Reflections on Mandan History & Culture

By Joseph T. Stuart, PhD,
Associate Professor of History, University of Mary

Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People (Hill and Wang, 2014) - Elizabeth Fenn

Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People (Hill and Wang, 2014) – Elizabeth Fenn

As early as the 16th century, Mandan Indians lived in villages on both sides of the confluence of the Heart and Missouri Rivers, near the present-day cities of Bismarck and Mandan, North Dakota. The Mandan referred to this area as “the heart of the world” because the Heart River (Natka Passahe or “river of the heart”) runs for 180 miles through the middle of their territory. Here, they believed, First Creator had made the world. Mandan villages, which are very near the geographic center of the North American continent, functioned as the hub of a vast trading network, extending west to the Pacific coast, south to the Gulf of Mexico and north into Canada. People from many other tribes traveled long distances to trade food, flint, furs, beads, shells and, after 1750, horses and guns. The Mandan people and their culture are beautifully portrayed in Elizabeth Fenn’s book, Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People, which won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for history. This concept of the “heart of the world” emerges in Fenn’s book as an important interpretive key for understanding Mandan culture.

Cultural Continuities

Corn fields covered the Missouri River bottom just as today. Mandan women stored corn in cache pits holding up to 70,000 bushels for each village. Food surpluses attracted traders, just as Bismarck today draws shoppers from as far away as Canada.

Commodities fluctuated in price, then as now. For example, a steep decline in the price of beaver pelts after 1825—when Londoners started wearing silk instead of felted hats—killed the Mandan fur trade. In response, the Mandan diversified their economy by exporting bison hides, which were used to make the belts that drove the machinery of the early Industrial Revolution.

Important Mandan values persist to this day. The Mandan were known for their generosity of heart toward others, for example, sharing meat after a successful hunt. North Dakotans continue this tradition, as exemplified often hilariously in Marc de Celle’s book, How Fargo of You: Stories from the Northern Prairie That People Who Haven’t Been Here Will Never Believe.

The Mandan believed that unity made survival possible in a harsh climate—certainly a contemporary value, too. During the Missouri River flood in 2011, my first spring in Bismarck, people volunteered for days to help total strangers fill sandbags to protect their homes. Busloads of people from around the state arrived to offer assistance. I marveled at the mass cooperation unfolding miraculously in response to this crisis. In Grand Forks and Fargo, people respond the same way when the Red River floods.

The Mandan cherished stability. While tribes such as the Cheyenne transitioned from farming to herding after acquiring horses, the Mandan—who also owned and traded horses—chose to remain in their homeland at the heart of their world. Fortunately for us today, this means we know a lot about them through archeology. Nomadic tribes leave almost no trace. But the Mandan lived at Double Ditch Village just north of Bismarck for nearly 300 years and left behind plenty of artifacts to study.

Today, stability also characterizes the multiple generations of families still living throughout the state. This is a healthy culture for raising a family, and even small towns such as Mott or Wishek are attracting young people again.

"Sih-Chida and Mahchsi-Karehde," Mandans portrayed in their robes by Karl Bodmer
Mattie Grinnell in 1942. Photograph courtesy of the Archives of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, 0039-0075

River Valley Civilizations

The Mandan created a “river valley civilization,” or at least a proto-civilization, just as peoples of more famous river valleys have done, such as along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Mesopotamia, the Yellow River in China, the Indus in India and the Nile in Egypt. Water transportation by bull boat (featured in the painting on page 7), trade, fortified towns, food surpluses and craft specialization characterized the Mandan, just as they did the Sumerians and Egyptians. The remains of Mandan villages, while not as grand as the Giza pyramids, still connect our lives on the Northern Great Plains to the “heart of the world,” to the primordial experience of the rise of human civilization. The evolution of settled, urban life was the most significant change in global history—made possible by food surpluses. The Mandan were thought by traders and explorers to be the “most civilized” people of the Northern Great Plains.

As other civilizations had to contend with nomadic tribes, so the Mandan struggled to defend their villages against the onslaught of the roaming Sioux.

The Mandan, however, did not succumb to the Sioux. Instead, most Mandan died from smallpox during several deadly outbreaks of the disease. In 1837, the virus arrived on the steamship St. Peters with devastating effect. The Mandan proclivity for trade and their compact village life created perfect conditions for an epidemic. Fr. Jean de Smet, a Jesuit missionary on his first trip through North Dakota in 1840, recorded seeing bodies of the dead still wrapped in buffalo hides and tied up in the branches of trees along the Missouri River, as was Mandan custom. The Mandan were reduced to less than 300 survivors and the tribe never recovered.

