The Mandan Indians


The Mandan Indians were a small, peaceful tribe located at the mouth of the Knife River on the Missouri near present day Bismarck, North Dakota. The Mandan were most known for their friendliness and their homes, called earth lodges. The women of the Mandan tribe tended their gardens, prepared food, and maintained lodges while the men spent their time hunting or seeking spiritual knowledge. The Mandan Indians performed many ceremonies such as the Buffalo Dance and the Okipa Ceremony that have been the center of great interest to many historians. The Mandan are also an important part of history because Lewis and Clark spent their first winter with these people and met Sacagawea, who helped guide them for the rest of their journey west.

Mandan villages were the center of the social, spiritual, and economic lives of the Mandan Indians. Villages were strategically located on bluffs overlooking the river for defense purposes, limiting attacks to one land approach. The Mandan lived in earth lodges, which are extremely large, round huts that are 15 feet high and 40-60 feet in diameter. Each hut had a vestibule entrance, much like the pattern of an Eskimo igloo, and a square hole on top, which served as a smokestack. Each earth lodge housed 10-30 people and their belongings, and villages contained 50-120 earth lodges. The frame of an earth lodge was made from tree trunks, which were covered with criss-crossed willow branches. Over the branches they placed dirt and sod, which coined the term earth lodge. This type of construction made the roofs strong enough to support people on nights of good weather. The floors of earth lodges were made of dirt and the middle was dug out to make a bench around the outer edge of the lodge. Encompassing the village were stockades of poles as tall as six feet high to prevent enemy attacks. In the middle of a Mandan village was a large, circular, open space that was called the central plaza. In the middle of the plaza was a sacred cedar post that represented the Lone Man, a hero to the Mandan. At the North end of the plaza was the medicine or ceremonial lodge. The arrangement of earth lodges around the central plaza represented the social status of each family. Villagers who had important ceremonial duties were located closer to the plaza than those who were not.

The rich, floodplain fields that surrounded the village made agriculture the basis of Mandan existence. On top of preparing food and maintaining lodges, sustaining gardens was the task of women within the village. The agricultural year began in April when women would clear the fields by burning the old stalks and weeds of the previous year?s crops. Around May they planted rows of corn, beans, tobacco, pumpkin, sunflowers and squash perpendicular to the sun so that the crops would get the most sunlight. To tend their gardens, women used tools such as a digging stick, rake, and hoe made out of wood or buffalo bones. Mandan gardens had many enemies, including prairie dogs, birds, and small rodents. In order to protect their gardens from these predators they often constructed scarecrows out of buffalo hide. Another way Mandan women tried to protect their gardens was by practicing rituals that called on the supernatural for help. Often, women performed daily cleansing rituals before entering their gardens by rubbing sage over their bodies, which they believed would protect their crops from worms and disease. Harvesting began in late August with squash and ended in October with corn. After harvest, women would dry the corn in scaffolds that were built above the ground. After the corn was dry, women picked the seeds that they would use for the next year?s garden and the rest was buried with other dried garden items in caches (underground storage pits) to preserve them through the winter. These caches were deep enough to require a ladder and often took several days to build. Once they were built they were lined with grass and buffalo hide. The dried corn, squash, and sunflowers were placed inside. The caches were then covered with a layer of buffalo hide, then a layer of dirt, and grass on top. Besides vegetables, women supplemented the diets of their families by digging roots, picking berries, and catching fish.

The men of the Mandan villages were