxa Mandan. The Mandan practiced clan inheritance of bundles, particularly ancient tribal bundles. They traditionally had age-grade military societies, and were organized independently by the Okipa members. By 1837, the Mandans were organized under the direction of members of the Okipa society, led by Big Turtle and Flying Eagle. By 1845, there were not enough Mandan households to complete the open circle. (2)

Hidatsa Chieftainship

The Hidatsa had no formal tribal council until after the epidemic of the 1780s. This was attributed to the fact that the villages were widely scattered along the Missouri River and contact was limited. The Hidatsa were known to have three primary groups, the Hidatsa Proper, the Awatixa, and the Awaxawi. Around 1798, the three villages of Hidatsa at Knife River established a tribal council composed of the most distinguished war leaders of each village. There were 12 leaders. Their duties involved warfare, assistance to the villages, and making peace with neighboring villages. (3) By 1832, the Hidatsa had lost a measure of the sense of tribal leadership of the three independent villages, and after 1845, some rights were shared between the Mandan and Hidatsa.

The Awatixa had a complex village system of chieftainships based on hereditary bundles and offices, and fostered leadership among its tribal chiefs supporting clan inheritance of rights and privileges. Each band was led by a strong chief with considerable prestige in his group. They were organized around a peace chief and war leader. Special leaders were selected when the occasion arose, to direct the summer hunt, manage the winter camp, or travel beyond the summer village. (4) Villages were divided into four wards with the bundle owners serving as “protectors of the people.”

A chief was considered great if he could command the respect of the village over a long period of time. The head war chief was principally a summer chief connected with summer village life during which time warfare was actively conducted. The winter chief, appointed annually and rarely succeeding himself, continued to lead as long as he retained the good will and respect of the entire community. When conflict over his leadership occurred or others became dissatisfied, the chief brought together those who opposed him in an effort to dissipate conflict. He showed evidences of generosity and good will, or suggested that others take over his work. He was still an important member of the council. When a principal war chief grew old he respectfully gave up his position to a younger man who had passed Black Mouth society age. (5)

The highest ranking leadership in the Awatixa was vested in holders of the Knife Clan Bundle and the Waterbuster Clan Bundle, respectively held by Stirrup and Blackens-his-Moccasins (Black Moccasin) before 1837.

Within the Hidatsa Proper and Awaxawi clans, authority was vested in a council of head men who had attained eminence by the performance of rights or successes in war. The top leadership of the council was represented by the owner of the Earth-naming Bundle (who organized the village hunting territorial rights), and the principal war leader. Ceremonial leaders held precedence over war leaders.

Between 1837 and 1845, the Awaxawi and Awatixa joined the Nuitadi Mandan because they were so few in numbers and all required protection from the Sioux. These three groups organized a council headed by the Hidatsa chief, Four Bears. Four Bears was responsible for the physical defense of the people, and Missouri River organized the ceremonies for establishing the new village at the Like-A-Fishhook Bend.

The top leaders in 1845 when they built the village were the Hidatsa head chiefs, Missouri River, Four Bears, the war chief who took no part in the organization of the village, and Big Hand. The other leaders, called “Protectors of the People,” the group entrusted with the supernatural protection of the village, were Big Cloud, Bear-Looks-Out, Bobtail Bull, Bad Horn, and Big Hand. (6)

Sahnish Chieftainship

In the mid 1600s, ethnographers believed the Sahnish and their over 40 associated bands, numbered well over 30,000 people. During the 1700s, there were 12 bands of Sahnish with four leaders or head bands. Each had a chief and three sub-chiefs. The four head bands were the hukawirat (eastern band), tuhkatakux (Village Against a Hill), tuhkasthanu (Buffalo Sod Village), and Awahu (Left Behind). The head chief of the Awahu was chief over the four bands.

When any Sahnish chief died, all of the men of the tribe assembled at an honoring feast. The first chief of each band had the right to make a speech to nominate a candidate for the vacant position. No votes were cast, the chief was chosen by consensus. A special shirt was given to the chief when they were selected and was worn to indicate that chief’s status. The duties of the chiefs were to extend hospitality to strangers, preserve peace within the tribe, and order hunts and tribal movements. Strangers and needy members within the village were always welcomed in the house of the chief. The chief’s house was well supplied with food and goods by the hunters. It was also the role of the chief to decide when to leave an area and where the new villages were to settle. (7)

Continue to Traditional Mandan Chiefs...