In 1975, Mattie Grinnell, the last full-blooded Mandan, died. In the 2010 census, 365 people identified themselves as primarily Mandan. Many of them are enrolled among the 15,000 members of the Three Affiliated Tribes (Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara) at the Fort Berthold Reservation along the banks of the Missouri River (now man-made Lake Sakakawea).

"Bull Dance, Mandan O-kee-pa Ceremony," oil painting by George Catlin, 1832, in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.

The “Culture-Process” at the Heart of the World

Anthropologically speaking, culture is simply the common way of life of a people. The English historian of culture Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) described the four universal categories of culture and corresponding elements of community, as shown in the list at the top of the opposite page. Each cultural category and its elements are connected to the others. Change one, such as by acquiring horses and guns, and the rest of the culture might change too. Dawson called this the “culture-process.”

Ideas (I)Thought & Belief
Folk (F)People & their Folkways
Work (W)Workways (e.g. growing corn, trading)
Place (P)Location

For example, consider the Mandan adaptation to the Missouri River bottom. Here they found wood for the interior supports of their earth lodges and fires, as well as saplings and cottonwood bark for winter-feed for their horses. Here they planted corn, squash, beans and sunflowers. They also fished and sought shelter from the wind (bison sought shelter, too, and could then be more easily hunted). The river provided transportation and defense from the Sioux, as well as water for drinking and irrigation.

The Missouri River brought the world to the Mandan. They responded with openness to strangers and built sophisticated, multilingual business relationships with other tribes, and with the French, British and increasingly, Americans after the Lewis and Clark Expedition overwintered with them in 1804. Remarkably, as Fenn points out, when Mandan chief Sheheke traveled south on the Missouri with Lewis and Clark to eventually reach Washington, D.C., the new nation’s capital contained fewer residents than the combined Heart River Mandan villages of Sheheke’s youth.

The power of nature constantly surrounded the Mandan. Thunderstorms, hailstorms, blizzards, floods, droughts and grass fires made life challenging. Temperatures on the Northern Great Plains can plunge to minus 40 F in winter and soar to 105 F in the summer. But the Mandan, through the culture-process, adapted remarkably well to local resources and conditions.

Okipa Ceremony:
The Spiritual Heart of Mandan Culture

Culture has both inner (I) and outer (F, W, and P) dimensions. It is both spiritual and material. “Our true nature is spiritual,” Cedric Red Feather, a living Mandan priest, told Fenn. This posed a challenge. “I do not have a religious bone in my body. Gods and spirits do not inhabit my world. But I respect their place in the worlds of others,” she wrote. “[H]ow can I understand the Mandans I am writing about when they inhabited a world so different from my own? Every historian faces this problem.”

Working for years as an auto mechanic helped Fenn gain the empathy needed to understand people very different from herself. She immersed herself in this region through camping, biking and hours of interviewing Native Americans who helped her break through the cultural and chronological barriers. The book became a “mosaic” presenting the story of the Mandan and Fenn’s personal journey of getting to know them.

This literary journey involved conveying the essence of traditional Mandan life, its central cult or worship: the Okipa ceremony. Each Mandan village was built around a plaza with a barrel-shaped shrine made of wooden planks called the Ark of the Lone Man. This sacred object was the focus of the annual, four-day Okipa ceremony involving dancing, fasting and physical suffering, which embodied the virtue of sacrifice for others.

Lone Man, a semi-divine creature who helped First Creator make the world from the heart of the world, from the confluence of the Heart and Missouri Rivers, handed down the Okipa ceremony to the Mandan at Eagle Nose Butte, which is about 20 miles south of the city of Mandan. This butte is an example of “sacred geography” in the lives of the Mandan, of the cultural process linking religion and place (I and P), in Dawson’s terminology.

The Okipa was the central rite of world renewal that united the Mandan people in a common vision. The rite involved a re-enactment of Mandan history, enculturating the next generation into their people’s identity. This bound generations together, creating a society, which, as English political thinker Edmund Burke wrote, is “a partnership not only between those who are living but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.” The Okipa conveyed a living tradition that could adapt while preserving identity. Mandan identity was fluid.

Like-a-Fishhook Village in 1878. This village of earthen lodges and log cabins was established in 1845 by the remnants of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes. Non-Indian traders lived there too. It was abandoned in 1880. This image was taken by Orlando S. Goff, one of the early photographers of the West and one of Bismark's pioneer residents. Photograph courtesy of the Archives of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, 00088-00023.

Like-a-Fishhook Village in 1878. This village of earthen lodges and log cabins was established in 1845 by the remnants of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes. Non-Indian traders lived there too. It was abandoned in 1880. This image was taken by Orlando S. Goff, one of the early photographers of the West and one of Bismark’s pioneer residents. Photograph courtesy of the Archives of the State Historical Society of North Dakota, 00088-00023.

The spiritual heart of the Okipa was personal sacrifice. In the ancient Hindu sacred text, the Rig Veda, sacrifice is described as the “navel of the universe.” A navel connects a fetus to nutrients and waste removal through the mother’s bloodstream, which is powered by her heart. Metaphorically, sacrifice in world religions is meant to ensure the reception of needed “nutrients” from the gods and the “waste removal” of sin, evil or misfortune. Sacrifice expresses the religious economy of give-and-take along the umbilical cord of sacred rites. In the Okipa, young Mandan men sacrificed blood as they were suspended from the beams of the earth-lodge overhead by cords piercing their chests. At the end of the ceremony, the entire village sacrificed by throwing some of their edged tools into the Missouri River.

To a 19th century outsider, the Okipa might have appeared meaningless. As Dawson notes in his Harvard lecture, “The Nature of Culture,”: While the native is performing his great rites of world renewal, the outsider “sees nothing but a group of dirty savages prancing round with uncouth gestures and unintelligible sounds.” Since Mandan culture was only fully intelligible to itself, it was vulnerable to the forces of change and globalization.
As Dawson explains:

For a culture is a very fragile thing and the delicate balance of its social structure is destroyed as soon as its spiritual limits are broken and its individual members lose their faith in the validity and efficacy of its moral order. The alien power may be a humane one: it may be careful to respect the lives and property of the natives. But in so far as it introduces its own law and destroys or disregards the traditional moral values of the people, it cuts the vital roots of their culture and undermines their social vitality.

Fortunately, American artist George Catlin witnessed the Okipa in 1832 and penned the first account. Catlin also made sketches and later, oil paintings of the Okipa, as well as chronicles, drawings and paintings of Native Americans for the next four decades.

Soon, however, the Mandan were overwhelmed by change. In 1887, a visitor to Like-a-Fishhook Village—the last earth lodge village on the Upper Missouri River, occupied by Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara peoples—described the village’s Okipa lodge as “roofless and ruined.” The “spiritual limits” of the culture were broken with the destruction of the last temple and the end of the Okipa cult. The federal government forced the remaining Native Americans out of Like-a-Fishhook to take up the lives of American-style farmers. Like-a-Fishhook now lies under the waters of Lake Sakakawea.

Detail from "Interior of the Hut of a Mandan Chief" by Karl Bodmer. Shields, lances and medicine symbols of the chief hang from the pillars. Various utensils and containers are scattered around the floor.

Detail from “Interior of the Hut of a Mandan Chief” by Karl Bodmer. Shields, lances and medicine symbols of the chief hang from the pillars. Various utensils and containers are scattered around the floor.

Preserving Culture

After Catlin, a second key moment of preservation came in 1906 when Gilbert Wilson, a Presbyterian pastor turned anthropologist, met Buffalo Bird Woman (1839-1932). Their intercultural friendship resulted in a series of ethnological books providing a wealth of information for today’s historians and anthropologists, and for Native Americans to learn about traditional Mandan culture.

“[T]here is a dynamic element in human culture which is capable of breaking down the barriers that divide men from one another and of creating increasingly wider areas of communication,” Dawson wrote. “This is the process of civilization which began in remote prehistoric times and is still incomplete.” Buffalo Bird Woman and Gilbert Wilson represented this “dynamic element” in human culture when they collaborated to expand communication and preserve culture. This is “civilization” in the best sense.

Fenn’s book Encounters at the Heart of the World also contributes to this communication. The destruction of the temples marked the end of traditional Mandan culture, but not of its people or the possibility for renewal of its culture.

Perhaps there is something universal, something at the heart of every culture, that is capable of transcending even violent historical ruptures to form the basis for renewal. Today, Amy Mossett, a Mandan-Hidatsa, historian and cultural interpreter, continues the work of translating Mandan culture to the outside world, as in a recent talk on “Women in Mandan Society” at the North Dakota Heritage Center. She spoke about enculturating her three daughters, clad in blue jeans, into the ancient ways of Mandan gardening. Mossett’s love for her Mandan heritage, for what is real at the heart of the world, was infectious. Perhaps Mandan history and culture remind us today, in our increasingly digital civilization, of more immediate and enduring ways of being fully human.